The reason behind the success of the DX7
So much has been said about this legendary, famous/infamous instrument.
I have been in many DX7 conversations with people over the years and every conversation is like deja vu.
“Oh, I hate the DX7, it’s so difficult to program”, or, “I love the DX7, it sits so well in the mix”.
It’s quite fascinating how much devision this instrument has created.
I don’t think I have ever met someone who was on the fence about it, opinions were pretty set.
With much resistance I have to admit though, that the majority of opinions sway more towards loathing than loving.
So why is the DX7 resented so much?
As we say in Dutch; tall trees cop the most wind.
Its legend is so huge, people might not like to admit it.
It was ugly, it was pretty, it was slick, it was cumbersome, it had killer specs and was yet limited, it was versatile, it was a one-trick pony, built like a tank, yet full of blemishes.
I challenge anyone to name an instrument in the history of synthesizers that has been this controversial.
Most people will give a version of a reason to why the DX7 was so successful.
Some say it was the sound, some will say it was its looks and radically different design from analog synths, others will say it was a marketing hype.
Well, all of them are correct, but there is one big aspect that almost every single person seems to overlook, which I will discuss in this blog.
To understand the true reason behind the DX7’s success, we have to zoom back in on the year 1982.
Yes, the DX7 came out in 1983, but in order the get a better perspective we need to look at the period that came before it, which was also a very defining period?
In 1982, if you were a gigging musician, your rig would typically comprise of an electromechanical keyboard such as a Rhodes, CP70 or Wurlitzer piano, or an organ such as a Hammond or Farfisa, with perhaps a string machine on top and if you were lucky, a mono synth such as a Prodigy, CS-15 or SH-2.
To be able to produce a wide pallet of sounds, there was no other choice than to lug these instruments around, to both gigs and rehearsals.
The affordable programmable polysynths that came out in 1982, namely the Juno-60 and Polysix, were a blessing to many, but also increased the growing problem of having to cary even more keyboards around, as these cheap polysynths were not versatile enough to replace a Rhodes or CP70.
These synths were still more like an add-on.
If you are a gigging keyboard player in 2018, you have a plethora of instruments to choose from that can perform every single task under the sun.
A Korg Kronos, or a Yamaha Motif will give you every single sound that you could ever need and more.
Super realistic pianos, both acoustic and electric, physically modelled tone-wheel organs, vintage synths, digital synths, incredibly detailed sampled instruments far beyond the imagination, it’s all there at your fingertips.
The original question of this blog
Now we have come to the core of the DX7’s success.
The DX7 was the very first keyboard instrument that gave you a wide range of sounds that were convincing enough sounding to leave all the other keyboards you had at home.
This is the bottom line to the success of the DX7.
Just imagine yourself lifting a Rhodes, Hammond, CP-70 or Wurlitzer down a flight of stairs into a club one day and walk in with a guitar size case the next?
Sometimes one of these instruments would not even fit into a club or venue.
Try unloading a B3 from a van and storing it in your bedroom, all by yourself.
The DX7 was such an incredible liberation for keyboard players, both for performing and studio players, that you had to be quick to get on the waiting list as orders flooded in.
My dad had to wait 1-year before one became available.
Until 1984 he was still lugging his Fender Rhodes Suitcase around, because DX7’s were constantly sold out.
My dad was and still is a huge Hammond fan, but he had absolutely no problem with using the Organ sound on the DX7, as the trade off for not having to hire a van and asking his band members to help transport the B3, was like choosing between wearing shoes or skis to run a marathon.
Now we know that there’s quite a huge difference between the sound of a real B3 and the organ sound on a DX7, but in 1983 the listening public wouldn’t care less and musicians no longer wanted to fool themselves into thinking that people could hear the difference, so the big keyboards of the time were soon to be ditched in large numbers.
This is the true reason for the success of the DX7.
Yes, it also sounded new and there were other sounds on there that were radically different from the analog synths, but the main thing was that it replaced all the other cumbersome keyboards of the era and it would still be capable of doing that today, even though we have become more accustomed to hearing better emulations.
If you play the E. Piano through a chorus and a bit of reverb, or the Organ preset with a Lesley simulation, you will be surprised at how much you will be able to get away with it.
We just won’t do that, because there are better alternatives, but the DX7 will not be an embarrassment to play even today.
So again, imagine the impact it had in 1983.
The DX7 had absolutely zero competition.
No Fairlight, Emulator, PPG or Synclavier could even get close to the DX7’s ability to emulate other instruments.
Even if you had a maxed-out Synclavier and sampled a Rhodes piano with different key switches, you would not even get close to the richness and expressive timbre of the E.Piano on a DX7.
Say you were rich enough to afford a Synclavier and you had all the optionals, its size and reliability would make you wish you had your Rhodes back again.
At only a fraction of the price of the Synclavier the DX7 was an absolute no-brainer.
It was undeniably groundbreaking and changed every single rule and law in the keyboard player handbook.
Even if you secretly hated it, you would be a total fool to bow to your own stubbornness and stick to your old keyboard rig, it would absolutely have made no sense.
Yes, there were some lone rangers at the time who refused to even get close to a DX7, just because of the hype it created, but I am pretty sure that in hindsight they wished that they could have avoided many visits to chiropractors and physiotherapists to tackle their back issues.
These people would still firmly profess their views today, regardless of their stuffed up backs, saying how crap it sounded.
We also have to remember that there are far more people making music today, as the world population has almost doubled from 4.6-Billion in 1983 to 7.7 Billion today.
Exposure to knowledge has increased dramatically due to the internet, so it’s much easier to watch a comparison video and share opinions.
Not so in 1983, where the only sources of information were word of mouth, tech magazines and music gear shops.
Music making has become far more accessible and so has gear acquisition, as price is not an issue anymore.
In 1982 you had to make a well thought out choice as to which polysynth you would get, but when the DX7 arrived in 1983 that choice suddenly became a lot easier.
The first time my dad and I witnessed the brilliance of the DX7, was in the late summer of 1983 at Safe Sound in Amsterdam.
Safe Sound had sold DX7’s in the months before that, but they were gone before the shop owner even had the chance to take one out of the box.
The shop owner told us that the first batch of 12 he received were sold before midday on the day they arrived.
People were still turning up at his shop throughout the day from around the country, hoping to still get one.
He couldn’t even lock his shop, because everyone had been trying to ring him, getting a busy tone, so they just took the chance to drive to Amsterdam.
When we heard that a new batch had come in and one DX7 was unboxed, we headed straight to the shop.
The DX was sitting on top of the counter and literally every single person in the shop was leaning over it.
The most outstanding sound was the E.Piano, as it bore so much resemblance to the Rhodes piano.
However, the bells, marimbas, harmonica, koto and calliope equally blew our minds and it’s no surprise that these sounds became much used classics.
It was so mind bogglingly obvious that this was going to be an essential tool for keyboard players, especially at that price point.
The astonishing thing about the DX7 was, that Yamaha had made zero compromises on the built quality side of the instrument, which is in stark contrast to what’s on offer today.
In order for manufacturers to offer an instrument at a competitive price today, many corners have to be cut.
Engineers and the sales department will not think twice if 1-micrometre less material can save thousands of dollars over the entire production period.
This was not the case with the DX7.
Possibly one of its most impressive features was the keybed, which still to this day has been unparalleled.
If you ever had to chance to see a DX7’s keybed from the inside, then you will have seen an incredible amount of lead under the keys.
This would be unthinkable today, as lead is extremely expensive (and heavy).
Even though it’s a synth-action keyboard and players were used to the action on a Rhodes and CP70, players had no issue with switching to the DX7, as it was such an amazing keyboard to play.
As I already said, there is not one single synth action keyboard on the market today that plays that good.
It’s difficult to imagine now that a dull, flat top, brown and green coloured instrument like the DX7 blew every single keyboard instrument (including all analog synths) out of the water, because we know much better now in a world spoiled for choice, but if you can sit down for a moment and imagine a world where there was only one keyboard instrument that would take care of all your keyboard duties, then you might be able to appreciate and understand the DX7 a little better.
Do I love the DX7?
I love all synthesizers and keyboards, but the DX7 has a special place in my heart, as there is no other instrument that can even get close to its legend.
The switch from what was available in 1982, to the introduction of the DX7 in 1983, was so radical, that if such thing would happen today, it would make global internet headlines.
With much more global exposure and many more people making music today, it’s rather impossible to introduce something that’s as radically different today as the DX7 was in 1983.
The ripple effect that this synth caused will never ever be witnessed again.
In this blog I only wanted to highlight this little undiscussed fact about the DX7, rather than listing its specifications or even try to explain FM.
Much information about that is floating around aplenty out there already.
My aim was so that people will appreciate the DX7 a little more after this little zeitgeist insight.
Thanks for reading!!!!
DX7 SYNTH RHYME
In times of faders, dials and switches
you danced across the fashion ridges.
In seductive postures of brown and green
algorithmically reshaping the scene.
Sines from a brilliant Chowning mind
shook conventions of the wonted kind.
Dare I say you changed the course
with little shame and self remorse.
Extended periods of supreme reign
eventuated into deviated gain.
Loved and loathed on a fractional scale
In stature you’ll undyingly prevail.
Frequent modulation of the odds
positioned you amongst the gods.
Operators shall loyally recall
you as the most distinguished of all.