Posted by brunorc on December 3, 2010
In 1990s, Yamaha was busy introducing models from their SY series, successfully merging patented (at this time) FM technology with sample-based AWM synthesis. Later they turned to feature-loaded workstations, like QS300 or W5 and W7, workhorses armed with sequencers; their control surface consisted of display surrounded with function buttons, data wheel… and even more buttons. Users mastered the art of menu-jumping, tweaking parameters one after another. Meanwhile, somewhere in the deep Swedish basement, the completely new shape of synthesizer was being drawn. And after Clavia entered the market with Nord Lead, thus starting the “analog revolution” and bringing knobs back to the public attention, Yamaha knew they would have to jump the bandwagon.
Actually, they hit the sweet spot.
There was a huge problem with QS300 and the W series – they were quite expensive. So Yamaha folks looked at the crowd storming the Clavia stands, took their MU50 sound module and reshaped it into the CS1x synthesizer. They played on people’s sentiment to the well known CS series (with CS80 being the most famous) – old, heavyweight analog synthesizers – but “x” marked the new generation: light, affordable and always in tune. Later, the experience gathered while brewing CS1x was used for creating the AN1x – the one and only Yamaha’s attempt to create a virtual analog. But apart from the chassis (and its color) and similar name, they bear no resemblance to each other.
Having the guts of MU50, CS1x was as far as possible from being a virtual analog. But it proved to be one of its major strengths, to be able to provide multitimbrality of 16 channels. Also, the XG standard emerged just in time to provide the means for the true realtime control over the sound without the need to use bulky SysEx messages. So when it landed in 1996, it was probably the most sought after budget synth.
It comes with XG-compatible synthesis engine, based on AWM (Advanced Wave Memory) – it means it just plays back samples. With the polyphony of 32 notes it was an ideal companion for a sequencer; it even featured special connector (named “TO HOST”) and a cable that one would plug to the serial port of the PC or Mac, without any need for a MIDI interface. Samples were good enough for the standard of 1996, not convincing though. With some meticulous MIDI programming however, one would be able to get close to the sound of electric guitar, using three different patches, filters, envelopes, FX processors and a ton of MIDI continuous controllers controlling all this mess (not to mention some painstakingly crafted SysEx here and there). I’m afraid that nobody bothered though, maybe with the exception for Yamaha songwriters.
But that was only one face of CS1x – the other one was trying to mimic the red monster from Stockholm. After pressing the Performance button, channels 1-4 were used for building the special, “better” sound. User was able to split & layer up to four so-called material voices (raw samples), as well as use low-pass filters, three envelopes (dedicated to control the filter, pitch and amplitude), LFO and FX processors. Routing wasn’t very flexible, but still some nice results could have been obtained. Moreover, user was able to control the sound in the realtime, using four hardwired (Attack & Release of the amplitude envelope, as well as Cutoff and Resonance of the filter) and two freely assignable knobs – one (Assign 2) could have controller different parameter for each layer, while the other (Assign 1) was common for all layers. Finally, two different settings of those knobs could have been memorized under the Scene settings and recalled instantly, as well as being morphed with the use of modulation wheel. And last but not least, CS1x also had the arpeggiator with some Up, Down, UpDown and Random patterns, plus some more esoteric ones, which would also adjust the velocity and/or filter settings of the sound.
There was also another interesting thing about CS1x: it became popular – as well as the XG standard – and took the advantage of the Internet boom. There were countless web pages (and FTP servers…), from where one could download songs or patches. Right now many of those links are dead, but CS1x definitely took its share of the Internet and used it well.
How does it sound? In XG mode, definitely better than any soundcard of that time. Piano is not-so-real, but not so bad – I mean, the unprepared listener could easily guess, that it was a piano. Electric pianos are rather good (most of them was probably sampled from pinnacles of SY series), organs acceptable; most of the time sounds of acoustic instruments resemble the original ones. XG defines more than one bank of GM-compatible sounds – called variants – so they come in different flavors (like Bright, Dark or Resonant). Yamaha used this to provide 480 basic sounds, with variations mostly focused on fat basses, shimmering pads and soaring leads. This can be useful for some general electronic music stuff, but don’t think it will sound like a real analog synth. If you are looking for this, get AN1x – bear in mind though, that sometimes it goes too far in modeling the vintage gear (you won’t be able to sync your LFOs or delay to the MIDI clock, same for CS1x).
I own this synth from 1998 and at this moment I’m probably a bit biased. I used to work with it a lot, but even when I got other sound modules, I was still using CS1x for scaffolding the songs. Even today I find myself reaching for CS1x and there is always some useful sound I can get out of it. Here you can listen to some samples:
The patch for “Alaska” was created from scratch to resemble the sound used by Eddie Jobson on the first UK album. The rest are slightly modified presets, which demonstrate the already mentioned features: low-pass filter, morphing, arpeggiator and FXs.
Nowadays I wouldn’t recommend buying CS1x, unless you can get it for an outrageously low price – it was always a bit of cheap stuff, but now you can probably get it below 150$. However, if you are looking for something inexpensive, better search for the next of a kin, Yamaha CS2x, which doubles the polyphony and storage memory, has more samples (and of better quality) and drumkits, features hi-pass filter (in addition to the low-pass), more FXs and arpeggiators patterns, has two knobs more – and finally can output arpeggiator patterns through MIDI.