CULT SOUNDS                                                                                   

Development of the Yamaha DX 7 synthesizer and the electric piano patch

The Yamaha DX7 synthesizer and in particular its electric piano sound patches characterize the sound of popular music in the 1980s. The DX7 underlying FM synthesis with its percussive and clear sounds is significant for many songs in this decade. The FM synthesis (frequency modulation) emulates piano-, bass- or bell-like sounds with more authenticity than substractive synthesis. Although subtractive synthesis built the basis for almost all analog synthesizers during the 1970s, it did not offer the possibility to create more complex sound structures. The DX7 indeed came up with a number of admirable sounds, was compact and lightweight, but also had some disadvantages.

The programmability and editing of the DX7 seemed too complicated and user-unfriendly for non-specialized synthesists. Most users only referred to the factory presets, some did not even change them. Sound designers found a commercial niche in programming and selling sounds for the DX7. With the models TX 816 and the DX7 II, different electric piano sounds could be stacked to a full-sounding harmonic background to be heard on many Whitney Houston productions.

This is an overview over the developments of the instrument and its sounds:

Year of manufacture


With over 100.000 instruments sold, the DX7 is the most popular synthesizer ever.


Composer and researcher John M. Chowning worked on the FM synthesis at the end of the 1960s at Stanford University, California. Chowning held the patents for the FM synthesis until 1973, when he sold them to Yamaha. After a longer period of experimenting Yamaha implemented FM in the first instrument, the expensive GS 1 organ. Yamaha only sold a few of these by musicians little noticed instruments and, after this commercial flop, decided to invest in the futuristic, compact and affordable DX7.

Sound design

David Bristow and Gary Leuenberger programmed the original DX7 factory patches.

Peter Gorges and Hubertus Maass programmed many successful sound patches for the german-speaking synthesizer community.

Best-known users

Robbie Buchanan (Whitney Houston)

Stevie Wonder

Brian Eno

Phil Collins


Greg Phillinganes (Michael Jackson)


Donald Fagen

Level 42

Sound synthesis

The DX7 sub-label  “Digital Programmable Algorithm Synthesizer“ seemed to work with the implementation of true FM. In fact, it was not exactly the principle of Chownings FM synthesis, but a very similar synthesis of phase-modulation.

John M. Chowning explains the principles of the Frequency Modulation:

Frequency modulation (FM) is well-understood as applied in radio transmission,  but the relevant  equations have not been applied in any significant way to the generation of audio spectra where  both  the  carrier  and the modulating frequencies are  in 'the  audio  band  and the  side  frequencies  form  the  spectrum  directly.

In FM, the instantaneous  frequency  of  a carrier  wave is varied according to a modulating wave, such  that the rate at which the carrier varies is the frequency of the modulating wave, or modulating frequency.  The  amount the carrier varies around its average, or peak frequency deviation, is proportional to the amplitude  of the modulating wave. The parameters of a frequency-modulated signal  are:

c = carrier frequency or average frequency

m = modulating frequency

d = peak deviation.

Source: The Synthesis of Complex Audio Spectra by Means of Frequency Modulation

Computer Music Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2 (April, 1977), pp. 46-54

Technical data

16-voice polyphony, monotimbral, MIDI, 32 patch storage plus cartridge storage, pitch wheel, modulation wheel, aftertouch, breath control, footcontroller.

Best-known models

DX 7 I

DX 1 and DX 9

TX 1

TX 816 (8 x DX 7 Module)

DX 7 II, 1987, Dual and Split Mode

TX 802, 1987, 16-fach multitimbral

DX 21

DX 27

DX 100

SY 77 and 99

Other instruments using FM

Native Instruments FM7 and FM8 virtual synthesizer

Logic ES2

Rob Papen Blue

Alesis Micron

LinPlug Octopus

ToneBytes FM 4

Tone2 Nemesis

History and development of the DX7 electric piano patch

The original sound demonstration from Yamaha, showing all presets in a musical context