Yamaha defined digital synthesis with products like the DX7, so the brand was always going to be a big player in the world of electronic keyboards. But what made Yamaha positively huge was its ability to cut to the chase. That’s precisely what the Yamaha CS1x synth of 1996 did. This was an instrument that seized the moment in a way that rivals had missed, and once again scored an unmitigated winner in the sales charts.
The CS1x centred around the intense, mid ‘90s hankering for hands-on control in synthesis, which had made a comeback with dance-orientated belters like the Korg Prophecy and Clavia Nord Lead already spearheading the charge. But rather than integrating another new and expensive sonic engine as rivals had done, the CS1x simply adapted an old one. And that meant not just a competitive price, but an entirely new price territory, leagues below that of the competition.
Not least because of its ‘CS’ model prefix, recalling Yamaha’s analogue control synths of the punk and post punk era, the CS1x suggested virtual analogue. But take away the control features and the then fresh and trendy casing style, and the CS1x had next to nothing in common with the Prophecy or Nord Lead.
In essence, it featured a late ‘80s derivative sound engine, sourcing from samples rather than internally manufactured waveforms, and then using digital processing tools to shape those sampled tones. Samples were an imperfect way to produce sound in ‘80s and early ‘90s keyboards. Not only because of the compromises in tone or quality as the frequencies were re-pitched, but also, particularly apposite to a hands-on control synth, because you couldn’t really morph or modify the basic waveforms on-the-fly. In that sense, the Sample and Synthesis (S&S) system wasn’t even a rival for the FM engine of the much earlier DX7.
However, S&S was a very low budget option by 1996, which meant that if Yamaha could harness it to mimic an analogue dance synth, they could add a lot of cool features whilst still offering the keyboard at an unprecedented price point in its particular genre. Yamaha did easily enough to make the synth suitable for the dance market, and although they used very different means to accommodate the market’s desires, the CS1x was a masterstroke.
Whereas previous ‘90s dance/control synths made their mark with technology and design, the CS1x made its mark with programming. It had the sounds to wow the market, but they were mainly built courtesy of the instrument’s multitimbrality, by stacking up samples in Performance (layering) mode. Some of the editing parameters were then sent to the front panel and given dedicated knobs, rather than being hidden under the bonnet as with previous S&S synths.
The overall feel of the instrument was pretty cheap, but this was easy to overlook given the seemingly remarkable price and the features on offer. There was nothing comparable to the Yamaha CS1x in summer 1996. It wasn’t the best in its class, because there was no class. It started its own class.
ADVANTAGES OF THE CS1x
Although the CS1x was never going to approach the purity and quality of basic waveform found in something like the Korg Prophecy, it was always going to be more enticing for the bulk of the market. The Prophecy was monophonic and monotimbral, and even the original Nord Lead only had four-note polyphony. So with its 32-note polyphony and 16-part multitimbrality, the CS1x was already covering a lot of bases its rivals couldn’t. The band-in-a-box nature of the S&S synths also meant that coupled with an external sequencer, the CS1x could orchestrate entire backing tracks, live. Budget in the fact that the CS1x gave users an arpeggiator and a decent set of onboard effects, and many potential buyers were really not thinking about whether or not the sounds were produced in an ‘authentic’ manner.
Sales were made in shops. It was all about buyers coming in, powering up the synth and assessing what they heard. If the thing was making the kind of sounds they wanted, and the price was right, they’d buy it. The CS1x took an unconventional approach to creating those desirable sounds of the moment, but it worked, and in a lot of ways, Yamaha’s heavy attention to the preset bank and their focus on sound rather than sound creation (even though it was often glossing over the synth’s flaws), won them the battle. The original price of £599 was obviously a huge component in the CS1x’s success too, but buyers still have to want something if they’re going to fork out six hundred quid.
The August 1996 edition of Keyboard Review magazine described the Yamaha CS1x as “the first synthesizer for ages that deserves to be sold in Dixons”, and whilst Yamaha probably weren’t sure how to take that, it was good news rather than an insult. The bulk of the market – the portion that just wants to be impressed, at minimum cost, and without having to delve into technical matters – would be satisfied. In terms of UK sales, the CS1x went top 5 almost immediately, at a time when no other dance genre control synths even appeared in the top 10. Many would say that Yamaha had outwitted the competition, and I wouldn’t disagree with that.