Yamaha Reface-serie

With the release of the Yamaha Reface synthesizers, the Japan-based music-gear-makers bring back a stone-cold slice of music history. Here, we chart the origin-stories of these superheroes among synths.

The Reface YC


Over time, the design and re-design of traditional instruments has become more and more compact. Take the church organ: an enormous, very literally church-sized construction that’s undeniably impressive but, as the Hammond organ would prove, could actually be a lot smaller. Church organs create sound by pumping air through a wall of pipes and, while the system is fully acoustic, in a church organ, you’re essentially looking at the world’s first additive synthesizer.

The development of components like transistors and tone wheels had some interesting consequences for the world of pop music. Instruments were getting much smaller and easier for bands to shift from gig to gig. So, while the Hammond B3 is still a hefty beast of an organ, it was still the most portable organ going at the time, and because it was so portable, that specific Hammond sound was about to become an integral part of pop music. Earlier in their careers, synth artists like Vangelis played an organ like the B3 – especially during the Forminx and Aphrodites’ Child years. Coat the sound of your B3 in lashings of reverb and you gain rich and full sound – the sound that made progrock possible and is still a mainstay of the genre to this day.

Because things can always get smaller, the combo-organ was invented, an example of which was the Yamaha YC-45D transistor organ. As is often the case, plenty of other brands, like Vox and Farfisa, developed their own take on the same concept, each model having its own unique sound.

The Yamaha Reface YC blends the sound of these combo-organs and features a compact interface loaded with drawbars and a bank of effects, perhaps making it one of the most portable organs in the world – that actually sounds pretty good as well.

The Reface CP


An acoustic piano, whether it’s a full grand or an upright, is another no-go for most touring bands. So, if you want to take your own piano with you when you play gigs, it’s going to have to be a lot smaller and a heck of a lot lighter than the one in your living room. Just like with the church organ, the ideas flowed and one of the first and most famous of those ideas was the Rhodes: an electric piano that produced sound by hitting metal tines instead of strings. When you hit any of the keys, the Rhodes responds with a bell-like sound that comes close to that of a tuning fork. Add a pickup, an amplifier and maybe a little distortion and the timeless Rhodes sound is born – a sound that’s as popular in modern pop music as it was when it was first invented. Stick it through a reverb and dream for weeks on end.

The Yamaha CP80 also featured a pretty striking sound which became the core of the early ‘80s albums by Jon & Vangelis. In the mid and high registers, the sound even gets relatively realistic for an electronic instrument while the lower registers had what’s now known as a typical CP80 sound with a strange, almost ‘detuned’ feel – perfect for keyboard players looking for a special sound. Again, drench the CP80 sound in reverb and you’re getting endless playing pleasure. All of this has been recreated in the form of the more recently released Yamaha Reface CP!

The Reface DX


The emergence of computer chips caused an unstoppable wave of development when it came to FM synthesis, which had already been around for a while before the dawn of the renowned Yamaha DX7. In theory, FM synthesis doesn’t rely on digital chips. All you really need is some stable oscillators – the kind of stability that analogue oscillators just couldn’t achieve. On top of that, a decent analogue FM synthesizer with the capacity of the DX7 could never be affordable, so in that regard, its arrival couldn’t have been better timed. In the years before, analogue synthesizers dominated the landscape, and while there were a few analogue gems, most of these models just sounded the same. The DX7, on the other hand, and in fact FM synthesis in general, offered something different. A realistic sounding marimba, good basses and synthetic pianos – it was suddenly all possible.

What makes FM synthesis particularly special is how the sound can actually respond to the player. The timbre can change dramatically depending on features like velocity sensitivity and even where you touch the key. Because this results in such dynamic sound, it’s perfect for acoustic sounds. Take a guitar string as an example: hit the string hard and it sounds much brighter than a lightly played string, but the timbre is also dramatically different. With analogue synthesizers, you had to play with a filter to shift the timbre, which would change the brightness but not the core-character of the timbre. The genius of FM synthesis lies in the enormous range of options when it comes to playing with the timbre of a sound, making this kind of synth more musical than ever.

The Yamaha Reface DX is a small FM synthesizer crammed with countless sound-crafting options, making it the most extensive Reface model when it comes to sound. But the original model also came with a downside: many musicians had no idea what to do with all of those options. As a result, when a DX7 was returned for repairs, all of the factory sounds were often found fully intact, which is probably the reason why you’d hear the same sounds in all the pop hits from that period. Remember the e-piano, the tubular bells and FM piano sound in the intro of Last Christmas by Wham? All of it came from the on-board settings of the DX7. Which is a bit of a shame because FM synthesis packs an insane level of potential.

The Reface DX has basically been designed to spread the message that FM synthesis can be fun – just give it a try and all your efforts will be rewarded! Yamaha has since developed their FM approach, in the form of the SY77/SY99 and the FS1r. These models are actually a sort of descendent of the DX7 but still beat paths of their own, so the SY77 and SY99 can do things that the FS1r can’t, and vice versa. With the event of sampling thanks to models like the Roland D50 and Korg M1, FM synthesis was filed away as a relic from a different era. For the most part, FM replaced analogue and later, samples would replace FM. So it goes.

The Reface CS


That said, a good analogue synthesizer is still a thing of beauty. While it is true that, compared to FM, you’re a bit more limited on timbre, the kind of timbre that’s available is enough to make the heart of a lot of producers and musicians beat a little bit faster. For the most part, the Yamaha Reface CS is another compact synthesizer that relies on that classic analogue sound. With this synth and a little experience, you can shape a sound within seconds, which is very different from the Reface DX, which might be more diverse but is a little more labour intensive. With a virtual-analogue or analogue synthesizer, the whole process begins with a rich waveform, like a sawtooth or squarewave. From there, you play with a filter to remove parts of the sonic spectrum, in the same way as you would with the equaliser section of a Hi-Fi amplifier (the only difference being that maybe the treble of most Hi-Fi systems is fixed). With a filter, you can tweak the frequency in such a way that the sound becomes brighter or darker, bringing it to life. The Reface CS is perhaps the best synthesizer for first-timers in the Reface range, simply because anyone will be able to make something beautiful with it.

The CS is also one of the most renowned series to come out of the Yamaha workshop. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, they were big banks of physical control knobs. From a distance, the CS80 is maybe the most recognisable, simply because it was so popular back in the day. Everyone from Vangelis to Toto used one, and even ABBA used the predecessor to the CS80 a lot: the GX-1. This model was like the testing ground for the CS80, and was an enormous organ-like monolith that, today, would cost around the same amount as a spacious detached house. But I’m straying off the point here. The Reface CS is not exactly a re-release of the CS-80 – but the CS-01.

With the Reface Series, Yamaha presents a chunk of synth-based music history in four compact models. In fact, the only bit of history that seems to be missing is the Reface Mellotron, but who knows what’s coming next?

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