Roland HP300/400, PB300, PR800
The Roland HP300 and 400 pianos are designed to fit unobtrusively into the average sitting room, being made of wood and sheet steel and covered in a veneer of wood-effect vinyl. They're also provided with a stand which raises the keyboard to the height of a standard upright piano, and there are two pedals set into the base of this stand which connect to quarter-inch jack sockets at the rear of the instruments to provide sustain or damping.
There is an on/off switch on the right hand side of the keyboard, and on the left are several switches fitted with LEDs which enable the user to select one of three piano tones, Electric Piano, Harpsichord and Vibraphone. There are also Stereo Chorus (on/off) and Tremolo (on/off and rate) controls, though this latter feature is not fitted to the 300. The rear panel offers mono and stereo outputs and an external input, both with high/medium/low level selection, a tuning knob which varies the pitch of the instrument less than a semitone in either direction, and the standard five-pin DIN MIDI In and Out sockets.
The tones produced by these instruments are all reasonable, though none of them is particularly wonderful, and while the touch-sensitivity is undoubtedly effective, it doesn't really resemble a piano keyboard to play. All the sounds are greatly enhanced by liberal use of the stereo chorus facility.
I would have welcomed the opportunity to combine some of the sounds provided in groups of two or three, but they are wired so as to be mutually exclusive, a red LED being illuminated on the preset currently selected. Although the HP400 is a nicely-styled instrument (in the tradition of the sort of furniture you find in discount warehouses), it seems a little expensive as a standalone piano at an RRP of £1125, and I would look for a better sound capability or a more realistic piano touch/key weighting from an instrument in this price range. However, as part of the trio completed by the PB300 and PR800, it emerges in a different light, while the smaller 75-key version - the HP300 - is about £200 cheaper and lacks the Tremolo but is in all other aspects is identical: I feel this represents better value.
This is a drum machine similar to those that have become common on home organs and the like. It is equipped with two banks of preset rhythm patterns with individual selector buttons, and an LED indicating which preset is selected. Rhythm volume is controlled by a slider, and tempo is set with a large control knob which is not calibrated. There is, consequently, no way of setting this machine to a specific number of beats per minute without hooking it up to the accompanying keyboard recorder - but more of this later.
The presets are all fairly standard and usable (if you like that sort of thing) and each has its own individual fill-in bar which may be inserted at 2, 4, 8, 12 or 16 bar intervals, or at will by pressing the Fill button. In addition to the standard kit sounds (the ride cymbal is pretty abysmal, but the rest are OK) it's possible to obtain an automatic bass line appropriate to the selected preset rhythm, and a chord or arpeggio on the notes you're playing with the left hand. These two are also controlled by sliders adjacent to the rhythm volume controller.
There is also a Hold facility which retains the pitch of the last bass note you played as the basic pitch for the accompaniment if you don't want to hold it down. The lower part of the piano keyboard is dedicated to this auto-bass/chord function, and the split point is fixed at the F sharp below middle C on both the HP400 and 300.
Other facilities include a tuning routine for the automatic bass/chord using the Tune button on the piano, a Synchro Start button which starts the rhythm unit only when you start playing on the keyboard, and finally a Nuance switch (sounds like a contradiction in terms) which transfers touch-sensitivity information from the keyboard to control the volume level of the rhythm unit.
This is an excellent little machine and for me represents the saving grace of the system. The front panel sports a liquid crystal display which, at your command, tells you which bar of the recording you are in, how much memory (as a percentage) you have left to record into, or what tempo the metronome is set at. This display is controlled by (surprise, surprise) a Display selector. The metronome may be selected to play in crotchets or quavers (quarter notes or eighth notes) at any speed from 40 to 240 beats per minute and with accents in 3/4 or 4/4, or with none at all. A damper indicator shows when the recorder detects you have depressed that pedal.
Recording and Playback are as simple on this machine as on any tape or cassette recorder and the quality of reproduction is, of course, perfect. If you press Record followed by Play, your exact performance at the keyboard will be recorded, mistakes and all, but you can go back and record again from any measure you choose, and the recorder automatically plays you in from two measures before so that you can get used to the tempo before the recording starts. Having punched in, however, it is not possible to punch out - you have to play on to the end.
Should you require a metronome, this can be selected and adjusted after you have pressed the Record button but before you press Play, which starts the recording. At the end of the recording, you press Reset to return to the beginning, or Forward or Back to go to any other part of your recorded passage. A pedal can be used to operate the Play/Stop functions if you want to get your hands ready on the keys. There is also a Repeat function (an excellent idea) that enables you to repeat the piece you have recorded indefinitely, or alternatively to mark any part of your recording to be repeated: up to two repeat marks may be used in any recording. In this latter case, the Reset button takes you back to the previous repeat mark, or to the beginning.
The keyboard is live during playback, enabling you to play duets. If you switch the recorder off the recording is lost, so Roland supply an interface that connects via a couple of jack sockets on the back of the recorder and lets you dump the contents of the memory to cassette. The Play, Record and Reset buttons double as Save, Load and Verify respectively and the entire contents of the memory - not part - may be shuttled to or from cassette tape. This of course means that you can build a repertoire of recorded material - say one half of your favourite duets - and the play them back while performing the other half 'live'.
Auntie Maud would be really impressed!
As a complete system, the HP400 (or 300), PB300 and PR800 chat away to each other along the MIDI bus and seem to get along fine.
Personally I found the rhythm unit both limited and limiting, and would very much rather use another (programmable) Roland rhythm unit, even though this would probably work out more expensive.
Having said that, this is not really the sort of set-up you can take out to gig with since it's really designed as a piano system for the domestic player, and in this context the rhythm unit is up to scratch, while the piano touch doesn't have to be too realistic I suppose.
Certainly, the recorder is an excellent unit and makes the Piano Plus system well worth looking at as well as being excellent value for money in its own right.
Gear in this article:
Review by Geoff Twigg
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