Sonic LAB: Yamaha ReFace DX Review

US The new FM engined mini synth gets tested      09/09/15
    MP4 19:12 mins    

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Yamaha (at least the synth department) are on the move - and about time, with a new range of keyboards in the form of the ReFace range. Most large Japanese manufacturers (well the other one)  have a pathological aversion to being seen to visit the past, to go back. So that fact that these even exist means something - change perhaps?

Yes, change can be good, and in the case of the Reface range there certainly is some good. With four distinct models, Yamaha have brought some of their retro past into the future with these modelling keyboards. But not without controversy, just read the comments in any ReFace news story to see.

The Reface DX is the first we're looking at as it really seemed to spark the imagination (mostly positive) of our viewers when we posted the first look videos a couple of months back.

Form Factor
So yes, it has mini keys, and they are quite slim, which does make playing some things a little more tricky than perhaps one would hope for - there, it's done, said. Out of the way, let's move on to the other stuff. Oh, and yes to velocity - quite playable actually but no aftertouch - gutted obvs.

Build - now it may surprise you to know that the DX like all the others in the range, feels pretty solidly built, even the mini keys have a quality feel about them, the case, sliders and buttons are decent -  it does not feel cheap.

Sporting a pair of speakers, the Reface DX gives you a reasonable 6W of power,  either when mains powered (12v DC) or via the 6xAA batteries you can pop in to do the gig on the proverbial bus.

Outputs are stereo L+R, there's an 1/8in Aux in, sustain pedal input, mini-din for the MIDI IO adapter cable (supplied) and USB - which unfortunately is only MIDI and only IO on one port.

Engine Room
Reface DX has a 4-operator, 8 voice synth engine, with twin effects (Distortion, Touch Wah, Chorus, Phaser, Flanger,  Delay and Reverb).

There are 12 algorithms (these are different configurations of the operator routings) ,an amplitude ADSR for each Operator, a common Pitch ADSR and a single LFO, though for some reason, they didn't include patch compatibility with the literally thousands of patches available out there, so all those classic 80s and 90s sounds will have to be built from scratch.

However, the new interface does make this a lot easier than on any original DX, with the clear LCD display and the four touch faders/buttons (yes you can move more than one at a time) though there is still quite a lot of menu diving required to get to the deeper functions.

We do get the Feedback variation from Square to Saw which does give a wider tonal variation, but I must admit I was a little surprised not to see Yamaha push the boundaries of FM synthesis here - where are the mutliple waves of the TX81Z? And the LFO can only be routed to Pitch or Amplitude - would like to have seen Feedback at least, and perhaps more than one LFO - after all, if you are not going for patch compatibility, then why not?

Having said that, the classic 4-Op FM sounds are there  - at least some of them in the 32 memories, though I think the choice could have been a little more contemporary.

It's when you initialise a voice and get stuck in that interesting things happen. This can be greatly enhanced with the addition of a MIDI controller as  all the parameters can be quickly accessed and  also transmit their values for a quick controller learning session.

However, some - (Operator Pitch and Operator Feedback) use two controllers one coarse and one fine to achieve the full range, making it a little more fiddly to setup.

When combined with the FX though, some really unusual, evolving textures can be eaked out of this instrument. Additionally with some manual modulation of the Feedback value (Grrr!), it can sound a bit analog too, something approaching PW or filter action is possible. Though to be honest, there's little point in buying an FM synth to make fake analog sounds is there?

Phrase Looper - it's a simple unquantized MIDI note recorder with 32 bars of memory. Actually the looper on the DX is the most operationally useful, with buttons for stop, start, record etc rather than the slider on the Reface CS which is almost pointless.  You can record up to 32 bars of MIDI notes into it, though it's one pattern, volatile storage makes it of limited use. Would have been nice to have one pattern per patch.

So, I actually quite enjoyed the DX, the touch fader/button does open up the mystery of FM a little more, as does hooking up a box of  MIDI controls. Though there's still an argument for a software editor - which is entirely possible given the MIDI control of all parameters, I'm sure someone will do it or you could easily roll your own with TouchOSC or Lemur or the like on iOS.

In the UK the price doesn't seem to be as high as in the US - we're seeing the Reface DX  advertised for as little as UK £289 which I think is  pretty reasonable for what is a quality piece of hardware with a decent sound engine. Shame about those mini keys though...

Available now Street price £289/$499

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