gadg-et-oid [gaj-it-oid]


1. having the characteristics or form of a gadget;
resembling a mechanical contrivance or device.

The Yamaha MODX8

I’m not really a musician. I’ve created and released music, sure, my mum even has a bunch of embarrassing old songs – with suitably awful vocals – on an iPod somewhere. I played a bunch of covers on piano and then bass with some friends. We never graduated to taking it seriously. But I don’t consider myself a musician. I just love music, listening to it, creating it, thinking about it, singing, much to the annoyance of everyone else. It’s for that reason that my sort-of mid-life, mid-covid crisis purchase was a Yamaha MODX8.

A dark blurry photo showing a large metal piano lit up with a smaller black synth mounted above it. There are some studio monitors. There’s a glow of an unseen monitor in the right edge.

My old, old setup when I had a Roland Fantom X8 and a Juno D. Good times!


I owned a Roland Fantom X8 many years ago – circa 2007 in fact – and even wrote about it. I loved that thing, the piano was sublime, it had phenomenal synths and I even tried to join a band and play synth. It was just too darn big to carry around. I picked up a Juno D which was less impressive, less big, less sublime but fun nonetheless. When my daughter got to the sort of age that I could inflict my own dreams upon her, I traded it in and bought a piano. I had long since sold the Fantom. The lack of a kitchen-sink synth left a small hole in my life which I filled with the Raspberry Pi.

After turning the Raspberry Pi into a day job, that little musical hole gnawed away at me until I needed a full-sized piano again. So I grabbed a cheap and simple one that would Just Do Piano. That would keep me focussed and force me to learn the basics. It was good fun and worked well with Synthesia, but it wasn’t very exciting or versatile. Firing up a computer every time I wanted something a bit more synthy was a chore, and the total lack of controls meant I could never really truly jam.

So I bought the MODX8 from a little shop near Liverpool called ACHamilton. It was pre-owned and incredibly keenly priced. I haven’t seen a better deal to this day, almost as if it were waiting there, just for me.

I gave the piano away when we moved, such was my utter disinterest in it. I had the MODX8, and the MODX8 is cool, fun and versatile.

The MODX8 recaptures much of my original love of be-all-things-to-all-folks performance instruments. It includes sample-based instruments and an inscrutable behemoth of an FM synth engine. It has a little internal storage to spare (Yamaha bumped this up in the MODX+) for some aftermarket samples, patches and performances. It functions as a USB audio interface. This is extremely useful for – for instance – playing some music on an attached computer and jamming along with it. It also makes capturing audio from the MODX8 a doddle, your DAW can output MIDI and capture the resulting audio all through the one USB cable. This is a technique I used to muddle together Space Adventure which is mostly sounds captured from the MODX8 and a little percussion contributed by whatever DAW I was dabbling in at the time (I think it was Cubase LE, but don’t quote me on that, it could have been FL Studio).

A desktop lit up greeny teal by some hidden lights. There’s a huge keyboard/piano occupying most of the scene. A lit up computer keyboard is sat in front. There’s a microphone in the background and a field recorder in the foreground. It looks like I’m set up to do serious musical business.
A front on shot with the backlights off and Synthesia- a sort of piano roll music learning program like Guitar Hero for pianos- is shown on the screen. This is very much not serious business.

My setup when I first got the Yamaha MODX8. It was part of my main desk so I could take little musical breaks.


This kind of value-add feature is probably absolutely bog standard these days, but for a guy who’s only reference is a nearly 20 year old Roland Fantom it’s a welcome surprise. What, I don’t have to buy a mixing desk and a USB audio interface to produce music with this? Score!

If I’m honest, aside from the FM Synth, it was the MODX8’s “Super Knob” that really did it for me. It’s not as if assigning multiple parameters with different curves is unheard of in synthesis, but Yamaha put flashing lights in the thing and made it irresistible. Of course I plugged in a cheap M-Audio pedal to control the Super Knob’s parameters, rendering the flashy, obvious control fairly redundant. But that’s fine. MODX8 has plenty of patches that lean heavily upon the Super Knob to modify the sound. One of my favourite- used in Space Adventure- builds up from mellow choral ah’s to strings, to thunderously loud church organs. A harmonious range of sounds that let you improvise an evolving film-score like melody. With a pedal you can be sweeping from the soft mellow sounds to the cacophony of organ pipes without ever lifting a finger off the keyboard.

Disappointingly there’s not much else in the way of parameter control on the MODX8. It’s not a synth and doesn’t try to be one. You’ll find cut-off and resonance on two of the four smaller knobs, but these are modal – serving to control a variety of other parameters – rather than dedicated. This is perhaps a saving grace because FM Synthesis doesn’t exactly lend itself well to exploratory fiddling. The design of which is inexorably complex and frustratingly unintuitive.

There’s also no real analog synthesis. There are passable sampled analog synths, and I can use parameter automation to add a gentle variance to pitch. But the simple elegance of mixing and filtering basic oscillators to create a sound is sadly absent here.

The four sliders are great for building up a simple performance of four instruments and fading in-out the ones you want to use, independent of any Super Knob based sound. I’ve had great fun putting together some simple performances to recapture classic synth/string combinations such as those in Mark Snow’s Base Camp (from the 1994 X Files Episode: Firewalker) and Moby’s The Sky Is Broken (also featured in X Files).

The truth is, though, I will never do more than scratch the very surface of the MODX. I enjoy an instrument with a wide variety of sounds that I can improvise with as the mood takes me, but beyond some very simple combinations of sounds and some failed attempts at teasing desirable results out of the FM engine the vast, vast majority of its features remain buried, just under the surface, behind layers of menus I can’t hope to unpick. But that’s fine, I still thoroughly enjoy playing the instrument and using the features I can surmount.

Monday, June 26th, 2023, Blog.