Sunday, 12 January 2020
TAKE ON ME, TAKE ME ON 
A question has been plaguing me for weeks: should I buy a Yamaha reface DX?
One new year’s resolution for me is to make more music. I can read music, and play the piano a bit, but there Is much space for improvement. Music is just one of those things it feels like I should be able to do. But when a particular idea plants itself, one that will require a substantial commitment from me, in terms of time and financial outlay, in order to justify itself, it is a decision I could not take lightly – it has been in the back of my mind for months.
The Yamaha reface DX is one of a series of four music keyboards, released in 2015, that aims to replicate other keyboards in Yamaha’s history and, like the Sega Mega Drive Mini and Nintendo NES Classic Mini, give users the experience of using the original hardware, with authentic knobs, switches and sliders – the CP is an electric piano, the YC a combo organ, and the CS is a synthesiser representing the late 1970s / early 1980s period when sounds where carefully shaped through adjusting many different levels, meaning it is the only keyboard in the range with no sound presets.
The reface DX aims to capture a very specific period in pop music that was defined by the original Yamaha DX7, known as an “FM synth,” as Frequency Modulation Synthesis, in the most basic sense, involves using the frequency of a sound wave to alter the sound of another one. The programming of a DX7, which could use up to six operating frequencies at once, was notoriously difficult, meaning most musical artists and groups stuck to the original thirty-two preset “patches” it came with. Therefore, from the DX7’s release in 1983 to the end of 1980s, by which point keyboards became more sample-based, the carefully-shaped sounds of pianos, bass and tubular bells could be heard in songs by A-Ha, Kraftwerk, Talking Heads, Jan Hammer, Genesis, Supertramp, Steve Winwood, Vangelis, Toto, Elton John, Queen, Level 42, Beastie Boys, Stevie Wonder, U2, Donald Fagen, Yes, Jean-Michel Jarre and Dire Straits – the last one is mainly the opening bit to “Money for Nothing.” Brian Eno used the DX7 extensively, but unlike most people, he mastered the programming.
Why wouldn’t I like to join that list buy buying a reface DX? The nostalgia from that period in music is intoxicating, because it sounds unlike anything that came both before and after it, as sampling slowly returned a more natural sound into the 1990s. The FM Synth sound is something to which people keep returning, both because it evokes a particular setting, or time period, as much as being part of a musical palette. I would like to do something with that.
Justifying the cost is one thing when you both consider its deliberately smaller form figure, made to accompany bigger set-ups for performing artists, makes it look like a toy keyboard. Korg also make the Volca FM, one of their series of portable synthesisers, but it was too complex for me – the reface DX uses touch-sensitive sliders and USB downloading for programming its sounds, making them far easier to contemplate than the original DX7. Most of all, the ability to emulate any old sound using computer programs and apps make the idea of spending a single penny sound pointless.
What could I do? Over the last few months, I have read countless articles, and watched numerous videos, from people talking about the reface DX, going over every possible subject from what samples have been included – the link to more recent drum ‘n’ bass and EDM music has been made as much as 80s pop – to what happens If you run a factory reset. I know I will need to make space at home for the new keyboard, and I will make time every day to practice making music on it. Even as part of making a trip to London, I looked in at Yamaha’s showroom in Wardour Street to try playing one...
Yes, of course I bought one. As soon as I hit an “F” note using the Tubular Bell preset, that was it. I may have committed to this like I was owning a pet for the first time, but I know I am going to enjoy using it.