the comfort food of synths

Back at KnobCon 2017, among all the gear I tried, aside from Natural Gate the thing that stuck with me the most was how pleasant the Yamaha Reface CS was. It uses the AN1X virtual analog engine, and relatively simple controls and no patch memory in the style of a classic synth. My impression at the time was that it just can’t go wrong, can’t be made to sound bad; it was pure fun to play and tweak. That’s what its owners and reviewers say too — you play with it a bit and it just takes you somewhere that you want to curl up inside and play with it for hours. A feel-good instrument.

It had a few things going against it in the market:

  • It looks kind of like a toy. Mini keys, built in speakers and simple controls don’t really say THIS IS A SERIOUS PIECE OF HARDWARE. It’s got to be black, and optionally have wood side panels or ravey bright lights. (Even Moog can barely get away with colorful panels.) And some people just hate mini keys. People look at it, think “another Yamaha toy” and move on without trying it.
  • The feature list isn’t exciting. It’s a “virtual analog” synth (“digital subtractive would be a better term) released in a time when real analog had surged in popularity. If I hadn’t had the chance to try it myself and experience what it’s like to play it, I wouldn’t have believed it was anything special.
  • It was one of a line of four keyboards with a similar format, also including the electric piano Reface CP, the organ Reface YC and the FM synth Reface DX. The latter stole most of the attention, because the DX-7 was one of the most popular synths ever made.
  • When people think of a Yamaha CS synth, they jump right to the CS-80 — the 200 pound monster that Vangelis used for the lush and expressive Blade Runner soundtrack — and this is not that at all. (It’s inspired a bit more by the CS-01, which was a little grey synth that was Yam’s answer to the Roland SH-101. Again: simple, easy to dial in something good, and just satisfying to play.)
  • The retail price was too high at the start, and prices have been bizarre since then. Occasionally deeply discounted, but often higher than the original price. They’re hard to find used because of few owners ever want to let them go. So you just have to sort of watch for deals.

I found it at that discount price though, and it fits within my “I’ve still spent negative dollars” budget. So there’s one on the way.

Whether I’ll attempt to keep both it and the Microbrute with a 2-tier stand, or make them compete for my favor, remains to be seen. Microbrute went from being used in 1/3 of my recordings for quite a long time to much more rarely used recently, but I still have a pretty high opinion of it.

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