Yamaha scored a big success with their famously blue, knob-endowed CS1x Performance synth, and now they seek to build on this with the silvery-grey CS2x -- but does the 1-digit increment and change of colour scheme constitute revolution or evolution? CS1x owner Nick Rowland finds out.
The CS1x Performance Synth (see review in SOS August '96) has been a big hit for Yamaha, and it's not hard to understand why. It looks cool, it's fun to play, cheap for a properly programmable synth (and easy to program, at that) -- all in all, it's a great entry-level product for the musician/programmer. Clearly keen to build on a winning formula, Yamaha now bring us the CS2x, which essentially continues along the road of the original concept.
The CS1x is affectionately known to its many supporters as Big Blue (on account of its colour), so I'll be interested to see what nickname the Mark Two version acquires [Similarly-Sized Silver? -- Spectral Ed]. As you can see, the CS2x shares the case design of its forebear, but it's been transformed by a silvery-grey paint job, with the only concessions to blueness lying in the front-panel graphics and the jelly-plastic knobs. Hmmm... I have to say the style jury's still out on whether or not this is an aesthetic improvement.
However, never judge a synth by the colour of its casing, as they say, because under the hood, the CS2x is different. First, the CS2x's waveform ROM has been upped to 16Mb (the CS1x had 4.5Mb), giving it a total of 779 sounds and 30 drum kits. Like those of its predecessor, all the CS2x's sounds are based on Yamaha's tried and trusted AWM2 technology -- essentially a form of sample and synthesis (S&S). The majority of the sounds come from Yamaha's standard XG soundset, but like the CS1x, the CS2x has separate banks of AWM2 samples which are used to make up the analogue-style, techno-ish, more contemporary sounds known as Performances. There are 256 Performances, which are organised into two preset banks of 128 sounds, then duplicated in two user banks. The user banks can be overwritten with your own variations and, as we'll see later, you can also load CS1x sounds in to them. To make the most of all this sonic potential, polyphony is now a very respectable 64 notes. The (already extensive) menu of arpeggiator patterns has been expanded and, best of all, the arpeggiator now outputs its information over MIDI. The effects section has also been upgraded both in size and quality to give a total of 88 effects, which are all fully editable. And last but not least, the CS2x offers more in the way of hands-on tweakability, having become the proud owner of a high-pass filter (like its virtual analogue cousin, the AN1x) which is combined with the original low-pass filter of four-pole, 24dB/oct design.
YAMAHA CS2X £599
Expanded real-time control.
Arpeggios now sent over MIDI.
Excellent presets and effects.
Still good value, though facing increasing competition.
Still not convinced by the MIDI implementation.
No user-definable arpeggios.
No aftertouch on keyboard.
Silver paint job looks vulnerable to scratching.
Not quite the radical step forward it could have been, but this synth still packs enough punches to make it an excellent choice for a starter synthesizer. And CS1x fans will enjoy thinking of a new name for it.
Otherwise, the CS2x retains the layout of the CS1x, both physically and in terms of how the sounds are organised and programmed (more on this in a moment). No surprise, then, that there are, um, no real surprises in the hole and socket department. Round the back, you'll find outputs for headphones, plus Left/Mono and Right outputs and inputs for Foot Volume, Foot Controller and Foot Switch. There's also a stereo audio input, although sadly this is just a way of mixing another instrument through the CS2x in case you're short of mixer channels, rather than, say, allowing you to route external signals to the CS2x's effects banks or through its filter. Interfacing duties are handled by MIDI In, Out and Thru, and there's also a useful To Host port for direct connection to a Mac or PC. Incidentally, drivers for this are free to download from the XG software page on the Yamaha web site. Power is via a 9V DC external transformer -- usual SOS gruntings about warty adaptors apply!
A final hardware-related point is that the 61-note velocity-sensitive keyboard actually feels much more responsive to play than my CS1x, though this could be just the difference between an instrument that has been much played and another that is fresh from the factory. Surprisingly, there's still no aftertouch (although the synth responds to it via MIDI); I would have thought Yamaha would take the opportunity to implement this.
Like the CS1x, the CS2x operates in two modes. These are officially labelled by Yamaha as Performance and Multi Play, though as a long-time CS1x user, I'd more accurately describe them as Interesting and Boring. In boring Multi Play mode, the CS2x acts like a straightforward multitimbral GM/XG (General MIDI/Extended General MIDI) synthesizer. So you'll find the usual suspects of pianos, guitars, strings and Of course, the CS2x's backwards compatibility also means that new users can immediately benefit from the many CS1x sounds and utilities that are already kicking around the Internet, both from the Yamaha web site and third-party sites linked to it.
When I'm Feeling Blue -- CS1x & CS2x Together
Probably the best news of all for the die-hard Big Blue fans is that the CS2x is fully SysEx compatible with the CS1x. This means that CS1x owners interested in 'upgrading' to the latest model (like me, in fact) can port all their favourite presets and their variations over to their new machine. Note, though, that some of the wave ROM data in the CS2x is not quite the same, so you might have to massage some of the sounds to get an exact replica of the CS1x version. But having tried it out with a couple of CS1x soundbanks, I can assure you that we're not talking radical differences here.
Of course, the CS2x's backwards compatibility also means that new users can immediately benefit from the many CS1x sounds and utilities that are already kicking around the Internet, both from the Yamaha web site and third-party sites linked to it.
But as CS1x aficionados know, Performance mode is where the real fun begins. To recap slightly, a Performance is a configuration of up to four sounds (known as Layers) which can be stacked and/or split across the keyboard, plus all the associated arpeggiator, effects assignments/levels and other settings. It's in Performance mode where you get official access to the more exciting AWM2 waveforms along with the wherewithal for programming the synth engine. This is achieved via the easy-to-use front-panel matrix system of squidgy rubber 'rocker' buttons which are used to select and then increment/decrement the various parameters and functions. In Performance mode, too, you have access to all the on-the-fly sound shaping offered by the eight control knobs. As with the CS1x, you can take a snapshot of the knob settings (known as a Scene) and save up to two of them as part of the voice. The Scenes are then available for instant recall by hitting either of the two buttons just below the master Volume knob. Hit them both and you'll then be able to use the Modulation wheel or a foot controller to morph between them.
Of course, the first thing any potential CS2x owner is going to do is run through the Performance patches to see what it sounds like. And existing CS1x owners will no doubt also be interested to see what's old, what's new and what's been borrowed from Big Blue. In fact, apart from the drum kits and a couple of synth sounds, the CS2x Performance presets are completely different. They're not merely reprogrammed
16Mb waveform ROM.
779 total voices (584 GM/XG
voices, plus 20 GM/XG drum
256 preset performances,
plus 256 user performance
Three 24-bit effects processors
(12 reverb, 14 chorus and 62
Arpeggiator with 40 styles
(ouput via MIDI).
Real-time sound control knobs
and two Scene memories.
16-part multitimbrality in Multi
Mode, 13 part in Performance
Built-in PC/Mac computer
I've lost track of what's supposed to be 'cutting-edge' these days, but if you're looking for big, bold and brassy synth voices you'll find plenty of them here. There are imitations of analogue-style sounds, including the ubiquitous TB303 emulations and Moog lead and bass sounds, coupled with organic, sweeping pad sounds that twist, turn and morph in interesting ways. There are also some good spiky digital-sounding synth patches too. Collectively, they show just how versatile this synth can be -- it's not just about instant gratification for groove merchants.
Interestingly, while the CS1x was noteworthy for its excellent imitations of analogue and digital synths, where the CS2x really surprises is in its imitation of acoustic instruments. For example, there are half-a-dozen brilliant piano patches, including the superb Concert and the atmospheric LoFI piano, the latter sounding like it's been recorded in the depths of a Chicago jazz club. Another favourite was the Mr Mute trumpet and Vibe-izm which combines a sparkling vibraphone sound and a jazz-style acoustic bass mixed with a ride cymbal sound. However, I was less impressed by patches like TechFX -- a collection of cliché rap vocals.
My impression is that overall the CS2x sounds much cleaner and brighter than my CS1x -- a view which was shared by another CS1x user who dropped in to try out the new version. This may be explained by the fact that some of the sounds are derived from Yamaha's flagship EX5 series (see review in SOS May '98). It may also be connected to the fact that the CS2x's effects section has been uprated to 24-bit. Which brings me neatly to...
There are three effects blocks: Reverb with 12 variations, Chorus with 14 and Variation with 42. Reverb and Chorus are always system effects, which means the same one has to be used for all the sounds, globally if you like. But Variation can be designated as an insert effect, which allows you to dedicate it to just one part. When using the CS2x multitimbrally in Performance mode, this means you can apply a variation to one or more of the four layers of a Performance, while Reverb and Chorus are applied to other tracks.
The augmented line-up of variation effects provides a lot of scope for creative sound manipulation. New on the (effects) block are various wah-wah-based effects, two pitch-shifters, a harmonic enhancer, compressor (with or without distortion), noise gate and voice canceller.
As I mentioned earlier, the already excellent arpeggiator section has been expanded, though some might still wish that you could create and record your own arpeggio patterns. New additions include Hardcore, a gritty monophonic acid-style pattern which sounds great with analogue-style basses, and X-Sweep, a duophonic pattern which has two arpeggios moving in opposite directions. Tempos can be set between 1 and 240bpm or sync'ed to MIDI, and there are nine different time divisions ranging from dotted quarter notes (3/8) to 32nd notes. The arpeggiator can also have its active range set to cover the entire keyboard or It was always disappointing that you could only access one Performance sound at once and I was hoping that Yamaha might have fixed this with the CS2x, perhaps by giving us the ability to use up to four performance voices at a time (allowing, say, four MIDI channels for each). This is sadly not the case, although you can use a sequencer and a bit of MIDI trickery to access the Performance waveforms in place of the standard XG voices on channels 5 to 16. It doesn't give much away in the manual, but the references to XGworks indicate that it might be covered in the manual for that product. Naturally, because the tones on channels 5-16 are treated as XG voices, you lose the ability to program them in any great detail from the CS2x itself.
MIDI & Multitimbrality
The CS2x retains the slightly quirky approach to MIDI and multitimbral mode of its predecessor. Basically, the Performance voices take up the first four MIDI channels (though you only use one of these to actually access the performance voice) while channels 5 to 16 are used for XG voices. Hence, if you want to use a Performance patch, the maximum multitimbrality on offer is 13 parts.
It was always disappointing that you could only access one Performance sound at once and I was hoping that Yamaha might have fixed this with the CS2x, perhaps by giving us the ability to use up to four performance voices at a time (allowing, say, four MIDI channels for each).
This is sadly not the case, although you can use a sequencer and a bit of MIDI trickery to access the Performance waveforms in place of the standard XG voices on channels 5 to 16. It doesn't give much away in the manual, but the references to XGworks indicate that it might be covered in the manual for that product. Naturally, because the tones on channels 5-16 are treated as XG voices, you lose the ability to program them in any great detail from the CS2x itself.
As you've probably gathered, the CS2x is an exercise in evolution, not revolution. The message to current owners is: if you like the CS1x, then you'll certainly appreciate what the CS2x now has to offer by way of extra features. Firstly, it sounds much better (and the keyboard also feels much better to play too). And with the expanded control section you can do more to shape the voices in real time. This was always a strength of the CS1x, and it's even better here. The fact that you can load in the CS1x sounds (see the 'Feeling Blue' box) is also a real boon. Of course, Yamaha might have gone even further -- aftertouch is still lacking, and the synth could also have benefited from a proper Performance multitimbral mode that allowed you to use several Performances at once, even if this meant limiting the number of parts to (say) four.
When the CS1x was launched, there was simply nothing to touch it at the price, particularly if you wanted to get into analogue sounds on a budget. Three years on, the CS2x has been born into a much more competitive world, thanks to the plethora of dance and groove-style products aimed (allegedly) at DJs and other 'non-musicians'. Compared to some of these products, potential purchasers might feel the CS2x doesn't really cut it. For example, there are no onboard rhythm loops or funky features like sampling, D-beams and vocoding. I suspect those looking for instant groove-ification will be tempted elsewhere.
But despite Yamaha's own description of the CS2x (and I quote -- "this dauntless DJ device", "the ideal choice for dance DJs, rhythm and rhyme MCs...") it's not actually in the same camp. The CS2x is more suited to musicians/programmers -- hey, even people who play in bands -- than would-be DJs. It remains an excellent choice for someone who needs instantly usable sounds that can be quickly customised through real-time controllers (knobs to you, mate), but which can also be programmed in greater depth. And with the new sounds, it's a much more versatile instrument for different types of music than its predecessor.