Exploring the Yamaha CS-80

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The Yamaha CS-80 is one of the most iconic and revered synths of all time. It was one of the first polyphonic synthesizers on the market, and it boasted an incredible sound, expressive controls and an early example of patch memory. Despite its now legendary status, it was released in 1976 to a pretty lukewarm reception, regarded by some as being too heavy and expensive, and the patch bay system was seen as clumsy. The Sequential Prophet-5 was released soon after, and being much lighter and sleeker, it soon overshadowed the CS-80. Despite the Prophet-5’s greater popularity, the CS-80 was arguably a more expressive performance synth than the Pro-5; it had a velocity sensitive semi-weighted keyboard that had aftertouch, and a ribbon controller, which is still a rarity on modern synths. It was a favourite of Greek composer Vangelis, whose use of it in his score for the 1981 movie Blade Runner cemented its status as a classic synthesizer. It was used on 80s pop hits by artists such as Michael Jackson, Toto and Paul McCartney, and now its rarity and legendary status make it popular amongst modern artists such as Phoenix, Empire of the Sun, Aphex Twin and Squarepusher.

Artwork by Andreia Calhau.

The CS Family

The CS-80 has its roots in an earlier synth, called the Yamaha GX-1, the grandfather of all analog polysynths. In 1973, monophonic synths were popular, however, artists were keen to play chords, and synth designers were keen to be the first to provide artists with a polyphonic synthesizer. Yamaha utilised new voice allocation technology to develop the GX-1 in 1973, and it boasted two 8 voice keyboards with two oscillators per voice, a monophonic single-oscillator keyboard, and a triple-oscillator monophonic pedal section for playing basslines with your feet. This added up to an incredible 18 note polyphony!

The GX-1 also boasted a rhythm machine, a ribbon controller, came on a pedestal, and cost $60,000 (about $320,000 adjusted for inflation). The GX-1 was released in 1975, and less than 100 were made. Because of its eye-watering price, only the biggest artists of the day could afford to use it, such as Keith Emerson of ELP, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, and Stevie Wonder, who called it “The Dream Machine“, and used it on Songs in the Key of Life. Some songs you can hear the GX-1 in are:

Yamaha GX-1

Yamaha GX-1

The GX-1 was succeeded by the CS synths, which utilised the technology of the GX-1 in more portable, affordable keyboards - at least by the era’s standards.

  • The CS-80 was released in 1976, and retains many of the GX-1 features, with just a single keyboard.

  • The CS-60 is a popular, lighter variant, featuring a full keyboard but just a single synth channel, as opposed to the CS-80's two independent voices. It was released in 1977.

  • The CS-50 is a scaled-down version of its big brothers. It has a smaller 49-note keyboard, only 4-note polyphony, and no ribbon controller.

The CS Family

The CS Family

The Yamaha CS-20M, CS-40M and CS-70M also shared the CS title, but feature very different interfaces. The CS-20M is monophonic, the 40M is duophonic (two notes), and the 70M is a powerful synth with 6 voices supported by 2 oscillators each. Also notable are the Yamaha SY-1 and SY-2, single-voice synthesizers derived from the GX-1 technology.  They have the same colour scheme and sounds as the CS-80, only in a monophonic format. These pre-date the CS-80, with the SY-1 dropping in 1974, and the SY-2 in 1975.

Yamaha SY-1

Yamaha SY-1

There aren't many CS-80 software emulations; one is Arturia CS-80 V, which faithfully recreates the CS-80s interface and sound. Phoenix use the Arturia soft synth live, and Hans Zimmer claims he sold his GX-1 because he found the Arturia CS-80 softsynth to be an ample replacement. The CS-80 V plugin can also be heard in Tycho's Ascension, and Frank Ocean's Pyramids, where it provides the arpeggios in the bridge. A cheaper software option is Memorymoon ME80, and Windows users can use the free plugin 80-vox. Deckard’s Dream by Black Corporation is modern synth heavily inspired by the Yamaha CS-80. Although it doesn’t use any of the same parts, the Deckard’s Dream has the same architecture and features the same level of expression as the CS-80.

Deckards Dream, by Black Corporation

Deckards Dream, by Black Corporation

CSArchitecture

The CS-80 has quite an intimidating interface, which prioritises depth and expressiveness over user-friendliness. Unique features to the CS-80 are its dual channels and its performance controls located just over the keyboard for quick on-the-fly adjustments to both channels while performing. The basic architecture of the CS-80 is the standard Oscillator-Filter-Amplifier layout, however, the synth offers two independently programmable layers, with full controls for each layer, thus the entire synth architecture is doubled! These layers are called Voice I and Voice II. Furthermore, the filter section offers two filters for each voice, one low-pass and one high-pass, that can be used together for a bandpass effect.

CSVoices

At the centre of the interface are 28 colourful buttons that select preset patches, twenty-two tones for each section are presets, eleven for each oscillator. These preset tones are quite hit-or-miss but can make great starting points; Vangelis used the section I 'Flute' and section II 'Bass' presets a lot. There are four buttons labelled memory which load the patch memory settings, and two panel buttons, which revert the parameters to the manual settings. The patch memory settings are actually programmed by four sets of micro panel controls, found hidden under a panel at the top left of the synth. These are like mini sized panel controls, with mini sliders, which the memory preset buttons loaded. This is a somewhat crude method of patch storage, especially compared to the Prophet-5’s memory storage system.

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CSOscillator

Everything on the CS-80 was top quality, and the VCO’s are no exception, and the CS-80’s oscillators have a slightly brighter sound than many other vintage analog synths. The CS-80 offers four basic sounds: square wave, sawtooth wavewhite noise, and sine wave. The PW (pulse width) slider adjusts the sound of the square wave, the PWM (pulse width modulation) slider affects the sound over time, and the speed slider affects the rate of modulation. Unusually, the sine wave oscillator's volume is placed separately in the amplifier/envelope section of the panel. The logic behind this is that the sine wave is introduced after the filter, as a pure sine wave with no harmonics would not be affected by the filter.

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CSFilter

The CS-80 has two filters for each layer, for a grand total of four filters. You'll find a high-pass (HPF) and low-pass (LPF) filter for each voice, and each has an adjustable resonance. By activating both filters you can create a bandpass effect, allowing you to either focus the sound, or create thin sounding patches, for such as the thin chime sounds that can be heard in the Blade Runner soundtrack. The filter envelope is an ADR envelope (no sustain level), and has independent volumes for the initial level (IL) and attack level (AL), with the first parameter allowing the envelope to begin at a value other than 0. Brass sounds can be enhanced with the IL and AL settings, and percussive sounds can be created by setting a high IL with a short attack time. Bizarrely, the initial level slider appears to be inverted; raising it starts the envelope with fewer harmonics, and lowering it starts the envelope with a richer sound. The filter envelope's sustain level can be set with the brilliance slider in the performance controls at the bottom of the panel. Like the oscillators, the filters sound great and may be the reason why the CS-80 was such a monster at producing great brass sounds.

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CSAmplifier

Some interesting choices in the amplifier (VCA) section are the two separate level controls and the inclusion of the sine wave oscillator at this late stage of the synths panel.  The VCF Level slider controls the amount of signal generated by the preceding oscillator and filter sections that should be processed by the amplifier section. This slider allows you to mix whatever is coming through the filter with the sine wave (~) oscillator, which is the next slider along. Following that is the amplifier's ADSR envelope, and the amplifier's volume level.

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CSTouch

The touch response controls allow for greater musical expression, with the ability to control the oscillator volume (VCO) and filter cutoff (VCF) through keyboard technique. The initial and after controls affect how the filter and volume are controlled upon a key being pressed and the aftertouch being engaged.

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CSPerformance

The CS-80 features velocity control and aftertouch, a feature taken for granted on modern synths but very rare for a 70s synth. This is one of the things that made it a performance synth, and attracted orchestral composers like Vangelis. The performance controls are found at the bottom of the interface closest to the keyboard, and confusingly, you increase their values by pulling them towards the keyboard.

The mix controls allow the two voices to be faded between each other, and its position allows for easy fading on the fly. This can be used to blend two similar sounds, or morph between radically different tonalities. The brilliance and resonance controls affect the filter cutoff frequencies and resonances globally; arguably the most useful controls as they allow easy, big changes to the sound.

The touch response section allows dynamic control when playing the keyboard. The pitchbend lever creates an initial pitchbend that slides the pitch in from a semitone under, similar to a brass or woodwind instrument.
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CSRibbon

The ribbon controller, found just below the Yamaha logo, can be set to control either the pitch or the filter, and wherever it is first touched becomes the initial point from which the parameter is changed; unusually there is no ‘middle position’. You can hear the ribbon’s pitch tracking for some of the gliding effects in Memories of Green from the Blade Runner soundtrack. The ribbon mode can affect sustained notes in two different ways depending on how the sustain switch is set; in sustain I mode, the ribbon only changes pitch of keys held down; in sustain II mode, the ribbon changes pitch of all notes sustained. Using the first mode allows you to hold a chord with the sustain pedal and then playing ribbon melodies without affecting the sustained chord. This functionality is mirrored in Arturia CS-80 V, where the modulation wheel acts as the ribbon controller.

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CSRingMod

The ring modulator is one of the CS-80’s signature features, and has a dedicated attack / decay envelope on top of the typical depth, speed and modulation amount controls. The ring mod combines the signal with a sine wave to produce extra harmonics, and can be used to create distorted, metallic effects such as bells, or used sparingly to bring some of the weaker presets to life. 

 
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CS-80 Songs

Michael Jackson’s Thriller

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A huge example of a CS-80 in the wild is on Michael Jackson’s Thriller, one of the most revered and successful pop albums of all time. The CS-80 was used for the introduction of Human Nature and the chord motif in Billie Jean, which was recorded by Michael Jackson himself, who recorded it on the CS-80 in one take!

“The Human Nature signature synth string part. That was Steve Porcaro’s track. He used a Yamaha CS-80 with glide (chromatic instead of portamento) at the head — it’s got that nice little CS fuzz around the sound. That fuzz was also part of a multi-layered sound I used for the four-chord basic string vamp on “Billie Jean” — Michael Jackson himself played that part on a CS-80 in one take. No punches. No repairs. No sequencers or time correction. Seven minutes. Perfect performance.”

The part is multi-layered, and if you listen closely to the record, you can hear the synth chords are layered with Jackson singing along with the chord motif to add a breathiness. The Billie Jean stems can be found online, and this layered vocal part can be heard here. To create the CS-80 patch, set voice I to String 1 (first button) and voice II to Brass 2 (third button). Set the mix control to halfway for an even 50/50 mix of both voices, set the brilliance control to -0.32 and the resonance setting to minimum (all the way up). Lengthen the release time of voice I to get it ringing out a little longer, this gives it a longer release time than that of the vocal layer, which is staccato, creating an overlap where the CS-80 rings out after the vocal stabs. Lastly turn on CS-80 V’s chorus effect and dial it in nice and thick.

The super-iconic Billie Jean bassline came from the Minimoog, or rather two Minimoog with a MIDI modification to be played in unison! The duo of Richie Walbourn-modified Minimoogs were also used for the synth basses on Thriller, P.Y.T. and Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. I set up a patch in Arturia Mini V, a software emulation of the Minimoog, and turned on the polyphonic mode so that I could recreate both parts in one patch. The patch is simply three sawtooth waves, all tuned to 16’ with cutoff frequency and envelope amount knobs both set to 9 o’clock. The decay time is responsible for the pluck length, and I used a time of 212ms. I also added some subtle chorus effect to create the buzziness heard in the original track. For the electric piano in the chorus, I used two instances Arturia Stage-73 V run through a chorus effect.

The CS-80 was later used for Michael Jacksons The Way You Make Me Feel, from 1987’s Bad, where it plays the brass part.

Toto IV

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Toto are basically insane supergroup made up of top LA session musicians. They had a huge hand in the recording of Thriller, and the music of Human Nature was actually written by Toto’s Steve Porcaro, who performed the synths on the track alongside David Paich. It comes as little surprise that they also used the CS-80 V on their seminal album Toto IV, also released in 1982.

The Africa synth patch has been covered before, but it is super easy to set up on the CS-80 V plugin. Although it is a brass sound, and people assume the Brass presets should be used, I actually found the String 1 and String 4 combination better created the sound on the record. Set the mix fader so that the signal is about 75% voice I, then decrease the brilliance and boost the resonance. The song starts with the patch sounding quite muted, however you can hear the filter open just before the chorus, and you can also hear the resonance is cranked as there is a sweeping effect. Add a sparing amount of the chorus effect, and utilise the touch sensitivity to give different chords different volumes, making the part sound more real.

For the marimba/kalimba melody I used Arturia DX7, however the DX7 had not been released when Toto recorded Toto IV in 1982. The part originally came from a DX7 prototype called the Yamaha GS-1. Additionally, the recording is a composite of five or six different GS1 recordings! They said “If you like that sound, we can tweak it, tweak the filter, tweak everything. And that kalimba sound was something that may not have been used had it been in its original state. What you’re hearing are actually five and six individual little motifs that we tracked, little three- and one-note gamelan kind of things that when combined created this thumb piano vibe.” For the video, I faked it and used two instances of DX7, one set to the 1A 022-Marimba factory preset, and the other to an edited patch, then ran both through a chorus effect to create the illusion of many patches!

Paul McCartney

Several years before Paul McCartney made a guest appearance on Thriller, he had also used the CS-80 for his Christmas tune Wonderful Christmastime. McCartney played every instrument on the track, and used the CS-80 for the chord stabs. There is some debate as to whether or not it was actually a Sequential Prophet-5 on the track, and a Pro-5 was actually used in the music video. However, this may be due to it being lighter and easier to transport for the video, and the photo on the right shows McCartney playing a CS-80 at the time of the songs recording. Setting up the patch is dead easy, simply load up voice II’s Bass preset (bottom row, button five), and set the mix fader all the way down so we just hear voice II. The bouncing delay effect is actually created using the LFO, called the sub oscillator on the CS-80. Set the waveform under function to saw down, set speed to around 2.85 Hz (this isn’t perfect and took some tweaking) and the VCF fader to 0.0850 to send the sub oscillators signal to the filter. In the master controls, set resonance to max and boost the brilliance the brighten the sound. The song was recorded in 1979, way before MIDI sync was a thing. Now, the LFO could be synced perfectly in time to a MIDI clock, however at the time Paul would have had to sync everything up by ear!

The sleigh bells in the video below came from AfroDJMac’s free Jingle Bells Pack for Ableton Live. Check it out for instant Christmas vibes!

Bruce Springsteen

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Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. is full of CS-80 sounds. It provide the main synth horn line for the title track, replacing the lo-fi guitars of the original demo recorded during the Nebraska sessions. In the BBC documentary Sound of Song, the patch is described as “part oriental, part military trumpet, all eighties”. The keys track was recorded by Springsteen’s longtime keyboard player, Roy Bittan, who even toured with the CS-80. It also sounds like Bittan used the CS-80 for Dancing in the Dark and I’m on Fire, from the same album, as they have a distinct CS-80 sound. Check out the video below to see my patches for both Born in the U.S.A. and Dancing in the Dark, which are both heavily modified brass patches. As with all the patches in this article, you you download them at the end!

Blizzard of Ozz

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The CS-80 was also a favourite of heavy metal & hard rock keyboard player Don Airey, who played in pretty much every big rock and metal act of the 80s. In a 1982 interview with Keyboard Magazine, Airey said “The CS-80 does a fantastic French horn sound, on the brass presets, you just set the resonance right, give it a bit of reverb, and you’ve got a French horn. And the bass end on the CS-80 is the best on any synth I’ve ever played.” Also, “the CS-80 has got the best string sound I’ve ever gotten on a keyboard.” Airey recorded on Ozzy Osbourne’s seminal debut album, Blizzard of Ozz, and likely used the CS-80 on Mr Crowley and Revelation (Mother Night). Mr Crowley’s haunting organ sound can be created by loading up the two organ presets (button eight on both rows) and raising one of them an octave. Use the chorus effect to add some movement to the otherwise quite dull organ sound, and increase the brilliance and resonance faders to open up the filters and brighten the sound. Other tracks in the Mr Crowley intro are the synth bass, likely from a Minimoog, and the choir, which likely came from the Roland VP-330 Vocoder Plus, that also included choir and string sounds. I used Arturia Mini V for the bass line, and GForce MTron Pro’s VP330 Ensemble Basic patch.

Kate Bush

Kate Bush was also a big user of the CS-80 in the 80s; it was her main keyboard until she switched over to using a Fairlight CMI synth for her main sounds, with the CS-80 still used occasionally. I wrote an entire article on Kate Bush’s synth sounds, which you can find a link to below. I covered the CS-80 patches in Hounds of Love, All We Ever Look For and Babooshka, check it out after this article!

The Modern CS-80

Yamaha produced less than 700 CS-80s, and when accounting that many of these may have been dumped or used for parts, they are incredibly scarce now. Rarity, analog warmth, and the insane feature set have made the CS-80 a very attractive synth for artists that can afford to buy & maintain it. Here are some modern uses of the Yamaha CS-80.

Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun are a modern band who swear by the CS-80, calling it “the keyboard sound of Empire of the Sun.” It can be heard prominently in their song Walking on a Dream, where it provides the main synth pad heard throughout the song. In a DIY Mag Interview, Nick Littlemore described his love of the vintage synthesizer:

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“When everyone’s making music with the same tools, we want to go out and revive an instrument from a hundred years ago and use that. We have one keyboard in particular which is our flagship. It’s a Yamaha CS-80 which was made in ’73 and was the synthesiser used, quite famously, by Vangelis on Blade Runner, but it’s also used in countless soft rock, yacht rock records – anything from Fleetwood Mac to Stevie Wonder.”

The Walking on a Dream synth patch is simple, and employs a healthy amount of the CS-80s inbuilt chorus to create the songs thick, drifting tone. To create the patch from scratch in Arturia CS-80 V, set voice I to a sawtooth waveform and voice II to a square wave with some pulse-width modulation. Turn on all four filters and make sure the 24dB switch is on, to make the filter slope steeper and more pronounced. Now boost all the filters cutoff frequencies and resonances to create a strong bandpass effect on both voices, filtering out the bass and treble frequencies. Turn on the chorus effect and raise both speed and depth for a thick, swirling chorus. Getting the right filter values takes some fine-tuning, but you can download my patch at the end of article to see which frequencies I found sounded best.

My CS-80 was badly out of tune for the whole first album. I just added more chorus. There are so many mistakes, but I love that about it.” - Jonathan Sloan

The Face

The Yamaha CS-80 is used by Canadian indie-rock band Metric, and it can be heard prominently on the album Pagans in Vegas. The album closer, The Face, Part II, sounds like it was recorded entirely on the CS-80, using it’s rich tone and expressive controls to perform an emotional ambient piece. The patch is a brass sound with a long attack, and it has been run through some heavy delay and reverb to add the ambience effect. What makes the patch special is its use of expressive controls, taking advantage of the touch control to open up the filter as the piece progresses, and the polyphonic aftertouch to emphasise certain melody notes.

As the song is incredibly expressive, I didn’t try to create a straight-up transcription video, instead just jamming on the same chords with the CS-80 patch. Definitely be sure to check out the original track by Metric, and listen to how the patch evolves in intensity as the song progresses.

Squarepusher

Even Squarepusher has used Yamaha CS-80, picking up around 2011 and using it on his following album Ufabulum. In a Sound on Sound piece, Jenkinson explains how the CS-80 goes against his usual principles:

“I recently bought the Yamaha CS80, and in doing so went completely against my own principles, because it is extremely expensive and extremely limited. It's the sort of synth that collectors are into, ie. people who traffic instruments and don't play them. I never wanted to spend thousands of pounds on an analogue synth that can do stuff that I can write in a computer in a day. But I like to sometimes go against my principles, to stretch myself.”

The CS-80 could’ve been used to create some of the synth tones on Ufabulum’s opening track, 4001. The syncopated chord part first uses a filter plucked patch before switching over to a supersaw-like patch. For the first patch, just use voice I with a sawtooth oscillator and both filters engaged. Set the HPF to 190 Hz and the LPF to 67 Hz, with the resonance maxed out. Set the filter decay time to 168 ms with a nice long release. Slightly lower the brilliance value and boost the resonance slightly, then use the onboard chorus effect to finish the patch. For the strings patch, use both voices and set one an octave above the other with the feet controls. Keep the filters wide open and boost the brilliance control to its maximum setting (all the way down). Raise the attack time to halfway to soften the attack, and bring the patch to life by adding some subtle vibrato under the sub oscillator section. I found the setting the speed to 3.96 Hz and the VCO amount to 0.0074 helped add just enough movement to make the patch less static.

Phoenix

Phoenix use a CS-80 in the studio and Arturia CS-80 V for live performances, to save them dragging the old analog hardware on the road. They say “We also love the old Yamaha CS-80 analog synthesizer, which is our favorite”, and it can be heard throughout most of their albums. I wrote an article on Phoenix synth sounds for Reverb.com, called Recreating Phoenix’s Synths with Software Instruments. In it you’ll find CS-80 patches from their songs 1901, J-Boy and Armistice.

Download

Thanks for reading this article! This started out as a pretty small article talking about the unique features of the CS-80, but ended up growing as I explored the songs it had been used in. Click below to download the CS-80 patches used in the videos, and have fun playing with them and reverse engineering them yourselves. Also be sure to sign up to then newsletter at the bottom of the page to hear about future Exploring… articles and more CS-80 presets!

Further Reading