Yamaha Reface YC Review

Riding the wave of reissues, Yamaha released the successful Reface series, a modern take on some of its classic keys of the past: The Reface DX revisits the ubiquitous in ‘80s MOR recordings, hotel discos and cruise ship piano bars DX7 digital synth, the Reface CP is based on the CP80 electric piano, the Reface CS on the legendary CS analog monosynth family of the late ‘70s, and last, the Reface YC, is a modern take on the YC organs, Yamaha’s very own combo organs of the late sixties to mid-seventies period. These new iterations of the Yamaha classics were built with affordability, versatility and portability in mind. The latter is of particular importance, since they come as alternatives to heavy, bulky analog machines.

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Being someone who uses keys all the time, and knowing very well the pain of having to move a transistor organ or an electric piano around venues and studios, I was happy to see Reface around, even though I was a bit skeptical about the sound: I find digital organ emulations to be somewhat flat and lacking – and the costs involved into owning a modern top tier organ emulator are disproportionate when compared to the sonic quality and low cost of a ‘70s analog transistor organ. The basic question has always been: “Why spend 1.500$ for a Nord Electro, when a 150$, battered, yard sale Ace Tone will sound better?” 1.500$ is a commitment. 150$ is a fun amount to spend.

With a price ranging anywhere from 300 to 400 US $, the Reface YC looked like a very interesting proposition, and the wealth of features seemed like a fair trade off to the 3-octave mini-key keyboard.

The only thing I wasn’t willing to trade was of course the sound. As said, transistors – especially the older, Germanium ones – are key to creating a warm, fuzzy, perfect organ sound, while the Reface YC, being a contemporary design, uses instead the AWM (Advanced Wave Memory) tone generator, which is the proprietary PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) sampling engine used by Yamaha.

On the other hand, even the original YC series, used tone generators that were outside the canon: They were the one of the very few organs using ICs (Integrated Circuits) instead of discreet components in the frequency dividers and filters, and probably the only true organs to use ICs in the oscillators. The company was experimenting since the late ‘60s, following an individual path in circuit design, something that played a role in shaping their unique sound.

Yamaha was never the legendary company with a fandom that other brands can boast about. It was never about flashy endorsements, legacy and emotional connection to some gilded history. Most people anyway connect the name with motorbikes or boat engines than with instruments. And even in the field of instruments, its classic, the DX7, is of rather utilitarian nature, becoming a classic for successfully emulating an acoustic piano rather for having any personal character.

In reality, the company has offered instruments that were full of character and unique sonic capabilities – finding their way on stages and in recording studios worldwide. Some of them, were very beautiful examples of modernist design – lacking only somewhat in the naming department: The – Link Wray-endorsed – 1967 SG-2 guitar, the A-3 organ introduced in 1966 and the YC organ series, introduced in 1969. These instruments were a feast for the eyes, as they embodied the best elements of the futuristic ‘60s, and were the first serious rivals – quality-wise – of the US and European manufacturers of the era.

Especially the YC organ, available in a multitude of colors and permutations, was the definitive Yamaha instrument. Extremely stable, being the most reliable organ around, very well designed, with a control panel that helps approach the instrument in a novel way, and a sonic palette that extends way beyond that of most electric organs, it is has been an instrument of choice for the last years.

The only downside it that the most common variation, the YC-25, is a two-manual beast that weighs 45 kilos (100 lbs), meaning that it isn’t very practical to move around – even if it comes with handles – so it mostly a studio dwelling machine.

This alone was enough of a reason to be curious to try the YC Reface, which weighs just under 2 kilos (4 lbs) and is not much larger than a laptop.

Old Becomes New Again

The first thing that someone familiar with the original YC series will notice, is that the designers kept not only kept an appearance similar to the original YC – down to the color palette – but also used a similar layout for the control panel, something that is a big plus, as it is very ergonomic, suited to the needs of organ playing, intuitive, and most importantly, capable of almost infinite tone combinations, managing to maintain the versatility that made the YC such a useful instrument.

On the left end there are the Output Amp controls: Rotary Speaker simulation controls and Volume. Next to it, the Oscillator section, with controls for Octave Transposing (+/-3 octaves, mitigating the limited range of the keyboard) and Wave. There are 5 different waveforms available, each one assigned a letter, which happens to be the first letter of the organ that it imitates, and that Yamaha hasn’t got the rights to it: H for Hammond B3/C3, V for Vox Continental, F for Farfisa Compact, A for Ace Tone Top and finally, Y for Yamaha YC.

In the middle above the keyboard, there is the Footage section with 9 sliders (in the tradition of the 9 Hammond drawbars), on its right the Vibrato/Chorus selector and the Intensity, next to it the Percussion section with On/Off and A/B buttons and a Length slider. On the right end, two sliders for the Effects: Distortion and Reverb.

On the back we find the AC adapter input (it also works on batteries, by the way), On/Off button, and foot controller connection, along with 1/4” L-R output, 1/4” stereo headphone output, 1/8” Aux In, plus, two handy MIDI and USB connections.

The building quality seems good, and the external material – a rubbery, anti-slip plastic, feels good to the touch. The keyboard is solid, stable and with a very nice feeling. In fact, it’s good enough to make the small key size seem irrelevant, and become a factor that greatly adds to the enjoyment of this instrument. Its 3-octave range means it is mostly suited for lead roles, and not so much for 2-hand Hammond organ style playing.

The only inadequacy seems to be in the control panel: The sound of the organ has zero dynamics by nature (it is either on or off, without any sustain or any attack variations), so the tabs, switches, drawbars and sliders of an organ are regularly used, abused an overused, in order to create dynamics. For this reason, the controls have to be sturdy and reliable. This is true for the sliders, but not for the tabs: The 3 tabs present (Vibrato/Chorus, Percussion On/off and A/B) are flimsy to the touch, feel fragile and not always succeed in making contact. Luckily, the controls prone to overuse – and especially the metallic Rotary Speaker selector – feel sturdier and can be used with confidence.

But, given that I can survive the crap quality of some ‘70s organs because a good sound is what I am after, these Reface reliability issues do not distract me at all from the main thing: The sound. And what a sound this little machine has! The good thing with this organ isn’t that it is a good emulator (which, it obviously is), but that it has a personality on its own.

The tones are defined, yet warm. It is a very melodic instrument, that, in the tradition of the best organs, can become eerie and mysterious very easily, something that the tame digital organs in the market struggle to achieve. The sound has all the small “irregularities” so characteristic of transistor and tonewheel organs, yet they remain defined and articulated well.

The “H for Hammond” wave is a very convincing B3 copy, even though its tiny on-board speakers are unable to reproduce those low 16” notes and it would be best enjoyed when hooked to an amp. I may not be the biggest fan or Hammond around, but I found myself using the H wave a lot more than I’d expect.

The obligatory combination with the Rotary speaker emulation, gives some very good results, even if – let’s face it – all approximations of a physical rotating speaker and a rotating horn, are expected to come short and be – at best – a glorified chorus effect. If someone wants a Leslie speaker sound, the only way is to use an actual Leslie and go through the pain of carrying it around. Nevertheless, the Reface’s Rotary speaker simulation is an effect that produces very rich sounds, with swirling bass and pulsing lows, and thus, it is destined to be used all the time for its own sake. Even as a Leslie simulation though, it is worthy, as it is designed to have the characteristic delay when accelerating from Slow to Fast, which is half of the enjoyment of using it, being the perfect tool for verse-to-chorus build-ups.

The V wave offers the rich, square wave tones of the Vox Continental. A very close approximation, with an added plus: The 9 Voice sliders, offer a much greater palette of sounds than the 4 drawbards the Continental had. Plus, the Continental offered 16”, 8”, 4” and 5 1/3” voices, while the Reface offers 9 different footages, making it possible to play sounds that the Continental wasn’t designed to play. This is a very big plus, since it permits the musician to escape the expected norm, given that 60 years of use of the Vox Continental in some of the most famous rock records ever (The Doors are the first example that comes in mind), has somewhat created some fixed expectations of how it should sound like.

The same goes for the next sound wave: F (for Farfisa). Of course, a Farfisa Compact has such an untamed sound that I am not sure anyone would notice if an extra footage or two were added to its sound. This wild, alive sound, was the strong point of the Compact, courtesy of a combination of a unique square wave design and an array of Germanium transistors in the oscillators and preamp. As expected, it is the only one of the emulations that isn’t very successful. This is not a bad thing though: Farfisas are still available on the 2nd hand market, so who wants one can have one. What we have in the F wave, is a really beautiful, lively and frisky organ sound, which becomes totally psychedelic and engaging with the Vibrato on, even if someone is playing simple, one-finger melodies.

The Acetone sound – marked “A” is a much more successful emulation, and it is the one sound suited for every garage, surf, trash, and lo-fi project one could dream of. Reedy, dirty and mean, as it should be.

Finally, the Y wave, is a faithful reproduction of the YC series sound, but with a catch: The YC series had 2 different sound banks – the Flute/mellow one, and the Reedy/Strings/harsh one. Only the mellow one was included, even if all possible needs for a mellow sound are already covered from the absolutely great H wave. Nevertheless, it is still a very usable section, with a characteristic clarity – bound to find its way in many recordings, since it has the ability to cut very clearly through almost any mix.

All these sounds are controlled from the 9 sliders mentioned above. Each slider controls a footage. A footage is practically the octave in which the note will play, and is measured in feet – a remnant of the era of pipe organs (feet measurement corresponds to pipe length)

The 9 footages are the “standard” Hammond footages: 16”, 5 1/3” 8”, 4”, 2 2/3”, 2”, 1 3/5”, 1 1/3”, 1”. So, a C key played with the 8” slider on will be an octave higher than the same C played with the 16” slider on. The sliders with fractions, produce different notes: A C key played using only 2 2/3 will play a G note. By adding the sound of the different sliders together, a very complex, rich in harmonics sound is produced, and it is possible to achieve a very big amount of control on the sound by using the fraction sliders accordingly.

This means that the amount of tones the Reface can produce is almost endless. This makes it a very expressive instrument, something that comes as a welcome exception in a family of instruments which are not very expressive by design – since the sound in an organ is either on or off, without any envelope variations.

The Percussion, which comes in 2 different flavors (mellow and sharp) with adjustable length, is another factor that adds to the versatility of this instrument. Apart of the usual implementation, as companion to the Hammond-like H wave, it can also be used for pseudo-harpsichord sounds (sharp), Hohner Pianet-like sounds (mellow) and with the addition of Vibrato, for a Marimba/Vibraphone-like effect.

The Vibrato has adjustable depth, but sadly fixed speed, and it’s very rich and organic – permitting some rather sci-fi effects on full depth. The chorus on the other hand, is a puzzling addition: It sounds almost exactly like the Vibrato (which was the only effect that all electric organs feature), any chorus effects are too quiet to be heard, and looks like an afterthought in an attempt to make the instrument more appealing to a younger generation and to non-organists who know what a Chorus pedal does, but not what vibrato is. It would have honestly been better if they didn’t include it: A Vibrato On/Off tab, as in every other organ before them, and a variable speed Vibrato control would have been the perfect set up.

Compensating for the useless Chorus, the YC has 2 more- yellow – sliders. In the original YC, the yellow color was reserved for the Strings slider, that is, for the slider producing the most exhilarating, delightfully ear-piercing sound. The meaning of the color coding remains the same: Reface’s 2 yellow sliders (labelled “Effects”) are Distortion and Reverb, do a great job in roughing up things.

Reverb was a feature in most upmarket organs in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Most were using a variation of the Hammond design (made today by Accutronics), and it was included in order to imitate the sound of either the Hammond or the Cathedral organ, but used to a totally different effect from rock musicians. Of course, in the Reface case we are talking about a digital reverb, as there would anyway be absolutely no space to fit a spring reverb unit in this tiny machine. It has a warm, dirty sound, bassy enough to fill the mix, but not enough to muddy it, and the slider seems to control both intensity and duration of the reflections. It is a very useful addition, since most keyboard players tend to hook the organ directly to the mixer than to use an amp, and it helps shape the sound.

The Distortion effect is mostly an Overdrive to be honest, since a real distortion would have created a total mess over the harmonics-rich sound of an organ. It very nicely set up as to warm up the sound significantly, but not to the point of forcing the musician to use power chords. It was designed as an imitation of the Hammond tube preamp overdrive, which gave a characteristic warm color to the sound, but, as with most other features of this organ, it goes beyond that: Adding it to any other wave – especially to the F, creates a dirty, fuzzy, buzzy, irresistible mix, putting the fun in organ playing, and making this little organ achieve the impossible: To stand next to a vintage Farfisa, Gem, or Vox organ in regards of how fun it is to play.

In a world where accountants have an equal say in designing a musical instrument as the actual designers, where efficiency is prioritized over personality, and practicality over fun, Yamaha offered the best thing possible: A product that can keep both the accountant happy and the designer proud, but most of all an instrument with a sound that will make a musician excited, while being cheap and really, really portable – two more reasons for excitement.

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