By Stephen Fortner
Yamaha Clavinova instruments have always been benchmarks for digital pianos that entertain and educate in the home. There are so many models and price points that whatever balance of traditionalism and technology you seek, something will hit the sweet spot.
Introduced in summer 2017, the Clavinova CSP series (CSP-170 and its less-expensive variant CSP-150) boasts two marquee features: First, cascading Stream Lights above the keys guide your fingers to teach you songs and exercises, lending a game-like vibe to practice, and (hopefully) keeping you and your kids engaged with music instead of the video game of the moment.
Next—and this is the big deal—songs a CSP model can teach include those in the music library on your Apple iOS or Android device. Via what Yamaha calls its Audio-to-Score function, the CSP can analyze chords in ordinary stereo audio files, then display them as notes on a staff or as jazz-style chord charts. Imagine if the popular app Shazam, which lets your phone identify the artist and title of any song playing in your car, a public place, etc., could also tell you that song’s chord changes. It’s sort of like that.
Another important aspect of the Clavinova CSP line is that its user interface is a smartphone/tablet app called Smart Pianist. This lets Yamaha pack in a plethora of premium sounds, auto-accompaniment styles, and educational features without cluttering the piano with buttons and LEDs. In fact, you have to look closely to tell that it’s not a small acoustic upright. This will sit well with customers who prefer that the instrument next to grandma’s heirloom china cabinet not look like something that should be manned by Mr. Spock. A USB port cleverly nestled behind the music rack lets you put your device front and center. (Unless you have great eyes and tiny fingers, I strongly recommend a tablet over a phone.)
A more practical plus of this design is cost savings: Some of the most expensive components in an electronic keyboard are its buttons and knobs—and its touchscreens, especially when you’re not buying them in the quantities a phone maker does. By outsourcing the control and display duties to a device you already own, Yamaha can bring in premium sound, keyboard feel, and other features at a lower price. In fact, before even talking about Stream Lights and Audio-to-Score, I can vouch that you’re getting an absolute ton of digital piano for the CSP-170’s $5,399 list price, let alone the $4,700-ish I’ve observed at dealers.
Here’s how Audio-to-Score works. First of all, you need a connected device with the Smart Pianist app open. The main screen for Song mode has a navigation tab called Music Library. Tap it to access your mobile device’s song library, then tap the song you’d like to play. The CSP takes a few seconds to analyze it, then displays either a score or a chord-symbol chart (see Fig. 1). As with any song file in the CSP, the display scrolls, and it and any accompaniment can be set up to pause if you hit a wrong note, then resume once you find the right one.
To be clear, the analysis going on under the hood provides only chords, not a full arrangement or even a melody line. The preloaded songs in the CSP—which include pop hits such as Coldplay’s “Clocks,” as well as classical exercises from the likes of Hanon and Czerny—do give you all this information. As do songs downloaded from Yamaha’s MusicSoft website (yamahamusicsoft.com), because they contain all the note-by-note MIDI data.
How well does Audio-to-Score perform? Yamaha concedes the software is meant for straightforward material such as pop and rock tunes, and my experience bore this out. Things go most smoothly when the lowest note in the chord is, in fact, the intended root. Slash chords aren’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but the CSP has the least difficulty when the bass note is also in the triad (e.g., E over B) as opposed to tricks like putting the II note in the bass (e.g., F over G).
To test Audio-to-Score, I first tried it with “The Miracle of Joey Ramone,” from U2’s album Songs of Innocence. The CSP generated an accurate chart that let me confidently play along with this in-your-face rocker, even though I hadn’t listened to it before. Going for the opposite extreme, I then fed the CSP “Deacon Blues” and “Aja,” by Steely Dan, who are famously full of harmonic surprises. The resulting score got more wrong than right (see Fig. 2). Occasionally the CSP would correctly flag a jazzy extension such as a major seventh or flat ninth, but it really was happiest dealing with major and minor triads, and simple extensions like sixths and dominant sevenths.
Whatever the song, the CSP also seemed always to put chord changes on the downbeats. If a song has syncopated changes on the “and” or other subdivisions, your brain will need to compensate. Think of the CSP as sketching the sort of quick-and-dirty charts a bandleader might handwrite at a rehearsal, and you won’t be disappointed.
Expectations thus managed, Audio-to-Score is an engaging learning tool. Modern rock, pop, R&B, hip-hop, and country provide a bottomless well of songs that won’t confuse the CSP at all. I can imagine how much more the pre-teen me might have practiced had the result been impressing my friends with some AC/DC or Duran Duran instead of impressing my mom with “Für Elise.” It’s almost certain that whatever is already in someone’s music library is what they’d most want to learn, and that’s something Yamaha has gotten very right with the CSP series.
One final caveat about Audio-to-Score: To show up on the CSP, songs need to be bought or downloaded such that their files are stored locally in your smartphone’s or tablet’s memory; streaming from the cloud will not work.
A different sort of “streaming” on the CSP is brilliant. I’m talking about the strip of Stream Lights that runs the length of the keyboard. I’ve never found illuminated keys very useful—if I’m learning a song, I’ve usually missed the note by the time its key has lit up, and I’ve talked to more than a few kids and adult students who’ve had the same experience. Yamaha’s solution to this problem is as simple as it is effective: Instead of a single light per key, the CSP has a column of four LEDs above each key. These light up in sequence from top to bottom, in sync with tempo, with the light closest to the key indicating that you should play it now. This advance warning of the note-event coming at you makes all the difference. If you get stuck, the bottom light flashes blue as the playback waits for you to catch up.
This bears a resemblance to musical video games such as Rock Band or Guitar Hero. That’s intentional. If you make something feel more like a game—“gamify” it, in tech-hipster parlance—you’ll get a larger share of today’s fragmented attention spans. Mine is often as fragmented as it gets, and I can vouch that the game works.
The Stream Lights work with any song. If the song was generated by Audio-to-Score, you’ll see lights for the chords only; full “native” song files give note-for-note guidance. All in all, the genius of the CSP is that the one-two punch of Audio-to-Score and Stream Lights really does trick the player into having fun and therefore remaining at the keyboard longer. If you’re a no-pain-no-gain type of parent, you still have Common Core math for that.
The CSP line’s two principal piano Voices are sampled from Yamaha CFX and Bösendorfer Imperial concert grands (see Fig. 3). Introduced in 2010, the CFX proved able to handle every nuance of even the subtlest classical and jazz performances, putting to bed the old shibboleth that Yamaha grands skewed bright and poppy. When asked to, though, it could deliver rock bravado. The Imperial is known for its sonorous character and long, singing sustain. The sounds of both pianos are reproduced beautifully here. Yamaha keeps it close to the vest about specs such as the number of velocity layers used, but my ears confirmed that both piano Voices are free of sampling artifacts such as obvious transitions between velocity layers, or notes that sound different despite being played at the same velocity. The CFX and Imperial voices are two of 14 that employ Virtual Resonance Modeling (VRM) to capture all of the internal vibrations and resultant harmonic interactions of the strings, hammers, and other components of an acoustic piano. Add to that the impeccable marriage of these sounds to Yamaha’s Natural Wood X graded action (CSP-170), and the result is an utterly convincing illusion that you’re playing the real thing.
The variety and quality of non-piano Voices in the CSP models are comparable to those of high-end synthesizers found in professional studios. We have room for just an overview, so I’ll start by saying that, with the CSP’s 692 Voices and 29 Drum/FX kits, if you’ve heard a sound in a song in any style of music, it’s probably in here.
Electric keyboard sounds in home digital pianos are often a bit “safe” compared to their stagegoing cousins. Not so here. Rhodes, Wurly, and Clavinet Voices have plenty of attitude, but also smoother variants. To capture the mighty Hammond organ, Voices tagged “Organ Flutes” offer drawbar control and Leslie simulation, and the overall effect is convincing. The Yamaha CP electric grand, which used real hammers and strings, but pickups instead of a soundboard (not unlike an electric guitar), is also on hand with its signature 1980s pop sound (see Fig. 4).
Synth Voices cover enough bases to deserve their own review. Leads, pads, percussive sounds meant for chording, swirling-motion FX … those and more are all here, with graphic icons that denote classic synths in each category. How do they sound? I have a fairly enviable synth collection, but I’d gladly use the Clavinova CSP-170 on my next gig or recording.
The remaining Voices come under four umbrellas: Guitar & Bass, Strings & Vocal, Brass & Woodwind, and Percussion & Drums. The acoustic-guitar Voices in Yamaha keyboards are the best in the business, responding to keyboard playing in a remarkably guitar-like way. Electric guitars are more of a stretch if it’s metal mayhem you want, but I love how the accompaniment styles make use of the cleaner electrics for funky Nile Rodgers–style strumming.
Orchestral strings, brass, and woodwinds come in many solo and ensemble variants. Many seem almost psychic in how they relate your playing to various articulations: shakes and fall-offs for trumpets, bowing direction on string sections, and the like.
Drums and percussion show comparable diversity and sonic excellence, with acoustic, electric, and non-Western kits aplenty.
All Voices may be freely split and layered: one in the left-hand part, and a single Voice or a layer of two in the right. A groovy slider-on-keyboard graphic makes it a breeze to set the split point (see Fig. 5).
Arranger Styles and Other Features
Like many of its Clavinova brethren, the CSP is proof of how tremendously arranger instruments have evolved since home console organs introduced the idea of “keyboard as home entertainment center” in the 1970s. For the uninitiated, an arranger has not only drum rhythms, but also fully orchestrated accompaniments that track the player’s chord changes. This is enhanced by options such as easy-play chords in the left-hand part. Better arranger instruments can also look at both the left- and right-hand parts to judge a player’s chordal intentions.
The CSP does all this extremely well. Its 470 Styles cover every genre imaginable, and showcase 36 Pianist Styles, optimized for accompanying a piano-centered performance. The Style Control function lets you switch among four main variations of a Style—progressing from simple to dense, in terms of the number of instruments playing the automatic backup parts—and cue intros, fill-ins, and endings. This is one place where I would prefer physical buttons, preferably within easy reach of my left hand, to stabbing my sausage fingers at my iPad screen. That said, you won’t hear more realism and less cheese factor at any price. The CSP’s chord tracking is also nearly flawless. Though it might get confused by very exotic chords or meters, one can generally play far more complex material than with Audio-to-Score and the instrument will interpret accurately. As with any arranger, though, this works best if you anticipate the next downbeat and make sure your chord changes land on the front end of it. (It’s a subtle thing—not so much playing ahead of the beat as thinking ahead of it—and it’s not difficult.)
Rounding out the CSP series are features that have become expected of arranger instruments. A microphone input feeds a sophisticated Vocal Harmony engine whose 44 presets cover different types of virtual backing singers and harmonies. A Vocal Cancel function makes singing along with an incoming audio track more like karaoke. Speaking of karaoke, full song files (not Audio-to-Score) support lyric display. The Song Recorder can work in simple mode for recording solo piano; or give you separate control over the style and the left- and right-hand parts; or be a full 16-track sequencer for those who want producer-like control over their creations. Audio coming in over USB, including Audio-to-Score fodder, can be transposed in pitch or stretched in time—the latter without affecting the pitch—for learning new songs at a more comfortable tempo.
All this and more is corralled via Registrations, which are memories that can save virtually every setting in the instrument. Since the Clavinova CSP series does so much, these are invaluable for creating set lists, especially of stylistically diverse songs.
There is currently nothing else on the market that integrates educational features that are actually useful, premium-quality sounds and action, and all the functions of an advanced arranger keyboard in quite the way the Clavinova CSP series does. Even without its distinguishing features—Stream Lights and Audio-to-Score—it would be a top recommendation. With them, it combines the fun factor beginning students seek with the seriousness that would make a strict music teacher forgive them for it. True, Audio-to-Score has its limitations, but I suspect that Yamaha will make it smarter via updates—and right now, no other digital piano does this sort of magic at all.