Category Archives: Pianos

3rd time lucky? – CP88 aftertaste

Another hour with the CP88.

I had noticed something on the most recent review, which I needed to investigate further. It has two stereo analog outs.

  1. A set on 1/4 inch jacks, with the Left also labelled “mono”, implying that if this is the only output plugged in, the piano would sum both channels. This is a feature pretty common on all the Yamaha digital instruments, I have ever used. In many circumstances, especially when playing live, you may have only one channel on the mixer assigned to the keyboard, for convenience, and one of the reasons why this may be acceptable is because most audiences at a live event are listening in mono.
  2. Another set on balanced XLR’s with the Left channel ominously not having any additional labeling, regarding “mono” summing.

Because the balanced XLR’s did not explicitly have any “mono” designation on their Left output channel, it was foolhardy to simply assume that this feature would apply to them also. Solution to my inquiry – test and hear if there was a difference.

I did and true to the omitted “mono” labeling, the balanced XLR Left channel does not sum Left and Right. So Yamaha to their credit labelled this accurately.

What’s the difference? The mono summed 1/4 inch jack left channel has a collapsed depth of field, and sounds tiny, and I no longer enjoyed the sound. My earlier audition had the keyboard connected via one cable to the speaker, on the left XLR channel., and reverting to a balanced XLR connection, after listening to the mono summed version via 1/4 inch jack, I definitely preferred the non-summed sound via XLR.

It would have been great to hear what the right XLR channel, on its own would sound like, solo, but I had already bothered the store attendant more than probably anyone else reviewing this keyboard over two session, that I felt reticent to ask for more.

I could write a whole piece about auditioning pianos in a store, digital in particular

This really changes things….., and as much as I gave the Yamaha a glowing recommendation, in this configuration, via mono summed 1/4 inch left output only connected, this is not a piano sound I would recommend.

The other thing that nagged me was this unshakable impression of stumpyness, a heavy footedness in the piano sounds especially the acoustic,  where you had to really make an effort to play delicately, a bit more so than on a Yamaha CP33 stage piano, which I play most days, and am pretty familiar with. So the CP88 does the forte well, but no piano (soft)…the lower velocities having not been sampled very well…., especially on the acoustic pianos.

The Utube video at the link or image below, sheds light on this challenge of digital pianos. I do find that the more expensive hybrid Yamaha pianos do a better job of this dynamic range, however playing them is not as even handed in touch as pianos like the CP88, which are so well regulated. I guess it takes a lot of money to regulate the more expensive actions perfectly, cos there is so much more physics and components to get right.



So it really depends on what kind of music you make, and how much you want in one keyboard. Not too sure if the default sound on the CP88 would do classical very well (not that that is my genre). While most of my review to date has been to hear what the basic pianos in each category sound like, especially without all the effects, to hear the pure sound as much as possible, well I kinda left the reverb on – it was not distractive and in the default setting adds just a bit of effective realism to all the sounds, otherwise everything sounds too close miked. Distractive – is that a real word in the English language??

The third category of the CP88 sounds, with acoustic and electronic being the 1st two broad categories, which are all individually layerrable, has accompaniment sounds like strings, pads, organs, and let’s say I was underwhelmed, Yamaha should not have bothered. If you want lush strings, look elsewhere… what I heard in this category is unmissable.

So if looking for a recent single stage piano, in hardware form, keys and sound engine on one device, the current alternatives would be :

  1. Nord Stage 3
  2. Nord Piano 4
  3. Nord Grand (soon to be released – which bumps up the piano memory from the 1GB on the Nord Piano 4 to 2GB, and replaces a Fatar action with one from Kawai)
  4. Roland RD2000
  5. Korg Grandstage
  6. Korg Kronos
  7. A used Yamaha Motif XF, XS or S90ES
  8. A used Roland RD800 or RD700NX.
  9. A used Yamaha CP33 or new/used Yamaha CP300 (Yes this 9+ year old keyboard can still be bought new, and has great sounds – Yamaha still makes them…new)

A little research indicates that the Nords also have a challenge with the difference in the sound of mono and stereo, in their case having a dedicated mono button, but I have it on good advice that similar to my experience with the Yamaha, some prefer to avoid using it., and make do with the subordinate sound of one half of the stereo pair, in circumstances where only one channel is amplified, or recorded.

I have not tried the comparison of the RD2000, in stereo/mono, so cannot say.

Why bother with all this minutiae? Partly because a lot of the demos one hears of these instruments, on Utube, are in stereo, and if you think this is what you will hear on a live stage connected with just one audio channel active, think again.

This challenge is as old as the invention of stereo capable digital pianos, and I am a bit surprised to find out that it is still a major issue, if you are picky about your piano sounds. And I think you have to be, if you wish to be as emotionally authentic, and/or give value to your paying or non paying audience. If the experience of listening to you play is or should be an important one, then you want to get it as good as possible.

While the samples may not be as pristine and accurate, it was comforting to discover a more satisfactory resolution of this stereo summing issue, when I got back later in the day to play the CP33, which IMHO, has a more balanced resolution of the dynamic (forte/piano) challenge, and it’s mono sound when using only the Left 1/4 inch jack output, is acceptable….

I am tempted to have one more go, to review what are known as Yamaha’s Live sets, which are combinations of the three main sound categories, kind of like their master programming of production ready sounds which you can use without having to tweak yourself, i.e part of what you pay for is Yamaha’s expertise at creating combi sounds, something they should be good at – should – from their EX5, Motif and Montage pedigree. But that assumption, like everything else needs to be verified.

The video at this link gives an example of the end user having to tweak a Roland RD2000 piano sound to provide something more suitable for classical music.

So this is something to consider, do you want to become a piano engineer, or want to focus on creating music, practice, and performance and composition. In the old days of synthesizers, you had programmers whose job was to create great sounds, and got paid for it, the most successful being Eric Persing of Spectrasonics/Roland fame. So when you got a keyboard it came with great sounds. It’s part of what you paid for.

So only you can determine if the sounds of a specific keyboard work for you or not. And the more I look at things, the dream of having a single keyboard from Nord, Yamaha, Roland, Kawai, which has ALL of the following features is slim, based on their current or announced offerings.

  1. Great keyboard action
  2. Excellent piano sounds – acoustic, electric.
  3. Very good other sounds, organ, etc
  4. Solves the mono issue.
  5. Comes with great patches in the box, so tweaking is a bonus
  6. Has some easy to use tweakability, which allows you to tailor and examine options, to create your own sound over time, but out of the box you do not have to do this, cos there are a good number of sounds close enough to what you have in mind.
  7. Durability.
  8. Of course not too heavy to take to the gig.

The ultimate solution, may be a two keyboard rig, one weighted keys for pianos action, and another like one of the Nord Electros for other sounds.

A good example of this is here. In conclusion it is not likely to be inexpensive. Or like him you rent as needed. Note all the videos are in stereo, so not sure how they will sound on stage..!! in mono… At this time, the Nord’s get the nod for an all in one that comes closest to the wish list above. – but do beware – that Fatar action has never been the most reliable, but I guess with gigging pianists in some parts of the world, not their problem, they only have to rent the item, and its someone else’s headache when the keys fail.


Sayonara..

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Yamaha CP88 – The 2nd coming of a 5* stage piano

I gave this stage piano a 2nd audition. And in my most honest opinion this is a keeper – it gets 5 stars from me.

Playback was via a Neo Acoustic LA10 speaker, this is an in-house brand of Dawsons, at the time of this writing – £349, one of those column speakers on a stick, with a subwoofer as the bass and base. As I played the piano in a sitting position, the speaker extension column was removed so that the section containing tweeters and midrange speakers was lowered to just above the base/bass, and closer to my ear height – just below.

If I may add, playback is such an important aspect of any electronic instrument. Not that I advocate their purchase, but many of the budget keyboards like the Yamaha P45 sound definitely better when played through other speakers instead of the tiny little speakers on the keyboard, which do no justice to the sounds on any keyboard. I strongly advocate that one needs a speaker with a woofer of at least 10 inches (if using a PA speaker) or at least 6 inches (if using a studio monitor), to really hear what the instrument sounds like, and this makes a huge difference to appreciating its sound.

With that out out of the way, I adjusted my seat, positioned the tweeter column angled towards me, and the audition began.

As the piano had been switched on in the store, next thing was to sort out the volume, ensure there that all the bass, and treble controls on the speakers and on the keyboard were set to flat.

What can I say?, about 80 minutes of non-stop playing ensued, and this is one of those keyboards, that has earned the kind of reverence I had for the Roland LX-17 and Roland LX-15 pianos. Three words, satiety, clarity, punch. This is one keyboard that deserves the very best of speaker amplification, it is worth every extra penny you spend on amplifying it optimally. I am pretty convinced that some of the advantage of the Roland LX-17, Roland LX-15 and the Yamaha-CLP 585 and 685 are their higher quality speakers.

By default, certain features are turned on such as damper resonance (most likely also related to a similar feature on software based samples of pianos – aka sympathetic resonance), and a bit of reverb also turned on. It’s very easy to turn these off as the CP88 provides a good number of controls without having to dig into menus.

Unlike the Roland RD’s which attempt to assuage you with lots of sounds, a lot of which is simply several different variations on the same theme – you find this approach on instruments like the Roland Fantom, lots of patches all sounding almost the same, based on the same fundamental piano samples…, the CP88 taks the less is more approach, 2 or three different main pianos is each category – Acoustic Grand, Uprights, CP (which is sampled from the original Yamaha CP80), and similar in the section for electroacoustic instruments emulating Rhodes, Clavinets, Wurlutzers and includes a DX7 electric piano sample. Rather than lots of variations of each, you get just a few typically no more than 3 or 4, and you can use the controls that are easily within reach, to tweak the sound to taste

Of any keyboard I have ever used, this was more like sitting at an instrument like the old Rhodes piano, and being able to tweak to taste with controls right in front of you. Add or reduce reverb, compression, chorus, wah-wah, and more, and the real highlight for me was the EQ, very effective, albeit I would say, I have spend far more time than I dare to admit, using EQ’s as a mixing engineer, and also adjusting eqs for pianos in a mix, so this comes more naturally to me, if I hear a sound, I know exactly what frequency and what filters to change to get me the sound I desire. So for me – the Yamaha EQ section is a big plus. With a few turns you can dial in pretty much most of the sound you want, on any piano.

So each default piano patch is only a starting point. Its easy with a few quick turns to take it much further in the direction of your intentions. With this and the volume knob, I could do 80% of whatever I wanted and that’s never happened on any digital piano – never…, and I can achieve all of this in about 10 seconds, max, on any patch….

Now to the CP88 sound, this applies to all the sounds, bold, clean, very clean, in your face, a bit bright, stark naked, warts and all, hanging it all out there in full view. Yamaha have taken a huge risk to create an instrument that is very revealing of their original samples. This is the new Yamaha sound to define a whole new world of gigging professionals. This is an instrument that does not rely on effects to cover up shortcomings. Shockingly I was very satisfied with using the sounds – plain, turning off ALL the effects on each sound, relying only on EQ to take the sound where I wanted it to go, for a particular piece of music, darker, brighter, all done with ease – and no modulation or time based effects… The sounds stand up to the utmost scrutiny – very well sampled.

At the heart of this instrument is honesty like I have never heard in a digital instrument, you may not like some of its sounds, cos this is about presenting Yamaha’s vision of piano, in digital form. You may not like the sound of the Yamaha and Bosendorfer, acoustic pianos, in their default presentation, but with some tweaks of the eq, they will take you at least 70% of the way towards most of the sound you want to hear. Yes you will probably need to adjust your chords and polyphony and inversions to suit this instrument, but I daresay, this is a keyboard that will make you a much better pianist, and I explain.

On one end of the digital emulative piano are instruments like the Korg M1, and the Motif or Fantom and the Korg Triton/Trinity, whose pianos are obviously not as authentic as the real thing, with a sound that has lots of harmonics, rich and luscious in comparison to a real piano, for pop music with minimal polyphony (fewer notes in a chord) and minimal playing, you get a fully featured result. On these instruments you are not encouraged to attempt any complex classical music, they would sound like garbage, cos too much would be going on.

The CP88 is the other extreme, pared back, not too much harmonics on each note, with very strong fundamentals, so there is no hiding place, but you have all 88 notes to create the richness you need, so hammer away, all fingers blazing, create any chord your fingers can get away with, and every single note will ring out distinctly, without any smearing. This keyboard looks at you and says – is that all you’ve got, it will take any level of complex playing, deliver all the notes with aplomb, and stare back at you without breaking a sweat. You will need to up your game on this keyboard, no two fingered chords will do here….In simple terms this is a keyboard for the pianist who can play, it will force anyone to play better and improve. It’s the closest to a high quality concert level piano in portable digital form, allowing you to perform at that level if you have the ability.

The black keys – now this is special, rather than gloss or matt, they look like some kind of wood with a grain (may be plastic but I’d have to check), which has friction, surprisingly no one else seems to have highlighted this unique feature. So the black keys are the most non slippery I have ever come across, and they look cool. Unfortunately there’s no way to see this in any of the publicity photos, you have to audition the keys in person, to see for yourself.

After a few minutes of acclimatization, the keybed is one of the best I have ever laid hands on, very, very fast response, weighted but not too heavy, not tiring, you can play anything on this keyboard if you have the chops. Very even response on every key, – its got wood in the white keys for sure, a very high quality keybed, that is a joy to play.

Overall the keyboard is a professional instrument, big, bold, but not as bulky as the Roland RD2000, a good balance between having no controls like on the Yamaha CP4, and having too many controls and blinking lights and sliders, like on the Nord Stage 3, Nord Piano 4 and the RD2000 (which could be good for lighting Xmas trees – lots of lights), once you’ve tweaked the few controls you need, the vista in front of you is relatively uncluttered and you can be on your merry way focusing on the music, no light houses like the Yamaha Montage !!. The black is demure, and invisible. I can imagine though it should not take too much to get someone with the competency to change the color to something more individual – if I was a gigging pianist, or a major label artist, I’d have mine in color bands like what Elton John might have had commissioned.

As you dig into the higher velocities, this keyboard opens up, on any of the instruments, acoustic pianos, electric pianos, whatever, and more so than the authenticity of emulation, is this aspect – it behaves like an instrument, not the instrument that was sampled, but this new incarnation of the original, at your service, to deliver a performance that translates a human emotion. Now that’s what an instrument does – convey something from the ethereal and make it plain for others to see and hear – the CP88 does this more effortlessly than any other digital portable piano, to date. Does it have its own signature – yes, but in a way this is also good, it does not sound like any other instrument, and each time you play it, you can make it distinctly your own instrument, by the settings you prefer and the way you play. Rather than impose its signature on your sound, you are in control of the wheel to steer the CP88 where you want to go, with your tweaks and your fingers, and feet at the pedals.

It oozes confidence, looks like a keyboard that will wear well, and be in use in 30+ years from now and still be in contention with any keyboard of the future, no matter how good future keyboards become. Very, Very well built metal casing. You know you are playing one of the best, electronic instruments ever made.

I own a Yamaha CP33 stage piano, and get a lot of joy from it. While I was not pleased with the more recent stage pianos from Yamaha like the CP1(too expensive), CP4 (samples not very good sounding), the CP88 restores Yamaha’s leadership of portable digital keyboards, if piano is your main instrument. It may not excel at other sounds – pads, strings, etc, but what it does it does very very well. I think for an instrument with the clarity of what I have heard, that does not need any hiding place, a keyboard that looks like you will never need to replace it, and a musical instrument that may outlive you, it’s worth every penny – if you can play it – not a keyboard for beginners, but any beginner on this piano will soon become a piano giant, with consistent practice, it will force you to get better, cos it can take anything you throw at it without breaking a sweat.

If you need a good portable piano, this is the one to get, that you will never ever be ashamed of, no matter what else comes in the future, or whatever anyone else owns.

I won’t bore you with feature lists, you can find that elsewhere on the web and on Yamaha’s site, but I do hope I’ve been able to convey the heart and soul and feel of this INSTRUMENT, that translates human emotions very well, with very little coloration of your intentions, if any.

It is not the keyboard to end your need for other keyboards, but the keyboard to form the firmest foundation, of what is available today, of highly expressive tones to build your songs, encourage you to practice, guaranty your confidence at any rehearsal, bathe your audience in delight, afford your recordings a level of unashamed clarity that will stand the test of time…, and not break your back when you need to move it.

Whatever you do check with Yamaha about getting a good case for it. This is a keeper that you want to preserve in pristine condition, forever. I am certain this will be a classic…Get one while you can. My concern is that Yamaha may with its success add features to a new model and discontinue it too soon, the CP88 however reminds me of the Yamaha CP300 the godfather of stage pianos, another classic, that at the last check, is still in production well over 7 years after it was released… This must be the CP300 reincarnate.

Excellent Related Piano Sites

I thought it good when I discover really relevant other sites which amplify some of the review I have attempted to establish on my site, of piano and music.

The 1st of them is the Youtube channel of Ben Allen – really just an amazing musical and technically proficient individual. Dare say the best keyboard comparison site on Youtube, by a long mile… The quality of his videos is outstanding, and his delivery is IMHO measured and objective.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVxOGNLryVOoo_0QiRujOpA/featured

Yamaha CP88 Stage Piano (Portable! Digital)

This is their stage piano released in early 2019.

1st impressions from listening to Youtube demos, and some time spent playing one through a Yamaha DXR8 PA Speaker/Monitor.

Decently sampled. Best samples of any current stage piano. if you like the sound of the instruments sampled.

A new modern and bright sound (not too sure how much the DXR 8 contributed to the impression of brightness). I think in general the challenge with a lot of audio is the quality of playback however good the samples/programming.

My personal thoughts – many revered speakers, when I hear them, leave a lot to be desired. I did check to ensure that there were no EQ contours on the DXR8 modifying the sound. I do wish I could review this keyboard in my studio.

Acoustic. Direct. In your face, close miked – which is great, definitely preferred to the previous model the CP4 which sounded a bit indistinct and distant. It’s easier to add room sound than attempt to expunge it, from a sample.. The initial patches veer abit too much in the stark presentation of clinical samples, but these need some life, added to them to make them into real instruments, coupling with the air and complementary reflections.

Definitely a great idea – having the one function per control layout, without having to dig into a menu for most things (like their CP1 and CP4). So much more approachable.

A bit scared that the vintage looking rocker switches, for turning on/off each of the three sections (acoustic piano, electric piano, and other sounds) with little metal sticks, poking up from the keyboard front panel, may get damaged in transit – pretty rare to see such switches in modern keyboards../audio kit. Definitely makes them look unique. Retro.

OK Keyboard/Keybed. Hitting the higher velocities on many a Yamaha Keyboard does require some heft/welly/downforce.. and sometimes I wonder – is this a character of the Yamaha acoustic grands – not sure, it does take a bit of getting used to. I think with this keyboard I must admit there is a Yamaha keybed approach which has a thunk at the end of its travel, in comparison to the Roland keybed which has a bit of a bounce at the end of its travel. We are spoiled for choice, and have the luxury to bicker about these variations….I recall the days of lusting after a Yamaha PSR with mini keys which probably had only 4 octaves, and even that was pretty unaffordable…

As sampled, I would have loved a bit more difference in tone between the softest and loudest piano tones on the core CFX patch.. making this patch more multipurpose, a single piano that you could pretty much use for anything. The CFX tone seems a bit skewed towards classical repertoire, and the bright forte end of this spectrum, not my forte.

Sadly it did not take my breath away, and transport me to another world, the beautiful samples kept me rooted in a reality – here and now.

And then it begs the question – why music? I think a lot of music (voices, sounds, melodies, progressions) takes us into another place, away from every day reality. Pretty sure that with some effort one could program as much modulation as needed, using the provided effects, (and or external effects) to take the piano sounds into sonic nirvana land. I recall the 1st time I ever heard a DX7 played live.that electric piano variant…That is what a superb instrument should do, open the door to a new world…

In contrast – the programming on older keyboards like the Motif derived MOX8, have some of this escapism programmed into the DNA of their patches(via a combination of the samples and effects). I recall being able with very little polyphony (fewer fingered chords) to make a joyful evocative sound on the MOX8.

In contrast – there’s a wonderful electric piano patch on the Roland RD2000 which takes you into this other world and until you’ve had your fill and drunk from its excesses, you are imprisoned by its magic, and by the memory thereafter – Just for this one patch the RD2000 is worth it, especially as this sound is so unique – and unobtainable on any other keyboard.

Sadly my 1st encounter with the Yamaha CP88, played back via a Yamaha DXR 8, did not endear it to me as a prime candidate for my daily use. Great sounds, but they did not add up to a superb instrument that captivated me enough to play it for hours…- Something that the Roland LX-17 does…with ease. And which the previous Roland LX-15 oozed with an even grander darker envelope of immersive sound. The LX-15 and LX-17, I could sit and play for hours….with ease and undivided attention.

Digital pianos are definitely getting brighter, the new Roland LX-708 was way too bright, and most of its pianos disappointing, which I auditioned on the same day as the Yamaha CP88… Seriously – who is behind product design in these global businesses – do they actually play piano or love the piano? Value wise, the ROland LX-708 is not great and has only one decent acoustic piano sound, which itself is already a bit too bright, and the other pianos excruciatingly even brighter still…

A challenge with instruments such as the CP88, which need external amplification, with each different speaker you get a new version of the sound, so your impression depends on what you are listening through. What a wonderful idea it would be if Yamaha also designed a very specific monitor for this keyboard, through which you could hear it 100% as intended…removing some of the variability of the sonics.

Part of the challenge is the quality of really well sampled alternatives in software from the likes of Spectrasonics, Vilabs, Synthogy, Production Voices, and others, which subjectively or objectively take sonics to another level in both reality and evocative response, with even greater tweakability and unlimited options for enhancing the sound all in the box, using in-built effects or external plugins. And then there are the various CFX samples by Vienna Symphonic Library, Native Instruments, and Garrittan.

Even with real acoustic pianos of the same model, they do not sound the same. So its now a question of which CFX sample do I like the most – CFX by Yamaha’s or CFX by another sampled product manufacturer?

Is this a consequence of product design by committee, consensus, surveys, obtaining feedback from dealer networks, without speaking to the musicians and aspiring musicians who want to be enthralled by the sound and touch and looks? The Yamaha CP88 ticks all the boxes, yet the sound did not tug at my heartstrings…

Because it’s a Yamaha – another audition is on the cards. We’ll see.

“Musical” Instruments – Pianos 2018

It’s been a journey, discovering music, deciding I needed to invest time and energy to solve the mystery – how is music made, and being able to make it myself.

On this blog, I have posted articles about my review of musical instruments – digital pianos in particular.

Why? I like to consider recorded or live music as the culmination and in my scenario – an acoustic piano is difficult to justify – space for one, being able to mic it up, and getting to choose one, maintain it regularly – and after all that effort I get only one piano sound – the one I bought, which is unlikely to be suitable for all the kinds of music I may wish to record – oh yes to record it properly I will need expensive microphones.

So the closest alternative has been the dream of electronically generated piano sounds. Hitherto my favorite digital piano of the non-portable kind has been the Roland LX-17 and I do not think this opinion has changed.

Unfortunately the piano I considered as a possible runner up, the Yamaha CLP 685 – the king of this line of Yamaha’s castle, has been knocked off the pedestal. I auditioned one yesterday and it finally hit me – the problem is not the piano, it is the original instrument that was sampled that does not gel with me – that CFX sound – does not – to me – say piano, Nice try Yamaha  – nice experiment, but I do not like the CFX sound – when I hear all incarnations of the sampled CFX – there is something in it that draws attention to a thinness – plinky almost like a harpsichord/harp sound – lacking the solidity and girth. Like a piano trying too hard to be one.

With all due respect – and in spite of my love for all things Yamaha, my personal opinion, the CFX sound is an acquired taste that does not get my approval, I also discovered that the action on the CLP 685 is odd – too hard in the default setting – too much finger pressure needed – and I play a Yamaha CP33 stage piano, which already has a fair bit of weighting – typically more than most digital pianos, so for the CLP 685 to occupy the weightier end of the spectrum – was uncanny – it was quite uncomfortable and tiring to play.

I think Yamaha should go back to the drawing board – this CFX tone “is not working for me” as my compatriots from the Gold Coast would say, and no matter how much publicity, marketing and spin, they need a new sound that does not completely attempt to be novel, and miss the mark like the CFX. My thoughts, the CFX tries to be everything to everyone ( abit of Yamaha abit of Digital, abit of Steinway, some bit of Kawai, and a dose of Bosendorfer) and ends up becoming nothing to anyone. Compromise here not being a good strategy. I have yet to audition the CP88/73 and this may change my mind about the CFX sound.. It is possible that the sampling sessions for the CLP 685 are the root cause of my aversion.

Not saying that the CLP 685 will not sell in large numbers – it will – as it has the brand – Yamaha, and a lot of these pianos are bought as furniture pieces (status symbols) anyway, so for that purpose the sound is irrelevant.

Which leads me to inspiration – I auditioned some Roland piano instruments – the RD2000 – which has lovely electric pianos, but can’t think – what did they have in mind – their acoustic pianos are a struggle to listen to – not good at all. The FP90, and less so the FP30 – but the Rolands felt like instruments – i.e. expressive – the instrument and you were one – they do have very nice keyboard action – these Rolands – you forget about the keyboard cos it feels absolutely intuitive, with the right amount of weight/resistance – play anything – fast – slow, ultra fast – it just is remarkably responsive. And their sound has dynamics like a proper instrument – you can dig in for emphasis and hear the tone change to heighten the note (more harmonics), much better expressiveness – even though the tone is clearly not as authentic as some other pianos. i.e it may not sound like a piano 100%, but sitting down to play it feels like a piano  – what a contradiction, but this causes you to play it like a piano and it sounds like one – an instrument for conveying expression, effortlessly. As much as Rolands may not have the most authentic tone, they have surprisingly now become my recommendation for musicianship – with the best expressiveness in their stage pianos and digital pianos like the LX-17 and the RD2000. Especially on a live stage – what you need is feel and they definitely win on feeling – in touch and sound response to touch. – If you want a hardware keyboard with sound generated outside a general purpose computer like a Mac or PC.

EDIT: If you are reading this anytime in 2019 and beyond – with respect to stage pianos, I think Yamaha are back in the game with their CP88/73 which I have not auditioned yet, at the time of this writing – March 2019, but are definitely worth considering. From demos I think they nailed it on both the acoustic side and electric pianos. Overall better sounding than the Roland RD2000 (IMHO). The pads and strings and organs on the CP88/73 are their weak points – you most likely will need another keyboard to cover these emulations at a higher standard….., for live performance…. I think after so many years, the promise of a single keyboard you can take to the stage and aptly cover a variety of emulated sounds is futile, there are no masters of everything. None. Each stage piano has their own strengths.

Digital Piano Instruments and Sounds – Sonic Dimensions

For a while, I’ve tried to find a way to categorize piano sounds, as over time I have become more aware than ever of the variation in piano tones,  which is somewhat derived from the difference in the sonic options of the original instrument – the acoustic piano, made by different manufacturers, with diverse techniques and varying materials, and on cherished recordings – from very different rooms/recording equipment(microphones, placement, recording chains, converters, etc..).

Why bother?

More than ever before, for reasons such as cost, logistics, culture, location, many may not have convenient access to a real acoustic piano of acceptable or preferred sonic quality, and even where access to one is resolved, recording that instrument  to a high standard – requires skills, and equipment that may be unattainable.

My 2nd serious foray (the 1st being a beginner’s 61 note Yamaha semi-weighted keyboard) into digital piano sounds, led me into the universe of sampled pianos, with a purchase of Ivory version 1 by Synthogy – a sample based piano instrument. Most surprisingly, it was not what I had anticipated. The accolades in the Sound on Sound magazine review which led me to purchase this promising tool, were unwarranted. It sounded nothing like what I heard in my minds desire. Why? Most of my aural expectations were based on polished piano sounds which I heard on popular music… Instead of a lush, rich tone, what I heard was dry, plinky, and thinner than expected. A tone which required very rich and complete chords/harmonies, beyond my abilities at the time, to bring out any life from the instrument.

After spending a tidy sum, time, effort, research, and ending up in shocked disappointment, I abandoned the software/sampled instrument approach, for a few years, reverting exclusively to piano sounds from hardware instruments.

Over time, I’ve been finally able to resolve the gap in expectation. All acoustic piano sounds, in digital format, fall somewhere in the spectrum of each of the following dimensions.

  1. Tone – which has string sound(almost like a jangly twangy guitar/pluck similar to a harpsichord, at one extreme, to metallic – hammer striking a metal string, somewhere in the middle of this dimension, to a woody funereal sustained mellow tone at the other extreme. Typically from very transient quick attacks to mellow felt softened woody resonances.
  2. Space – from very dry and upfront to distant and roomy.
  3. Modulation – from life like and perfectly reproduced to obviously veiled and distorted and ultimately somewhat unrecognisable as a piano.
  4. Clarity – from ultra realistic and modern to bit-resolution/frequency limited audio reminiscent of the earliest  sampled piano instruments.
  5. Note length – from staccatissimo in an anechoic chamber, to ringing sustains of over 1 minute long in the bass.
  6. Weight – Light to Heavy/Dark

There are no right or wrong piano sounds, the only challenge is finding the one you have in mind, or learning how to modify the stock sound, as much as you need to, in the direction of your intention, where the instrument provides these options.

Each instrument obviously has a certain limit to how far the tweaks can go, yet still retain a believable sounding character of a real/imaginary piano, because it can only stray so far from the originator’s intention, so a good starting point close to your intention is of advantage. The sonic universe of piano sounds is vast, made even more complex by the opportunity to layer piano tones with other sounds.

Now when I hear a piano tone, I can analyse it and place it somewhere in each of the aforementioned dimensions, and am better able to appreciate its distance from my intention, and rather than become frustrated with the sound, simply realise it’s not quite what I had intended, time to compromise, tweak it as close to my intention, as it will allow me, or cut my losses, abandon the current search to find a better starting point, a candidate closer to my intention, for the music in my heart, at that point in time.

Somewhat like real life, fight(fix things as best as you can) or flight(abandon the current search). Both right decisions.

No piano tone is perfect for all types of music/emotion, we can either accept its compromise or reject its offer.

Ultimately the choice is ours.

For me the long search for the right piano or the best piano, is over, and this includes the perfect piano for each song – also an exercise in futility, such searches are infinite searches, there will always be a range of pianos, at our disposal, close enough to suit the specific track, once in the ballpark, each new tone will be a good enough variant, for the task at hand, not better, only different.

Therefore, from now on rather than invest time in a futile search for perfection, good enough (based on the limitations of time, and resources at my disposal) will have to do, for the task at hand.

The music is far more important than the piano tone.

Living is more important that searching for the ultimate experience or object – as there are no ultimates, only within the limits of our current reach, and these ultimates are subject to change anyway, so why bother. Today it is no longer considered an unreachable big deal to put men on the Earth’s Moon and bring them back. Getting to Mars will not make us any happier or better, cos when that is achieved, we seek to reach the stars, a seemingly laudable goal, but does it bring us any closer to contentment. Yes we may get the wreath, have our name written in the record books, for a season, but even these achievements are temporary, in the schema of ultimate time, probably forgotten by all humanity within a few years of our expiration, overtaken by new feats of human advancement.

Begs the question, which brings real contentment, to live and accept good enough for ourselves, or to forever be inadequate by incessantly attempting to be perfect or better than everyone else – a target that is never achieved – predominantly initiated by a comparison with the achievements of others, or our previous achievements. Progress is great, a wonderful thing, but not at the cost of contentment, which is an even greater place to be. One fulfils, the other propels us into a perpetual wild goose chase.

Complacency is also not ideal, not a place to be, as there is no propellant for expectation – hope, anticipation, discovery, and fulfilling one’s purpose/abilities/potential.

Is there a middle ground – an acceptable contended middle ground between the extremes of abject complacency and the perpetual frustration of incessant overreaching?

I choose to live, to enjoy today, to enjoy now. Tomorrow may be better, but today is the best day to be alive. Living – appreciating the here and now, is more important than achieving.

The piano I have today, is the best one for me – with lemons I make lemonade, with what I have today, I make and enjoy music, which is more important than the instrument I choose to use/acquire.

Comments above also apply to all manner of musical instrument tones, electro acoustic pianos, and other instruments.

What I have (or do not have today) is good enough. I learn to make do with what I have today. I learn to be alive. Today. Now.

 

August 2014 – Affordable Mid Range – Digital Pianos

The last weekend was heavenly, Saturday and Sunday afternoons were spent at Dawsons in Reading, trying out almost all their weighted keyboards, portable or home oriented non portables (i.e the stuff you simply cannot lug arround with you)….

There are no clear winners. In these days of the internet/online, it is rare to have the opportunity to try out a variety of keyboards in one physical store….I’m enjoying this while it lasts. I recall how Turnkey,  probably the world’s most famous music equipment store, in London – United Kingdom, is no more…., my guess is that online price wars killed off brick and mortar music stores, whose overhead in prime time real estate no longer had a place! While reviews on Youtube give you a good indication, of the sound, nothing compares with you playing the instrument yourself.

Caveat emptor. My priority in all of the comments below was how well the pianos felt through my fingers and how well they sounded, and supported my perfomance and emotional intentions with each pice of music.

All of the digital pianos I encountered had in-built speakers, amplifiers, and a weighted 88 note keybed.

Why digital piano(DP)?

1. The cost of a high end, well regulated acoustic piano, is definitely beyond the means of most hobbyists such as I predominantly am, at the time of this writing. Regulated here refers to the even touch, you feel on the more expensive acoustic pianos, with no sudden unsettling changes in tone from key to key and from loud to soft playing. Even is the word that comes to mind – No surprises, like you find on low end acoustic pianos.

2. Volume Control and support for Headphones..

3. Portability. Most digital pianos are still relatively portable and you may not need the services of a dedicated piano removal professional, if you wish to relocate.

3. Always in perfect tune.

4. Easy to record, no need for arcane microphones.

5. DP’s can easily serve as the master keyboard controller for a home studio, using MIDI or MIDI over USB.

6. Nice looking furniture piece. Would look great in your study or lounge, if you had the space.

7. In general I’ve found the touch of most DP’s of the non portable kind to be more consistent than the portable stage piano variety. Could be that the much stronger support, devoid of any microshifts in the stand/support, improves the feel. This could be an impression only and maybe a strong firm stand on a stage piano could be the answer. I find that when you need to play some very loud notes, where a bit of downforce on the keyboard helps with your expressiveness, the last thing you need is minute wobbly movement of the keyboard or individual keys, e.g. from left to right.

YAMAHA

The new Yamaha’s (e.g CLP 525, 535, 545, edit more recently after this was initially written, I have come to love the 585 also which was not available in store in August 2014) were the most balanced of the new keyboards – In general they represent a safe bet, and would probably appeal to those aiming for a middle of the road piano. average – and probably the most consistent, no major surprises. caveat, these obviously will not sound like a Steinway, as the pianos sampled are Yamaha acoustic and Bosendorfer which is also now owned by Yamaha.

Furthermore, they seemed to have the most consistent sound between different models, getting darker and brighter (yes both ends of the audio spectrum are enhanced as you go up the price range). But of all the piano ranges, these had the most consistent sound, in my opinion.

Compared to the older CLP’s the new ones are a definite improvement. That characteristic bright tone that Yamaha acoustic are known for, have been somewhat toned down with the CFX samples. The sparkle is still there when you need it, but you have to dig in a bit to tease this out of the piano. The Yamaha’s consistently had the most useful electric pianos. Unfortunately Dawsons no longer carry the Motif and MOX’s in store, but I guess from previous experience, I have a pretty good idea how these compare. The Motif/MOX have the most useful electric pianos I have ever heard(edit in more recent times the Roland RD800 has set a new bar in a polished new wave electric piano sound), not particularly authentic a la the Rhodes, but the most usable, and also have a good variety of pleasing options in this category of epianos.

There was nothing to complain about the Yamaha CLP action, especially with higher end models. Overall a bit lighter than I have found on older Yamaha products such as the Motif ES8 and the Yamaha CP33. Nothing significant to have to adjust to here. I am a bit more familiar with the Yamaha action. Not saying that I like them, but they get the job done.

Compared to other pianos’s the Yamahas had an excellent tonal variation between the darker – warmer – more intimate Bosendorfer tones and the brighter CFX tones. In general they had the greatest tonal range across the variety of piano samples, which could lend them to a much wider application, without sounding samey. The Bosendorfer definitely sounds different to the Yamaha tones, on each of these pianos, not as prominent, but this works to the advantage of some music pieces, allowing the player to dig in a bit more without the piano drawing attention to every note! On the Bosendorfer, you hear the whole music in perspective, like a panorama, from a certain distance. With the Yamaha CFX tones, its more of an introspection, with every note announcing itself, that bit more than with the Bosendorfer.

It was shocking to discover that the Yamahas were the least bright of the digital pianos, not in a bad way, but quite unexpected, as Yamahas traditionally have been one of the brightest digital pianos. I’d say that the Yamahas could be bright, but need a bit of effort(velocity) to achieve their brightest tones.

I’d also say that the Yamahas had the greatest tonal range between bright and dark tones, in response to velocity, i.e they got brighter the harder you played.

The other pianos, were already a bit bright and especially with the new Rolands also quite percussive at all but the lowest velocities. On the other hand, the Yamaha’s felt a bit restrained(soft) until you applied some effort to your strike, and never ever sounded over the top(artificial, plinky), no matter how hard you struck the keys.

Fortunately the relatively lighter touch of the current crop of Yamahas did not discourage a heavy handed approach to the keyboard, to access those brighter tones.

KAWAI

The Kawai’s were superb, but the sound varied quite a bit between the various models. Each good in their own way.

The CN24 is bright, an excellent replica of an upright piano sound. I really enjoyed playing this.

The CN 34 is darker, also derived from an upright piano. Sometimes it felt a bit too dark

The CA65 is bright, derived obviously from a concert grand piano. Somehow this was one of the few pianos I have ever played that really did not do it for me. Nice sound, excellent action, but something did not quite convince me.

The CA95 is a masterpiece, deep but not dark – glorious sound. both of the CA pianos had really excellent long sustains. Nevertheless the Kawai’s obviously emulate a Kawai sound which may not be what you want. While brighter, the Kawai’s has the least percussive sound, a pleasing accompaniment instrument that feels a little veiled in comparison, with the least ear fatigue.

Maybe I need to define percussive, which to me implies a piano sound tending towards the striking almost honky tonk, you hear on rock and American gospel music, and Abba’s pop music.

Piano sounds are quite subjective, and vary in their suitability to the specific genre, and music piece, you need the piano to support. The long history of piano development – over several hundred years, with variances across continents, has spoiled the listener of recorded or live music with such a wide spectrum of tones.

Electric pianos on the Kawai’s – were generally ok, not spectacular.

I found the touch of the Kawais the most luxurious. Very consistent, really enjoyable action, light on the CA’s like a concert grand should be. Almost too light, but in a good way.

I’d say the Kawais, were the most pianistic of the lot – if a bit bright.

ROLAND

Roland seems to be striking out in a new direction, with an interesting and somewhat enchanting acoustic piano sound, somewhat brighter, and quite percussive – definitely easy to cut through a mix in a live environment. Mellow would definitely not describe the new Roland acoustic piano sound. I did not like the electric pianos on Roland in general – more effect based, than the actual electro piano sound. The percussive sound of the Roland’s is like nothing I have heard before. The work plinky comes to mind. Rich, resonant, sustained – Pop piano, drawing attention to itself without effort. You end up restraining your playing on a Roland, cos it can sometimes be a bit over the top, like excessive power that needs to be held in reserve.

The FP130R was a revelation for the price. I liked it, like a really good upright – dark chocolate with an inviting tinkle. deep dark and bright at the same time. Very percussive. It drew you in to its sound. – Intimate. The touch was not the most consistent, but in a way it replicated the slightly inconsistent feel of most acoustic pianos, that the average Joe would have access to. In this sense it was probably  the most authentic digital piano. This in itself introduced a wackiness, a slight quirkiness to your playing, only ever so slight, unpredicatable, but this was also exciting, every note a delight, a bit of a surprise. This was the piano that in my opinion revealed to me in the most amazing way, the sonic power of the Roland Supernatural sound.

The HP504, 506, and 508 were even more consistent in their quality, really excellent pianos, each very slightly different in tone.

The LX15E is glorious, deep dark – and very full sounding, begging for a real pianist to grace its keybed. The quality of the full range samples and speakers shines through. Yes a bit dark, and had the most bass of all the digital pianos I tried, not excessive, but unapologetic.

My overall favorite of the Rolands was the HP506. The 508 is rich and grandiose like a proper grand, but the 506 seemed to combine the best of both worlds. The 504 I found somewhat muffled, and the keybed/action was not as refined.

The Roland action is different, with the most pronounced ivory feel effect(anti sweat). In a way I had to adjust my playing a little bit more for the Rolands. Their ivory feel surface felt the most artificial, almost distracting, like wooden keys which had been sandpapered.

On the brighter side of the spectrum, the Rolands had the most significant variance between dark and bright, with their dark/soft being already notably bright, unless you played really softly.

KORG

Two words – don’t bother. Nothing exceptional here.

SUMMARY

If I had to pick one, it would be one of the Rolands, especially for POP music, which had the most easily discernible variation in tone, between low and high velocities, quite “dynamic” and for this reason the most expressive. They had the greatest measure of “instant gratification” – A finished polished sound, with no need for any further effects, in the way that Motifs once ruled, back in the day. Probably not the most realistic or authentic compared to a real piano, but somewhat excessive, like a new age futuristic version of a piano. It’s obvious that the technology from their VPiano is paying dividends. Nothing out there sounds anything like the new Rolands. Nothing. And nothing has ever sounded like a recent Roland digital piano – Nothing. They do occupy a certain exclusive high ground of their own. To sum this up, however unrealistic, the Rolands felt most like an instrument – something with which to express a believable emotion. The Yamaha’s felt a bit restrained, after listening to the Rolands.

With the Rolands, I tended to lower their volume a bit more, to avoid drawing attention in the store, and at the other end of the volume spectrum, I’d usually leave the Yamahas at the higher end of their volume slider.

For some reason the layout of the Yamahas and the Kawais, were so similar… Is there something we need to know? 

Of course all of these keyboards are a step ahead of their previous models, so my comments are comparative.

What’s consistent with all of the newer keyboards is the volume levels and clarity are so much better than previous models. Louder, clearer. And I would add brighter, more distinct than previous models.

The Roland is the new king of the pop digital piano. Shiny, almost unrestrained, new toy. It commands you to pay attention, not just to the pianist but to the piano itself.

In contrast the Yamaha does not draw attention to itself, but supports the intention of the player. 

I am quite surprised at this change of fortunes, as a few years ago, these roles were reversed, with Roland pianos having the darker woodier piano tones.

I could be wrong, but it appears that the Rolands are adding some extra harmonics and richness that you may not find on a real piano, while the Yamahas leave it the way it is – unsweetened, like good yoghurt – a bit bland but definitely good for you.

The Kawai CN24 and the CA95 were also standouts for me.

While I am definitely not in the market for a new keyboard, at this time, the technology has certainly moved on a bit from the Yamaha CP33 stage piano, which is my main board. The touch in the newer pianos has improved, and is not quite as heavy(read sluggish) as the CP33. It could also be the fact that the CP33 is a stage piano, while the aforementioned digital pianos are not built to be portable, so their action may benefit from the rigidity of their frames.

In comparison to the CP33, which came out at least 5 years earlier, the newer pianos are definitely more interesting, and more enjoyable to play, as the sustains and sample lengths have become longer.

I suspect that the CP33 also does not include release samples, so the “air” around notes is a bit dry – quite bland in comparison.

It could also be the listening environment. In the store I observe that there are obviously high ceilings, and smooth floors, with occasionally smooth shiny partitions and walls, while at home I listen to the CP33 in a bedroom with duvets, carpets and a studio monitor. The CP33 in this environment has relatively shorter decays, requiring me to be a bit heavy on the sustain pedal, and make a bit more effort to add more notes to “enhance” the performance, in the melodies and chords. I definitely have to work a lot harder on the CP33, busier piano style to fill in the “spaces”, to make a good impression. Maybe the term close miced may be a more appropriate description for the Yamaha CP 33 sound overall, as it has relatively shorter, quicker note decays.

Definitely, the newer pianos especially the Kawais, and the Rolands have more “sustain” and you can “hear” more of the “delay/reverb/natural decay” of the piano sound, with the new Yamahas being the closest to the CP33, which in a way is not unexpected. On the newer pianos, you are happy, especially on the Rolands and Kawais, to simply hit a note and let it sustain, ringout in all of its glory, before proceeding to the next note. Truth be told, in a real piano, the piano case in itself is a reverberant enclosure, which adds its own “volume”, and is an intrinsic part of the sound of a piano, in a similar manner to an acoustic guitar which has a box enclosure.

On the newer pianos you definitely hear this enclosure more, which contributes to the authenticity.

My guess is that the newer technology uses longer samples, or emulates the decay much better.

It does, in my room at home, make me yearn to tweak the sound of the CP33 to add more of that gloss, resonance, sparkle.

From recall the newer pianos were somewhat easier to play, more realistic, and more enjoyable. But it could be the fact that I’m using studio grade monitors at home, in a space which does not “sweeten” the sound of the piano. I am convinced however that it’s not just the space, there’s a smoothness and excitement(read dynamics) in the newer pianos that makes them more “alive”.

However, comparing like to like, I found that the Roland stage pianos e.g the RD700NX, did not give me as much of the “excitement” contained in their newer non portable pianos, so there coule be some “mojo” going on with the new pianos, which is coupled to their casing, speaker placement. In comparison to studio monitors, the speaker placement on digital pianos makes it feel that the sound is coming from an instrument, i.e from “everywhere immediately in front of you” rather than the more directional locatable source of a pair of studio speakers/monitors. 

When I have the energy, maybe I’ll pick a pair of headphones and compare the piano sounds again, eliminating any room or speaker influenced impressions. But on second thoughts, even acoustic pianos require a partnership with the room, to produce the sound which we identify with. 

Progress indeed.

MY WISHLIST

A single piano with all of these sounds so that I could have everything in one keyboard. I know you would say – software based sampled pianos on a PC/Mac are the way to go, but I am not yet convinced. I derived a significant pleasure from playing the digital “hardware” versions which in reality are simply running software on dedicated hardware processors, with dedicated speakers positioned optimally. 

I guess this is what you pay for with a decent digital piano, the integration – of wood, design, electronics, speakers, amplifiers, plug and play, solid keybed, multiple pedals. look and feel. On the other hand you lose the portability/upgradeability. What you see is what you get.

I would also ask that the control surfaces be touch panels, that enable the user to “promote” their favorite controls, and de-emphasize non-favorite controls, with default layout presets provided by the manufacturer, and we can look forward to saving the planet, via software uogrades, and possibly component upgrades, rather than the current situation where every change to the piano results in the discarding of very previous wood, that does not need to be “thrown away”.

I think that Digital Piano manufacturers are significantly behind on component reuse, and whichever of them introduces this obvious quantum leap with interchangeable parts, especially where the piano owner can customise to make the piano their own in a much more engaged manner, is likely to steal the thunder, and break free from the pack. It’s sad to consider having to upgrade my entire piano just to get the newer sounds!

In this world of apps, its time the manufacturers of digital pianos followed suit, to let us have interchangeable sounds, that can be “upgraded” as the fashion of the day in piano sounds evolves, and enables us to remain in nostalgia, with perfect compatibility with older sounds.

Wishes.