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