Yamaha’s Reface range recreates four of their classic instruments in miniature form.
Marking the last of the Japanese giants willing to plunder their vault of past glories, Yamaha’s Reface range hits the ground running with a quartet of models. Each has a ‘re-imagined interface’ and all are streamlined, focused and ready to play wherever you happen to be, thanks to built-in speakers, battery power and mini keyboards.
Identified by just two letters, they represent a broad spread of tried and trusted Yamaha gear. The DX brings FM into the 21st century, while the CS is a modelling synth aiming to deliver the flavour of much-loved analogue. When it comes to the CP model, it isn’t just Yamaha’s history that’s been re-imagined but that of several other electric piano makers too. The same philosophy extends to the YC organ: only one of its inspirations comes from Yamaha’s own stable. It results in a rounded and comprehensive collection with perhaps the only omission being some kind of ‘SK’ string machine. The toughest challenge, with four keyboards laid out to choose from, may be which of their charms to sample first.
Before kicking off, we might as well deal with the contentious issue of those 37-note mini keyboards. Yamaha describe them as HQ (High Quality) with a comparable action and velocity-responsiveness to their flagship Motif XF. While I don’t doubt the truth of this, it’s also true that they are — quite divisively — small. The keyboard is actually bit shorter than that of, for example, the Korg Microsampler. It’s springy too, an action that suits some models better than others.
As far as conventional keyboard technique goes, I’d rate myself closer to Klaus Schulze than Rick Wakeman, but even I struggled to cope with the reduced scale. After an hour or so of hand-ache and bum notes, I connected the keyboard of my Roland V-Synth, later progressing to a Yamaha KX8 when the time came to give the CP model a good pounding. Even to an inveterate noodler, the difference in playability was astounding. I’m sure many of you will adapt perfectly well to the mini keys but, equally, there must be those like myself who would have been much happier with no keyboard at all, saving in both size and cost.
The models differ in colour and available controls, but otherwise have a great deal in common. Without exception they’re of superior quality, yet they measure just 530 x 175 x 60 mm and weigh a fraction under 2kg (without batteries). You can fit six AA types, which aren’t supplied, or take power from the 12V adapter that is. If you choose batteries, Yamaha quote a maximum of five hours of portable play time. Output is from a pair of full-sized quarter-inch jacks and, surprisingly, making a connection doesn’t automatically disable the onboard 3cm speakers (and 2x2W amp). However, these can be silenced by either plugging in headphones or powering up while holding down a particular key. There’s a stereo mini-jack input on hand too; it mixes in another audio source with the post-effects Reface output. Each model is additionally blessed with an input for either a sustain pedal or foot controller (for volume), as is most applicable.
The pitch-bender fitted to the two synth models has a sprung action somewhat similar to that of the Yamaha CS30 (ie. one of the nicer pitch-benders around). A function common to all is the octave slider, providing two octaves of transposition in either direction for the mini keyboard and having no purpose at all when you’re playing via MIDI.
Joining the ranks of Arturia, Korg and Faderfox (to name but three), MIDI connectivity is relegated to a propriety adapter, in this case a dual affair providing In and Out (but no Thru). It’s a weird six-pin connector somewhat reminiscent of an old serial PC interface — a whiff of the past that’s not especially welcome. There’s also a USB port and this, too, can serve as a MIDI connection between Reface and computer. Yamaha have made a USB driver available on their web site, but I found this unnecessary and used the class-compliant system driver instead. Some MIDI incongruities were encountered later, but before getting diverted, let’s pick a keyboard to audition.
Being irredeemably shallow, I opted to start with the prettiest, which in my opinion is the red YC model. Yamaha have always given great organ and within seconds I was left in no doubt they’d done it again. The controls feel fabulous, from the colourful rocker switches to the chunky sliding drawbars.
With no preset memories, it’s a case of WYSIWYG — so Wave is the most important control initially. Via this five-way switch you pick the organ model to be used, although both the panel and manual are somewhat cagey about the relics concerned. However, it’s a fairly easy mystery to solve and the list translates as follows:
H: 1960s American tonewheel organ (Hammond).
V: 1960s British transistor organ (Vox).
F: 1960s Italian transistor organ (Farfisa).
A: 1970s Japanese transistor organ (Ace Tone, a predecessor of Roland).
Y: Yamaha YC45D.
Each of these is tonally quite distinct and I was keen to dust off my own Yamaha SK20 (Organ/Strings/Polysynth) for comparison. Surprisingly, its organ closely resembled the pure tones of the Hammond, rather than the square-waveish Yamaha. Given that the Farfisa and Ace Tone are both sawtooth-based, it amounts to an impressively rich and varied set of starting points.
Nine drawbars are available, ranging from 16’ to 1’. As you’d expect, pulling the sliders towards you raises the level of each harmonic, shaping and mixing very naturally, given the space they occupy. The green vibrato rocker selects either vibrato or chorus, with the subtle distinction that chorus is slightly faster. Percussion is available from another rocker switch, so mixing it in subtly to taste isn’t possible. However, you’re given two pitch choices (A & B) and can freely vary the percussion decay time using the Length slider. Other than having a unique tonal base, each organ handles in the same way, with the exception that, when Hammond is chosen, percussion disables the 1’ slider. The Hammond’s percussion also operates in single trigger mode, so playing legato doesn’t retrigger the attack. Two yellow sliders provide effects in the form of kick-ass crunchy distortion and a reverb that’s warm and very appropriate. Although the distortion is less universally wonderful, a touch of it works wonders, especially on the Farfisa and Vox.
No organ would be complete without a rotary speaker effect, which is here controlled by a small lever (or the modulation wheel via MIDI). The speed can be flipped from fast to slow, with realistic transitions built in and even a ‘stopped’ mode, where the movement is temporarily paused. Personally I’d have liked the ability to fine-tune the Leslie speeds and depth but as rotating speaker effects go, this one is highly credible.
Since the YC has an impressive 128 notes of polyphony, you can play with all of your extremities without ever exhausting the available notes. The manual kindly provides a few examples of old-style sounds, in case you’re at a loss how to conjure a typical psychedelic rock or reggae organ, but it’s hard to go far wrong. If you have even a passing acquaintance with drawbars, the YC handles like a dream and is a solid, well-thought-out instrument that can cover a wide range of organ tones across the ages.
Tearing myself reluctantly away from organising, I turned to the other end of the beauty scale. The aubergine-coloured DX has an authentic air of inscrutability compared to the rest. It’s the only one to have a display and patch memories — evidence that Yamaha haven’t yet found a way to make FM fast enough or accessible enough to manage without.
The DX offers just eight notes of polyphony and an architecture built on four operators and 12 algorithms: Yamaha’s term for the configurations of modulators and carriers. It is ably supported by a pair of effects processors, so although it can’t offer the sonic complexity of an original (six-op) DX7, for example, it doesn’t seem limited as you flick through the factory patches.
Amongst the innovations are multi-touch sliders capable of adjusting four parameters at once. I’m not convinced these are better than physical sliders would have been, but Yamaha provide instructions on the various techniques for getting the best from them: ie. flicking, tapping and tapping then holding. To take one example, flicking is described as ‘sudden quick movements along a slider’ — the flick speed is proportional to the value incremented. It takes a bit of practice to get the hang of it, but I guess it would be too big a break with tradition if FM was rendered totally obvious from the word go. Helpfully, the data entry sliders always map to four values shown on-screen.
The display is a clear dark blue with white text and graphics where necessary (for operator levels, envelopes and so on). The buttons have a positive click action and a green backlight — a far cry from those DX7 membrane switches. Hit one of the four FM buttons and you gain instant access to the frequency, feedback and level of each operator, plus the algorithm. For deeper editing, pressing ‘Edit’ transforms the eight patch selection buttons into menu access points. Subsequent presses of these navigate through the pages and there’s a simple blob-based graphic to remind you where you are within the FM world, fortunately never deeper than four pages. The editing should be sufficient to satisfy most programming needs and is even suitable for tweaking on the fly, not something that is usually the case with FM. You can dig into the keyboard scaling, velocity response and multi-stage amplitude envelopes for each operator, plus the pitch envelope and the single LFO that governs pitch and level.
It’s interesting that, in this implementation of FM, you can set individual feedback amounts for each operator. This has the effect of gradually transforming the base sine waveforms into either sawtooth or square. Using different waveforms for FM yielded some of the most harsh sounds (or rich, depending on your programming chops) from classics such as the TX81Z, so it’s good to see some provision for it here. Yamaha might have considered going even further by adding LFO or envelope control of the feedback level, but perhaps held off for simplicity’s sake. If you wish, you can stack and detune the operators like conventional synth waveforms, having first picked an appropriate algorithm. However, what you can’t do is import patches created on Yamaha’s older generation of four-op FM synths.
Of the patches provided, you’ll find FM favourites such as brass, electric pianos and bells along with an echoing acoustic guitar, basses you’ll never lose in a mix, bright leads, snarky leads, weird digital gunk and even several convincingly dreamy pads. In other words, the kind of sounds that made FM a breath of fresh air when it appeared in the 1980s, aided and abetted by more contemporary efforts. While FM sounds considerably less revolutionary today, there’s still scope to explore.
I wish Yamaha had been able to stretch the polyphony to 16 notes though; eight was often insufficient to do justice to the pads and electric pianos. It’s even sadder that there are only 32 patch memories. As soon as you start to scratch the programming itch, those 32 slots start to look inadequate. I searched for a means of dumping and restoring patches but with no luck, until I downloaded the (free) ‘Capture’ app for iOS.
The DX model features a simple looper capable of recording 2000 notes or around 10 minutes at 120bpm. There’s an optional ‘guide tone’, which instead of a conventional metronome click, is a note plucked from the current sound (inevitably in the wrong key, I found). Strangely, only notes are captured, not MIDI controllers, which rules out performances that include the modulation wheel or, more importantly (if hammering on some of those DX Rhodes patches), the sustain pedal. You can, though, introduce these manually during playback later. The looper is volatile, its contents lost on power-down, but in its favour it automatically syncs to incoming MIDI clock.
Finally, the effect processors both have a selection of distortion, touch-wah, chorus, flanger, phaser, delay or reverb. Every effect has two significant parameters to tweak, all of which contributes useful sweetening, thickening or dirtying qualities without drowning you in complexity. Unsurprisingly, FM takes up the most pages in a manual common to all.
Still in synthesizer mood, I fired up the white CS model next. It’s the one I was most curious about since, in my youth, the CS range of synths were amongst the first I could afford (I still have a CS30, which is silky, sweet and fabulous). Here the controls are neat and plentiful, a row of smooth, well-balanced sliders ideal for speedy programming — a concept heavily associated with the polyphonic CS models. Actually, the closest Yamaha parallel could be the enduringly cute CS01, although sonically the CS is no more based on any of these than on the underrated AN1x.
In theory, the CS’s eight notes of polyphony and effect processor should make it way more versatile than its diminutive form suggests. The oscillator section consists of just three sliders: Type, Texture and Mod, with a different-coloured LED to remind you which type is active. For each of the five choices, the other sliders shift functionality as appropriate. The bottom-most choice is ‘Multi-Saw’, with the Texture slider adding a beefy sub-oscillator and Mod introducing further sawtooth waves. Imagine the euphoric tones of Roland’s JP8000 Supersaw and you’re in the ballpark. Next is pulse wave, the sliders varying the pulse width and contributing a second oscillator, at various pitch intervals. You shouldn’t expect to simulate the frankly magical PWM of a CS01, but it’s a worthwhile source of square-wave fun all the same. Next up the ladder is a steppy and slightly pale implementation of oscillator sync. Perhaps I shouldn’t criticise its spiky tones too much; after all, sync wasn’t a highlight of previous CS synths either.
Ring modulation and FM are the last two oscillator types, with ring modulation the most striking. You’re given independent pitch control over two input oscillators and, as with the legendary CS synths, it’s your route to mad, metallic, bellish wails. I’d have loved control via a CS80-style ribbon and was slightly disappointed that the oscillator pitches were stepped, not continuously variable. In contrast, FM, with its audio-level oscillator modulation, is rather too lo-fi and digital to ever set the pulse racing, but it’s worth having for those moments of dissonant weirdness. When Mod is cranked to the max, you gain a glitchy noise generator.
The 18dB low-pass filter has a ballsy resonance that will drown out any original CS, but if you’re careful not to overdo it, it’s a pretty fat and serviceable filter, lacking only in keyboard tracking to tick all the boxes.
A slider balances the effect of the envelope generator between the filter and amplifier, although its behaviour takes a little getting used to. As far as I can tell, moving the slider towards its maximum lowers the filter’s cutoff frequency, presumably so the envelope will have an effect even when the filter is wide open. Either way, you’re given a variety of handy envelope effects from the minimum of controls, which was surely the idea.
With the EG slider fully down (ie. set to ‘AEG’, the amplifier), the envelope starts authentically from its existing level, unlike Yamaha’s older modelled analogue, the AN1x. When in mono mode, the envelope is single-triggered with low-note priority. It’s also blessed with a very long maximum release time: well over 40 seconds.
Moving on to the LFO, it operates over a wide range and can modulate the pitch, filter cutoff, amplitude or the oscillator’s Mod value. You’re only given one modulation destination but, given the LFO’s top speed hits audio frequencies, it’s enough to lift the CS into strangely warped territories. The adjacent portamento slider is a dual-function control that cleverly incorporates a mono/poly selector. Portamento is only available in monophonic mode and (unlike the DX model) there’s no legato setting: once on it stays on no matter how you phrase notes. Fortunately, despite the fact that the slider is notched, you can find more subtle settings in between the notches.
There isn’t a modulation wheel, but when playing from an external keyboard, the mod wheel is mapped to LFO depth. One slight oddity you should be aware of concerns pitch-bend: while the built-in pitch-bender’s action is smooth, the equivalent action from an external source is far from it.
A looper is present here too, and it’s very similar to that of the DX, just without the benefit of a screen. The main limitation is that this looper must always start with a note and recording is ended by the rather awkward movement of the slider from record to play position at the correct time.
To round off, there’s a single effect choice of either distortion, chorus/flanger, phaser or delay. This is a bit of an anti-climax compared to the rest of the range and, annoyingly, even when the effect depth is at zero, switching to effects causes a brief silence. If you tweak the delay’s speed, spacey, analogue-style pitch sweeps abound; the delay will also automatically sync to incoming MIDI clock.
The CS can sound impressive in many analogue roles and delivers a pretty solid bass end from its sawtooth and sub-oscillator combination. At times it did feel slightly underpowered — this wasn’t helped by occasional odd harmonics and aliasing. Some of the controls also exhibited noticeably non-analogue characteristics, notably there were nasty glitches upon swapping oscillator types.
Last of all, I fired up the CP model. Much of its panel is occupied by what turned out to be the best effects selection of all. There are six piano types to choose from and Yamaha are just as cautious about naming their origins as when organ donating. You won’t be surprised to hear that the CP selection is based on Yamaha’s Electric Grand and you can probably guess the rest too: Rd1 and Rd2, Wr, Clv and Toy. The second Rhodes is the later, brighter model, while the Wurlitzer’s contrastingly hollow tones are faithfully represented.
It’s tough to pick a favourite amongst the various electric pianos and the CP80; all are as instantly playable and responsive as you’d hope. This is the second Reface to offer 128 notes of polyphony and it helps enormously. Once I rigged up my Yamaha KX8 as master keyboard and dug in, I could easily believe these were the real deal. The only difficulty was stopping.
I was less bowled over by the toy piano and clavinet. The former is quite bell-like in its lower regions, becoming a sharp plink at the top end. Its ‘music box’ novelty isn’t completely without value, but I can’t help feeling that the presence of a regular acoustic piano in its place would have been a thousand times more welcome — Yamaha have a good track record building them, after all! As for the clavinet, I’ve never yearned for one — even less the funky variety — but if you add drive, short delay and chorus you slip straight into guitar territory. Whether this is desirable depends on your approach to ‘keyboard guitaring’ generally but it surely can’t be a more heinous sin than ‘funky clav’! Mod wheel from a MIDI controller adds vibrato.
The effects are a real bonus here. Arranged in series, all can be active at once and their transformational potential is huge. Firstly, there’s drive with its piano-specific tonality, to which you add tremolo or wah, chorus or phaser, followed by analogue-style or digital delay, finally bathing the whole lot in reverb. The chorus is lovely, the phaser almost as good and the tremolo shifts to a swimmy stereo whenever the Rd and CP types are selected. The digital delay at its maximum depth repeats for an eternity, while the analogue delay becomes duller with progressive repeats. The shortest delay times are very short and impressively boingy. It’s quite an armoury to have within reach and the only minor criticism I have is a physical one: the switches were a bit flimsy and one needed an occasional wiggle to wake it up.
In a sense, the whole Reface range defies expectations of size, scope and form. Each exudes quality and there’s not a duff-sounding or ill-conceived member amongst them. For me, the CP is the surprise gem — four great pianos and hands-on effects that work effectively throughout. Had there been an acoustic piano too, I’d have no choice but to declare perfection.
The YC model is also pretty hot: it’s a practically endless source of classic organs and both tonally and operationally it’s my favourite of all. I was not as blown away by either of the synths though. The DX does what’s expected of four-op FM and in an easy-to-program format. However, it could have been taken even further had the ‘re-imagining’ included just a few physical controls. And while dual effects processors are very welcome, the DX felt lacking in polyphony and — more importantly — in the number of available patch memories. The CS’s virtual analogue engine is so accessible that it needs no patch memories and it’s far more capable than its slimmed-down feature set suggests. But its single effect feels limited and it never quite grabs you like a CS synth should. Still, it’s fast, fun and Yamaha’s most portable CS since the CS01 (though it doesn’t have guitar-strap pegs).
There isn’t much new to say about the inclusion of mini keyboards. If you relish the freedoms of battery power and portability, then the reduced footprint could be desirable, but I’d argue that playing the CP model, in particular, without external help is a challenge too far for most of us. Had the Refaces been presented as neat, slightly cheaper modules, one — or maybe two of them — would have certainly been on my shopping list. As they are, the best way for many of us to fully exploit these little beauties is via external control, so I hope Yamaha will reconsider the MIDI implementation and extend it to include all channels. After all, the Refaces are based on old ideas and are full of old sounds from old records. It hardly seems fair to deny old players and their old keyboard techniques a piece of the action too.
CS: Roland’s System 1 is a little more expensive but features an expanded feature set and expansion via the Plug-Out system, but only four notes of polyphony. Other mini-key synths such as Novation’s MiniNova or Korg’s MicroKorg are also worth a look.
DX: a second-hand TX81Z or DX100 could be the nearest competition.
CP: PCM modules that include selections of pianos could offer the biggest threat, but there’s also Roland’s JDXi which might be an alternative to both the CS and CP models.
YC: an organ module such as the Ferrofish B4000+, with its more conventional drawbars, is the closest competition. Though comparable in price, it concentrates on Hammond tones as opposed to the much wider range of the YC.
Once upon a time all you needed to connect two MIDI instruments was a MIDI cable. Now there’s an increasing chance you’ll need a bespoke adapter at either end and might have to search eBay for a MIDI thru box if you’re a mad boffin who connects several instruments to a master keyboard. The craziness reaches new levels when you’re faced with a range of keyboards that are set, by default, to receive on all channels. When you realise and send an omni off command (CC124) from your sequencer, the chances are you’re still not home and dry, because all but one of the Refaces is doggedly locked to channel 1 and can’t be changed. If this kind of practice continues, the MIDI dark ages will soon be upon us!
Thanks to its display and function button, the DX can be given a unique receive channel. Similarly, tasks such as disabling the speaker and enabling controller transmission can be performed without a power-on key combination. However, even the DX shares the predilection for peculiar defaults. For example, it automatically powers down after 30 minutes even when on mains and its controls neither send nor receive MIDI CCs. You’ll probably want to alter many of these defaults: the reception of MIDI controllers is of particular value to the DX, which becomes a more direct, tweakable and friendly beast when a control surface is allocated to its many parameters. Similarly, with controllers enabled, the CS model’s tweaks can be recorded into your DAW to capture an entire performance.
I mentioned earlier that the only way to dump the patches of the DX model is via Yamaha’s free app, Capture. There doesn’t appear to be any means of sending patches to a regular SysEx librarian program either. Instead, Yamaha’s Reface web page refers to ‘Soundmondo’ — an online browser-based tool for sharing patches — for the whole range. I had hoped to try this out but, at the time of writing, it is yet to appear.