Technics & Yamaha Electronic Pianos
Richard Walmsley on the State of the Joanna
Among the many new products at Frankfurt this year, electronic pianos were somewhat conspicuous; Yamaha, Roland, Ensoniq and Technics all had new models on display. The electronic piano has come of age, with technology capable of creating an electronic instrument that plays and/or sounds almost exactly like a piano.
Each of the aforementioned instrument manufacturers has used different techniques to produce an instrument that they feel is closest to the ideal; Yamaha have used FM synthesis with which their name has now become synonymous, Roland have used their new Structured Additive Synthesis, and Technics have used PCM sampling.
Reviewed this month are two of this new generation: the Yamaha PF range, and the Technics sx-PX range. In essence they are similar, both embodying the features that will probably be standard for all modern pianos: weighted keyboard, tonal and dynamic touch sensitivity, a range of sounds (piano, electric piano, harpsichord, clavinet) and a comprehensive MIDI implementation. In practice the basic tone production methods used make these instruments quite dissimilar so in some respects they should not be seen as directly comparable.
Technics are now making four of these pianos. The PX1 is pretty much the flagship, embodying all the available technology. It is designed for studio or top pro use, and features a real grand piano action, 88 keys, and is built in a case reminiscent of the Yamaha Clavinovas.
The PX-7 features 88 keys and is the portable version designed for the broad pro and semi pro market, and if Technics have their way it will become an industry standard rather like the Yamaha DX7. The PX5 is a 76 key economy version of the PX7, and the PX9 is basically a PX7 in a PX1 case intended for people's front rooms.
All the models use the sx—PCM sampling hardware developed by Matsushita (Technics' parent company) which has enabled them to directly sample the notes of a Steinway grand at many different dynamics, thus giving accurate reproduction of the total sound characteristics of a real piano over the whole range of the keyboard.
The PX1 has an eight megabyte chip enabling 80 of the 88 notes to have been directly sampled from a Steinway grand (in other words only eight notes have been pitch-adjusted.) At the time of writing only limited technical information is available about these instruments, the PX7 and 9 however, has a four megabyte chip, and the PX5 a two megabyte so the amount of pitch adjustment on these instruments decreases accordingly. But the fact is up until now the piano samples on instruments like the Emulator II, the Prophet 2000 etc have been 'wowing' people, and all of these involve a great deal more pitch adjustment than even the PX5. Furthermore, on all the PX pianos, 15 harmonic samples have been taken (five at the bottom, seven in the middle and three at the top) and the touch sensitivity involves 128 dynamic steps as opposed to around 10 on most other touch sensitive pianos.
What this all means to the non-boffins amongst us is that when you hit the lowest notes you quite literally hear eight foot of copper wound string vibrating away, and when you play at the top you get the same penetrating ring that you would on some of the best acoustic pianos. In short, the sound of each note is the sound of a real piano; it feels great – and on the PX7 and 5, it's quite exhilarating to get such an impressive sound out of such a modest looking instrument.
The other sounds available are Piano II (PX1 only) which is a rounder, more intimate piano sound, Electric Piano I and II, which sound like early and late Fender Rhodes sounds and Harpsichord and Clavinet, all of which are impressive. The PX1 has further sound adjustment options in the shape of a three band equaliser (mid range being parametric) switchable in and out, and a decay/sustain length adjuster. The PX7 and 9 has a mellow/bright/normal selector. All models have chorus and the PX1, 7 and 9 have tremolo (PX1 pitch and rate adjustable, PX7 and 9 rate adjustable only).
When I went to see these instruments they were still having a few problems with noise on the PX1, which they assured me would not be present on the production models, whilst on the other models a tiny amount of 'gate' noise is detectable, but apparently that is inevitable.
The MIDI implementation is very comprehensive on the PX1, 7 and 9; offering all MIDI modes [Poly, Mono and Omni) transmission and reception on all 16 channels, 128 programme changes for slave instruments, and MIDI in, out and thru sockets.
The PX5 has MIDI in and out sockets, but no thru socket, and transmits and receives on all 16 channels.
All the keyboards are equipped with a 2,700 note digital sequencer, splittable into two 1,350 note songs. Furthermore with an available disk drive the sequencing capability goes up to 27,000 notes.
The PX9, 7 and 5 all feature the usual modern plastic, chunky weighted keyboard, while the PX1 has wooden keys and actual grand piano action inside to further aid the illusion that it's a real piano you're playing. Frankly, when playing the PX1 that illusion is complete. The PX7 and 5 come in sturdy cases made of wood and composite materials, which means they are reasonably light and easy to manoeuvre.
The back panels on the PX7, 9 and 5 include line out left and right switchable between low and high levels, sustain and soft pedal sockets, auxiliary in mono/right and left, and fine tuner, in addition to the other features mentioned above.
The recommended retail prices for the instruments are: PX1 £3599.99; PX9 £1599.99; PX7 £1,249.99; PX5 £899.99.
It seems to me that Technics have finally cracked it with these instruments. The central position of the piano in Western music means that there will always be a demand for instruments that can be used like a piano (ie, many synth-type sounds are unsuitable for playing piano-type chord configurations etc). If it can actually sound like one, that is the final luxury. The PX7 and 5 are manageable, affordable, modern instruments which should have an enormous impact. I doubt whether this is the end of the road for electronic piano development. However, as far as I am concerned these instruments are the beginning of the newest generation.
Yamaha's approach to the problem is very similar to Technics' approach in many respects. The fundamental difference, however, is their use of synthesis (FM) as opposed to sampling, for tone production.
The PF70 and 80 pianos are identical instruments in every respect apart from size, the 70 having 76 keys (E0 to G6), the 80 having 88 keys (A1 to C7).
These instruments feature a simultaneous output of 16 notes with 10 voices, a volume control, three band equaliser (±15dB at 100, 1K and 10kHz), tremolo, chorus, soft pedal, sostenuto pedal and sustain pedal, stereo 16cm speakers delivering 18 watts from the internal amplifier (switchable on or off), and a two digit, eight segment LED. Both models are well implemented with MIDI and could be used as a mother keyboard. They feature plastic, chunky weighted keys, and they are built into extremely sturdy (holocaust proof I should imagine) metal shells, which account for their extreme heaviness: 64 and 74lbs respectively.
First things first, however. What do they sound like? They have a total of 10 voices. Piano 1 is intended as the basic classical grand sound and works well, but has a rather limp bass; Piano II is a bit more Rock with a good bass end, whilst Piano III is extremely aggressive – a good approximation of the CP80 type of sound – with an extremely powerful bass that is good for mimicking guitar power chords.
The Electric Piano sounds (1-4) are very good approximations of old and new Rhodes and Wurlitzers, with correspondingly less power deep down than the straight piano sounds. The only sound here I found unusable was an Electric Piano that had a peculiar tangent sound on the attack which did not vary and a peculiar click on the release, which did not change with other dynamics, so that playing quietly sounded like a chorus of frogs. The Harpsichord sound is very good, although just a little bit Hammond-ish, and the clavinet... well, what can you say about a Clavinet? That sounds alright too. My personal favourite was vibes which, preset with Tremolo and Chorus, sounds beautifully moody, like it's being played in an enchanted cave at the lower end, and far better than any of the pianos in the top octave and a half.
It has to be said that Yamaha's piano sounds are not that close to those of a real piano. I used the instrument playing with a band: the guitarist asked me when I was going to make it sound like a piano! However it tries to make up for this in other ways. Yamaha's approach has been to make an instrument that is very responsive to performance information from its touch-sensitive keyboard. As the notes of the piano and other sounds are struck harder and harder, the tone not only increases in volume, but harder tangential and harmonic sounds emerge making the instrument very lively, and able to hold its own in the midst of a loud band.
My main disappointment with the sounds of the instrument, apart from the fact that they are synthesised, is firstly that configurations of Stereo Chorus and Tremoloform part of the preset patches. Obviously removal or addition of these manually gives further variation in sound, but all too often the voices sound a little disappointing without them. Fair enough, but what if you're playing in a situation where you have to be amplified in mono? Obviously you are going to lose the stereo chorus effect. QED.
My other complaint is the noisiness of the instrument. FM has always produced extraneous noises, and the advanced programming in the PF range seems to have taken this a teeny bit far. However, it's not ever a problem in performance, and in a recording situation the noise can, of course, be gated out.
Programmable functions are activated by means of a selector switch and combinations of the buttons normally used for tone selection. Using these controls it is possible to set overall levels of the voices which is useful in performance situations where some voices are louder than others, touch sensitivity can be switched in or out for individual voices, soft pedal intensity can be altered for individual voices, tremolo speed and depth can be altered for individual voices, keyboard split can be programmed for individual voices, and the instrument can be tuned or transposed.
MIDI functions are also accessed in the same way. The instrument is equipped with MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets and can receive and transmit on all 16 MIDI channels. Programme changes from 0 to 99 can be quickly called up in much the same way. A MIDI split enables the keyboard to be used flexibly as a mother keyboard, and there is a MIDI merge facility which enables you to choose whether MIDI information being received at the In terminal is combined with the instrument's own MIDI output of information. Finally, the PF pianos can receive pitch bend and modulation information from external keyboards, which can be individually programmed using these controls.
The PF pianos look extremely mean and professional, soberly finished in monochrome matt black. Their only really significant advance on the much respected PF10 and 15 is their MIDI implementation, and the use of a weighted keyboard as standard. The voices are more responsive and far more suited to performance than before, though the piano voices are still recognisably electronic. I'm not qualified to say whether this is the closest FM synthesis can ever get to the sound of a real piano, but at RRPs of £899 for the '70, and £999 for the '80, these instruments are a pleasure to play and use, although for my money their extreme weight is something of a drawback.
RRP: See copy
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Review by Richard Walmsley
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