By Stephen Fortner
Since its launch in 2016, Italian upstart Dexibell has become almost a household name in digital pianos for the home and stage, and the Vivo S9, the company’s flagship stage instrument, combines a host of features much sought by gigging keyboardists. These include high-resolution main piano tones; a host of supporting tones, from electric pianos to synths to orchestral sections; classic organ emulations with drawbar control and a rotary speaker effect; thorough functionality as a MIDI controller for external sound sources; and even motorized sliders that snap into preset positions, depending on the mode selected. Lacking built-in speakers, the S9 is not a living-room instrument — it’s designed to be the chief or sole inhabitant of a professional keyboard rig. Should it be in yours? Let’s find out.
Keyboard Action and Acoustic Piano Tone
The Vivo S9 employs a TP-400W graded action, with aftertouch, from Dexibell’s countrymen at Fatar; the W refers to its key bodies of real wood. The action is on the heavier side, with physical resistance to please the sort of piano teacher who’s a drill sergeant about developing finger strength. Seven touch-response settings (plus a fixed-velocity setting) give it more flexibility in adapting to individual preferences in touch. I found that for straddling acoustic piano and other sounds, as one would for cover-band gigs, the Light+ and even Light++ settings kept fatigue at bay. That pro-grade action weighting does come at a price of, well, weight — 44 pounds of it. Some 88-key stage pianos are heavier still, but others boast schlep factors of less than 30 or even under 25 pounds, putting the Vivo S9 in the middle.
Dexibell touts the use of 24-bit/48kHz sampling and up to 15-second sample times in piano and electric-piano sounds, in comparison with the industry standards of 16-bit/44.1kHz (equivalent to CD resolution) and stretching internal memory by editing shorter samples into longer loops. The benefits are audible in Vivo Live, the first piano program that comes up when you power up the instrument, and in every program thereafter. Vivo Live has tons of dynamic range, wide harmonic variation from dark to bright in response to key velocity, and long sustain with absolutely no audible loop points, breaks between velocity layers, or other telltales of digital recording. In addition, 320 oscillators (tone sources) make for effectively unlimited polyphony. My densest pedal-down playing did not reveal any audible ceiling regarding the number of notes that can be sustained at once.
I’m told the sound called Vivo Grand could be compared to a Steinway, but it sounds and plays a lot like a Fazioli. Both Vivo Live and Vivo Grand are immersive, addictive, and gorgeous. Other piano flavors include the apparently Yamaha-inspired Japan Grand, Italian Grand (which, I understand, was sampled from a Fazioli), a couple of character-rich uprights, and, in Elec Grand, even the electric grand pianos of 1980s pop music.
Where most stage pianos would provide a bank of sample-based organ sounds, the Vivo S9 gives you a fully controllable organ engine. That is, rather than just a set of perhaps nice but static organ sounds, you have control over drawbar or stop registrations, as you would on a real organ. Five models are on hand: two variations on tonewheel (i.e., classic Hammond) organs, Vox and Farfisa transistor combo organs, and church pipe organ. In organ mode, the motorized faders become drawbars or stops, their pipe lengths and stop designations silkscreened on the panel above. The organ engine supports simultaneous upper, lower, and pedal registrations, tempting you to split the keyboard and/or add a MIDI pedalboard. A Morphing function smoothly transitions between registrations if you change presets, and it’s fun to watch the motorized sliders scuttle into their new positions.
I’m a notorious Hammond enthusiast — geek, really — and to my ears, the Vivo S9’s tonewheel emulation and accompanying rotary (Leslie) effect don’t quite rise to the level of today’s best dedicated organ clones from such brands as Nord, Crumar, and Hammond itself. The S9 still gets you a lot closer to the playing experience of the real thing than you’d expect to find in a stage piano, and is more than good enough to make you reconsider carrying a second keyboard for playing bluesy rock tunes and Al Green covers.
The pipe organ is fantastic, with sound on a par with modern organ consoles that target the traditional church market. This thing breathes, even capturing how air takes longer to flow through larger pipes. This is especially noticeable with only a single stop active. Pull ’em all out, and if you can resist playing the opening of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, you’re stronger than I am.
Any stage piano needs an assortment of good Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric-piano tones, and the Vivo S9 has quite a few of them. I was initially struck by how the first two tones in this bank, Dyno Stage and Dyno Trem, emphasized the bell aspect of the Rhodes tone. (The Rhodes tone source was a cylindrical tine coupled to an oblong tonebar. The two together amounted to a sort of asymmetrical tuning fork, the hammers striking the tine and the bar resonating in sympathy. You could adjust these assemblies in relation to the pickups to hear more of the tine, which gave you the bell harmonic, or more of the tonebar, which gave you the body of the sound.) Then I found that in the Audio FX section (more on this below), their high EQ was boosted by 8dB — reducing the boost to 3dB got me very close to the tone of my own Rhodes, a pristine 1973 Suitcase model. As for the lower end of the electric-piano sounds, wow, they have plenty of bark when you want it.
Clavinets are to be found in the Plucked Percussive bank. Here there’s a lot of variety to get you outside the “Superstition” box, but all variants are marked by a pronounced key-off sample in the low range (from E-flat below middle C on down) that’s always a minor third below the note pitch. Clavs do have some key-off noise, but not this much. The setting can be adjusted in the S9’s menu of what Dexibell calls True-to-Life (T2L) parameters; dialing it down to around –50 made the behavior much more realistic.
Out of the box, the Vivo S9’s brass and string tones cover sections but not solo instruments, which is fine with me — in a band situation, I’m far more likely to need to play section parts than a violin or trumpet solo. Strings are big and lush, and the Brass Sect tone has a nice stabby character for when you have to be a one-keyboard Tower of Power. The rest of the Brass/Synth bank is occupied by synth brasses and chordal patches with convincingly analog character — nice.
It’s important to note that the tones you hear when you first turn on the Vivo S9 give you no idea of the scope and variety of its abilities. There’s a large downloadable library of expansion sounds right on the Dexibell website’s S9 product page, and the instrument supports the venerable but still viable SoundFont standard for samples. Speaking of which, for this purpose the S9 boasts 1.5GB of sample RAM, which is quite generous for embedded memory in a hardware instrument. It seems to load all its factory tones into RAM as well, given that booting up from full off takes 48 seconds — something to be aware of if you temporarily lose power during a performance.
If you’re really into custom-programming your stage keyboard, doing so on even a well-designed control panel can feel a bit like building a ship in a bottle. The Vivo Editor app removes the bottle, showing you far more parameters at once. It’s well organized, and in my opinion a great tool for understanding the Vivo architecture. It works not only with the Vivo S9 but with a wide range of other Dexibell keyboards, though for now it’s limited to Apple’s iPhone and iPad.
Another app, Xmure, adds sophisticated auto-accompaniment and even audio rendering of entire performances to a range of instruments in the Vivo family. Though Xmure was beyond the scope of this review, a quick look told me that it deserves its own.
[For more information about these apps, see our review of the Dexibell Vivo H3.]
Splits, Layers, and MIDI
The Vivo S9 supports four parts for internal voices: Main, Coupled (a layer with the main part), Lower (left-hand), and Pedal, the last mappable to an adjustable range of keys or playable from a MIDI pedalboard. Pressing any of these buttons toggles whether or not its part is heard, and causes the corresponding tone name to appear in the display alongside the icon M, C, L, or P. Using the up/down cursor buttons, you can then highlight a part to select a different tone for that part, or to adjust other parameters.
Splitting can work in different ways. In the S9’s menu is a submenu called Split Mode; with this turned on, activating the Lower part button simply divides the keyboard between the Lower and Main parts at a split point that’s selectable in the submenu. Each part also has menu settings for its lowest and highest notes, effective even when Split Mode is turned off. The results are savable as Memories — i.e., what on other keyboards might be labeled Multis, Setups, or Registrations.
The Vivo S9 has four additional zones for controlling external sound modules or software instruments, each with its own on/off button and labeled Master Keyboard Zones. These have independent settings for such things as octave shift, transpose, note range, MIDI channel, whether a MIDI program change is sent, which of the S9’s controls affect that zone, and more. These, too, are saved in Memories, along with the internal part settings.
Effects and More
When the sliders aren’t acting as organ drawbars, they control a number of other selectable settings: levels and global reverb amounts for the internal parts, the four-band master EQ, and MIDI continuous control messages to the zones. Switch their function by pressing this or that button, and the motors snap them to the most recently remembered values for the selected function. This proved less gimmicky and more useful than I’d expected — after changing modes, I never had to manually return sliders to their original settings.
The Audio FX section controls a plethora of what are usually called insert effects for the internal parts. There are three sections — Main, Coupled, and a shared one for the Pedal and Lower parts — each section providing two simultaneous effects. In turn, each of these effect pairs offers a choice of the same 17 effect types, which cover the expected ground from reverbs to vibratos to phasers to EQs to overdrive to compression. Thanks to Dexibell’s 32-bit, floating-point processing, the effects are uniformly of studio quality.
Like the sliders, the six endless knobs in this section can be switched, at the touch of a button, to perform another function — in this case, to send MIDI control messages to external zones.
Using Dexibell’s True-to-Life modeling (T2L), you can adjust and save a handful of parameters appropriate to each tone: mechanical noises and sympathetic resonances for acoustic pianos; key click, leakage, and fine-tuning of Leslie effect speeds for tonewheel organs; envelope settings on synths; etc.
Seamless switching works with both individual tones and multi-tone setups (Memories) so that you can change sounds without cutting off sustained notes from the previous tones. This performed very well, with no audible “bumps.”
The rear panel of the Vivo S9 provides a host of connectivity and makes a statement about Dexibell’s professional intentions for the instrument. Balanced XLR as well as ¼” outputs are provided, as are both ¼” and ⅛” headphone jacks and a stereo ⅛” audio input. Four pedal inputs are provided: two expression/morphing, one footswitch, and a dedicated damper input that supports half-pedaling. USB-A for a thumb drive and USB-B for computer or iPad connection are de rigueur, as are MIDI In, Out, and Thru. In addition, the USB-B port will stream stereo audio in and out at 24-bit/48kHz resolution. The only thing I’m not crazy about is that the Vivo S9 uses an external power supply, but even that has its advantages: An external PSU keeps any magnetic interference from the supply’s AC/DC transformer away from the piano’s tone-generating circuitry; and if the PSU breaks, you don’t need to open the instrument to replace it.
The Vivo S9 is the only Dexibell instrument to combine in a single keyboard every feature found in the company’s wide product line. It’s clearly aimed at gigging pros, and for that it carries a premium price of $3,999 — not cheap, but less than similarly targeted 88-key axes from the likes of Nord. Whether you prefer one slab of black-and-whites to rule them all, or a multi-keyboard setup of more specialized and individually less expensive instruments, will be a matter of personal workstyle — but if you’re in the former camp, the Dexibell Vivo S9 is well worth a thorough audition.
Product Description and Specs for the Vivo S9 can be found at: dexibell.com/prodotto/vivo-s9/?lang=en
User’s Guide and other support manuals can be found at: dexibell.com/prodotto/vivo-s9/?lang=en
Stephen Fortner, former editor-in-chief of Keyboard magazine, is now an editor and associate publisher of Music Player Network, the world’s leading online community for musicians. He is also the proprietor of Fortner Media, a content and consulting firm for the musical-instrument industry.