YAMAHA P200 ELECTRONIC PIANO
When such an established name in the world of electronic pianos
comes out with something new, you'd be wise to sit up and take
notice. Yamaha's latest offering, the P200, promises up to 64-note
polyphony, state-of-the-art on-board sounds, and a brand new fully
weighted 88-note keyboard. Interested? Paul Farrer finds out if it has all been worth the weight.
Electronic Pianos are funny things. They seem to operate in a sort of hi-tech twilight world between 'serious performers' and 'happy amateurs'. They are as likely to appear on stage at Wembley with the likes of Elton John as they are to be seen in small churches accompanying the mumbling masses through 'All Things Bright and Beautiful'. Whether you take them seriously or not, the fact is that instruments that accurately reproduce pianos (and other traditional instruments) and offer us these sounds in an easy to use stand-alone unit, with the look and feel of the real thing, are big business. Yamaha have an enviable track record when it comes to electronic pianos, and their latest incarnation is the P200.
Getting To Know You
The P200 weighs in at a massive 30kg (66lbs) and, being an extremely
large 1389x460x166mm, setting the keyboard up is realistically
a two-person job. In fact I had to do some serious restructuring
of my studio just to get the review model in, and once in position
it seems to be such an enormously elegant hunk of metal you almost
expect to see Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet hanging off the
back of it.
YAMAHA P200 £1599
Fantastically responsive 'real piano' feel.
Easy to use.
Sensible selection of highly usable sounds.
Reasonable built-in speakers make it an excellent 'all-in-one'
Almost unnecessarily big and heavy.
Over-simplistic MIDI spec may limit its usefulness.
Doesn't transmit keyboard aftertouch.
Whilst the band keyboardist with a big MIDI rig might find the
control spec a touch limiting, any pianist looking for a great
stand-alone unit to use as either a MIDI studio controller or
performance-based instrument will find nearly everything they
need in the P200. A magnificent performer.
Physics aside, the P200 is visually striking in so much as Yamaha have taken the brave step of including two 30W speakers built into the top of the keyboard. Possibly with an eye to practising pianists, or as a good way of monitoring when playing as part of a live PA setup, these speakers offer a relatively clear and bright representation of the overall sound. Indeed, they kick out such a punch I can imagine them being used without too many problems at smaller gig venues, and would be perfect for the solo player in many small to medium-sized performance environments. In addition there is a pair of jack inputs on the rear panel which allow an extra audio input (from a CD player, tone module or effects unit for instance) which feeds directly to the unit's speakers. Staying with the rear panel for a moment, we have the usual MIDI In/Out/Thru ports, along with the familiar left and right output jack sockets. There are three pedal jacks for use with sustain, sostenuto and soft pedals (although only one actual pedal is provided with the unit) and a socket for a real-time foot controller, which can be assigned to specific MIDI performance controls such as reverb depth, volume and modulation speed. There is also an On/Off switch for the internal speakers and two small holes which allow you to attach the music stand supplied with the keyboard.
The P200's front control panel is relatively small and almost understated (compared, for instance, to that of the Korg SGproX, probably its closest competitor) but despite this the layout is uncluttered, and angling the front panel down slightly puts all the controls within easy reach while playing. On the far left-hand side of the keyboard, below the mains power switch, are the modulation and pitch bend wheels. In keeping with most 'two-wheel' type keyboards the pitch wheel is sprung loaded to the central position whereas the modulation wheel is not. Moving to the centre of the front panel, we find a two-line 32-character backlit LCD screen which displays information about the presets selected and guides us through the various editing, MIDI and utility pages. To the left of this, we find the master volume control and data entry faders along with a few increment/decrement and cursor select switches. Nearly all buttons on the front panel have double and sometimes triple functions, depending on the keyboard's mode; the cursor buttons act as both keyboard split/dual mode triggers as well as tone balance and detune control selectors. The page-scroll button (to the right of these) also doubles as a MIDI transmit enable/disable switch, and was presumably designed with the simpler MIDI performance setup in mind, allowing you to be playing the unit as a stand-alone instrument then 'double up' a keyboard part with sounds from another MIDI tone module or keyboard during the performance, at the touch of a button.
On the extreme right-hand side of the front panel is a simple three-band equaliser tone control. These controls aren't programmable into the voices themselves, and are simply wired across the output circuitry to both the internal speakers and the main audio out. This kind of simplistic EQ control isn't exactly revolutionary or comprehensive, but it does allow you to subtly 'tweak' the overall sound in real time if you find any of the voices a touch too bright or dull, depending on your performance environment. Next to the EQ are the two independent effects selectors, one dealing with reverb and the other concerned with modulation. There are three reverbs available, Room, Stage and Hall, and three different types of modulation effect -- Chorus, Symphonic and Tremolo. All the selected voices boot up with one or other of these applied, and again, the emphasis is on good-quality effects that are quickly and easily editable as opposed to a vast number of effect options and variants that the average user of an instrument like this is unlikely to need. For instance, holding the reverb select button whilst moving the data entry fader adjusts what it calls 'reverb depth' or ratio of effect input to output. This is the same for the modulation effects; hold the button and move the fader and your electric piano sound disappears in a haze of wondrous symphonic swirl!
The Sound Of Your Voice
The P200 has two main operational states, Voice Mode and Performance
Mode. Voice Mode is essentially for when you are using the keyboard
in its simplest form, ie. playing single or dualled voices and
creating keyboard splits from two individual voices selected from
the front panel. Performance Mode allows you to name and store
any of these setups and edits in one of its 24 memory locations,
accessible from one of two banks each with 12 locations. In keeping
with many other keyboards of this kind, each voice has a dedicated
select button. No hunting through endless screen pages for the
sound you want for P200 users -- you simply press the button marked
'piano' and you get a piano sound. Effortless. One nice feature
that I haven't encountered before, but which will doubtless be
very useful for a good number of users, is the ability to 'lock
off' the main control panel, freezing all the buttons so you don't
inadvertently change presets with a stray finger during a performance.
To unlock the panel, simply double-click on the preset button
you have selected and panel operation returns to normal. Pairing
(or dualling) two voices together couldn't be easier -- simultaneously
press the two voice select buttons you wish to use and that's
it. The balancing of these two voices is done by adjusting the
data entry fader whilst holding the 'Balance' button, in a very
similar way to editing the effect ratios. Creating keyboard splits
is just as painless a procedure, and controlling sound levels
and split points within that setup is also very simple. For the
more adventurous, however, there are a few basic edit pages (including
one with a three-band programmable EQ), but overall these pages
are ostensibly concerned with utilities such keyboard sensitivity
and MIDI control. 'Piano 1': The 'flagship' acoustic stereo grand piano sound. Flawlessly
multi-sampled, responsive and accurate, if perhaps a little bright
for some users' ears. 'Piano 2': Similar to piano 1, but with slightly more resonance and depth. 'Piano 3': Very bright acoustic grand -- useful for pop/jazz. 'Piano 4': Electric grand with nicely metallic 'twang' to it. 'E. Piano 1': Very musical Fender-Rhodes-type sound with sharp attack characteristics. 'E. Piano 2': Classic Wurlitzer-style electric piano. Warmth and depth guaranteed
when added to any track. 'E. Piano 3': Sparkling DX7-type chorused piano. Celine Dion would love it. 'Vibes': Elegantly sampled and particularly impressive at the bottom end.
Patrick Moore-tastic! 'Organ 1': Generic (and highly editable) organ sound, greatly helped by
effective use of the tremolo. 'Organ 2': 'Cooler' jazz organ sound. 'Strings': Full orchestral strings. A highly rich and harmonic preset that
perhaps lacks realism, but more than makes up for this in emotion
and usability. Works particularly well when dualled with one of
the acoustic pianos. 'Bass': Switchable between electric bass guitar and upright acoustic
double bass. Both are highly usable and effective.
'Piano 1': The 'flagship' acoustic stereo grand piano sound. Flawlessly multi-sampled, responsive and accurate, if perhaps a little bright for some users' ears.
'Piano 2': Similar to piano 1, but with slightly more resonance and depth.
'Piano 3': Very bright acoustic grand -- useful for pop/jazz.
'Piano 4': Electric grand with nicely metallic 'twang' to it.
'E. Piano 1': Very musical Fender-Rhodes-type sound with sharp attack characteristics.
'E. Piano 2': Classic Wurlitzer-style electric piano. Warmth and depth guaranteed when added to any track.
'E. Piano 3': Sparkling DX7-type chorused piano. Celine Dion would love it.
'Vibes': Elegantly sampled and particularly impressive at the bottom end. Patrick Moore-tastic!
'Organ 1': Generic (and highly editable) organ sound, greatly helped by effective use of the tremolo.
'Organ 2': 'Cooler' jazz organ sound.
'Strings': Full orchestral strings. A highly rich and harmonic preset that perhaps lacks realism, but more than makes up for this in emotion and usability. Works particularly well when dualled with one of the acoustic pianos.
'Bass': Switchable between electric bass guitar and upright acoustic double bass. Both are highly usable and effective.
The sounds themselves have definitely been picked to provide a high level of instant gratification for the 'traditional' musician (see Voice List Box elsewhere in this article). As with the operational aspects of the keyboard itself, Yamaha are playing very much towards the conservative instrumentalist looking for a good selection of flexible, quality sounds, rather than encouraging their users to break into exciting new sonic landscapes, and with an instrument such as the P200 this is certainly no bad thing. Yamaha's AWM (Advanced Wave Memory) sound generation system has 16Mb of RAM to play with and it apportions this generously and sensibly amongst the 13 voices. I say 13 because voice 12, 'Bass', actually has two variations, an upright acoustic bass and an electric bass guitar. Both presets are highly usable and convincing, but you have to decide which one you want to assign to the 'Bass' voice select button, and you aren't allowed to option of using both at the same time. This is a bit of a fiddly procedure and you almost get the impression that the 'two sounds -- one button' idea was tagged on to the end of the design process when it was far too late to give the electric bass a voice select button of its own!
With the exception of the two main piano sounds, all the source samples within the P200 are recorded in mono, and most have full 64-note polyphony. The two pianos, however, are switchable between mono and stereo operation, and this in turn halves their polyphony (from 64 to 32 notes). The organ sounds are also particularly worthy of a mention as both voice variations are extremely usable and authentic. As with the other voices, users looking for scorchingly hot and grainy rock noises will probably find these samples a touch 'polite', but given that the P200 allows you fairly in-depth editing of the organ samples' parameters -- rather like the drawbars on a real Hammond organ -- creating and tweaking new and interesting organ sounds is extremely easy. It is perhaps a shame, then, that this level of sound editing is available only for the organ voices and not for any of the other sounds. All the other voices (including pianos, vibes, strings and basses) you have to play pretty much exactly as they left the factory.
Of course these instruments tend to sink or swim on how they sound
and respond working solely as a 'piano', and Yamaha have an enormous
wealth of experience to draw on in this department. If you asked
a hundred pianists their favourite type of piano sound you'd probably
get a hundred different answers, and any designer of an electronic
piano knows this only too well. The challenge, therefore, is to
create a convincing, but at the same time flexible, piano sound
that will appeal to the widest range of tastes without putting
your foot too firmly in one camp or another with regards to sound
type and colour. Yamaha have always had something of a reputation
for 'bright' piano sounds, sometimes evoking criticism that their
pianos can often sound a bit 'lightweight'. I personally think
that Yamaha pianos, both acoustic and electronic, are extremely
responsive and sonically very well suited to a wide range of music
styles. The P200 manages to continue along these lines and has
captured a very clear, crisp and bright piano that works well
as a solo instrument, but also stands out admirably when working
amongst other instruments in the mix of a full track.
Which Stand To Deliver?
With any instrument as large and heavy as the P200, how you support
the unit on stage or in the studio is essential -- after all,
the last thing you want is to see your much loved keyboard collapsing
in a heap and disappearing into the front row of the audience
with a sickening 'thud'! Yamaha themselves recommend their own
LP3 as a suitable stand. This has four 'piano-style' legs and
makes the instrument look very much like an old Clavinova, but
there is really no reason why any good-quality X-frame stand wouldn't
do the job just as well, providing it has strong and firm build
construction. On a similar note, Yamaha have taken over distribution
of 'Ultimate Support' products so there should now be no shortage
of good-quality stands and supports for use with the P200.
Tonally speaking, it would be fair to say that Yamaha have 'played it safe' in not choosing piano samples with too much character and colour, allowing the user to 'fine-tune' the piano to suit their own needs (this is where the two EQ sections come in handy). The main piano sound (voice 1) has very pleasing levels of natural sustain, the multisampling is utterly convincing, and there is an astonishingly high level of both tonal and dynamic variation between playing extremely softly and giving it a good, hard 'whack'. This is, in part, thanks to the newly designed 88-note weighted keyboard which is extremely comfortable to play, and enables you to coax great performances out of the P200's sound library or your own MIDI setup. This is greatly enhanced by the different weightings used up and down the keyboard, making the lower notes progressively 'heavier' than the upper ones, just like a real piano. If I had to make one criticism it would be that occasionally (particularly whilst playing more frantic pieces) I felt as if Yamaha had slightly overdone the keyboard smoothness, and it took a little too long for the keys to relocate to their 'up' position, something that may, of course, get better as the new keyboard wears in after more playing.
Overall, however, Yamaha's famous attention to detail certainly makes for compulsive playing, and when you look at the package as a whole, the built-in effects, built-in speakers, and quick access to all the various voices, you'll very quickly be seriously impressed by what it can do for your playing.
With the P200 Yamaha have come up with a musical instrument with a very high degree of accessibility for both the technologically experienced and the technophobe alike. Designed with ease of use and functionality in mind, as opposed to complicated in-depth control and edit features, the P200 will be a godsend for the traditional musician looking for an introduction into the world of MIDI, or the performing keyboardist in search of an all-in-one solution to many of their live requirements.
On the downside, and looking at things from a studio programmer's point of view, it feels as if Yamaha have perhaps simplified things just a bit too much in some respects. The keyboard itself does not transmit aftertouch, for example (although you can program it to be transmitted from one of the foot controllers), and overall the MIDI control specifications are not as impressive as those of many other dedicated studio/live master keyboards. The result is that I found the P200 to operate slightly more effectively as a 'stand-alone' performance-based unit than as a comprehensive MIDI master keyboard. Having said that, though, there are still a great number of smart design ideas, and it's refreshing to use a instrument that has so obviously been designed by musicians for musicians.
If you overlook the minor niggles and really get to know the P200 it feels as if it has achieved pretty much all it set out to do, which is to provide an extremely professional and playable keyboard coupled with a great selection of highly usable piano and other sounds. I expect this instrument to be a big seller for Yamaha, and deservedly so. Potential owners should regard the P200 as much more than merely a master keyboard with some onboard sounds because it is, first and foremost -- as its name suggests -- a truly 'Electronic Piano'. Those willing to make the investment are highly unlikely to be disappointed. A word of advice though -- it might help to borrow an estate car when you go to collect it from the shop!
£1599 including VAT.
Yamaha-Kemble Brochure Line
+44 (0)1908 369269.
+44 (0)1908 368872.