Ensoniq Sampled Piano
Mark Jenkins investigates the very latest attempt at replacing the Steinway Grand to come from the company that has made sampling its forte!
Mark Jenkins checks out Ensoniq's intended replacement for the Steinway...
It may be unfair to compare the new Ensoniq SDP-1 Sampled Piano to a Steinway Grand, but there's always the chance that the two might be compared, both in the studio and on the road. Just look at the second hand classified columns under 'F' for Fender Rhodes - the machine's been made practically extinct by the Yamaha PF pianos and the DX7, and the Rhodes sound is almost as complex and distinctive as that of a real grand.
Shame that Ensoniq couldn't get the SDP-1 price below £1,000 because then they could have had a field day with corny ad copy about 'a grand for under a grand'. As it is, £1,115 is low enough to attract many users who insist on a real piano sound but who don't have the studio space (or road crew) for a genuine acoustic. The real question is, will many people go for an SDP-1 in preference to a Mirage or other sampler which could be much more versatile?
The SDP-1's weighted keyboard, quick selection of new sounds and key transpose function all count in its favour when discussing applications for clubs and bars, but in the studio situation a more versatile sampler for a slightly higher price might be more attractive. So let's look at what the SDP-1 has to offer in its own favour.
For a start, there's a six-octave (E-G) wooden keyboard with a firm weighted action. The keyboard uses what Ensoniq refer to as "controlled resistance" to simulate the 'drag' of a real piano keyboard, and this one certainly pushes back at you quite substantially. As you'd expect, the keyboard is velocity-sensitive, with a wide and accurate response, although it's not actually possible to push down a key without making it sound, as it is on a real piano.
As for note decay; on the basic Grand sound (Piano 1) a low note holds for about thirteen seconds with no audible glitching or looping and with an authentic reproduction of the slight beating of paired strings. A weighty Sustain/Sostenuto double footpedal is supplied along with a music stand, so the SDP-1 has all you need to make music instantly - provided you have some way of amplifying the output as there are no built-in speakers, unlike the Yamaha PF range.
The small left-hand control panel has twelve black buttons with built-in red LEDs, plus two sliders - one for Volume and one for Key Transpose.
This latter function takes you from F# at the bottom to F at the top - C is in the middle with no particular way to lock the slider at that point, and on the review model the knob didn't line up particularly well with the legend, so it was difficult to see which key you were in. Room for improvement there.
There are five sound select pushbuttons and two Bank switches, A and B, offering a total of ten sounds.
Piano 1, as described, is a pretty good Grand with not too much key clunk, while Piano 2 is a de-tuned honky-tonk version of the same thing. Rather an odd choice - I've never heard a honky-tonk Grand piano before - but quite usable. Piano 3 is a brighter, more up-front (probably upright) piano described as being "a close-miked rock and roll piano sound voiced for amplified music and recording".
E-Piano 1 is pretty familiar - it's meant to be a Fender Rhodes, although it could have been brighter for my taste, and it doesn't overdrive in the same way that a real Fender does if you hit the keys hard. A little nondescript down the bottom end too, but slightly improved upon by the E-Piano 2 preset, which is a de-tuned/chorused version of the same thing and a little warmer sounding.
Then we advance to the Bank 2 sounds, starting with Marimba 1. Popularised by the Eurythmics (who use the Yamaha PF piano), the plonky Marimba sound is a little unusual and exotic, and certainly this version is quite authentic. Here it's "played with hard mallets" whereas on Marimba 2 it's chorused and given a softer attack. This sound isn't very natural, a little too like a steel drum without quite so much detuning, and I personally can't think when it would be used.
Following on we have Vibes, which is great for your Lionel Hampton impersonations, having a very clear, metallic top-end sound and plenty of bass.
Next up are the two Clavinet sounds, referred to in the handbook as Clav 1 and Clav 2 but on the machine itself as Perc and Mallet. In fact, Clav 2 is simply a de-tuned version of Clav 1, which is a reasonable sound but not perhaps the best choice of Clavinet voicings. It doesn't have all the toppiness and bite a real Clav is capable of producing (something to do with the sample bandwidth perhaps?) and certainly doesn't come near my own Clavinet/Pianet Duo for sheer funkiness. Still, I'll give it eight out of ten.
The Ensoniq SDP-1 in fact has two more sounds which we haven't yet mentioned. These are the Bass samples. Upright and Electric, which cover the bottom two octaves up to the G, when selected. You can reposition this split point for each bass sound independently as far as B3 (key 32) by holding down a Bass button and the Stereo button and depressing a new key; the split points are retained in memory when the power is off, until you change them.
The Upright bass sound is excellent, with a good 'pop' to the start of notes, but the lack of a pitch-bend wheel makes it difficult to play it in a life-like manner since bends and glides obviously aren't possible. The fretted Electric bass sound is okay, and both sounds have the benefit of being velocity-sensitive for added dynamics.
The bass section of the SDP-1 uses two voices (suitable for a doubled left-hand part) and the instrument as a whole has ten available (to match your ten fingers!); normally the first note played will be stolen if you sound more than ten notes together, but the lowest pitch will always be kept so that you don't lose your root note. What's more, the piano and bass sections won't 'steal' voices from each other.
Since you obviously lose the lower bass range of the piano sounds if you utilise the separate Bass function, there's an Octave switch provided which will lower the pitch of the main part of the keyboard by one octave, if - and only if - the Bass function is switched on. Pity this isn't available in the normal playing mode too, but you can't have everything I suppose!
That leaves us with just two panel switches: MIDI and Stereo.
Stereo opens up the sound quite dramatically, especially over headphones (adding some 'hiss' on the way), and allows you to take advantage of the Right as well as the Left/Mono audio output. MIDI allows you to select a different MIDI In channel for the bass and piano sections, although the panel on the demo model wasn't labelled with MIDI channels as shown in the handbook.
Basically,the Bank and Sound buttons take on MIDI channel numbers from 1-16 and you hold down the MIDI button and a channel button simultaneously to select a new In/Out channel. To change the MIDI channel for the Bass section you press Stereo while selecting the MIDI channel and the bass is assigned to the next channel up - Channel 7 if you've selected 6 for the main keyboard; Channel 1 if you've selected 16.
The SDP-1's MIDI implementation is adequate but not wonderful - it will respond to MIDI program changes but it doesn't have 'Active Sensing', for example, so if its MIDI input lead is accidentally pulled out during note transmission you'll just have to switch it off and on again to kill any 'hanging' notes. It doesn't offer 'Local On/Off' control either, so if you're controlling its sounds from an external sequencer you can't use its keyboard to play another module without playing its own piano sounds too.
On the rear panel of the SDP-1 you'll find a separate output for the Bass sounds, the Right and Left/Mono audio outputs, a headphone socket, a tuning preset centred at A (440Hz), MIDI In, Out and Thru, the footpedal socket, fuse, Euro power socket and mains switch.
The SDP-1 's internal filters can be re-tuned after it has warmed up simply by holding down the MIDI and Stereo buttons - the machine then goes through its power-up cycle, all the LEDs flash in about two seconds, and the filters are then re-tuned.
When you sit down to play the SDP-1, you'll find that its Sustain/Sostenuto function is great. Sostenuto means that you can play a chord, make it hold using the pedal, then play melody notes which don't sustain over the top of it. The Sustain pedal itself is fairly conventional, but it's unusual to be able to sustain a Clav sound from a footpedal, so that's a bonus. While notes are sustaining you can change sounds and the existing notes will carry on in the old voice while you play on with a new sound, which is also a very exciting performance technique (the same applies to transposed notes using the transpose slider).
Coming to conclusions about Ensoniq's SDP-1 Sampled Piano is a little difficult since pianos and piano substitutes are so much a matter of personal taste. I liked the keyboard action and many of the preset sounds, although it might have been cheaper to put in only the basic versions of the sounds plus a chorus, rather than a lot of 'de-tuned version' chips. Wonder if Ensoniq intend to make any alternative sound chips available? I hope so!
The review model I played was slightly noisy, even with the volume at full for optimum signal to noise ratio, and switching in the Stereo function made matters worse, with a definite sweeping hiss being audible. It would be worth checking out a machine in the shops yourself, as I suspect this was just an aspect of a very early batch.
It's good to see some attention being paid to MIDI facilities on the SDP-1, but although the keyboard is velocity-sensitive, the unfortunate lack of pitch-bend and modulation wheels reduce its suitability as a MIDI 'mother' keyboard.
On the whole though, I'd be very happy to have an Ensoniq Piano in my front room for writing and practice. Whether it would spend much time in the studio rather than use a fully-fledged sampler like the Mirage is another question entirely...
Review by Mark Jenkins
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