Twin Peaks Theme
For me, the Twin Peaks theme’s soft electric piano sound encapsulates the DX7’s classic sound. The patch in the theme is the DX’s most famous sound: the E.Piano 1 preset, which is factory preset 11. The synthesizer player for the shows soundtrack, Kinny Landrum, confirmed in a reddit AMA that “a Yamaha DX-7 and TX-7 were used for all the electric piano sounds.“, with additional synths used including the Roland MKS-70 and D-550 for strings, and a Linn 9000 for drums. The velocity sensitivity of the patch allows it be expressive, similar to a real electric piano. Learn more about the synths of Lynch’s surreal masterpiece by checking out Reverb.com’s videos, The Synth Sounds of Twin Peaks.
Whitney Houston Ballads
The DX7’s electric piano sound is heavily associated with 80s ballads, in part because of a slew of Whitney Houston ballads that used the E.Piano 1 patch. There is some debate as to which songs were DX7, modified Fender Rhodes, or layering of the two, but some songs to check out are and I Have Nothing, Greatest Love of All and Saving All My Love for You. Because of the popularity of the patch in the 80s, virtually every digital synth that came after the DX7 featured some sparkling electric piano preset that emulates this famous sound. Arturia DX7 V has a nice, FX processed patch called RoadsForMe that nails the sound. Use it sparingly!
Dire, Dire DX7
The DX7 EP sound even makes an appearance in the Nintendo 64 classic, Super Mario 64 . The soundtrack was composed by Koji Kondo, and the water level theme Dire, Dire Docks sounds like a souped up version of the DX7’s electric piano. The basis of the patch is similar to the E. Piano 1, with some subtle changes to the operators to make it sound even brighter. There is also chorus, delay and reverb effects to give it that wet sound. The patch appears in the Arturia DX7 V factory presets, called Dire Dreams, although the envelope decay time needs lengthening to sound like the original patch.
Take on Me
The DX7 wasn’t just a one-trick-pony, it could also produce fat, complex bass sounds. The FM basses sound more like a bass guitar than the growling analog synth basses produced by the subtractive synths before it. The slap bass sound in a-ha’s Take on Me is the DX7’s 15-Bass 1 patch run through a chorus effect. DX7 V’s onboard Analog Chorus effect sounds great, just be sure to take the width down to preserve the track’s mono power.
The Take on Me lead sound is a DX7 doubled with a Roland Juno-60, with the Juno providing the bulk of the sound and DX adding some percussive clarity to the recording. The DX7 patch is 02 Syn-Lead 3, and I used TAL U-NO-LX to recreate the Juno synth part. To learn more about Take on Me‘s troubled recording, check out Sound on Sound’s Classic Tracks article.
Take My Breath Away
Take My Breath Away features another classic DX bass sound, this time the patch 16 Bass 2. The song was written by Italian disco legend Giorgio Moroder, and collaborator Arthur Barrow recorded the synth parts, with the bass track being unmistakably DX7. The song actually seems to have influenced Julee Cruise’s Falling from the previously mentioned Twin Peaks. The song was written for the film Top Gun, which also featured another classic DX7 song: Danger Zone, which makes use of the DX7’s slap bass patch.
What’s Love Got to Do With It
Tina Turner’s producer seriously loves the DX7, at least he did when recording 1984’s What’s Love Got to Do With It. The synth had only been out for a year at that point, but it ended up being used for the flute, electric piano, bass and harmonica tracks. The opening flute sound is the patch 20-Caliope, which uses uneven ratios to achieve its complex sound. The bass guitar is the 15-Bass 1 patch again, and the harmonica part that plays during the pre-chorus sounds like a modified 24-Flute 1 patch. There is also some sparing use of the electric piano patch before the chorus. To read more about the recording, check out the Sound on Sound article.
Queen guitarist Brian May was also a fan of the DX7, which he used for its orchestral capabilities, such as the patch 14-SYN-ORCH for the intro of Who Wants to Live Forever. The SYN-ORCH patch uses algorithm 25, which has five operators set to carriers. These carriers are all tuned to different ratios, and this is what gives the patch its epic quality. The intro of One Vision also sounds like it could be the patch 04-STRINGS 1. May also used the DX7 for live performances, and can be seen playing it in their Wembley 1986 live video.
Brian Eno is one of the rare masters of the DX7. Instead of using the DX7 as a preset machine, he actually used it how Yamaha intended people to use it: to develop never before heard sounds. The DX7 quickly became Eno’s main synth, and at one point he owned seven of them. The DX7 can be heard on his ambient album, Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, which actually came out the same year as the DX7. Much of Eno’s sound comes from his processing of recordings, with Eno saying that recording Apollo involved “so many processings and reprocessings – it’s a bit like making soup from the leftovers of the day before, which in turn was made from leftovers…“, so obviously the dry sounds from DX7’s output aren’t as you’ll hear in the album. Eno’s methods involve tape manipulation, reversing and slowing down recordings to generate new ones. He identified strongly with the DX7, and it became his main synth for over a decade, allowing him to explore programming possibilities in a way he couldn’t with other synths.
U2’s The Joshua Tree was produced by Eno in 1987, and he is specifically credited with DX7 programming. The ambient organ introduction to album opener Where the Streets Have No Name certainly has a DX flavour to it, and Eno would’ve been using it heavily at that time, so it’s a fair guess that that sound is a DX processed with lots of the shimmer reverb that is his and co-producer Daniel Lanois’ signature. For the below video, I used the fantastic ValhallaDSP Valhalla Shimmer software reverb, which emulates the pairs reverb sound.
“Brian has some very good sounds in his machine. He spent about a year just working on sounds. On top of that, we put all the DX7 sounds through a Mesa Boogie, including the sequences.” – Daniel Lanois
Eno loved the DX7 so much he even shared some of his favourite patches with Keyboard Magazine in 1987, in the form of parameter instruction for recreating the patches. The magazine shared four patches, called Kalimba 2, Tamboura, Glide and Violin 3. I’ve recreated the patches in Arturia DX7 V, with some use of the onboard effects to bring the patches to life, and you can download them below. I used edited versions of the Glider patch for the An Ascent cover and the Arturia factory preset Ice Organ for the U2 Where the Streets Have No Name cover.
“The reason I love the DX7 so much is because it teaches me so much about sound. Compared to samplers for example, it is a new concept in sound-making. Samplers are fine and dandy, but not conceptually different from a tape recorder or a Mellotron. The DX7, on the other hand, is a cute new way of generating sound.” – Brian Eno
Toro y Moi’s DX7
Toro y Moi crafted many of the sounds for his 2017 album Boo Boo on a Yamaha DX7s, and said about it in an interview: “I recently got this Yamaha DX7s synth. It’s awesome. I’m using that on everything right now.” You can read more about it in my Reverb.com article, Recreating Toro y Moi’s Synths with Software Instruments, where I look at a few of his songs, and how they can be played in Arturia DX7 V.
Versace on the Floor
The DX7’s electric piano sound made a comeback in 2017 when it was prominently used in the Bruno Mars track Versace on the Floor. The song is an obvious nod to the R&B of the 80s, and the DX7’s use to conjure that era is no accident. The synth player on the song was Greg Phillinganes, a prolific session keyboard player who recorded some of the Michael Jackson classics, and he actually used to use a DX7 when playing live shows for MJ! You can hear the velocity sensitivity at work, where softer playing sounds more like a dull Rhodes piano, but harder playing sounds more bell-like. You can also add chorus to bring this sound to life – I used Ableton’s Chorus with the mix set to 25%.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading! Every variant of a DX synth will have access to the same classic factory patches, so don’t feel like you need to use the same software plugin that I did to play these patches. Because DX7 patches are digital, they need a little more effects to really come to life, so experiment with chorus, delay and reverb to get whichever synth or plugin to sound as good as possible. If you have any more recommendations for more DX7 songs that aren’t in the playlist, let me know in them comments!
- Read The Manual
- Yamaha DX7 Soundbanks
- DEXED – free plugin synth & librarian for patches
- More manuals, more SYSEX files