Yamaha Personal Keyboards
PS200, PS300, PS400
The complete PS personal keyboard range put into a musician's perspective by Trish McGrath; surprisingly, the cheapest model turns out to be the best buy.
The advent of the personal keyboard has prompted many musicians to invest in a creative tool that is portable, compact, and relatively inexpensive, and although personal keyboards have attracted mainly a 'home musician' type of buyer, there is no doubt that they offer many facilities that are very attractive to the serious musician. Trish McGrath takes a look at three of Yamaha's most recent introductions.
The Portasound PS300 and PS400, and the soon-to-be-released PS200, manifest themselves at the lower end of Yamaha's personal keyboard range (the pocket-sized Handy-sounds being merely easier on your wallet), and offer a wide range of features for quite minimal outlay.
All these keyboards operate on batteries (six 1.5V) but can alternatively be powered by a 9-12V DC mains adaptor or, if you're the travelling type, Yamaha supply an optional adaptor which can provide power to the instruments using the cigarette lighter socket in your car.
As the three keyboards are being examined together, the common sections (such as Orchestra, Rhythm, and Auto Bass Chord) will be looked at in detail later on, and some of the individual or additional features covered briefly below.
The new PS200, due to be launched shortly at an RRP of £99, is one of the smartest personal keyboards to pass through E&MM's doors, with a top body moulded from a very stylish dark navy and turquoise lettering. It's a three-octave (37-note) polyphonic keyboard featuring a built-in speaker with a maximum output of 2W and, in common with the rest of the PS range, an Aux Out phono socket allows the keyboard to be played via your hi-fi or whatever. Headphone mini-jack sockets are also provided on all keyboards.
The PS200 front panel boasts - from left to right - a Master Volume and Accompaniment Volume sliders, Auto Bass Chord, Rhythm and Orchestra sections (more on these later), and finally a selection of Programmed Music.
This last feature is activated by depressing the red Start/Stop button whereupon a rendition of 'Sur le Pont d'Avignon', Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and Chopin's 'Nocturne' are played in sequence and looped. Although there is no facility for changing the programmed rhythm, tempo or voices, it is possible to play the keyboard itself while the music is playing back. By depressing one of the top three notes of the keyboard (labelled 1, 2 and 3) simultaneously with the Start button, each piece of music can be played back individually.
Apart from extra voices and rhythms, the PS300 is similar in layout to the 200. Again, it possesses a three-octave keyboard, but this also includes a Pitch Control on the bottom panel for fine tuning adjustment.
Our review model was dark cream in colour, and as with the more expensive PS400, maximum output is 1.4W from the mono 3" speaker on the left-hand side of the keyboard. An optional Expression Pedal is also available for controlling the overall volume level.
Constructed from a stylish navy casing, the PS400 features in addition to the Orchestra, Rhythm and Auto Bass Chord Sections, a 44-note keyboard (F-to-C), a Transposer for adjusting the pitch of the entire keyboard up or down a half-octave, a Chord Sequence Memory, an automatic Duet feature, and an Arpeggio.
The Chord Sequence Memory consists of three buttons (Off, Memory, and Play) and, as the title suggests, will memorise a chord progression which you can input either in real-time or steptime. In step-time, four notes at the top end of the keyboard are allocated different note lengths (whole note, dotted half-note, half-note, and crotchet), and the procedure is simply to hold down the desired chord key (see Single Finger Chord) and press the desired chord length. It is also possible to designate some measures to have the rhythm section replayed by keying in note length only (ie. spaces), and if you input an incorrect chord, it's possible to rectify it provided you do so immediately, since only the preceding chord can be cancelled.
In real-time input, the chord progression is memorised as you play, although on playback the chords are automatically replayed in accordance with the preset bass and chord patterns. The Chord Sequence facility is very useful for composing melodies and so on, although with a memory of only 32 measures or so and no way of 'looping', entire songs are not exactly possible.
The Duet button 'adds a harmonising note to every melody note you play', according to the user's manual. I played a simple run of G-A-B-C: technology added a lower D-E-F-A. Have Yamaha invented a new code of 'harmony' based on some ancient Japanese modal system? I would have preferred the inclusion of a simple sub-octave voice, or better still, a facility for transposing the entire keyboard up and/or down one octave.
The Arpeggio, with its own volume control, adds a 'rippling' effect in sympathy with the auto accompaniment, this being governed by the Rhythm Section's Tempo setting and the notes of the accompaniment chord.
In normal mode, or with only an accompanying rhythm selected, the keyboards are seven-note polyphonic, but this deflates immediately to only three-note polyphony when the Auto Bass and Single Finger Chord features are in use.
A core of seven instrument voices (common to all three PS instruments) comprise useful Organ, Piccolo, Piano, Harpsichord and Guitar sounds, as well as (questionable) Trumpet and Violin.
The PS300 has the added bonus of a tasteful Vibraphone, while the PS400 possesses not only the Vibraphone, but Clarinet and Oboe voices as well.
Preset Delayed Vibrato has been built into the Piccolo, Trumpet, Violin and Oboe voices, and Sustain (which considerably improves the sound of some voices), can be added to the Orchestra voices if desired. However, the PS200 offers a second Sustain which, although not lengthening the actual release time, produces a very enhancing reverberation effect unheard of before on this type of instrument. Full marks.
Despite the term 'rhythm' which personal keyboard manufacturers have adopted, it is sometimes difficult to look upon this section as anything more than a fussy metronome. For example, Yamaha have chosen to provide these built-in non-programmable 'drum boxes' with tuned percussion sounds instead of filtered, noise-generated percussion, which can make the act of differentiating between bass drum, snare and everything else quite an art.
All units produce Swing, Slow Rock, 16 beat, Disco, Bossanova, March and Waltz Rhythms. The PS200 also has a useful Pops rhythm while Jazz Rock, Rumba and Samba rhythms are included on both of the larger models.
A slider is used to select a tempo (between 'Slow' and 'Fast') and the volume is adjustable between a 'Min' and 'Max' range. However, on the PS200, exclusive volume control for the percussion is not provided, but incorporated instead within the Accompaniment Volume slider, albeit with detents rather than a continuous action. Mention must be made of the fact that when increasing the volume of the Rhythm Section on the PS300 and 400, the sound was totally inaudible until the slider moved to about one-third of the range. Why not spread the range better for finer control?
A Synchro Start button (which doubles as a Stop button when re-released to the 'up' position) is provided on all keyboards and starts the Rhythm and Auto Bass Chord sections simultaneously (and in sync) by simply pressing any key in the lowest octave. However, this does mean that when you wish to play the Rhythm on its own, an unwanted note is created as soon as the rhythm is activated. The PS200 overcomes this (and scores above its' big brothers) by offering Stop, Start, and Synchro Start controls.
Unlike some of their contemporaries, the Yamaha's rhythm sections don't incorporate a 'fill-in' facility to liven up the patterns, although the PS400 has a '4-Bar Variation' which varies the rhythm pattern on every fourth measure.
This section spans the 14 notes at the lower end of the keyboard (from F to F#) and allows you to obtain an accompaniment of bass, chords and rhythm simply by pressing one key. It is possible to alter the rhythm (and thus the accompaniment) during play, and a Variation control selects a different bass and chordal accompaniment (basically, No 2 is a busier version of the simple backing of No 1).
Tempo is controlled by the Rhythm Section's Tempo control, and a blinking LED, which flashes on the first beat of every bar, functions as a visual metronome. An individual Volume control is provided for the Auto Bass Chord section, except on the PS200 where it is integral with the Rhythm in the Accompaniment Volume slider. As the levels are well balanced, this should pose no problems in practice.
It's possible to select Single Finger Chord without the automatic bass and rhythm by switching the section on and pressing a key in the Auto Bass Chord section. This enables you to play a major chord by pressing the root note only. By simultaneously pressing the next black key to the left of the root note, a minor chord is produced. Similarly, by depressing the next white note to the left, a seventh chord is sounded, and a minor seventh is produced by keying both the next black and the next white key to the left of the root. However, quite often an inversion of the chord is produced (ie. the root note is not the lowest note of the chord) and this can alter the sound of a chord progression quite dramatically.
This section, although spanning just over an octave, has another rather annoying method of replaying the pitch of the selected bass and chords. For instance, the lowest seven notes (F to B) play back an accompaniment that is higher in pitch than the (supposedly) top end of the section (C to F#). In fact, there is absolutely no difference between the backing produced by selecting the low F to that produced by the higher F (and the same applies to the two F# pitches). This duplication also occurs when the Single Fingered Chord feature is selected on its own.
Apart from the few minor quibbles mentioned above, there is no doubt that the PS range of keyboards represent good value for money, and contain a host of features to aid and abet not only songwriting, but also the pure enjoyment of simply making music for its' own sake. If the Fostex X-15 is the 'sketchpad' of the multitrack market, could the PS200 be described as the 'doodle pad' of the composer?
PS200 RRP £99; PS300 RRP £179; PS400 RRP £229.
Further information from Yamaha Musical Instruments, (Contact Details).
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Review by Trish McGrath
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