There's more to Roland's latest digital piano than meets the eye. We put it to the test.
Roland's digital pianos have become almost universally accepted in all but the most critical circles. Sure, there have been a handful that didn't quite make the grade, but even the earliest examples of the genre — the Roland RD1000 and the MKS20 module derived from it — are still revered in some quarters: not because their Structured Adaptive Synthesis engines sounded exactly like pianos, but because they sounded great. Roland dropped SAS (and latterly Advanced SAS) in the 1990s, turning instead to sample‑based pianos, but it was no real surprise when, in 2009, the company launched their physically modelled V‑Piano and, the following year, a new engine called 'SuperNatural Piano' that combined sampling and resynthesis technology in much the same manner as SAS. This appeared first as an upgrade board for the RD700GX, offering 17 acoustic pianos to supplement the SuperNatural electric pianos that had already been introduced in the standard model, and it was later integrated as standard into the RD700NX. All of which brings us to the RD800. Like the 'NX', this offers both the SuperNatural piano and SuperNatural electric piano engines as well as a tonewheel organ emulation and a host of PCM‑based sounds covering the usual range from orchestral instruments to hard‑hitting synths.It also adds SuperNatural Clavinets, and boasts a rhythm generator, a performance recorder, some master control functions, Roland's proprietary V‑Link visual control system, the ability to hook up to a network via USB wireless LAN... and more. So, what is the RD800? Is it a digital piano, or an esoteric form of workstation? Or something between?
By advertising things such as the RD800's "master MIDI keyboard features for playing and controlling external sound sources on stage or in the studio”, and describing it as "the evolution of a classic”, Roland's blurb had led me to believe that it was a combined piano/master keyboard that superseded the RD700GX and RD700NX, and that we should approach it as a bigger, more powerful and altogether shinier version of the earlier models, replete with go‑faster stripes. But it isn't, and we shouldn't. The master keyboard functions are very limited, and compared with the RD700 series, it offers an abridged editing system, a less powerful effects structure, fewer performance memories, and no SRX expansion slots. It's also cheaper. I must admit that it took me a while to ditch my preconceptions but, once I had done so, the RD800 and I started to make friends. Well, that's not quite true; there was still one more hurdle to overcome...
The fundamental unit of sound on the RD800 is the Tone, which looks like the Patch or Program on a conventional multitimbral instrument. This implies that you should be able to edit and save Tones, and build multitimbral performances using numerous Tones combined in layers, or across keyboard splits, or perhaps accessed via MIDI. It all sounds normal and sensible... and it's wrong. The Tones are inviolate, and you have to treat them as merely the building blocks of Live Sets. This means that, while you can edit a Tone and its associated effects, you can't save the modified sound in a Tone memory; you can only save it as one of the four Parts (Upper1, Upper2, Upper3 or Lower) of a chosen Live Set.
But hang on, isn't the RD800 16‑part multitimbral? Indeed it is, but you can only access four of the Parts from the instrument itself. What's more, I could find no way to change the Tones allocated to Parts 5 to 16 using the controls and menus provided on the RD800, and the rather superficial manual doesn't mention it, so I suspect that it's only possible using MIDI program changes from an external device. Worse still, selecting whether a Part is accessible via MIDI is a system setting, not one that you can program on a 'per Live Set' basis. And worse than that, no effects or other user settings are retained for the Tones in Parts 5 to 16, so a Tone inserted into (say) Part 5 may sound very different from the same Tone inserted into any of the first four. Strangely, the manual mentions using the RD800 to replay Standard MIDI Files which, in general, requires a conventional General MIDI engine. Confused? I don't blame you. But stay with me because, from this point onward, things start to improve.
Each Tone is generated by one of five sound engines. There are 40 SuperNatural Pianos, 50 SuperNatural Electric Pianos, 20 SuperNatural Clavinets, and 10 'TW' virtual tonewheel organs, while everything else (including 22 drum kits) is generated by the PCM synth engine.
There's no great depth to the editing system for any of the SuperNatural Tones, but this isn't a criticism; you don't need myriad settings for sounds of this nature. The most complex is the SuperNatural piano, which offers three short menus. The first contains parameters such as the amplitudes of the damper noise, string resonance and hammer noise, as well as more esoteric ones with names such as 'nuance' and 'character'. The second contains note editing facilities imported from the V‑Piano: individual note tunings, levels, and 'characters' that (among other things) allow you to create bespoke instruments with realistic inconsistencies between notes. The third allows you to tune the sympathetic resonance to taste. But where is the parameter that allows you to select which of the five SuperNatural piano types underpins the Tone? It's gone, I'm afraid... buggered off without obtaining a weekend pass so that, while you can tweak Tones, you can't change their underlying character.
Happily, the sounds are excellent 'out of the box'. They're not perfect; despite claims that SuperNatural pianos offer a smooth progression of tone and amplitude from the softest to the loudest notes, I found that there could be (for example) a rather swift transition in tone from mf to f, so some notes can still 'stick out', but I'm not sure that I'd know the difference in a mix between an acoustic piano and the RD800, and that's high praise. What's more, when I compared the RD800 to some of its immediate competitors, I found that it exhibited a warmth and depth that the others didn't, especially at low velocities, where it's capable of a beautifully gentle, 'woody' sound. Don't misunderstand me, the other keyboards were also excellent instruments, but I found the RD800 more engaging, with a subtle extra dimension that the others lacked. The only comparison that I was unable to make was against the Bösendorfer Grand Imperial available for the Nord Stage 2 HA88. If the Roland is as good or better than that, we are truly spoilt for choice.
Even simpler than the acoustic pianos, SuperNatural electric pianos offer just a single menu with seven parameters. This means that the RD800 no longer offers physical modelling parameters such as the pickup distance, bell character and bar angle that were present on the RD700NX and, again, there's no way to alter the underlying character of the sounds. So, while the blurb states that there are five electric piano types, I have no idea what they are, nor which is used where. Nevertheless, the SuperNatural Rhodes and Wurli emulations can be warm and smooth or they can bark like a Rottweiler with anger-management issues, while the recreations of the original SAS EPianos are equally responsive, sound gorgeous, and remain uniquely useful nearly 30 years after they were first heard.
The editing available for the SuperNatural Clavinets is even more sparse, with just four parameters. But, like the electric pianos, the sounds are things of joy. That's not to say that they are perfect; like the acoustic pianos, they exhibit two characters (one for mf and below, another for f and above) and there's no provision for damping, which precludes all manner of Clavinet sounds. And, of course, the RD800's keyboard action is all wrong for them. But the sounds are great, with the character of the original instruments shining through.
The TW Organ is the fourth of the sound engines. This offers a cut‑down version of the type of organ emulation found on dedicated 'clonewheel' instruments, offering individual controls over the standard nine drawbars and the percussion, but with no parameters to adjust things such as key‑click or leakage. What's more, there's no Hammond chorus/vibrato effect, which is a shocking omission. When coupled with the on‑board rotary speaker effect (and after you've eliminated the velocity-sensitivity of the organ Tones!) it's capable of some pleasing sounds but, due to the nature of the editing system and the limited control panel hardware, you can't grab a fistful of faders moonlighting as drawbars, and there are too many other omissions to view it as the only Hammond emulation that you'll ever need. Treat it as a bonus, and you'll be fine.
The final engine is a conventional PCM (sample‑based) synthesizer. All the usual bases are covered, from strings, brass, woodwind, pads and choirs, to guitars, basses and synth basses, and all manner of lead synths, polysynths and effects, as well as percussion and kits. The edit menu is sparse — this is no workstation with multiple layers and a gazillion modulation parameters and routings per patch — and those parameters that have survived (primarily attack, decay, release, filter cutoff and resonance, portamento and vibrato) are presented merely as offsets to the pre‑programmed values. It doesn't sound like much but, combined with judicious use of the effects, it's enough to obtain a wide range of surprising, and surprisingly high-quality, sounds from the presets.
Ah, yes... the effects. Unlike the RD700NX, the RD800 offers only one modulation effect per Tone, and there are far fewer of them to choose from (just 56) which means that there are half the Mod FX units offering fewer than half the number of effects and variations as before. Nonetheless, their quality remains excellent, and in addition to these, there's a tremolo unit that offers various forms of tremolo and panning effects as well as the rotary speaker simulation when a TW organ is selected, plus an amp/speaker simulator. Used together, these make it possible to emulate the dying amps and speakers of vintage keyboard instruments as well as sculpt all manner of new sounds, just as we did in the '70s when we used stompboxes to wrench new sounds from original instruments such as Pianets, RMIs and Clavinets. Consequently, it's a huge relief that the effects are stored on a 'per‑Tone' basis within Parts 1 to 4 of each Live Set. If you want an overdriven EP200 with vibrato played two octaves above a chorused fretless bass, with a string synth awash with phasing sitting between them, you can have them. Strangely, the manual states that you "can't apply modulation effects to the SuperNatural EPiano sound”. I can assure Roland that you can.
Following the Mod FX units, there are three effects that work on a 'per Live Set' basis: a delay unit, a reverb, and a five‑band EQ. Finally, there's a three‑band compressor that acts upon the instrument as a whole. Nowhere in the documentation does it tell you the order in which they're applied and, although I suspect that it's as I've written them, a block diagram wouldn't be too much to ask for, would it?
Firing up the RD800 is far quicker than modern workstations, taking a small number of seconds rather than a small number of minutes. This can be an important feature on stage, and is welcome, as are the LED indicators that will prove invaluable when the lighting engineer plunges you into darkness.
The next consideration is the quality of the keybed, and I'm delighted to report that Roland's new 'progressive hammer action' PHA4 is excellent, not just in terms of the action and response, but also in terms of the feel of the key surfaces themselves. I can even forgive the lack of aftertouch on what is primarily a piano!
Happily, creating splits and layers using the four available Parts is straightforward, and their dedicated volume faders plus a modicum of hardware control over the effects makes it possible to tweak sounds while playing. I particularly liked the Tone Colour knob which, depending upon the sound engine in use, allows you to do things such as spread the stereo image, adjust an underlying EQ to cut through a mix, or even morph between related electric piano models.
I also liked two housekeeping facilities provided for the Live Sets. Swapping allows you to move them around in memory to order set lists more quickly than would otherwise be possible, and you can save and recall complete memory dumps of the 200 Live Sets to both USB and internal memory. Strangely, nowhere does the documentation tell you how many of these Live Set Files the RD800 can hold. What it does tell you is that you can recall individual Live Sets from the Files, which is a bonus.
Other good stuff includes the speed with which the RD800 can jump from one Live Set to the next. However, while existing notes can be sustained over the transition, the effects change instantly, so the held notes may jump from gentle chorusing to screaming overdriven excess if you're not careful.
Yet another curate's egg exists when you consider using the RD800 as a MIDI controller. The facilities provided by the menus appear to be quite extensive, but things fall apart somewhat when you realise that you can only set things up in this way for Parts 1 to 4, not for the full set. What's more, providing just four faders and five knobs to control the majority of internal and external functions simply isn't sufficient in the modern era. Similar limitations apply when you consider using the RD800 as a MIDI expander, especially since it has lost the GM2 sound set found on RD700-series instruments.
Of course, there are many more tricks up the RD800's digital sleeves. Some will be useful: the ability to replay external WAVs at speeds of ±25 percent and pitches of ‑6 to +5 semitones might be helpful for rehearsal and accompaniment, the eight alternative temperaments may benefit early-music purists, and I can even see that the audio recorder and V‑Link could be bonuses for a few users. But does a stage piano benefit from a pre‑programmed, un‑editable rhythm unit with no intro/outro/fill capabilities, or from wireless LAN capabilities? Roland's designers clearly feel that someone will find them useful, but I found that they added clutter and diluted the focus of the instrument. Finally, I should mention the optional auto‑turn-off (which I liked) and the lack of an optional music rest (which I didn't). As elsewhere on the RD800, Roland's designers giveth, and Roland's designers taketh away.
It took me a long time to come to grips with the RD800, not because it's complex, but because it's unconventional and its manual seems designed to avoid telling you what you want to know. So here's a list of things that it's not. It's not a direct replacement for the RD700GX and RD700NX. It's not a workstation. It's not a MIDI controller, nor a composition tool, nor a clonewheel organ, nor is it a serious 16‑part synth. But once you've cut through all the frippery, you'll find that it's a superb stage piano — perhaps the best to date — that excels at both acoustic and electric piano emulations, with a thousand additional high-quality sounds and other features that shouldn't deflect you from its raison d'être.
It's tempting to compare the RD800 with the excellent piano voices in workstations such as the Korg Kronos 88 and Kurzweil PC3K8 but, when you look at what the others offer, it's not appropriate. Likewise, a comparison with the sample‑based Clavia Nord Stage 2 HA88 would be flawed, if only because the VA polysynth in the Nord renders a direct comparison less than ideal. However, Kurzweil's latest Artis stage piano offers an 88‑note weighted keybed, 128 note polyphony, 16 parts with a four‑part 'easy access' split/layer mode, master keyboard functions, high-quality piano sounds, Kurzweil's KB3 organ emulator, a wide range of sample‑based sounds derived from the company's VAST workstations, and multitimbral effects. In other words, it's a dead ringer for the RD800. And, with 'street' prices of around £1700 [$2200 in US] (the Kurzweil) and £1800 [$2500 in US] (the Roland), even the cost is similar. I'll be reviewing the Artis soon for Sound On Sound, so it will be fascinating to discover how the two compare.
Imagine that you have a sampled piano with four samples per note, recorded at MIDI velocities of 15, 47, 79 and 111. You could then program your playback engine to play the first sample if you press a note with a velocity in the range zero to 31, the second in the range 32 to 63, and so on. If recorded correctly, each successive sample will be both louder and brighter than the previous, and will have a longer decay with a harmonic structure that distinguishes it from the others. The biggest problem with this approach occurs at the velocity boundaries. A note played with a MIDI velocity of 63 should not sound much different from one with a velocity of 64, but will in fact be as different as notes with velocities of 32 and 95; i.e. one played three times 'harder' than the other!
To ameliorate this, manufacturers use filters and amplifiers to make lower velocities of a given sample sound shorter, quieter and duller — but a better, albeit more difficult, approach entails taking the samples and using them to create a mathematical model of the original instrument with smoothly varying attributes across the full range of velocities. This was the basis of SAS and, together with additional technology that models things such as hammer noise, keying noise and sympathetic resonance, it underpins SuperNatural Piano (and, in modified form, many of the other SuperNatural instruments).
The RD800 offers a modest selection of inputs and outputs. There are just two (L/R) audio channels presented on quarter‑inch jacks, balanced XLRs and quarter‑inch TRS headphones outputs. There's also a stereo audio signal input for playing along with your favourite tunes. Alongside these, there are four controller inputs: one for the damper pedal, plus three assignable inputs. Unfortunately, Roland don't include their triple-pedal RPU3 unit with the RD800, instead supplying the DP10 damper pedal alone.
Digital I/O is provided in the shape of three five‑pin DIN MIDI sockets — In, Out and an assignable Thru/Out2 — plus two USB sockets: one for connection to a computer (MIDI only, not audio), the other for memory sticks and wireless network adaptors. Finally, there's a socket for the universal power supply. Because the I/O panel faces slightly downward, you can't see the sockets when peering over the top of the RD800. Other manufacturers have overcome this by adding legends toward the rear of the control panel, and I exhort Roland to do likewise. It's a small point, but one that makes a big difference.