Roland Digital Piano Systems
RD1000 (Keyboard Version) & MKS20 (Racked Module Version)
Roland's piano power — RD1000 & MKS20 on test
Roland turn to 'SAS' in the Digital Piano battlefield. 'Colonel' Nick Graham assesses their new armoury...
1986 has seen a number of new piano-type instruments being launched, many of which are of the sampling variety. Sampled pianos aren't a new idea, of course — ever since sampling became a viable technology, the muso-technocrats (musocrats?) have dreamed of presenting us with an instrument which you can tuck away under your arm, but which sounds exactly like a Steinway Concert Grand. Nevertheless, although several manufacturers have made valiant (and very expensive) attempts to achieve this ideal, nothing yet made has been able to totally replace the real thing — especially in situations where the authenticity of a real piano is essential; for example Classical music or Jazz. But for most of today's less critical music, sampling pianos can come so close to the 'real' sound that with good Eq. and a touch of digital reverb they are, to most ears, indistinguishable from the real thing.
The new Roland Digital Piano System, however, has several features which make it a front runner in this technological race to produce the definitive electronic piano, not least of which is that fact that, unlike several rivals who promised sampling pianos this year, Roland's offering is actually in the shops now! It also comes in two versions — the RD1000, a highly finished 88 note weighted keyboard model, complete with a stand and pedals, and the MKS20, an expander which contains identical electronics, but occupies only 2U's high in a standard 19" rack.
What I found really interesting about this new piano is that it's not a sampled piano at all, but instead uses 'Structured Adaptive Synthesis' (SAS), a system developed exclusively by Roland in Japan. SAS is a sophisticated re-synthesis technique which involves a highly accurate computer analysis of 'real' sounds, from which a near replica can be synthesised. This method can have several distinct advantages over conventional sampling; for example, conventional synthesiser techniques can be applied to sound which is no longer dependent on looping and cross-fading to produce sustained sounds or long decay times. What's more, synthesised sounds don't change length according to pitch, and many experts (among them the boys at Synclavier) see re-synthesis as the next important weapon in the musician's electronic armoury. How successful, then, have Roland been in jumping this far ahead?
In fact the MKS20/RD1000 has eight pre-set voices — three pianos, two electronic pianos, harpsichord, vibes and clavi — all of which can be modified in various ways and the results stored in 56 available memory positions, which I'll go into later. Although all the sounds are useful, what will inevitably attract the most interest are the first three 'real' pianos, the others being just a bonus. Two of these piano sounds are definitely modelled on a full sized grand (probably of German origin!) and are rich, full and extremely lifelike. But it's the third one which will possibly get the most usage, especially in live situations, where the convenience of a rack mounted 'piano' played from a single mother keyboard will be most appreciated.
This particular sound is so close to that of a Yamaha CP70/80 type of electric grand, that only fear of prosecution would prevent me from sticking my neck out and declaring that that's where Roland got it! Whether or not this is true, the fact remains that, as a direct replacement for this type of instrument, the MKS20/RD1000 won't go out of tune every night, won't suffer from broken strings, is infinitely more transportable, and so on!
Of the other five sounds, the 'Rhodes' type is superb — you can really hear the hammers hitting the bars! The vibes sound is also pretty fair, but I felt that the remaining three could have been synthesised just as well on my DX7. Still, who's complaining? On board there's a range of treatments available which can change the sounds quite radically. Not least of these is a typically lush Roland Stereo Chorus, which is switchable (foot, MIDI or front panel) and has variable rate and depth. Stereo tremolo is also included, but much more useful is the three-band Equaliser with comprehensive parametric control of the mid-range. Using this facility, the piano sounds especially can be tailored to suit the speaker system which you're using, and it's also surprising how the 'realness' of the piano sounds can be tailored. Of course, all editing is achieved with the increasingly familiar Roland Alpha dial, which selects functions and edits parameters smoothly and efficiently.
For the most part, this review is based on my having used the MKS20 rack mount unit, which I tested using my DX7 keyboard. Although it sounded great, it seemed that I had to hit the DX7 a bit hard in order to take full advantage of the dynamic quality of the piano voices. However, when I tried the full keyboard version, the RD1000, at Roland's Brentford HQ, I found that its own weighted keyboard was perfectly set-up for the dynamics — a real pleasure to play, in fact. Having since also tested the MKS20 with a Yamaha KX88, and finding no problems whatsoever, I've come to the conclusion that, for a sampled piano to really sound authentic, it needs a keyboard which is as similar as possible in feel to that of a real piano. Yes, I know that's probably a psychological effect, but it still exists!
It almost goes without saying that, being a Roland product, the MIDI spec on both the RD1000 and MKS20 is fairly comprehensive, but I can't help having felt a twinge of disappointment that, though the RD1000 will function as a mother keyboard (assignable splits etc), it's not equipped for total control of a large MIDI synthesiser set-up. As a result, my advice to any reader considering such a multiple of synths would be to opt for the MKS20 and find yourself an alternative mother keyboard. On the other hand, if all you need is a superb digital piano, then the RD1000 must be at the top of your list of 'possibles'.
A final thought? At RRP £1,299 for the MKS20 and £2,499 for the RD1000, these are both reasonably priced for such professional products. It's not peanuts, I know; but when you consider the alternatives...
RD1000 (Keyboard Version) RRP £2,499 inc. Stand & VAT
MKS20 (Racked Module Version) RRP £1,299.
More info on Roland from Roland (UK) Ltd., (Contact Details).
Review by Nick Graham
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