Technics PX1 Digital Piano
Could hi-fi giants Technics have set a new standard with the digital sounds of their PX1 MIDI Piano? Consultant keyboard player extraordinaire, Rick Wakeman, checks out its performance.
Rick Wakeman (yes folks, THE Rick Wakeman) plays a round of golf then journeys to the centre of the earth (Slough to be precise) to check out this prestigious new MIDI keyboard from hi-fi giants, Technics. Clear the fairway please...
I attribute my discovery of the Technics PX1 Digital Piano solely to a Slazenger B51 XD golf ball, which had decided (in retrospect probably quite wisely), that it could no longer suffer the punishment inflicted upon it over the previous nine holes, and therefore would, with a little assistance from my 3-wood, finish its days permanently hidden in the thick shrubbery that lines the fairway of the notorious tenth hole at Foxhills Country Club, deep in the heart of the Surrey countryside.
Peter Hamblin of Panasonic, but more importantly captain of the opposing team in this regular Saturday morning foursome, was making a token gesture of helping me in my search for a now 'fully retired from sport' golf ball.
There seems to be an unwritten rule in golf, which says that if you haven't got anything praiseworthy to say to a fellow golfer about his/her game, then talk about something else.
They talk to me about something else A LOT, and on this memorable wintry morning, the conversation went something like this...
"How many keyboards do you use on stage these days Rick?"
"Well, it depends on the show, but on average about 16."
"Do you get a lot of technical breakdowns humping that lot around?"
"No, not at all. I use 75% Korg and 25% Yamaha gear and their reliability and performance has been excellent."
"What about a piano?"
"Don't talk to me about bloody pianos, they're a keyboard player's nightmare."
"Are you using a top-flite ball?"
"Good, I've just found one. We've just developed a new digital piano you know, apparently sounds just like the real thing."
In exasperation I dropped another ball, and swung at it more like Tate and Lyle than Sandy Lyle with my 5-iron.
"People," I said, " have been trying for years to come up with a sensibly priced instrument that sounds like a piano. In the reasonable price range you really only have the Yamaha CP80, but as that is mainly mechanical it has inherited the problems of the acoustic piano as regards needing regular tuning. It's heavy as well, but it has filled a badly neglected musical hole."
"Do you fancy having a look at the one we've developed?" Peter asked as we walked towards the pond that had become the new home for my ball.
What happened next is still a little cloudy in my mind but, wading out of the pond, conceding the hole, and probably contracting the first stages of pneumonia, I vaguely recall muttering ... "Why not".
Without trying to sound important, I am often asked to test drive many new or revamped keyboard products, and most of them unfortunately do not turn out to be the animal either promised or intended, and invariably turn up at Frankfurt the following year under a different guise. And so it was with a great deal of trepidation that I entered the huge Panasonic/Technics complex in Slough, Berkshire, with my well-utilised lines already carefully rehearsed. These include such classics as: "Well, it's very nice, but it's not quite a piano sound, is it?" Translation: Wrong, do not pass GO, see accountants immediately. Then there's - "I'm sure there is a market for it somewhere, but off the top of my head..." Translation: You make fantastic hi-fi gear. We must never, of course, forget the master of all lines - "You're obviously so close now, please giv'us a ring when you feel you've got there." Translation: I must change my phone number, and if necessary... move!
Anyway I was politely ushered into a carpeted demonstration room where, sandwiched between some home organs and the door (immediately logged as a possible escape route), stood the infamous Technics PX1.
Initial reaction: Well, it's an absolute dream to look at, but please don't let it be an Austin Allegro hidden in a Rolls Royce shell...
John Dixon, who was my official guide to the PX1, offered me a seat and, as it was the one directly in front of the keyboard, there seemed to be little option but for me to play.
I have spent hours every day playing it since!
Hand on heart, I can honestly say that I personally feel that the PX1 is as important a revolution in the keyboard world as were the Hammond organ, Mellotron, Minimoog and Fender Rhodes in their respective times.
The PX1 uses PCM digital encoded sounds and does genuinely sound like a piano and apart from its obvious MIDI advantages as a 'mother keyboard', has many very tasteful additives.
The 88-note weighted action wooden keyboard is set in a piano-like casing but without the 'rear end', with full volume, pitch and transposing controls perfectly placed just above the keys themselves in an easy to operate position. The tone equaliser slider controls are positive and quiet with a turnover midrange control of 500-4kHz.
At a price of £3599.99 the PX1 is well within the range of the discerning musician, whilst its younger brothers and sisters - all with full touch response and MIDI capabilities - offer the same basic sounds at £1599.99 for the PX9, £1249.99 for the PX7, and £899.99 for the PX5. With all models you are able to create some quite innovative sounds, and not just with the basic piano sound. I heartily recommend many hours of experimenting, as new combinations seem inexhaustible.
Of the six available digital sounds, two are piano (all basic sounds are selected by pushbutton controls), each having its own individuality, with the first piano sound seeming to have most initial impact because of its quite remarkable natural - almost ambient - quality. There are also two electric piano settings, the first being extremely Fender Rhodes in character, and the second having an instantly likeable distinctive 'funky pianet' type of sound. Trying to explain sounds in words is never easy, so try it yourself, and then you can say with firsthand experience to your friends down the pub such worldly comments as:
"You know that Rick Wakeman bloke?"
"Well, speaking from first-hand experience, I reckon he's deaf!"
The harpsichord is sensational, brings a sincere new realm of expression to the performer.
The clavinet preset... (if you don't know what a clavinet sounds like then you picked this magazine up by mistake, and some poor musician is desperately searching 'Mayfair' for my article! Yes I know, he got the better deal!) ...to continue, the clavinet preset adds a delightful icing to a cake which gives your piano performer all the combinations he should require on or off stage, in the studio or at home.
All the basic settings can be used with either tremolo or chorus options (or, indeed, both), the former having full speed and depth control. All the combinations are subtle and very musical, and once the player has overcome the biggest hurdle, which is that of hearing a natural pianosound coming out of an electronic keyboard (something which the eye and ear find both difficult and confusing, especially as the sound is coming at you in stereo from speakers and not out of the top of an acoustic instrument), he can really get down to developing it for his own personal needs.
I found the best way of explaining the sound to my eyes and ears was to record a short piece internally (more about that later), and to then sit back, eyes closed, and just listen. It soon clears any niggling doubts.
For those interested, the speaker system I use with my PX1 is a pair of SYT-80 Technics cabinets. For home studio use they are perfect, although they would not be loud enough to be used as monitors within the average band setup.
So who will use it? Well, I feel it really has no boundaries, as it will slot in nicely in your pop band, jazz combo, dance band, and even limited classical use. Composers will find it a godsend, as the transposition and pitch controls mean a useful time saver. Basically, any musician who needs a piano sound on stage need look no further. The PX1, I am convinced, is the answer to a long running keyboard problem, at an affordable price.
In the studio too, it performs admirably and quietly and, as mentioned previously, with its MIDI capabilities makes it great fun, practical and very innovative to work with.
The PX1 has a lovely feature as well in the onboard MIDI sequencer, which will happily internally record two separate pieces in real-time, or one long one for you, and then play them back, still giving you full control of the keyboard facilities for just playing along. In addition, it has a metronome key and a tempo control for speeding up/slowing down the stored sequence whilst still keeping the original pitch definition. The memory has a 2700 note capacity (or 2 x 1350).
When connected with the Technics Digital Disk Recorder, however (you can use either the SY-FD1 or the SY-FD5 models), this capacity is multiplied by ten ie. it gives you a storage/playback potential of 27,000 notes!
The PX1 comes with a three pedal foot unit which connects to the rear via a cable and serves the same purpose as that found on a concert grand, so nothing has been left to disappoint the trained player. The pedals have a good response controlled by the decay or sustain settings which can be pre-set by the player on the control panel to suit individual playing styles.
As there are no mechanics involved, the keyboard can also be adjusted easily to various subtle tunings, which include normal piano tuning, stretch and digitally perfect semi-tones. There's also a control which governs the 'poundage' on the weighted wooden keys, so even light-fingered organists can approach this instrument without technical difficulties.
All in all, the Technics PX1 Digital Piano is a smart, functional instrument, and will do an important musical job in a price range that contains few rivals. I can honestly say that I have not been so genuinely excited about an instrument for many years, as I feel this one has been built with the musician in mind, a point many other manufacturers should take note of.
And the golf...? Well, the tenth hole is still a graveyard for my golf balls, but to re-adapt the well-known wedding reception line from the bride's father...
"I may have lost a golf ball... but I've gained a PX1!"