For me, the beauty of the Yamaha CS-80 was never in the instrument itself; it was in what Vangelis did with it. There’s nothing about the bulk of this synth that particularly appeals to me. It’s unwieldy, ungainly, strange and somewhat ugly. Give me a cool Sequential or moody Moog anytime, but this? It’s some strange synthesizer and organ technology hybrid that’s a bit too heavy on the end-of-pier Christmas showcase organ for my liking. Just take a walk through those front panel Tones, and you’ll find nothing to get excited about.
How did such a weird machine become an object of deep fascination? Somewhere behind the weird paddles, the unusual envelopes and backwards controls lie the soul of an instrument that can breathe life into universes. That’s what is so intriguing to me about the Black Corporation’s Deckard’s Dream – it captures the soul without forcing you to embrace the horror of the original front panel.
And so we come to Cherry Audio’s emulation of the Yamaha CS-80. But for added zaniness, they also mixed it with the predecessor, the weighty, 3-tiered GX-1. And so hidden seamlessly within the front panel are a few things you wouldn’t expect to find on a CS-80. These include a filtered square wave and sawtooth wave, a high octave triangle and a switch to flip the filter envelope. The GX-1 filter is also there as an alternative to the CS-80. These features blend in nicely and become part of the exploration, especially if you have no previous experience to draw upon.
The first version I was sent opened with an initialised patch, so my first impression was one of disappointment. What I wanted, what I needed was a giant Blade Runner pad or something that was going to blow my hair back. But no, you just get a beeeeeeep. Couple that with this weird-looking synth and Cherry Audio’s not-quite-stunning artwork, and it’s all a bit underwhelming. However, that feeling doesn’t last long.
If you ignore the front panel for now and spend some time wallowing in the presets, you’ll discover what an amazing source of sound this machine can be. There’s something rare and vintage about it; something 70’s in the tone and wobble; somehow, it pulls itself back from the naffness of 70’s organs and cruises along an edge of awesomeness.
Here are some of my favourite presets, and just because it’s interesting, I’m playing the GX-80 on a very new Microsoft Surface Pro 9. It gives a great opportunity to play with the integrated ribbon controller, which, let’s face it, is a bit lost on a mouse.
And that brings us neatly to the strangeness of the interface. The CS-80 had these paddle things going on. They were another organ throw-back, but arguably they are part of what gives the synth it’s unique playable character. When Behringer announced their cheap-as-chips CS-80 clone some time ago, (whatever happened to that?), the design had left off all the paddles. A couple of people remarked that it couldn’t possibly feel authentic without those paddles. In the GX-80 the paddles are all present and correct, but you’ve got to ask whether they really have a purpose in software past confusing the heck out of you. In hardware, the paddles have a feel, a physicality that you interact with differently from other sliders; that’s not the same when you move everything with a mouse.
The other thing with the paddles and some other controls is that they seem to be backward. They’re not, of course; it’s just that we’ve become accustomed to values rising as you push forward, and with some of the controls the opposite seems to happen. So, in staying authentic, does Cherry Audio make it harder to use? Or is it simply a matter of getting used to things and stopping being such a baby?
So, back to the synthesizer we have two layers, or two ranks or sections, depending on how you describe these things. It’s essentially two entire synthesizers stacked one on top of another with identical VCO, VCF and VCA sections. Each one has one envelope for the VCF and one for the VCA. There are strange and unfamiliar elements here that will delight and befuddle in equal measure.
If you know the CS-80, then you’ll feel right at home, but if not, let me point a few things out. You’d normally get a sawtooth wave and pulse wave in the VCO section with PWM and a dedicated LFO. In addition, we have a pulse wave high pass filter, a sawtooth bandpass filter and a high octave triangle wave. You can also mix in some noise. In the filter section, you have a highpass and lowpass filter with resonance with slightly confusing “high/low” labelling, which I always read wrongly as “Low LPF” and “Low HPF” which confuses my brain. Then you have the dedicated filter envelope with two parameters you might not have encountered before. This is the mystical IL or Initial Level and AL Attack Level. IL sets the voltage at which the envelope begins, AL sets how high the Attack will go before moving to the Decay stage. It’s slightly odd and takes a bit of experimentation before you get the hang of it and you can see why no one uses it anymore.
At the end, we have the VCA section. The first slider controls the level of the VCF. So after everything you’ve done up to this point, you can simply turn it all off with this slider. Next to it you have a sine wave level which either mixes itself into your filtered oscillators or stands by itself as just a sine wave for simpler tones. Following on, you have a regular ADSR.
You may be wondering where the LFOs are. The PWM has its own one, as we’ve seen, but otherwise, there’s a section called “Sub Oscillator”, which is like a mini LFO mixer. Select the type of LFO, set the Speed and then direct the amount to the VCO, VCF or VCA via the paddles.
It’s worth noting again that you move paddles down, or I guess towards you in 3D space, it order to increase the value. Nothing strange about that at all!
The GX-80 comes packed with immensely playable presets. They are, for the most part, truly inspiring. The way some of the sounds evolve and move, spin and reform is terrific and then the aftertouch implementation takes you on a whole other journey.
So, in some ways, there’s a battle going on between the superb sound engine and endlessly quirky interface. With some other synths you can start with an initialised patch and head off on sonic adventures. Cherry Audio’s Sines is an excellent example of that. With the GX-80, it’s difficult to know where to start. I’ve got a Deckard’s Voice, and so I know how to handle the basic sound engine, but it took me quite a while to get to grips with it. But you will get there, don’t worry. Stick to what you know, enjoy the filters, mixing waveforms and adding a bit of wobble from the Sub Oscillator. Under the Utility functions, you can copy Ranks and Layers, which can make building up ideas relatively quick and fluid.
You’ll also find that when playing with presets, you’re drawn to the Brilliance controls. These can be set for touch response and keyboard control, but the manual Brill and Reson controls act like a global bandpass filter that pulls on both the low and highpass cutoffs. Excellent in performance and easier to find than the individual filters.
For the full Blade Runner experience, the ribbon controller is not to be underestimated. It gives you a fabulous way of gliding about. As with the paddles, the mouse doesn’t really cut it. Neither does a pitch bend wheel which is tied to it. In my demo video, I was using the touch screen of the Surface Pro 9, and that was a completely fabulous experience.
Meanwhile, we do have a rather lovely new effects section. This features a Chorus/Rotary, Flange/Phase, Delay, Reverb and a Ring Modulator, all rendered with appropriate buttons and controls. These undoubtedly bring a lot to the table and make for a much more enjoyable and complete playing experience. The only strange thing is that the on/off buttons are to be found down next to the keyboard, far away from the effects section. I’m sure this is where they are meant to be, but I spent a long time zoomed into the effects section trying to work out how to turn the bloody things on. Maybe let us click on the text or something?
This thing sounds great. It can’t be beaten for big, synthy sounds with an unruly 70s edge, wobble and slight naffness. It’s an institution of a synthesizer. Exploring this mode of synthesis is exciting and will absorb you for hours as you try to wrap your head around the idiosyncrasies. In some ways, the interface is authentically frustrating, but I’m not convinced it needs to be. Black Corporation so elegantly smoothed it out into a classically approachable instrument with the Deckard’s Dream. I wonder what would happen if Cherry Audio reworked the interface with integrated modulations, more defined sections, sequenced options and further performance elements. It would undoubtedly be inauthentic. Does the sound engine need to be burdened by the interface? Or is that all part of the charm?
- Cherry Audio website.