By Alden Skinner
The stage piano has been the professional’s workhorse since the advent of the digital piano. It ensures that there will be a playable instrument wherever the performance takes place, and absorbs the rigors of constant moves. Increasingly, however, the stage piano is finding another home — at home.
If you make some or all of your living playing music and need to move your instrument frequently, a stage piano is a necessity. But even if you’re not a professional musician, there are situations in which you may want to consider a stage piano. For example, if you care more about tone and action than about furniture styling, and your budget won’t accommodate both, a stage piano may be the answer. If you plan to use your digital piano as a MIDI controller, professional stage pianos offer extensive control over MIDI functions and tend to have more of their MIDI controls right on the front panel.
Here we’ll look at the stage piano as an option for home use. Stage pianos have tremendous capabilities — far more than the average home user would need, and far more than can be described here. So in this article, we’ll look specifically at those few functions in which a home user might be most interested: piano tone, tone control, settings memory, and action. Assuming such a reader would be interested in getting the best tone and action in this instrument category, I chose three of the top stage pianos to test and describe — the Kawai MP8II, the Roland RD-700GX, and the Yamaha CP300 — samples of which their manufacturers were kind enough to lend me for this purpose. All three instruments were auditioned through Yamaha HS80M Powered Nearfield Monitor Speakers on Auralex MoPAD Monitor Isolation Pads, and through Sennheiser HD 600 headphones. (If you’re unfamiliar with the terminology used here, please read the “Digital Piano Basics” articles elsewhere in this publication.)
As these are sample-based instruments, their piano tones are based on a “source” instrument. Kawai and Yamaha use as sources their own concert grands. Roland does not disclose which instrument was sampled, but it is widely assumed to be a Steinway concert grand. Beginning with the default piano (the one selected when you first turn on the instrument), we find three notably different tonal qualities. Kawai’s Concert Grand is perhaps the mellowest of the three when played at lower velocities, but quickly adds bite to the tone as velocity is increased. Roland’s Expressive Grand has a darker tone with more harmonic content throughout its range. Yamaha’s Grand Piano I seems to occupy a middle ground between the other two tonally, with a bit less edge than the Kawai at high velocities, and a slightly bigger bass than the Roland.
But these are only these instruments’ default voices. One of the great things about digital pianos is that they have the ability to be multiple pianos by having multiple piano voices, as these instruments do. (I’ve always envied guitar players, who tend to have lots of guitars.) If we don’t count voices that play an octave when you play a single note (quite handy in some circumstances), monophonic variations of other piano voices, and layered voices such as piano plus strings, we end up with the list of piano voices shown in Table 1 (in order of appearance in the instrument’s menu).
It’s interesting how your style of playing can change as you try the different piano voices. Even if you’re not into rock, it’s hard to resist trying some riffs when playing the hard-edged Rock Piano voices. And switching to Honky Tonk has a tendency to bring out your Old West barroom pianist. All of these carefully crafted variations make perfect sense for instruments designed for professional use — professional players need to be equipped for any musical contingency. But even the home player, in the privacy of his own headphones, can get more into the moment by matching the piano sound to the musical style, be it classical, jazz, Fats Waller, or Little Richard.
In addition to the acoustic piano voices, each instrument has a substantial selection of voices in other categories, as detailed in Table 2. Among my favorites were Harpsichord on the Kawai, GX Choir 1 on the Roland, and Nylon Guitar on the Yamaha. Also listed in Table 2 is the number of simultaneous sounds, or Polyphony, each instrument can produce. (Some of the voice types, such as GM2 and XG, are discussed in “Digital Piano Basics, Part 2: Beyond the Acoustic Piano.”)
The ability to vary a piano’s voice isn’t solely dependent on the number of voices available. Another way of expanding the number of tonal options is through controlling the tone of a given voice. All three instruments discussed here are capable of altering various components of the piano samples, including string resonance, sustain, and key-off sound. In addition, the Roland can modify the amounts of damper and hammer noise, and the degree of duplex scale resonance in the sample. (Duplex scale is an element of acoustic-piano scale design that adds sympathetic resonance to the treble tone.) The Kawai also has the ability to switch between four different hammer-voicing options.
Beyond altering parameters specific to the piano voices, equalization offers additional tonal control. The bass and treble controls on your home or car stereo are, in essence, equalization controls. They allow you to increase or decrease the prominence of the lower and higher frequency ranges to suit your taste or the recording, or to adapt to the acoustical environment. The equalization (EQ) controls on these three digital pianos go even further. Instead of controlling only two frequency ranges, as your bass and treble controls do, the Kawai and the Roland divide the entire frequency range into four bands, and the Yamaha divides it into five bands. The Roland and Yamaha also allow you to control the widths of the center bands, effectively moving them higher or lower in the frequency range. This allows you to adjust narrow frequency bands without adversely affecting nearby frequencies. For instance, the Roland’s EQ control allowed me to easily overcome what I perceived to be a slightly weaker bass in its default piano voice.
Total Voice Resources
Of course, having all these adjustments is of little use if you have to reset them every time you change voices. To alleviate this potential frustration, all of the stage pianos reviewed here include the ability to memorize the setting of every control on the instrument, making it a simple matter to recall all your favorite combinations. The Kawai stores up to 256 combinations, the Roland 100, and the Yamaha 64.
Besides the sound of the instrument, the other major consideration is the action. The MP8II uses Kawai’s AWA PRO II action with wooden keys. This is a great-feeling action with nicely textured black keys, and is the quietest of the three. Roland’s RD-700GX is outfitted with their PHA II action; its Ivory Feel keytops provide a noticeable improvement in grip over most digital pianos, including the others tested here. The PHA II has a slightly lighter touch than the other two actions, but also produces more mechanical noise. In its intended role as a stage piano, this is completely irrelevant, but when played quietly or through headphones, the extra noise can be a bit troublesome. The CP300 uses Yamaha’s midrange GHE action, a comfortable action with a touch slightly heavier than the Kawai’s.
Each of these pianos can accommodate up to three pedals, which can be assigned their traditional functions or can control other aspects of the instrument. However, only the Kawai comes with a two-pedal unit (the left pedal can be set as either a soft or sostenuto pedal; the right is sustain); the others each come with one pedal. Kawai is also the only one to provide a music rack. Attractive wooden cabinet end-pieces add a touch of elegance to the Kawai.
The Roland packs a number of extras into its slender case: 200 rhythms; an Arpeggiator; a USB flash-memory connection that can play .WAV, AIFF, and MP3 audio files; and the ability to upgrade with up to two of Roland’s SRX expansion boards (which include, among others, the Concert Piano and Complete Piano boards, with one additional acoustic sample set per board).
The Yamaha comes with the convenience of built-in speakers, and is the only one of the three to provide onboard recording capability.
All three instruments share extras not found in most digital pianos intended for home use, such as pitch bend and modulation controls.
While these instruments are too different to rank in order of preference, there are recommendations I can make based on the user’s interests and priorities. If your preference is “plug’n’play” simplicity and you like the convenience of built-in speakers and onboard recording, the Yamaha CP300 is your ride. Basic controls are straightforward, and the sound from the built-in speakers is as good as or better than that of many “console” digitals. Get a good stand, however; the CP300 weighs 72 pounds. If you want maximum flexibility — including lots of sampled piano sounds and the potential to add more, a large number of rhythms, and the ability to play along with MP3s — the Roland RD-700GX will take you there, and at a relatively light 55 pounds, it can be moved without much difficulty.
If the instrument is going to be in your living room and needs to look a little more elegant, if you like a quiet action with a great-feeling touch, and if you don’t mind saving a little money, the Kawai MP8II is the solution. As with the Yamaha, a substantial stand is in order to support its 77 pounds.
Whichever you choose, know that “your” instrument is earning its keep every night on stages all over the world.