The piano has been plinking
Sleek, black and stylish, Akai's latest digital piano is competitively priced and opts for classical simplicity in favour of technological complexity. Is it the ideal home piano?
There's no doubting that the digital piano is here to stay. Quite apart from the convenience factor (eg. it won't go out of tune, and you can turn down the volume or wear headphones so as not to annoy others), it has established its own 'authenticity' as an instrument.
While the holy grail of digital piano manufacturers remains the exact reproduction of the acoustic piano sound, clearly many people are happy enough with the current standard to part with their money. And, while the purists might not like it, a new generation of musicians is growing up learning to play on digital, not acoustic, pianos.
If anything, in this age of consumer convenience and ubiquitous electronic gadgetry, the digital piano is the more 'natural' of the two instruments. It's not hard to imagine someone used to switching between three acoustic piano sounds, two electric pianos and vibes thinking that an acoustic piano gives something of a raw deal! What's more, if it hasn't exactly rescued the acoustic piano sound from oblivion, the digital piano has certainly helped it to survive in the electronic age. It could even be said that the digital piano has helped to keep alive the art of piano playing.
For keyboard players, as opposed to those who merely use the keyboard as a convenient method of triggering other musical parts, the acoustic piano sound remains the sound, with a massive store of music to draw on stretching back across a couple of centuries. Equally, the 'piano action' keyboard, as opposed to the lightweight offerings on most synths, remains the best keyboard for proper note articulation, for building up muscle strength in the hands, and for giving a feeling of substance and weight in performance.
The keyboards used on digital pianos have come a long way in recent years, and these days it's possible to get a very satisfying 'piano touch' without the actual piano mechanism. Conversely, it's a fallacy that acoustic pianos must all have wonderful keyboards just because they have a 'piano action' - there are plenty of naff ones, too.
For hi-tech instrument manufacturers, digital pianos have opened up a market of musicians which they wouldn't have been able to reach with their synths, samplers and drum machines. Musicians who want the advantages which technology brings without the sort of complexities which are calculated to bring on an instant bout of technofear.
Akai are not one of the most prominent companies in the digital piano field, but their name is known in many a household through their hi-fi products. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the company's latest digital piano, the PG2, is clearly intended to appeal to the 'household' musician rather than the professional stage or studio player. Not only is it priced at the lower end of the digital piano price-scale, but it also opts for simplicity, both in its sleek, chic design and minimal its front-panel control layout - no backlit LCDs and multiple software pages here...
The DIY wooden instrument stand (complete with MFI-style assembly instructions) and the piano lid which doubles as a music stand (making it impossible to sit another instrument on the top panel) are clearly intended to make the PG2 look good in the living room - and to keep all that household dust off the keys!
But what does the PG2 have to offer the MT reader? For a start, eight multisampled sounds: grand, upright and honky-tonk pianos, two electric pianos, harpsichord, vibes and pipe organ. Overall the grand piano does sound suitably, well, grand. The bottom 2-3 octaves are especially good - nicely dark and sombre - while the top end captures the characteristic bright 'chinky' quality of an acoustic piano's high notes well, without any plinkiness. However, the upper middle range sounds rather flat, and does have that slight plinkiness to it.
Sustained notes 'carry through' reasonably well, though they do start to thin out a little too soon for my liking. The multisamples are on the whole well matched across the keyboard, though there are some detectable if not glaring transitions in tone from one sample to another.
Many of the same comments can be made about the upright piano, with the exception, of course, that it's a shade lighter in tone. By contrast, the honky-tonk piano is a touch harsh and metallic, and really not quite 'jangly' enough; I'm not sure that this is a sound I would keep coming back to.
There's a slight 'boxiness' to the sound of all the pianos which is probably to do with the onboard amplification system; route the PG2's audio output to external amplification and you can get a much more expansive sound. Incidentally, the only way to disable the onboard speakers is to plug a pair of headphones into the front-edge stereo phones socket.
Electric Piano 1 is a very effective 'hard' Rhodes sound, well suited to aggressive playing, while Electric Piano 2 has a softer, mildly-chorused timbre well suited to more wistful playing. The harpsichord is a bright, brittle sound, more French than German in character but not quite capturing the spindly delicacy of tone which makes the French clavecin music of the Baroque such a delight. The vibes I found a touch anaemic and cold, although the bass end works quite nicely. But then I like my vibes warm and shimmering (mellow... man). The full, powerful-sounding pipe organ, on the other hand, is very impressive - suitably grandiose and majestic.
Press the Brilliance button and the selected sound is given a touch more 'edge' and brightness; this I found to be particularly useful on the grand and acoustic pianos. All the sounds can be played dry, or with one of three preset reverb effects - room, stage or hall - added. The piano memorises the Brilliance and Reverb settings you make for each sound.
The PG2's keyboard has a medium travel together with a lively action which has its keys 'dropping' suddenly on depression and then bouncing back up quickly on release. The effect is a slight 'floppiness' which I initially found disconcerting but got used to without much difficulty. You can adjust the responsiveness of the sounds to keystrikes by selecting one of three velocity curves. This is done by pressing the MIDI button and then playing the C0, D0 or E0 key on the keyboard. As you'd expect, velocity has no effect on the Harpsi and Organ sounds, as the 'real thing' in each case isn't touch-responsive.
Other functions on the PG2 include semitone transpose and master (fine) tune; like velocity curve selection, they are set by playing notes on the keyboard after pressing the MIDI button.
The PG2's rear panel provides stereo audio outs together with the now-regulation mono/stereo audio inputs which allow a second instrument to use the piano's built-in speakers. The rear panel also provides MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets.
However, let me pour cold water on any idea that the PG2 might make a good MIDI controller keyboard. For one thing, it may well have the 'piano action' that you want, but is a piano-action keyboard best suited to playing the wealth of instrumental sounds available from synths and samplers? To my mind, a lighter, synth-style keyboard, or at least a keyboard whose action sits midway between synth and piano, is better.
Still, that's just a personal view. What's undoubtedly true is that the PG2's MIDI capabilities fall far short of what you should expect from a MIDI controller keyboard. All you can set are separate MIDI transmit and receive channels and Local on/off (again, using the MIDI-button-plus-key method). So, no zoning or layering, no configuring of patches on slaved instruments, no remote control of MIDI parameters from front-panel sliders... and no aftertouch, or pitch and mod wheels. To be fair on the PG2, though, digital pianos as a whole don't make good MIDI controllers - presumably because the manufacturers are more interested in minimising the manifestations of technology.
Finally, I must mention the PG2's damper, sostenuto and soft pedals. These are part of the keyboard support stand, and are connected to the piano by a lead which you run from the pedals to a small socket on the underside of the instrument. Like the piano itself, these look smart and serious. They're also comfortable to depress and release - not too sluggish, not too swift. Finding a sostenuto pedal fitted on a piano at this price (digital or acoustic) is a bonus.
It looks stylish (if you like sombre black), it feels solid and reassuring, its keyboard has a satisfying professional feel, and its sounds are, on the whole, well-conceived and very playable. And for anyone who wants their technology presented with the minimum of fuss and distraction, the PG2 rates very well. I would have liked to see an upright bass and a fretless bass included - especially as the piano's amplification provides such a strong bass end - along with the ability to create bass/piano splits. But at the price, I have few complaints; the PG2 is a very competent instrument and good value for money.
Price: £1299 including VAT
More from: Akai (UK) Ltd (Contact Details)
Review by Simon Trask
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