Today we consider any digital synth with at least 128-voices as the norm.
In 1984 the synth with the most voices was the Yamaha DX7 (16-voices).
To wish for a 128-voices in 1984 was a real stretch of the imagination.
Yamaha somewhat managed to pull this off.
The TX-816 was part of a MIDI system to counter Roland’s MKS series of rack-mounted MIDI synths.
As the DX-7 was the most successful and versatile sounding synth, having multiple DX engines in combination with a Sequencer was an attractive proposition for composers and performers.
The entire MIDI system comprised of a master keyboard, the KX-88, the QX-1 MIDI sequencer, an RX-11 or RX-15 drummachine and the TX-816.
The Yamaha MIDI Rack, as it was called, was an expandable, modular system.
There was a smaller, cheaper configuration available in the shape of the TX-216 as well, which could be expanded by adding more TF1 modules.
If you bought another TF-1, the system would simply turn into a TX-316.
With four TF-1’s it would become a TX-416, etc….
The QX-1 sequencer had 8x MIDI-IN & MIDI-OUT ports, which until this day is still unprecedented.
This allowed for the elimination of lagging MIDI data that would normally occur when daisy-chaining more than 4x MIDI devices over one MIDI cable.
This was where the TX816’s strength lies, as apposed to having eight TX-7’s, which all have to be daisy-chained.
Each TF-1 module is a separate FM engine.
However, no editing can be done on these modules.
In order to load the modules with your own sounds, you’d need to do this from a DX-7 or a software editor.
The 128-voice by the way, only apply in multi-timbral mode.
When all the modules are stacked the limit is still 16-voices.
The beauty though is that you can use some modules separately and some for stacking.
You could use TF-1 for a bass, use the next two TF modules to stack two pianos and still have another 5 modules for other sounds.
The first time I saw a TX-816 in the flesh was in 1985, during a Yamaha demo night organised by Kick Music Hilversum The Netherlands.
The gentlemen demonstrating the Yamaha MIDI system was Peter Baardmans, who still works for Yamaha to this day.
I asked him afterwards why it was better to have a TX-816 instead of having eight TX-7’s.
Mind you, I was 17-years of age and didn’t know my elbow from my arse.
He explained that the TX-816 was able to sync all modules without any MIDI connections, avoiding MIDI lagging and that it could instantly be switched from stack mode to single mode.
I had no idea what he was talking about, but smug as I was thought my economic insights were pretty spot on, as I thought the price was way over the top.
When visiting Kick Music shortly after, I was surprised to see one in the shop, as at that stage expensive equipment was hardly feasible for shops.
Frits Bonhof, the main MIDI guy there, offered me to record a track using the TX-816 and the QX-1.
As I wasn’t yet capable of creating my own songs, I chose to record The Riddle by Nik Kershaw, as I was a massive Kershaw fan (still am).
Frits gave me the tape with the demo on it, which was pretty awesome for those days, but Kick Music was (and still is) the best music shop ever.
Another major advantage the TX-816 had over the DX-7 or TX-7, is that it has XLR outputs instead of unbalanced TS connections.
This produces more accurate low end.
The biggest downside to the TX-816 is that it doesn’t have a main-output.
Each TF-1 module has its own XLR output, so an 8-channel mixer is almost compulsory.
The unit also gets extremely hot, so it’s wise to leave space above it in a rack, as a lot of heat is emitted through the top grill.
My guess is that the TX816’s power consumption is also not the most economic.
All my keyboard heroes have used the TX-816; Howard Jones, Chick Corea (he had two), George Duke, Jay Oliver and David Gamson of Scritti Politti, so of course I had to have one as well.
The TX-816 was extremely expensive, especially in Europe.
This is why not many were sold over there.
This became apparent about a decade later, when virtually none were ever to be found second hand.
I bought the TX-816 together with the QX-1 in Melbourne-Australia for $900 Australian dollars back in 2009.
It was in very good condition, even though the QX-1 looked horrid on arrival.
It had a thick layer of gunk, which had functioned as a protective layer, as after cleaning it there was not one blemish to be found.
It just suffers from these strange white pigment spots, which I have also seen on the KX-88.
In the mid 80's an American company made a more affordable mainframe for the TF-1 modules, which was simply called the TX-Rack.
The Yamaha mainframe apparently was the most expensive part, so this American company saw an opportunity there.
It looked very similar, but had protruding rack-ears.
These TX-Racks are extremely uncommon.
For people that needed to be able to program FM sounds and didn’t have a DX7, there were separate hardware editors.
One was the Beetle PR-7, which looked like a racked up DX7, using the same touch membranes.
It was basically a DX7 without the tone-generator.
Then there was the Jellinghaus DX programmer, of which only 20 were ever made, due to it’s large size and high production costs.
Each parameter on the DX7 was represented by a knob.
This programmer is now being re-manufactured by Dutch company D-Tronics as the DT-7.
Still not cheap, but only a fraction of the price of a Jellinhaus.
If you had a Mac or Atari computer, there were a host of software editors and sound bank managers on the market.
From around 1984 to 1987 the entire synth market revolved around the FM synth, so there were lots of little businesses offering products for the DX7.
Each page of Keyboard magazine had an ad related to some sort of DX7 product, sound -patches, RAM Cartridges and internal expansion boards.
Other companies were also making FM synths, like Korg and Elka, but the DX7 reigned supreme.
If you are lusting after a TX-816, remember that it's a rare beast.
Perhaps more common in some parts of the world, like perhaps the US or Britain?
In general they are hardly ever advertised, so if you see one and you've wanted it for a while, jump on it.
It's also huge and heavy and produces a lot of heat.
Also remember that you will need a 8-channel mixer.
Why should one get this cumbersome old piece of technology, when there's even a free VST?
There are several reasons that validate the purchase of a TX-816.
One could be that it will sound more superior, which is probably not noticeable in a production, but it will be when you are playing it from a keyboard.
Layering 8-TF1 modules is quite a unique experience, as you will notice a significant tightness in the bottom end that will be harder to achieve stacking 8 VST's.
Stacking 8 VST's will also tax your CPU.
Then there is the manual labour aspect of hardware, which is always more rewarding than using software.
You actually feel like you are dealing with an instrument.
Recording it into your DAW and committing to the audio requires some engineering and will therefor learn more.
Then there is that huge nostalgia factor, if you are old enough at least.
The younger generations of electronic music producers will probably never even consider purchasing this heavy bulk of steel, because they are far too comfortable producing on their laptops.
There might be the odd youngster who likes hardware, but the majority of hardware lovers are at least in their 30's.
For them owning a high-end piece of equipment like this is done for another reason.
VST's have an expiry date.
Not all of them become obsolete any time soon, but eventually they will all have a termination date.
When the VST will stop working no one knows, as this depends on how long the software developer will continue supporting it.
Not only that, will your computer and its operating system still be around in 10-years time?
I bought the TX shortly after my FM-7 software seized to be supported for Intel processor Macs.
There was the possibility to upgrade to FM-8, but the cool thing about FM-7 was that it had the aesthetics of the DX-7.
The upgrade also wasn't free, so I figured, if I get hardware it will forever live on.
It's a tough call to make; do I risk buying a VST that will be obsolete in 10-years time, or do I commit to a hardware unit, which is way more expensive, takes up much more space, but will always be available to me.
With software updates and operating systems ever changing, it is hard to build a relationship with a product, which is not the case with a hardware unit.
If you don't think you need eight DX-7's in a rack, but still like to have a hardware unit with that authentic FM sound, a great option is the TX-7.
These sell cheaply and take up little space.
The TX-816 has a very special vibe to it though, as it is such an illusive piece of equipment that is so uncommon.
So many hits and productions have got the TX-816 all over it, as it would have only been used in studios and by professional keyboard players.