By Stephen Fortner
As the newest and most advanced of Yamaha’s Clavinova Ensemble family of digital pianos, the CVP-700 series combines two design goals. The first is to provide an utterly realistic experience for piano purists who tolerate no compromises in sound and keyboard action, but require such digital conveniences as freedom from tuning and the ability to turn down the volume. The second goal, that of creating a “keyboard as musical entertainment center,” involves providing a huge variety of sounds beyond those a piano can make, sophisticated automatic accompaniment that makes you a one-person band, a roster of easy-play and educational features, and more. Bottom line: These new Clavinova Ensembles hit both of these goals with such high marks that I might as well have just told you that the Tesla Model S is both a “green” car and a sports car. So let’s buckle up and drive.
Design and User Interface
I spent several days with the new Clavinovas at Piedmont Piano Company, in Oakland, California, and at PianoForte, in Chicago. Four models ascend in price and number of features: the CVP-701, CVP-705, CVP-709, and CVP-709GP. The cabinets of the 701 and 705 are more like a traditional upright piano, while the 709 sports a contemporary “floating” design. The 709GP has a compact baby grand–style cabinet but is otherwise identical to the 709. If you don’t like long reads, here’s the review: These things rock. Buy the nicest model you can afford and start getting happy.
Still with me? Then let’s deal with the most important aspect of the user interface first: the black ‘n’ whites. All models feature fully weighted, graded actions — the keys’ resistance subtly decreases from heavier to lighter as you ascend the keyboard — with mechanical escapement simulation and textured, faux-ivory key surfaces. The GH3X action of the entry-level CVP-701 uses synthetic keys; all other models feature Yamaha’s Natural Wood X (NWX) action, which, as its name implies, has white keys made of real wood. Coming from a synth-and-organ background, I gravitated toward the feel of the 701, which I found to be a bit quicker for performance techniques such as glissandi and single-note “machine gun” trills à la Billy Joel. For pianistic realism, however, the upline models are indeed a bit better, with a finger-to-music connection that, when paired with the main piano sounds, provides an uncanny sense of real hammers striking real strings.
One quibble is that none of the CVP key actions sense aftertouch: pressure applied to a key after it’s been struck and held. (Their underlying sound engines, however, can receive it as a MIDI control message.) You could argue that anything this high-end should have aftertouch — as does Yamaha’s pro-oriented Tyros 5 arranger workstation, which has a lot in common with these Clavinovas. On the other hand, I can see the case that something altering the sound after you’ve struck a key might confuse many customers seeking a realistic acoustic-piano experience. There are other ways to add synthesizer-like effects such as pitch-bend or wah-wah, including the assignable buttons as well as the left and center pedals when they’re not doing una corda and sostenuto; and a ¼” input lets you plug in an extra switch or continuous pedal. Still, experienced players might like to add, say, vibrato to a string or horn sound by just digging into the key a bit harder.
The CVP-701 is the only model that lacks a touchscreen. This means that it actually has a busier front panel, with more physical buttons for things like sound and accompaniment selection, as well as “soft” buttons flanking the color display on three sides. On all other models, categories and subcategories of sounds and styles (acoustic vs. electric pianos, pipe vs. electric organs, different musical genres and subgenres, etc.) are neatly presented on the touchscreen. So are educational features, such as the score display and guide lights (more on these later), with physical buttons geared more toward things you’re likely always to need to reach for quickly: real-time control over your style variations, song recording and playback, and the like.
There’s always a learning curve to anything that offers the depth of features of the CVP-700 line, so it helps that the displays employ consistent graphical logic and hierarchy about which functions are a level “up” vs. “down,” where you are now vs. where you were a moment ago, and so forth. A hardware button always gets you back to the home screen, which displays an overview of the sounds, accompaniment styles, and, if applicable, the Song you’re currently using.
Before even touching the accompaniment styles or any other bells and whistles, the CVP-700 series lets you play three sounds live from the keyboard: one in the left-hand part and up to two in the right. Professional synth workstations may offer more key zones and flexibility in this regard, but this seems like the Goldilocks amount for a home console instrument of this sort. The left/right split point is adjustable, and you can set a separate split point for where the leftmost key zone begins to trigger chord changes for the auto-accompaniment.
The Piano Room button overrides any splits and layers and puts a concert grand Voice (you can opt for other keyboard instruments) across the whole key range. Visually, you can place this piano in an acoustic space such as a stage or cathedral, adjust the effect of lid position on the tone, and more (see Fig. 2). You can also choose from a curated list of accompaniment styles from inside the Piano Room.
The CVP-701 has a rolltop-desk keyboard cover; other models embed the display and controls in a hinged fallboard that has a soft-close mechanism to prevent slamming.
Here’s a brief glossary to help you understand the features and organization of the Clavinova CVP-700 series.
Voices: Yamaha’s term for a single sound; e.g., piano, violin, guitar, synth, etc.
Styles: Fully arranged automatic accompaniment setups spanning virtually every musical genre imaginable. They play multiple Voices (drums, bass, guitar, etc.) and follow your chord changes.
Variations: Four versions of the active Style, which you can switch in real time and which progress from minimal to busy.
One-Touch Settings: These quickly assign voices to the left- and right-hand keyboard parts, designed to sound good with the active Style.
Music Finder: A “one-stop shop” that sets up your Voices, Styles, and other settings based on names that are similar (but not identical) to actual songs. Such a name is called a Record, but you still need to play the chords and melody. Which brings us to . . .
Songs: Recording of real tunes from the real world, with chord changes, melody,
arrangement, and orchestration. Most song files downloaded from yamaha musicsoft.com can display the score and lyrics onscreen, as well as support Clavinova features such as . . .
Guide Mode: When working with a song, LEDs above the Clavinova’s keys show you which note to play next. What’s more, the instrument can wait for you to find the correct note before resuming playback.
Registrations: The highest level of organization, these save almost the entire state of the instrument, including your Voice, Style, active Song choices, and any tweaks you’ve made to default settings.
The CVP-700 series’ own demo mode proclaims that it’s a piano first and foremost, so let’s start there. Two main concert grand sample sets are the prima donnas: Yamaha CFX and Bösendorfer Imperial. Both of these are the basis of several Voices (Yamaha’s term for sounds), each of which has Natural and VRM versions. Natural refers to careful multi-mic sampling, to capture the sampled pianos’ nuances; VRM stands for Virtual Resonance Modeling, which adds a user-adjustable simulation of the sympathetic vibrations that occur inside an acoustic piano between undamped strings. You’ll likely hear a difference only when playing exposed solo passages without active accompaniment, but the attention to detail here is remarkable.
Suffice it to say that both sampled instruments sound incredibly true to their genuine acoustic counterparts, and beyond that, are the most detailed, realistic, and playable piano sounds I’ve heard in any digital instrument of this kind. The Yamaha CFX sounds clear and sweet; the Bösendorfer Imperial is more dense and woody. Any unwanted digital artifacts, such as audible sample looping and breaks between velocity layers, are either nonexistent or may as well be, note decays are sustained and natural, and key-release samples are present and adjustable.
Non-piano sounds in the CVP-700 series cover everything imaginable; I have room here to discuss only the highlights. In the electric piano section you’ll find various Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Clavinet (think Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”), DX7-era digital EPs (think “Law & Order”), and even the Yamaha CP electric grand of Peter Gabriel fame. All are excellent, with bark and attitude increasing as you play harder, and many include such added effects as chorus and phaser to cop an authentically vintage vibe.
The premium EP specimens are labeled as Cool, which is one of a handful of Voice Characteristic prefixes that flag something special. In this case, Cool means only that they’re the machine’s featured electric keyboard sounds, but marketing speak aside, these tags do have some meaning. Examples: Sweet is the prefix for acoustic instruments with sampled-in vibrato, while Live is for sounds sampled in stereo. One to look out for is S. Art, for Super Articulation. These add performance gestures on appropriate sounds, such as guitar slides, fall-offs or “shake” trills for a funky horn section, and the like. You can trigger these with key velocity, the left and center pedals, or, in some cases, by playing the keys legato instead of staccato. It takes a bit of practice to master, but can add a ton of realism to a performance.
In the organ banks, Voices tagged Organ Flutes provide authentic simulation of a classic tonewheel organ (e.g., a Hammond B-3) and rotating speaker (i.e., a Leslie). A dedicated screen offers full control over drawbars, rotary speed, and the signature ping of harmonic percussion. As a veteran Hammond enthusiast, I was surprised by how good this sounded, given that the CVP is not an organ-specialist keyboard. A plethora of gorgeous church and theater pipe organs are on hand as well, as are classic transistor organs of the 1960s.
Since the first Motif synthesizer debuted in 2001, I’ve felt that Yamaha keyboards slay any competition when it comes to guitar and bass sounds — acoustic or electric. They’ve reached a new pinnacle in the CVP-700 line, whether you’re after nylon or steel strings, punk or funk, understated upright or Seinfeld slap. Many of these sounds are enhanced by the aforementioned Super Articulation. With a little attention to how guitarists voice chords, utterly realistic performances are well within reach.
Bowed strings, brass, and woodwinds are likewise impeccable, with many variations encompassing both solo instruments and sections, not to mention plenty of Sweet and Super Articulation support — more of both from the CVP-705 up. Whether you want to play a melancholy cello solo, a dramatic Hollywood string swell, the horn hits from “Uptown Funk,” or anything in between, something will hit the target.
A selection of chorus and scat vocal presets offers a good deal of interest, with some of the latter actually going round-robin through different syllables with each successive note you play. For my tastes, these stray into “because you can” keyboard-demo territory, but there’s no questioning the care of the execution.
Synthesizer Voices are seemingly bottomless in their variety: retro analog leads and basses, 1980s-like evolving digital soundscapes with lots of internal animation, Prince-style stabs and comping sounds, lush pads, and far too much more to list. I come from a multi-keyboard and cover-band background, and I’d proudly use most of these sounds on any gig where I’d normally bring a high-end professional synth like a Yamaha Montage or Kurzweil Forte — they’re simply that good. More important for the potential Clavinova buyer is that when learning popular songs at home, it’s a lot more engaging if you can not only play the correct notes but also actually sound like the record. For that, the CVPs offer an incredible sonic toolbox.
User editing of Voices is pretty basic, covering things like vibrato, brightness, harmonic content (aka filter cutoff and resonance), and application of effects. To be fair, that’s a synth player’s complaint; this will be a non-issue for 99.9% of home digital piano seekers.
Acoustic and electronic drum kits, as well as Latin and World percussion, deserve high praise, but as it’s chiefly the accompaniment section that will be playing these sounds, let’s go there.
Auto-accompaniment has its roots in the home organs of the 1970s and early ’80s, including Yamaha’s own Electone line, and the Lowrey Cotillion, which Australian pop star Gotye serenaded in “State of the Art.” Today it shows up in all kinds of keyboards, beginning with simple rhythms in sub-$100 portables. An “arranger” is a keyboard that offers multi-instrument orchestration, chord recognition, and real-time control of accompaniment behavior, essentially turning your left hand into a bandleader. The CVP-700 series builds in the most advanced, realistic, and musically diverse arranger features on the planet, bar none. This is in part because the accompaniment is using the same excellent sounds you play on the keys, with the CVP-709 and 709GP adding a handful of Audio Styles that incorporate real audio recordings of ace session players serving up things like rhythm guitar parts.
You begin by choosing from a vast range of musical styles that span both the globe and recent musical history (see Fig. 3). These generally use up to eight parts: two rhythm (e.g., drum kit plus Latin percussion), bass, two chordal parts, a pad, and two “phrase” parts that cover any riffs or noodles the other parts don’t.
The Style Control section (see Fig. 4) is your command center. Within a single style, you can switch among four main variations, which get progressively more “busy” as you go. This is musically useful — for example, you might like the third chorus of a tune to deliver more emotion than the first and second. You get three similarly progressive variations for intros, another three for endings, optional drum fills if you switch variations, a manual “break” (usually one bar long), and the ability to have the accompaniment start or stop in sync with your touching the keys. Of course, you can set whether a variation change happens the instant you hit the button or waits for the next bar to come around.
This is all pretty standard arranger fare. What makes the Clavinova CVP-700 series stand out is the sheer quality and musicality of the styles themselves. The most recently crafted and therefore most sophisticated factory styles are flagged by the prefixes Pro and Session, and you get more of each kind as you climb the CVP models. Even the legacy material is solid, but the newer stuff sounds more than ever as if there’s a real band in the room with you.
While playing the CVP-709, my favorite was “70s Scat Legend,” which all but convinced me that Yamaha had trapped Tower of Power inside the machine. Jazz styles range from understated grooves evocative of organ trios to classic bebop to raucous hard bop. Big-band styles passed muster with some swing dancer friends I tried them on (believe me, they’re picky), many making good use of those buttery “String of Pearls”–style sax sections.
Though I don’t expect to see a CVP take center stage at Burning Man, I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and credibility of the electronic dance music styles. EDM culture is fickle, and subgenres go in and out of vogue quickly, but there’s something here for everyone, and all of it is serviceable.
Lest I let you think that everything is more or less rock-band instrumentation, still more styles are devoted to classical music and piano-centric accompaniment. Likewise, World styles range from familiar Latin montunos to Jobim-esque bossas to recognizably Asian or Middle Eastern to things so esoteric you’d need to be an ethnomusicologist (or from the actual region) to fully understand them. Yamaha’s programmers have really done their homework.
The point of auto-accompaniment is not to merely follow your chord changes, but to do it well. Musicians who’ve used budget or older arranger keyboards know it can be easy to throw your virtual players a curve that makes them clam for a beat or so. The CVP-700 line all but eliminates this problem. There’s still a technique to “calling” smooth changes, involving the left hand moving ever so slightly ahead of the beat, but my confidence on the CVPs was at an all-time high, even though I’m not a regular arranger player.
A huge part of what helps here are the various chord-recognition modes: fully fingered, as well as easy options that let you trigger a major chord with one finger, add a key to make it a minor or seventh, and so on. Another mode always treats the lowest note held as the bass. Even slicker, a couple of AI modes work contextually, factoring in the chords you’ve played to judge where you’re going. I mostly stuck to the regular full-fingered mode, and the Clavinovas were generally spot-on at interpreting my intentions. Neither triad inversions nor chords thick with jazz extensions gave them any trouble, even at fast tempos.
Rounding out the accompaniment features are the four One-Touch Settings, which grab pre-selected left- and right-hand Voices for playing over the active style. A link button locks these to the four main style variations, letting you go from an organ solo over your first verse to a guitar solo over your chorus, and so on. You can change the default Voices and save your edited style in user memory.
If you can’t find the perfect style among the Clavinova’s phonebook-thick options, the Style Creator offers extensive facilities for rolling your own. Here, you can assign Voices to parts, set the time signature and groove/swing amount, and more. Styles can be assembled by mixing and matching chunks of other styles (intros, variations, etc.), or you can play-in every detail of your custom style to a metronome. For fine-grained tweaking, there’s even a full-featured MIDI event list editor. Importing of MIDI and SFF (Style File Format) files is also supported. Perhaps only a fraction of Clavinova buyers will ever dig this deep, but this kind of customizability is on a par with studio-class synth workstations, and it’s nice to know it’s there.
Song and Education Features
For starters, the CVP-700 models can capture everything to an inserted USB stick — what your fingers play, what the accompaniment styles play, even audio from a connected mic or line-level source — as a stereo audio file (WAV on the CVP-701, WAV or MP3 on the other models). They can also capture all keyboard parts as multi-track MIDI data, which you can then edit onboard or in your computer. If you use Style playback in your song, the Style’s parts are automatically recorded to MIDI channels 9 through 16. If so inclined, you can also play-in every track manually, choosing your Voices as you go. An event-based editor works like the one in the Style Creator.
For singing along, you can apply (and record) effects such as reverb to your vocal, including harmonies the Clavinova will generate. Different harmony presets (number of background singers, musical style, etc.) track your chord changes just like the accompaniment Styles. The quality of these harmonies is on a par with dedicated vocal processors from companies like TC-Helicon.
Those aren’t uncommon features in higher-end arrangers. What distinguishes the CVP-700s is how they can teach you to play. The CVP-701 comes preloaded with 65 songs, the other models with 124, and thanks to Yamaha’s partnership with publisher Hal Leonard, you can download more titles from a huge library at yamahamusicsoft.com. Those optimized for the Clavinova (the website makes this obvious with a “Choose Your Instrument” menu) support its learning features. No other keyboard maker has this vast an ecosystem of content.
These features include a strip of LEDs above the keys that show you the next notes to play, and a nifty sheet-music display on which you literally follow the bouncing ball (see Fig. 5). You can set this up to show just the right-hand melody, the grand staff, chord symbols, and/or lyrics for songs that have them. Most important, in what’s called Guide Mode, the Clavinova will stop the song/accompaniment playback if you make a mistake, and resume when you find the right notes. This can be made even more forgiving with the Any Key mode, which tracks rhythm but not melody, and the Your Tempo mode, which tracks you in rubato fashion if you need to slow down and think. Karao-key mode advances the song based on mic input and any key press, and is meant for singing along.
I can’t over-emphasize how well all of this works. Sure, it’ll keep your seven-year-old focused on “Für Elise,” but I’ve used Guide Mode to woodshed cover tunes for gigs I took in spite of having too little prep time, and it’s been a lifesaver.<