Roland EP-50 electronic piano
Roland's new electronic piano; a surrogate mother
An electronic piano may seem an unlikely subject for an ES&CM review. Electronic pianos as a whole are hardly in the vanguard of modern technology, pushing back the boundaries of the possible; the image is either the band on stage in 1969 with a Crumar Instapiano because they couldn't afford a Rhodes or Bert Blenkinsop with the MFI Easy-Play special tastefully blended into the living room because he can't afford, can't play and hasn't got room for the real thing. Such an instrument is not what you discriminating state-of-the-art readers want to read about. Lucky then that the Roland EP-50 is not such an instrument.
Let it be said right away that as electronic pianos go, the EP-50 gets by pretty well. Unfortunately for everybody trying to market such beasts, Yamaha's PF models have set a standard against which every other model gets judged, and which none has yet equalled, and the EP-50 gets closer than anything else.
It boasts three basic piano voices and a harpsichord, none of which are going to win any prizes but which provide a good variety of perfectly usable sounds, with plenty of depth and sparkle. Roland's familiar stereo chorus fattens them all up considerably, even on the built-in stereo speakers in the top panel. A small but to my mind revolutionary feature is a switch to turn these monitors off; on every other comparable instrument I've seen the speakers use the same level control as the line outputs, which means that if you're driving a decent amount of signal into your mixer or amplifier you've got a pair of poor little four-inch drivers bashing themselves to pieces in an attempt to keep up with the ridiculous volume being pumped through them. Usually the only way to put them out of the misery is to plug a pair of headphones into the instrument, so it's nice to see that somebody has finally got round to fitting a switch. But behind the seemingly innocuous facade lurks the making of a MIDI mother keyboard.
It goes without saying of course that any MIDI keyboard is capable of controlling any other MIDI instrument up to a point; pitch and duration data will always be present, together with key velocity information if it's available. It's also true that most MIDI synthesisers should be able to transmit patch change commands to a remote instrument, and that ideally the master instrument should be able to send data on any of the 16 MIDI channels. Unhappily this is not always the case, and even when it is the procedure for effecting these changes is not always as simple as one would like it to be in order to carry out fast changes on stage.
So far the only satisfactory way to set up a system which exploits MIDI to the full in this way has been to use a fairly expensive mother keyboard, which on its own produces no sound at all, in conjunction with a set of remote units not necessarily incorporating their own keyboards such as the Roland Super Jupiter, Siel's Expander, the Korg EX-800 and so on. These mother keyboards also have the advantage of wooden, weighted keys, giving a good responsive action; few synths have keyboards which would make ideal master keyboards, as they're usually conventional sprung plastic jobs.
This is where the Roland EP-50 comes in. As well as performing all its basic electronic piano functions very well, it also copes with all the aforementioned problems admirably. To start with, the keyboard, while not being an expensive wooden one, has been very carefully sprung and weighted to produce the most playable feel I've encountered from plastic keys. It's firm and solid without being excessively heavy or spongy, and the touch response has been so carefully set up that there's no need for the user-adjustable sensitivity cop-out that many manufacturers resort to - this feels right without any fiddling from the player.
The simple control panel layout belies the extensive range of MIDI facilities the EP-50 has to offer, mainly because all its functions are controlled from the keyboard itself. A single button, marked, logically enough, MIDI selects these facilities - and the functions themselves are clearly labelled above the appropriate keys. At the left-hand end of the keyboard are the sixteen keys for selecting the MIDI channel on which the instrument is sending data, so that in a multi-keyboard set-up where each remote unit is set to a different channel the instrument being played from the EP-50 keyboard can be quickly changed.
The middle section of the keyboard contains the keys controlling remote patch changes. Any patch on the remote synthesiser can be labelled up from here, although being Roland the emphasis is on banks, groups, and patch numbers from 1 to 8. However, the actual data being sent conforms (of course) to the MIDI charter and is therefore capable of switching instruments using decimal numbering such as the DX synths.
So what more could you want? The EP-50 is capable of being used as a master controller driving a whole bank of remote instruments, with data routing and patch selection available at the touch of a key, and the all-important keyboard itself is substantially nicer to play than most of the instruments you're likely to be controlling, unless you're lucky enough to own a DX1. It's got to be worth its price for these facilities alone - it's cheaper than the dedicated stand-alone mother keyboards - and it'll also make its own sounds, which while not being exactly earth-shattering are eminently useful and unlikely to be available on a synthesiser, be it analogue or digital. It's even got a pair of line inputs on the back for good measure, so a remote keyboard can be played through the on-board speakers, and of course there's a plug-in hold pedal. Any way you look at it, it has to be a good buy.
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Review by Dave Foister
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