If you are a performing keyboardist, having access to great keyboard sounds (past and present) gets you on the “A” list when someone needs keys. But great keyboard sounds can be a great inspiration for songwriting, too. If a stage keyboard could deliver those great keyboard sounds you need in an easy-to-transport package, it would be a real winner. The Yamaha YC61 claims to be just that, so I was anxious to try it out.
Right out of the box, it’s immediately clear that the manufacturer’s claims of exceptional portability are true. It weighs in at less than 16 pounds! And while it has what most keyboardists consider a minimum of keys for performing (just 61), the stock of sounds and control the YC61 offers seem impressive. Switches and knobs protrude which makes for easy access to features and control, but they also scream out for a good case to protect them for travel. So, you’ll want to consider some protection like the optional protective soft case that Yamaha offers. A small, but impressive physical feature that I was happy to see was a serious generic power cord and not a ‘wall wart’-type power supply.
One obvious application for the diminutive YC61 would be as a second keyboard, allowing players who prefer a weighted controller as their primary keyboard to easily add a serious organ. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The real test is whether or not this keyboard sounds as good as the specifications look. Seeing the drawbar setup and the ‘waterfall’ key design typical of iconic organ designs, I decided to check out the organ sounds and control first.
YC61 features a newly designed Virtual Circuitry Modeling (VCM) Organ engine that supports physical drawbars that feel good and provide the common control that organists rely on to control tonewheel organs. Setups for the VCM organ show off the YC61’s collection of classic organ sounds all of which, past the drawbars, can be adjusted for key click, leakage, and rotary speaker speed. Players can choose from two faithfully modeled rotary speaker profiles – clean and full or dirty and aggressive, then further adjust top or bottom rotor speed for even more control. Vintage effects and processing get you a lot of configurability to get the exact organ sounds you are looking for.
While classic tonewheel organ sounds are favorites, the YC61 also provides many other classic organ sounds with the Yamaha’s historic FM (Frequency Modulation) synthesis. The company’s designers allowed for players to control the FM operators with drawbars so they could easily create their own sounds and make adjustments “on the fly”.
An extraordinary addition to this keyboard, and likely why Yamaha is calling it a stage keyboard, is the addition of some of the company’s premium acoustic piano sounds. YC61 features two premium concert grand pianos: the Yamaha 9’ concert CFX grand piano and Yamaha S700 (one of the most popular grand piano Voices from the S90ES stage synthesizer and MOTIF ES synthesize). These piano settings provide not only the great sounds of these instruments, but also an extraordinary amount of control to make your playing expressive. Other pianos include Yamaha’s popular C7 and U1 pianos.
The sound set-ups provided as a starting point for these piano sounds are all stellar with well throughout effects and EQ. With all this, it’s easy to quickly find a piano sound that will fit your needs for recording or performing–or experiment with crafting your own. However, while the YC61 does provide a good deal of control of dynamic piano sounds, the physical design of the keys and the feel better support the control of organ sounds and organ techniques–another reason why I think this is a great choice as a second keyboard.
Less affected by feel are the electric piano and electric grand sounds. Everything you would expect is there, including Yamaha’s DX7, CP80, and classic emulations of iconic tine pianos (Rhodes and Wurlizer). Some of the popular electric piano set-ups are extraordinarily funky!
The bottom line here is that the YC61’s touch and waterfall keyboard design is best suited for organ playing, and this keyboard is an excellent choice for that. The YC61 absolutely feels the way an authentic organ is supposed to feel and the organ sounds and controls are great. That said, don’t write this unit off as an organ-only keyboard. There are some great piano sounds that are very, very usable and the size and weight make this great-sounding keyboard useful for any pack-up and move situation–rehearsal, performance or songwriting session. For recording or to use the YC61 as a controller, you also get a built-in USB stereo audio and MIDI interface for connecting up to Mac, PC and iOS.
So, portability, great sounds and control are all there on the YC61. I can also give this keyboard high points for its intuitive interface that divides the panel up with clearly delineated sections for organ, pianos, effects and EQ. This allowed me to quickly make adjustments to the stock set-ups, split the keyboard and grab sounds when needed to create layers, all without having to dig through menus. Don’t let its small size fool you. The YC61 is a very well thought out, serious keyboard for performance, recording, or songwriting.
For more information, visit Yamaha here.