Technics PX1 Digital Piano
The PX1 heralds a new generation of electronic pianos that aims to provide acoustic sound quality in a more versatile, up-to-date format. Julian Colbeck meets the latest Japanese Joanna.
For some while, Yamaha's range of CP keyboards has dominated the pro electric piano arena. But now other Japanese manufacturers are fighting back with some new piano technology, and Technics' new PX1 is leading the way.
Three days ago, the name Matsushita Electric meant precisely nothing to me. My loss, obviously, since they turn out to be the 24th largest company in the world — a ranking several feet above Yamaha on the leader board, so I'm told. They make Technics equipment, among many other things.
Even Technics is hardly a name on the lips of most ardent hi-tech instrument aficionados, but recently they've been nuzzling into this area of the business with some stunningly whizzo home organs that use PCM digital technology. The question, I guess, was never could they move their considerable bulk towards the rock arena, so much as could they be bothered.
Well, the first indication that they could came in 1984, when Technics launched a PCM digital piano called the SX-PV10. The PV10 attracted plenty of attention, but suffered mainly through being sold only in traditional Technics outlets, ie. home organ shops.
This year sees the inauguration of Technics' Electronic Musical Instrument Division, which should change all that. Their first release, due in the shops this month, is this very swanky-looking PCM digital piano, the SX-PX1 (Technics seem to prefix a lot of their instruments with the letters SX, presumably to set them apart from machines in other product areas).
Now, this piano is a very different beast from the PV10, since its keyboard is not only wooden and weighted but actually has a hammer action to boot. The PX1 also sports an upmarket MIDI spec and can therefore be used as a MIDI master keyboard of sorts. Finally, it has a simple-to-operate two-track realtime sequencer, whose total memory capacity of 2700 notes can be expanded ten-fold by using a Technics Digital Disk Recorder and a single 3½ inch disk.
But the main difference between this Technics piano and its predecessor (or almost any other currently available digital piano, for that matter) is the work that's gone into the production of, the technology behind, and indeed the quality of its sounds.
A word about the 'work that's gone into/technology behind' bit first. I've no way of checking this, but it's claimed that out of 88 notes along the PX1's keyboard, there are no less than 80 different samples, and that from these, each note was further sampled at seven different velocity levels.
The idea behind this mega-multi-sampling is that each note can respond (almost) authentically to the way in which it was played, without having to rely on filters and extramural, non-sampled gadgetry to reproduce the sound of an ordinary, touch-sensitive piano. By now, you've probably guessed that the 'conventional' hammer action is a clever ruse by which the manufacturers can reproduce the feel of an acoustic piano. Indeed, the fulcrum is positioned at the same distance from the keys as you'd find on an acoustic grand piano.
But more about the action in a minute. What about the sounds? Well, there are six in all: two acoustic pianos, two electric, a harpsichord, and a (small C) clavi. Pushbutton-selected on a small ledge between the keys and the lip of the lid, the sounds are uniformly and almost unutterably superb.
The piano pair could be labelled upright and grand; their tones are pretty similar but one is slightly sharper and more aggressive, the other rounder and more full-bodied (sounds like bloody wine, I know). The two electrics could be compared to Rhodes MkV and knackered Rhodes circa 1973 (ie. brilliant at times but potentially unstable, the difference being that the PX1's version isn't unstable at all). The harpsichord is realistic to the point of not being velocity-sensitive (well the real ones aren't, are they?) and is suitably spikey and 17th Century. Francis Monkman will love it. Finally, the good old funky clav is good, old and funky. Great for good, old and funky players playing good, old and funky music. In pubs.
The only slightly worrying aspect concerning all the sounds is that, during the test, I could hear more than a suggestion of digital 'wheeze' emanating from the speakers (which are not built in, by the way). I'm told this'll be dealt with by a noise reduction system (or possibly an improved version of same), so the production models will be silent. But as I mentioned at the time, a promise of improvement, however sincerely delivered, can't prevent a reviewer from pointing out faults if he's invited to review a pre-production model. So check out the noise factor. I don't think it would overshadow your music, but it could be mildly annoying, especially during recording.
"Sounds - A knackered version of a Rhodes circa 1973 could be brilliant at times but potentially unstable; the PX1's version is also brilliant, but not unstable at all."
The second, similar misgiving (similar in that this too is to be improved before production gets into full swing) concerns the action. It's good already, make no mistake, but — and this is very difficult to put into words — it feels lumpy. It's as if there's a piece of corrugated metal underneath the hammers which makes the response uneven. Technics are as unhappy about this as I am, and are now busy replacing the felt-lined cross-piece (which the hammers bang up against) with a rubber-lined one. Looking at the mechanism, it seems logical that the improved 'rubber' lining should do the trick nicely.
You're given a number of tone-modifying possibilities: a stereo chorus and tremolo are included (and independently controlled) and effects send and return jacks allow further devices like DDLs and reverb systems to be patched in at will. There's a slider-operated key transposer, a three-band EQ (the mid-frequency is parametric) and slider-operated sustain and decay controls. This last pair seem superfluous, since both can be governed by either your fingers, or your foot on the sustain pedal. They're best left at their 'normal' position, I found. Finally, there's the obligatory overall tuning control.
Now onto the Play Sequencer, as Technics call it. Very simple, really. All you do is choose to play with or without a metronome (and if you choose with, select your speed), press Record, and off you go. It's real-time only, and you can store sequences in one of two channels. These can be combined, however, for one longer piece of music.
As I mentioned, using the Technics Disk Recorder extends your note storage capacity infinitely. The disks can store as many as ten individual pieces, and these can be replayed individually using the triple-function (so called because they look after note and MIDI channel selection as well) as song selectors. The sequencer stores velocity, pedal, and tone information as well as the notes, and if for nothing else, is useful for accompanying yourself while practising.
Technics have stopped just marginally short of making the PX1 a first-class MIDI master keyboard. You can control a pair of external MIDI sound sources, assigning them to split positions on the keyboard, controlling patch numbers, and even storing up to ten MIDI combinations in so-named MIDI memories. This information can be off-loaded onto disk, too. The one serious master-keyboarding omission is the lack of a pitch or mod wheel onboard. If you're combining synth sounds with the PX1, this might prove limiting.
Now, the most serious question to answer is: who will be tempted by the PX1? Well, no matter what fancy types of synthesis emerge from east and west these days, there's an enormous and continued interest in 'straight' piano sounds. Ask any hire company. I bet a Yamaha CP80 remains one of the most requested keyboard instruments of any kind. And when you consider that a CP80 costs in excess of £1000 more than the PX1, the Technics begins to look like a serious proposition. There are a number of other digital piano designs currently being developed by rival Japanese companies, so only time will tell whether any of these compare favourably with the PX1. In any event, Technics have beaten them all to the marketplace, and that's what matters.
In terms of roadworthiness, the PX1 collapses into a compact and easily transportable unit which can roll merrily along on castors, the instrument protected by a hard metal case. It weighs a not inconsiderable 110kg (that's 242.5lbs for imperial measurement buffs).
With all due respect to the CP80 — even the MIDI version — if I were contemplating using a dedicated piano-type instrument either on the road or in the studio, I would unhesitatingly choose the PX1. The sounds are just as realistic in the piano department (including, of course, a bottom octave that's actually in tune) and there's a far wider range of options in both sound and control departments.
Price £3599 including VAT
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Review by Julian Colbeck
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