Technics Digital 10
PCM Digital Keyboard
Innovations abound on Panasonic's first entry into the pro keyboard stakes. Trish McGrath finds out if it really is four pianos in one.
PCM voices come to the professional arena in the shape of Technics' new Digital 10, an electronic piano that should put the Japanese giant firmly on the pro keyboard map.
Technics' move into the professional keyboard market has been a slow, deliberate process, because it must have been obvious some time ago to a few souls at parent company Matsushita that the PCM voicings incorporated into the firm's range of organs could find a place in the pro field.
PCM - or Pulse Code Modulation - is a relatively simple method of sampling a sound digitally and then storing it in solid state memory for later retrieval. It should theoretically be possible for PCM voices to sound at least as good as their FM - Frequency Modulation - equivalents, but one problem facing the former technique's proponents is that creating a user-programmable PCM instrument is far too expensive to be practicable. However, Technics have attempted to side-step this by incorporating an unusually wide variety of sounds into their Digital 10, so that although the instrument retains a piano bias, there are also a number of less common sounds available as well.
The Digital 10 is a five-octave (C to C), eight-note polyphonic keyboard measuring a mere 42" x 3½" x 16" and weighing in at under 30lbs. Two built-in loudspeakers positioned at each end of the keyboard literally 'pop' up when pressed (a bit like the headlights on a Triumph TR7) and provide ample volume (5W per speaker) for practice or domestic use. Both stereo phono and quarter-inch sockets are provided on the rear panel for routing to your hi-fi, should further amplification be required. Meanwhile, in a gigging situation the phono pair can be sent to the keyboard sub-mixer for monitoring while the quarter-inch jacks are connected directly to the main mixer for further processing.
The instrument is constructed from black plastic and sports grey lettering punctuated by incidental dark blue designs: in other words, another keyboard that declares its professional intentions even before it's switched on. The Digital 10 is supplied complete with music rack, AC cord and sustain pedal (though no pedal arrived with the review model), while optional accessories include a stand, bench, expression pedal (for controlling the volume), and headphones, as well as a smart blue carrying case.
Front panel controls are neatly laid out and comprise - from left to right - Main Volume, Tuning, Transpose, Tone Selector, Harmonic Control, Effect, Sustain and Power sections.
Ten different PCM voices are available to the user at a push of a button, with an appropriate built-in red LED illuminating to show the voice selected. Best of the bunch to my ears were the 'keyboard' voices, namely Acoustic Piano, Electric Piano, Harpsichord, and Clavi, though these were all vastly enriched by the application of some sustain and a little tinkering with the Effect section (more on this later). Acoustic Piano certainly lives up to its name over the top two octaves where the sound is stunningly realistic, but sadly this lapses gradually into a more electronic version of the real thing as the keyboard is descended. Electric Piano performs well over the full octave range and benefits particularly from some added Chorus. To be honest, this voice sounds more acoustic in the bass octave than Acoustic Piano does!
Harpsichord becomes even more medieval than its name suggests when Chorus is applied, but the top octave is if anything delicate almost to the point of being drowned out by the volume of the remainder of the keyboard.
Most of the voices are greatly improved by the use of external amplification, but none more so than Clavi which really comes into its own on those funky bass riffs (man), while setting the Harmonic Control (see later) to its brightest tone adds further to this voice's authenticity.
Of the remainder, Vibraphone reacts well to a touch of sustain, but the general concensus of opinion seems to be that it sounds more like a xylophone than anything else. Still, it's a nice sound and may find a niche for itself in your repertoire. Glockenspiel gives a realistic impression in the top register and sounded great as an accompaniment to E&MM's version of 'Jingle Bells' (is this your attempt at being seasonal? - Ed), while the bottom half of the keyboard emits a koto-like sound which should also be quite usable.
Guitar voices are always difficult to reproduce on a keyboard instrument, but the Technics' Acoustic Guitar manages to capture the 'plucked' sound of strings reasonably well, particularly in the lower-mid section. Jazz Guitar, a mellower sound that's neither jazzy nor especially guitar-like, is capable of producing some pleasant harp tones in the upper register if some sustain is added, while a bright tone is a neat complement to the guitar voices generally.
I freely admit that calypso isn't really my cup of tea, but it must be said that Steel Drums as interpreted by the Digital 10 are simply excellent. And so to the final sound, Banjo. Well, another musical style that's not my favourite hot beverage is country 'n' western, but if it was (you wouldn't be working here - Ed), I guess I could do worse than this Banjo to hooley-on-down to. In fact, in the Allcomers' E&MM Blindfold Test, this voice was named in one by all except the Art Editor, who's tone deaf anyway. And if that doesn't convince you of the voice's realism...
Once you've selected your voice, the Digital 10 lets you modify it by routing it through three separate control sections. The first of these is labelled Harmonic Control and comprises two switches that allow you to assign either a mellow, normal or bright tone to any voice, the intensity of the effect varying slightly depending on the voice in use.
"This is silly. The review model's MIDI sockets are recessed so far into the back of the instrument that no MIDI cable will reach..."
The rather more comprehensive Effect section offers a choice of Chorus, Celeste and Phaser effects (or none at all, if Cancel is selected) and it's these options that turn the Digital 10's mono output into a stereo one. Chorus produces the greatest stereo swirling between the speakers but doesn't quite 'create the illusion of many', Celeste adds an ethereal, slightly-reverberated touch, while Phaser is a slower, shallower version of Chorus. If none of these sounds particularly exciting, what is noteworthy is that the Effect section adds little or no noise to the keyboard's output, which certainly sets it apart from the crowd.
Meanwhile, Sustain can be applied to any voice and six positions are accessible via a graduated slider. 'Sustain' here actually refers to the 'release' time in synth language, and the minimum setting provides the same release time as when the effect is switched off. Personally, I think it's a shame piano manufacturers haven't got around to installing full ADSRs on their instruments, with an appropriate button to cancel the section if the normal voice is desired. Preset envelope levels (and particularly the sustain time) are often unsuitable for the job in hand, and increasing the 'sustain' level (ie. the release time) only serves to make the notes indecipherable and the keyboard less playable. Just a little extra point that would increase the usefulness and versatility of the presets enormously... Oh well, it seems you can't have your PCM cake and shape it.
Other slider controls are Main Volume, Tuning and Transpose, and the Power on/off switch. More specifically, tuning is variable between 428Hz and 452Hz (less than a quarter-tone flat and sharp) with the centre detent indicating A-440Hz, while the Transpose function has a range of G below to F# above the key of C. However, if you decide to transpose to a lower key, a number of the keyboard's bottom notes equal to the number of notes transposed do not function (ie. if you've transposed down a tone, the bottom two notes - C and C# - are rendered inactive). You have been warned.
Technics have wisely enabled the Digital 10 to communicate with other instruments and computers via MIDI, and standard In, Out and Thru sockets are provided. The Digital 10's MIDI is said to function faultlessly with a wide range of synths, but hang on a minute. This is silly. The review model's MIDI sockets are recessed so far into the back of the instrument that no MIDI cable will reach.
Now, Technics have assured us that this oversight has been cured on the later keyboards, but what hasn't been cured is the fact that the Digital 10 will only transmit and receive data on MIDI Channel 1. It seems a bit shortsighted of manufacturers to ignore the influx of multitrack MIDI computer software onto the marketplace, yet this is another example of that shortsightedness. I mean, what's the point of buying all that software if your collection of MIDI synths can only communicate on the same channel?
Anyway, the back panel also contains the aforementioned Line Outs, a headphone (quarter-inch jack) socket, and the power supply input (the mains lead is of the type that invariably gets left behind at a gig because it's detachable and that's what detachable leads enjoy doing). Sockets are also provided for the sustain and expression pedals: the latter allows the odd foot to adjust the volume when all hands are on deck.
At an RRP of £899, the Digital 10 faces some stiff competition, and buying decisions will probably boil down to whether you prefer this set of sounds over those provided on similar instruments, and whether the inclusion of MIDI is all-important to your particular set-up. The lack of a touch-sensitive keyboard is undoubtedly a weak point on an instrument of this sort, especially as it's a feature that's included on many competing models, but the Technics ivories, although plastic and a bit nasty, are as good as can be expected from a machine in this price category.
It appears that further refinements will be made to production models. For instance, the level of background noise will have been reduced to almost negligible proportions by the inclusion of Dolby C noise reduction, though the review model would still pass all but the most stringent of tests.
In all, the Technics is a digital keyboard that offers a nice selection of sounds, is MIDI-friendly, and does what's asked of it admirably. Perhaps more important, it should be good enough to encourage the Japanese parent company to make further moves into the pro end of the electronic keyboard market.
What more can I say? Play it again, Sam.
Further information from National Panasonic (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Trish McGrath
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