This is another of those posts that has been a long time coming, partly because of the pandemic, and partly because I’ve been meaning to get back to the topic of music in earnest but wanted to get other stuff straightened out first.
As it happens (and has been usual over the past few months) events have overtaken me, and it makes a lot of sense to clear out my drafts queue by starting with the most interesting bits.
So here goes.
So as part of my musical journey, I played around with Dexed, KQ Dixie and a bunch of DX-7 clones for a fair bit. FM synthesis is a gnarly beast, but you get the hang of it over time, and even though I’ve hardly made any serious headway into it, there is an undeniable feeling of nostalgia when you stumble upon the kind of sound that permeated your childhood.
So getting a DX-7 or something very much like it had been in the cards for a good while–decades even, and it was just a matter of time, motivation and opportunity to do so.
The Quest for a One-Size-Fits-All
But it had to be smaller, like the AKAI MPK Mini Play. And it had to be something I could mess about with without a DAW or any form of computer.
But the Play is limited to its built-in sounds (even if there’s 128 of them and they seem to be a fairly decent rendering of the General MIDI standard). And, for a long time, there didn’t seem to be anything interesting out there with a built-in synth that didn’t cost an arm and a leg1.
Fortunately I chanced upon the Yamaha Reface series, which besides a reinvention of the DX family of synths, also includes an “analog”/subtractive synth (CS), an electric piano (CP) and an organ (YC), each catering to a different flavor of musical nostalgia.
I was set on getting one, and a month or so before the pandemic started (back when the world was normal) the right opportunity arose: I chanced upon the Reface DX online at a fairly decent discount3, and decided to pull the trigger.
It arrived a couple of weeks before all hell broke loose, and much to my frustration, the time and inspiration to actually use it for any extended period of time has eluded me so far (which is another of the reasons this post has taken too long to emerge).
But it’s given me a bit of joy every time I played around with it, and I’m still very glad I got it.
In use, I find it quite reminiscent of the Kawai K1 – the layout is similar, it has a 4x4 sound bank layout, and many of the controls are in the same places. I had zero trouble finding my way around and enjoying it.
I don’t have anything of consequence recorded on it yet, but if you want to have an idea of what it sounds like (and why), you can check out this 8-Bit Keys video.
I did manage to use it enough to form an opinion of it, which I’ve summarized thus:
- The keyboard itself, despite being “mini”, is a fair bit better than the KORG microKEY Air I usually keep on my desk (but, alas, lacks aftertouch).
- The built-in speakers are very nice for such a compact device. Noodling on a couch with it (and it alone) has made for great stress relief.
- The sound patches it ships with unashamedly cater to 80s nostalgia, and I love them.
- There is a (somewhat janky, but usable) iOS app to manage voices (and get more from Soundmondo, Yamaha’s little online community for the Reface series), as well as at least one third-party one for editing them (which I haven’t tried).
- The UI is quite nice as such things go, and there is a lot of depth to it, but most controls are a couple of button presses away.
- The touch input sliders work well, although it might be a matter of taste (many people prefer rotary encoders, and the CS, for instance, is full of physical sliders instead).
- It takes six AA batteries, which means I can noodle in the couch without any hassle.
As an added bonus, it fits very neatly in an IKEA RAMSÄTRA media shelf alongside my other keyboards.
Even considering Yamaha has launched the Reface series some four or five years ago, there are a few things I really wish they’d done (or update) to make it feel more modern:
- The MIDI connector is proprietary (it’s a mini D plug for a proprietary breakout cable that seems to be extremely hard to replace if lost). This is baffling since the back of the device seems to have plenty of room for standard MIDI connectors.
- No Bluetooth MIDI support (which is one of my regular selection criteria for any input device I get, since I plan to use them all on iOS–and it was nearly a reason for not buying it)
- The USB connector is the ancient, bulky type A instead of a micro B (or even C, but that’s excusable for its age).
- It only has four operators instead of the DX-7‘s six. This was a bit of a bummer because I was hoping for closer compatibility, but even if it can’t take DX-7 patches directly it’s pretty easy to find conversions of popular ones in Soundmondo.
- For some extremely weird reason Yamaha doesn’t display any sort of battery indicator until you’re running out of juice–the DX is the only Reface with an LCD display, and yet they apparently couldn’t be bothered to add the single most important piece of information for anyone using it on the go.
So you have zero warning on whether the batteries are running out on you until it’s about to happen (so keep that in mind if you want to use this with an iPad, for instance).
I also got (belatedly, only a couple of weeks ago) a sustain pedal to go with it.
But something to keep in mind if you’re new to the music game is that to hook it up to a computer and record the audio, you need an audio interface4.
Fortunately, around January I had already gotten a Yamaha AG06, which is a class-compliant USB audio interface/mini mixer:
That means it is fully Mac/iOS compatible without any extra drivers, and the original reason I got it was to plug a “good” microphone for proper video calls, recordings, podcasting, and the like.
And that may well be a topic for a full-blown post some day, since my home office is starting to look more and more like a full-blown music/TV studio re-purposed to run Outlook and Excel during most working hours…
But I love the DX to bits. I highly recommend it if you were also enamored with the DX-7, and have been pondering also getting a CS (or CP) as well for the sheer physicality of the things (and getting myself further away from computers while having fun).
More on that in a few months, I think.
And yes, I am aware that I was effectively circling around my craving to get an OP-1, but that would entail spending five times as much as I did on the DX and I saw no effective return from that at the time. ↩︎
AKAI recently released a MK3 version of the MPK mini that has a ton of improvements, (but without Bluetooth, sadly). I added it to my wishlist the instant it came out (and at this rate, if I ever get one, I’ll probably post about it sometime in 2022). ↩︎
It actually seems to be the cheapest of the bunch these days, with the CP “piano” sticking closer to the original retail price. ↩︎
I wish Yamaha had implemented audio output over USB, which would be a killer feature. But it would have been quite unusual at the DX’s price point. ↩︎