With the help of its new, $500 Sonogenic SHS-500 keytar, Yamaha is trying spread that fun around. For better or worse, the company is pitching it as a musical instrument for people who want to sound like serious musicians without actually having to practice for a few years first.
To be clear, the Sonogenic will do in a pinch for gigs or more-serious work: It's lightweight and comfortable to wear, and its 37 keys felt easy enough to work with. There's no shortage of controls here either. Its neck is laden with familiar controls for pitch bending and octave shifting, and a trio of dials and sliders to the right of the keyboard itself offer quick access to crucial effects.
You'll also find 30 piano and synth voices (plus a couple drum-kit options) to muck around with, and beyond that, the Sonogenic is meant to work just fine as a MIDI audio controller once it's hooked up to your DAW of choice. All told, it's a decently flexible little synth, even if it lacks the sort of flexibility and panache that other options might offer.
Of course, if you're the kind of player who gets a little tetchy about flexibility, this thing isn't really meant for you. Yamaha is pushing the Sonogenic as a party trick of sorts for teenagers and millennials to turn to when they want to just start playing.
All the heavy lifting is handled by Yamaha's clever companion app, which taps into your phone or tablet's existing music library and tries to scan your chosen tracks to generate the right chord progressions. Curiously, all of this happens on the fly: There's no Yamaha database to pull these chord progressions from once the app identifies the song, so it's possible (if unlikely) that the app doesn't get things exactly right. In any case, once the app figures out what you're trying to play, it sends that series of chords to the Sonogenic via Bluetooth and offers cues on the connected screen when it's time to jam.
Now, I'm not much of a musician, and I said as much to the Yamaha rep who gave me a Sonogenic to go hands-on with. My sense of rhythm, in particular, is garbage. Could this Jam mode help me feel like a professional musician? Well, yes and no.