The Yamaha CS80 is one of the most enigmatic synthesizers ever made. Those who experience a brief encounter with this monster often come away babbling about incredible performance controls, bizarre ring‑modulated noises, and a space‑age control panel. They are also quick to mention the CS80's 'weight problem' and its apparent aversion to staying in tune. However, it is precisely this combination of musicality and unreliability that has built up the CS80's reputation as the most formidable analogue dinosaur ever to roam the classified ads jungle.
It seems ironic now, but the CS80 was actually introduced as a more portable version of an even bigger synth, Yamaha's GX1. While famous names like Stevie Wonder and Keith Emerson were happy to stick with this digital mammoth, few people could fork out the £30,000 needed to buy one. The CS80 itself was expensive, coming in at a hefty five grand, but it found wider acceptance among other professional players, most notably Vangelis (who has played the CS80 on all of his albums since 1977), Klaus Schulze, and Eddie Jobson. Luckily for Yamaha, when the CS80 was launched in 1976, Sequential's Prophet V and Moog's Polymoog keyboard were yet to hit the market. However, the annals of history show that it was these two upstarts, along with Oberheim's costly Eight Voice, which prevented the CS80 from becoming the most popular polysynth of the Seventies.
Aside from the competition and its retail price, there are several reasons why the CS80 was never a smash hit. Firstly, the weight. The CS80 weighs an obscene 100kg. Admittedly, this includes the built‑in hard case, but the CS80 really needs to be transported in a full flightcase in order to protect its highly delicate voice circuitry. The most sensitive parts of all are the tuning trimmers. As Mark Vail explains in his excellent book Vintage Synthesizers [see SOS Bookshop], if an unprotected CS80 is transported in an 'upright' position, with its rear panel pointing to the floor, you may start your journey with a machine that's in tune but you definitely won't end it with one! To be honest, the only way to ensure that a CS80 will stay in tune for as long as possible is to have it fully serviced; but failing that, keep it in one place, and treat it with due care and affection.
Having dispensed with the 'notorious' side of the CS80, it's time to celebrate all the sonic goodies that made musicians readily part with their cash back in 1976. The best starting point is the keyboard itself. This is an unusual weighted design, with polyphonic aftertouch. The feel is 'clunky' but definitely solid, and the range of features controllable via aftertouch is highly impressive — modulation speed and depth, volume and brightness, are all at the mercy of your fingers. There is also a control called Initial Pitchbend, which introduces a slight 'twang' to a note as it slides up to its proper pitch. This can be used to produce excellent harmonica or saxophone type sounds, as ably demonstrated by Vangelis on 'Blade Runner Blues' from the soundtrack to Ridley Scott's filmic masterpiece.
The rest of the performance controls display a laudable design philosophy of having things which make a vast difference to sounds readily at hand . For instance, the two levers labelled 'Resonance' and 'Brilliance' can totally transform a sound such as the chunky 'Bass' preset into a delicate harpsichord. Similarly, the 'Flute' patch (used extensively by Steve Winwood) can easily be turned into a rasping trumpet. It seems Yamaha had this morphing business licked before anyone had ever dreamed of it!
For the best entertainment, turn to the ribbon controller and the Ring Modulation section. Neither of these were unique features, but yet again Yamaha seem to have thought of the best possible way to implement them from a performing musician's point of view. Unlike pitch‑bend wheels and the Moog ribbon controller design, the CS80's ribbon has no centre position. It is therefore possible to have an incredibly smooth pitch‑bend, over a range of one octave upwards if you place your finger to the left of the ribbon and move it to the far right. Alternatively, by going in the other direction, it is possible to move from the keyboard's highest pitch right down to a sub‑audio frequency.
Unfortunately, the CS80 falls short in what is now laughably considered the most important aspect of any new synthesizer — its presets. Despite having a generous 8‑note polyphony (compared with the Prophet's five), the CS80 has a meagre 26 (non‑programmable) presets. This factor did the synth no favours in the early Eighties, when much lighter and more reliable keyboards such as the Juno 60 appeared, offering more than double the number of sounds. However, it is possible to store four patches in the CS80's limited 'memory' — a curious collection of sliders lurking beneath a cover on the front panel. What is also worth bearing in mind is that many of the CS80's presets sound alike anyway, once you start messing around with the Brilliance and Resonance controls.
The sheer quality of the CS80's sounds makes up for many of these limitations. The presets are arranged in two banks, which can either be selected independently, or layered together. When similar types of sounds, such as 'Brass 1' and 'Brass 2', are layered and detuned, the CS80 really starts to sing. Coupled with the flexible aftertouch, this makes the CS80 an ideal instrument for expressive solos, despite the fact that it is a true polyphonic synth (unlike some of its lesser competitors, which relied on home organ technology). In fact, the CS80 could almost be thought of as two polyphonic synths, because there are two independent 8‑voice sections available. These boast a comprehensive filter section, which — despite being unable to summon forth a storming Moog‑style bass — is invaluable for precise control of sonic clarity.
So, has the Yamaha CS80 been the victim of a long‑running smear campaign? To be honest, I think you must really love the sounds and features of the instrument in order to justify spending the £800 that they typically sell for at the moment. The terrible weight and huge bulk of the CS80 require a great deal of effort (in every sense) to come to grips with. Yet as soon as you start detuning the sounds and use the ribbon controller, polyphonic aftertouch, ring mod, etc... it is easy to see why fanatics such as myself keep hold of the things. Now if only Yamaha would stick a ribbon controller on the front of their next synth (even if it's just a 'virtual' one) and fill it with cement, we could get back to the good old days!
The CS80's Ring Modulation section is the best ticket to way‑out audio fun and games that I have ever come across. There are five controls at your disposal: Attack, Decay, Depth, Speed, and Modulation. Despite initial appearances, the Depth control does not have any bearing on the amount of ring modulation effect; instead, it sets the amount by which the Attack and Decay levers can affect the modulation speed. When the latter controls are fully employed, it is possible to recreate the memorable ring mod 'scream' heard at the beginning of the old Doctor Who theme (anorak wearers of the world unite!). When approached with more restraint, the ring mod section can also yield some subtle shifts in the volume of a sound, almost giving the impression that the synth is 'breathing'.