Yamaha look to reclaim their stage keyboard crown with two world-class live instruments.
Yamaha's stage keyboard heritage goes back more than half a century, and in the 1970s their CP-series electro-acoustic pianos and YC combo organs were amongst the most useful and desirable instruments available to gigging keyboard players.
After a long hiatus the CP-series was revived a decade ago, and the CP4 Stage (which I reviewed in SOS February 2015 issue) is often cited as an ideal stage piano of the modern era: musical, practical, versatile and musician-friendly. It's not entirely clear yet whether the CP88 on test here is a complement to the CP4 or a replacement, but either way it's a new interpretation of the stage keyboard concept for Yamaha.
And now the YC series makes a storming comeback too. Well, we already had a sniff of it in the form of the little mini-key Reface YC of 2015, but the new YC61 is a different and bigger beast altogether.
Red Or Dead?
We'll dig into the detail of each individual keyboard in a moment, but let's first consider what unites them.
To start with I'll just come out and say it: these Yamahas are really Nord-like! If you've even a passing interest in stage pianos and Hammond emulators you'll know that the Nord Stage, Piano and Electro are huge players in this field. The Swedish way has always been to make most aspects of sound selection and control knobby, tactile, direct and responsive, which is a far cry from some Japanese stage keyboard designs of the last two decades (not least the CP4) which have voluminous hidden feature sets in the depths of menu systems.
A Nord-like directness is exactly what we see here. Although both keyboards rely on 128x64 dot LCDs and a menu system for many tasks, all the individual sound-generating sections are equipped with chunky knobs, rocker switches, encoders (with LED surrounds) and two-digit displays. Particularly distinctive are the retro silver metal switches near the keyboard: these toggle a section's on/off status when you momentarily push them up. The overall design gives the impression of interacting with lots of single-task discrete devices, very much in keeping with the current vogue for all things analogue and/or modular.
Another leaf out of the Nord book: these new keyboards are chips off the same block, clearly part of the same wider family. Casework is all metal, high quality, and really confidence-inspiring. The heavy-duty vibe extends out the back too, with sockets nutted firmly to the casework and proper 3-pin IEC mains inlets. The CP88 weighs 18.6kg and the YC61 7.1kg.
There are big overlaps in sound-generating technologies and soundsets too. Yamaha say an Advanced Wave Memory AWM2 engine is used for everything but the YC61's organ sounds, but the pianos have the seamless velocity response behaviour of an acoustic modelling system, and there's plenty of FM knocking about too. Seamless sound switching is evident, allowing presets to be dialled in without silencing anything already sounding. The implementation looks robust except for an edge case where the YC61 VCM (Virtual Circuit Modeling) organ section changes mode, and that is perhaps why Yamaha don't trumpet this ability in its marketing blurb.
So this is all a bold and interesting design departure for Yamaha. Let's see how it plays out in practice.
Although smaller than the CP88, and at first glance simpler, the YC61 is arguably the more sophisticated of the two models on test here. It's cheaper than the big hammer-action board, but not by much.
Centre-stage goes to a fully featured organ emulator, which is supplemented by a broad base of gigging sounds with simple editing features. The 61 semi-weighted velocity-sensitive waterfall-action keys are fast in action and perfect for slippery organ playing, palm glisses and fall-offs. Yamaha employ its slightly narrower 160mm octave width here, which I personally don't notice, and should concern only a small subset of players very sensitive to it.
There are in fact three separate, independent sound generators on board: the VCM/FM Organ, plus two identically equipped 'Keys' sections, A and B. Tied to these are no fewer than nine effects processors of one type or another. The Organ has a dedicated preamp drive, and each of the Keys its own pair of multi-effects in series. An additional multi-effect is on hand to be applied to a single section of your choice and a Speaker/Amp simulator naturally fulfils Leslie speaker duties, but can just as easily dirty up your electric pianos. A simple Reverb is shared by all three sound generators in a send/return arrangement, and finally there's a master-level EQ.
The YC61's organ section is really versatile. On the Hammond front you have the choice between a 'standard' model called H1, a more aggressive midrange-driven and electrically aged H2, or H3 with its very pronounced percussion. Beyond this there are three FM-based organs: a clean sine-wave model and emulations of British and Italian (presumably Vox and Farfisa) transistor designs. The other characterful originals from the Reface YC — the Acetone and a '70s YC — are sadly missing.
All of the organ models will work as two organs in parallel, with separate registrations for a notional Lower and Upper manual that can be played from either side of a keyboard split, or from the YC61's own keyboard in conjunction with an external keyboard controller feeding the MIDI In socket.
The Hammond sounds, allied with the Rotary speaker effect, can be staggeringly good. Other manufacturers also get great results these days of course: the best Nord, Roland and Kurzweil tonewheel sounds are also hugely convincing. But the sense of realism and responsiveness here is uncanny, and it really can feel like you're in the company of a large, loud mechanical presence! At full tilt the organs snarl and growl as does a B3 and a cranked Leslie cabinet. All manner of remarkable side-band hums and hisses spill out, in a realistically unpredictable manner, aided by a menu-adjustable inter-tonewheel leakage level. The YC61 will subtly purr and throb away just as readily though, all the while retaining the sense of presence and weight. Vibrato/Chorus and Percussion behaviour is sophisticated and convincing: I loved the Vibrato 3 setting particularly, which comes with all sorts of electrical degradation, and there's a menu option to unlink the 1' drawbar from its default role in percussion generation and liberate it as an independent footage. There's also an option for an attached expression pedal to affect only organ volume or Leslie drive as well.
The physical drawbars have a good level of clicky resistance over their movement. They also get LED backdrops (of user-selectable colour) that indicate registration when presets are loaded and the physical drawbar positions are (inevitably) wrong. Each has a nifty little transparent section that lets underlying LEDs show through, which is an ideal compromise in marrying physical drawbar feel with preset recall, and arguably an improvement on any methods currently employed by other manufacturers. Matching physical drawbars to saved registrations can be done in a couple of ways familiar from the hardware synth world, with options for an immediate value Jump or a more benign Catch.
'Half-moon' controls for rotor speed and brake are on the left-hand side of the panel next to the drawbars, and by default the sprung left-right pitch stick duplicates the slow-fast control. These are in fact merely triggers for the processing taking place in the Speaker/Amp effect section further to the right. There you'll also find the alternative 'Rtr B' Leslie cabinet which is capable of frankly unsettling amounts of throaty transistor distortion, and a further four non-rotary guitar amps whose overdrive and distortion characteristics can be well suited to the combo organs and electric pianos. A Tone knob dials in a 'smile' EQ curve with boosted treble and bass to the right and a drier mid-range balance to the left.
Now for the FM organs. They're useful to have... but rather curious. Least contentious of the three is the FM sine organ. As well as some beguiling clean, glassy textures it soon roughens up into a more generic electric sound with the application of drive and speaker simulation.
F2 and F3, notionally the Vox and Farfisa, are quirky. F2 has only one drawbar, the 4', which generates a distinctive square/pulse wave tone, while all others are still sine/FM-like. F3 has an 8' transistor tone on the 16' drawbar, a 16' tone on the 5+1/3', and a 4' on the 1+1/3'. Other drawbars are at similarly unpredictable footages and offer very muted transistor sounds alongside tonewheel-like sines. Both these models abruptly lose their buzzy footages above note B5 and also can't access the Vibrato/Chorus and Percussion sections, which is both hugely disappointing and (with the majority of Farfisa Compact models in mind) inaccurate. A generic vibrato can be achieved by pushing up the modulation lever, but it's a weak affair.
Essentially, if you're after spot-on transistor emulations, these are not they. Sounds and registrations are off, and selecting them by Hammond drawbars is all wrong anyway. I didn't have one on hand to directly compare, but everything I've heard of the little Reface YC's transistor emulations seems to trounce what's here. However, in practice, and especially when distorted through some of the onboard amp/speaker simulations, the musical effect can still be extremely potent and persuasive, and various Doors/Who/Floyd timbres can be teased out that'll fool most people most of the time. So they're not bad organs: they're just not particularly authentic.
Turning to the YC61's Keys section, this consists of two identical general-purpose sound generators which can be played solo or layered and split in any combination with each other, and the organ section.
I found the panel layout confusing to begin with. With one set of controls for both it's not abundantly clear at first that there even are two independent sections, and the black-grey graphics that separate generators and effects are subtle to the point of invisibility.
With use and experimentation things make perfect sense. Keys A and B each draw from the same set of 139 sounds, which are selected using a combination of four-way category knob and bi-directional rocker switch. In the section they're only identified by category and number, but in the LCD you get a full sound name. This is not a prodigious soundset, it must be said, but quality is there when you need it to be.
Grand pianos include a fully featured Yamaha CFX, the flagship sound of the CP4, as well as a focused S700 and a rather warm, intimate and likeable C7. There's also a U1 upright, brimming with character and inharmonicity, two CP80 electroacoustics and some ready-rolled CFX pad layers.
In the E.Piano category can be found five Rhodes (or should that be 'Rhodeses'?) of different vintages, quite varied in character, as well as three variations on a Wurlitzer, two Clavinet tones, a single harpsichord, and seven DX pianos.
With all the pianos, the velocity response is beautifully implemented, even if it's not always easy to control from the YC61's light waterfall keys. There's no sympathetic resonance behaviour, but a pedal-triggered damper resonance can be inserted in one of the effects slots; not the most naturalistic implementation I've heard, but effective enough, and with the potential to be creatively tweaked to a reverb-like extreme. Acoustic pianos are capable of partial-damping and half-pedalling effects, responding well to continuous-type sustain pedals.
The YC in particular is a hoot to have around: a little ripper! Its Hammond emulation is one of the best out there, all set for two-manual use, and with a beautifully implemented rotary speaker effect that is arguably only beaten by specialist pedals like the Neo Ventilator.
In the Synth category you get all kinds of pads, stabs, leads and a few basses and bells. Many attractive fizzy Oberheim and Jupiter textures are here, nicely warm and lively, along with typical D50/M1 layers and juicy synth brasses. Some Moog leads would benefit from more brightness in the upper octaves, and whilst all lead sounds can be made monophonic via a menu option (and indeed are almost always presented this way in the factory Live Sets) some subtle envelope retriggering is audible with legato playing that you don't get on a real monosynth, even when portamento (another menu option) is employed.
As for synth-like parameter editing: there's some, but it's very limited. Aside from another smile-EQ Tone control there's just a single knob, switchable between EG (Envelope Generator) and Filter. In Filter mode it tweaks the cutoff of a low-pass filter, against some predetermined resonance curves (selectable in menus, or using a nifty key shortcut). In EG mode the knob adjusts combinations of Attack, Decay and Release at once (ditto).
Many factory Live Sets load up with useful knob responses preconfigured, and a lot can be achieved in a couple of finger twists. Pad sounds, for example, often have the EG knob simultaneously lengthening both attack and release time, to make them 'slower' and more languid.
Precise and direct control with this macro-based system is full of inconsistencies, though. Though many sounds do what you expect, the envelope phases of others steadfastly refuse to change very much (or even at all) in any of the 11 EG modes. At this juncture it's worth comparing Nord's equivalent envelope system on recent Electros, that uses a two-knob combo to intuitively and reliably serve up almost all useful shapes. But then an Electro has no equivalent of the YC61's static filter cutoff knob, so you win some and you lose some...
Sounds grouped into the 'Other' category include section and solo strings, guitars and other plucked instruments, classical and soul/pop brass, a few flutes (including a Mellotron), five useful basses, various mallet instruments, and a couple of squeezeboxes. The quality of nearly all these is very high: they're clean, energetic and dynamic. Actually none is particularly sophisticated, from a programming perspective, with sample zone transitions clearly audible if you go looking for them and very little velocity switching is employed. There's certainly no fancy articulation switches or legato transitions. But the fundamental quality is high, and various string, sax sections and even a solo trumpet sound superb, and are very playable.
I mentioned there are two multi-effects processors for each of the keys sections, and the quality of these is in keeping with that of the soundset. What a difference it makes too, to have effect parameters under knob control, even just the two per effect here, rather than buried in menus.
Multiple chorus, flanger and phaser algorithms (all great-sounding, and some referencing hardware originals) complement fine amp/speaker simulations, compression, and three varieties of wah, the last of which is easily driven by an expression pedal. There are also digital and analogue-style delays, some respectable reverbs, a lo-fi digital degrader and a resonant low-pass filter which, though not integrated at voice level, is arguably as useful as the EG knob for many jobs.
The master multi-effect (which is notably available to the organ section too) is equipped with all the same algorithms except for damper resonance. But it has a couple of its own too: a clean digital-style Tempo Delay, which makes sense of the Tap [tempo] button, and an intriguing Looper Delay. The idea there is to capture riffs (and so on) in real time from any internal sound generator, which you can then solo over using any other. It works in principle, but the maximum loop time of less than 1.5 seconds is just measly, and unlike a dedicated looper there's no way to define in and out points. It's a nice idea, but not ready for serious use in this implementation.
That leaves us with the master level Reverb and EQ. The reverb is a good-sounding fixed hall with about a three-second decay, and its lack of flexibility would be a problem if it weren't for the more versatile reverbs available in the multi-effects sections. EQ is a three-band with sweepable mid, working at a truly global level, quite independent of Live Set presets.