A piano for every occasion - and a few more besides
A piano for all seasons. Ian Waugh tries Pythagorean Temperament and ends up flat Baroque...
There are some things you can never have enough of. Polyphony is one of them. This is never more true than when writing music with a piano part. Play a left hand chord, an arpeggio or two, stomp on the sustain pedal and there goes 20 notes straight away.
Or perhaps you want a bigger range of piano sounds than your current equipment offers. Some synths have very distinctive pianos - the M1 is a firm favourite with house musicians - and variety, as they say, is the spice of life. If you find yourself in either of these situations, it may well be worth considering a separate piano module. Such as the Roland P-55.
There have been piano modules before - and there will no doubt be piano modules again - but the P-55 has several particularly interesting features which definitely stand it out from the crowd. First of all, it's a member of the Sound Canvas family - it says so on the front panel. When it receives a GM System On or GS Reset MIDI message it goes into GM mode. No, it doesn't have the usual range of GM sounds but it does respond to the GM Program and Bank Change messages which select GM piano sounds and GS variation tone piano sounds. We'll look at its use with GM modules in a minute.
Secondly, it responds to Damper (Control 64), Sostenuto (Control 66) and Soft (Control 67) MIDI messages, and if you're nimble on your feet you can practise half-pedalling techniques. These help make it more like a real piano and are features which pianists will appreciate.
It also has several other 'real piano' attributes such as Stretch Tuning. In contrast with true equal temperament, the higher notes on an acoustic piano are normally tuned slightly higher in pitch and the lower notes tuned slightly lower. The P-55 has three Stretch Tuning settings to help simulate this.
Finally, to help set the instrument up to suit your style of playing and the keyboard you are using, there are nine velocity curves. These determine how the volume and timbre respond to the velocity information. If you're more a synth player than a piano player, you may want to select a curve which makes the notes in the weaker lower range of the keyboard louder using less velocity. Looking just at these aspects of the P-55, you can see that Roland has attempted to incorporate as many performance features into the P-55 as possible. And there's more to come. But let's look at the basic layout.
It's a half rack unit and can be rack mounted, along with another half-width module if you wish, using the optional RAD-50 Rack Mount Adaptor. The front panel belies its Sound Canvas heritage - a nice orange 3-digit LED and orange indicator lights.
There are eight parameter indicators - each containing two sets of parameters, the operative one depending on the parameter mode (stick with it!) and eight pairs of up/down parameter buttons for altering them. There's a volume control and a headphone socket on the front, and stereo audio Ins and Outs on the back along with MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets. Power is via a mains adaptor.
So let's try a few sounds. There are 32 of them, based on 4Mb of piano waveforms including some from the SR-JV-80 series and the latest HP models. The range covers acoustic and electric pianos including the RD-1000 and the harpsichord from the C-50. There are also a couple of Vibraphones, Celesta and Clavi.
I'm tempted to say that there is something here for everyone but that's to ignore the utter individuality of MT readers (gush - MT reader). However, you can tweak the sounds in several ways to accommodate your own pianistic perversities. For example, there's the Brilliance control. Give it a boost for an up-front rock 'n' roll piano. Turn it down for a moody sotto voice classical piano effect.
The P-55 also has eight reverb and nine chorus effects with adjustable depth. They include room, hall and plate reverb, delay, panning delay, four types of chorus, flanger and short delay feedback. They do make a considerable difference to the sound.
You can also add a sub-instrument to the main instrument - which is another way of saying you can play two sounds at once. And it's possible to give them different volume levels and detune them - more scope for customisation.
Pan position of the sounds can also be adjusted and there's a fascinating random pan setting which causes the sound to move randomly back and forth with each note played.
For the experimenter, there are six alternative tunings - Equal, Just, Mean Tone, Werkmeister, Kirnberger and Pythagorean Temperaments. It's nice to see these on an instrument even if they tend not to get used very often. Anyone out there use alternative tunings? Drop us a line and tell us about it. There's also a Baroque Pitch setting which sets A4 to 415Hz rather than the 440Hz we use today. Ideal for evenings with your baroque ensemble.
If you do much tweaking you will, naturally, want to hang onto your new sounds and on the P-55 you can, by saving them into the 16 User Patches. These can be selected via MIDI, too.
So how would the P-55 fit into your setup? It's 3-part multitimbral - just in case you compose piano trios - and 28-voice polyphonic. As ever, the definition of voice causes confusion. Most reasonable people would equate voice with note, but more than one musical instrument company, including Roland, takes it to be a single sound element.
The pianos, therefore, use between one and four voices which could cut the polyphony down to seven notes! Add a sub-instrument and you're well on the way to three-note chords - and you'd better lay off the sustain pedal, too.
If you really want to use the multi-voice sounds, a stacking mode lets you connect up to eight P-55s for a maximum polyphony of 224 notes. Or 28 notes if you pull out all the artillery! In practise, you will probably use 2- or 3-voice sounds, the 1-voicers being a touch on the thin side, so you'll be looking at an average polyphony of 10 to 14 notes.
The P-55 could well appeal to people with an existing GM module. Many GM units, however, are unable to mute individual parts and so respond to information on all 16 MIDI channels. In such cases, the P-55 and the GM unit would play the piano part together - not an ideal situation. Some GM units, however, such as the Roland Sound Canvas Mk II can mute parts, in which case everything would be hunky dory. Check your GM unit's manual carefully, because some allow you to mute parts using SysEx messages. Speaking of which, you can also tweak the P-55's FX parameters via SysEx, making it an excellent companion for one of the high-end computer sequencers such as Cubase or Notator.
The manual looks excellent and contains lots of photographs of the various parts of the box along with drawings of hands and fingers pushing buttons. It contains all the info you need but it's a very dry read and not, perhaps, as accessible as it could be. It's a shame really, coming as it does after a press conference at Heathrow when both Roland's UK MD and the Japanese Corporation President admitted that manuals could be better. I'm still amazed that after all these years, foreign companies (and I'm not singling Roland out here by any means) still refuse to run their manuals past a native English musician and writer who knows his job.
The only other slight gripe - more an observation, really - is that some of the buttons have dual functions depending on the mode you're in. The alternative would be more buttons or a menu system, neither of which would appear practical on a unit this size. Although if it had an LCD like the Sound Canvas...
The P-55 is a rather neat and desirable unit, well suited to a variety of situations. Given its wide range of features, I suspect it will appeal to a wide range of users and at the price it's going to be a tough act to beat.
|Ease of use||It's plug in and go but you must read the manual for the tweaks|
|Originality||An original collection, if not an original instrument|
|Value for money||Excellent range of features at the price|
|Star Quality||Likely to be much in demand|
|Price||£469. Roland is also bundling the P-55 with the A-30 keyboard (normally £535) for £799|
|More from||Roland (UK), (Contact Details)|
Review by Ian Waugh
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