About 40 years ago I purchased monitors for a home studio before such things were common. I still use those Yamaha NS-500s and matching amp in my home studio. Now, I can't promise your Montage will still be touring in 40 years, but it's possible. This is a happy thought, since the Montage is a fantastic synth. It is a descendent of last century's Yamaha SY77 synth, which also employed an AWM (Advanced Wave Memory) engine for sample-based playback with a separate, Frequency Modulation (FM) engine for, well, FM synthesis. The Montage has a lot more "there" there, however, that's anchored by a superior AMW2 playback engine, firing 128 stereo polyphonic "voices" while using almost 6 GB of the onboard samples for playback – including drums. Although you can probably find a 6 GB triangle sample library for your computer, Yamaha has been refining their AMW2 library for a long time, and the acoustic instruments sound fantastic when soloed and are eminently usable in a multitimbral composition. The FM synth uses another 128 stereo oscillators, available in 88 different algorithms arranged in up to eight operator configurations. If you don't understand the basics of FM, there are presets to help you get up to speed. Though FM synthesis may be a difficult to get your programming head around, it can be great for making percussive sound (dreams and nightmares from the 1980s are full of DX-7 clavs and plucked sounds), ringing bells like living downstairs at Notre Dame, or long evolving soundscapes that have escaped from a feedback zoo (still one of my favorites).

But the Montage is much more than just another pretty synth with stacked stats: it's made for live performance. This synth just begs to have knobs twisted, faders pulled, buttons pushed and assigned, etc. The left top of the synth contains eight endless rotary knobs, which mark the assigned parameter level on the external circular light ring – and follows the change of position, of course. Additionally, these knobs can follow the positioning of the tempo-pulsing Super Knob, which means you can not only conduct a light show on the "mini-knobs" but sweep through the eight different assigned parameters (and more), all of which can be set for a minimum and maximum control depth. Plus sync to tempo. Below the knobs are eight faders, which also light up the relative position of their parameters. These faders look cool and sound even better. And they can be used to control just about any parameter – like the volume of the 8 Elements of the FM synth. Faders can also control the volume of each of the 16 Parts in a Performance and are switchable in two banks. Each Part can be an entire "voice" (or patch) – like an organ, bass, bassoon, entire drum kit, or General MIDI synth for example. Up to 16 of these Parts make a Performance, and you can switch through variation Scenes to further change things up. The right side of the board contains a host of buttons, which are used for Part mutes and switches for the Arps and Motion Sequencer (preprogramed sequences that offer yet another layer of control for parameters). The large Data Wheel is also here, along with curser and various other function buttons.

A 7-inch touchscreen display in the middle of the board is where much of the pre-programming and housekeeping functionality takes place. The screen is crisp, as is the touch sensitivity, making it easy to choose Parts for Performances – or which Oscillator for the Part, or set internal routing (format a thumb drive to load the latest OS update to, etc.). You can also burrow down to the Sample level for each Part, or Element for the FM. Of course, many of the things you can do with the buttons or knobs you'll find here as well (like a DAW, there are different ways to accomplish the same task). But it is all logically organized, and you get to choose the most ergonomic method of control for your workflow. A bigger touchscreen would be nice for me (I have large fingers), but I found myself getting more pointed with the touching – and like much about the Montage, the more I worked with the touchscreen, the more the entire ecosystem made sense. Physically, the board feels solid, from key bed to buttons. All mechanics feel and function smoothly. It is less of synth and more of an instrument – like the Minimoog but with an almost modular programming control before performing. Additionally, there is plenty I haven't explored – such as the built-in interface with decent latency and good conversion.

The A/D input can function as an envelope generator or capture samples. You can record 128 Songs, using MIDI to play in each Part. But for any real song editing you need an external DAW (a Cubase AI license is included with the Montage). Using a computer monitor provides a less cramped, onscreen venue for deep programing.

The John Melas Montage site includes just about every kind of program you might need for this synth; librarian, editors for AWM2 and FM-X, etc. And combination packages – highly recommended if you are serious. You'll need to access the web anyway in order to download USB drivers, software, updates to a flash drive, and Yamaha's own dedicated Sound Library for Montage. Soundmondo "Social Sound Sharing" web site and iOS app (originally for the "Reface" series). The app lets you store Montage Voices, then share them on the Soundmodo site. There are plenty of interestingly-titled Montage Performances for download in just about every style.

Truth be told, I haven't warmed to most new digital hardware keyboards – my last was an Ensoniq, to provide a time frame. Software based synths, with the added benefit of being easier to program, are so varied and sound so damn good these days. Unless you're performing live gigs, it hardly makes sense to invest in another hardware keyboard, as many softsynths could do as good of a job as a "weekend workstation" and are cheaper than the Montage. But softsynths feel cheaper to me, while the Montage feels as solid as a Carol Kaye [Tape Op #45] bass line. Lastly, I found that the Montage just made synthing fun! Whether grooving to a techno performance or digging into an organ part, the experience felt right and brought a smile to my face. Sure, it takes a little time to grok the Montage, but it is worth it if one wants a true synth over just another vanilla, sample-playback keyboard.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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