Synth fans are going to love these portable, vintage-focused keyboards based on acclaimed originals.

Being a jack of all trades is a two-edged sword. In music gear, that’s particularly true: There are trade offs between gear that offers maximum versatility versus instruments and equipment that do one thing, but do that thing exceedingly well. Digital processing can achieve amazing emulations, it’s true, but those “does everything,” multiprocessor-laden devices can be tricky to master, given their menu-diving and multi-function knobs.

Enter the new Yamaha reface lineup.

In envisioning the reface project, Yamaha was keenly aware of the many musicians and producers who continue to maintain a huge love affair with the company’s vintage synths and keyboards. Crucially, the R&D team decided the reface line should resist the jack-of-all-trades syndrome seen on so many keyboards. Their idea was to have each reface model do a limited range of things, but do them extremely well. The aim was to recreate legendary Yamaha sounds while keeping controls straightforward with simplified, hands-on control surfaces. There will be no squinting at arcane, multi-layered menus when setting parameters or playing a reface keyboard.

The fact that lots of music gets made on the go these days was also not lost on Yamaha. So a small form factor, battery operation and onboard speakers got dialed into the design specs. Even if your reface keyboard never leaves the house, its compact design will be a big plus in crowded home studios.

And naturally, these new keyboards play nice with your computer and other USB-equipped gear right out of the box. Yamaha also offers a full range of accessories that deliver MIDI, Bluetooth, and iOS connectivity to your mobile devices and studio gear. The Yamaha reface capture app allows you to save and recall reface Voices using iOS. An audition function lets you play back preset phrases via your reface keyboard. Very sweet.

Don’t be fooled by the compact form factor of these boards. They produce layered, complex music that sounds huge. We suspect reface keyboards are going to be getting a lot of double takes as they show up in studios and onstage. DJs and other groove merchants who’ll be taking their reface into clubs should consider investing in the Decksaver LE. It fits all reface models precisely, providing see-through protection from spills, dust and smoke while accommodating cables. Used inside the Yamaha custom-fit soft case, it adds another layer of protection

Let’s take a look at each reface model.

reface CS

Equipped with the powerful Analog Physical Modeling Engine that boasts multiple oscillator and synthesis types, the CS gives you an enormous array of sounds, effects, and filters for near-limitless creativity. The original CS Series of the 1970s ranged upward from a single-voice model on upwards. Given their very impressive sonic power, many a synth fan has suffered from a form of Gear Acquisition Syndrome, also known as GAS, leading them to collect all the CS-Series boards.

Yamaha Reface CS

Yamaha's reface CS is a compact, analog modeling synthesizer that offers plenty of real-time control and 8 notes of polphony for incredibly expressive sound.

With the new reface CS you can summon up the sounds of the entire family and do a whole lot more, thanks to the modern technology built into reface. While we touched on it earlier in discussing the entire series, it's worth mentioning that reface CS features a very well designed control panel, with one slider per function. No need for menu diving or knob spinning just to get to one parameter! It can't be overstated what a big deal this is for users that like to have complete control of their sound, with the sliders just begging for attention. Even better, with 8 notes of polyphony you can play anything from basses to leads to pads and everything in between.

reface DX

It’s hard to overstate the impact of the original Yamaha DX Series synths when they hit the market in 1983. The first truly successful digital synthesizer, DX Series tone generation was based on frequency modulation (FM) synthesis—a big step up in terms of harmonic capability, stability and precision. Over the years many patches were written for DX synths, especially the best-selling DX7, a mid-level model with over 200,000 copies sold. With their ability to convincingly mimic organs, electric pianos and bass, DX synths turn up on countless songs and soundtracks of the 1980s and still occupy a revered place in groove producers’ toolboxes.

Yamaha Reface DX

If you're looking for the classic sounds of the '80s look no further than the Yamaha reface DX.

The new 4-operator FM engine at the heart of the reface DX opens up levels of expression and dynamics impossible to replicate with the original series. Continuously variable feedback on each operator gives you another huge helping of sound-shaping possibilities. With 32 memory locations to save patches, plus a phrase looper, this is a great tool for sketching song ideas and experimenting with overdubs. An input lets you plug in a sustain pedal for added expression and control.

reface CP

Fans of ‘70s-era electronic keyboards are the obvious buyers of the reface CP. The Vintage Keyboard Sound Engine meticulously recreates the drive and tremolo settings of beloved vintage pianos and clavinets with a startling level of accuracy. A full slate of stompbox-type effects including Drive, Tremolo, Chorus, Phaser, Delay and Reverb offer plenty of sweetening options with dedicated rotary knobs for straight-forward, hands-on control.

Yamaha Reface CP

Yamaha's reface CP offers classic sounds of '70s era electronic keyboards with plenty of on-board effects.

The reface CP features a 128-note sound engine which means it will track your most complex performances seamlessly. (By comparison, the popular Yamaha CS-80 introduced in 1976 offered 8-note polyphony—a big number at the time.) The HQ Mini Keys keyboard itself is based on the vaunted FS action that Yamaha uses on its Motif. It may be small, but it’s wonderfully playable.

reface YC

The “YC” in the name of this reface keyboard stands for “Yamaha Combo” and references the company’s original electronic organs as they were named in the 1960s. It’s from that legacy the new reface YC springs. From an amazingly full-sounding tonewheel organ with complete rotary speaker control to funky Japanese and British transistor keyboards, the repertoire of sounds is mind blowing. The five vintage organ Waves deliver whatever organ sound you need—old school gospel, soul and rock; ska, surf, spaghetti western music—you’ll likely find it here.

Yamaha Reface YC

Yamaha's reface YC, provides classic tonewheel and combo organ sound with real-time drawbar control, rotary speaker simulation, percussion and effects.

Devotees of the original Yamaha YC45 organ that was used to great effect by bands like Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream will love the way the reface YC recaptures those classic psych- and prog-rock sounds. Each keyboard voice has its own optimized percussion section too, a nice advantage for dance-music producers. Use the very dialable Vibrato, Chorus, Distortion, and Reverb effects to shape your own patches.

Final Thoughts on Yamaha's reface

Given their modern capabilities coupled with amazingly realistic vintage voices, the new reface lineup looks like a must-have for synth fanatics. Their very hands-on control surfaces will appeal to those of us who are bummed by menu-diving when the creative bug strikes. The hard part will be deciding which keyboard to go for. Acquiring the entire range might be seem a bit over the top, but with Yamaha positioning these units at a moderate price, that’s certainly not out of the question.

Looking to add a Yamaha reface to your setup? Call a Musician’s Friend Gear Head at 800-449-9128 for expert, friendly advice.