Yamaha Reface CS Review – A Powerful, Menu-Free Minisynth

Yamaha Reface CS
Yamaha Reface CS

At the 2015 Summer NAMM Show: Yamaha introduced its new Reface Mobile Mini Keyboards line.

The Reface keyboard line was inspired by the form factor of the Yamaha CS-01, a mini synth that featured a built-in speaker. The new keyboards use a similar form factor, but have sound engines designed to recall four different Yamaha keyboard lines.

The Yamaha Reface CS is the virtual analog synth in the line. The CS has an easy-to-understand knob-filled interface, but packs a synth engine that is capable of a surprisingly wide range of sounds.

Here is the official intro video:

yamaha-reface-cs-shot

Design & Build Quality

The Reface CS shares several features with the rest of the reface line:

  • Compact size
  • Built-in speakers
  • Can be run from batteries, for portability
  • 37 mini keys
  • USB & MIDI connectivity
  • Yamaha Reface Capture – an iOS patch librarian app
  • Audio In

Yamaha Reface CS Features:

  • Synth engine inspired by classic CS-series Control Synthesizers
  • 8-note polyphony
  • The Reface CS offers five flexible oscillator options, making the synth deeper than its straightforward interface might suggest.

yamaha-reface-cs-back

Around the back, it’s got connections for a foot volume controller, L/R 1/4″ audio outputs, a 1/4″ headphone jack, an 1/8″ stereo audio input, MIDI In/Out (via an included adapter) and USB.

Overall, the Reface CS feels very solidly built, as mini keyboards go. It doesn’t have any ‘flex’ to it, like some mini keyboards do. And, while lightweight, it it doesn’t feel like it’s going to slide around when you play it.

The Yamaha Reface CS Synth Engine

yamaha-cs-panel

The Reface CS is a virtual analog mini synth that offers five main types of synth patches:

  • Multi-saw subtractive synth patches
  • Pulse width modulation
  • Oscillator sync sounds
  • Ring modulation
  • FM Synthesis

The front panel is slider-infested, with a very clear layout that reflects the synth’s straightforward synth engine. It offers controls that should be familiar to anyone that’s worked with subtractive synths, but also offers a few pleasant surprises.

yamaha-cs-modulationThe LFO section, for example offers amplitude, filter and pitch modulation, which let you create a variety of effects, ranging from wah-type filter modulations to tremelo to analog style pitch instability. Depth and Speed sliders give you fine-grain control over the modulation.

In addition, the LFO’s OSC option offers routings tailored to the oscillator type that is selected.

yamaha-cs-oscillators

Looking at the OSC section, you might think it simply lets you select from five different oscillator waveforms.

What it’s really doing, though, is switching between five different synthesis approaches:

OSC type TEXTURE MOD
Multi-saw Adds sub-oscillator Layers multiple sawtooth waves
Pulse Changes pitch of second pulse wave Changes pulse width
Oscillator Sync Changes pitch and tone of second oscillator Sets pitch change amount
Ring Modulation Changes pitch of first oscillator Changes pitch of second oscillator
FM Sets modulation amount Changes pitch of the modulator

This is a key aspect of the CS and opens up a wide range of sonic options.

For example, using the Multi-saw option:

  • The Texture slider lets you mix in a sub-oscillator;
  • The Mod slider lets you change the oscillator output from a simple sawtooth wave to a classic super-saw; and
  • The LFO OSC option lets you modulate the pitch of the super-saws, without affecting the sub-oscilator.

Using the Pulse option:

  • The Texture slider lets you add in a second oscillator and change its pitch in relationship to the first oscillator
  • The Mod slider lets you control the oscillator pulse width
  • The LFO OSC option let you modulate the pulse width

In addition to the synthesis options, the Reface CS offers four effects options:

  • Distortion
  • Chorus/Flanger
  • Phase
  • Delay

Only one effect can be used at a time. And reverb is, sadly, missing in action. The keyboard also offers dedicated sliders for effects Depth and Rate.

Sound and Performance

The Yamaha Reface CS offers a surprising amount of flexibility for a synth with this straightforward a design. There are no menus to navigate through, but you can still create every thing from supersaw trance sounds to pulse-width modulated string sounds to clangorous ring modulated sounds.

This isn’t immediately obvious, though, because the CS doesn’t come with a range of presets that show off the range of its synth engine. In fact, it doesn’t have patches at all.

This means you can’t just sit down at it, scroll though the presets and have any inkling of the CS’s potential. We won’t be surprised if this is hinders sales for the CS, because it doesn’t provide the immediate gratification that a lot of synths do.

If you’re willing to spend some time with the Reface CS, though, you’ll find it is capable of a huge range of sounds, ranging for pads, leads, effects and more.

The CS has some interesting quirks to its design:

  • The synth engine is not velocity sensitive. The lack of velocity sensitivity is certainly old school, but we think a lot of users will miss the expression that even basic mapping of velocity to volume and filter cutoff would offer.
  • It does support a volume pedal controller. In the right hands (or foot), this can add a lot of expression.
  • The CS has just one ADSR EG, but you can control how it is applied to the Filter & Amp.
  • The interface is extremely hands on. Nothing is hidden behind menus – and there’s no patches, so it offers an extremely immediate interface for users that take the time to learn the synth, but not the instant gratification that patch memory offers.
  • No mod wheel – this confused us at first, until we realized that every synth parameter has its a dedicated slider, so a mod wheel would be kind of pointless on this synth.

In addition to some quirky design decisions, there were a couple places where we heard discrete stepping when changing controls:

  • When you do a very slow pitch bend;
  • When you change mod settings for the Ring Mod or FM oscillators.

Both of these are unlikely to crop up during normal performance, but they are not what you’d hear on a true analog.

In our review of the Yamaha Reface DX, we call out the 8-voice polyphony as a limitation. The Reface CS offers the same 8-voice polyphony, but it did not feel like a limitation with the CS’s virtual analog synth engine. Here’s why:

  • We expect that many users will use the DX to play classic DX sounds sounds, including its well-known electric piano sounds, which could run you into polyphony limitations.
  • The CS’s polyphony beats what most vintage and many modern analogs are capable of, so it won’t be a limitation for people using it in typical polysynth roles.

As always, your mileage may vary.

Bottom line: The Yamaha is a great-sounding polysynth, with a what-you-see-is-what-you-get synth interface, This is going to appeal to fans of old-school hands-on synths that don’t mind the mini keys, but not so much to users that want to pull up a patch and play.

Other Features:

The Reface CS includes a couple of other unique features:

  • Phrase Looper – the CS includes a powerful looper, capable of recording up to 2,000 notes or about 10 minutes of music. You can easily record loops, overdup additional notes and then play over the loop. If you’ve got a Reface DX, they can sync automatically via MIDI. The Phrase Looper is designed primarily to be a performance tool – loops are not saved when you power off.
  • Audio input – this lets you route the output of mobile devices and other keyboards through the Reface CS. This is handy if you want to have a minimal mobile rig – just control the level of the external device using its controls.
  • Reface Capture – an iOS patch librarian, not available in time for this review.
  • Soundmondo – a planned patch sharing web site, not available in time for this review.

Summary:

There are three main audiences for mini keyboards. The Reface CS is a good fit for two of these audiences:

  • Users that want a mobile keyboard for portability or compactness – the CS is a capable polyphonic synth. Since it doesn’t save patches, we think it will appeal mainly to people that like a what-you-see-is-what-you-get synth interface and tweaking sounds while they play.
  • Users that need a starter keyboard – the CS is a good fit for this role, because it’s very hands on and easy to figure out, and much easier to learn from than a synth that requires a lot of menu-diving.
  • Users that want a sound module – we don’t see the CS as a great fit for this type of user, because of its lack of patch saving. This is a synth that calls for hands-on control.

Pros:

  • Sounds great
  • Good build quality
  • The what-you-see-is-what-you-get interface is great for creating new sounds and also for live tweaking, completely the opposite of what you see on most minisynths
  • Battery power, built-in speakers and audio in makes it a fun mobile synth

Cons:

  • Mini keys
  • Lack of patch memory will make it unsuitable to many for use as a sound module
  • Onboard effects don’t include reverb

The Yamaha Reface CS is available now, with a street price around US $500. See the Yamaha site for more detailed specs and audio demos.

32 thoughts on “Yamaha Reface CS Review – A Powerful, Menu-Free Minisynth

  1. You mean feature free synthesizer, and there’s nothing powerful in them either. And HUGELY overpriced.

    They need all the marketing and astroturfing to save their faces.

  2. I was able to check this out at Knobcon a week ago and was pleasantly surprised by both it and the DX. Very different in use than something like the microKorg.

  3. Utter shite. This isn’t a review. That guy was on Sonic State demoing the reface series a while back. He is employed by Yamaha (God knows why).

    1. this is a trend people need to know about.
      ads pretending to be legit articles or videos.
      havent seen such a blatant one and on a site i liked to boot.
      i respect anyone getting paid but this is really disappointing.

      1. “That guy was on Sonic State demoing the reface series a while back.”

        It sounds like you may be talking about the guy in the CS’s official intro video, which we labeled as ‘the official intro video.

        We typically include company’s official intro videos in reviews, when there is one, and label it as such. This is so you can get a quick overview of how the manufacturer envisions their instrument and decide if it’s relevent to your or not.

        1. Perhaps work on the format, because in the end the whole thing feels like a promo, not a review.

          Sound on sound and sonicstate are the only two I trust, but with further thought, Synthtopia could be added to that list.

  4. Filter (and other controls like sync pitch offsets, etc) steps in 128 lo-res MIDI values. Stairsteps like a 90’s Virtual Analog.

    The form factor, lack of menu or presets – these are fine. Can’t imagine paying $500 for a synth that steps.

    Novation interpolate the controller data when in motion for smooth tweaks. They also use double MIDI res on some parameters like filter. Come on, baby, slew that data.

    1. Your points regarding stair stepping and controller interpolation are important issues and are understood.

      I’m glad they mentioned this regarding the PB wheel since this suggests this is yet another instrument with 7 bit pitch bend resolution instead of 14 bit, which is problematic and completely unnecessary. It would be a much better review to have quantified this and reported exactly practical pitch resolution it to readers interested in pitch accuracy. This can be done very simply by constructing a sequence of steps sent from a sequencer at various PB values and listening to see when the actual pitch changes, which the human ear can easily determine, especially when listening to pitches beating against a fixed pitch reference in another synth known to have a reliable pitch implementation. The results can be surprising which is why this simple test is so important in any review.

      1. Astro Spy & RabidBat

        You both raise interesting points. Two comments:

        Stair-stepping is not limited to virtual analogs or digital synths. The Six Trak, for example – a vintage analog synth – stair steps very noticeably on filter cutoff and some other parameters.

        Pitch sensitivity is subjective and varies by listener, volume and pitch range. So doing a ‘sciencey’ test like you suggest – where the most critical factor is subjective – would unfortunately only provide a veneer of rigor.

        Because of these points and others, we think it’s most important to note when a synth performs in unexpected ways, so potential buyers can do their own informed testing and determine if a synth will meet their personal needs.

        Thanks for your feedback!

        1. It is absolutely true that stairstepping is an issue on many analog synths since any analog synth with MIDI control or patch storage (ie essentially all of them) restores values using a digital to analog controller, which may or may not be of sufficient and reasonable resolution.

          The assertions that musicians can not hear the difference and that tests are useless are without basis, are irresponsible, and deeply damage your credibility as a serious publication.

        2. There’s a chance that Yamaha could address the stepping in a firmware update. It’s not MIDI itself that determines the smoothness of the parameter – it’s what’s done with it.

          Yamaha could interpolate incoming MIDI data when the slider is in motion, like Novation does.

          If this happens, I’m seriously tempted by the Reface CS. If it stays $500 and this isn’t addressed… someone else can buy it.

  5. Its easy to call out on all the negatives I personally dont mind about stepping its only when you are programming the patch it’s not like it will ever be present when in play. From a composer perspective it might be an actual valuable synth especially if the sound is at par with the latest CPU gobbling VA synths in software. Doesn’t anybody recall how pretty much everyone would praise the Yamaha VA sound even until very recently?

    1. That approach – program then play – will hide the low-resolution MIDI increments. (LFOs or envelopes will sound smooth)

      But I don’t play like that. On a synth covered in sliders, you will want to adjust cutoff, offset the pitch on a hard sync patch, adjust pulse width in real time… all adjustments will sound steppy.

  6. Wow, I’ve never lost such respect for a website in just one day. What’s amazing is that the owner is being so brazen about it. The blatant copying of marketing copy, the just utter shamelessness of it all. It’s sad because I used to trust this site. No more.

  7. The concept of Yamaha’s mini CS keyboard is wonderful — harkening back to the days of the CS-series synths (CS5, CS10, CS15, CS20, CS30, CS40, CS50, CS60, CS70, CS80 — did I miss any?). These were really nice sounding analog synths with lots of character. Certainly the CS80 is well known because of Vangelis. His score to Blade Runner is largely defined by the CS80 sound.

    Is it me or does this CS Reface sound nothing like the originals? I’m still in the camp that I’ve yet to hear a virtual analog that sounds as good as the real thing. Considering the growing range of true analog synths that are available, I’m not alone here.

    To qualify “good”: the original CS series had a richness to the sound and a filter that was, for want of a better description, “delicious”. (I have a touch of synesthesia when it come to sound.) When I hear a good sound I sense a three-dimensional physical sensation and a taste; in other words a really strong emotional and physical sensation. I get this feeling with most (not all) genuinely analog synths. With the VAs, I get nothing. It’s flat, featureless, lifeless.

    I think (?) companies like Yamaha are doing virtual analog because its easier and, probably, because they can’t get electrical engineers who understand analog circuits anymore. It’s a shortcut and they hope that most people won’t notice or care.

    For me, the polyphony isn’t an issue. I want the sound and I can get it a lot cheaper with something like an Arturia Mini/microbrute or even a Korg Volca for a lot less money than this imposter.

    1. +JC

      This sounds alot better than a minibrute or volca. It has a sweet smooth filter. Does that liquidy moog style bass easily. Had a fast snappy envelope to do drums. And does gorgeous string pads and etheral sounds. Its a gem. And no analogue is any better on the market today.

      Sure patch memories and full sized keys would be desirable. But its the SOUND and flexibility that comes first. And arturia, korg and Roland cannot touch the CS REFACE in this price bracket sonically. 8 note poly with this sonic power should be heralded as a major breakthrough.

  8. i bought one. had some old effects pedals i wasnt using anymore. after trade in, i paid $360 for it, and i couldnt be happier. after getting comfortable with it, i honestly think this review isnt far off the mark.

    it is a great instrument, and in my personal opinion, the only real negative is the price. beyond that, i’ve coaxed all kinds of sounds from this thing. im running it through a hardwire supernatural, and this thing is heavenly.

    i guess i just don’t understand what all of the negative feedback is about. it seems like everyone is expecting a prophet 6 and then getting disappointed because it isnt one. i have to wonder how many people slamming this thing have even played it yet.

  9. @61050 I’m sure that you ARE the only commenter who has actually touched the thing.

    I had a play on one. It’s a real synth masquerading as a toy. The internal speakers are barely laptop quality (as I expected) so no-one will be creating fat bass sounds while listening through them but they’re not a feature I would rely on. It didn’t take long to find some reasonable sounds and with some care I’m sure I would be able to dial up a decent analogue “string” pad which has been a big hole in my synthesizer armory – digital string pads are so nasty.

    The SC seems to be what I’m looking for – the good old days of tweaking sounds from scratch like on my real analogue Clef Microsynth (which has no presets either but that hasn’t really been a big deal because I’m used to the traditional method of photocopied patch sheets). Being hands-on is much more fun than tediously stepping through banks of other people’s cheesy presets which are never exactly what you want if you’re creating original music instead of looking for the perfect Van Halen Jump patch for your covers band. I don’t think the CS would be a disappointment the way my MicroKorg has been where switching between parameters and adjusting them one by one isn’t anywhere near as intuitive as getting in there and working directly with hardware controls.

  10. +AR

    Absolutely. Too many are looking at its small size and lack of patch memories and making snap judgments. This little synth has impressed me alot. Ive had one for three weeks now and the sounds ive got out of it already are as good as anything thats ever come out of any synth.

    The real power and beauty of this synth is its ability to produce stunning sounds from relatively few parameters.

    Ive already designed simple patch charts and recorded dozens of sounds. Although it has no onboard memories. You can program a patch on less than a minute. Now I come from a DX7 background. So you know thats a dream to me. I used to take 20 to 30 minutes to program one sound on my DX7.

    Yamaha have delivered an amazing little synth that can turn out great pads, bass, percussion and effects with very little effort
    .And thats the IMPORTANT part. It challenges you to be creative and not rely on presets.

    And this huge sounding synth can be taken anywhere thats another amazing thing. Without question the best sounding mini synth of alltime. Sweet, sweet filter.

  11. Old post, but I played with most of the CS line at Knobcon ’17 and the CS was a pleasant surprise. Looks like a toy, but playing it was kind of a joy really and it sounded surprisingly good.

    I thought I’d love the DX, but nope, I’ve gone too far down the modular FM rabbit hole to get back into Yamaha FM. The CP just made me sad after trying the Korg Vox Continental. (Didn’t get a chance at the YC but it’s not really something I’m interested in.) But I’m thinking about that CS.

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