Yamaha CS-80

The most expensive vintage polysynth

Estimated value: up to £15,000 in mint condition


Mark Thompson’s Yamaha CS-80 at SNAP! Studios

There are a handful of almighty polyphonic analogue synths which are universally acknowledged as classics: the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, the Roland Jupiter-8 and slightly less obvious choices like the Elka Synthex, which Johan Antoni of Syntotek picks out as his holy grail. Perhaps the most desirable of all, however, is the Yamaha CS-80.

Some synths are valuable simply because they were produced in such small numbers that their prices are artificially inflated by their scarcity. That’s not the case here. CS-80s aren’t particularly hard to find; around 2,000 units were sold, and they come up for sale on the second-hand market on a fairly regular basis. Instead, they’re valued simply because of their sound, their features and their impact on the history of electronic music. These are late 70s and early 80s icons of excess, units which have crossed genre boundaries, instruments which top countless producers’ wish lists. As the flagship models of the peak of the analogue era, these are synths which still command jaw-dropping prices. As Vemia’s Peter Forrest puts it: “What makes things valuable in our world is really how much of a buzz there is about them, and because they are uniquely good in some way. The CS-80 offers a combination of amazing analogue polysynth sounds and brilliant user interface.”

Used in the past by the likes of Vangelis (all over the hugely influential Blade Runner soundtrack) and Stevie Wonder (of course), and more recently by Daft Punk, Aphex Twin, Philippe Zdar, RJD2 and Soulwax, the CS-80 is about as close to a dream synth as we can imagine.

The story is perhaps best told by a man who admits to a four-decade ‘love affair’ with the mighty Yamaha. Mark Thompson, owner of London professional audio suppliers Funky Junk and SNAP! Studios, explains his own love affair with the CS-80: “Back in the 1970s, I ran a hire company. In 1977, Yamaha introduced a rather expensive new synthesiser called the CS-80. After much soul-searching, I pooled all my shekels and invested in one. To my amazement, within a few months, the keyboard had pretty much paid for itself, as clients including Rush, Robert Margouleff (producer of Tonto’s Expanding Headband) and others rented the machine non-stop. And in what little time I had to play with it between bookings, it was easy to see why.

“In the formative days of Moog, Oberheim and ARP, the CS-80 went beyond the competition in offering a fully polyphonic eight-voice monster. But it wasn’t just the facilities provided, but the sound itself that made the CS-80 stand out from the polyphonic crowd. This was a truly unique instrument, and could almost be described as a new form of instrument rather than just a variation on a synthetic theme. A bit like a Hammond, the CS-80 was instantly recognisable, producing thick, rich sounds that ebbed and flowed and throbbed with a power and intensity that shone a richness and texture over every track it settled on. Even if pulled right down in a mix, the CS-80 sat solidly in the cut rather than becoming lost as so many other synths of that era (and later) always did.

“In the following years, I managed bands that toured with CS-80s, relying on one keyboard rather than the banks of synths used by most other groups. Properly handled, the CS-80 was all a good keyboard player needed to produce washes and pads and searing solo lines to compliment a variety of rock, soul, pop and ambient music.

“When the chance arose to buy the old PWL CS-80 for SNAP! Studios, I jumped at it, despite finding the 21st-century price tag somewhat intimidating. Because the CS isn’t just another synthesiser, it’s a world unto itself, capable of producing sounds and textures quite unlike any other keyboard ever made. Sure, it’s not a Moog and it’ll never emulate a Prophet-5, but neither can they (or any other synth) come close to the massive, almost overblown power of a CS-80.

“You may never get the chance to spend a stolen night with one of these sexy beasts, but if you do, I suspect that you’ll understand my forty-odd year love affair. Quite simply, the CS-80 is unique. There never was and will never be anything like it.”

The entry price to the exclusive CS-80 owners club? Around £7,000 if you’re lucky. Closer to £15,000 if you’re looking for a mint condition example. Arturia’s CS-80V emulation offers an altogether more affordable option for those of us unwilling to sell a kidney to raise funds.

Author Greg Scarth
30th September, 2013

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