By Jerry Kovarsky
The last few years have seen digital-piano makers strongly focusing on lower-cost keyboards whose sounds and features belie their low prices. At the fore of this trend have been Casio, Roland, and Yamaha, closely followed by Kawai and Korg, with some lesser-known brands such as Alesis and Williams (a Guitar Center house brand) also offering models. The qualities of piano sound and touch have improved each year—if you’re shopping for a lower-cost digital piano, you have some great options to choose from.
The 2019 Winter NAMM trade show saw the release of Roland’s FP-10, an 88-key digital piano with a low street price of $499. The FP-10 is clearly a scaled-down version of Roland’s FP-30 ($699 street price), which Piano Buyer reviewed in spring 2016. (See also, at the end of this article, an explanation of the differences between the two models.)
Case, Controls, Connections
The FP-10 comes in a clean, somewhat boxy case finished in matte black. The boxiness seems due to the designers’ decision to place the onboard speakers at the bottom of the instrument, firing downward, which slightly increases the case’s height. The instrument weighs a wonderful 27 lb. — light enough to transport anywhere you need to go. The front panel is very sparse, with a few LEDs to show the current output volume and, on the left side, just four buttons: Power on/off, output Volume up and down, and Function, the last used in conjunction with keyboard keys to make all setting choices. This sort of design is now common in lower-priced instruments, and it works fine, even if it’s not always the most desirable interface. The FP-10 comes with a music rest. There’s also Roland’s optional matching KSCFP10 instrument stand ($90), to use at home for a more traditional console-piano look. (When sold with the stand, the FP-10 becomes the FP-10C, street price $589.)
The FP-10 includes 15 sound choices, labeled on the front panel above the bass keys used to select them. The keys two octaves higher are labeled for working with the onboard metronome: Tempo up and down within a range of 10–500 bpm, in increments of 1 or 10 bpm; 14 different beats/time signatures; and metronome volume. Many other functions can be accessed using the keys, but they’re not labeled on the case; to learn about them, you’ll need to consult the manual.
On the FP-10’s rear panel are jacks for the lump-in-the-middle power adapter (I prefer this design, which doesn’t take up extra space on an outlet strip) and the sustain pedal. The FP-10 comes with Roland’s flat DP-2 pedal switch, but also supports their DP-10 true damper pedal ($50), which supports half-pedaling. A single, stereo, ⅛” headphone jack is the only audio output — you’ll need an adapter cable to connect the FP-10 to your mixer or speaker system. Roland has thankfully given us the choice of having the onboard speakers shut off when this jack is used, for silent practice with headphones, or of keeping the speakers active when using the outputs. When playing at any sort of performance venue, it’s useful to get some “monitor” sound from the keyboard even when playing through other amplification, and many players enjoy the sensation of the keyboard vibrating a bit as if it were an acoustic instrument. My only criticism is that it can be hard to hear direct sound from the FP-10’s downfiring speakers — they’re fine in a quiet room, not very good when trying to play with other musicians. And with the FP-10 sitting on the desk in my studio, the speakers obviously didn’t work well, though a bit of sound did leak from the bottom of the piano.
The last two connectors on the rear panel are a USB Type B jack (the squarish one) for direct connection to a computer via USB MIDI, and a USB Type A jack (the flat, rectangular one), the type normally used to connect storage devices such as memory sticks. Interestingly, however, no data can be saved from the FP-10 via this jack, which Roland describes as being provided for future updates. It’s unclear just what Roland means by “future updates” for such a low-priced instrument, and I wouldn’t expect any. Rather, I suspect that, because the FP-10 shares much in common with the FP-30, in which this jack was used for connecting external storage devices, for manufacturing efficiency, the same configuration was used on the FP-10 and the jack was simply left effectively nonfunctional. Last point: The labels for the rear-panel connectors are recessed and consist only of raised black text on a black case, which makes them hard to read when you lean over the front of the keyboard. I wish they were printed on the case — in light gray, as on the front panel.
Acoustic Piano Touch and Sound
I was very impressed by the FP-10’s PHA-4 action, also used on a number of other Roland models. It’s nicely weighted, with decent push-back on key return. I could easily feel the escapement in the action, which adds to the realism of the touch. It felt crisp and responsive, and I absolutely enjoyed playing it. It’s a graded action, meaning that, as on an acoustic piano, the touch is a little heaver on the low end, gradually getting lighter toward the treble. I’m not sure I buy into Roland’s marketing claims about the key surfaces absorbing sweat like real ivory does, but they did feel very much like the real thing. All in all, it’s surprising to find an action with so excellent a touch in an instrument costing only $499. There are five preset touchweight curves; I easily found one to match my taste.
To create their sounds, Roland uses a combination of sampling and physical modeling that they call SuperNATURAL technology. After sampling each of the 88 keys of a source acoustic piano, Roland uses advanced techniques to provide the player very natural control over dynamics, with no sound levels of specific notes jumping out, or standing out from the others, as can often happen when using samples recorded at different key velocities. The sound engine reproduces damper resonance, the sound effect when the damper pedal is depressed and all the open strings ring a bit. This adds a very pleasing ambience to the sound. The sound engine also reproduces string resonance, the subtle but noticeable sympathetic resonance of currently held notes with a newly struck note, which also adds to the realism of the piano-playing experience.
The FP-10 includes four acoustic-piano sounds. Roland offers no descriptions of these sounds in the FP-10’s documentation, which is a shame — buyers of this instrument would probably benefit from them. I asked Roland about the sounds, and they provided these descriptions:
Piano 1: Concert Piano — “The sound of a splendid concert grand piano. This piano sound has our highest recommendation, and can be used for any style of music.” This is the main piano sound on instrument wake-up, a bold sound that’s very expressive if a bit bright.
Piano 2: Ballade Piano — “A natural grand piano sound. Recommended for classic pieces such as Chopin, and more.” This sound is slightly mellower than Concert Piano; I preferred it for my jazz playing.
Piano 3: Mellow Piano — “A soft and rounded grand piano sound, recommended for quiet songs.” This was the warmest, least bright of the sounds, and was best for intimate solo playing.
Piano 4: Bright Piano — “A brilliant grand piano sound, recommended when you want the piano to stand out in an ensemble.” This certainly was the FP-10’s brightest, most pop/rock sound.
I enjoyed all four piano sounds, and felt comfortable playing all genres of music with them, in both solo and group settings. The FP-10 offers a piano-playing experience far above what its price suggests.
Other Onboard Sounds
E. Piano 1 is a tine electric piano (think Rhodes). I’m not a fan of the FP-10’s version of this sound — it’s a basic, two-velocity sampled sound, with a very obvious break between velocity levels when playing hard. It has a very strong, clicky attack, and very little body in sustain. The sample is looped very close to the attack, and sounds like a very compressed, small-memory sound. The absence of a chorus or phaser effect also limits its usefulness. E. Piano 2 is clearly from the FM/DX school of sound, and it’s fine, though it, too, would benefit from some other effect treatments. I enjoyed both harpsichord offerings: a single manual, and two manuals coupled. Both had crisp sounds, nice ambience, and an accurate key-off noise that was maybe a bit loud.
Organ 1 is a tonewheel organ (think Hammond B3), and it’s a decent sound with the percussion on. I only wish it weren’t sampled with the Rotary Speaker spinning fast — that’s a less common way to play, and if you’re going to offer only one sound of this type, this wouldn’t be my first choice. But let’s be realistic: Few want to play jazz organ from a fully weighted piano action anyway; this offering is of the type “nice to have, but unlikely to use much.” Organ 2, a pipe organ, reproduces what’s known as a Principal Chorus registration: a good, general-purpose, mixed pipe-organ sound.
The Vibraphone is wonderful, as are the Strings. Strings 1 has a slow attack and release for sustained lines/parts, Strings 2 a stronger attack and cleaner release. A Pad sound — a warm, slightly detuned, sawtooth synth sound — is perfect for layering two sounds together, which the FP-10 can easily do. Just hold the Function button and select two keys to pick the sounds.
No Roland keyboard would be complete without their classic Jazz Scat sound. Played softly, it’s a wonderful and sustained doooo sound, nice for sustained chordal playing or a soft line. Play harder and you get a short dot sound, a little harder and you get bop. Hit it hardest to get a dowww . . . that drops off slightly in pitch. I recommend that you change the touch setting to Light when you want to play Jazz Scat, as it can be hard to get to that last sound, especially on a chord. This is a fun sound to play.
Piano Partner 2
Those are the FP-10’s 15 onboard sounds, but more sounds are available if you’re willing to engage in a little technology. Roland offers a free iOS/Android app, Piano Partner 2, that’s compatible with many Roland keyboards. You pair the portable devices to the piano via Bluetooth MIDI and the app works like a charm, giving you access to more sounds and to educational features. You get Ragtime Piano, a tastefully detuned, saloon-type piano. A third electric piano is a reed type (think Wurlitzer), and while very basic, it has a nice tone and attitude. (Sorry, no tremolo!) The Clav sound is also basic, but thick and meaty. Celeste and Synth Bell can work well in orchestral and worship settings, and layer nicely with the Strings and Pad. Piano Partner 2 makes it easy to select and adjust the levels of both sounds in the layer — and, for more variety, you can shift the octave for one of the sounds.
A stellar Harp tone is included, along with nylon- and steel-string guitars. A second Jazz Organ is a softer, nonpercussive setting called a squabble, great for block chordal playing. A second Pipe Organ contains a very full registration, for bolder and more dramatic sections and pieces. A wonderful Accordion is provided, as are three Choirs (mixed, female, male), plus a group of sounds dubbed Decay (Strings, Choir, Choir Pad) that do decay but take a long time getting there. (I’m not sure of the intended use of such long-sustaining tones.) Rounding out the extras are three great-sounding basses (Acoustic, Acoustic+Ride Cymbal, and electric Fingered Bass), and a cool vocal sample called Thum Voice that sounds like a scatted bass sound. As you might expect from the inclusion of all these bass sounds, the app can be used to split the FP-10’s keyboard, with control over the split point, the sound levels of the two halves, and the octave setting of the left-hand sound.
The FP-10 has 17 internal songs, all from the classical piano literature, and another 15 Tone Demos that feature examples of each available sound being played. When you use the Piano Partner 2 app, the internal songs can be viewed in music notation on your connected device. You can mute one hand and listen to the other hand by itself, or even try playing the muted part.
Continuing in the educational vein, the app’s Flashcard mode can help with ear training or simple music reading, offering exercises presented as games, with points awarded. The app can record and play back your own playing, and you can name those files, but there seems to be no way to export them — they’re recorded only as MIDI data that must be played back through the FP-10. To get audio recording, you’d need to step up to the FP-30 or higher. Piano Partner 2 can also keep track of all your activity on the piano, remembering everything you play and giving you statistics on how long you played each day, the velocity of every note played, and the notes you played most often. If you create an account within the app, this information can even be stored in the cloud.
The FP-10 includes only two effects: Ambience, a type of reverb setting; and Brilliance, a kind of equalizer or enhancer algorithm. You can adjust their levels from the instrument or via the Piano Partner 2 app. Likewise, you can tune the keyboard, transpose it, and adjust the key touch from either control interface.
I used the FP-10 connected to my computer to play various virtual instruments, and was satisfied with the resolution of its velocity response. I was especially pleased to see that it sends MIDI Release Velocity values rather than the simpler MIDI note-off message, so when controlling instruments with more advanced key-off elements, the instruments play very well.
I was impressed that the FP-10’s metronome supports some odd time signatures (5/4, 6/4, 7/4, 9/8), and has such a wide range of tempos. I also liked what Roland calls Twin Pianos, a mode that splits the keyboard into two sections of equal range so that a teacher and student can sit side by side, or friends can play duets. You can even set how the Twin Piano sounds are panned on a stereo soundstage: Pair pans each player’s sounds slightly to each side but still with a continuous stereo soundfield; Individual moves each player’s sounds hard left or hard right, for total separation.
I find the Roland FP-10 to be an excellent value for $499, with a wonderful touch and main acoustic-piano sound. In those areas I think it holds its own, and likely outperforms other lower-end keyboards, such as the Yamaha P45B ($450) and the Casio PX-160 ($499). For $100 more the choice gets a bit harder, with the new Casio PX-S1000 ($599) having an even smaller footprint and more polyphony (192 vs. 96), a bit more adjustability in the modeling of its main piano sound, and Chorus built into some of its sounds. But the Casio’s keyboard can’t be split as flexibly, and it has fewer sounds. The feel of each of the above keyboards is excellent; try them yourself to judge which is best for you. The Yamaha P125 ($600) has excellent sounds and features for the money, but its action isn’t as refined as the FP-10’s PHA-4 action.
My own preference in a digital piano is one that fills three main bread-and-butter needs: acoustic piano, tine and reed electric pianos, and a split for playing left-hand bass. While it comes up just a bit short in the tine-electric department, the FP-10 is a clear winner for its main purpose: to deliver acoustic-piano sound and feel. It’s absolutely worth your checking out.