Yamaha VP1:  The Secret instrument nobody knows

by Thor Zollinger, writer/musician/engineer at large.  2020

Greetings my friends.  I have an extraordinary instrument to reveal, the amazing Yamaha VP1 synthesizer.  It was designed, tested and marketed, but only a small handful were ever produced.  It’s almost unknown to most people.  Let me begin…

Dr. Toshifumi Kunimoto and his fellow engineers had just completed their work on the hugely successful Yamaha DX7 FM synthesizer.  He and his organization, known as K’s Lab, were given a directive from upper management to “create the next tone generation system within five years.”  His group researched heavily into sound decay and other acoustic phenomena.  Using an inspired college thesis, he and his colleagues created the astounding Yamaha VL1, which models the transient behaviors of both wind and string instruments.  The sounds it produces are absolutely amazing!  But it takes a wind player to really understand it and play it correctly. 

Here is an example of how amazingly realistic the VL1 sounds!

                 Yamaha VL1 Demo 

In parallel to the VL1, Dr. Kunimoto and his team also created the Yamaha VP1, a polyphonic virtual acoustic synthesizer.  Where the VL1 was a one or two note solo instrument, the VP1 is a 16 note expressive VP instrument.  The two sound models are quite different, though.  The VL1 uses an S/VA Self Oscillating model, where energy is continuously injected into the model with the breath or bow of the musician.  The model continuously recalculates the effects of that energy on the internal sound waves, and kicks out astoundingly realistic tones.  It can replicate every nuance of the Saxophone right down to the reed squawks, or even the mode changes in a Trumpet.  The VP1 in contrast uses an F/VA Free Oscillating model, where the instrument note is struck or plucked.  The energy going in is short and instantaneous, like a Marimba or plucked Violin.  It didn’t require all of the calculations on the front end of the sound, so all of the calculations were shifted to the resonant part of the model on the back end.  It was supposed to model a different class of instruments, like the Piano or Guitar.

The independent patch programmers went in an interesting direction, though.  They searched for new and futuristic ways to program the instrument and came up with five patch banks of mostly experimental sounds.  The main patch bank is detailed and explained in the Performance Notes pdf, but until I got my hands on the editor I had no idea there were four more banks of voices.  Nearly all of the patches are wild and crazy, like no other synthesizer you’ve ever heard before. 

There is also an anomaly in the Mac Editor for the VP1, in the inharmonisity algorithm.  The algorithm/effect gets progressively deeper as you go up the keyboard which meant the patch programmers had to decrease it’s effects in the upper portion of the patch in order to keep it under control in the higher ranges.  Aside from that, the Stiffness parameter, called Inharmonisity, is the single biggest technical innovation in this synthesizer, and it’s virtually unknown to almost everyone.  I go into a lot of details on this aspect of the synth in the Editor Guide I wrote, which is linked below.  No other synthesizer I’ve ever seen has this timbral capability.

In my opinion, the VP1 never did meet the original goals of Dr. K and the team, which were to realistically mimic the sound of all of the instruments in the orchestra, the ones the VL1 couldn’t do.  Few of the patches sounded anything like a conventional instrument.  The tools are all in there to make a full complement of hyper-expressive voices that might have rivaled the VL1.  However, talking to Manny Fernandez, the acoustic qualities of the instrument drivers were far less convincing than that of the VL1.  When compared side by side, Yamaha management could really hear the quality difference between the two technologies.  For realism, the VL1 was clearly the superior method.  VP technology was shelved.  Someone suggested they sell off the VP1 prototypes.  Musicians who tried out the VP1 were probably put off by the odd synthetic sounds it made and the lack of usable standard instrument patches.  It didn’t sound anything like the VL1 which it was marketed with.  At $30,000 a piece, the synthesizer never would have caught on.  Only a handful of VP1’s were ever produced.  The location of only three or four copies are known today, the others are in hiding. 

Inside the VP1 you find a large amount of physical hardware.  There are 16 computer processing boards along with the main backplane circuit board.  It’s a heavy beast.  The large number of custom sound processing chips on the boards were also a big part of the synthesizer.  They were expensive to produce and the VP1 had 32 of them inside.  The VL1 only uses four.  This drove the price of the unit way up into the stratosphere, the original marketing price was $30,000 each.  After a short test run selling the prototypes in Japan and Europe, Yamaha dropped the price significantly after only two months.  They had priced it too high and the market just wasn’t ready to spend that much for such a specialized synth.

Then I came along over 30 years later.  For some reason I was drawn to the instrument.  I dug everywhere trying to find every scrap of information I could find, every recording ever made, anything I could find that would tell me more about this amazing instrument nobody wanted.  I just knew there had to be more to the story, something hidden deep in the folds of time. 

Daniel Forro’s recordings and one sound sample CD from the late 90’s are really all we have to work with.  Daniel has an album of improvisations is called “VP1 Impressions, 1997”, a few of which are linked below so you can listen to them.  I contacted him and purchased the entire lot.

I also managed to get my hands on an old copy of the Editor software from Daniel (Thanks Daniel!) which runs on a Macintosh computer.  I dug out my old Mac and loaded OS 9 on it.  I poured through the settings in the Editor to try and understand how the instrument was designed to function.  In the process I noticed something very odd in the harmonics it produced, on the screen of my Spectrum Analyzer.  I use a test instrument that shows me all of the harmonic peaks in the sound.  Most instruments have a nice, evenly spaced set of harmonics.  The peaks are all regimented like soldiers lined up in formation.  The VP1’s were not… The harmonic peaks were spaced further and further apart as you went up in frequency.  And it sounded very metallic, like striking an Asian metal gong.  All kinds of inharmonic pitches were mixed in, it didn’t sound or behave like anything I’d ever seen before. 

   

The Trumpet, all evenly spaced harmonics.              The VP1 ResoMetal patch, same pitch

I noticed in the Editor the Stiffness parameter, which is supposed to model the stiffness of the resonator string.  It was labeled “Loop Stiffness (Inharmonisity)”.  Inharmonisity?  What in the world was that?  I had to go out and research Inharmonicity (different spelling in the online world) to figure out what it was meant to do.  Lo and behold, there it was, the reason why the harmonics had such an odd spacing.  Stringed instrument harmonics are slightly out of tune sharp and ‘Inharmonicity’ is what they called it.  The harmonics fan out as the frequency gets higher.  If you want the full story on Inharmonicity read my guide on the Yamaha VP1 Editor, it’s in the Appendix.

I dug deeper.  I went through the editor looking at all the patches to see if the Inharmonisity parameter matched up to what I saw on the Spectrum Analyzer.  Nope, it was backwards.  Backwards?  The graph on the editor screen shows the Inharmonisity as it changes across the keyboard.  For almost all of the patches it starts high on the left and drops towards zero on the right.  Listening to the patch note samples, all of the samples have low Inharmonisity on the left and go extremely high on the right (the exact opposite).  You can see it clearly on the Spectrum Analyzer, the harmonic spread gets wider as you go up the keyboard.  The VP1 Inharmonisity algorithm intensifies the effect as you go up the keyboard.  The patch programmers had to decrease the parameter to the right to calm it down in the upper registers of the instrument.  This behavior is backwards to what a real acoustic instrument does because a real acoustic instrument has more than one string.  The VP1 internal model only covers one string.


          VP1 Editor Window for Inharmonisity.

So what does this mean?  I think originally the VP1 was supposed to be more like the VL1, but it’s not.  It could be used to emulate real acoustic instruments, with a large set of controller behaviors to make them super expressive just like the VL1.  In the VP1 Driver set I found drivers for 75 acoustic instruments, a number of Analog synth sounds, and a few percussion instrument sounds.  Clearly the intent was to emulate those instruments.  Very few of these were actually used in the Factory_Set of patches.  Other than the MyBigPiano patch and the Guiteria patch (which sound fantastic!) none of the other patches that I’ve heard sound like actual acoustic instruments.  The dream of emulating all of the acoustic instruments in an orchestra on the VP1 with human-player expression was never realized.


          VP1 Driver Selection Window.

Instead of matching acoustic instruments, the internals of the VP1 turns the Drivers into something else.  Internally the VP1 is essentially a subtractive synthesizer.  There are filters EVERYWHERE.  There is a filter on each voiced oscillator, two on each noise source, a filter on their combined output, two in each delay loop, another one in the mixer, an equalizer in the Effects unit, and some of the Effects have sound shapers and filters in them.  The filters all move too.  You can graphically control where each filter is located for any key on the keyboard.  If you apply all of these filters aggressively, you can squash the timbre right out of the original Drivers.  I learned in a different school of thought.  I’m more of an additive programmer.  I’m always trying to modify just one or two harmonics on a spectrum analyzer and filters are just too broad for that.  I’m used to using filters for post processing, to remove antialiasing, or to apply them as a controller modifier.  As a result of filter usage in the VP1, the patches take on a more Analog feel.  It didn’t have to be that way.  With limited use of the filters at least one patch programmer could have created more standard acoustic instrument sounds. 

In the end Yamaha decided to sell off the VP1 prototypes and not release VP as a product line.  The VL1 wasn’t selling as well as expected and upper management decided to scale back on physical modeling.  The lack of standard patches also compounded the sales problem of the prototypes.  The VP1 sounded so strange very few musicians knew what to do with it, especially at $30,000 each.  All one patch programmer had to do was set up the existing acoustic instrument drivers that were already in there, map in the controllers, set up some effects using the tools in the filters and delay loops, and it would all have worked more like the VL1 does.  We’d have a super expressive, virtual acoustic synth, capable of stunning audiences with it’s realism like the VL1 can.  And you would still have all of the SciFi weirdness the VP1 is known for in the same package.

And nobody knows.  Nobody but you and me.   

The world keeps turning, the number of expressionless romplers keeps expanding, and almost no one knows what could have been.  

Cheers, Dr. K.

            Here’s what a few of the VP1 patches actually sound like:

            Yamaha VP1 Tracks by Yasunari

If you would like to see the internals of the VP1 Editor, you can download my guide on it here.

Download  Javelin's Illustrated Yamaha VP1 Editor Guide 1.84 MB

Daniel Forro’s improvisations are linked below.

Virtual Music 01/97

https://soundclick.com/share.cfm?id=5804243

 

VP Impression 24 (Mystery of 11th House)

https://soundclick.com/share.cfm?id=4531659

 

VP Impression 26 (Arcanum)

https://soundclick.com/share.cfm?id=4531638

 

VP Impression 31 (Quinta Essentia)

https://soundclick.com/share.cfm?id=4531576

 

VP Impression 35 (Medium Coeli)

https://soundclick.com/share.cfm?id=4531563

 

VP Impression 38 (Winter Solstice)

https://soundclick.com/share.cfm?id=4531550