Welcome to another installment in my column about synths I use regularly. This one is an oldie but goodie, introduced in 2003: the Yamaha Motif ES. It was only the second generation of Motif, following the "Classic" of 2001. Though improved upon in many ways by the XS (2007) and then the XF (late 2010), there are reasons a lot of keyboard players considered it to hit the sweet spot. So much so that you'll find a lot of Motif ES units in regular use on professional stages and in the inventories of backline rental houses to this day.
Around 2003 I was looking to add to the live rig I used with various "wedding band" cover outfits, which at the time was a Kurzweil K2000 and Roland VK-7 "clonewheel" organ. I also wanted something that could be the nerve center of my home studio, then built around a "Quicksilver" Mac dual G4 and an Ikea Jerker desk along one wall of my literal studio apartment. Keyboard magazine called and asked if I wanted to review the Motif ES and I jumped at the opportunity. They were able to send my requested size, the 76-key ES7. Long story short: I liked it so much I bought my review unit. (Long story long? Keep reading...)
I had spent some time on a friend's original Motif and was decidedly underwhelmed. How much better the ES sounded to my ears was a revelation. The base piano was vastly improved, the EPs had the body and bark I wasn't getting out of the K2000 at the time, and the analog synth Voices (Yamaha's term for patches) had some real warmth to them, with filter sweeps (either manual knob-twisting or programmed-in) standing out as particularly smooth compared to the "Classic." Specs-wise, it roughly doubled both the polyphony (62 to 128 voices) and the factory waveform ROM (85 to 175 MB) over the original. User sampling was supported via an audio input and up to 256MB of optional sample RAM. One could then slice up the samples and re-trigger the slices a la ReCycle. It was pretty slick.
Why add a digital keyboard to another digital keyboard? Because at this time, digital keyboards were still the name of the game if you wanted lots of polyphony and lots of versatility in terms of instrument categories. Virtual analog was mature by this time (we were at about the heyday of the Nord Lead 3), but available synths were on the expensive side for what you got. Besides, the K2000 and Motif ES had rather different characters, with the former having Kurzweil's signature flat (some might say presence-bumped) sound and the Yamaha having (to my ears) slightly scooped mids and a bit more production fairy dust on the overall sound. The two together complemented each other nicely, and with them plus the dedicated organ, there was no gig I couldn't do.
Remember what I said about studio nerve center? The ES was designed to be a beast of connectivity and communication. It had a dedicated control surface mode for several popular DAWs including Cubase and Logic. It had a slot for an optional I/O expander that included optical and coaxial digital connectors. Or, you could put an mLAN board in that slot. Anyone remember that? In the early 2000s, mLAN was an multi-manufacturer effort at giving us the next level of studio inter-connectivity we'd been dreaming about since MIDI.
mLAN used FireWire 400 connectors, and the idea was that compatible pieces of gear would handshake and recognize each other, configure themselves to each other's I/O complements, and transmit both MIDI and digital audio back and forth over the network. (Though developed by Yamaha, the company played nice by offering a royalty-free license to anyone who wanted to adopt it. Even though over 100 companies had signed on by 2005, it showed up in only a handful of products and pretty much died on the vine. Too bad, really.)
Of course, the whole Motif concept was seamless integration between the Voices, the onboard pattern and song sequencer (it was a full workstation), and a large library of musical phrases all triggered by the arpeggiator, i.e. motifs. But I was mainly interested in it as a sound machine, so I've saved the best about it for last.
The Motif ES and the "Classic" before it supported Yamaha PLG series expansion boards, and on the ES you could pack in up to three of them. Some, such as the PLG-150PF piano expansion, were based on conventional PCM samples. But many amounted to completely different synth engines that ran inside the ES. There was a DX board with a true FM sound engine, an AN featuring the analog modeling of the AN-1X, VL to do physical modeling like the rare and expensive VL-1, VH for vocal harmonies, and more. (I actually found a pretty complete list here.) With the AN and VL boards installed, a lot of the time I felt like I was slinging a baby Synclavier around. In other words, I was drunk with power.
Previous Yamaha synths such as the S80 (which I had also owned) also had PLG slots, but the Motif ES was the last Yamaha workstation to have them before the company decided to see what they could do with simply a lot more straight-ahead sample ROM in the Motif XS, then Flash memory in the XF. But those boards are a big reason I still use my Motif ES regularly. It's an evolution of the concept developed in the EX5 and EX7 (forerunners to the Motif family), which put multiple synthesis engines under one roof. They were born bit too early and plagued by performance issues owing to the fact that the processing power available at the time wasn't up to the tasks Yamaha envisioned, at least not if they were going to hit a price point anyone would touch. But what the EX5 got wrong, the Motif ES with PLG boards got right.
The idea of multiple types of synth engines is making the beginnings of a comeback at Yamaha if the new Montage, with its eight-operator FM section living alongside the PCM sample-based section, is any indication. The Montage is a monster, with modulation and real-time control capabilities that essentially make it a virtual modular synth. But for great sounds in all categories, great sound quality, and crisp operation uncluttered by bells and whistles I don't necessarily use every day, I still find myself reaching for my PLG-expanded Motif ES surprisingly often.