Classic Synth Series: Yamaha GX-1 & CS-80
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Classic Synth Series: Yamaha GX-1 & CS-80

This mini-article will be the final piece of the weekly Classic Synth Series that we have started sometime ago. Thanks for tuning in, and do look forward for other tech-related articles coming from our kitchen. Cheers!

Yamaha CS-80 (Vintage Synth Explorer)

Looking back electronic music must have been a really different product than what it is today. It wasn’t about thumping beats, searing leads or catchies melody riffs slapped onto a 1 bar loops with breakdowns and drops. It was about experimenting with new sounds and how to incorporate those sounds to make them musical.

The story of the CS-80 starts on 1974, the year Yamaha released the synthesizer touted as the ancestor, the GX-1. The GX-1 was huge. With 4 manuals: 3 keyboards and one that’s on your feet plus a built in speaker this thing is about 250 kilograms weight. But it sounded absolutely beautiful. With 8 voices polyphony, of which that alone was considered amazing ( most synthesizers was still monophonic, save from electric pianos, a few ARP machines and the likes), the GX-1 was capable of creating the biggest, widest sounding pad with lots of movement in it. But this thing was big, heavy, and most of all, unbelievably expensive. At USD50,000, there were only a handful of units built and most of them ended up in the hands of a selected few, high profile musicians. The GX-1 though, was never meant to be a consumer product. It served as the prototype to Yamaha’s next synths, the CS-50, CS-60 and of course the revered CS-80.

Yamaha GX-1 (Vintage Synth Explorer)

In between the release of GX-1 and CS-80 Yamaha made two more synthesizers. The CS50 was released around 1975. Looking at the shape, it was much smaller than its big brothers, the GX-1. Coming with just one keyboard, half the total voice, and being less programmable than its older brother this synth was rather forgettable. Its predecessor, the CS-60 received relatively better response though not as successful as the CS-80.

Yamaha CS-50 (Vintage Synth Explorer)

The story went to a different direction when the third successor to the GX-1 was unveiled. Retaining the chunkiness of its big brother, as well as most performance features, the CS-80 have become one of the most revered synthesizers for many musicians. Looking at the feature set as well as its shape, it’s clear that CS-80 was made as close to the GX-1 as possible, retaining many of its important features, unlike the previous incarnations which trades features for cost.

Looking at what made it became musicians favorite, the CS-80 was indeed capable of some really thick and juicy sounds just like the GX-1. And its ring modulator section adds so much life to the sound, capable of creating subtle movements and variations making the sound musical and living.

Another strong point of the CS-80 was its capability of capturing performances. Many parameters can be modulated using its vast modulation options allowing for very expressive performance by its players. One of the most memorable thing in the CS-80 is its ribbon controller, a touch sensitive horizontal surface that effectively substitutes a mod-wheel control typically found on most synths and MIDI controllers, even until today.

The CS-80 was notoriously hard to maintain. Its oscillators were hard to tune, programming wasn’t really straightforward and keeping it in shape is also a tough task. These setbacks, as well as the less than favorable physical size (it weighs around 90 kilograms) arguably prevented it from becoming one of the most sought after synthesizers around. The synthesizers were in production between 1976 to 1980, and with the price tags of around USD6,900 at the time, the synthesizers have made ways into the hand of many musicians. Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and Michael Jackson are a few big names said to possess the unit. Last but not least, everyone’s favorite producer today and remixer Fred Falke also managed to obtain a second hand CS-80 that he uses in his studio in France.

Fred Falke on his Yamaha CS-80, on the Future Music in-the-studio session


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