After our brief histories of the Roland TR-808 drum machine and the Roland TB-303 bass synth, here is a brief history of another highly influential electronic instrument: the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer.
Yamaha’s DX7 was an FM-based digital keyboard synthesizer with a distinctive and much-loved sound. Like the other electronic instruments we have written about, the Yamaha DX7 had a profound and lasting impact on popular music. But in many ways it was unlike the 303 and the 808. With the DX7 Yamaha had a huge commercial success, and it remains one of the biggest selling electronic instruments in history.
Its tones can be heard on countless hit songs during its 1983-1989 production run, from Tina Turner’s ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’ to Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’ – the DX7 was everywhere. Even now, its influence can still be felt. Digital producers can recreate its effects with the Dexed VST, keeping the DX7’s sounds alive.
A cornucopia of sounds at your fingertips
A standard DX7 synth came with 128 presets that emulate a wide range of instruments, and create some unique sounds. Though users were able to program their own DX7 patches to create entirely original sounds, most simply stuck with the presets due to the instrument’s near-impenetrable programming interface. But that didn’t matter. The DX7 became so popular with 80s producers and artists that its tones dominated the airwaves for the entire decade.
Take ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’. This 80s megahit opens with the DX7’s infamous flute imitation, and uses its electric piano sound as a backing throughout.
Whitney Houston’s ‘Saving All My Love’ placed the DX7 electric piano front and centre. This song’s producers managed to make the DX7 sound so much like a real Fender Rhodes that some believe no DX7’s were involved in the making of the track.
Perhaps even more prevalent than the electric piano sound, the DX7’s punchy ‘bass’ emulation was used in almost the majority of ‘stereotypically 80s’ pop songs. You can hear it here in Hall & Oates’ ‘Out Of Touch’.
The reason that producers in studios all over the country opted for the Yamaha synthesizer was for its versatility and wide variety of sounds. Sure, some of these sounds – the ‘bass guitar’ in particular – did not resemble their real-life counterparts, but that didn’t stop people loving them. If anything, the presence of these sounds in so much of 80s chart music made the DX7 sound modern or even futuristic. Now of course, songs with excessive DX7 use scream ‘80s’, though not necessarily in a bad way. At the time, producers were just glad to have access to an orchestra’s worth of instruments in a box smaller than a single cello-case.
DX7 and innovation
As you can tell from the string of hits to that use the DX7 mentioned in this article alone, the device very successfully penetrated the mainstream while other electronic instruments like the TB-303 languished in pawn shops until struggling young musicians picked them up at bargain prices. But though this mainstream success was good for Yamaha, financially, it did not lead mean the DX7 was as involved in the dawn of new genres as the 808 was with hip-hop or the 303 was with acid house. It may have changed the way pop sounds, but did it change music fundamentally?
Some thought it could. Brian Eno painstakingly slaved over his DX7, trying to make sense of its programming interface. He knew there was potential for the DX7 to create unheard sounds of its own alongside its near-miss emulations. By 1990, Eno was calling the DX7 his “main instrument,” but he had been using it for nearly a decade at this point.
One of the first albums to make extensive use of the DX7 was Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks in 1983. Keeping in mind the instrument had only just been released, his homemade DX7 patches are remarkable.
The DX7’s tech revolution
Despite all of its success, the real way the DX7 changed music was in the way it worked, technically. One of these ways is its use of memory cartridges. That may sound boring, but Yamaha’s decision to use ROM cartridges which allowed users to save their own presets was revolutionary and allowed for further experimentation. Before ROM, users could only replicate programmed synth sounds by moving the knobs and dials into exactly the same positions.
On top of this, the synthesizer’s use of MIDI allowed for musicians to save complicated playing patterns and perform music too fast or complicated to be played by a human. The DX7’s use of MIDI was a huge factor in that technology’s rise to prominence, and now MIDI is indisposable for bedroom producers and studio engineers alike.
Though the DX7 may not have been used to create a brand new genre, it is surely an instrument with wide capabilities (as displayed by Brian Eno) and popular appeal (as shown by its chart dominance). But more than this, the technology behind the DX7 changed the way electronic music was made forever.