The Gear of Yellow Magic Orchestra

Yellow Magic Orchestra (1980). Photo by: Fin Costello / Staff, Getty Images.

Yellow Magic Orchestra—the Japanese trio of Ryuichi Sakamoto, Haruomi Hosono, and Yukihiro Takahashi—is one of the pioneers of electronic dance music, alongside their contemporaries like Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder. The Tokyo-based group used synthesizers, drum machines, and other electronic hardware to create a body of work that is still lauded to this day for its combination of catchy melodies, tight rhythms, and experimental drive.

What is less talked about, however, is the gear they used and, specifically, how they put it all together to create a music that few had attempted before.

The history of the band's gear-use is also a history of the development of synthesizers and other electronic instruments. The band's first vital period of work spanned the late 1970s, when American companies dominated synth manufacturing, through the 1980s, with the rise of Japanese companies like Korg and Roland. But the band's story also brings in new developments in digital sampling, types of synthesis, and music recording.

Right on the cutting edge (and often even out in front of it), YMO were never shy to embrace new technologies, and this informed their musical output.

Let's take a look at the history of the band through their gear.

Pre-Formation (1977-1978)

Haruomi Hosono and The Yellow Magic Band - "Tokio Rush"

The YMO story starts with Haruomi Hosono. By the late 1970s, Hosono had already been active in the Japanese music scene for a decade, having played in rock bands Apryl Fool and the very successful Happy End and was then in the midst of a solo career, releasing a string of quirky albums that indulged his passion for Tin Pan Alley and exotica, the post-World War musical genre popular in the United States that substituted the reality of Pacific locales for an imagined tropical island life. It was the latter that would lead to the formation of Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Yamaha CS-80
Yamaha CS-80. Photo by Syntaur.

Paraiso, released in the spring of 1978, saw Hosono getting deep into Hawaiian and Okinawan-flavored exotica. To bring his vision to life, he needed some session musicians, and so he called in drummer Yukihiro Takahashi, formerly of the Sadistic Mika Band, who had toured the UK with Roxy Music. Also making the session scene at the time was university student Ryuichi Sakamoto, who came on board for a few songs.

While not a strictly electronic affair, the album does use an ARP Odyssey (a firm future YMO favorite) and the then-cutting-edge (and still pretty mind-blowing) Yamaha CS-80. Hosono dubbed his backing group the Yellow Magic Band and the seeds were sown for future greatness. The three would work again on Hosono's Pacific (also 1978), which featured an early version of "Cosmic Surfin'," later re-recorded for YMO's self-titled debut.

Thousand Knives (1978)

Yellow Magic Orchestra - "Thousand Knives," live 1979

Released only a month before the YMO debut, Ryuichi Sakamoto's own debut solo album, Thousand Knives, is worth a mention as it features quite a few of the same pieces of gear—as well as the playing techniques—that would be heard on YMO's inaugural release.

Teetering on the line between avant-garde and pop, Thousand Knives features three songs later redone by YMO in various ways: "Plastic Bamboo," "The End Of Asia," and the title track, which would eventually feature prominently on 1981's BGM. The complexity of the harmonies on the record earned Sakamoto the nickname of Professor.

Thousand Knives the album featured a number of the top synthesizers of the day: Moog Minimoog and Micromoog, Korg VC-10 Vocoder and SQ-10 sequencer, and Pollard Syndrum.

Korg PS-3100
Korg PS-3100. Photo by Junkie XL Reverb Shop.

Although polyphonic synths were still in their infancy, the album features two, an Oberheim Eight Voice (soon to be a staple of their live show) and a Korg PS-3100, a fully polyphonic and accordingly bank-breaking synth.

The album is also notable for the appearance of programmer Hideki Matsutake, who would come to be known as the unofficial fourth member of YMO. A former apprentice of Moog modular master Isao Tomita, he was brought in to play his Moog IIIc and program the Roland MC-8 sequencer.

Released in 1977, the MC-8 was the first microprocessor-controlled CV/gate sequencer and a huge step up from the eight and 16-note step sequencers available at the time. It had eight CV/gate outputs for note and filter control and was even capable of polyphonic sequencing.

Roland MC-8 Microcomposer
Roland MC-8 Microcomposer. Photo by Mafer's Gear Depot.

"I used to know Ikutaro Kakehashi, who is the developer and founder of Roland," Matsutake told the website Stereoklang. "So I… purchased [an MC-8] on the day of public commercial launch at an ordinary music instrument shop. At that time I could not play a keyboard so I had been looking for something to replace it. The MC-8 was exactly such an automated instrument. It created the sound of the future."

Notes could ostensibly be played in live but this was apparently difficult to achieve so most users—including Matsutake—input note information in the form of numerical data via an adding machine-like keypad. For each note, the machine required a number to indicate note position on the keyboard as well as timing and gate length.

"I don't think you need a good mathematical brain [to use the MC-8]," he explained in an interview with Electricity Club. "Maybe some rudimentary arithmetic helps—addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. You need to be able to work these out quickly. Plus, touch-typing skills are vital. Remember, you need to enter three parameters to program a single note so you've got to be quick yet accurate. I practiced a lot."

The MC-8 would be a major contributor to the future sound of Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Yellow Magic Orchestra (1978)

Yellow Magic Orchestra - "Firecracker," performed on Soul Train in 1980

Hosono convinced Sakamoto and Takahashi to join him, and Yellow Magic Orchestra was born. Their first hit, a cover of Martin Denny's "Firecracker" and an extension of the exotica sound that Hosono explored on Paraiso and Pacific, set the tone for their self-titled debut album: largely instrumental electronic music informed as much by Kraftwerk as by traditional Asian-style melodies.

Their rhythmic power came from two sources: the drumming of Yukihiro Takahashi, and the MC-8 programming of Hideki Matsutake, now firmly ensconced in the studio with the band. Takahashi used regular drums and augmented them with a Pollard Syndrum Quad, playing to a click track provided by the MC-8. This would be at the heart of their sound until the TR-808 arrived in 1980. The rhythmic combination of tight yet funky resulted in "Firecracker" getting plays by hip-hop DJs like Afrika Bambaataa and helped the album climb into the Billboard Top 200 and R&B Album charts.

As with Thousand Knives, Yellow Magic Orchestra again featured the Korg PS-3100 and VC-10 vocoder, ARP Odyssey and Minimoog, and Oberheim Eight Voice. The CS-80 was replaced by a Moog Polymoog. Given that Sakamoto used the Polypedal controller on their first world tour, we can probably assume he also employed it for the album.

Live At Greek Theater (Recorded 1979)

A guided tour (in Japanese) of Yellow Magic Orchestra's stage rig at the Tokyo International Exhibition Center.

To capitalize on their growing popularity, the band embarked on a world tour that saw them play at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. The performance was recorded and later released on video and DVD, and on various albums. In 2014, the entire stage rig was recreated at the Tokyo International Exhibition Center. Here is a breakdown of the gear they had on stage with them at the time according to the exhibition.

Facing the stage, at the front left was Sakamoto and his keyboards, which included a Roland VP-330 Vocoder Plus and Polymoog and Polypedal controller. On top of the Polymoog were two ARP Odysseys, one Revision 2 and one Revision 3. He also had a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5. Behind him in his effects rack, a Yamaha Analog Delay E1010 is clearly visible. He also had a Roland RE-201 Space Echo and Dimension D SDD-320 chorus rack, and an MXR Stereo Chorus.

ULT-Sound DS-4
ULT-Sound DS-4. Photo by Master-FX

To the right of Sakamoto was Takahashi, playing a drum kit consisting of a Pollard Syndrum Quad and ULT-Sound DS-4, along with traditional acoustic drums.

On the front right was Hosono, playing a Music Man bass guitar and an ARP Odyssey revision 2 for synth basslines.

Live, YMO filled out their sound with additional musicians. On this tour, this included Kazumi Watanabe on guitar, Akiko Yano on Prophet-5 and Oberheim Eight Voice, and the ever-present Hideki Matsutake, whose station was dominated by his towering Moog IIIc. He also had a Boss DR-55 drum machine, Musitronics Mu-Tron Bi-Phase, Yamaha Analog Delay E1010, Moog Ten Band Graphic Equalizer, and Sequential Circuits Model 700 Programmer, a sequencer with envelope controls made to run ARP and Moog synths.

Additionally, Matsutake was in charge of keeping two Roland MC-8s running and had a stack of cassettes and two cassette players to load songs from, something that didn't always work perfectly. In fact, Roland's engineers were apparently surprised that YMO used MC-8s live, given that they were only designed for studio use.

"You just could not predict what would go wrong," Matsutake told Electricity Club. "Luckily, the MC-8 only stopped twice during live performances. When that happened, everyone in the band knew there was nothing I or anyone could do, so the rest of the musicians went ahead and played without the sequenced parts."

While this setup certainly represented the cream of the crop of electronic instruments at the time, the paucity of Japanese instruments and reliance on American gear is noteworthy. Japan had not yet become the electronic instrument powerhouse it would in the 1980s.

Solid State Survivor (1979)

Yellow Magic Orchestra - "Technopolis"

In 1979, the band returned to the studio to lay down the tracks for their second album, Solid State Survivor. Gone were the exotica and disco sounds, replaced by more up-to-date strains. They had been listening to new wave bands like Devo, and this is apparent on the angular cover of The Beatles' "Day Tripper."

Less is known about the gear used on this album, although Matsutake and his MC-8 were definitely present. The album also featured a Roland VP-330 Vocoder Plus, which can be heard on the opener, "Technopolis" (and on the next album, Multiplies, as well). It's also safe to assume that the band had a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 on hand, given that the band had two in their live rig that year.

BGM (1981)

Yellow Magic Orchestra - "Music Plans"

By their third album, BGM, YMO were firmly way out ahead of everyone else, at least in terms of access to the latest musical technology. The album was recorded on a then-brand-new digital 3M 32-track recorder (which Hosono hated for its brittle sound). The album also featured one of the first recordings of a Roland TR-808. The band had debuted a prototype version of the famous drum machine live in Japan in 1980, thanks no doubt to Matsutake's close association with Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi.

Their venerable MC-8 was replaced by a new Roland MC-4, which Hosono found much easier to program, often doing it himself live with a Prophet-5. While by all accounts more user-friendly than its predecessor, the MC-4, released in 1981, was still rather cryptic compared to modern sequencers (Aphex Twin apparently likened it to "making tracks on a taxi meter"). It also wasn't as robust as the MC-8, with only four sets of CV/gate outputs.

On the back cover of the original vinyl release of BGM, the band printed a huge grocery list of gear, including synthesizers, effects, and even keyboard stands. While often erroneously assumed to be the studio bill for BGM, this is in fact the customs declaration for their second world tour. While much is the same as the kit list for the Greek Theater show, it does have a few notable additions, including more Prophet-5s, a Roland Jupiter-4, and Matsutake's new E-Mu Modular System.

"I purchased an E-Mu Modular System in the autumn of 1980 before the start of the second YMO World Tour," he told Stereoklang. "It was because I needed a new quality of sound that was different from the Moog III. Compared with the thick, soft sounds of the Moog III, the E-Mu Modular System has a distinctive solid and metallic sound. It produced a very good contrast when used together with the Moog III… The design was also futuristic and sophisticated, making me feel excited just by looking at it."

Live, it was used in the intro to Sakamoto's solo cut, "Riot In Lagos," which entered the YMO concert repertoire around that time. It can also be heard on Matsutake's second solo album under the name Logic titled Venus (1981).

Technodelic (1981)

Yellow Magic Orchestra - "Gradated Grey"

While sampling was starting to catch on in the West, thanks to the Fairlight CMI, there was no Japanese equivalent for YMO to experiment with. Yet.

Thanks to their inside connections, the band was able to get ahold of the Toshiba LMD-649, a prototype sampler and reportedly the first 12-bit PCM drum machine/sampler. It's all over Technodelic, the band's follow-up to BGM. It was used in a largely percussive way, likely due to its intended use as a drum machine rather than a chromatic sampler.

Hosono would continue to experiment with sampling, soon buying an E-Mu Emulator and using it on his later solo albums, such as Philharmony (1982).

Although YMO would officially break up in 1983, they would continue to occasionally reform to release new music and tour. Through it all, they stayed up-to-date on the latest musical technology, adopting FM and sample-based synthesis as they came along.

All three members are still active in music, with Sakamoto releasing challenging electronic music and soundtracks (as well as pretty much every other genre imaginable), Takahashi revisiting his past work, and Hosono eventually returning to Tin Pan Alley music.

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