I have had a Reface DX in my possession for a few days now, and would like to share some thoughts regarding my first impressions with it.
Format and interface
I belong to the group of people who quite like the current trend with ”mini” instruments. The DX being small and compact suits my needs, and I was pleasantly surprised by the build quality when I unpacked it. It feels well engineered and solid, with the possible exception of the slightly flimsy volume and octave sliders. I have it connected to my master keyboard, at arms length for editing, and yet it is simple to unplug and bring to the coffee table or my armchair for noodling. Very good indeed.
The concept of mini keys does not matter that much either to me, I’m not classically trained, and it is certainly possible to play both flawlessly and quickly on them. I feel that they are much better than, for example the keys of the Korg iMS20 or the MicroKorg. It also goes well with the entire concept, although I do think Roland seems to have a better concept with its plug-in keyboards to the newly presented Boutique line, at least in theory (they were not available at the time of writing).
The pitch lever turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It offers just the right resistance and makes it possible to precisely and easily bend and color notes. A modulation wheel is surreptitiously missing, but the DX responds to modulation via MIDI.
The touch controls were also better than expected – they are very responsive and free of erroneous trigging, and they can simply morph between switching, stepping and continuous control based on the active parameters at hand. As usual with touch controls it is not always easy to access the full range you would like to have, and I sometimes end up doing ”retakes” with my fingers to bring up the desired value.
Clickable knobs could have been used instead. But I find that quite a few rotary encoders on electronic instruments from the past 15 years or so seems to fail at some point during their life cycle, and I think this will prove a more sustainable design choice. Also, for younger people (and those of a less conservative mindset), tactile touch controls is the norm today, so I also believe the design decision may be with the intended target group in mind. Finally, it blends very well into the design that is more than a little reminiscent of the original DX7!
The MIDI interface, however, is less of a success. Yamaha has opted to use a contact that is very uncommon these days (good luck if you lose the adapter) and incredibly difficult in practical use. Anyone who fumbled behind an old TV set in the 90’s accompanying the hopeless connection of the SCART socket with streams of profanity, will get an unpleasant deja vu. I would argue that it is impossible to connect it without looking straight down on the contact to get it right, and I worry that people may damage the connector when trying to insert it by force. MIDI connectors can often be rotated until they ”click” into place while this type of serial minijack has several “false” locations where it seems to go in but does not. Really bad.
Other parts of the interface are functional but nothing more. The display is good and bright, buttons are ok, nothing out of the ordinary. It can be a bit confusing to edit at first, but quickly becomes second nature as you get inside the mind of the Yamaha engineers. An INCREDIBLE plus to the fact that you can finally adjust multiple relevant parameters simultaneously, and the ability to quickly switch between operators in the same edit mode.
So, how does it sound??
It sounds really good! I no longer have a DX or TX to perform an A/B comparison, and I doubt it would be relevant.
In fact, I think Yamaha did something clever here. Many (including me in the beginning) bemoaned loudly the fact that it would not be able to utilize the thousands of sounds that are available online for the DX7 and TX7. But the distinction also gives it its own identity by creating a new space of sound. The best example was found browsing the sounds the DX comes preinstalled with: Quite a few patches dutifully cover the “classic” FM sounds; you have the Whitney Houston Piano, followed by the Top Gun Bells and Howard Jones’ “What is Love” Bass. And yes, you will play the classic riffs in a happy stupor for an hour or so when you first plug it in. But later banks reveal new, sweeping, a bit half-crazy sounds, which really shows the possibilities of FM in the 2015 soundscape an onwards.
If the DX Reface had been able to load old patches I fear YouTube and reddit had been flooded by people comparing waveforms in oscilloscopes, concluding that “the old DX7 has better aliasing noise on this and that sound” Which of course is completely irrelevant to the quality of the respective instruments. There are still lots of old DX7 and TX7 to pick up relatively cheap, and I say it here and now- if you lust for exactly that sound, then you should buy one. The new kid sounds a little different.
When I first learned about the Reface DX, I was actually concerned that Yamaha would miss the point with FM synthesis, but my concerns were of course unwarranted. Yamaha have managed to preserve exactly what was important, namely the expressiveness and playability of the sounds, and also added a new level of modulating and sculpting sounds.
Brief history lesson
When the DX7 was launched in 1983 it brought two things to the table: It offered a completely new sound palette compared to existing analog synthesizers, and it offered a musical response to being played that was not the norm for synthesizers (unless they were ridiculously expensive). I grew up with analog synthesizers lacking velocity and touch sensitivity, instead offering a variety of other front-panel controls, so for me this was at first difficult to approach, but my friends who focused on the instrument aspect, often trained on the piano quickly became quite lyrical about how much more the sounds could express through velocity and aftertouch. I guess that’s why the DX sound became ubiquitous during a period in the 80’s as it clearly was an instrument for musicians and not sound makers. It was difficult, but eventually rewarding for me to learn to play more nuanced with a different skill (I came from the Mono / Poly and MS-20 world) and I realized that those who bought DX synths without velocity-sensitive keyboards had missed the point completely.
This also meant that I lost interest in FM synthesis in the end. I have owned both TX7 and DX7II, but they eventually became stale instruments to me, locked in a decade of stereotypical sound. They are incredibly tough to program (the TX7 also requires a computer) and I ended up with thousands of downloaded banks of anonymous sounds to browse through, losing inspiration by the day. They became preset synths of the 80’s. (This being said by someone who completely geeked out on FM synthesis creating quite a few sounds back in the day)
The sounds! Back to the sounds!
It sounds great! Yamaha kept the velocity response, made it possible to modulate even more things, and the sounds are expressive to play. It’s also incredibly easy now to access all the operators for editing and adjusting levels, frequency, velocity response and so on simultaneously while playing the sound. Mmmmmmm! Imagine how Yamaha could have extended the life of the original DX-series if they just would have added a few extra data sliders or knobs!
The Reface DX does not have the full six operator sound, though. I still can not quite put my finger on what is missing, but it seems to lack a little depth at times. However, from my point of view, Yamaha made the right design choice in replacing the erratic feedback (which basically shifted the sine wave towards a sawtooth – I looked at it through an oscilloscope back in the day) against waveshaping between square wave, sine wave and sawtooth! For each operator! So this brings forth a completely new FM sound space to explore!
The built-in effects are adequate and stored per sound. I like the setup, they become an integral part of the patch in an easy way, but can also be turned off quickly if you want it.
The Reface DX has too little polyphony. 8 notes do not do FM synthesis full justice, and I lack the ability to lay down a wall of notes that hiss and pulse. But I can live with it in perspective of cost and size tradeoff. It would be interesting if Yamaha were to add an “overflow” function so that you can daisy-chain DX’s in a similar manner as the old TX*16 systems.
Finally, the built-in speakers is a feature that at least appeals to me, if no one else! If I want to disconnect just the DX and experiment a bit, I don’t have to hook it up to a sound system or wear headphones. Tired troubadour jokes aside, surely there must be more people than I who appreciate instruments that can sound by themselves? I also thought the speakers sounded surprisingly good, but they suffer from the usual problem with non-existing bass, and will easily resonate the entire box, leading to unpleasant sound artifacts – and with FM synthesis, it is almost impossible to avoid resonant harmonics in any form.
I will likely write a follow-up to this article with a little bit deeper analysis of the sounds when I had time to work a bit more with it. But for those who want to explore the realm of FM synthesis and start pushing a little bit retro-new sounds into their music, my recommendation is clear:
Before 2020, we will have a monster hit climbing the charts, that contains DX piano, bells, and FM brass. And I am just happy to see something emerge that is not-yet-another-analog rehash!