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:
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.
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
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.
The 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.
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:
|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:
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.
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.
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.
- 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
- 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.