Yamaha Reface DX Synthesizer Review – User-Friendly FM Programming In A Hardware Keyboard

Yamaha Reface DX
Yamaha Reface DX

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

The line was inspired by the form factor of the vintage 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 DX is the FM synth in the line. For people that are interested in mini synths or in a modern FM synth, the Reface DX has a lot to offer.

In many ways, the Reface DX is like an updated version of the classic Yamaha DX100. Like the DX100, the Reface DX is a portable 8-voice 4-operator FM minisynth

But the Reface DX adds built-in speakers – making it a completely portable solution, a good effects section, a looper, audio in, modern connectivity and more.

Here’s Yamaha’s official intro to the Reface DX:

Design & Build Quality

yamaha-dx-reface

The Reface DX 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 DX Features:

  • Four-operator FM synth engine
  • Built-in effects engine
  • Multi-touch control interface lets you control four parameters simultaneously
  • One of the most user-friendly FM hardware synths yet
  • 8-note polyphony
  • 32 Voice Memories
  • Backlit display

The Reface DX is solidly built – with enough strength that it doesn’t have any ‘flex’ to it and enough weight that it doesn’t feel like it’s going to slide around on a table or stand when you play it.

yamaha-reface-dx-back

Around the back, it’s got connections for a sustain pedal, 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.

The front panel controls, though, are what make the Reface DX most interesting as an FM synth:

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Unlike most hardware FM synths, the Reface DX has a bright backlit screen that clearly displays detailed patch information. And it’s paired with a multi-touch control panel that makes creating and editing patches fast, because it gives you simultaneous access to four aspects of the patch.

As a result, the Reface DX is one of the most user-friendly FM keyboards that we’ve seen for patch creation and editing.

Select EG, for example, and you’ve got simultaneous control of four envelope levels, with clear visual feedback:

yamaha-reface-dx-envelope-generator

Select ‘Freq’, and you’ve got simultaneous control over four operator frequencies:

yamaha-reface-dx--patch-editing

This doesn’t eliminate the complexity of FM synthesis, but it makes FM synthesis easier to learn and much more immediate to tweak, for both for patch editing and live performance.

Sound and Performance

Turn it on and try a few presents and you’ll immediately recognize some classic 80’s sounds, like the Fender Rhodes-like ‘Legend EP’, the new-agey ‘AmbiPluck’ and the metallic ‘TublarBell’.

The Reface DX is a 4-operator FM synth, like the DX9, DX21 and DX100 synths of the 80s. And it can recreate many of the iconic FM sounds of that era.

Most of the classic 80’s FM synths, though, were limited to sine-wave operators and had 14-bit digital-to-analog converters.

The Reface DX synth engine improves on these predecessors in several ways:

  • Waveforms are not limited to sine waves. A Feedback button lets you morph the waveforms continuously from a sine to a sawtooth or square wave.
  • Cleaner output – in comparison to our vintage DX5, we noticed that the Reface DX has lower noise audio outputs.
  • Wide selection of effects – the Reface DX offers two effects slots, each of which can be set to Distortion, Touch Wah, Chorus, Flanger, Phaser, Delay or Reverb. The effects are very useful and let you create FM patches with a lushness not possible on Yamaha’s classic 80’s FM synths.

One thing that you can’t get from reading specs or listening to sound demos is the fact that Reface DX is very responsive and playable, as mini keyboards go. The synth engine responds wonderfully to variations in how hard you play the keys, and it shines with some of the classic FM ‘electric piano’ style patches.

The one significant limitation we found to the synth engine is the 8-voice polyphony. Most users won’t find that a limitation when playing the Reface DX using its mini keyboard. If you’re using the DX with an external keyboard and a sustain pedal to play EP sounds, you might.

Bottom line: The DX1 & DX5 are still the FM kings, and the third-generation FM synths of the late 80s, like the DX7/IIFD still offer a compelling combination of playability and power.

But the Reface DX sound engine compares favorably to classic FM synths – even to deeper 6-operator synths – because of its morphing waveforms, clean output and built-in effects.

Other Features:

The Reface DX includes several other unique features:

  • Phrase Looper – the DX includes a powerful looper, capable of recording up to 2,000 notes or about 10 minutes of music. You can easily record loops, overdub additional notes and then play over the loop. This 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 DX. This is handy if you want to have a minimal mobile rig – just control the level of the external device using its controls.
  • Interactive performance control – FM synths have traditionally put powerful synth engines behind minimal interfaces – which has meant that many owners played the presets and didn’t tweak sounds while performing. The Reface DX gives you direct simultaneous control over 4 parameters in a patch, which creates some interesting performance options. For example, tweaking the Operator Frequency parameters can quickly turn a gentle EP sound into a clangorous mess and back.

Summary:

There are three main audiences for mini keyboards – and the Yamaha DX does a good job of meeting the needs of each:

  • Users that want a mobile keyboard for portability or compactness – the DX balances portability with great build quality, playability and powerful features.
  • Users that need a starter keyboard – the DX makes a good starter keyboard, because it provides classic pad, bass and lead sounds out of the box along with some very modern FM sounds. The Reface DX also offers a lot of room to grow, because it offers one of the best user interfaces we’ve seen on an FM keyboard, which should make it easier for owners to dig into the depths of FM synthesis
  • Users that want a sound module – the DX has a good balance of features for users that want an FM synth, but don’t need or can’t fit another full-size keyboard in their rig. From a patch-editing standpoint, it’s one of the easiest hardware FM synths you’ll find. And it can be a capable sound module, while also being a fun portable synth. The limitations as a sound module are the limited 8-voice polyphony and monotimbrality.

If you fall into one of these categories, the Reface DX is a fun mobile keyboard that offers great sound, great features and, most importantly, an interface that makes creating FM patches easy.

Pros:

  • Sounds great
  • Good build quality
  • One of the best interfaces we’ve seen on an FM keyboard for patch editing
  • Morphable waveforms and built-in effects make the Reface DX a capable FM synth
  • Battery power, built-in speakers and audio in makes the DX a very capable mobile keyboard

Cons:

  • Mini keys – ff you don’t want or need a mini keyboard, you can find a more affordable alternative with vintage Yamaha DX keyboards
  • 8-voice polyphony may be limiting in some situations
  • Even with a user-friendly interface, FM synthesis is still one of the more challenging forms of synthesis to dig into and learn.

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

30 thoughts on “Yamaha Reface DX Synthesizer Review – User-Friendly FM Programming In A Hardware Keyboard

    1. Synthtopia in 30 years:

      “HEY YAMAHA IF YOU WANT TO REALLY DO SOMETHING BRING BACK THE REFACE DX
      korg brought back the prophecy”

      Hopefully with less capitals. Also, the case isn’t quite like the CS-01, and a small, easy to program FM synth is a lot more intriguing to me than a CS-01 or analog (virtual or otherwise) anything.

  1. Completely upstaged by the new Roland Boutique synths IMO.
    And in particular one major design difference: the toy 2-octave keyboard is optional on the Roland synths so they can operate as stand-alone sound modules. Yamaha – listen up to user feedback!

    1. Roland isn’t making an 8 voice FM synth that I’m aware of. Also, Roland hasn’t provided any audio samples. The Reface DX sounds pretty damn good to me, although $ 399 would be a bit more appropriate.

    2. Do you realize how damn tiny the Boutique synths are going to be?

      They’re a foot wide and half a foot tall. Look at the keyboard on your computer or the keyboard on your laptop. That’s bigger than an entire Roland Boutique synth.

      Also – what’s up with the Boutique synths 4-voice polyphony? If you want decent polyphony, you’ll be spending at least $700 for the Boutiques – which is getting into real synth territory.

        1. Yep. Not sure if there’s a valid comparison to be made there, other than the fact that 4 voice polyphony blows.

          Also – the Tetra would blow any of these away sound wise, but it’s also got a crap interface, half the polyphony, no keyboard and is way more expensive.

    1. The Specs on the Reface DX is more like a 4 Operator DX7, then a Tx81z. But with a few twists. You can only use sine waves, but you can use feedback on all operators, also the feedback can create both square and saw waves. The biggest differences is the sound quality which is very clean and got more sweetspots and the intuitive interface. Personally I find the touch surface genius, and you get to change four parameters simultanously. Another detail is the effects, which FM really benefits from, like chorus, phaser, flanger, reverb and more. Chorus especially gives the FM sound a final touch, often.

      I can’t get my hands off of it. Reface DX is a great synth or module if you don’t like mini keys. I was very sceptical, but I actually like the keys.

  2. These keyboards are interesting but too limited for that asking price.
    I’ll wait and see if they drop the price or if they dont sell and get closed out.
    I cant see paying so much for any of these.

  3. I have a Reface DX and I think it sounds great, it really shines with a stereo output – a little more dull in mono but you could probably guess that. Making patches is pretty easy once you have got used to the multitouch sliders.

    There is lots of interesting things you can do such as set different amounts of velocity response to each operator, set envelopes per operator etc. This makes for some interesting and very playable patches.

    The FX section is very useable as well, I have applied the distortion to a couple of sounds which actually goes a nice way to getting a more DX7 like response, the delay and chorus etc. can be pushed into pretty extreme territory.

    My main gripes are the internal modulation options are very limited – I think they could have done better in 2015! I really really wish the LFO was a bit more interesting – the LFO can only be applied to pitch and amplitude, it would go so much further if you could apply it to say operator feedback (who needs a filter?). I believe the LFO is paraphonic as well (though I don’t have the DX in front of me) and you can’t apply negative values to anything (say one operator goes up whilst the other goes down) – this was disappointing as I have made some interesting evolving sounds using the LFO sample and hold which I would love to push further. One LFO per operator would be incredible!! but perhaps that is asking too much 🙂

    The work around to this is control through MIDI CCs, you can actually modulate pretty much every parameter as far as I can tell – but this means another bit of gear in your setup somewhere!

  4. My comment was deleted because I’ve mentioned that these reviews look more like a product information from Yamaha’s marketing team than an objective review.

    The deletion is proof enough that I was right.

    By the way I prefer discussing rather than deleting.

  5. The Reface DX interests me the most, but not at that price. I’ll wait for it to come down, and more likely to buy a Roland Boutique JP08 than a Reface DX. Like the JP-08 I’d want to operate the DX through a decent MIDI keyboard – that tiny mini keys three octave keyboard is just not enough.

  6. Bought one second hand for 200€. I had two days comparing my secondhand Reface DX with his much elder brother, the DX7. Yamaha tried to reinvent the wheel. Okay. But there are several questions left. First question: Why did they ignore this huge library of thousands already existing DX7 patches? My DX7 mk l stores 128 patches. The Reface 32 patches?
    Thank God they didnt repeat the cheap membrane switches. But they created new, nasty obstacles… Why do I have to swipe the touchplates downwards to increase some parameters, for instance ADSR parameters but swipe upwards to increase other numerical parameters? The touchpads on the left of the display causes fatal ergonomical collisions. I’m a right hander. When I touch these plates, my hand covers the display. Another question: why didn’t they attach a touch display? As an ipad/iphone user I repeatedly tried to touch the display, realizing that I’ll have to touch those plates, on the left side of the display ….. and then my right hand covers the display again….. My Reface DX looks nice, but ergonomically it is simply nervewrecking.

    And then I’ll have to complain about the sequencer wich seems to be midi based …. but does not record knob tweaking / cc values. Is it difficult to impliment recording of Control Change Signals? Anwer: No its not. The Yamaha Reface DX already transmits CC via USB/Midi ports, so Yamaha obviously filtered out CC Messages on their Reface Looprecorder. And this is something that annoys me very much! Intentional, unnecessary restrictions, just to make their pro workstations more exclusive.

    Another reason why the Reface DX became a huge flop.
    Korg implimented Knob Recording on their 150$ Volca FM, they call it motion recording. It’s patches are DX7 compatible. Altogether these features make the Volca the successor in the competition.

    Another question: why is it impossible to store these already restricted midiloops with my patches? Whenever I switch off my Reface, the Looprecordings are gone. I simply don’t get it. Mididata are tiny in size. 2015 Flash Memory was not expensive any more.

    And there are other elusive caveats. The reface DX doesn’t allow Midi dump to store user patches to PC or Mac.
    Yamaha didn’t release an PC/Mac Editor. Instead there is a buggy app called Soundmondo to save Reface patches in the Yamaha Cloud, another huge flop. Its now 2017. Yamaha released the reface synths in 2015. After a visit at Soundmondo I had to realize that there are just a dozen reface users, willing to share their patches! The app requires an ipad/iphone or Google Browser to exchange patches. Let’s discuss this brilliant feature in let’s say …. five years? How long will Yamaha continue updating Soundmondo for IOS? I suppose that my Reface DX will be a nice looking paperweight, unable to exchange it’s internal patches to other peripherals. I’ll even be unable to save or recall my own sound creations to PC or Mac! Five or ten years later the restriction to 32 internal patches will certainly hurt!

    But why did Yamaha do that? Answer: That’s how they are going to make your 400$ hardware obsolete. It’s up to Yamaha to decide when your Reface DX will be incompatible, outdated, end of life. They’ll just stop updating Soundmondo. After a few IOS updates Soundmondo will not work any more. This automatically voids each Reface DX to a 32 preset FM toy.

    Maybe there will be some hacks to unleash the true potential of the little beast. One LFO with two optional destinations? Restricted by software. But up to now it’s quite unsure if the Reface DX ever will be hacked. Yamaha sold just a few units, its simply too expensive AND too restricted.
    But there’s hope. I still got my DX7. And I’ll certainly keep it. It’s built like a tank, metal enclosure, Thru hole PCBs, easy to repair, huge library. And its value rises, because the kids want true hardware again. It simply doesn’t pay to restrict synthesizers nowadays.

  7. It sounds fantastic but the initial price was way to high for the specs. 16 Voices and 2 timbres and modulatable feedback would make it an all time classic IMO.

  8. Restricted to make the workstations look better….tisk tisk. If you can get one around 200 bucks used, give it a go….it will make you love your DX21 or DX11 more.

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