Yamaha CS80 - King of the Polysynths
by Brad Coates (www.melmusic.com.au)
The time was the mid 70's É.. If you were a muscle bound, musically oriented heir to
the Rothschild family fortune, Yamaha's CS80 polysynth may just have caught your
eye. Weighing in at 100 kgs (Honest!) and with a price tag of AUS $8,000 in 1976, the
CS80 was truly the beast of all synths, right down to the '666' on the inspection plate!
As far as I can remember, it was the first commercially produced polyphonic synth-
well, definitely the first poly with a wood-like weighted velocity sensitive keyboard and
Yamaha introduced the CS80 in 1976 and produced around 2,000 units over the next
three years. The prohibitive price tag put it out of reach of most musicians, $8,000 in
1976 being approximately equivalent to around $40,000 in 1996. (And you think
musicians have got it hard today!) This meant that most units were purchased by dollar
earning pros, commercially successful gigging musos, and hired session 'guns'.
We can reasonably assume that the bulk of CS80's used live have fallen prey to the
rigours of the road, and that the rest are safely ensconced in studios and session
player's arsenals.This means that a CS80 is unlikely to show up on the second hand
market. Anybody that's ever owned a CS80 doesn't want to get rid of it - it's that sort of
Let's get down to a basic description of its features and functions. The CS80 is a five
octave (61 note) keyboard with real piano-like weighted keys, (even a pianist can enjoy
playing it) responding to both velocity and aftertouch. It has 16 analogue voices
arranged in 2 x 8 banks, married to 8 VCF's, 8 VCA's, and 16 envelope generators.
The filters are resonant with high and low pass modes available. The oscillators are
fully variable in frequency with 3 independent or stackable waveshapes- sawtooth,
square, and sine. There is also an independent noise generator and an external
source input. As with many an analogue synth of this vintage, Pulse width modulation
of square waves is also available.
Where the CS80 really shines is in its controller implementation. The aftertouch can
control pitchbend, modulation with dedicated rate control, VCA volume and VCF
sweep. The sub-oscillator has separate sine, square, ramp, noise and external source
assignability. There is a Pitch Ribbon instead of mod wheels with a constantly evolving
centre point- a wonderful device which uses your first touch (anywhere on the ribbon)
as its starting point for pitchbends , which can be sharp or flat relative to the starting
pitch, depending on the direction of your 'slide' . This felt strip which spans over half
the keyboard allows the player to bend up approximately one octave and down nearly
five octaves into sub harmonic frequencies. It can be configured to bend either while
holding down a note or after releasing all notes (on the sustain decay ramp).
There is a separate Tremelo /Chorus section enabling the player to get even fatter
sounds ,and some convincing rotary speaker effects. There is also a dedicated Ring
Modulator which is downright organic and gives the CS80 the sonic capacity to
produce many unique timbres. Add to this independent keyboard tracking controls,
overall brilliance and resonance controls , glissando/ portamento, 6 octaves of
switchable oscillator frequencies , plus pitch bend ,and true stereo outputs.
banks can either be 'stacked ' together and detuned for different voicings. There were
no 'programs' as such. However, lift the flap with the signal routing diagram on it and-
voila! there are four discrete duplicates of the front panel controls in miniature -
Yamaha's earliest form of 'Patch memory'. The polyphonic aftertouch is an exclusive
feature found on no other analogue Polysynth to the best of my knowledge.
'Polyphonic' in this instance means that only the note which is pressed down harder will
be modulated or effected. You can hold a 4 note chord and have filter sweep or
modulation on say , only 2 of the notes- a very powerful performance feature!
Following the design through with their customary (Japanese) attention to detail,
Yamaha have colour coded all the controls- Green for filter, Red for resonance, White
for pitch , Grey for volume, Yellow for sustain, and Black for the rest. Great idea , but
aesthetically hideous . The CS80's control panel looks like Monday morning in the
candy shop- I love it!
Much has been said about the CS80's unreliablity , particularly with regard to tuning. I
recently spoke with Stephen Jones (also known as Agent 13) Australia's foremost
analogue repair serviceman and Guru of all things analogue who ,along with myself, is
fortunate enough to own a CS80. We both agreed its reputation for unreliability is
largely unwarranted, and stems mainly from improper use and handling. You must
remember that this is an all-analogue hardwired synth weighing over 200 pounds! If
not transported correctly, chances are the tuning will drift. My CS80 has never been
tuned since it was purchased in 1977 and even after transporting it uncased from
interstate it is still definitely playable and only slightly out of tune. Stephen owns one of
Eddie Rayners old Spilt Enz CS80's and has had no problems with that either.
In all, the CS80 really is the original analogue Monster with huge sounds and
incredible features not seen on todays crop of 'sample playback' keyboards.
Suggested listening for CS80 tracks; Vangelis "Chariots of Fire" , Peter Gabriel "So" ,
Stevie Wonder most tracks after '76, Paul McCartney "Coming Up"(Video) ELO, Herbie
Hancock, Steve Porcaro, Michael Boddicker and Split Enz "True Colours".
Originally published in Australian Musician Magazine, 1996.
Used here with permission from the author.