Roland RD1000 Piano
How does Roland's new SAS resynthesis system go about imitating a grand piano? Dan Goldstein digs deep inside the RD1000 and its modular counterpart, the MKS20, and submits a glowing report.
Avoiding all existing digital techniques, Roland's engineers have come up with a new process - Structured/Adaptive Synthesis - for the simulation of piano sounds. The first instrument to have SAS is the RD1000, but how does it compare with competing instruments that use established sound systems?
No musical instrument has been more frequently imitated than the piano. From difficult beginnings as a grudgingly accepted replacement for the harpsichord, the pianoforte has matured to become the inspiration for a thousand new forms of music, and is probably responsible for introducing more people to the world of music than any other instrument. Result? The joanna is in as huge demand today as it's ever been.
But several factors have conspired against the piano, and it's these factors that have spawned the instrument's imitators.
First, all pianos, whether they're of the grand or upright types, are large, bulky and awkward machines to move around. In today's highly mobile society, that doesn't bode well for the future of a musical instrument.
Second, the piano's inherently complex mechanical structure is becoming more expensive to produce as each day goes by, in terms of both material and labour costs. So, fewer people can afford new pianos than the manufacturers would ideally wish.
And third, the piano is still capable of producing just the one - admittedly immortal - sound, while today's hi-tech synths and samplers can have their sounds altered at will by the user.
To be successful, a modern alternative to the piano has to score over its predecessor in all the three areas just discussed. Electronic pianos have been more portable, more affordable, and more versatile than their acoustic counterparts for some years now. But until recently, they hadn't succeeded in fulfilling a fourth, crucial criterion: they didn't sound too much like a piano.
Specialist electric instruments - like the Clavinet and Fender Rhodes - have become appreciated for producing a sound which is distinctly not piano-like, and these, too, have spawned their own legion of imitators. But so far, all attempts at replicating the original piano sound have failed in one way or another - usually several ways.
But here we are in the autumn of 1986, and the Japanese musical instrument industry - one of the major world centres of piano production - is preparing itself for a revolution in contemporary piano technology, with each company putting its money on a different system for re-creating the classic piano sound.
Matsushita (Technics to you and I) are sticking to the PCM (pulse code modulation) technology they've been using in home multi-keyboards for some time, with the PX range of electronic pianos employing PCM to stunning effect. Yamaha are sticking by FM - the system that's made the DX7 synth such a worldbeater - with their recent PF70 and PF80 pianos; their realism isn't quite as great as that of the Technics range, but they cost a good deal less to buy. Korg, meanwhile, are using digitally-stored sampled piano sounds in their new SG1 (the SG stands for Sampling Grand, though the instrument doesn't actually sample), and Ensoniq - the only US company engaged in the great piano race against time - are doing the same with their new Piano.
But it's Roland, a company with a history of going the long way round a problem in order to come up with the best solution, who've embarked on the most rigorous development programme in the quest for The Perfect Piano Sound. Roland's engineers, with a wealth of knowledge in the PCM and sampling areas, have rejected both systems for the company's new range of digital pianos, despite the fact that they're used in other Roland instruments. PCM, they claim, is just right for drum voices, while sampling is good for tuned orchestral and rock band sounds like strings, brass, guitars and so on. But according to Roland, the piano deserves a new system of its own, so the company's engineers have given it just that - a new digital resynthesis system that goes by the name of Structured/Adaptive Synthesis, or SAS for short.
Initially, precise details about the workings of SAS have been difficult to get hold of outside Japan. Perhaps understandably, Roland's R&D people are being guarded about releasing the fine details of what the process does and how it does it.
What we do know is that, in developing SAS, Roland engineers have painstakingly sampled all 88 notes of several different makes of grand piano (Steinway included), and analysed the resulting waveforms on a mainframe computer. More important, the study then went on to analyse the changes in harmonic structure that occur not only as pianists play up and down the keyboard, but as they play one note with different velocities. In total, the harmonic structure variations at 128 different velocities - all the way from pianissimo to fortissimo - were analysed for each key. Which goes some way to explaining why it's taken Roland so long to come up with SAS...
Having created an advanced digital algorithm of the pianos' harmonic relationships, the design team then set about dedicating the information onto a single custom VLSI chip. They succeeded, and the result is a range of new instruments that utilise this chip. Included in the range are two domestic machines - what Roland call 'Contemporary Keyboards' - named HP5500 and HP5600, and two pro instruments: the RD1000 piano and its modular counterpart, the MKS20. It's the RD1000 I'll be examining here, but if you're short of space/finances or you already have a good keyboard of your own, you'll be glad to know the MKS20 is identical to its keyboard counterpart in most important areas.
"Synthesis: The SAS study analysed the changes in harmonic structure that occur not only as pianists play along the keyboard, but as they play one note with different velocities."
In the tradition of pianos, the RD1000 is no lightweight. It weighs in at a meaty 95lbs, with the pedal unit (housing soft and sustain pedals, and the power supply) adding a further 18lbs, and the stand adding 29lbs or 39lbs, depending on which model you go for. So much for portability, though it should be stressed that the RD1000 is still quite a bit lighter than the average acoustic upright (let alone a grand), and that most of its new digital rivals are no better in this respect.
And in any case, the Roland's massive weight and dimensions (nobody's yet found a way of condensing an 88-note keyboard without sacrificing playability) mean that it should stand up well to any abuse you, your roadcrew, or your fans can throw at it on the road.
That 88-note keyboard is made up of weighted, coated wooden keys, and feels softer and easier on the fingers than a normal acoustic keyboard. That will delight synth and organ players brought up on plastic keyboards, who at last have the chance to use a more responsive set of ivories, without having to go through a period of culture shock. It should also please hardened piano fans, even though it may take some a while to adjust to what is undoubtedly a 'looser' system than what they're used to.
Above the keyboard is a sleek control panel, sparsely and attractively decorated in the contemporary idiom. Immediately obvious are a 40-character, backlit liquid crystal display (not as helpful as some, but then it doesn't have too much information to convey), and the Alpha dial, centrepiece of Roland's new - and much vaunted - system of parameter selection and value adjustment.
Parameter selection? Well, unlike most of its rivals, the RD1000 offers a number of programmable parameters, which can be used to tailor each sound to your own tastes and requirements. But more on these parameters later, once we've gone into what impression those sounds make on first contact.
Essentially, the RD1000 contains eight digital algorithms based on the harmonic characteristics of eight different sounds: three acoustic pianos, a harpsichord, a clavi (read Clavinet), a vibraphone, and two electric pianos (both fairly Rhodes-like). But these sounds - stored in ROM within the machine - provide only the starting point for further variations. In total, you can store seven edited versions of each sound in RAM, as the RD1000 arranges its voices in eight banks of eight. So, we have a total of 64 different sounds, eight of them preset, the other 56 user-programmable.
You can dump 64 of your own edited sounds to Roland standard M16C memory cartridge (the socket's on the back panel), though you can't give them names as you can on many programmable synths, which could lead to some identification problems if you're going through a lot of cartridges.
The three acoustic piano voices are subtly different from one another, in much the same manner that you'd expect various makes of grand piano to sound different. The first represents what is, I suppose, most people's idea of what a concert grand should sound like, while the second is a closer, more intense version (liken the effect to putting your head inside an acoustic grand), and the third gives a dirtier, Chas 'n' Dave saloon-bar impression, as though there were something (darts, pins, cigarette ends) inside the workings of the RD1000 that shouldn't be there.
All three piano banks display a fine sound balance, especially at the top end, where the hammer strike forms such a significant part of the sound on an acoustic piano. Mid-keyboard, things are still rich, vibrant and above all realistic - though there is a 'zing' to the output which I've heard some players describe as an 'electronic' element marring what is otherwise a splendidly natural-sounding acoustic tone. You can use the EQ controls to eliminate the offending zing, but at the expense of a little brightness. The same effect makes its presence felt at the bass end of the keyboard, too; it's almost as though, in an attempt to stress their new machine's realism, Roland's engineers have over-emphasised the characteristic buzz which pianos exhibit over their lowest couple of octaves.
But don't get this problem blown up out of proportion. It certainly didn't bother me when I was playing the RD1000, and my guess is that many players - especially anyone brought up on a Yamaha electric grand, which exhibits a similar but much more pronounced effect - won't even notice it.
"Sounds: All three piano banks display a fine sound balance, especially at the top end, where the hammer strike forms such a significant part of the sound on an acoustic piano."
The beauty of the RD1000's piano sounds lies in the realism with which their harmonic structure alters subtly as you hit keys with varying degrees of velocity. It's something you can't put your finger on (pun not intended) until it's pointed out to you, but once you've played an electronic piano whose output changes the way the Roland's does, other instruments - including the RD1000's main competitors - start to sound lifeless by comparison.
Of the other five preset sounds, the harpsichord is bright and (my notes say) flavoursome, and of course not too sensitive to velocity - whoever heard of a harpsichord with a velocity-sensitive keyboard?
The clavi is similarly bright and lacks little in the realism department, though again, there's just the merest hint that an over-emphasis in the upper midrange deprives it of a little warmth. Close your eyes, though, and you'd be pushed to tell there wasn't a vintage Clavinet D6 in the room.
The vibraphone and electric piano sounds represent, for me at least, the RD1000's finest moments. The vibes, especially, are wonderfully metallic without ever sounding brittle, and with the help of the built-in tremolo unit (see later), they leap out of the speakers with all the vitality of Gary Burton in overdrive. And you don't need to be a virtuoso vibes player, just a keyboardist with the minimum of dexterity and a moderate idea of how the vibraphone is played.
As I've said, both the electric pianos are close approximations of a Fender Rhodes, with the first sounding close and a little compressed, the second more open and vibrant. Like the acoustic piano sounds, they feature superb re-creations of the mechanics of the instrument being imitated. And, because nobody is going to object to an electric piano sounding a little non-acoustic, the RD1000's 'zing' doesn't intrude here at all. No matter how good an imitation of a Rhodes you've heard a DX7 perform, the RD1000 goes one better.
One of the problems with so many electronic pianos (both yesterday's and today's) is that they don't present the user with much opportunity to alter their basic sounds. It all comes down to the purist ethic - if you're trying to imitate a piano, why mess up the sound with a load more electronic gadgetry?
But as long as musicians are playing electronic pianos through graphic EQ units, digital delays, and psychoacoustic enhancers, there'll always be a reward for the enterprising manufacturer who sticks a set of user-programmable parameters on their piano.
That's just what Roland have done with the RD1000. The parameters are divided into two groups: those that govern the entire instrument (System Functions), and those that are programmable for each of the 64 voices (Voice Functions). The former include MIDI channel selection for reception and transmission (with a 1-16 range offered for both), and keyboard touch response; the RD1000 offers four values for this, labelled A, B, C and D. B is the default value, under which the shift in dynamics and harmonic structure increases in a linear way with the amount of velocity applied to a key. Under setting A, the increase in volume and tone is less pronounced, while settings C and D introduce a more dramatic alteration.
The voice-programmable section comprises an individual Voice Level control (variable from -13dB to +2dB in 1dB increments, with 0dB being the default value for all voices); the three-band EQ system; and Chorus and Tremolo modules, both with variable rate and depth (15 levels for each).
Initially I was disappointed that Roland hadn't taken the opportunity of fitting a programmable six- or eight-band graphic EQ to the RD1000. In some ways I still am, because there's no more precise - or more instantly visual - way of adjusting a frequency curve. But the Roland's three-band system is a little more versatile than it appears at first. Because although the bass and treble sections are set by simple shelf EQ controls with preset cutoff frequencies (100Hz and 10kHz respectively, with 10.5dB cut/boost variable in 1.5dB steps), the midrange gets a parametric EQ section with a centre frequency adjustable between 400Hz and 4kHz, the same cut/boost control as the bass and treble, and a separate 'Q' (or bandwidth) control, variable in eight arbitrary stages, with the highest value giving the narrowest bandwidth.
Programmers who've grown used to the idea of sending digital samples through analogue synth sections will be disappointed to find no filter or envelope controls on the RD1000, but these would have been prohibitively expensive to develop in software terms. And all in all, the existing range of programmable parameters is capable of inspiring a wide selection of different edited voices, and more than justifies the inclusion of programmable patch memories on the RD1000.
"Editing: You can dump 64 of your own edited sounds to Roland standard M16C memory cartridge, though you can't give them names as you can on many programmable synths."
It's inevitable that, sooner or later (probably sooner), some players are going to want to use the RD1000 as a MIDI controller keyboard, taking advantage of that long, luxurious, velocity-sensitive set of ivories to manipulate external voices from other MIDI machines. And when they do, they'll find the RD1000 well equipped in many ways, but lacking in a couple of MIDI features that could have increased its flexibility as a controller.
On the positive side, the machine can receive patch-change data values 1-64, and transmit the same data in the range 1-128 (you use the Alpha dial to select a second 'bank' of external program changes). The RD1000 has two further controllers - an External Volume control next-door to the internal one, and an expression pedal that plugs into the pedalboard - which can be assigned, in six different permutations, to control three MIDI functions: Foot Control, Volume and Expression. The machine is capable of sending all three of these codes as they are, but converts them all to volume data when it receives them. The soft and damper pedals, tremolo and chorus settings are also received and transmitted by the RD1000, using their standard MIDI control change codes.
Less welcome than these features is the fact that although it both receives and transmits key velocity information, the RD1000 can do neither for aftertouch. Now, that isn't so bad in the context of the instrument's own internal voices (well, do you want to apply aftertouch to a Steinway?), but it does diminish the piano's appeal as an all-purpose MIDI controller.
A further point against the RD1000 here is its inability to split its keyboard into zones, with each zone assigned to a different MIDI channel. This prevents you from, say, playing an internal piano sound at the bass end, and an external lead synth voice further up.
Now is the time, I suppose, to mention that I'm not all that enamoured of the electronic piano as a species. As a synth player who thrives on the chance to manipulate sound in as many ways as I can think of, and who occasionally resorts to an acoustic piano for songwriting chores, I find most electronic pianos bland, predictable and sonically uninspiring.
But the RD1000 is none of these things. It's one of the few instruments I've come across that's stopped me from thinking about my job as a writer by making me think about music more than anything else. After 30 minutes with the new Roland my head was full of new musical ideas, and my notebook was empty.
A lot of this has to do with the way the RD1000 sounds. Some may accuse SAS of producing a forced sense of naturalness, but my feeling is that, for pitched, percussive sounds of the kind the RD1000 is intended to reproduce, the system is a winner. The sense of dynamic and harmonic realism SAS seems capable of generating is intense, and compared with sampling, it has the advantage of being relatively undemanding of memory: you don't need a mass of expensive chips to put SAS on an instrument, just plenty of patience at the development stage.
And although Roland's engineers are stressing that SAS has been developed specifically for piano applications, I for one eagerly await its adoption in other fields. Anyone for a fully programmable, SAS polyphonic synthesiser?
As a tool for making music, first and foremost, the RD1000 is worth every penny of its asking price. And in some contexts, an MKS20 module linked to a MIDI keyboard could be even better value.
It's the best electronic piano I've tried. End of story.
Prices RD1000 - £2499, MKS20 - £1299; both RRPs including VAT
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Review by Dan Goldstein
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