Roland EP50 Electronic Piano
Julian Colbeck checks out one of Roland's new family of MIDI capable electronic pianos
During the past few years, all kinds of 'synth sounds' have leapt in and out of fashion. At first, well-rounded, fat 'Moog' type noises were all the rage, then with the arrival of the Prophet-5 and the Yamaha CS80 everyone strove to capture brass sounds - thick and rich - then along came the DX7 and FM, and suddenly we wanted precision, and acoustically orientated digital accuracy. Nowadays, of course, one looks to sampling instruments to provide outrageous 'out of context' sounds for inspiration.
But throughout this period, the piano sound has remained a constant requirement for keyboard players at some stage of their performance. In an age when it's seemingly possible to recreate any sound, that's quite a compliment for a notion dreamed up some four hundred years ago! Even since the arrival of MIDI - which inevitably opens even more doors to flights of musical (or should I say aural?) fancy, the piano remains a viable proposition, and indeed now looks set to become the most logical basis from which to drive a multi-keyboard, MIDI setup.
At the beginning of the year I was taken over to Zoetrobe Studios in Los Angeles, where American hi-tech masters Toto were preparing for a world tour. One of their keyboard players, David Paitch, was using a full-size Concert grand piano to control his MIDI setup. A kit had been installed by Californian company Forte Music which MIDI-ed up his Bosendorfer (or was it a Bechstein?). Brilliant. Quite superb.
Yamaha have taken up the theme, and this year plan to re-launch their classic CP range of electric grands with MIDI built in. But meanwhile, Roland - who have, sadly, not met with alarming success with their 'dumb' MIDI keyboard controllers, the MKB1000/300 (in spite of the fact that I happen to think they're great!) - have developed the MIDI piano idea from the very basic MIDI specification found on their HP range, to this (at last!) low cost/highly useful beast the EP-50. Now, this is an electronic piano, and as such doesn't produce dead accurate acoustic piano tones, but the EP-50 is velocity sensitive, and its four presets cover a range of sounds from standard piano (in need of a bit of treble boost/compression) to standard piano, plus a hint of harpsichord-type edge, to full and rich piano and finally a meaty, spiky harpsichord itself. These tones cannot be mixed.
The EP-50 boasts a pair of built-in speakers, and when using them the sounds are very respectable - especially with the stereo chorus. Although the chorus is preset in depth and speed, it adds considerably to the instrument's classiness, and (like the stereo speakers) can be switched on or off at will. As well as a slider operated volume control, the EP-50 has a key transposer, featuring merely a small button on the sparse front panel. Actual transpositions are carried out using the designated section of the keyboard, which is clearly marked. One excellent point here is that when you want to return to normal pitch, you simply re-press the key transposer button and back you go. All too often with such devices you still have to find the 'correct' key once again, which is both a hassle and hazardous if you're playing live.
Now isn't the time to go into 'What is MIDI?', so I'll assume you know that this communication language allows varying degrees of control to and from seemingly unrelated, MIDI-based products. On the EP-50 you can talk over MIDI channels 1-16, which means that you can connect up several MIDI instruments (a couple of synths, an effect like digital reverb; whatever) and, using the specified MIDI channels, communicate with one or more particular device at a time. Roland's latest HP pianos also have this capacity, but they don't have the next attribute: that of controlling an external device's patch numbers. Once again, using designated keys on the keyboard, you can command, say, your MIDI-linked Juno 106 to change patch numbers - from 0-64.
But MIDI means that the EP-50 can be used for other purposes, too. You may be using a MIDI sequencer or even some MIDI-based sequencing/recording software with a personal computer. Hence, the EP-50 can easily join your assembled throng of instruments and be used as a piano sound source - being 'played' or controlled by the sequencer/software programme. The EP-50 also does transmit velocity information.
As I see it, the EP-50 is an extremely useful item because it covers such a wide range of duties. You can use it at home simply as a 76-note velocity sensitive piano (with built-in speakers, don't forget), you can use it in the studio as a sound source for MIDI recording, or you could even use it live as a simple controller of your MIDI arrangements.
Although the action isn't weighted, the EP-50's velocity sensitivity allows you a pleasing level of player control, and the whole package is attractively presented, with neat, pro-looking controls on the black metal casting. The built-in speakers may fool you into thinking that the EP-50 is solely a 'living-room' job; but they merely add to the instrument's all-round capacity. A most useful item.
RRP £625 Inc VAT
More info from Roland (UK) Ltd., (Contact Details)
Review by Julian Colbeck
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