In conjunction with the Personal Keyboard Special, we examine one of the most advanced, and popular, of the new breed
The PC-1000 is the latest addition to the Yamaha Portatone range, Keyboards which combine portability with a wide choice of preset sounds and accompaniments. This model also incorporates the Playcard system for teaching beginners keyboard notes and the basics of notation, melody, rhythm and chords.
The instrument is completely portable thanks to the possibility of using 6 HP2 batteries to power it. Alternatively external power from a 9-12V adaptor can be used via a female phono plug. Yamaha even have a Car Battery Adaptor accessory (CA-1) which allows you to power the keyboard from a car cigarette lighter socket.
The unit has a 49-note keyboard (4 octaves C-C) which can be used, as a whole, with the Orchestra and Solo voices or split to give Single Finger Chords of Fingered Chordal accompaniments as well as Auto Bass, all synchronised to the rhythm unit. The 12cm internal speaker handles 5W, but the PC-1000 can be plugged through an amp or your hi-fi with a stereo signal. AUX IN allows an external signal (record player, mic, radio etc) to be put through the built-in speaker. Two more sockets on the back panel allow volume and sustain to be controlled by footpedal accessories (EP-1 and FC-5 respectively). You can also listen to the unit on headphones which disconnects the internal speaker and allows you to practice without driving the family mad.
Starting from the left-hand end of the panel, the first control is the Transpozer. This alters the pitch of the keyboard in semitones over a range of an octave (down a fourth and up a fifth). The manual says this allows you to play with other instruments, but I suspect the fine tune on the back would be more useful for tuning to other people's instruments. Still, it does allow you to play a difficult piece of music in an easy key. Next to this is Master Volume. Then we come to the Auto Bass Chord Section. Besides its own individual volume control, there are five switches. First, there is Normal, which effectively turns this section off and allows you to play the whole keyboard normally. Then there is a Single Finger Chord system. When this is in operation any note in the marked section of the keyboard gives you the major chord of that name and, if the rhythm section is running, then an auto bass line and rhythmic chordal accompaniment is provided. Using more fingers below the actual key note (always the highest) allows other chords to be played. Playing a white note below gives you a 7th and a black note gives you the minor chord. Playing both a white and black note gives you, not surprisingly, a minor 7th chord. When the rhythm is running the bass lines alter accordingly. What ever chord is sounding is named in the LCD display to the right of this section. This is a good feature as it allows the beginner to hear the difference between the sound of various chords and know which is which.
Now we actually come onto the keyboard sounds. In the polyphonic Orchestra section, there are 12 tones, again chosen by six switches and a latching selector (with a status LED). They are:
Jazz Organ - a nice 'hammondy' plunk at the beginning of the sound but a bit thin afterwards. Good if played on fast chords.
Pipe Organ - Quite authentic. A little sustain gives a nice church acoustic.
Brass - The right tone, but too much of an organ envelope.
String - A fuller sound but a bit too organ-like still.
Jazz Flute - Quite good with a nice delayed tremelo effect.
Clarinet - Has that characteristic hollow sound.
Reed - Very nice again with delayed vibrato.
Music Box - Perhaps a bit too full a sound for a music box but a very useful sound nonetheless.
Piano - The best of the polyphonic sounds. Has a nice edge to it.
Harpsichord - A good envelope (fast attack, fast decay) but a bit thin and fizzy.
Jazz Guitar - Whilst it sounds nothing like a guitar, its a very useable sound with punch and depth.
Vibes - another very reasonable imitation which sounds very full and has a pleasing tremelo as well.
All these sounds are 9-note polyphonic over the entire keyboard in the normal mode, but only three note polyphonic if the Auto Bass Chord and Arpeggio are in use (presumably because these devices require the other six). Sustain is available on all of these via a slider and there is a volume control to adjust their level. Alternatively they can be taken in and out instantly by a switch marked Orchestra On.
Twelve solo sounds are selected in a similar way, but with a greater choice of effects is available. Besides Sustain, there is Vibrato depth, from none to a Max which is just right, and Celeste, which appears to be an ensemble chorus effect, which rounds out the sound. The sounds themselves are:
Piccolo - a very pleasant sound, full and lyrical.
Organ - Authentic electronic organ sound with a nice key-click.
Trumpet - Not so good. Very buzzy and thin. Helped a lot by the Celeste effect.
Oboe - Recognizable but a bit thin.
Clarinet - Same as Orchestra version but a bit fuller.
Violin - Excellent with a real bowed effect.
Synth - Actually sounds like a synthesiser with the filter opening up.
Banjo - An unusually good plucked sound for a keyboard like this.
Piano - Not so authentic as the Orchestra version, but a good solo voice.
Harpsichord - Much better than the Orchestra one, with a fuller spikier sound.
Guitar - Again nothing like a guitar but perfectly useable.
Vibes - Identical to Orchestra voicing, but a bit louder. Ideal for bringing out the tune.
Selecting Fingered Chord allows the more advanced player to play his own chord shapes but have the bass line and rhythm taken care of. As the LCD also tells you what chord is being fingered, this is also good for beginners, helping them learn what notes comprise any given chord. Unfortunately this setting doesn't change the chord for different inversions, but this is perhaps for more advanced players.
The Memory switch in this section acts as a 'hold' device allowing you to move from one chord to the next (either Single Finger or Fingered), and Variation gives an alternative bass-line. Each rhythm (see later section) has its own bass-line pattern, but without Variation these are restricted to tonic and fifths. Pressing Variation brings in the possibility of seconds and thirds to give more interesting lines.
Arpeggio is the next section along. Again synchronised to the rhythm pattern it provides a rising and falling arpeggio based on the chord held down in the Auto Bass Chord Section. This can be mixed in with an individual volume and Variation changes it to just ascending notes.
On to the Rhythm Section proper. Again an individual volume control is provided and, of course, a tempo control as well. There are 16 rhythms, selected by eight switches and a latching upper/lower selector. The usual selection of rhythms is provided - Swing, Waltz, a couple of Disco beats, a few Rock rhythms and a handful of latin patterns.
The bass drum has a nice thud to it even through the limiting built-in speaker, but through external speaker it packs a fair punch. The snare is less successful, not having a crisp enough attack for the Rock and Disco rhythms. But the real successes are the usual weak points of this type of keyboard. The Hi-Hat makes the Disco beats and the Cymbal is the most realistic I've heard in a long time. The Swing beat actually sounds like a real drummer.
The fills are activated by a handy Fill-in button at the left-hand end of the keyboard, and there are 5 variations selectable for each pattern. Generally speaking these are very authentic, but all the third variations are basically rest bars. The Tom-Tom sounds are OK but there is a bit too much pitch in them.
Hand-claps (1 or 2) can be added to each rhythm, and have a reasonably realistic sound. However, they can get a bit tedious, so Yamaha have thoughtfully enabled them to be taken out of all the patterns.
The rhythm unit (and along with it the chords and auto-bass line) is started by pressing the start button, but there is also a synchro-start facility. This starts the rhythm unit automatically when the keyboard is first struck. However, at the first opportunity you should change back to ordinary playing, because otherwise problems occur with the rhythm resetting every time you change chords. Attempting to change chord too fast means that the Auto facility registers two notes held down which, in turn, means a wrong chord will be played.
All these sounds are monophonic and are automatically assigned to the top note being held down at any time. Unfortunately this makes using it a bit tricky especially in Normal Mode. If you take your right hand off the keyboard (which will presumably be playing the melody line), then the solo voice jumped down to the highest note in your left hand. The problem is not so acute in Auto Bass Chord mode but care is still required. Still with a bit of practice the solo voice helps bring out the lead/melody line nicely.
Now we come onto the teaching section of the keyboard using the Playcards (which combine traditional musical notation with a magnetic strip along the bottom which allows the keyboard to read off an entire arrangement of the tune, melody, accompaniment, rhythm, tempo and mix included. By inserting the card in the right-hand end of the slot provided and running through to the playing position in the middle, the magnetic strip is automatically read, and when this process has been successfully completed the LED above the top key lights up. If this doesn't happen, a second run through the slot will correct the situation.
Then after a couple of seconds the piece begins playing. Although the arrangements of even the most contemporary pieces are a bit Radio 2-ish, the card does rigidly follow the notes and chords played, ideal for the beginner to see what's going on. An obbligato (counter-melody or decoration) is provided to make a fuller arrangement. You can stop the song playing at any point by hitting the stop button.
But the real joy for the learner is that, besides having the music in front of him (which you don't get with the Casio ROM system), the LEDs above the notes light up to show how the melody is being played. The chord notes are also light and the name given in the LCD display.
Once you have familiarised yourself with the tune, you can being the learning process in earnest. After playing along with the tune a couple of times, you can switch in Melody Cancel. Now the tune is not played (leaving you to take over) but the LEDs still light. In the initial stages, the use of the Free Time key is invaluable, as it prevents the accompaniment from running away whilst you are still fumbling for the right note. The chords, bass and rhythm actually wait for you to play the appropriate note(s) before going on. When you feel a bit more confident you can use the Melody Cancel without Free Time.
The next stage in the learning process is Chord Lesson, which indicates the chords and waits for you to play them before proceeding with the automatic performance of the melody. Again, when you feel confident of the chord structure, there is a mode (Chord Cancel) which still indicates the chord notes but expects you to keep up with the tune. In this way you can learn melody and accompaniment separately and put them together afterwards.
Other features the Playcard system allow are Preset Balance Cancel, so you sort out the mix of sounds yourself, Phrase Repeat, which allows you to program repetitions of tricky phrases for extra practice in learning, and Instrumental Sequencer. This last one enables you to program a set of sound changes automatically during your performance.
For the days when you no longer need the Playcards a proper music stand is also provided, which can be stored on the underside of the unit.
The overall layout of the PC-1000 is extremely clear and easy to use. A multitude of LEDs on both keyboard and switches tell you what you are hearing (or what you should be playing) and the LCD display for chords is very helpful.
Soundwise, the PC-1000 has one of the best rhythm boxes available on this sort of keyboard. Whilst the keyboard sounds are not in the same class, they range from good to useful and can easily be switched in and out.
But the real selling point of this unit is the Playcard system, which is a great help for teaching (particularly reading music, a skill which is still much needed but many people miss out on). Twelve different Playcards come with the machine and sets of others featuring particular tastes in songs are readily available.
The RRP of the PC-1000 is £625. For further information and your nearest dealer, contact Yamaha Special Products, (Contact Details).