Digital Pianos – 2015

About a year ago I updated my initial impressions of Digital Pianos. In the interval, I’ve had cause to do a bit more playing and listening to a range of keyboard instruments, from workstations by Yamaha and Roland, a number of stage pianos and acoustic pianos.

My current impressions. It depends.

Caveat emptor. My primary interest in the comments below is the sound quality, playability and emotive authenticity.

We have in our minds “memories” of what pianos sound like, so it depends, what piano sound do you have in mind?. What do you associate as the sound of a piano, it depends on what music you have been listening to. And while all piano music and pianos have the same root “sound” signature, they vary, even two acoustic pianos by the same manufacturer – same model, will not sound exactly the same.

As I’ve discovered there is so much that a piano tuner can do to alter the sound of a piano, by changing the feel, adjust hammers, etc. etc. I’m not the expert here. Some dark art known as preparing a piano.

Different music genres require a different sound, a ballad will need a piano with some sustain, while a rock piano will not be well served by a dull lingering sustain, preferring something short and sharp with staccato.

The overall frequency response from bass to treble, also helps define the piano sound, and this can be different for each section of the piano, low registers, mid and treble.

Therefore the manufacturer of a digital piano has to take their pick from the wide spectrum of available piano sounds, with one ultimate aim in mind – sell lots of these pianos.

The fashion of the day, the perceived need of the intended purchaser therefore has such a bearing on the target sound of a digital piano, while an attempt is made to please everyone, a target market is at the heart of each digital piano.

I think this typically includes – Home users, beginner piano players, older learners who are coming back to the piano or developing a 1st interest, those who need a nice piece of furniture to enhance their home -symbol of success, and finally professional musicians. This final category being the target market with the most discernment, who as I understand it, may prefer a digital instrument for live use, cos it avoids the challenges of micing up a real piano, with spill on a loud stage coming from other instruments/and stage monitors.

There are very few digital piano makers who dominate this market – Yamaha, Roland, Kawai, Casio. Casio being the poor cousin, in the family.

Yamaha and Kawai also make acoustic pianos, and therefore use the opportunity to “market” the signature sound of the acoustic equivalents in the digital emulations.

Roland, who does not make acoustic pianos – in recent times – has attempted to dominate the digital piano universe with modelling based on the core technology in their V-Pianos.

In practice what does all this mean.

Below $1,000, there are lots of decent sounding pianos that will fit many uses. In this commentary I will avoid naming specific models, to prevent my personal musical bias from tainting your opinion. The common characteristic of this lower end is a restricted bass sound due to the use of smaller speakers and smaller amplifiers, keybeds which do not feel/respond as beautifully as the higher end models. But they are adequate and represent good value for money.

One advantage I find in all Digital Pianos, and I make a distinction here to exclude the portable pianos from this category, is that a solid frame improves your playing, as you do not have a shaky stand (however solid, most portable stands have micro movements), even for the most inexpensive Digital Piano. furthermore, the keybed is at the right height, cos of the inbuilt stand.

If amplified by high quality monitors, I wonder how good these  lower end pianos could sound quite good. I have not much experience with amplifying non portable digital pianos, so can’t comment here.

Above $1,000 I find specific characteristics. The Yamaha’s have the lightest most beautiful key movement. and I can play really fast and effortlessly on these, Kawais having the heaviest touch, Rolands having the most bounce.

Regretfully, after years of listening, trying many electronic pianos, there are few distinctive sounds and may I qualify here, what you gravitate to is a piano that you want to play, that keeps you spell bound, hour after hour, as you go from tone to tone, from song to song, that gives you goose pimples, that makes you pinch yourself, and think – that’s incredulous – wow – is this still a digital piano?

It definitely has gotten better, the authenticity, quality of emulation/samples is definitely better.

Where have digital pianos succeeded? As an alternative for the acoustic piano, for those who cannot justify the cost of a high end acoustic which could set the owner back $20,000 or more all the way to over $300,000, the maintenance which all pianos need such as tuning, or the space required to house a large grand piano.

The digital pianos attempt to recreate some of the sound of the expensive top end acoustic pianos, such as the Kawai Shigeru, and the Yamaha CFX and CF3, or the Bosendorfer which is now owned by Yamaha, and to a certain extent they succeed, a a Steinway like sound – which is what I think the Rolands attempt to emulate.

It begs the question, what styles of music are these high end acoustic pianos predominantly used for? Pop, Classical, Jazz. I wish I had the answer with statistical evidence. I would expect that most of the music played on the top end pianos would not be Pop. That’s my challenge, I find the pianos a tad out of place for many genres.

As an example the Yamaha CLP585 is a wonderful piano, great tone, on some occasions sounds really great to me, on some occasions, not so great and sounds a bit too clean with suppressed overtones. Overtones give a piano that richness, that complexity. Clean is excellent when you have strong harmonic (strongly polyphonic) compositions as it allows the contribution of each note to be heard without being smeared in a mush of overtones, but can be devoid of that richness, when playing music or style with minimal polyphony. With the Yamaha, the CFX sound is different from what I’m used to hearing, on most popular pop music.

The Kawai’s – I find missing a certain thump, and tinkle, the sharp/crack/attack I associate with piano. Rich warm tone, at the other end of the spectrum from the Yamaha. Great for classical and some jazz.

In some respects the Yamaha’s and the Kawais remind me a little of guitars, i.e an instrument with an attack, and strings, but the plink at  the front of each note is missing.

The Rolands are good sounding digital pianos, I liked the HP506 and HP508. The Roland LX 15e had a lovely rich nevertheless dark but rich tone, unlike any other digital piano – distinct and most like a real piano The Roland HP 6XX series, which I have finally been able to try out – I enjoyed the HP 605. Both the new Roland LX17 and LX7 are great pianos if you like their sound – definitely brighter than the LX15 which they replace. The touch of the LX17 definitely is a step ahead of probably anything else, feels really fluid.

The most recent pianos veer towards a realism and quirkiness, inherited from the physical piano, with such as a huge range in tone between forte and piano (loud and soft), for those who are used to the consistency of earlier generations of digital pianos, and digital workstations such as the Motif series, the current trend for a huge variation in tone between piano and forte notes, by the new kings of the block, can be a bit disconcerting and takes a while to adjust to. I daresay for those who are not familiar with real acoustic pianos, the workstations and older digital pianos have provided a safety net, allowing players to be a bit imprecise with their technique and for those familiar with the less dynamic digital equivalents, any attempt to play a proper acoustic or digital instrument voiced similarly – with huge dynamic and tonal variation, simply opens up many of the flaws in technique, a by product of the use of less capable  instruments.

Unfortunately after about a year of regularly trying out these instruments, Very few of the pianos’ attempts at authenticity bring me into that universe where I forget the instrument and simply get lost in the music. That thing that says I need one. Not sure what’s missing.

Which come closest to inspiration perfection? – the Roland LX15e, the Roland LX17, the Roland LX7, the Roland HP605, the Yamaha Clavinova CLP585, also acquits itself well.  Kawai CA97 – warm deep bass – no plink in the mid range, Kawai CA65 – bright sounding.. On most of the digital pianos, its the middle of the piano that seems weakest and least authentic- could be the cancellation or mono cancellation is strongest in this range!! I also enjoyed the Yamaha CLP 575 (nice rounded tone with a bit of harmonics yet retaining some of the brightness and what I call plink – (the piano strike/attack) and the Yamaha CLP 545 has a very nice rounded tone.

Edit: December 2015

One interesting quality to assess which explains some of the variation in their sound is how “close” is the emulated sound. A piano without the  sound of the room is an anomaly. The ambiance is such an important part of the piano sound in a theater, hall, and in any recording thereof. Some digital pianos, are voiced to give the impression of being right in front of the piano, and where the room/location in which the digital piano is played adds very little additional ambiance, the illusion is inauthentic.

It’s important to pair the digital piano with the right room. In my experience – playing the same piano e.g the Yamaha CLP 585, in 3 different demonstration rooms, left me with three different impressions. The best sound was in a demonstration room at Yamaha Music, in London, where the piano was placed adjacent to a large window, and the ceiling was of medium height, and it’s only on significant reflection that I now realise how much the room interaction affects one’s impressions of the resultant sound.

In another demonstration room where the Yamaha CLP 585 was placed in a location with a lower ceiling, with less reverberation than the location of another Yamaha CLP 575, the lower version model, the 575 was my preferred piano. It has taken a while to really appreciate how much the hall or room influences the quality of the digital piano sound.

Some pianos have the option to add ambience electronically, but this did not add as much value as a suitably reverberant room.

Special mentions :

The Kawai CN25 has a lovely close and very authentic piano sound, excellent dynamics, but not exaggerated dynamics. It sounds like a good quality close micing of a smaller grand piano, than the Kawai Shugeru which is sampled on the more expensive CN 97. I loved the action on the CN25, and it was an intimate nevertheless bright sound – with a rounded vintage edge/appeal. Especially when I consider the price – really great value, in my opinion.

I really enjoyed going back to try out the Yamaha CLP 575, – as I mentioned earlier, it could be the location/room in which I played it.

The non portable (unless you have a roadie) digital piano with the best tone – though a bit bright, at this time is the Roland LX17, and it has an excellent ambient sound – but this could be the room in which I auditioned it at Dawsons in Reading.

One fairly consistent impression is that the top end of the range is where the money usually is, with the most superb key action, expressiveness and that “response” that is closest to a living instrument.

Having said that, I listened to an old favorite – Joe Sample – Spellbound, the album, Seven Years of Good Luck, the 1st track being a good example one of the 1st CD’s I ever bought, at a time when I did not have a decent sound system, my 1st CD player played back via what would be considered a very very cheap and poor set of headphones, probably not anywhere near as good as the stock fare you get on airline flights. I realise that I have not heard anyone else with the same piano sound – on this album, you recognise that he’s playing both synth/workstation keyboards for the rich pads and sustain sounds, and acoustic piano, but that piano sound is so unique to him – whatever effects, the preparation of the piano, is such a unique sound to this artist. My point is this piano sound is imprinted in my mind, and similarly the pianos I have heard on many other albums each have their own sound, imprinted in my memory. From the piano on classical recordings to the piano sound of Lyle Mays – such a variation.

We are used to hearing so many types of piano on so many recordings, recorded and played in so many different types of ways, on so many different genres of music.

That’s why no digital piano will ever sound right. The piano technology – recording techniques and effects used over the most recent 80 years establishes such a wide expectation range, with each track you know having its own relatively unique slant to the piano sound, that nothing will quite fit the bill, cos your ear recognises that something is missing. It is within reason, not exactly, what you want to hear or are familiar with in your mind.

If your vocabulary of piano sounds is vast, from the variety of what you have listened to, the subset of piano sounds provided by most digital pianos will simply not satisfy that quest…..That’s my challenge…

A lot of the piano we hear in our minds has been processed by the microphones used, microphone positions, blend of microphones recorded, and further processing, oh of course the room in which the piano was recorded also plays it’s part, recording medium – tape, converters, equalisation, that it is hard to find instant gratification on many digital pianos….

I think it’s that challenge, to capture so many piano sounds, from the authentic reproduction of what a real piano sounds like, which is very different from what we hear on a lot of pop music, and there are so many variations of the authentic classical/jazz piano sound, and then the many pop/gospel piano variations, and so many variations of piano – from the different acoustic piano manufacturers – Grand, Uprights, in so many different states of maintenance and age – with developments especially over the most recent 150 years in piano manufacturing and design technology. Advancements in recording and the vast resource of available recorded material with piano components, has spoiled us in our time, that the piano player needs a piano for every type of music, close to what their ear is familiar with, for that genre of music. It’s akin to trying to design the perfect car – the same car which can transform into whatever car we need – a bus, a truck, a sports car. Probably impossible.

We are spoiled for choice in our piano sound vocabulary in 2015, from such a huge history of piano playing and recording, and the digital piano manufacturers will struggle to keep up with the demands of the most discerning.

And were are talking here of just acoustic emulations. Today’s keyboard player also needs incredible electric pianos and hybrids.

It is difficult to please everyone, and do this in a cost effective way.

Edit – January 2016

Listening to recorded sources such as videos on Youtube informs me that there is quite  bit of variation between the sound of the digital piano, via its own speakers and when it’s played back on alternative amplification systems.

To fully evaluate a digital piano, I think in addition to hearing what it sounds like via its own speakers, one needs to hear what it sounds like on a good pair of monitors. Why? In addition to a home setting, many digital pianos are used in public settings amplified via their line outs, so its good to have a perspective on this angle of their sound. I have been quite surprised at the difference in sound, e.g on a Kawai CN97 between the in built speakers, and the recorded sound on YouTube, I perceive that the sound board amplification system “dulls” the initial attack, leaving me with the impression that its not as percussive as I expect. While the sound board amplification system emphasizes the bass notes, when I compare with other Kawais which do not use a soundboard the wonderful treble end of their sound shines forth. The Kawai CN97 sounds really nice online.

I really need to find time to compare these pianos via headphones, but that takes away from their presence… My love for headphone listening is over – Even in the studio, I definitely prefer to listen on speakers…..

Comparing digital pianos in a store, via an identical set of monitors, hmmm – that will need quite an undertaking and negotiation!!!


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