High Tonal Quality – VST’s vs Yamaha VL

By Thor Zollinger, writer/musician/engineer at large.

In the world of music creation, synthesizers of all types have migrated onto your computer.  Fewer hardware based synthesizers are being built as the software based synths have surged into existence.  You can now purchase a software based VST to do just about anything a piece of hardware used to do ten years ago.  The one below models an orchestra violin section or soloist.

In the VST world, there are synthesizers which closely duplicate real instruments.  The programmers collect hundreds of recordings of an instrument like a Violin, then they work to splice and blend those clips together to produce a virtual instrument that sounds just like the real thing.  It takes thousands of hours of work to create each instrument.  As a programmer, you have to start over to create a new VST instrument, making a violin doesn’t help you much in creating a Cello.  The disadvantage of this model is that each and every instrument voice has to be created from scratch.  As a result, each additional instrument you add to your VST ‘orchestra’ costs just as much as the first.  The sound quality is fantastic, but you have to pay for each one.  Here are a couple of examples.

 Embertone Blackus Cello Module

 DSK Saxophone Module

VST's tend to be specialized, most of the time they tackle just one instrument per module.  That means you need a collection of VST's if you want to model a jazz band or an entire orchestra, or you need to spend the money to get a more expansive module like Garritan Personal Orchestra.  There is an alternative, however, that you may not have considered.

The 90’s Alternative – Yamaha VL

Back in the 1990’s Yamaha took a different tack on creating superb-quality solo instruments.  Yamaha purchased a set of mathematical equations from Stanford University which modeled the behavior of wind and string instruments which they turned into a complete line of Virtual Acoustic synthesizers. This older hardware has been dropping in price, since most people are switching over to a software based work station.

The first was the Yamaha VL1, with two-note polyphony, a 49 key keyboard instrument which used a breath controller to create extremely expressive sounds.  Soon after came the VL1m, a rack mounted version of the VL1, then a single-note version called the VL7 (see below).  These keyboards were quite expensive when they came out, the VL1 was almost $5000 and the VL7 was about $3000.  A few years later Yamaha developed a less expensive module for wind players called the VL70m which are articulated by a WX wind controller rather than a keyboard.  The VL70m just went out of production a few  years ago after an almost twenty year run.  You can pick up a VL70m on eBay nowdays for around $600, a VL7 will cost you around $1500 if you can find one, and VL1’s and VL1m’s are almost impossible to find anymore.  They can be found for around $3000, occasionally for less.  Too expensive for most of us, but wait a few paragraphs and we'll get to the economical version.

Yamaha also made a poly-VL keyboard called the VP1, but they only made three of them.  They literally only sold three copies… at $30,000 a piece.  Two ended up in Yamaha synthesizer laboratories, and one is owned by a wealthy German musician named Reinhold Heil.  The VP1 was 16 voice, i.e. it can play 16 VL quality notes simultaneously.  It was based on a “plucked” or “bowed” instrument model rather than the continuous-flow breath model, so the patches tended to be more like a guitar or string instrument  rather than a wind instrument.  The owners of these are very protective of their instruments, you almost never see them in public unless Yamaha brings one to the 40th anniversary synthesizer show at NAMM like they did in 2014.

In addition to the keyboards and tone generators Yamaha also reduced the complexity and size of the VL instruments down to a single PlugIn Card which you could insert into a number of their other synthesizers, called the PLG150-VL.  I have two of these boards mounted in a Yamaha MU2000ex tone generator, essentially I’ve put together a low cost version of the VL1m.  It’s also slightly lower in sound quality, but since each board only costed about $175 it seems like a pretty decent tradeoff from the $3400 price tag I see on a VL1m for sale right now on ebay.  My version also has more effects available than the original, though they’re 16 bit versus 24 bit on the VL1.

 Yamaha VL1 Demo

 Yamaha VL70m Demo

The real advantage to the Yamaha VL instruments lies in their versatility.  The VL synthesizers are capable of duplicating the performance of an entire array of instruments, not just one like a VST does.  To create a new instrument, all it takes is for someone to modify the control parameters to create a new instrument patch.  The VL70m tone generators come with 256 different instrument patches built in.  You can switch from a violin to a saxophone in a few seconds, you don’t have to purchase an entirely new VST module for each one.  VL is also capable of mimicking a large variety of synthetic analog instruments, rivaling the expressive nature of any of the other analog synthesizers you’ve heard.  That aspect of VL is not very well known.  You can also create your own virtual acoustic instruments, creating some really crazy combinations.  For example, you can mate a trumpet horn to a violin body and play it.  Somebody actually tried that for real!

The crazy instrument combinations you can create have really unique sounds to them, like a bowed clarinet, a plucked trumpet, or a tuba mouthpiece on a cello body.  You’re only limited by your imagination.  The PLG cards and VL synthesizers come with a Visual Voice Editor in software which is quite easy to use.  It’s a stand-alone editor or an XG-Works plugin, which actually runs just fine on the newer versions of Windows.  You can create new instruments quickly and easily with it, something the VST instruments lack entirely.  The VL-Wizard, a more advanced editor is also available now for both Windows and Mac OSX but the complexity is way beyond the casual user.  You almost have to be a wind instrument player in order to understand the internal parameters. I have it, but I haven't tackled it yet.  


Personally I prefer hardware based synthesizers to the VST’s.  I like the touch and feel of a solid electronic instrument, all of the knobs and sliders, the after touch keys, and the foot and breath controllers.  Be it electronic or acoustic, I like the physical interaction much better than the sample-based software instruments seem to give you.  Sample based instruments have mostly automatic expression insertion, you don’t really play the instrument like you do a VL instrument, it plays you.  I feel disconnected using those.  

Yamaha also snuck the VL capability into the EX5 keyboards (one of the most under rated instruments around!) along with the EX5R rack mount version, and into some of the MU-100R rack units. 

Since you still need a physical instrument of some kind if you want to play the instrument or the VST anyway, why not get a keyboard that has the capability you want?  Don’t overlook the older stuff just because it’s old, there are some real gems hidden out there.  The Yamaha EX5 is a very nice keyboard controller with VL built in and so is the Yamaha VL7.  You just have to be patient and look for one.    

So go take a Yamaha VL synth like the VL70m or an EX5 for a test drive, there are a few of them listed on eBay right now.  You might like it!