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Yamaha Montage Review – Long term

As many of you will know, both Chris Miller (Parametric) and myself were invited to the Yamaha Artist day back in Feb 2016 where Yamaha had all versions of Montage on demo and we got to spend a little time trying the presets etc. My impression then was that Montage was a fantastic instrument but a little too expensive for me so there was very little prospect of ever owning one but I could certainly see it being on the shopping list of many pro musicians looking to add to or move on from the XF.

Fast forward to March 2017 and I have had the Montage 7 on loan from Yamaha for about two months which has allowed me to experience what it would be like if I could afford one. A quick play around in a music store or even the couple of hours hands-on with Yamaha doesn’t let you explore an instrument fully. The only way to tell if it would be the keyboard for you is to play it day in day out over a period of weeks to determine if all the bells and whistles on offer are what you “need” or perhaps something less functional and less expensive might be the order of the day.

So, what’s it like to live and work with Montage? Well not surprisingly it’s rather nice! Beginning with the keys, both the Montage 6 and Montage 7 come with semi-weighted keys and the Montage 8 is fitted with a weighted balanced hammer action keybed. Happily, I can report that the keys on the Montage 7 are of excellent quality and have just that little bit of resistance you need on a semi-weighted keybed. I found it a pleasure to play at the Artist Day and having used it now for over two months my opinion has not changed. Although given the price of just short of three grand for the Montage 7 I think a decent set of keys is the least you can expect, right?

Next up is that large colour touch screen display. Nice that Yamaha finally rolled out a touch screen for their flagship synth (They did have it on the Electone Stagea back in 2004), after all Korg have been providing this for years so Yamaha comes late to the party but is very welcome just the same. On the whole I like it, I’m a big fan of touch screens, however this implementation is a bit of an odd ball. Unlike say a Korg Kronos or Krome where you can do absolutely everything on the screen itself, with Yamaha’s version you can’t manipulate the virtual knobs and sliders “on-screen” you must tap to highlight the control and then use the traditional hardware knobs and sliders to adjust the parameters. This seems a bit counter intuitive and in many ways, devalues having a touch screen in the first place. Would have been far better to add a few cm to the screen size and include touch editing of parameters. You can however call up a calculator type display for some functions where you can punch in values but that has never quite appealed to me.

Another rather odd thing about the touch screen is that if you tap ‘Home’ it doesn’t take you to the start page but instead to the root page for the sound your using at the time. I can’t think of any other device that uses a touch screen and has a ‘home’ function that doesn’t take you to the start page, but then Yamaha have always done things in their own way and I guess in their minds it seemed perfectly logical…it isn’t guys so please sort it out. I should mention there is a sort of traditional ‘home’ function although it’s not labelled and you might miss it at first. Along the top of the screen toward the right there is a ‘grid’ icon and if you click that it takes you back to what I would consider to be the home screen. Anyway it’s not a massively big deal and I am sure it is something that can be changed in a software update if enough people want it.

Before talking about the sounds there is one very important thing that needs to be said. Although Montage is a replacement for Motif it is NOT a workstation. It doesn’t have sampling and it has only a limited song recorder on board (no audio recording). I would describe Montage as a ‘Performance Synth’ as do Yamaha and in that role, it excels. If you need an all-in-one workstation however you will need to be looking at the Korg Kronos…which by the way is cheaper so that may also be a factor in your buying decisions or perhaps you could pick up the previous flagship Yamaha XF which can be had at a very good price now. Since I mention the Korg Kronos you may be asking why someone would pay 3 grand for a Montage when you can buy a Kronos for less? Well simply because it’s not ALL about features. Many buyers will just prefer that ‘Yamaha’ sound and you won’t get that with anything else, no matter how good it is.

So, to the sounds and it will come as absolutely no surprise that in terms of acoustic instruments Yamaha nails it. All the orchestral, wind and pianos are good although personally I tend to find Yamaha’s acoustic pianos a bit too bright and prefer the warmer more organic sounds that come from Korg and Roland. Funny enough the Bösendorfer Imperial Grand which you can load in via USB sounds much better than any of Yamaha’s included piano’s but then it is all down to personal taste so in truth I can only say what sounds better “for me” not what definitively sounds better for everyone else.

There are a fair amount of EDM sounds on board Montage, which of course lend themselves very well to use of the ‘super knob’ and ‘motion control’ engine. That Super Knob can control many parameters at once and can also be controlled via a foot pedal (FC7) which Yamaha kindly supplied with the test model but is a separate purchase when buying from a store. It’s worth buying the pedal though because you don’t then have to take your hands off the keyboard to operate that Super Knob. Makes for some very interesting soundscapes :)

That  FC7 foot pedal by the way is sturdily built and very comfortable to use. It’s also adjustable for angle so it’s not “just a pedal” if you see what I mean.

In terms of quality of those EDM sounds I would say they are good but not spectacular. I think Roland and Korg are pretty much kings of electronic dance music at the moment and there is nothing in Montage that would make me change that opinion right now…. although with a few tweaks, some adjustment of the super knob and a few software updates there is definitely some magic to be worked here and if anyone can do it Yamaha can! ;)

All the other sounds are pretty much the same fair as the previous Motif line, which considering Montage contains nearly all the sounds from Motif XF/XS is hardly surprising. Now this is not necessarily a bad thing but we are in 2017 and players these days have moved on…at least I have anyway. Montage is supposed to be a break from Motif so perhaps filling it with Motif sounds was not quite the way to go? But hey I’m nit picking. It’s still a superb instrument no matter what is in it.

So, apart from the price, niggles about the touch screen, possible issues with MIDI implementation and some not so great EDM sounds…what have Yamaha done for us?

PROS:
Great keybed, very high quality on all models.
Lot’s of real time controls
Super Knob – change a large number of parameters at the same time from one control
Large colour touch screen
Sample import – faster internal flash memory than XF and MOXF
Acoustic Sounds – Mostly excellent
FM-X – Good to see FM back and in an enhanced form

CONS:
Price – Too expensive for many…including me.
Touch Screen – Nice to have at last but need to be able adjust ALL controls from the screen itself
MIDI – implementation problematic for some. Perhaps a fix via software?
Only 2 Synth engines? – For the cost of a Montage you could buy a Korg Kronos with 9 synth engines!
AWM + FM Again – It’s a nice combo but SY77 anyone? Yamaha had the right idea with the EX5 why not progress that?

Overall what do I think of Montage?. It’s a fantastic keyboard with a lot of potential and it’s a massive amount of fun to play…I just can’t see it as three grands worth. That price needs to come down or the features need to go up. The addition of a VA engine might help? Look back at the EX5. You were on a roll there but you let go of the ball and we ended up with the blandness of the Motif line for well over a decade. Motif was a great workhorse of a synth but it was hardly inspirational and it definitely went on too long.

Really though, for me it’s just all down to the price. I can neither justify or afford to lay out this sort of money on a keyboard when I know…from the many other keyboards I have played and tested that there is better value for money out there and from which I can perform the same tasks. If it were a grand cheaper I might be getting out the credit card. As it is I’ll wait for that MOXF replacement…if it ever appears.

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