December 6, 2002
Large, diversified Japanese manufacturing company which has been in the synthesizer market since the late 1970s. The company itself originated as a maker of pianos in 1887. (The familiar three-pointed Yamaha logo is actually three tuning forks.) In North America, Yamaha actually became known originally for its motorcycles, in the 1960s. In the '70s, the company made a big push into music gear, introducing new models of guitars, brass instruments, organs, and saxaphones, in addition to synthesizers. The CS line of analog synthesizers attracted some players looking for a different sound; the top-of-the-line CS80 became a favorite of several rock and electronica keyboard players including Garth Hudson, Vangelis, and Eddie Jobson. This despite the fact that it weighed 220 lbs. and was difficult to keep in tune.
However, even as the CS80 was at its apex, the company was already working on a new concept. It had licensed John Chowning's frequency modulation patents in 1973, and it was preparing to unleash a new concept on the synth community -- the DX-7. This synth and its derivatives dominated the market from its introduction in 1983 until about 1990. In the '90s, the company turned to physical modelling, but several innovative products such as the FS1R failed to recapture the market. They also released some products based on vector synthesis (developed with the help of Dave Smith's engineering team, acquired with the purchase of Sequential Circuits in 1987). These sold only modestly well at the time, although they are now gaining some cache in the collector market. Attempts at drum machines and beatboxes also fared only modestly well. Flimsy design and construction in some early '90s products didn't help (its previous products were very solidly built), and attempts to cross over products between the professional synth line and its mass-market home-keyboard line cheapened its reputation somewhat.
Yamaha is notable for having designed and manufactured custom integrated circuits for many of its synths. Yamaha at one time had a rather large custom IC business; many of the designs were intended for Yamaha's rather extensive line of "personal keyboard" instruments; they also designed and sold ICs to third parties for uses such as arcade games and sound cards. The synth lines benefited from Yamaha's ability to use custom ICs to lower the cost of many of its synth. See List of Yamaha custom ICs.
From about 2005 to 2015, Yamaha was mostly absent from the synth market, confining itself ot the Motif line of sample playback workstations. But in 2016 the company began releasing several new lines, including the Montage workstations, which combine the classic FM series with the Motif workstation capabilities, and the Reface series of small, portable synths which revive several of the classic Yamaha synthesis methods.
The company owns Steinberg, the DAW software vendor, and it remains active in some other aspects of the music industry, mostly in studio equipment.