Generalmusic's 'Realpiano' technology aims to bring the nuances and subtleties of the acoustic piano sound to players who also want the convenience of an electronic instrument. Paul Ward tickles the ivories to see if the PRO2 comes up smiling...
One of the Holy Grails of modern music technology is the perfect electronic emulation of an acoustic piano. Most of the early analogue attempts are probably best forgotten, and it was only when sample‑based technology came along that the synthetic piano began to sound anything like the real thing. The basic sound of a piano note is relatively easy to sample and replay, but the subtleties of tone and the resonance within an acoustic instrument are more of a problem. Generalmusic are the first company to combine a sample‑based instrument with physical modelling techniques in an attempt to close the gap between technology and reality.
The GEM PRO2 features an 88‑key, piano‑weighted keyboard, with a simulated hammer action: it has a very agreeable, realistic feel, but does not transmit aftertouch, which is a shame. Audio reaches the outside world from a pair of standard quarter‑inch jack sockets on the rear, and you can choose mono by using the left output alone. Similar jacks allow the connection of external instruments for mixing into the PRO2's audio. The addition of a pair of multimedia‑style speakers is possible from a dedicated stereo mini‑jack socket. MIDI In, Out and Thru are provided, as is a serial port socket for direct connection to a PC or MacOS computer. The PRO2 has provision for two assignable continuous/switching pedals in addition to the damping pedal input. Generalmusic strongly recommend the use of their proprietary 'continuous damper pedal' to more closely resemble the action of a real piano damper pedal. Unfortunately, I didn't have access to one, so I can't comment.
The first surprise that the PRO2 had for me came when I went to plug the power lead into the back. Considering the price this instrument commands, I was totally unprepared for an external power supply — I hadn't even checked inside the box for one! The external line‑lump‑with‑feet 12V PSU sports a 2‑pin shaver‑type mains connector, and plugs into the rear of the instrument with all the reassuring solidity of a seaside bingo prize. I'd advise Generalmusic to take another look at this aspect of an instrument that purports to have been specifically designed for live performance!
The PRO2 works in one of two basic modes, accessed by the Sounds/Performance button. 'Sounds' are the raw presets, to which you can apply key splits, layering, EQ, effects and reverb. There are 16 sounds in the PRO2, with three variants of each, offering differences in, for example, tonal character, or envelope timings. Layering sounds is simply a case of pressing two buttons at the same time. The PRO2 attempts to apply some intelligence to the process of layering, by making the first sound selected the louder of the two — nice touch. Key splits are achieved by holding down the Key Split button and hitting a key on the keyboard. The volume of the two sounds can be specified, along with the effect and reverb sends.
Sixteen reverb types are available, ranging from plates, halls and churches to slap echoes. A further choice of 16 effects can also be applied, including delay, flange, chorus and rotary speaker simulation. Two editable parameters are available, typically rate and depth, or delay time and feedback. The effects and reverbs are generally competent, and would certainly suffice as a quick and dirty way of adding a little acoustic depth, but for serious use I would have to advocate using a more sophisticated external device.
To the left of the top panel are the eight slider controls that make up the PRO2's graphic equaliser. This is an excellent feature, allowing very specific tonal curves to be applied and stored with a Performance. A dedicated button switches the EQ in and out for instant comparison. It's also possible to 'lock' the EQ curve, which would be valuable in a live situation. One of the Performance edit pages gives a graphical representation of the current EQ curve — although, despite the physical sliders being centre‑detented, the graphical display often failed to show the sliders as centred!
Various other edit options are hidden under the Performance Edit button, such as the assignment of the pedals to volume, expression, sustain, or sostenuto — or even to act as the sequencer start/stop switch. These pedal settings can be stored in a Performance, or globally 'locked' to prevent Performances changing the current assignments. A choice of microtunings is provided, such as mean‑tone, Kirnberger or stretch tuning, and a further User tuning option allows each individual key to be tuned to the player's own liking. Detuning between two layered sounds is possible, as is the capability to delay one of the sounds. Auto‑wah is also provided for anyone who remembers '70s disco... The PRO2 offers a choice of three velocity curves, plus a further User setting applied by way of the data slider.
Once all these edits have been made, a snapshot of the current setting is stored as a Performance. Switching to Performance mode allows you to select these Performances from the central bank of buttons. The PRO2 holds 64 Performances in total, denoted by an 8x8 arrangement of letters and numbers. The lower row of buttons selects letters A to and the upper row selects numbers 1 to 8. Performances are not selected until the number key is pressed, making it easy to pre‑select a bank letter while you're still playing the current Performance, leaving the final button push until the last possible moment.
Since the PRO2 is very much a piano emulation first and foremost, this is where Generalmusic have applied physical modelling techniques to simulate the internal characteristics of a piano soundboard. 'Natural String Resonance' claims to recreate the harmonic 'ringing' of open strings as other keys are played across the keyboard. An easy way to demonstrate this is to strike and hold a low note, wait for it to decay, and then play staccato notes higher up the keyboard: the open note's 'string' gently resonates in sympathy with the higher notes. This is a very subtle effect, and certainly makes a difference to the character of the instrument. Furthermore, Generalmusic's 'Advanced Release Technology' attempts to more closely mimic the way harmonics decay as the damper hits the string, and a fine job it does of it too.
The collection of samples is generally competent, if a little pedestrian for anyone well used to the sophistication of contemporary sample‑based instruments. Among the best are, perhaps predictably, the acoustic pianos, but the Electric Grand is a mouth‑watering rendition of a Yamaha CP70 in all its plunky‑clunky glory! The electric pianos are generally well represented, although I still object to the use of velocity switching to transpose between hard and soft sounds — a crossfade would be preferable. To be fair, Generalmusic are far from being alone in this practice. I found the most disappointing of the sounds to be Choir, which to my ears is bland and watery. Make no bones about it; the PRO2 is really all about pianos, and this is the job it does best.
I did, however, find some inconsistency in the way that the stereo piano samples are reproduced. Whereas you might expect a gradual sweep between the speakers across the keyboard's range, certain keys seemed biased towards the wrong side, or were too extreme for their position on the keyboard. When listening on headphones I also noticed a slight click on the very low samples, either as a result of their going into their loop phase or through distortion — it was difficult to tell. These problems are very subtle, and unlikely to be audible in all but the most demanding of situations, but I'd rather they weren't there at all.
Make no bones about it; the PRO2 is really all about pianos, and this is the job it does best.
The lack of pitch and modulation wheels is perhaps a handicap to a device with ambitions to be a master keyboard. The provision of a damper pedal socket and a pair of switching/continuous control pedals mitigate this to some degree, but it seems a shame that the on‑board control options are so limited. It would also be preferable if Generalmusic included a pedal with the PRO2 as standard. But the PRO2 does feature some very useful master keyboard functions, not least of which is the ability to connect directly to a computer's serial port, obviating the need for a MIDI interface. The MIDI channels of layered and split sounds can be specified, in addition to a 'Common' channel which will allow patch changes to select the current Performance. Simple filtering may be applied to both the MIDI input and the output. These MIDI settings are stored along with a Performance, although the PRO2 will allow you to 'lock' them, making the current settings global. MIDI System Exclusive dump is implemented, permitting the whole of the PRO2's internal memory, Performances, sequences and global settings, to be backed up to any device capable of storing it. Hidden in the MIDI functions is a parameter to alter the volume of the 'Piano Frame' — an attempt by Generalmusic to add more acoustic realism to the sampled piano by including the sound of the natural ambience, or 'ringing' of the higher strings in a grand piano's soundboard. Unfortunately, I found the result to be little more than an annoyingly tinny buzz behind the notes, lacking the depth and warmth of the real thing.
A simple 2‑track sequencer is included in the PRO2's armoury. This is little more than a scratchpad affair, but is certainly welcome all the same, especially with its bank of dedicated buttons for instant access — no searching through pages of menus here. Tempo and time signature are programmable, and simple editing may be carried out with the erase button — the PRO2 even allows you to overdub on a previously recorded track. If it's set up prior to recording, the sequencer will remember layers, splits and effects settings and recall them on playback — a very nice touch.
So what's the verdict? If you are primarily looking for a realistic piano sound, delivered in a package with a realistic piano feel, then I'd be happy to recommend that you audition a PRO2. The extra sounds should be seen as something of a bonus in this context. If you're looking for a master keyboard with weighted keys then the PRO2 will certainly do the job, providing you can live with the small number of physical control options on offer.
- 88‑key keyboard, with hammer action.
- Single, split and layer play modes.
- 64 programmable Performances.
- 128‑note polyphony maximum, 64 minimum.
- Reverb: Room, stage, hall, and others.
- DSP effects: Chorus, tremolo, phaser, and others.
- 8‑band programmable equaliser.
- 2x16 back‑lit display.
- Connections: MIDI In/Out/Thru, Stereo Out, Stereo In, Pedal1, Pedal 2, Damper Pedal, Headphones, Speakers, Computer.
- Sequencer: 45,000 events, Start/Stop, Pause, Forward, Rewind, Track 1, Track 2, Metronome, Timing, Erase, Demo.
- Microtunings: Equal, Piano 1, Piano 2, Meantone, Kirnberger, Tartini‑Valotti, User.
- Pedal assignments: Off, Damper, Sostenuto, Soft, Start/Stop, Performance Up, Performance Down, Rotary Speaker Speed, Volume, Expression.
- 16 basic sounds (each with three 'variations'): Piano 1, Piano 2, E.Grand, E.Piano 1, E.Piano 2, DX Piano, Clavin, Vibes, Harpsi, Organ, Pipe, Strings, Choir, Pad 1, Pad 2, Bass.
Generalmusic are also marketing a slightly cut‑down version of the PRO2, in the form of the PRO1. The PRO1 is very similar to the PRO2 in many ways, but here's a brief run‑down of the main differences:
- 64‑note polyphony.
- Only one Variation of the basic sounds.
- Reverb types of Room, Stage and Hall only.
- Effects types of Chorus, Phaser and Tremolo only.
- No User key velocity response option.
- No sequencer.
The Realpiano Expander offers similar audio capabilities to the PRO1, in a half‑rack‑width module.
- Piano 1/RockPiano/BrightPiano: Piano 1 is rich and realistic, with very authentic release characteristic. Variants are slightly brighter.
- Piano 2/Honkytonk/Upright: Piano 2 is darker, with a filtered release slope that lends it a less realistic tone than Piano 1. Honkytonk and Upright are OK, if a little cheesy.
- El Grand 1/El Grand 2/El Grand 3: It's a long time since I played a Yamaha CP70, but El Grand 1 gets pretty close by my reckoning.
- Rhodex 1/Rhodex 2/Rhodex 3: Excellent Fender Rhodes sound, marred only by the usual technique of making louder samples velocity‑switch instead of crossfading smoothly.
- Wurlitz 1/Wurlitz 2/Synwurli: Throaty and brimming with '70s appeal.
- DxPiano 1/DxPiano 2/DxPiano 3: Timbre response to velocity doesn't quite match the original, but I doubt that many would tell the difference.
- Clavin 1/Clavin 2/SynClav: Clavin 1 is nice and spiky. The other variants are less successful.
- Vibes/Marimba/Xylophone: Realistic and fun to play.
- Harpsi 1/Harpsi 2/Harpsi 3: One of the most disappointing groups, in my opinion. The basic sound is more reminiscent of a muted trumpet.
- Organ 1/Organ 2/Organ 3: Plenty of punch, but the permanent percussion on 1 and 3 will become tiring if you are after a smoother pad tone.
- Pipe 1/Pipe 2/Rockpipe: Competent, if unexciting.
- Strings/AtkStrin/Marcato: Basic strings are fairly insipid and AtkStrin has far too long an attack time to be useful in all but the most forgiving of circumstances. Marcato has a good aggressive bite.
- Choir/AtkChoir/SynChoir: Hmmm... Back to the drawing board with these, I'd suggest.
- MuteSynt/SlowSynt/Analog: Safe, GM‑style synth pads.
- StrBell/SlowBell/PercVox: Fairly pedestrian digital synth‑type sounds.
- A.Bass/E.Bass/E.Bass 2: All pretty good, once a little EQ has been added to beef up the bottom end.
- Realistic piano sounds.
- Realistic piano feel.
- Graphic equaliser.
- Computer serial port connection.
- On‑board sequencer.
- External power supply.
- Lack of on‑board control options.
- Sounds other than pianos are of variable quality.
- No control pedals as standard.
The PRO2 is unashamedly a piano first, a purveyor of other sounds second — and achieves a quality of results in precisely that order. If you need more control and a wider variety of sounds, you could be frustrated, but if a realistic piano sound and feel is top of your list, then you should give the PRO2 a chance.