The legendary Kurzweil piano sound is now available in a smaller box and with a lower price tag than ever before — though in the UK it's still significantly more expensive than competing piano modules from other manufacturers. Is it worth the price premium? Derek Johnson finds out.
Most studio musicians and keyboard players need regular access to a good piano sound, and to be honest, perfectly useable sounds are available amongst the factory sounds or disks of most modern synths and samplers. However, there is a problem: pianos eat polyphony. The real thing can be 88‑note polyphonic, and the inter‑note interaction produced by playing and sustaining as many as 88 notes is impossible to reproduce with a sound produced by an electronic instrument that may be trying to do several other things at the same time. The average polyphony for synths and samplers, with a few exceptions, is a total of 16, 24 or 32 notes. Play a few other sounds alongside your piano, and you will need to keep your piano part fairly simple to avoid the inevitable note stealing.
There is an alternative: buy a dedicated piano sound module. While it may be hard to justify shelling out the cash, especially for something that seems to do so little, it has to be said that choosing a piece of equipment that does one thing, or a small range of things, very well is an attractive concept. It worked for Emu with their Proformance, for example, and Roland have high hopes for the recent P55, which received a very positive SOS review from David Mellor in the December 1993 issue.
This brings us to Kurzweil's MicroPiano. Kurzweil are currently known for their K2000 range of powerful synth/sampling workstations, but cut their teeth on providing realistic sampled piano‑type instruments in their early days (cf their K250). As a company, they are now part of Young Chang, the Korean acoustic piano giant, so it is both a move full‑circle and a nod to their current status within Young Chang that Kurzweil should release what may, for the time being at least, be the ultimate in sampled piano playback modules.
The MicroPiano is an elegantly unpreposessing unit: half rack width, with a simple, minimalist front panel, it features a couple of knobs (on/off/volume and data entry) and five buttons. These are labelled Tuning (+/‑50 cents), Transpose (24 semitones up or down), Channel (1‑16), Effects (for selecting one of 16 preset effects) and Program, for selecting one of the 32 on‑board sounds, or Programs as Kurzweil call them. The simple three‑character LED display is clear enough for the task at hand; it even includes a MIDI activity light. The Micro offers a creditable 32‑note polyphony, expandable to 64 notes by linking to a second unit.
While many of the Micro's samples come from Kurzweil's K2000 library, there is a lot of new material, particularly, it seems, amongst the acoustic pianos. The complement of 32 Programs includes seven acoustic pianos, four electric grands, six electric pianos, five organs (of the Hammond variety) and five strings. In addition, there is a selection of layers (acoustic or electric piano and strings, piano and organ, for example) and something called Slow Digital Pad — this is an excellent moody and ethereal pad. As far as I can tell there are no true stereo samples on board, but the samples are output in stereo — bass notes have a bias to the left side, and high notes are biased to the right, with the rest spread in between these two extremes, which is great for realism.
A particularly interesting aspect of the acoustic pianos is that the first two Programs (Classical Piano and Stage Piano) are available in two tunings: Solo and Ensemble.
Each Program has an effect assigned to it, but this can be changed by the user. The effects aren't editable as such, although the balance can be altered over MIDI. A selection of apt reverbs treat the acoustic pianos, while the reverb is joined by chorus on some electric piano and organ patches; an effect called Deep Space is indescribable, being a wild, modulated reverb type of effect that works best on Slow Digital Pad, to which it is preset.
A particularly interesting aspect of the acoustic pianos is that the first two Programs (Classical Piano and Stage Piano) are available in two tunings: Solo and Ensemble. In the first instance, the pianos are 'beat tuned', like a real acoustic piano; since the higher harmonics of a stretched string tend to be sharper than those of the real harmonic series, beat tuning ensures that the piano is in tune with itself harmonically. The Ensemble‑tuned pianos are tuned to the fundamental and are better suited to mixing with other instruments. The solo tuning has the effect of making the higher notes slightly sharp to the real world — 'real' pianists going digital for the first time might appreciate the option, and it gives solo playing a subtly different feel.
The MIDI side of the MicroPiano may seem a little limited, with note and velocity data being just about the limit; pitch bend is inoperable, not surprisingly, considering that a real piano or organ can't be bent either. The mod wheel does have an effect on some patches — strings balance on the piano/string layers, for example, tremolo rate on electric pianos, and rotary speaker effect on Hammond organs. Additionally, MIDI controllers can be used for volume control (controller 7), reverb and chorus depth (controllers 91 and 93 respectively) and effects level (controller 83). These parameters aren't easily accessible if you don't have assignable controllers on your keyboard or a 'MIDI mixer' page in your software sequencer.
Other hidden facilities include a choice of four velocity response curves. These are selected by pressing Tuning while powering up, followed by the Effects button. Select a curve with the data knob, press Transpose to confirm your choice, and return to play mode. The curves include a normal, linear curve, plus three varieties that are suitable for light velocity keyboards such as Yamaha's SY77, slightly 'hot velocity' keyboards like Roland's JV1000, and 'hot velocity' keyboards like Korg's 01/W. Most sounds are genuinely velocity sensitive, with definite timbral changes — so hitting a key harder doesn't just play a note louder.
One thing about the MicroPiano: it couldn't be easier to use. Whack it on top of your master keyboard, plug in a few leads and you're away. Such customisation as is possible is immediately accessible from the front panel: push buttons, wiggle the data knob, no problem. Hidden parameters need only rare adjustment (ie, velocity scaling or enabling/disabling program change reception) or are accessible via MIDI controllers.
So you can get right down to playing. And what a pleasure: the acoustic pianos definitely have a classical bias — they are rich and full‑sounding, with a nice response at all velocities — while the electrics do have a feel of Yamaha electric grand or the tines of a Fender Rhodes where applicable. The Organs range between quite mellow to rich and gut‑wrenching — these are boss samples.
You also notice the quality of the samples right away: listen in vain for buzzing loops and the other side‑effects of cut‑price sampling. The only loops that are obvious (in some electric pianos and organ sounds) aren't intrusive — there are no clicks or buzzes or digital garbage on decays — and they only show up if you play notes in isolation and let them decay. The acoustic pianos are completely clean, with jitter‑free decays the order of the day. I would have liked to have said that the piano multi‑samples were also undetectable, but this isn't quite the case. I'll quickly note that the crossover points are in no way obvious while playing. Going through individual notes, again in isolation, revealed some obvious, but not glaring, shifts in timbre when a new sample comes into play. Program 1 (Classic Piano) appears to be made up of something like 12 multisamples, which is actually very generous.
By being hypercritical of the Micro, it's possible to have a few other negative things to say; I've never liked external power supplies, and the MicroPiano has no headphone socket, so you have to turn on a load of gear even if all you want to do is have a quick play. I would have liked a selection of harpsichords and/or clavinets rather than the Hammond organs and strings, but there will be many who disagree.
You notice the quality of the samples right away: listen in vain for buzzing loops and the other side‑effects of cut‑price sampling.
But the bottom line — the sound — just can't be faulted, with some of the finest sampled piano sounds on the market, acoustic or electric, emanating from Kurzweil's powerful little unit. Even playing it from a synth keyboard (albeit the excellent 76‑note keyboard of Roland's JX10), it was just about possible to be fooled into thinking that a real grand was somewhere in the vicinity. The acoustic pianos have class and presence, the electrics have delicacy and presence, and the organs also have a grittiness that's a pleasure to work with. The strings sounds — an odd choice for a keyboard sound module — are good, if not amazing, but the layered piano/strings Programs are definitely worth having. This is a common pairing, and the result here is very lush.
Note that the quick demo shows off all the MicroPiano's sounds to reasonable effect, but the performance could imply that the unit is actually multitimbral: listen carefully, and you'll realise that this isn't the case. It's possible to sustain a chord on, say, a string program, change patch and then play a piano over the top of the chord, but that's your limit.
Opinions of dedicated piano sound modules are going to vary as wildly as those of real pianos themselves. Each module on the market does a great job and has its devotees. The three main units (MicroPiano, Proformance and P55) provide the same number of presets (although the basic version of the Proformance only has 15), and apart from basic acoustic and electric pianos, each manufacturer fills up the gaps with different sounds. Emu provide some vibes and bass sounds, Roland go my way with harpsichords as well as vibes and celeste, while Kurzweil, as noted, have gone for organs and strings. If it were a matter of price, then it would be down to listening to the sounds and making a choice. However, it's not that simple.
After basking in the glow of the MicroPiano's sounds, we come to the dark shadow: the price. When we ran our news item some months ago, we mentioned a US price not unadjacent to $499 (£340 or so), which is a good deal, if not exactly cheapsville. The UK price, though, is a nonsensical £599. Had it been £499 (the irritating transatlantic $1=£1 import exchange rate that we've gotten used to over here), then I'd have had a quick moan and left it at that. But to whack another £100 (or $150) on the asking price really is an extraordinary move. Let's put it in perspective: the P55 costs £469, and the basic Proformance weighs in at a mere £299.
This situation leaves me in a quandary: in a perfect world where all that matters is that you get the sounds you want, no matter what the price, there would be no problem. The MicroPiano is tops in my books. It really is a gem. Unfortunately, we live in a recession‑hit world where people think with their pockets. I do recommend that you listen to the MicroPiano, since it is so very good; but when it comes to parting with your wedge, you may have to think twice. And with an instrument of this quality, that's a shame.
|<p>Classical Piano (solo tuning)||<p>Stage Piano (solo tuning)|
|<p>Classical Piano (ensemble tuning)||<p>Stage Piano (ensemble tuning)|
|<p>Bright Piano||<p>Sustain Piano|
|<p>Stage Piano & Strings||<p>Piano & String Pad|
|<p>Tack Piano||<p>Bright Electric Grand|
|<p>Tight Electric Grand||<p>Warm Electric Grand|
|<p>Digital Electric Grand||<p>Classic Electric Grand|
|<p>Digital Electric Piano||<p>Dyno‑Electric Piano|
|<p>Hard Dyno‑Electric Piano||<p>Stereo Hard Electric Piano|
|<p>Stereo Trem Digital Electric Piano||<p>Digital Electric Piano & String Pad|
|<p>Rock Organ 1||<p>Rock Organ 2|
|<p>Percussion Organ||<p>Ballad Organ 1|
|<p>Ballad Organ 2||<p>Organ & Piano|
|<p>Fast Strings 1||<p>Fast Strings 2|
|<p>Touch Strings||<p>Stereo Slow Strings|
|<p>Stereo Slow String||<p>Pad Slow Digital Pad|
|<p>Large Hall||<p>Large Bright Hall|
|<p>Chorus||<p>Room + Chorus|
|<p>Bright Room + Chorus||<p>Stage + Chorus|
|<p>Bright Stage + Chorus||<p>Hall + Chorus|
|<p>Bright Hall + Chorus||<p>Deep Space|
- Great piano sounds.
- Compact size.
- Easy to use.
- Some parameters only available over MIDI.
- High UK price.
On sound alone, the MicroPiano is a winner: I could play its acoustic pianos all day, and the electric pianos are pretty cool too. But the price is a real bummer.