the 50 years since Yamaha entered the electronic keyboard market, they’ve
rocked the industry many times over. In 1966, they kicked it off with a series
of transistor organs. In the ’70s, they released the CP series of
electro-acoustic pianos and the CS-80, a programmable analog polysynth that’s
coveted and imitated to this day. In the ’80s, they unleashed the DX7, which
changed the sound of all music from
that decade virtually overnight. When the Reface teaser videos—which
referenced all these instruments—appeared in the days leading up to
Summer NAMM, the synth world was abuzz. Let’s see what all that buzz is about.
Different and Common Features
Reface keyboard addresses a different aspect of Yamaha’s history. The Reface CS
is virtual analog. The Reface DX refreshes their approach to FM. The Reface CP
focuses on electric pianos. The Reface YC captures the sound of both tonewheel
and transistor organs. With each sporting a street price of around $500,
they’re affordable enough that you can pick and choose one or more that best
suits your musical style.
All four sport velocity-sensitive mini keys,
the option to run on six AA batteries, and built-in speakers, making them
compact and ultra-portable. They’ve taken some online bashing over the mini
keys we can understand any keyboard player wishing for full-sized
keys—especially on the CP and YC. Think of the Refaces as purpose-built
synth modules that happen to have “courtesy” keyboards and speakers for mobile
use; on that note, we’ve never heard anyone criticize a Waldorf Pulse 2 or
Streichfett for having no keys at all. Plus, since they support old-school MIDI
as well as USB, you can play any Reface from the controller of your choice.
Since each Reface is its own little universe,
we’ll devote separate mini-reviews to them.
its focus squarely on electro-mechanical keyboards, the Reface CP is suitably
nostalgic, sporting retro knobs and silver toggles that add a touch of that
’70s and ’80s-era Radio Shack magic. The CP’s operation is blissfully
straightforward, combining great sounding electric pianos and a Clavinet to
round things out, with effects that are perfectly suited to recreating the
classic sounds tricks of keyboards from that era.
Sounds. The core Reface CP sound is based on six
presets: Rhodes Mk. 1 and Mk. 2, Wurlitzer EP, Clavinet, Yamaha CP-80 electric
grand, and a lovely toy piano as a bonus.
Of the two Rhodes, I was always partial to the
Mk. 1 because of its rounded warmth. The CP’s version does not disappoint,
recapturing that sound beautifully and immediately evoking some of my favorite
Steely Dan hits. The Mk. 2 preset also nails the character of that iteration,
with its emphasis on the tines. The Wurly had me jamming out old Queen and
Supertramp classics with glee.
As for the CP-80, its metallic sheen and muted
bass notes nail the sound of Peter Gabriel and Simple Minds alike. The Clavinet
is particularly satisfying, with high playing velocities delivering that funky
Yamaha tells us that these instruments are
sourced from their CP4 Stage (reviewed Jan. ’14), and they certainly sound like
it—which is to say, their quality and authenticity is what you’d expect
from a high-end stage piano, though of course that keyboard has more variations
on each sound type.
five effects are in series: Overdrive into a tremolo/wah unit followed by a
chorus/phaser, then a delay followed by a reverb.
The Overdrive knob behavior depends on the
selected preset, with the electric pianos receiving gentle grit and warmth, but
the Clavinet getting downright crunchy with that guitar-like sound at maximum
settings. With the toy piano sound, the knob works almost like a mic emulator
that also includes a touch of room sound. On the CP-80 it’s extremely
subtle—almost like a tone knob for the pickups.
The next effect can serve as either a tremolo
or touch wah. Flavors of tremolo are tied to the preset: The Wurly, toy piano,
and Clav modulation is a non-panning triangle/sine wave, whereas the Rhodes
models pan in stereo, with an immediately recognizable square-ish wave. The
CP-80 has a triangular feel, but also in stereo. The touch wah behaves
predictably across all six presets, and delivers that “Higher Ground” wah sound
on the Clav.
The phaser/chorus section is another either-or
proposition, but that’s fine since adding both to an instrument tends to make
things muddy. Here the chorus has a real richness with a lot of stereo width.
The phaser is also gorgeous when paired with certain pianos, notably the Rhodes
Mk. 1 for that trademark Steely Dan sound.
The Delay is cleverly implemented and can be
switched to either analog or digital mode. In analog mode, the repeats have a
decidedly tape-like character that sounds fantastic in every way. The digital
mode is clear and pristine, as expected, with a much wider range of delay
At the end of the chain is reverb, with a
single knob for depth control. While its personality doesn’t change in the
context of different presets, it’s rich, spacious, and wide, with a smidgen of
Conclusions. I was blown away by the attention to detail
in both the Reface CP’s instruments and effects. So much so, that the tiny keys
were really the only thing that became irksome over the course of my testing.
Considered as a portable MIDI sound module, it’s genuinely impressive. Played
from a more substantial controller, it’s even breathtaking.
who remembers Yamaha’s original CS-01 mini synth will smile at its apparent
reincarnation here, which isn’t that far off the mark. Both can be battery
powered (, include speakers, and offer familiar analog controls—but this
is 2015 and that’s where the similarities end, as the eight-note polyphonic
Reface CS also nods at the massive sound of the monster CS-80 analog polysynth.
Synthesis. The Reface CS’ sonic
range belies its simple front panel, making it nearly impossible to come up
with a bad sound. That’s not to say that it’s incapable of sonic complexity,
but the way it’s all implemented makes experimentation fun regardless of your
synthesis skill level.
The architecture draws from the original CS-01
in many respects. An oscillator feeds a resonant lowpass filter, with a single
LFO and envelope for modulation. What’s interesting is how Yamaha has brought
this design into the 21st century.
For example, the oscillator section is
actually a five-mode tone generator that’s capable of an impressive array of
sounds, thanks to a pair of “macro” sliders—Texture and Mod—that
shape each mode’s character in useful ways.
Multi-Saw mode delivers EDM-friendly chord and
lead sounds, with the Mod slider controlling the detuning amount and Texture
adding a sub-oscillator. In Pulse mode, Mod controls the pulse width while
Texture tunes a second pulse wave in semitone increments. In Oscillator Sync
mode, the two sliders control sync tuning and envelope modulation depth, for
recreating those vintage swept leads. The Ring Modulation mode, which offers a
taste of some of the more aggressive textures of the CS-80, with the two
sliders controlling the pitch of each of two oscillators for nasty, clangorous
tones. Rounding out the options is a basic FM mode, with the sliders governing
FM envelope amount and the tuning of the modulating oscillator. I was really
impressed with all of the modes and was able to sculpt both traditional and
exotic flavors quite easily, thanks to the twin macros.
The lowpass filter is based on an
18dB-per-octave slope, which is both a nice compromise between 12dB and 24dB,
and incidentally the same slope as the original Roland TB-303. That’s not to
say it’s a dirty “acid” filter, though the resonance’s squeaky self-oscillation
can emulate that sound in a pinch. Keyboard tracking is always on by default, a
sensible decision. I was also able to coax out pseudo-organ sounds by setting
the resonance to 90 percent and tuning the cutoff to an octave plus a fifth.
All in all, it’s a nice sounding virtualization with negligible compromises.
Surprisingly, the CS doesn’t have onboard
preset memory. That will be the job of Yamaha’s implementation of WebMIDI. A
planned website called Soundmondo will provide for “social sharing” of voices
across the Reface ecosystem. More locally, an iOS app called Reface Capture
will let you manage Voices (sound presets) and even set lists, handshaking with
your Reface model(s) upon connection.
Modulation and effects. For
modulation, the LFO is a simple triangle-wave only affair that can be routed to
either the oscillator’s tone character, overall pitch, filter cutoff, or
amp—but not multiple destinations at once, which isn’t that big a deal in
the context of such a streamlined instrument. The envelope section is a
standard ADSR with an interesting twist: A slider morphs its destination
between the amp and filter, allowing for some subtle enveloping tricks that
give the design a tad more sonic range.
At the end of the chain is a single effects
unit that can operate as either a delay (with lovely tape-style feedback), a
really sweet phaser, a combination chorus/flanger, or a decent overdrive. A
pair of rate and depth sliders offer a touch of customization.
Phrase looper. The phrase looper is an onboard free-running
unquantized MIDI sequencer that can record up to 2,000 note events, then play
them back with the ability to overdub new parts on top and tweak parameters in
real time as the loop cycles.
This is handy for impromptu jam sessions or
recording your improvisations, sketchpad-style. Unfortunately, there’s no way
to offload these sketches to your computer via USB, so if you accidentally
write the next Taylor Swift hit while you’re doodling around, you’ll have to
record the resulting sequence as audio to your DAW (aided by the fact that the
CS does sync to external MIDI tempo) before powering down.
Conclusions. For such a compact synth, the Reface CS is a
surprisingly capable little beast. While some users may be put off by the lack
of presets, the synthesis engine is so intelligently implemented that it just
might help newcomers learn the essentials without bumping into the walls too
much. Good stuff.
Yamaha’s six-operator DX7 synth was the
game-changer of ’80s pop, the four-operator DX9 and its offshoots such the
TX-81Z, DX11, and DX-100 were more affordable and portable. The Reface design
artfully recaptures this. With so many four-operator FM synths hitting in the
same decade, their sound became a mainstay of the then-nascent dance music scene.
Tracks like Orbital’s “Halcyon and On” were grounded by the DX-100’s “Solid
Bass” preset, and that’s just one example out of thousands. Currently, the
“future house” craze is based heavily on FM synthesis. So, whether you’re
looking for a modern sound or feeling nostalgic for the ’80s, the Reface DX is
a treasure trove of sonic inspiration.
Architecture and Sounds.
Of the four Reface synths, the DX is the only one with patch memory: 32
overwritable presets. Because of the intricate nature of FM synthesis, this is
an absolute necessity. That said, it’s worth mentioning that even Yamaha’s
30-year-old DX100 offered 192 presets, so 32 seems a bit skimpy, especially in
light of the sonic versatility.
On the plus side, Yamaha has skillfully
curated those presets. On the vintage side are timeless patches like the FM
“Rhodes” that underpinned hundreds of ballads. Another highlight is a spot-on
recreation of the “Tubular Bell” preset that will either remind you of Paul
Hardcastle’s “Nineteen” or Taco Bell commercials from the ’90s. Another
standout is the “Attack Bass” patch, which instantly evokes Howard Jones’ “What
Is Love?” At the modern end, “Feel It” and “Wobble Bass” are candidates for
future house and dubstep, respectively.
While an FM synthesis tutorial is outside our
scope here, if you’re familiar with the territory, the Reface engine offers
some clever new amenities that push the technology a bit further. What’s more,
the Reface DX’s backlit LCD screen makes programming sounds directly on the
synth much easier, thanks to its graphical envelopes and algorithms.
Additionally, the user interface allows access to four parameters
simultaneously, each with its own context-sensitive touch fader that can be
“flicked” for rapid parameter adjustments.
There are 12 preset FM algorithms, which are
more than enough to cover all but the most intricate design maneuvers. Each
operator includes its own envelope, each of which is a four-stage rate/level
affair like on the DX7, as opposed to the simpler envelopes of the TX-81Z and
DX-100. The dedicated pitch envelope also follows this model, allowing for wild
digital swoops when applied to just one or two of the operators (instead of all
four). A single mutli-wave LFO can be routed to the pitch or amplitude of each
of the operators discretely, allowing for vibrato, tremolo, or clever morphing
if you want to dig into a bit of programming.
Another modern FM update is the inclusion of
variable waveforms for each of the operators. In the original DX series, all
operators produced sine waves only. Later models like the TX-81Z offered eight
waveform options. In the Reface DX, each operator includes its own discrete
feedback loop, which can skew the sine wave incrementally toward either a
sawtooth or square. This is a lot more versatile than either of the previous
At the end of the synthesis chain is a set of
effects that really help to fatten the sometimes “flat” sound of FM synthesis.
Like the CS, there’s distortion, phaser, chorus/flange, and delay. You also get
a touch sensitive wah (yes!) and a basic hall reverb.
The DX also includes the CS’s phrase looper
for quickly sketching out ideas. But again, there’s no way to export loops
other than audio recording into your DAW.
Conclusions. As a teenager, I spent countless hours
teaching myself FM synthesis on Yamaha’s DX7 and TX81Z. Forcing my way around
the synth’s two-line LCD was an exercise in patience to say the least. While
the Reface DX’s more accessible user interface is a huge help for newcomers
looking to explore the same territory, the real victory here is its timeless
sound. Whether you’re a vintage buff or a modern EDM producer, the Reface DX
could be a nifty addition to your rig.
shiny red case of the Reface YC is a nod to Yamaha’s vintage A3 and YC-20
organs. It covers five classic organs: Hammond B-3, Vox, Farfisa, Ace Tone, and
of course Yamaha’s YC series. In addition, there’s a built-in Leslie
simulation, distortion, and reverb.
The sound of the B-3 is universally known, but
unless you’re a die-hard organ nerd, it can be confusing to recognize each
transistor organ’s defining sonics, so here are a few musical references for
Unlike the Hammond, which generated sound via
spinning tonewheels and pickups, the other four organs all used transistor
technology. The Farfisa sound can be found in pop tracks like “When A Man Loves
A Woman” and “Crocodile Rock”, later being co-opted by late-’70s new wave bands
like Blondie, the B-52s, and early Talking Heads. The Vox sound was similar but
more flutey and less raspy and played the signature riff on “96 Tears” and
pretty much every Doors song ever. In the new wave era, the Vox featured
prominently in tracks from Elvis Costello, Madness, and the Specials.
Sounds. Each of the Reface YC’s five organs can
be tailored via the nine drawbars, which follow a Hammond-style footage scheme.
Note that Vox Continentals didn’t provide as many drawbars as Hammonds, and
many popular Farfisas didn’t have drawbars at all, just stop tabs. This means
the YC can create harmonic profiles that the originals couldn’t, albeit at the
cost of strict authenticity. In any real musical use, the difference is
negligible. Similarly, the percussion stops affect all of the transistor models
in the same way.
Editor Stephen Fortner is a far bigger
Hammond-head than I am, and having spent time with a Reface YC, he opined, “The
B-3 and Leslie emulation are way better than I expected. Maybe a notch under a
current top-end clonewheel, but just a notch. I’d totally gig with this.”
The only thing you might miss compared to a
full clonewheel is that since the YC is a one-sound-at-a-time affair, you can’t
set up parts for dual manuals (or add a bass pedal part) with different drawbar
Effects. Both the distortion and reverb are terrific,
adding grit and space to the overall sound.
As Fortner noted, the YC’s Leslie emulation is
a solid all around, especially when it interacts with the distortion, adding
that hallmark milky grunge. The rotation speed is controlled on the fly via a
lever that’s in the same spot as the pitch-bender on the CS and DX. To maintain
accuracy, this is a toggle that spins up and down to “chorale” and “tremolo”
speeds convincingly. A stop option emulates the sound of a braked Leslie,
capturing its location in the stereo field at the moment of “stopping” and
sounding completely different than just turning the effect off.
Conclusions. The Reface YC captures the sass and swagger
of both rock ’n’ soul tonewheels and new-wavey transistors with equal aplomb.
Performing on YC’s mini keys was a better experience than on the CP, perhaps
due to the nature of organ versus piano playing. If you’re hoping to rely on it
for more stretched out, two-handed rock playing—because sound-wise, you
certainly could—you could add a MIDI controller or drive it from a zone
on your stage piano and have a very capable and tweakable organ module at your