By Stephen Fortner
Casio has a unique pop-culture legacy among makers of electronic keyboards. In the 1980s, the brand became so synonymous with fun, inexpensive, portable keyboards that Casio is still often used as a generic term for the entire product category, as Kleenex is for tissues or Xerox for photocopiers. Yet Casio has often aimed to transcend this image’s association with toy-like products, an image that has otherwise served them well. The company’s best-selling and longest-lived such effort, dating back to 2003, has been the Privia line of portable digital pianos, which offers professional-grade sound quality and keyboard actions while sacrificing neither affordability nor ease of use.
The Privia PX-S3000 establishes a new benchmark in this effort. Here’s the Twitter version of this review: Almost everything about the PX-S3000—keyboard feel, realism and nuance of acoustic piano sounds, variety of great non-piano sounds, build quality, auto-accompaniment features, and more—makes me feel as if I’m playing an instrument that should sell for $1,500 or more. But the PX-S3000 costs only $799, with retailers such as Sweetwater bundling it with matching console stand ($130), soft case ($130), and triple-pedal unit ($100) for a discounted total of around $1,125.
You also get a surprising amount of audio effects power, the ability to stream audio through the Privia’s speakers over Bluetooth (to play along with songs stored on your mobile device), a useful MIDI song recorder, audio recording directly to a connected USB thumb drive, and wired USB connectivity to Casio’s Chordana Play for Piano educational app for Apple iOS and Android devices (see sidebar, “Chordana Play for Piano”).
Build and User Interface
The Privia PX-S3000 is the most compact instrument with 88 weighted keys I’ve ever beheld, bar none. It weighs under 25 pounds and can run on six AA batteries, though an AC power supply is included. At first sight, the instrument gives the impression of having been carved from a solid block. It’s made of plastic—there’s no other way to build an 88-key instrument that weighs so little—but the plastic is thick, the few seams are tight, and the overall fit and finish are excellent.
The PX-S3000’s design is a study in minimalism. Physical controls with moving parts are limited to the power button and master volume dial at top center, and a pitch-bend wheel and two assignable knobs along the top left cheek—a boon for use in live bands. All else is achieved with touch-sensitive “buttons” that are actually backlit icons shining up at you from just under the completely smooth surface of the top panel. The icons change based on which mode you’ve selected for a given area of the panel; and if you don’t touch the instrument for a few minutes, it goes into a “screen-saver” mode in which the buttons cycle off, then reappear if you press a key or anything else. When the PX-S3000 is powered off, the controls vanish.
All those touch-sensitive backlit buttons are in high-contrast white on black—I had no difficulty reading them under changing stage lighting or in direct sunlight at a backyard-barbecue jam. If there’s a downside, it’s that, as with a touchscreen, you have to look at what you’re doing. With physical buttons, you can learn to navigate an instrument by feel. Moving parts, though, are some of the costlier components on any keyboard’s bill of materials, so the Star Trek touch panel is surely a factor in the PX-S3000’s low price. Not that it conveys cheapness—on the contrary, its retro-future look is classy; as if, back in 1990, Casio took notes from home-hi-fi-as-sculpture mavens Bang & Olufsen.
Even without taking into account the PX-S3000’s diminutive size and weight, its key action would be considered excellent—but when you factor them in, it’s extraordinary. The texturing on the key surfaces, to provide grip and an authentically piano-like feel, feels a bit coarser and more pronounced than I’m accustomed to, and I’ve come to prefer it.
The action more than qualifies as fully weighted, but gives a first impression of being on the light side if you try playing with the power off. The PX-S3000 has five touch-response settings—two light, one normal, and two heavy—plus a fixed-velocity (non-touch-sensitive) option. As in all electronic keyboards, the PX-S3000’s touch settings alter the touch response, not the actual key weight, thus requiring a faster striking of the key to achieve a given loudness and brightness of tone. Nonetheless, I found that they ingeniously tricked my brain into perceiving the action as physically harder to play. With the heaviest setting, anyone looking to develop virtuosic finger strength can get a genuine workout. The Normal and Light settings are good options for playing fast passages in non-piano Tones (aka Voices) such as organs, strings, or synths. Best of all, a touch response is stored as part of a Registration (a memory preset in which can be saved combinations of virtually every sort of setting the PX-S3000 offers), so you can optimize it for different combinations of Tones.
Speaking of Tone combinations, the PX-S3000 permits basic splits and layers. You can: layer two Tones (e.g., piano and strings) across the keyboard’s entire range; split the keyboard so that the left and right hands can respectively play, say, double bass and piano; or do both, with one Tone in the left-hand part and a layer of two Tones in the right. The split point can be changed by holding down the Split button (revealed by using the Function button to toggle the rightmost bank of buttons into “Ctrl” mode) and striking a key.
Selecting Tones and turning on splits/layers is achieved using different “pages” of the same button row—again, you step through these pages with the Function button, so there’s some going back and forth. With layering active, the instrument will consider the current Tone to be the first Tone in the layer—that is, the Upper1 part—and the panel will select only the layer’s second Tone, called the Upper2 part. With splitting active, you can select the Tone for only the Lower part. The display will show a U2 or L icon to remind you of this, but to change the Upper1 part, you have to step back down into Ctrl mode, turn off the split or layer, then step back into Tone selection mode. You can save the whole thing as a Registration (up to 96 of them), which will also save any rhythm or accompaniment setups you may have selected. If you create a lot of splits and layers, the procedure can feel a bit clunky. That said, having the same few buttons perform multiple tasks is a necessary concession to a slender profile and low cost. Splits and layers are much quicker, however, when you’re controlling the PX-S3000 from the Chordana Play for Piano app; I describe the procedure in the sidebar at the end of this review.
Casio refers to the PX-S3000’s action as “Smart Scaled.” This means that while the keys are physically graded—with heavier weights toward the bass and lighter weights toward the treble—the PX-S3000 takes things a step further. Internal algorithms use a combination of number-crunching and the physical key-weight differences to emulate the individual behavior of each of the source piano’s 88 keys. It works quite well.
Acoustic Piano Sound
The main piano sound in the Privia PX-S3000 is an acoustic-piano sample re-engineered from recordings originally made for Casio’s Celviano Grand Hybrid (models GP-300 to 500), the company’s proof that they can build a high-end home digital piano at a price that lets you afford a home to put it in. Specifically, it’s the variant called “Hamburg Grand,” and while Casio doesn’t say so, in the industry we know this to be code for a sampled Hamburg Steinway.
The piano is sampled at four velocity levels, which is important: striking a note harder makes it sound not just louder but brighter. I detected no breaks between velocity layers as I gradually increased the weight of my touch from feather-like to Thor’s hammer, the sound beautifully growing in harmonic richness along with the touch weight. Casio informed me that the PX-S3000 doesn’t switch velocity layers per se; rather, it gradually fades from one level to the next, in response to precisely how strenuously you play each note.
Privia pianos have sometimes been criticized for their sound decaying too quickly. Not so with the PX-S3000. The lead piano Tone, called Grand Piano Concert, and its Bright and Mellow variants, had long, singing sustain, whether I was simply holding down keys or using the damper pedal. Tones such as Rock Piano and Stage Piano decayed slightly more quickly, but for my money that’s the desired behavior for the applications their names suggest.
The PX-S3000’s piano sound is further enhanced by the Acoustic Simulator feature, which reproduces five important characteristics of an acoustic piano’s sound: string resonance (undamped strings vibrating in sympathy with each other); damper resonance (all strings vibrating in response to notes struck with the damper pedal pressed); and mechanical noises (for key-on, key-off, and the damper pedal). You can adjust the intensity of each characteristic in the Function menu.
These sorts of nuances make a much greater difference when the piano is front and center, as in solo performance or perhaps a jazz trio, than if you’re plonking along to “Mustang Sally” in a bar band. But they do make a difference—one that perceptibly enhances the illusion of playing an acoustic piano. Until recently, they were the exclusive domain of higher-end stage pianos and home digital pianos, as well as professional software libraries of sampled sounds. To hear them so well executed in a sub-$1,000 portable piano is a big deal.
The PX-S3000’s built-in speakers play surprisingly loudly and cleanly, given they comprise just two oval (16 x 8 cm) full-range drivers, each powered by its own 8W amplifier. However, they lack the bass response to do full justice to the thunder this piano can summon. When I plugged the PX-S3000 into my go-to studio monitors (ADAMs from Germany), playing bass octaves shook the Patrick Nagel prints off my studio walls—which probably needed to happen anyway.
Casio has dramatically upped its sound-design game over the past few years, with the PX-S3000 getting the latest and greatest. It’s packed with a total of 700 Tones, and since most of these fall outside the acoustic-piano category, we’re talking workstation-class variety here. (Approximately 500 of these Tones are shared with Casio’s CT-X5000, a powerhouse of a portable arranger keyboard.)
Where to begin? The E. Piano bank houses Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Clavinet, and Vibraphone (mallet) sounds, many of them augmented by onboard DSP effects such as Phaser and amp/cabinet (Amp Cab) simulation. Whether you want a metallic-tinged FM piano to evoke the Law & Order theme, or bark and grit for covering old R&B tunes, it’s all here. I especially liked the five variations on the Clavinet, the stringed keyboard made famous by Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.”
Hammond-style organs are throaty and beefy, and made more realistic by a Leslie rotary speaker (Rotary) DSP effect that’s surprisingly good. You can even use a knob to switch between a Leslie’s fast and slow speeds, like an organist. Press the Function button until the rightmost bank of buttons is in Ctrl mode, then press the Knob button, then use the increment (+/–) buttons until you get to “14: DSP Param” (parameters) in the display. Now, the top knob on the left cheek will control the Rotary speed and the bottom knob will control the effect’s depth/intensity.
Three other category buttons cover the remaining Tone multitude: Strings, Pad, and Others. Each press of the same Tone category button takes you to a different useful starting place within that category: ensemble vs. solo strings, for example. Synthesized strings (Synth-Strings) are actually found in the Pad section, as are Choirs and various ambient Synth Pads. The most crowded category is Others, because it covers everything else—including, at the beginning of the bank, the best acoustic guitars I’ve heard from a Casio keyboard, a number of punchy acoustic and electronic drum kits at the tail end, and, in between, synthesizer basses, leads, and poly sounds aplenty.
In general, the non-piano Tones sound a little less premium than what you might expect from a $3,000+ synth workstation—but not by much. I’ve owned nearly every one of those made in the past 25 years, and there’s no professional gig where I’d be embarrassed to use the PX-S3000 as my mothership keyboard. For enhancing the experience of learning music and recreational playing at home, these sounds should exceed all but the most jaded expectations.
Rhythm and Accompaniment
Auto-accompaniment has become almost a must-have in instruments destined for the family room. Sounding more like a band keeps children and adult beginners alike more engaged, and if traditional piano practice is called for, these features can simply be turned off. The Privia PX-S3000 has 200 rhythms, each in two modes: just the drumbeat (Rhythm), or with a full virtual backing band (Accompaniment). In addition, as inspiration fodder, 310 Music Presets combine accompaniment styles, Tone splits and layers, and chord progressions cribbed from pop hits, the American songbook, and familiar standards. Oddly, and unlike some other Casio keyboards, the PX-S3000 does not display what the chords are—not even in the Chordana Play app. An update could easily address this.
That a huge variety of rock, pop, R&B, jazz, and world styles is covered goes without saying on pretty much any instrument of this type. What’s important is how well it works. Does the accompaniment engine interpret your chords accurately? Is it flexible about chord extensions, or is it confused by anything more complex than simple triads? Are there “easy play” modes that let beginners voice chords with one or two fingers? And when you change chords, does the accompaniment follow you in time without playing a clam?
I’m happy to report that the PX-S3000 gets high marks in all these areas. Rhythmically, it tracked very well. It didn’t miss a thing when I played a chromatic passing chord (D#min7) between Dmin7 and Emin7—even on the “and” of a beat. The seven modes for chord interpretation include one called Casio Chord. This lets a beginning player voice a major chord with one finger, a minor chord with two fingers, a dominant seventh with three, and a minor seventh with four. Notably, as long as the root is correct, it doesn’t matter which additional keys you add; the Privia is just looking at how many keys are pressed at once. Fingered Assist mode is similar, but with the nearest black key below the root making the chord minor and the nearest white key below adding the dominant seventh. More advanced players will appreciate Full Range mode, which looks at the entire keyboard (not just the left-hand part) to determine your chordal intentions.
I’ve never met an accompaniment engine I couldn’t stump if I really tried, but the PX-S3000 mainly shone. Switching among minor seventh, minor sixth, and major seventh chords was one of many tests that didn’t faze it.
Any accompaniment style features an intro, main and variation sections with associated fill-ins (the variation tends to have more riffs and instruments in the arrangement), and an ending. Developing some skill at switching between these is key to sounding more like a one-person band, and for this I’d prefer physical buttons over a touch panel. Fortunately, the PX-S3000 lets you trigger all these sections, and start and stop the accompaniment, using the keyboard’s lowest six white keys. When performing, this is far easier than using a touch panel, and makes sense because, in Accompaniment mode, you don’t need to go down that far to play root notes. To activate this feature, hold down the Rhythm/Accomp button until “KC” (Keyboard Control) appears in the display.
The PX-S3000 can internally record your performances as MIDI data, or record them in real time as Audio to a thumb drive inserted in the USB-A port on its rear panel. Whether you’re recording a performance as MIDI or as Audio feels much the same in terms of which buttons you press and when you press them. The difference is that, down in the Function mode, the Song Type parameter is set to one mode or the other. Audio is recorded as stereo WAV files at 16-bit/44.1kHz resolution, the same as on a CD.
Like the roll of punched paper in an old-time player piano, a MIDI recording is not a recording of sound itself—it’s a set of instructions that tell the instrument what to do. For this reason, it can also capture Tone changes, movements of knobs and the pitch-bend wheel, and much more. The PX-S3000 provides three internal recording tracks. The System track captures your playing, including in splits and layers, plus everything the accompaniment section plays—so, technically, it’s multiple tracks that you interact with as one. Then, two Solo tracks let you overdub more playing on top of all that, without interfering with what’s already on the System track. Of course, you don’t have to record accompaniment or rhythm onto the System track; you could use it as just another track for capturing solo piano.
I could definitely see a budding songwriter tweaking the accompaniment to get a basic groove together in the System track, then developing melodic ideas using the Solo tracks. Since you can record Solo tracks while the auto-accompaniment is playing (that’s the point, really), you could also personalize accompaniment styles with little looping riffs.
One thing you can’t do is play back a MIDI recording if the Song Type parameter is set to Audio. Why would you want to? Suppose you’ve worked out your masterpiece using the auto-accompaniment and Solo tracks recorded in MIDI, and now you’d like to “print” it as Audio to a USB drive. No dice. I’m guessing that this is about the user interface letting you access the MIDI or the Audio recorder, but not both, and not about any limitations under the PX-S3000’s hood. If so, it also means that, in theory, this could be addressed in a firmware update.
The audio effects (DSP) in the PX-S3000 deserve special mention. There are 100 effect types, from EQ to Compressor, Delay to Reverb, Rotary speaker to Overdrive to Distortion, Amp and speaker-cabinet simulations to Auto-Wah, Flangers to Phasers, and more. Pressing the DSP button when in Ctrl mode will show you the current effect; long-pressing it shortcuts you into the Function menus that control all of the effect’s settings. These effects sound very, very good. Some effects are two in one, such as a Rotary speaker plus Overdrive. A Wah or guitar-amp simulation can add tons of character to a Clavinet or Rhodes electric piano Tone, and experimenting with some of the more ambient-oriented and time-based effects on string, synth, or percussion Tones is a great idea-starter for film-soundtrack–style experiments. For sheer sound-design power, the PX-S3000’s audio effects raise it above the level of anything I expected from something that calls itself a digital piano.
The Sound Mode button toggles the overall sound among three states: Hall Simulator/Reverb (separate from specific reverbs in the DSP section), Hall Simulator/Reverb with Surround (a pseudo-surround effect), and neither (dry). The Surround mode affects the Privia’s internal speakers only.
A basic footswitch is included for use as a damper pedal, but Casio also sent me the optional SP-34 triple-pedal unit ($100), which plugs into a dedicated multi-pin jack on the piano’s rear panel. It’s nicely hefty, with rubber grips on the underside; my foot never had to chase it around the floor. Notably, its rightmost pedal lets the PX-S3000 support half-pedaling, whereby a pianist presses the damper pedal halfway to get a sort of demi-sustain. This technique is occasionally called for in classical and jazz, and is a mark of attention to detail in digital pianos—especially at this price. What each pedal controls is user-selectable in the Privia’s function menu; by default, the middle pedal does proper sostenuto. With the SP-34 pedals, plus ¼” jacks for switch and expression pedals, there’s a lot of assignable control, including the ability to step through Registrations hands-free.
A dedicated Duet Mode splits the keyboard between two identical pitch ranges so that a student and teacher can play in the same range. If you have the SP-34 pedals, the leftmost pedal even works as a separate damper for the left zone of the duet—neat!
An Arpeggiator features 100 patterns ranging from simple up-and-down fare to Latin piano montunos, and it can be applied to just the Upper1 part, or Upper1 and 2 together. Alternatively, the Arpeggiator can switch into an Auto Harmonize mode that adds harmony notes to your right-hand melody based on your left-hand chords when Accompaniment mode is active. It actually makes some pretty decent choices that might inspire a new musical idea or two. However, you can’t have the Arpeggiator and Auto Harmonize functioning at the same time.
Digital pianos—even relatively inexpensive ones—have largely gotten good enough that even a positive review in a publication like this is usually a story of evolutionary improvements from previous models. But every once in a while, an instrument comes along that can be called revolutionary. One way that can happen is that it rewrites the rules for what you can and should expect for the price, and raises competitors’ eyebrows in the bargain. The Casio Privia PX-S3000 is such an instrument.
Anything I ran into that felt like a shortcoming or speed bump was largely due to the PX-S3000’s impossibly small size—which otherwise is an asset. The worst I can say about the instrument is that, between some buttons being context-sensitive depending on others, and some requiring long presses to make a desired thing happen, the user interface has a slight learning curve if you want to do much more than play one Tone at a time. However, if you’re looking for a family educational instrument, at $799 the PX-S3000 is very attractive, and the quality you get for that price means that even if the kids don’t stick with music, you’ll be saying, “Cool! More time on the thing for me!”
Chordana Play for Piano App
This free app for iOS and Android offers not only a game-like lesson experience, but also expanded control of the PX-S3000 and many other Casio keyboards. (Note: You want the app called Chordana Play for Piano. A simpler app, called Chordana Play, does only lessons and MIDI file playback.) Let’s look at its most powerful features.
Piano Remote Controller. This is mission control. On the Tone screen you can create splits and layers far more quickly than from the panel (see Fig. 1). Turn on Layer and/or Split, and a color-coded graphical keyboard shows you ranges for each Tone, and lets you set the split point by sliding your finger. You can also instantly assign tones to the Upper1, Upper2, and Lower parts. Doing that in the app and saving the results as Registrations using the PX-S3000’s panel, I flew at creating setups.
Other control screens include: Keyboard/Sound Source (where you set the touch response, transposition, duet mode, and scale temperament), pedal assignments, Acoustic Simulator parameters, Effects (which include the overall reverb and chorus but not the 100 DSP effects), playback of user-recorded and demo MIDI songs, the entire Accompaniment section including the Arpeggiator and Harmonizer, and MIDI settings. You can do anything from the PX-S3000 itself that you can do in the app (the reverse is almosttrue), but the app usually does it a lot more conveniently.
MIDI Player. This is where lessons live. A total of 201 pieces comprises classical standards, as well as exercises by the likes of Bach and Hanon. Colored blocks representing the notes fall toward the onscreen keyboard in Rock Band video-game fashion (see Fig. 2). You can pinch-zoom to change how many keys the screen displays. You can focus on the left hand, right hand, or both, with the app “grading” you based on the number of correctly played notes. The app also lets you import MIDI song files to customize your learning library, and to record yourself for later review.
Audio Player.Chordana’s Audio Player accesses the music library already on your phone or tablet, and has some surprising power (see Fig. 3). You can slow down or speed up a song without changing its pitch, or change its pitch without affecting the tempo. Singers can punch the Cancel Melody button to make the lead vocal in the recording all but disappear. Plus, you can set a section of the active song to repeat in a loop. This all amounts to what guitar players call a riff trainer, and it’s an effective one. To show up in the Audio Player, songs must reside locally in your mobile device’s storage or purchased music directory. To hear the output through the PX-S3000’s speakers (or an external sound system you’ve plugged into), you’ll run a ⅛” stereo cable from your device’s headphone output to the PX’s audio input. If your device has no analog headphone jack, pair it with the PX-S3000 via Bluetooth.