Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Yamaha VSS-200

Let me start by taking you back, way back, to the beginning of my synthesizing career. As a child I was given a Yamaha VSS-200 sampling keyboard - one of the fantastic but basic PortaSound range. I loved it, it was new and exciting. The onboard sounds are generated using FM synthesis, the same method used by the Yamaha DX7 and it's successors, although this little synth sounds nothing like it's big brothers. It lacks any form of FM programming, the patches are badly written and there's not even a sniff of MIDI.
I didn't care about realism though, I wanted weird sound effects and harsh buzzing sounds. I didn't care that the keys were the size of matchsticks, or that the internal speakers were tinny and harsh. What impressed me the most about this tiny little thing was that if you pressed a little red button near the top, you could record a snippet of sound using the attached microphone. You could then apply a whole host of effects to it and play it back using the keyboard. The overwrite function was useful too, I spent hours as a child making formula 1 noises into the mic and creating layers of sound. Ah happy days...

Sadly, while moving back from South Africa to the UK, my beloved VSS was broken. I was gutted, nothing could replace it. The sampling feature alone seemed to be unique to it (not a single one of the Yamaha keyboards I came across while looking for a replacement had the feature, and the Casio SK1 was unknown to me).

Years later I was online and I stumbled across a familiar looking keyboard. Someone had circuit-bent a VSS-200 and were selling it on ebay for £70. I was ecstatic, i finally knew what i was looking for. Every so often I checked eBay but nothing came up. Eventually I found an advert in a local newspaper for one and responded quickly. My second VSS wasn't in great nick, the speakers didn't work, there was a broken key and some of the buttons didn't work. After a bit of cleaning and soldering though, it emerged almost as good as new.

About a week later I was trawling eBay and I found another VSS, also not working. I bought it, and upon getting it home I discovered that all it needed was to have the speakers re-soldered to the main board. This one was in even better condition. The keys were whiter and intact, the speakers sounded fresher, the buttons didn't stick and the microphone sounded less fuzzy.

I have them both, and I have gigged with them both at one time or another, just to prove they were up to it I suppose. One of them became somewhat well known when I sampled my lecturer's voice and played tunes with it.

So there you have it! While it's not the most technically advanced synthesizer/sampler out there (1.9 seconds of 8-bit audio is hardly luxury), the VSS-200 will always be special to me. It's the keyboard I first began to learn on, and it's unique sampling capabilities even have their uses today, 21 years after it was first released.

Just a quick note, I wrote the VSS-200's Wikipedia article, which can be found HERE
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  1. I've never heard of a Yamaha VSS200 however i make music and i'm always looking for things that make sound.
    Today i seen a VSS200 at a car boot sale in its original box great condition so i bought it for £5 , bargin indeed.

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