I hesitated before classifying the famous (infamous?) Yamaha DX7 as a "Synderella" synth, that is to say, an underdog. In fact, its sound dominated the 1980s, and it held on to the title of best-selling synthesizer ever until that was eclipsed by the Korg M1 workstation in 1988.
Here's why I decided in favor. The DX7 is often maligned for sounding harsh and strident, not to mention being difficult to program. This was due to a number of factors: PCM sample-based synthesizers (such as that M1) becoming more affordable beginning in the late '80s, the virtual analog and then the real analog renaissance, and the return of knob-per-function interfaces on keyboards. And perhaps the difficult-to-program criticism was not entirely unfair.
The thing is, I still have mine. Not a DX7-II, but the original that didn't even have stereo outputs. It was the second real synth I ever bought, one summer after I acquired my beloved Korg Poly-800. As with the Korg, I learned everything I could about programming the DX7 to get the maximum sonic flexibility out of it. Among other things, I got some very serviceable B3-style organs (if paired with an external Leslie simulator), and some pads, leads, and strings that sounded surprisingly analog. Of course, there were the usual things it was good at due to FM synthesis being able to produce non-contiguous harmonic spectra in a way subtractive synthesis couldn't: electric pianos, that infamous marimba, a shockingly good harmonica, and more. Suffice to say, if you had a DX7 plus a more traditional analog synth, you had the bases covered for gigging throughout most of the '80s.
Okay, so it did have some quirks. The output had a hiss that was audibly louder than my supposedly cheapo Poly-800. The keyboard, while still one of my favorite semi-weighted synth actions in terms of speed and feel, was on the noisy side, physically speaking. It was also scaled to sense MIDI velocity from 0 to 100, as compared with the standard maximum of 127. This meant if you drove a different MIDI keyboard with it, you wouldn't get maximum velocity or timbre out of its notes. If you drove it with another MIDI keyboard, and played hard, the sound engine would sense those higher velocities and create some surprising and clangorous tones.
On a current trip to visit family in Vermont, where my DX7 still sits on a dresser in my old high-school bedroom, I powered it up to find that many of the sounds I'd programmed were intact, either in internal memory or on a RAM cartridge. (Oddly, the internal battery still reads a nominal 2.8 volts, as though the thing has been in some kind of suspended animation.) So I figured, what the heck, post some audio examples here! These are all ones I'd programmed or heavily edited myself, and I tried to pick ones that are unlike the stereotypical DX7 sounds.
ANABRSST is halfway between a string and brass sound, and I was going for as analog-sounding as possible. I used this for comping on Kool and the Gang's "Get Down On It."
ANALOGSTR was meant to be an all-purpose ballad string patch.
With CHIKLEAD, I was going for that wormy lead sound Chick Corea is known for. The song that inspired this was "Flight of the Newborn" off Return To Forever's album No Mystery.
I couldn't afford a Fairlight or even an Emulator (who could?), but I really wanted that marcato strings sound reminiscent of "Cloudbusting" or "Under Ice" by Kate Bush.
Okay, FULLDRWBR sounds much better if you add some Leslie simulation or even just a chorus pedal, but the harmonic balance is close to a full-registration B3 patch. This used algorithm 32, which just placed all six operators side-by-side in additive fashion, like drawbars.
FUNKEDOUT was a cool comping patch I found worked well for the synth intro to "New World Man" by Rush. Sadly, the part where I had velocity mapped to FM (to produce brighter harmonics as I played harder), seems to have been lost in this example.
Trying to cop that "Whiter Shade" ballad organ, and it doesn't sound too bad. 'Nuff said.
Factory sounds in the DX7 had plenty of solo saxes and trumpets, which could get very expressive if you used the BC-1 breath controller (I never did), but I wanted a big, funk brass stack for T.O.P. and EW.F. covers. TWRBRASS was the result.
Sort of French horn-ish, sort of string-ish, and dark to offset the DX7's rep for being too bright and bell-like. That's WARMPAD.
The FM synthesis pioneered by Dr. John Chowning of Stanford and first widely commercially applied in the DX synthesizers is still going strong today, and much more sophisticated and flexible, in instruments like Native Instruments FM8. The Yamaha Montage synthesizer also has a full, eight-operator FM engine that lives next door to its sample-based engine.
Stay tuned for more Synderella stories!