Geartalk: Yamaha Reface CS

Being in need of a polysynthesizer which offered hands on controls, taking up little room in my studio and have my bankaccount take minor damage, I aquired a Yamaha Reface CS. I’m writing this after owning the CS now for almost a week and it ticks all those boxes and a lot more which is why I’m loving it so far. So here’s why in a bundle of words.

There are people who would think this thing is a toy, mostly because of its size, looks and the fact that it has minikeys. I’m rather a fan of mini keys, probably because I got small hands…and minkeys means small gear most of the time which is great if you also have a small studio. For me the toylike size and the intuitive design actually compliment each other, to me it screams ‘play with me’. The fact that is has no menus, but only a selection of sliders means you memorise the interface very quick and are reaching for the slider you want to control without looking in no time. No menu delving here, so you keep on playing, instead of looking at a screen, a habit that already has been taken care of by my computer. Now about those sliders…

I’m going to focus on the way the CS stands out to me in sound and design and skip yapping about the layout of the panel or basic synthesizer theory and features. There aren’t many bells and whistles on the CS, the panel and its layout are pretty self explanatory. So I rather talk about the things which aren’t perhaps obvious on first look and that is for instance that this small synth has a lot of features, but packaged in a quite unusual way.  The oscilator section most noticeably. It features 2 oscilators with multisaw, pulse, oscilator sync, ringmod and FM which you can control with 3 (!) sliders. I probably should say 5 sliders, taking into account the LFO section with 2 sliders can also modulate the oscilator section. Yamaha have clevery combined functionality in this section. For instance, you not only select a type of oscilator with ‘type’, but most of the time also a combination of oscilator/synthesis/effect. Let me explain this further and short by presenting you with a list of oscilator types and its features:

multisaw – texture: amount of detuned saw waves & mod: adds a suboscilator. LFO can modulate the pitch of the detuned saws (not the suboscilator).
Pulse – texture: pitch of second pulse wave & mod: pulse width. LFO can modulate the pulse width.
Sync – texture: pitch and tone of oscilator 2 & mod: pitch envelope modulation amount. LFO can modulate oscilator 2 pitch.
Ringmod – texture: pitch of oscilator 1 & mod: pitch of oscilator 2. LFO can modulate oscilator 2 pitch.
FM – texture: modulation amount & mod: oscilator 2 pitch. LFO can modulate modulation amount.

Yamaha has taken away lots of controls which you normally may expect to be present. You can’t edit both the pulsewidth of oscilator 1 &2. You can’t select a type of oscilator in sync, ringmod and FM mode let alone edit  both oscilators independently. Normally this would bother me, but the way features are combined and how easy you can control and modulate these features with just 3-5 sliders results in a synthesizer which is a joy to play, offers great sounds and fast. In this case less is truly more. On a sidenote: it already happened to me quite a few times that I couldn’t get the sound I was looking for within an oscilator type, but received a great and unexpected gem of a sound in return while I kept all the settings the same, but just selected a different oscilator type.

The ‘feature combo’ approach is also noticable while looking at the envelope section. There’s only one for both the vca and vcf, but with the nifty EG slider you can control how much the envelope modulates the vca and/or vcf . Seems like a cut in features once again on paper, in the real world, works more than good enough for me.

Minor gripe coming up…the filter sounds tasty, beefy and squelchy, but in use, its cutoff slider doesn’t do anything to the sound below 1/3 of its setting. Here’s hoping the scaling of the cutoff slider will be fixed in a future update. Let’s continue with the effects, because yes, the CS has some, even 4 of them: delay, phaser, chorus/flanger/distortion. They do as their names imply and can add some extra flavour to the sound. I find for instance, that using the chorus/flanger or phaser at just a different rate then the LFO rate (and in my case at low depth settings of the effect) adds slight rhythmic fluctuations to sounds which tend to make them more interesting over time. Altering the  depth of the effect while playing adds even more much welcomed drama. I like the fact that the distortion does what its supposed to do, but without adding gain to the sound, so the amount of db doesn’t go up and it doesn’t result in unwanted clipping on the output signal of the synth which is sometimes the case with some distortion effects.

Another added bonus is the phrase looper, which gives you the possibility of recording melodies and playing on top of those melodies. And of course, although I wanted this for its poly capabilities, you can also play the cs in monophonic mode together with some portamento if you want to.

Alright, coming to a close. So far you haven’t heard me yapping about saving sounds. That’s because there isn’t any way of saving sounds on the CS itself. In order to do that, you’ll have to use the Soundmondo website or app on an ios device. So saving and using sounds is possible with a workaround. For now, I haven’t missed any way to store or recalling sounds and find my own memory, as faulty as that is, often suffice.  I see not having a dedicated way of saving sounds in this occassion as an invitation to play a lot with the settings so I save the appropriate settings in my own memory, rather than getting lazy and needing an extra device to memorise them for me.

I read a review about the CS beforehand in which the reviewer said that the CS was more than the sum of its parts.  I tend to aggree. It sounds great, it can sound very silky, but also very dirty, metalic and harsh. It is very intuitive and gives you great sounds fast, but more important, it causes ‘happy little accidents’ all the time which leave you wanting to explore and play it some more.

To illustrate how addictive and inspiring the CS to me is, here’s a selection of 11 sketches I made during the first 2 afternoons of owning it. All sounds except drums come from the CS , without any additional  and external effects on the synth sounds.