Thought you'd seen the last of the electronic piano? Simon Trask rolls up his sleeves and finds out there's life in the old dog yet.
When the DX7 arrived it appeared to put the cumbersome Rhodes and Wurlitzer, not to mention acoustic pianos, out of business. Now the electronic piano is making a comeback with weighted keyboards and domestic styling.
IN THE WORLD of hi-tech musical instruments there can hardly be an area more competitive than that of electronic pianos. The reason is simple: a potentially vast market which reaches beyond that of many other hi-tech instruments. The "home" musician makes up a significant part of this, as the electronic piano is an attractive alternative to the acoustic version - which is large, loud and needs constant retuning.
Korg have ventured into this market previously with the SG1D (now upgraded to the SGX1D), which is perhaps aimed more at the stage than the living room. With the Concert range (C5000, C3500 and C2500) they are aiming fairly and squarely at the "lounge" musician. To this end these pianos have built-in speakers, phono inputs and outputs (the former for playing a second instrument through the piano's speakers), simple front-panel controls and a basic (almost transparent) MIDI implementation. Oh, and chic casing tailor-made for that spare corner in the lounge.
But let's not get snooty. After all, the first consideration of any musician should be an instrument's sound. Nowhere is this more true than with the electronic piano, where the objective is simply to recreate the sound of a "real" acoustic piano as accurately as possible. So it's not surprising that electronic piano manufacturers such as Roland and Yamaha should have concentrated some of their best technological efforts in this area.
Yamaha's majority shareholding in Korg has been mentioned in these pages before. It has already borne fruit in the form of Korg's DS8 synth (reviewed MT July '87), which takes Yamaha's FM synthesis and presents it in an accessible manner. Now Korg have adopted Yamaha's Advanced Wave Memory technology (which, incidentally, uses a combination of sampling and digital sound modelling techniques) and adapted it for their own electronic piano range. On the basis of the C5000 (the review model) the results are very impressive indeed.
THE TOP-RANGE C5000 offers two acoustic piano sounds, one electric piano, one harpsichord and one vibraphone. Korg have also seen fit to include onboard digital reverb, with a choice of three settings: room, stage and hall (and off, of course). The other two models - the C3500 and C2500 - substitute chorus for reverb, and the C2500 loses the electric piano and vibes sounds and has a 76-note (E0-G6) keyboard as opposed to the 88-note (A1-C7) keyboard of the other two models. All three models are 16-note polyphonic, and come with two footpedals - one functioning as a sustain pedal while the other can be either a soft or a sostenuto pedal.
Inevitably, Korg have gone for a "piano-style" keyboard with weighted action and wooden keys. Of course that's no guarantee of quality, but Korg have got it just right, with a firm yet fluid key action giving a feel which is both comfortable and substantial. Definitely one of the best piano keyboards I've played - and what's more Korg have used the same keyboard on all three models.
The two acoustic piano sounds are this electronic piano's forte (sorry, couldn't avoid that one). The first has a bright, sharp (but not thin) character whilst the second has an altogether more mellow, dark tone. What really distinguishes these sounds from those on other electronic pianos is that they sound convincing over their entire range. And unlike Korg's original SG piano (and to a lesser extent its upgraded version) the acoustic piano sounds on the C5000 remain convincing throughout their duration. Korg also seem to have captured very effectively the complex dynamic changes in sonic character which occur with a "real" piano. Put simply, the company have come up with the most convincing electronic recreations of an acoustic piano that I've heard.
The electric piano is definitely from the Fender Rhodes family, but a harder Rhodes than most. A phased edge to the sound helps to introduce a bit of movement, but a spot of chorusing would benefit sustained notes (perhaps the cheaper Concert pianos score here).
Korg's harpsichord sound has something of the spindly delicacy of the French harpsichord school (time to dust off those Couperin and Rameau scores) while successfully avoiding sounding tinny. The vibes sound is warm and chunky, though the lack of any vibrato control on the C5000 tends to make sustained notes sound a bit lifeless.
All of the sounds exhibit a full, rounded character which I haven't heard on electronic pianos from other manufacturers (save perhaps Yamaha's new CLP pianos, which also use AWM - though to these ears Korg's version still has the edge). Yet close scrutiny of the C5000's sounds reveals some less desirable features. All the sounds exhibit some degree of digital noise (most noticeable on the electric piano and vibes), while at the tail end of sustained notes there is a faint metallic noise which definitely shouldn't be there. And for some reason held notes in the middle and upper registers stop just before their natural decay into silence. In truth these features, while being far from welcome, are unobtrusive most of the time - and while they act as a reminder of the C5000's digital modus operandi they don't detract from the essential quality of the instrument.
THE C5000'S THREE reverb settings are selected from dedicated front-panel buttons. They range from the subtle touch of Room to the spacious ECM-style character of Hall. All three effects are smooth and clear, though there's a degree of noise which is particularly noticeable in the decay of the Hall setting. Overall, they make a useful and valid addition to the instrument - and will no doubt be welcome in lounges where thick curtains and carpets tend to absorb the sound of an instrument which has no natural reverberation characteristics of its own.
In fact there are four reverb effects - something which seems to have escaped general notice. If by some mischance you happen to turn on both Stage and Hall settings you get a new reverb setting with a much longer decay than Hall and an added "shimmer". This seems to be more a happy accident than a planned feature, as you can't readily call it up. A case of rogue software, perhaps? Most strange.
KORG HAVEN'T NEGLECTED MIDI on their latest pianos - but as mentioned earlier, they've kept the implementation simple. You can set, send and receive MIDI channels (1-16), and the piano will send and receive patch changes (0-4). Good news if you plan to use the piano in conjunction with a sequencer is that Korg have included Local on/off control.
Controller data on the C5000 is limited to the soft, sostenuto and damper (sustain) pedals, and unlike many other electronic pianos on the market, you can't split the keyboard for MIDI transmission purposes. Yet this comparative lack of MIDI sophistication needn't be a problem for the more demanding MIDI user, as nowadays there are many devices (Akai's range of MIDI processors or Yamaha's MCS2 and MEP4, for instance) which can add sophisticated control features to any MIDI instrument.
The piano's MIDI parameters are set by pressing the MIDI/Transpose button together with instrument buttons or notes on the keyboard. This is now a familiar process on electronic pianos, where the aim seems to be to keep the front panel as uncluttered as possible, and LED windows are generally avoided. Not altogether a bad idea.
KORG'S PIANO ARRIVES legless (so to speak), and unless you want to rest it on the dining-room table you'll need to make use of the matching keyboard stand which accompanies it. The bad news is that you have to assemble this stand yourself MFI-style (with a suitable diagram in the manual to help you on your way). Now, I never was top of the woodwork class at school, but my efforts at manual labour in this instance resulted in a pretty sturdy stand - which is probably just as well because at 77lbs Korg's piano is no lightweight.
TO MY MIND Korg have come up with the most convincing electronic piano on the market. Quite simply, if you're on the lookout for an electronic alternative to "the real thing" you can't afford to give the C5000 or its cheaper relatives a miss. End of story.
Prices C5000 £1799; C3500 £1499; C2500 £1099; all including VAT
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Review by Simon Trask
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