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Yamaha CP1

Stage Piano By Robin Bigwood
Published June 2010

The CP1's main panel and keyboard, elegantly offset with a '70s‑style tolex finish.The CP1's main panel and keyboard, elegantly offset with a '70s‑style tolex finish.

Yamaha's new flagship stage piano is unashamedly specialist and expensive. How does it rank alongside the best sampled and modelled alternatives, or indeed the original instruments it strives to emulate?

The introduction of Roland's V‑Piano last year redefined just how much could be spent on a stage piano, and Yamaha's new CP1 slots right into that same big‑money market. With its 88-note 'NW‑STAGE' hammer‑action wooden keyboard and chunky 42cm depth, it's certainly imposing and, at around 28kg, quite a struggle for one person to handle. The construction is top class, and the main front-panel controls — 40 shallow push‑buttons plus a centrally mounted 2 x 55 character fluorescent display and six accompanying 'soft' knobs — ooze cool, confident style. It comes with a chunky three‑pedal floor unit, manuals and a software DVD including the Cubase AI DAW application.

At the back of the CP1 are all the usual suspects: a three-pin IEC mains connector, power switch, MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, and a type‑B USB socket for easy connection to a computer. There are no less than six pedal inputs, of which three are meant to accommodate plugs from the supplied pedal unit. Audio emerges on pairs of quarter‑inch jack and male XLR sockets, to allow for balanced and unbalanced operation. One more tiny switch, quite tricky to find, switches on illumination of the back panel's big Yamaha logo — very bling!

The CP1's sounds come courtesy of Yamaha's SCM (Spectral Component Modelling) system, and a list of them can be found in the 'A Lizst Or Two' box over the page.

Performance‑oriented

The CP1 ships with 48 preset 'Performances', effectively patches that showcase nicely all the instrument has to offer. You call these up with 16 dedicated number buttons and three bank buttons, and a further 48 of your own performances go in a dedicated User area. If you need more, so‑called 'External' groups of 48 Performances can be saved to and loaded from a memory stick plugged into the front‑panel socket.

To understand what makes up a Performance, we need to look at the CP1's architecture. Two separate but concurrent 'Parts' each consist of four blocks: piano, preamplifier, modulation effect and power‑amplifier/compressor. The two parts then pass through a single shared reverb and the master equaliser. Front-panel buttons, to the left of the central display, allow you to turn individual blocks on and off, and if you hold them down for a second any associated parameters are called up on the central display. A further two parts, not directly accessible from the front panel, are dedicated to controlling external MIDI devices, and all four parts can be combined through layering, keyboard splits or by being assigned specific key ranges. Playback pitch, pitch‑bend range, velocity response, real‑time controller assignments and other settings can be made on a per‑part basis.

The CP1's rear panel. All of the unit's connections are found here, with the exception of the headphone port and a handy USB memory slot located above the right‑hand end of the keyboard. The CP1's rear panel. All of the unit's connections are found here, with the exception of the headphone port and a handy USB memory slot located above the right‑hand end of the keyboard.

Player Perspective

So far I've stuck mostly to the facts, but stage pianos are (or should be) about feel, response and vibe, so here's my take on the CP1, speaking as a player. I appreciate that piano touch and sound is a decidedly subjective business, so I've tried to be as balanced and philosophical as I can be. Still, I'd urge you to take the following comments as a guide only, and to try out the CP1 for yourself.

The NW‑STAGE undoubtedly has a good keyboard action. The key tops are very slightly textured, and the weight and speed are well judged for stage use. I feel it's best suited to rock and pop‑oriented playing, and works great with the electric pianos. For classical repertoire, it seems too light, and lacks that sense of long‑key 'swing'. By comparison, my own Yamaha U30A upright's action is still markedly more tactile and communicative, and a modern acoustic grand would obviously represent a further step up. Significantly, NW‑STAGE has no obvious escapement 'notch' on the downstroke, and as I investigated this I was surprised to find that no matter how slowly you push down a key, a sound is still triggered, albeit very quietly. Some players might find this a good thing; I thought it was an unconvincing departure from reality.

But what about the sound? Diving in with the two acoustic models was initially a really positive and enjoyable experience. Both the CFIIIS and S6B have plenty of colour and life, the former classy and respectable and the latter more ballsy and suited to jazz and pop. Yamaha have got the top end of the dynamic response spot on, so that even when you're already playing loud, laying in with more energy results in a convincing, natural surge in tone quality and dynamic that seems to go on and on. The way the sound builds smoothly and naturally is really impressive, and is thanks, no doubt, to the modelling‑based approach. However, I liked the bottom end of the touch range nowhere near as much. Quiet playing resulted in the sound seeming to become anaemic and puny, rather than silky but still very present, as with a real acoustic piano. Also, I don't rate the quality of the decay phase, for either acoustic model. Play a chord at a medium to loud dynamic level, and the first second or so is perfectly believable. Wait longer, though, and the sound becomes rather static and plasticky, a touch too reminiscent of memory‑starved workstation keyboard pianos. I also found pedal resonance unrealistic — at least there is a difference when you play a note or chord with the pedal down, but to me it sounds for all the world like it's going through a cheap reverb unit, having a kind of rhythmic, ringing character.

Moving to the electric pianos, I felt the CP1 came into its own. The Wurlitzers and CP80/88 are fantastic, but the various Rhodes models are even better. With these, the CP1 offers a level of involvement that I've rarely experienced in any other electronic instrument, and many Performances that include suitable effects and amp/speaker emulation are totally convincing, in the way that a good real instrument is — you just get on and play it, exploring its musical capabilities, rather than thinking about how it might be improved with a parameter tweak. Every Rhodes model is enjoyable in its own right, ranging from the 71RdI's thick warmth to the 78RdII's willing bark.

The DX sounds are also absolutely authentic, and noodling with them is testament to their ability to recall the excesses of early '80s pop! Still, they'll be a useful inclusion for players working in some genres.

The modulation effects — phasers, flangers, chorus and wah — are all fit for purpose, and work a treat on the electric piano sounds. You can only have one per part, though, and both the 'SmallPha' and 'Max90' phasers cause the acoustic pianos (the CP1's only truly stereo pianos) to go mono. Amp and speaker modelling gives useful character and coherence to the electric pianos, but you can't achieve a really thick overdrive and, annoyingly, it can't be used at all with the acoustics.

A series of front‑panel buttons neatly demonstrate the CP1's internal sound production architecture. Some will wonder, though, if a dedicated piano instrument really gains much the dual‑part, split/layer capability.A series of front‑panel buttons neatly demonstrate the CP1's internal sound production architecture. Some will wonder, though, if a dedicated piano instrument really gains much the dual‑part, split/layer capability.

Further inconsistencies revolve around the electric pianos' preamp block. What Yamaha call 'vibrato' is actually a square‑wave type auto‑pan for the Rhodes models, and for the Wurlitzers a tremolo, which is fair enough. However, these characteristics are absolutely fixed — you can't get auto‑pan on a Wurlitzer, for example — and what's worse is that the tremolo speed is fixed. All far too restrictive. Worse still, the CP1's sound output is disrupted momentarily by adjusting various parameters, such as the tone controls for the CP80/88, 78RdII and Dyno, or by switching some Performance blocks on or off. That's bad enough, but it's downright perverse that you can assign expression pedal control to some of the same parameters. That just allows you to have messed‑up audio under pedal control!

The three 'Rich' reverb algorithms are distinctly average, and MIDI control features are disappointing in practice. The two external MIDI 'parts', whose parameters are hidden away in the programming system, are hard‑wired to transmit on channels three and four, and it's an either/or situation as to whether you use USB MIDI or the five‑pin DIN sockets — you can't have both. With virtually no front-panel controls dedicated to MIDI use, the CP1 feels basic in a master keyboard role, despite a fair degree of programmability if you have the time and inclination.

Magnum Opus?

I was excited to get my hands on the CP1, and I tried hard to like it. It certainly looks the part, and it must be said that it can feel and sound it too. Ultimately, though, I came away less impressed than I thought I'd be.

It boils down, I think, to what you might call price/performance ratio. There's no question that the electric piano sounds are fabulous. Despite my specific reservations about them, the acoustics are also very playable and usable, and will sound excellent on stage or in a mix. But this thing has a price of £4500$6000, and the problem is that fabulous electric pianos and stage‑worthy acoustics can be had for much less money (the 'Alternatives' box singles out some serious contenders that are around half the price). Deep, V‑Piano‑like editability could have sweetened the pill, but it isn't there. Nor are a wide range of sounds that arguably would have been more useful than the DX pianos — clavinet, harpsichord, vibes, an upright or two, a good honky‑tonk, dedicated mono piano sounds... the list goes on. A smattering of string, pad and bass sounds would have added so much, and made much more sense of the split/layer Performance architecture. As it stands, that feels somewhat redundant. The irony is that the CP1's cheaper sibling, the CP5, retains all the key SCM pianos, has the NW‑STAGE keyboard, includes a big sampled sound set and a sequencer, and has arguably more useful front-panel controls. You get far more for about half the money, which makes me think something fishy is going on. Perhaps the CP1 was (or is) destined for greater things, but there's no sign of that currently.  

Alternatives

If you've got £4500$6000 to spend on a CP1, you'll probably also be considering the Roland V‑Piano, which has arguably more advanced acoustic modelling, but only that — it has no electric pianos at all. Save yourself a couple of grand and a host of superb stage‑oriented instruments suggest themselves. Amongst them, the Roland RD700GX's wide range of pianos are arguably just as useful in a typical stage context, they're supplemented with a VK‑series Hammond generator and a broad range of workstation type sounds as well, and its ivory‑feel keyboard with escapement is very fine indeed. Nord's Stage EX also takes some beating as a working instrument, allowing you to choose your own piano selection from a characterful (and growing) on‑line library, and including decent organ and synth sections in a lightweight, easily transportable package.

A Liszt Or Two: CP1 Instruments

Turn on the CP1 and it takes a few moments to boot up. It then doesn't take long, even without referring to the manual, to find out what it's capable of. In terms of basic sounds, you get the following:

Acoustic Pianos:

  • Yamaha CFIIIS 9ft concert grand.
  • Yamaha S6B 7ft grand.

Both are offered in '2Band' and '3Band' versions, supposedly offering different preamp (tone control) characters.

Electric Pianos:

  • Yamaha CP80 & CP88.
  • Rhodes Mk I Stage (in nominal '71, '73 and '75 vintages, with design differences including hammer material and pickup type).
  • Rhodes Mk II (in plastic hammer '78 and Dyno versions).
  • Wurlitzer (in '69 and '77 vintages).
  • Four types of DX (FM) pianos.

Effects:

  • SmallPha (Electro‑Harmonix Small Stone).
  • Max90 and Max100 (MXR Phase 90 and Phase 100 pedals).
  • Flanger.
  • Touch Wah, Pedal Wah.
  • Chorus.
  • D Chorus (Roland Dimension D).
  • 816Cho (basically a sort of detuned unison, that apparently used to be achievable with Yamaha's TX816 FM module by having all eight sound-producing channels set to the same sound, and slightly detuned).
  • Sympho (a multi‑stage chorus from an unspecified Yamaha string machine).

Six power‑amp and speaker effects are available matched to the Wurlitzers and Rhodes (except the Dyno), or you can choose a 'Comp376' compressor, which doubtlessly is name‑checking a UA 1176. The on‑board reverb sports eight algorithms borrowed from Yamaha's Pro R3, SPX90 and SPX1000 rack units and DM2000 mixer, and there's also a five‑band master EQ.

Model Behaviour

SCM, or Spectral Component Modelling, is the tone-generation system behind all the sounds in the CP1, and it crops up in other CP models too. As is always the way, getting to the precise details behind these marketing‑oriented acronyms is almost impossible. However, it doesn't appear to be just another PCM‑based sampling system: it's impossible to detect any switching of samples as you vary dynamic level for individual notes, and nor are there any obvious changes in tone quality from one note to the next, right across the pitch range.

SCM also allows adjustment of a few piano‑related parameters such as hammer stiffness and, for the electric pianos at least, striking position. There aren't many, though, compared to the two other established piano modelling systems, Roland's V‑Piano and Modartt's Pianoteq plug‑in. It's exciting to see Yamaha apparently getting to grips with modelling again, after throwing down the gauntlet so many years ago with their VL‑series synths, but the CP1 is absolutely not a tweaker's dream. There's some flexibility, but only a little.

Pros

  • Quality keyboard action and classy construction.
  • Rhodes and Wurlitzer Performances are musically involving and rewarding.
  • SCM technology overcomes any obvious sample‑switching.
  • Multiple assignable pedal inputs.

Cons

  • Acoustic piano decay and sympathetic resonance are unconvincing.
  • Dual‑part sound-production architecture seems curiously redundant.
  • MIDI control features are restrictive and buried in the editing system.
  • In a flightcase, you'll need roadies to help you move it!

Summary

The CP1 can sound phenomenal, but its acoustic pianos aren't quite the breakthrough that the price tag suggests they might be.

information

£4502 including VAT.

Yamaha Brochure Line +44 (0)1908 369269.

www.yamaha.com

$5999 MSRP.

Yamaha +1 714 522 9011.

infostation@yamaha.com

www.yamaha.com

Published June 2010