Squeezing over £100,000's worth of grand piano into a box the size of a largish personal stereo might appear to be an impossible task -- but not for Alesis. The company's recent moves into miniaturisation include the Nano series of one-third rack-width processors, and newswatchers among you will know that the range is due to grow to include sample-based sound modules. First off the production line is the 64-voice polyphonic NanoPiano.
Taking pride of place in the NanoPiano's 8Mb collection of 16-bit, 48kHz sampled waveforms are the phase-accurate stereo multisamples of a very expensive 97-key, nine-foot-six Bösendorfer Imperial grand (the largest piano commercially available), which have already graced such Alesis products as the Quadrasynth Plus Piano and QS8. For many musicians, especially those searching for an affordable, compact, high-quality piano sound source, this would be enough. But Alesis use it just as a starting point: in addition to the magnificent piano just described, the NanoPiano's 256 preset Program collection also includes assorted electric pianos, organs, basses, strings, and synth pads, plus a variety of splits and layers. The samples for these Programs are sourced from elsewhere in the Alesis synth family, and the icing on the cake must be Alesis' QS Parallel Matrix Effects -- four independent stereo multi-effect processors.
Having read the preceding overview, you might be left wondering how all this could possibly fit in the unassuming black box whose picture illustrates this review. Don't let the size and small number of controls fool you. While the NanoPiano can be very simple to operate, it does have hidden depths. Let's start with the technology-shy interface: from the left, there are knobs for volume, effects level (which adjusts one effect per Program), MIDI channel (the NanoPiano is most definitely monotimbral), Program Category (there are 16), and Program (with 16 Programs in each Category). A pair of LEDs indicating power and MIDI activity winds up the options available. It's just as simple at the back: MIDI In and Out/Thru, a stereo pair of audio output jacks and a PSU socket (for the wall wart, which is gratifyingly compact). There's no power switch, no display, and no headphone socket, but you can't have everything. Note that a supplied rackmounting screw fixes the module to a compatible rack tray alongside two other Nano products.
If you're wary of MIDI, then go no further, although your MIDI controller will undoubtedly be equipped with pitch-bend and modulation wheels, and will transmit velocity, aftertouch and Program Changes, to which the NanoPiano will happily respond. However, if you're willing to get your hands dirty, there's a TARDIS of an editable instrument waiting inside -- providing you have the technology to generate System Exclusive data. The downside here is that the module has but one edit buffer (it's equipped with 256 presets, remember), so any alterations you make will be temporary, unless they're saved externally -- a profile should be available for your generic software synth editor soon, and if you have a suitable mixer map for your sequencer, you can make changes on the fly. A NanoPiano voice can consist of a waveform, sweepable (but not resonant) filter, three envelope generators, three LFOs, and four programmable effects. Unfortunately, the (admittedly preliminary) manual lacks precise System Exclusive data.
The NanoPiano's 8Mb of waveform ROM is divided into 80 separate groups of waveforms, although the vast majority of these make up the left/right pairs of several stereo piano samples. The manual provides a full list of these waveforms, and also names all 256 preset Programs.
The 16 Program Categories mentioned above are called Acoustic Piano, Piano & Strings, Piano Layer, Piano FX (strange piano variants), Electric Piano, Electric Piano Layer, Chromatic (clavinets, vibes, harpsichords and more), Organ, Bass, String, Synth Pad, Lead Synth, Split (mostly bass and some sort of piano), Effect (strange sounds), Piano & Pad, and Piano & Vox. Each Category has a selection of 16 programs.
That's a lot of presets, and a varied collection they are. Quite apart from the stereo pianos, there are some fine organs (including the delightfully cheesy Surf Organ), a good selection of acoustic, electric and synth basses that augurs well for the forthcoming NanoBass module, a variety of synths and pads, and some excellent electric pianos. Virtually all the layered presets -- combinations of acoustic or electric piano and strings or synth pads -- are excellent to play. Personally, I could do without the piano/vox layers and the so-called Effects and Piano Effects, although these last two do show how far the idea of a 'piano module' can be stretched. Even more variation is available when you simply waggle your controller's mod wheel: on pianos, this opens the filter, dramatically brightening the sound; on electric pianos or organs it alters the modulation speed or depth of the effects.
The quality of the raw samples is good, and the module as a whole offers low-noise audio output. Sample loops and multisample crossover points often let budget sound modules down, but not the NanoPiano. Looping is excellent, and the changes between different samples within a waveform have been so smoothly disguised as to be virtually unnoticeable unless you listen very carefully. You won't find here the buzzing loops and jarring transitions that make solo work impossible. The pianos even sound good dry -- they have a natural 'in your room' quality.
One of the nice things about the NanoPiano is its 64-voice polyphony. Arpeggios? Sustain pedal? No problem! This polyphony is halved or quartered on some (unspecified) two- and four-element Programs; to combat note stealing, Alesis have implemented 'Dynamic Allocation', a clever bit of software that steals notes intelligently -- it seems to work.
Already, the NanoPiano is a personal favourite. Its stereo pianos are, to my ears, much less produced or processed than some of the competition's, and it was quite easy to forget that I was controlling it from a plastic 61-note synth keyboard. The rich, full-bodied sound quality really did affect how I played, and the module responded well at all dynamic levels -- I found it great for romantic and classical repertoire (Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words had never worked for me on a sample-based instrument before), but it has the presence to fit into more contemporary settings -- jazz, rock, or even triggered from an arpeggiator and treated by some MIDI-clocked delays.
Black marks are few. The lack of display and internal PSU are excusable in a module so small, but I hope that the final manual will contain more MIDI detail. Personally, I found the Program and Category knobs a little unstable. They're fiddly to get into the right position and sometimes slip; on my unit, the Program knob pointer didn't line up with all 16 Program numbers.
But enough negativity. If all Alesis had provided was a sampled Bösendorfer Imperial, the NanoPiano would have been a serious contender for your money. Add the extra sounds, the effects and the editability, and it's unmissable -- it's even cheaper than the competition. Whatever your piano needs, I'm sure the NanoPiano will fill them.
Easy to use, yet contains a hidden MIDI powerhouse.
High-quality, true stereo piano.
Huge collection of presets.
Flimsy front-panel knobs.
No user memories.
If it's piano without the price -- or bulk -- you're after,
you must hear Alesis' module first. A hit.
£ £339 including VAT.
A Sound Technology plc, Letchworth Point, Letchworth, Herts SG6 1ND.
T 01462 480000.
F 01462 480800.