By Stephen Fortner
Introduced at Roland’s September 9th, “909 Day” event, Roland’s FP-90 is the company’s latest “slab” digital piano. “Slab” means that it can be carted to a gig as is or, for use at home, it can be combined with an optional stand and three-pedal setup with the footprint of a small sideboard table. Given the FP-90’s powerful built-in speaker system and minimalist user interface, it’s clear that Roland is aiming their latest FP model at musicians who’d prefer that any gee-whiz technologies get out of their way and let them play. However, far from being a Luddite design, the FP-90 also uses Bluetooth to stream audio and connect to useful mobile apps. Let’s find out more.
On first unboxing, the FP-90 is the picture of simplicity. Fit and finish are excellent. With circular buttons outlined in white light, the monochrome visual aesthetic seems intended to blend into formal living rooms and even more formal gigs. I could do with higher-contrast panel labels, though; these are difficult to read in anything but direct light.
Roland’s PHA-50 action has the hallmarks of their high-end keyboards: It’s fully weighted and graded, and simulates the feel of escapement and let-off. The key surfaces have a matte texture that improves grip and wicks away moisture. What’s new is the construction: The white keys have wooden sides wrapped around a synthetic skeleton. Compared to all-wooden naturals, this maintains an “organic” feel while saving on weight. Overall, I found the FP-90’s keyboard an excellent complement to its acoustic and electric piano sounds. It was quite capable of conveying subtleties of interpretation and expression, and though dialing down the velocity response to make the touch heavier made me work harder, it was never fatiguing.
Tones come in six groups: Piano, E. Piano (electric piano), Strings, Organs, Pads, and an “Other” bank for things like basses, drums, synths, and General MIDI sounds. You get a three-band EQ, an Ambience slider to control the active sound’s reverb, and a metronome that can keep any time signature. A Song section can play and record both MIDI and audio, the latter using external USB memory.
The internal speaker system is among the loudest and clearest I’ve heard in any slab digital piano with built-in speakers. Even at full volume, the sound doesn’t get crispy. You’ll certainly be heard in a roomful of party guests, and may even need to turn down the volume at brunch or cocktail-hour gigs. The speakers seemed less robust when I streamed audio from my iPhone over Bluetooth, never quite matching the loudness of their internal sounds, even though I tried a variety of sound sources.
Main Acoustic Piano Sounds
The star of the FP-90 show is the new SuperNatural grand sound used by the first four preset piano Tones: Concert, Mellow, Ballad, and Bright. SuperNatural is the marketing label for Roland’s marquee sound design across a range of products. Here, the core piano sounds are produced by physical modeling, not sampling. (An oversimplified explanation: Sampling triggers digital snapshots of recorded acoustic pianos when you play the keys, whereas modeling employs sophisticated “what-if” algorithms to mimic how all aspects of an acoustic piano interact.) The FP-90’s technology is a direct descendant of the V-Piano, an ambitious all-modeling piano that Roland launched in 2009.
The musical results speak for themselves. The Concert Piano preset is so versatile that it almost makes the subsequent Mellow and Bright variants unnecessary. Hold notes, and the sustain sings out in a lilting way I’ve experienced with better-regulated Bösendorfers. The sound’s harmonic content gets more aggressive as you dig in, albeit perhaps a bit too much with the default settings. Traditionally trained pianists may want to set the FP-90’s velocity response to a heavier touch; this goes a long way toward preventing harshness.
These four piano Tones also take advantage of Piano Designer, an editing mode that adjusts a plethora of sonic nuances salient to the mechanics and physics of real acoustic pianos. Lid position? Check. Key release and hammer noises? Check. Several types of resonances are adjustable (strings, damper, cabinet, etc.), as is the duplex scale — treble strings intended specifically for sympathetic vibration. Going deeper still, you can individually adjust the relative volume, tuning, and “character” (mellow to bright) of each note. While all of this is accessible from the FP-90’s display, it’s easier to use the Piano Designer app.
Electric Piano and Other Sounds
Non-piano sounds on a piano-centric instrument are meant to provide enough pop vocabulary to keep beginning musicians engaged and to give experienced players anything they might need at a gig. Though the FP-90 doesn’t have what I’d call a lot of sounds, what it has is quite good at fulfilling both needs.
We have room for just a few standouts. The 1976 SuitCase is a fabulously realistic Rhodes sound, with just the right amount of auto-panning stereo tremolo. The Wurlitzer electric piano variants have just as much attitude, and a couple of Clavinets capably bring the funk.
String sections are gorgeous throughout, though for pop and disco music, I’d like to see a couple of Tones with faster attacks, i.e., less of a fade-in to their full sound. Organs covers the territory of pipe, tonewheel (B-3), and electronic. Though you can’t adjust drawbars or organ stops within a preset, the rotary-speaker effect is credible. Pads and synths lean toward the bell-then-swell textures that were exotic in the 1980s when first served up by the Roland D-50 synth, but a couple of Jupiter pads sound authentically analog. So does SuperSaw, which tempts you, against all better judgment, to play Van Halen’s “Jump.”
Drum kits are solid and punchy, and the double bass is nice and greasy, but I’d like to see a few more tonal options for pianists who play left-hand bass. Rounding out the roster are 256 General MIDI 2 Tones, which are what the Piano Partner 2 app (Fig. 2) accesses to generate auto-accompaniment.
Bluetooth and Apps
Via Bluetooth, the Roland FP-90 can stream in external audio for break music or playing along. (Don’t trust wireless? A tried-and-true stereo mini input is around back.) It can also link up with apps such as Piano Designer (Fig. 1), which provides complete control of all details of the four main, modeled piano sounds. You can customize tuning, mimic unique or historical pianos, and more. With one tap, your settings are pumped into the piano as part of the active Tone. Such changes are saved with the power off, but can be reset to the factory defaults.
The Piano Partner 2 app (Fig. 2) will bring up scrolling sheet music for the built-in songs. It also provides complete control of the song recorder, metronome, and most of the FP-90’s functions, not to mention rhythm and auto-accompaniment that follows your chord changes, giving the FP-90 arranger-like functionality it doesn’t have when used standalone. (Auto-accompaniment requires a wired USB connection when used with Android devices.) The Flash Cards mode game-ifies music learning with interactive note-recognition challenges.
Tapping a connected pedal on the FP-90 can also send a page-turn command to a music-score app (e.g., ForScore) on your USB- or Bluetooth-connected device, which you can place on the included music rack in lieu of a thick binder.
The included sustain pedal supports half-pedaling, i.e., pressing the damper pedal partway to achieve partial sustain, an expressive pedaling technique commonly used by advanced pianists. But it pays to spring for one of two three-pedal units: the standalone RPU-3 or the KPD-90, which integrates with the KSC-90 console stand (Fig. 3). With either, the left and middle pedals can be set to engage true sostenuto, bend the pitch, switch the speed of the rotary-speaker effect, play and stop the song recorder, step through registrations, and more. This is especially important because, in its bid for understated visual elegance, the FP-90 eschews traditional pitch and modulation controls.
The song recorder is pretty standard fare, capturing your performance either internally, as MIDI data, or to an external USB memory stick as a stereo audio 16-bit/44.1kHz WAV file. No multitrack implementation is accessible from here, but the FP-90 will play Standard MIDI type 1 (multitrack) files as well as type 0 (single-track, as for solo piano). The FP-90 can send and receive MIDI on all 16 channels; if you wanted to, you could drive it as a multi-timbral sound source from an external sequencer.
Audio recording captures the microphone input, as well as some basic mic effects for your vocal: compression, doubling, and echo (reverb/delay). Applying effects to keyboard sounds, however, is where the FP-90 is least generous. There are a handful of settings for the Ambience slider, as well as a 3D Ambience mode optimized for headphones. Otherwise, you pretty much get what’s already baked into a given Tone preset. Want a phaser or wah on something that doesn’t already have it? Sorry. This is far from a deal-breaker for the FP-90’s likely customer, but it bears mention.
Setting up splits and layers is as easy as those get, with one button rotating among single, split, and dual modes. You can combine two sounds, transpose or octave-shift each, balance their levels, and save the result as a Registration — a memory setting that captures the state of virtually the entire instrument. In fact, almost any tweaks you make to the factory defaults need to be saved at this level; with the notable exception of Piano Designer settings, they don’t get saved within individual Tones. Registrations will also store program-change information for calling up sounds from an attached MIDI sound module.
I was surprised not to find a straightforward “duet” mode to let a student and teacher sit side by side while playing notes in the same range. The workaround is to save a piano-piano split with each side of the keyboard appropriately octave-shifted.
The Roland FP-90 was primarily designed for someone looking for a stellar piano experience in an all-in-one digital-piano package. The modeled pianos punch wayabove this instrument’s price class — their realism is absolute, and you’ll never hear any “note stealing” — new notes cutting off previously sustained ones — due to limited polyphony, even with the most dense, two-handed, damper-down playing you can muster. Plus, where purely sampled pianos often boast recordings of this or that famous marque, the ability to adjust the model via Piano Designer means that the FP-90 can sound like any piano in your mind’s ear.
The non-piano sounds, recording, and audio-input features will play well with singer-songwriters, solo entertainers, and small combos. Being able to mix your backing tracks, mic, and vocal effects through the piano itself (which passes them to its audio outputs if you’re using an external amp) means you don’t necessarily have to carry a mixer.
At the end of the day, I’d peg the FP-90 as about two-thirds home piano and one-third stage piano. Its built-in speakers and premium action add some weight, and keyboardists looking for more complex splitting, layering, and synth features can get it in Roland’s new RD-2000 — which, like the FP-90, includes modeled main piano sounds descended from the V-Piano.
Beyond its simplicity, the FP-90’s biggest talking point is value. At its typically advertised price, this is a sub-$2,000 instrument with the sound quality of an over-$3,000 one, and with just enough extra features to enhance, but never disrupt, the workflow and learning process of piano-centric professionals and amateurs alike.
ROLAND FP-90 Specifications
Stephen Fortner has been a keyboardist since early childhood, and has played professionally since age 14. He was technical editor of Keyboard magazine from 2006 to 2009, and its editor-in-chief from 2009 through 2015. He has since founded Fortner Media, a content-strategy firm, and will helm the forthcoming blog site www.synth-expert.com.