Yamaha MOXF reviewed

April 4, 2014
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The trend in keyboards is to create a flagship product and then trickle down the features into more affordable iterations. This inevitably requires some trade-offs, but Yamaha’s new MOXF series cuts surprisingly few corners in its achievement of a studio and gig workstation that, size for size, comes in at literally half the price of the top-end Motif XF. How does the MOXF measure up to its heavier and more expensive ancestor? Let’s find out.

PROS

Exceptionally diverse and professional sound set. Light weight and small footprint—especially the 88-note weighted version. Durable and ultra-portable. Huge library of inspiring musical phrases and loops onboard. Dedicated transpose and octave shift buttons. Loads user and third party samples into optional Flash memory. Acts as USB audio interface. 

CONS 

Interface takes awhile to understand if you’re new to the Motif series. Pitch wheel is sluggish to return to center. Keys don’t sense aftertouch. Stereo main outs only.

Bottom Line

The MOXF serves up the majority of Motif XF features for a far lower price. For live use, the light weight may even make it the better choice.

MOXF6: $1,499 list | $1,199 street

MOXF8: $1,999 list | $1,699 street

yamaha.com


 Overview

I’ve been a longtime user of Yamaha performance and workstation keyboards, dating back to the original S90 and then the Motif XS. So I was immediately familiar with the basic interface and overall workflow of my MOXF8 review unit, as Yamaha has kept the UI very similar. The MOXF8 has a great-feeling graded action that rivals nearly any dedicated stage piano I’ve played. Even so, it’s surprisingly portable for an 88-noter (just shy of 33 pounds) and has a smaller footprint than many other keyboards in its class, due to the clever placement of the pitch-bend and modulation wheels on the top left of the front panel above the keyboard, rather than to the left of the keys. Keyboard players have a longstanding debate about which placement is more intuitive, but seeing as I play a lot of gigs, I’ll take the smaller dimensions any day.

The MOXF chassis is plastic, which is what makes it so light. Perhaps the steel of the full-blown Motifs is more durable, but the rigid construction of the MOFX8 seems plenty robust enough for the weekend barroom or church musician—I transported it in a soft gig bag and it held up just fine. A minor tradeoff is the use of a wall-wart power supply, which helps keep the weight and cost lower. Need to go even lighter still? The 61-key MOXF6 is electronically and sonically identical, and weighs in at 15.6 pounds.

While I was getting the MOFX8 ready for gigs, I was pleasantly surprised to find the entire factory ROM sound set of the Motif XF on board (plus some extra sounds) for a total of 741MB of wave data. That’s serious horsepower. Yamaha also kept the 128-voice polyphony as well as the eight-way VCM (Virtual Circuit Modeling) effects, so like on the Motif XF, you can layer up to eight parts with independent insert effects for each. Verdict: Compared to the flagship Motif XF, there’s really nothing lost here in terms of sound capability. 

The Motif XF does have user sampling, which is not possible on the MOXF—though it can play back audio samples loaded from USB to an optional Flash memory board. Also, the MOXF has one Flash slot instead of the Motif XF’s two, halving the maximum memory to 1GB. Regardless, the vast breadth of onboard sounds should keep most anyone happy for a very long time. Beyond this, you can load the Flash memory with third-party wave data and programs from an impressive pantheon of sound designers. It’s a nod to the earlier Motifs’ PLG expansion boards and a great way to keep the instrument fresh. 

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Phrases and Sequencer

“Sound, Inspiration, Integration” is Yamaha’s catchphrase for the MOXF. I’ve already mentioned the great sounds, but let me touch on the inspiration and integration aspects. The Motif series is known for having an extensive set of onboard “arpeggios” that go way beyond the retro up/down affairs that Nick Rhodes made famous in Duran Duran (though the MOXF can certainly do those). MOXF (and Motif) arpeggios are rhythmic and/or melodic patterns and phrases that turn the instrument into an instant jam session.

Close to 8,000 unique arpeggios range from funky ’70s grooves lifted right out of a Headhunters session, to modern EDM and Euro-disco, to more acoustic- and guitar-driven phrases that form good background for folk and blues tunes. These motifs do indeed provide inspiration, and if you’re loath to use factory patterns, changing them up a bit still makes for great song starters. I’ve played the MOXF8 for hours on end and I still have yet to explore all of the patterns. 

Sitting on top of all of this is a deep 16-track sequencer. We’ve covered the Motif series’ song creation workflow in previous reviews, but this much bears repeating: It’s seamless to start with an inspiring pattern, incorporate this into a multitrack sequence, rinse and repeat, and come up with a lot of material quickly before reaching for your computer. 

Once you do, the MOXF boasts very useful computer connectivity. It can function as a USB audio interface, routing both its own sounds and audio from its stereo inputs into your computer—and even the Motif XF doesn’t have its dedicated fader and LED level meter for DAW playback. Like its predecessors, its knobs and buttons can act as a DAW control surface for Cubase, Digital Performer, Logic, and Sonar. Given that Yamaha owns Steinberg, integration is tightest with Cubase AI. 


In Use

I set up the MOFX8 for a few bar gigs with my eclectic cover band, Flat Elvis. I needed to be able to handle the usual piano, Rhodes, and Wurly required for covering classic Tom Petty, Hall and Oates, and Bruce Springsteen; while also nailing many ’80s sounds for Loverboy, U2, Modern English, and the Cars; plus a healthy smattering of ’90s material such as Cake and Coldplay. The MOXF8 did not disappoint, with many variations of each sound and a “Favorites” feature to easily find sounds I’d flagged when prepping for the gig. I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the amazing “Sweet Flute,” a highly realistic flute that perfectly nailed our cover of Men At Work’s “Down Under.”

Throughout my gig, the MOXF8 performed like a champ, with its authentic acoustic and electric pianos and soaring, fat synth sounds. I did have an issue or two navigating the plethora of buttons, particularly on a dark stage. If, like me, you have a diverse set that requires lots of splits and layers, I recommend getting set up offline and rehearsing sound changes no matter what keyboard you use. If you’re using a smaller sound set, the category and favorite functions makes playing a basic gig a no-brainer. 

I noticed that the pitch wheel was a bit sluggish to spring back to center position. Another thing to look out for: Having dedicated octave and transpose buttons rocks, but they’re very close to the keys (just above C3), so wild playing runs the risk of accidentally hitting one. Also, for mixing layered sounds, I’d prefer a set of faders in place of one of the two rows of four knobs, but given the price of the MOXF, I’m not complaining. While bigger is better when it comes to a keyboard’s display, I was perfectly comfortable with the MOXF8’s compact monochrome screen, as it organizes information very similarly to the Motif ES and my S90 performance synth.

I occasionally do a gig where the drummer needs to take a couple of breaks. When this happens, I’ve routed programmed drums from my Motif XS to a separate front-of-house line so that the engineer can mix them separately. Because the MOXF has only a single pair of main outs, I wouldn’t be able to do this, nor send a drummer a click that’s not heard in the house. Most keyboard players won’t miss this, though, so if it kept the cost low, Yamaha made the right call. 

Good KARMA

The uninitiated may wonder, “What the heck is KARMA?”  Kay Algorithmic Realtime Music Architecture (so named for developer Stephen Kay) is a unique engine that generates realtime MIDI data to create evolving, percolating patterns and musical effects. It first appeared in the Korg KARMA workstation in 2001 and has since been used in multiple Korg keyboards including the OASYS and M3. The Motif version of KARMA uses a connected Mac or PC to drive Yamaha Motif XS/XF, MOX, and MOFX series instruments. (The Motif classic, ES, and MO are not currently supported.)

Given that these synths are already packed with patterns and phrases, what does KARMA add? In a nutshell, greater depth than what can be done within the confines of the stock MOFX—not to mention an inspiring but manageable degree of unpredictability. KARMA offers an eight-track design: two layers of music are playable from zones on the keyboard. Then, six “modules” can apply phrases, arpeggios, strumming, and other musical effects (GE or Generated Effect in KARMA parlance) to internal sounds. It’s like auto-accompaniment with a mind of its own . . . on steroids.  

Within these performance modules are eight programmable “scenes,” much like different parts of a song. Each scene has a huge amount of user-controllable variation. The swing, complexity, accents, pattern, and time signature (to name a few things) can be dialed in to taste and saved at the scene level. One can get very far away from the original Performance, arriving at something entirely new.

After downloading and authorizing the software via an emailed code, I uploaded a data file via USB into the MOXF. My review unit also required a firmware upgrade to version 1.03, but then I was off to the races.

Functionally, KARMA Motif is a marriage between the KARMA Performance and the Yamaha’s Song mode. Anything related to MIDI notes and controller data, you edit in the KARMA Motif software. Anything related to the sounds being played, you edit in the keyboard. I found that the MOFX’s DAW control mode worked very well with many aspects of KARMA Motif. Once I created performances I liked I could seamlessly record them into the MOFX’s sequencer.

I made my way through the vast landscape of KARMA Performances and found material appropriate for pretty much every musical genre. It would take hours to explore and tweak each Performance, but there’s truly inspiring material here. A few of my favorites were the mellow R&B groove “Diva’s Delight,” “Trev & Seal,” paying homage to a great ’90s era pop duo, and “1985,” which brings back everything that was great in movie soundtracks of that era.

KARMA Motif is a great addition to the MOFX and is well-suited for film and TV work as well as experimental songwriting—not to mention a very fun way to create mesmerizing solo performances. It’s transformative, addictive to use, and adds major firepower to supported Yamaha workstations.

You can download KARMA Motif for $199 from karma-lab.com.

 

Conclusions

The MOXF8 succeeds on many levels as a performing and recording instrument. It includes every single one of the killer sounds and most of the workstation features from the Motif XF in a lightweight, compact, and affordable form. The previous “Motif lite” keyboards were the MOX and MO, and the MOXF supersedes these instruments across every major dimension while still being offered at an excellent price. Speaking from a semi-professional keyboardist’s point of view, none of the design choices Yamaha made to hit this price are deal-breakers.

The MOXF’s computer integration features make it an outstanding entry into studio workstations, and unless you really need multiple outputs onstage, its light weight makes a case for choosing it over the Motif XF or XS as the do-it-all gig machine you throw in the car. Stage and studio use alike are bolstered by the 128-voice polyphony, all the waveform ROM, sound programming, and phrases from the Motif XF, the ecosystem of third-party sounds for the optional Flash memory, and (on the MOXF8) the expressive weighted action. Put it all together, and the MOXF hits a very sweet spot, earning our Key Buy Award in the bargain.

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