I haven't bought an instrument since the mid 1990s, my Technics U90 organ. That's because I haven't seen anything better that I want to play, or that's affordable.
I'd like a portable Hammond, but I'd want two keyboards and a full pedalboard, and a decent speaker system (probably a real Leslie), all of which is super expensive for what it is. And you have to buy speakers, since none are built in, as well as keyboard stand and seat, so it's getting as complex to set up as drumkits. Full all-in-one consoles are large and harder to transport, but you wheel them into somewhere and plug them in, and that's all you have to do.
I dropped into a music store looking for some sheet music, and on the way out had a look at the keyboards they had on display. I'm an organist, and don't really want to play piano, but do join in with other musicians on their piano, and have no way to practice something as a piano piece at home. The two instruments are not played in the same way, you have to convert how you'd play an organ piece into a piano one. It's percussive, the notes die away after a while, and you have no bass pedals. While it'd be nice to have a proper acoustic piano, I don't have the space, I don't particularly like new pianos (the keys are ridiculously heavy to play), old pianos can need a lot of repairs, and it'd be nice to have a portable instrument I could take somewhere.
One problem I have with playing any kind of piano is that I find most of them have keyboards that are way too heavy to play on. I don't consider this a good thing, I consider it a bad thing that they've never wanted to make them easier to play. Having to pound the keys to play quietly and bash the hell out of them to play loudly is murder on my fingers. Often I get to play on 100 year old upright pianos that have an easy keyboard to play, and yet you're still able to play with dynamics (quiet or loud, dependent on how hard you play them). I don't know if that's down to design changes over the years, or that older pianos have just loosened up with age.
In the music store they had a series of keyboards. There was about two or three which I'll call synth keyboards, the usual sprung plastic keyboards, a plethora of sounds, and buttons and menus galore. I ignored them, and paid attention to the three electronic pianos they had (a Roland and two different Yamahas). These had piano keyboards (weighted and with hammer actions), and very few obvious options. It's hard to judge the feel of each of them, as they were all at different heights. But I liked this one best, as the easiest to play out of the three, and the nicest tone (they were all using their own internal speakers). Oddly enough, it was the cheapest, though price wasn't my determining factor.
The keyboard feels weighted, though still too much for my liking. It's somewhere between the heavier real piano keyboards I've played on and the lighter modern ones, but nowhere near as light as a vintage piano. And I can see that there is some kind of hammer system (by looking through the holes in the casing), but it's a simple system rather than copying the whole mechanics of a real piano. You can feel some action through the keyboards, but they don't have the feel of release when a real piano hammers have hit the strings and fallen back to let them ring. It does feel like you're pushing on a lever with a weighted hammer hinged to it, it firmly whacks into something at the end of its travel, though stays in contact with it. It's supposed to feel like the graded hammer system (GHS) of a Yamaha grand piano, where the bass keys are a harder to play than the middle keys, and the treble keys a bit easier. But there's something of a see-saw feel to it, you can contiuously wiggle the keys up and down in a way a piano doesn't do.
Looking at the service manual, and someone else's disassembly of the piano, I wasn't far off. There's a hammer with one pivot point between it and the keys. They give some sense of motion to pressing the keys, some approximation of the mechanical feel of playing an acoustic piano. There's 8 different weights to the hammers, heaviest at the bass end, ranging to the lightest at the treble end.
Being pedantic, I'm not sure that I'd call the keyboard “weighted,“ seeing as the keys are just hollow plastic. For some pianos they have put weight within the keys, themselves. Whether that's a good thing, or not, I don't know. But this keyboard's weight comes from the weighted hammers they're levered with.
As an organist I've found that my soon fingers tired playing this, and after a few songs I found I wasn't playing some notes hard enough with my left hand to produce any sound. Yet I could play for an hour or so on a real (very old) piano. On the other hand, I tire even quicker if I try playing some 1970s pianos. I doubt I could find an electronic piano keyboard that played the way I desire, no modern real piano does, they're deliberately built heavier than I want. A couple of friends who're real pianists have played on my new piano and didn't mind it, or enjoyed it. Much better than a synth style keyboard, and within the range of strength required of playing real keyboards.
You can get electronic pianos that have a real piano mechanism in them, so they feel like you're playing a real piano. Of course they don't have strings in them, the hammers hit some kind of sensor, instead. But they are more expensive. And it all really depends on what you want out of a digital piano. Do you want it to feel just like a real piano, or is near-enough “good enough?” And is your main concern something that sounds realistic enough, despite the feel of the keyboard?
Having said all that, every piano I've played on has felt different, some just awful, so what a piano is supposed to feel like is somewhat academic. But if this is supposed to feel like playing a Yamaha grand, I can only think “yuck.” To me, the worst aspect of various pianos is the large amount of force you have to apply to the keys. Deliberately making something harder to do than it needs to be just smacks of bad design, I don't care if it's “traditional.”
I don't really know what method the keyboard uses to determine dynamics. There's two kinds that I know of, pressure sensitivity where it determines how hard you pressed, or velocity sensitivity where how fast the key moved determines the dynamics. But looking at the service manual, there's two rubber pad switches (like in cheap and nasty computer keyboards, and TV remote control buttons) next to each other for each key, so I suspect it's measuring a time difference between them actuating (velocity sensing).
Once again, friends listening to it and playing it liked how it sounded. It's supposed to sound like a Yamaha grand piano. It's sampled from one, with a mixture of samples of light and heavy playing, to give a good approximation of real piano dynamics (gentle and heavy playing doesn't just affect the volume, but also the timbre, as it should do). Though I don't know how many levels there are to these dynamics.
One thing I dislike about digital pianos, and this one had this issue at times, is some of them sound like a faked plucked guitar string rather than a struck piano string. I don't why I noticed it sometimes, but not all the time. It may be the acoustics of reflected sound when I've played it in different places.
There's two small speakers in the cabinet facing downwards, and there's slots in the top where better models have tweeters behind them, but this model just seems to have some venting system into the cabinet. Listening to it from the playing position it's clear that Yamaha have tried to make it sound like a piano, where the bass to treble range is spread across the keyboard width, and it sounds like sound is coming from the whole body of it, rather than just a couple of speaker holes.
Having downward facing speakers will bring some problems. If you sit it on a table, you will muffle its output. If you're playing in a slightly noisy room, the speakers don't face you and won't be as loud as speakers that do. Of course a real piano doesn't have speakers, and the sound doesn't come at you from the keyboard. But a real piano produces a lot more sound, from a wider area, than two tiny speakers.
There are no line outputs, but there is a headphone socket, and that can be used to play through an external sound system. It does sound better through better speakers, but that's only to be expected. As expected, plugging something into the headphone socket mutes the internal speakers.
I'm chiefly describing the main piano sound, but there are other voices as well. A brighter acoustic piano, two electric pianos, two pipe organs, synth strings, two harpsichords (single string, and one with double octave strings playing together), and a vibraphone.
A 12 volt DC input. It runs from one of those wall-wart plug packs (12 volt, 1.5 amp), not directly from AC mains power. While annoying that you have an easy to lose (or break) power supply, instead of an ordinary AC mains leads plugging directly into it, this does offer the possibility for running it from an external battery pack if you were a busker (there's no internal battery compartment). Brief tests have shown it draws under an amp when playing loud (such as leaning on as many keys as possible with the volume at full blast), so you ought to be able to get several hours playing out of a reasonably sized battery (such as the 7 Ah sealed lead acid gel cell batteries commonly used for alarm systems). If you're making up your own battery pack, get the polarity right (the same as the supplied power supply), or you're likely to instantly destroy the electronics in the piano. This isn't the kind of situation where you can try it one way, then swap the leads around if it didn't work.
A USB MIDI output. This may require a driver on some computer systems, it may act generically on others. The keyboard can send MIDI data, but cannot receive it. So no using the piano like a pianola, nor plugging in an organ bass-pedal board. I briefly tried getting it to talk to MuseScore on a Mac, and it worked without any special drivers, but MuseScore's MIDI features are rather rudimentary, I couldn't find any working way to record as you play, just single-note entry where you strike a note on the piano to input a pitch and then, separately, set its length via the computer keyboard. There's a suggestion of such an automated recording feature, but it doesn't work on my installed versions of MuseScore. MuseScore on CentOS 7 Linux completely ignored it. It worked with GarageBand (Mac software), in the sense that I could play live through it using the Mac as a synth voice generator and record the notes played. But you couldn't sequence a score on the computer, and have the piano provide the sound, so you may as well use any cheap and nasty keyboard for note entry. And if you wanted to connect it to equipment with a traditional 5-pin DIN MIDI port, you'd need an interface box (sometimes called a MIDI host).
A ¼″ sustain pedal input (and only a sustain pedal). It came with a small square foot switch that feels like you're stepping on a kitchen sponge, so I bought a pedal that was more like a proper piano sustain pedal at the same time I bought the piano, and I'd suggest doing the same thing. Perhaps keep the original pedal as a remote for something else (e.g. such as a rhythm unit, or a recorder). It's supposed to support half-pedalling with a suitable compatible pedal (Yamaha's FC3A), and with a bit of fiddling with electronic bits to build one based on other pedals with pressure sensitivity I can get it to have a shorter sustain but not the half-pedaling action that its manual describes (a different sustain action for the bass strings than the rest). And on that note, it doesn't have the reverb of all the other strings (that you're not playing) vibrating along that an acoustic piano has. Instead of having room/hall/stage reverb options, I wish the piano had a simulated acoustic piano strings reverb option.
Since I don't have a FC3A variable sustain pedal, to do “half-pedaling,” I don't know how it feels to use it. In the sense of do you feel a different resistance as you press down, to be able to find the right spot? Such as a weaker spring at first, then a stronger spring as you press further. Or are you just relying on hearing the piano sound differently while you try to find the right amount of pressure on the pedal. I'd mocked up a test rig along the latter lines, and it was next to impossible to find the half-pedal position. I have a FS310 Extreme Accessories sustain pedal which has a break-before-make foot switch, so I was able to fit a resistor to come into circuit mid-way between pressed and released. Also, while adjusting the resistance, I found that it's incredibly fiddly to find a spot with medium sustain, it's a hair-trigger between none and full. And, to be honest, I'd found it was similar when trying half-pedaling on some acoustic pianos.
A ¼″ stereo headphone jack. This is the only audio connector. This does mean that if you plug in to connect to something else, you can't hear what you're playing without that something else also driving some other speakers. So I am considering a modification to either stop the headphone jack switching off the internal speakers, or adding separate line outputs.
Looking at the service manual, I can see a couple of ways of disabling the muting, but the internal amplifier may not be strong enough to hear yourself at a gig (I'm just talking about things like open-mike nights, not rock concerts). And the headphone amplifier output is resistively coupled to the headphone socket, so it ought to cope with a mono jack being plugged into it (which would short out the right audio channel). I did some tests to see how it sounded just listening to the left or right audio alone, and it was fine. But I thought it sounded slightly better with mixed left and right, so I made an adaptor box with a mixing feature for those occasions where I'd have to use a mono amplifier (it splits the stereo headphone jack into two left and right line output jacks, has audio transformers to produce balanced outputs, and uses the switches in the TRS jacks to join left and right together if only one of the output sockets is used).
The connections are quite recessed, so if you're stuck with putting your piano against a wall the jacks won't be bashing into it. And the labelling is just an indent in the black plastic making it difficult to see which of the ¼″ connectors is the pedal or headphone socket.
Some of the special features
Dynamics: None, hard, medium (the default), or soft keyboard pressure sensitivity. It didn't find a particularly significant difference between each level.
Transposing: You can transpose up or down by 6 semitones. It's a bit cumbersome to operate, you couldn't use it to insert a keychange in the middle of a song.
Tuning: There's presets for A above middle C being 440 Hz (the default) or 442 Hz, and tuning can be adjusted in 0.2 Hz increments from 414.8 to 466.8 Hz. Oddly the manual uses different octave numbers than normal (typically A4 is 440 Hz, yet the manual calls it A3).
Dual player mode: It splits the keyboard in the middle and both players get a middle C in the middle of their half, though either side can be shifted up or down one octave. But I wouldn't really call it a duet mode, duet playing usually means one person plays bass end and the other the treble end. Less commonly, it means two people playing two different pianos. I say “less” because few people have two pianos in their home.
Dual voice mode: Any two of the voices can be played together, so you can have piano and strings, for example. You can make one louder than the other, and shift the octave they play at separately. One thing that hadn't occurred to me, though saw someone else mention it, was you could put the two piano voices together, this produces an interesting effect. When you do this, it puts the second one an octave up. You can shift it down so they're in unison, and this produces another interesting effect. In essence, you get a piano with more strings per note, which aren't identically in tune with each other, giving you a real chorus effect (unlike variable time delay chorus effect devices, where everything gets swooshed along at the same time by a common low frequency oscillator).
Reverb: Several types (2 halls, room, stage, or none), and adjustable reverb volume.
Metronome: There is a built in one, and you can accent the first beat so that you keep your place in 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, time signatures, etc. However, the method of setting the tempo is cumbersome (you type in the BPM you require using some keys numbered 0 to 9). We were amused how the accented beat-one bell sounded like an old-fashioned cash-register drawer-bell. You played another bar, that'll be another dollar…
Demo songs: There's a bunch of demo songs, one for each voice. And there's a bunch of piano demo songs.
Unfortunately most of the features are hidden, and there's no indication of what their statuses are. All features are accessed by pressing a button on the top, in combination with one or more of the piano keys, but only some of them are labelled. You're going to have to refer to the manual, and either memorise them, or make some cheat sheets up for any features you want to use that aren't labelled. I ended up blutacking some labels above the keys for some features I might want to use, but are never going to remember where they're hidden.
Most of the features are well beyond what's needed if you just want to play piano, though transposing is very handy if you are accompanying someone who needs a different key, and retuning if playing along to something tuned differently.
It seems quite sturdy, weighing around 11 kg. Being 88 keys it's not small. The keys are full size. The box is taller than you might expect, having some mechanical action inside would mean there needs to be room for it, though some of the height seems to be more about giving the box rigidity (considering the deep ridges and struts in its plastic base).
It's taller than the desk part of an acoustic piano, making it harder to get your knees under the keys with the keys at the right height for your fingers. I've already smacked my knees into it. I have an extreme distaste for modern furniture built so you can barely get your knees under it, making you hunch forward to use the surface of a table, and this piano suffers that some problem. You don't play a piano sitting away from it, you want to get your knees somewhere under the key desk.
Its height might make it too high if you sat it on top of an ordinary desk. On my dining table, the keys were almost at the right height for playing standing up, but definitely much too high to play sitting down. And you'd be covering up the main speakers which are underneath the piano.
There is an optional wooden furniture base for it (two sides and a back panel). I'd expect that to place the keys at the right height for a conventional piano stool.
You can get generic folding stands (usually in an X formation) that the keyboard will sit on top of. This presents another problem with trying to get your knees underneath, the struts of the stand are in the way. I view those kinds of stands as being designed for playing while standing-up.
There are four threaded mounting holes underneath, so you could attach it firmly to another kind of set of legs. I just had a quick try out with some M5 bolts, and they fit nicely.
The white keys are shiny white plastic, the black keys are dull plastic (faked ebony). You should be able to do a glissando without shredding your fingers like the ivory keytops on vintage pianos do. Though they still have the little lip at the edge, and that is thin enough to cause pain if you catch it. One of the advantages of the traditional keys on old Hammonds, and some Lowreys, was the rounded edge of the white keys were easy on the hands and fingers when doing glisses.
The main body is a bit rougher plastic (I don't particularly like the finger feel of that, and I foresee it getting easily marked by something that rubs against it).
There is a music rest that slots into the top, it's only two pages wide, and about half an A4 page high. If you put loose A4 pages on it, you need something behind them to keep them upright. This is a pet peeve of mine on various instruments, long ago I made cardboard music book folders to get around that problem (full height, and three or four pages wide). The rest seems strong enough to hold a tablet computer, though it does sag a bit under the weight. I may get someone to make a plastic full-sized music rest to fit into the slot (slightly bent at the bottom, with a ledge to sit the sheets on), and three or four pages wide.
This is an older model, but still being sold, I guess they saw no reason to discontinue the design. I'd call it an entry-level model. It's simple in looks and features, it's inexpensive (around $700 Australian, in August 2023), but not cheap and nasty. I'd say it's a reasonable choice for a beginner to learn piano on, or practice at home if they don't want an acoustic piano. Maybe useful for composing with a computer. Noisewise, it's a bit too clunky for recording acoustically, you'd want to plug directly into it.
In making it appear simple, there's very few controls, very few labels as to the second functions of the keys, and the only indicator is the power-on light. So you have no clues to what functions you have selected, how much reverb you've added, how many semi-tones you've transposed, etc. Though that won't matter if you're just going to use it as a piano.
The speaker system is quite low-powered. While loud enough to play at home, it's too quiet at a gig (especially considering that the speakers are pointing away from you). You'd need an amplifier for your audience, and you'd want foldback speakers for yourself. This isn't a presumption, it's what I experienced taking it to an open-mike night. I was kind of expecting that, even though I was just playing for one person singing in a medium sized room—we could have done it completely unamplified if I was playing an acoustic piano. And without foldback speakers, you hear yourself as a time-delayed echo back from the room.
I'm an organist who's played just a few different pianos, mostly ancient uprights, one baby grand, and one grand. It does feel like some of them, not as hard as a few 1970s spinets, not as easy as really old upright pianos. A bit too hard for me, and I wonder if I'll ever get used to that. Sound-wise, it sounds quite like a piano, but lacking the resonance of all the other strings when the sustain is off, with quite a quick decay, and sustain seems too long when the sustain pedal is held down.
Friend's who've heard and played it liked it, the only criticism being that it was heavy to carry. Though, at around 11 kilograms, it's the same weight as the professional video camera I used to lug around everywhere on jobs, and its tripod weighed the same, too. So I was used to carrying twice the weight of this keyboard. I'm glad I rarely do that any more.
Written by Tim Seifert on 12-Sep-2023, and last updated Thursday, 05-Oct-2023 17:28:49 AEDT.