The Top Ten
Examining Technic's ten-voice digital piano the PV10.
Tony Reed samples Technic's new ten-voice digital keyboard.
Technics, a company best known until now for their Hi Fi's and multi-keyboards, have taken the leap into the pro/semi-pro market with their new keyboard, the PCM Digital 10, retailing at £899, including VAT.
Visually, it declares its professional intentions; the full-size five-octave keyboard sits in a heavy-duty black plastic case (106 x 8.7 x 40.9cm), the sober (DX-ish!) blue logo screened on top in blue, set off nicely by the discreet row of silver control buttons along the front of the flat-top surface.
Weighing in at 13.4 kg (29.51b), it is quite a heavy beast, but construction is solid, and the case rigid enough to withstand reasonably rough treatment. A sustain pedal and detachable music stand come with the unit, and a range of optional accessories are available, including an Expression (Volume) pedal, a rigid case, and headphones.
The machine I played around with was a hand-built advance model, completely silent when not in use, but developing a slight and annoying amount of quantisation error hiss in operation. Noise of this type, a problem with PCM technology, is mitigated to some extent by the Digital 10's unique computer control. Unlike many other digital machines, the Digital 10 not only uses its computer for voice production, but also constantly monitors the whole system, shutting down circuits when they are not in use, and thus reducing unnecessary circuit noise. In addition, production models of the Digital 10 will feature noise reduction circuitry, including a Dolby 'C' chip, which should go a long way to eliminating this problem.
This is available, in stereo, from both phono and standard jacks, at high or low impedance, and/or via its own internal monitors. These consist of two 14cm five watt speakers, mounted on the steel base plate, and ranged left and right via the somewhat curious baffle arrangements at either end of the keyboard.
Rather like the recessed headlights on an old model Porsche, these rise up at a touch, to direct the sound towards you, or fold flush with the top surface when not in use, permitting stacking.
The full-sized, 61-note keyboard is, like much of the Digital 10's features, derived from Technics' tried and trusted range of multikeyboards, weighted to simulate the feel of a 'real' piano keyboard. It is transposable over one octave, simply by moving the 'Transpose' slide control from its normal (C) position, to the required key. When transposed however, the lowest keys equal to the number of notes transposed do not emit any sound — tricky if you forget yourself mid-tranposition! Fine tuning in the range 428-452Hz is possible via a small slider (Centred at 440Hz).
The keyboard action is positive, and to someone used to unweighted plastic keyboards, somewhat tiring at first. Pianists, of course, would experience no such difficulty. The undamped keys, however, can be somewhat intolerant of hesitation, finger tremble resulting in occasional accidental retriggering of a note... A minor problem, easily overcome as one becomes more familiar with the feel of the keyboard.
One disappointment is the lack of velocity-sensitivity but this is compensated for in other quarters, as we shall see.
At last, down to where the action is: The Digital 10 offers (surprise surprise!) 10 digitally recorded voices, encoded via the PCM system already in use on the Technics organs. Pricewise, this is something of a breakthrough, when you realise that PCM is a not too distant cousin of the Megabuck technology of the Fairlights and Synclaviers of this world. So — what does it sound like?
Sustain, once selected, allows you to alter the length of a note in the range 0-12 seconds, via the adjacent 5-stop selector switch. With Sustain off, the slider switch continues to determine the length of notes still held down, but has no effect on released keys. When connected, the sustain pedal allows the effect to be introduced or cut as required.
On the longer sustain lengths, however, a slight 'thump' can be heard as the sample loops. At the maximum (12 seconds), this results in one glitch at the lower end, rising to two or three at the top end, as the sampling rate increases. It remains to be seen if this will be a problem on the production models.
Harmonic Control allows you to alter the tonal brilliance of each voice. It consists of two adjacent buttons, normally off. Pressing the right button increases the brilliance of the sound, whilst pressing the left softens it. Pressing both together returns the voice to its normal setting. In effect, this is a crude tone control, exhibiting a quite dramatic boost and cut.
On power up, the Digital 10 defaults to the first voice on the control panel, Acoustic Piano, and it's a winner! Full and convincing across the entire range of the keyboard, the quality of the sound is incredible. As each note is struck, the PCM technology simulates the subtle harmonic shifts of a real piano's envelope.
Used in connection with the Sustain and Harmonic controls, a range of Acoustic Piano's can be simulated, from a clapped-out pub Honky-tonk (ideal for those Chas'n'Dave impersonations), to a mellow Baby Grand. Listen to this voice on the tape, and I think you 'll agree with me that it is almost worth the price of the unit for this alone.
Electric Piano is another crowd-pleaser, offering a very close approximation to the classic Fender Rhodes sound — this could easily become the most used voice for the gigging musician. As before, judicious use of the Sustain and Harmonic controls can extend the emotional range of the sound, from late-night warmth to cocktail bar bright.
Harpsichord poses a problem which I feel is likely to become increasingly common as Digital technology becomes more readily available — it is just too real for its own good. Convincing at the lower end, with a genuine sense of the 'plucked' effect, the sound thins out above middle C — a reflection of the original instrument, but to those familiar with Analogue approximations, subjectively a little disappointing.
Clav was excellent, very rich and funky, with real punch on the lower octaves, and usable over the whole range.
Vibes were warm and mellow in their unaltered state, effectively jazzy, whilst brightening the sound with the Harmonic control produced a distinctly hard, modern sound, reminiscent of the Thompson Twins and Howard Jones.
Glockenspiel was accurately sharp and bell-like, but a little rinky-dink. (Again a feature of the original instrument, rather than its simulation.) With generous sustain, and intelligent use of the Effect section (of which, more later) some pleasing ethereal textures can be achieved.
And now — the third stand-out voice, Acoustic Guitar. As with all real instrument simulations, playing style greatly affects the credibility of the finished product. Arpeggiated chords, to simulate strumming, together with fast single note runs, produce a stunningly 'close' classical sound. Listen to this with your eyes shut, and you'll think John Williams has dropped by for a jam.
Jazz Guitar was... good, but not great. Seeming to lack the overall clarity of the other sounds (though brightening it helped), it's Django Rheinhardt impression will be best suited to fulfilling the rhythm guitar role in your arrangements.
Steel Drum is something of a novelty, another modern sound (of OMD's recent hit, Talking Loud and Clear), very good on the upper two thirds of the keyboard (paralleling the original instruments' range) but tending to sound more like a marimba towards the bottom end. Still, a useful sound.
Banjo. Well, it sounds like a banjo. Great for George Formby. It has a pleasantly plangent tone. If you're nimble enough, you could play a solo Duelling Banjos — and win!
Three effects are available; Chorus, Celeste, and Phaser, grouped together with the effect cancel button in the centre of the row. Phaser is a deep and slow sweep, a standard sound. As with the Harmonic Control, it is on or off — a pity. Variable rate and depth would have greatly improved the usefulness of this feature. Chorus and Celeste sound uncomfortably close to each other. Both make good use of the stereo separation, the chorus thickening up the sound of the Harpsichord, for example, quite well.
Celeste is a marginally more brilliant sound, imparting a swirling Leslie-ish feel with good effect on the Vibes, but really, the difference between them is not as great as it should be.
The Digital 10 offers extensive MIDI facilities. The In, Out, and Thru terminals can transmit and receive:
- Keyboard on/off
- Tone selector on/off
- Effect button on/off
- Sustain button on/off
When connected to equipment with a hold facility, the Sustain On switch will operate to hold a note indefinitely.
A special Data cancel facility allows any or all of these functions to be omitted from the MIDI signal, simply by holding down one of the tone select buttons at the same time as turning the power On — each is assigned to a different cancel function. (Detailed only in the manual — at the moment, there is nothing to indicate the Tone selector's dual purpose on the machine itself — adding something would be useful). This would allow you, for instance, to step through the Digital 10's facilities from another machine, without having to play through unwanted effects.
Both transmission and reception are fixed on Channel 1, in Omni mode. This can be turned off for reception of only Channel 1, by holding down the Vibes button at switch-on. Switching the keyboard off and then on again restores it to its usual state.
On balance, I feel that Technics have got themselves a very good machine, at a reasonable price. Most of the quibbles about it are minor.
The choice, eventually, is a trade-off. On price and performance, the Digital 10 has only one close competitor, Yamaha's PF10 (RRP £849) The Yamaha offers a larger keyboard (76 notes), and touch sensitivity — a must for the purists.
The Digital 10, however, offers a broader range of sounds, and, crucially, MIDI. And this could be what gives it the edge — a set-up consisting of the Digital 10 and a low-priced MIDI-equipped analogue synth — say a JX3P or a Korg 800 — would offer an extremely powerful range of analogue and digital textures, at a relatively low cost.