Yamaha SHS-200 Digital FM Keyboard - "Sholky II"
There's nothing quite like the simple & gritty sound of 2-OP FM synthesis. The Yamaha SHS-200, one of the first consumer grade keytars, is a great example of a 2-OP synth with no shortage of kitschy FM sounds to fiddle around with. It contains the Yamaha YM2413 (OPLL), a two-operator FM synthesis chip with 6 voice polyphony. This fun little keytar was my gateway drug into the world of MIDI and FM synthesis and I haven't looked back since! Here's a word on this cool FM synth from the late 80's.
Perhaps the greatest thing about the SHS-200 (called the Sholky II in Japan) is the way it looks. Its sleek white casing and colorful rubber buttons give it a distinct look that few contemporary consumer grade keybords could match. Its appearance rides the line between a charming toy and a robust instrument plucked straight from the future. Admittedly, it's nowhere near the build quality of a even a semi-professional synth - its tinny speakers, tiny keys, gummy action, and plastic construction makes it feel all-around cheap. What it lacks in polish, however, it makes up for with its MIDI capabilities. Unlike its big brother (the Yamaha SHS-10, pictured below), the Sholky II sported a 5-pin MIDI out, which opened up a world of possibilities for hobbyists and professionals alike.
Yamaha SHS-10 (Sholky I), the precursor to the SHS-200.
The SHS-200's MIDI out is capable of controlling virtually any instrument that will accept a MIDI signal. The keyboard does not send velocity or aftertouch messages; however, there is a pitch wheel at the top left of the keyboard, as well as buttons for modulation and sustain. The modulation button, which is labeled "vibrato" on the keyboard, has 5 levels of modulation that can be chosen by the user. There is also a "portamento" button which causes notes to slide between eachother when played, but as far as I know, this doesn't affect external midi equipment unless said equipment can interpret Yamaha's proprietary system messages. These three buttons, labeled the "effect" buttons on the keyboard, can easily be controlled with the left hand when the keytar is strapped to the player. This entry-level set of midi controls is just enough to make the SHS-200 a simple yet comprehensive MIDI controller, hence its popularity among musicians seeking a affordable keytar.
The 49 sounds (or "voices") on the keyboard involve a bit of trickery, since the OPLL chip only contains 15 preset voices and one user defined voice. Upon perusing the many voices on the SHS-200, it seems as if most of the voices are copies of the base 15 with slightly altered filters or ADSR envelopes. Despite this, the SHS-200's voices are far from bad. There's enough variety to appease any musician, and one could sit there for a good while just playing with the different voices. They're undeniably very simple tones, but charming and enjoyable nonetheless.
The SHS-200 also includes 49 rhythms/accompaniments (which are referred to as "styles"), as well as a simple chord sequencer. There are 6 buttons along the top of the keyboard designated for either built-in or user defined chord sequences, which can be saved in memory. The Sholky II is not capable of recording custom melodies or rhythms, as the chord sequences are based on the onboard accompaniments. One of the onboard sequences is a lightweight rendition of Wham!'s "Last Christmas", which is incidentally the SHS-10's demo song.
The SHS-200's own demo song is by far my favorite demo of all time. It perfectly demonstrates what the OPLL chip is capable of when pushed to its limits. The jazz fusion feel of the song is impeccable and emanates a distinct retro style without sounding dated or shoddy. This track is the definition of audible crack - highly addictive, 100% uncut FM goodness, guaranteed to put the listener into complete euphoria. I wasn't kidding when I said the SHS-200 is a gateway drug - just look at me! I'm a regular FM junkie and my wallet is in a state of perpetual emptiness because I can't kick the addiction.