Few people would deny that there's nothing like a real acoustic piano — but they're not always the most practical of instruments. Paul Ward looks at an electronic alternative that could be the answer.
Yamaha are no strangers to the world of pianos, of both the acoustic and electronic variety. The new P150 sees them refining the electronic version, with an instrument that aims to provide a convenient and realistic alternative to the real thing for professional stage and studio applications, as well as home entertainment and music study use. Yamaha have also equipped the P150 with enough control features to make it a viable contender as a mother keyboard.
At nearly 34 kilograms, the P150 is certainly no lightweight. Gigging musicians ought to think long and hard before taking one of these on the road (unless, of course, you pay someone else to do the lifting). The manual thoughtfully suggests getting help to take it out of the packing and onto a stand — and having had first‑hand experience of this procedure, I'm not about to argue! Weight aside, the build quality of the P150 is very nice indeed, with an understated air of refinement that would see it as much at home in a living room as in Abbey Road studios. The flat top (with its grilles hiding the pair of 13cm speakers) reminds me of the good old, bad old days when the number of keyboards you used on stage was governed by the number of flat surfaces available to stack them on! Certainly an Atari computer or PC keyboard would sit comfortably on here, with room to spare for a mouse mat.
The keyboard itself is an 88‑key, weighted‑action, touch/aftertouch‑sensitive affair, incorporating Yamaha's 'Action Effect II' keyboard technology, which is designed to give the feel and response of a real piano keyboard. Over to the left are the pitch and modulation wheels. These came as something of a pleasant surprise, falling straight under my left hand with a reassuring non‑slip finish and a very positive response. Although performance devices are largely a matter of personal taste, for what it's worth, I'd like to give these my own seal of approval. A headphone socket is sensibly placed at the front left‑hand edge of the instrument, just below the pitch and modulation wheels.
The rear panel hosts a pair of standard quarter‑inch jack sockets to connect the P150 to a mixer or external amplification, and a switch to turn off the internal speakers. A further pair of sockets also allows an external instrument to share the P150's built‑in amplifier and speakers. Connectors for sustain, sostenuto and soft pedals are provided, along with a foot controller input — and those three wise MIDI sockets put in an appearance too.
Just above the keyboard are the main controls and a 32‑character backlit LCD with contrast control. To the far left, and out of arm's way (sorry!) is the power button. To the right is the main volume slider, which governs the output level from the built‑in speakers, the jack outputs and the headphone socket simultaneously. Next in line is the programmable control slider, which also doubles up for data entry duties. This slider can be assigned to a MIDI control parameter and also given a pair of values which define the range over which the control will function. This is a useful feature allowing for fine control over, say, a synth's filter cutoff, where it may not be appropriate for the filter to ever close down fully. While we're on the subject, the continuous foot controller can also be similarly programmed.
A pair of programmable panel switches is provided, although the degree of programmability is restricted to a choice of off/start/stop/continue. This is a shame, since it would have been useful to be able to send other 'on/off' control messages, such as portamento or hold, particularly when using a sequencer. These two buttons also act as +1(Yes)/‑1(No) data controls in the various edit pages.
Keyboard splits and transpositions of up to +/‑24 semitones can be accommodated. The buttons responsible also double as the cursor control buttons when editing. Both of these buttons have an accompanying LED to make the user aware that they are active.
The final control is the MIDI button. This quite simply toggles MIDI transmission on and off — would that all synths had this feature. If the MIDI button is pressed in conjunction with the effect and modulation buttons, the P150 will perform a 'MIDI Panic Send' that should silence hanging notes and reset any wayward controllers. When editing, the MIDI button steps through the various pages.
The P150 can be used in one of two basic modes: Voice and Performance. Voice mode gives access to any of the 12 basic AWM (Advanced Wave Memory) instrument voices, which consist of four Pianos, three Electric Pianos, Vibes, two Organs, Strings, and Bass. In fact, there are actually 13 voices, since the Bass voice can be toggled between Upright and Electric Bass. Similarly, Pianos 1 and 2 are switchable between stereo and mono versions. Each voice has its own set of parameters,which govern its associated effects, equaliser settings, keyboard sensitivity (both internally and via MIDI), pitch‑bend range and mod wheel assignment. Two voices can be layered or split at any point across the keyboard, with variable balance, detuning, and transposition. Dual or split configurations make use of the concept of a 'Main' and 'Sub' voice, with the Main voice's specific settings (effect, pitch‑bend range, and so on) taking precedence over the Sub voice. When you are happy with your edits, the current configuration can be stored as one of the 12 Performance memories in each of the A and B Performance banks. Performances can be stored and named with up to 16 alpha‑numeric characters, and in Performance mode the P150 can instantly recall these previously stored configurations.
Two simultaneous effects are available, specifically a reverb type (Room, Stage, or Hall, with reverb depth programmable for each Performance) and a modulation type (Chorus, Symphonic, or Tremolo). The reverbs are competent, if unexciting, though the Room reverb is especially adept at adding a little resonant realism. The modulation effects represent a nice selection of their type, although I would like to have seen a rotary speaker simulation to help out the organ voices. Besides the depth of effect, speed is also programmable and can be modulated. Some of the factory Performances make use of this feature by assigning the mod wheel to create varispeed Leslie‑type effects.
The 3‑band EQ is more than welcome, and it performs its duties with a minimum of fuss. Rather than merely embedding the EQ controls in a sub‑menu (although they can be found there as well), Yamaha have blessed the P150 with three front‑panel sliders.
The P150 can transmit Performance bank A, bank B, or all of its internal settings as a system exclusive dump. Both transmit and receive filters are available, and you can selectively remove data such as note on/off, program change, and aftertouch from the MIDI stream. Yamaha have also implemented something I have been asking manufacturers for for years — a MIDI merge facility. This takes data arriving at the MIDI In and merges it with that generated internally, passing both to the MIDI Out. When in use with an external sound module, this gives the ability to perform data dumps from the module without any re‑patching. It also enables you to use a pair of mother keyboards in a live situation without recourse to a stand‑alone MIDI merger or patchbay.
The sound of the P150 is impressive. The three acoustic Pianos are undoubtedly the stars of the show, with the stereo Pianos in particular exhibiting a depth and richness that should satisfy in all but the most demanding of situations. That's not to say that all the other voices are not up to scratch, but the stereo Pianos are really so good that I found myself wondering how the others would have sounded had they been recorded in stereo too. Piano 4 presents a wonderfully clunky rendition of the old Yamaha CP70 electric grand that I still find very appealing, and had me digging into my 1970s repertoire quicker than re‑runs of The Old Grey Whistle Test. The Electric Pianos are excellent, with that characteristic 'bite' at higher velocities. Vibes are as close to the real thing as I've heard, but I struggled a little with the organs. Organ 1 sounded very much like many of the DX7 organ sounds I have heard over the years. With judicious editing of the drawbar combinations (see box 'Top Draw(bar)') and a little EQ I was able to come up with some reasonable pad organs, but I just couldn't get the attack and 'spit' of a lead organ sound. Organ 2 makes a better stab at such timbres, but the lack of any editing left me feeling frustrated. The Strings are a little on the fizzy side for my taste, although I found a touch of high‑frequency cut helped to get things under control. I would like to have heard more of a bowed attack at higher velocities, but that might be nit‑picking on my part. The Electric Bass is adequate, though by seemingly treading the middle ground between being an all‑out slapped bass and a rounded, plucked tone, it doesn't cut either of them particularly well. The Upright Bass, on the other hand, is warm and full‑bodied.
Available polyphony caused me some concern. When playing a single mono voice, the P150 is 32‑note polyphonic, which seems quite generous. When a stereo voice is selected, this drops to 16. As soon as dual modes are wheeled in, things start to become tight. I could certainly hear note‑stealing occurring on more complex arrangements, especially with a lot of sustain pedal action. Whether this would present a problem is really down to the individual's use of the instrument.
I like the P150 very much. I think Yamaha have got the keyboard response just about right, although, in common with its contemporaries, there is still a certain 'detachment' from the sound that an experienced pianist would probably spot straight away. The sounds are generally excellent and would stand up well in situations where they need to appear in isolation, unlike most jack‑of‑all‑trade synths and workstations. The master keyboard facilities are adequate, especially given that excellent MIDI merge feature, although it could probably be argued that a 'real' master keyboard would need more zoning facilities and control sources.
If you're looking for a competent, weighted‑action keyboard as the controller for a larger system, you should consider whether it might be worth sacrificing a little of the flexibility of a dedicated master keyboard for those high‑quality on‑board voices. If, on the other hand, your goal is a realistic piano sound with a good keyboard action, the master facilities should be seen as a bonus. Either way, this machine should certainly have a place on your audition short‑list.
The internal speakers generally did justice to the P150, although they did begin to flounder on some voices at high volumes. I particularly enjoyed the vibrations under my fingers as I played, which helped the illusion of playing an acoustic instrument. With the internal speakers switched off, although my studio monitors gave a better overall sound quality, I found myself missing that tactile feedback and so switched them back on. The loss in audio coherence was more than made up for by the enthusiasm generated by the feeling of actually 'hitting' something real!
We thought it would be interesting to get the views of a professional, classically‑trained pianist. Richard Taylor, musician and writer of musicals including Once Upon a War and Whistle Down the Wind, gives his opinion following an evening with the P150:
"The keyboard action is pretty good, although the keys seem to have a little too much travel. When stretching for wide intervals with the left hand, I found the edge of the keys to be too close to the metalwork to allow for my usual playing style. Other than this I was happy with the response and range of dynamics.
"The acoustic Piano voices are fine — particularly Piano 1. Piano 3 is probably the least successful, though the higher notes are as close to a Steinway as I've heard from an electronic simulation. The Vibes are outstanding and the Electric Pianos generally well represented, though some of the jumps in tone with higher velocities are a little unsubtle in places. With several of the voices I found some ranges of keys sound better than others. This is very much the case with the Strings, where the extreme lows and highs are excellent, yet the middle ranges are fizzy and unrealistic. The Bass Guitar is not too good in any range!
"The internal speakers are OK, though they did have problems at higher volumes, where heavy bass notes caused higher notes to 'gargle' in sympathy. I'd be happy to own and use a P150, both as a writing tool and a performance instrument. At the moment there is still no substitute for the real thing, but this is as close as they get."
Although there is no way to edit the basic sounds on the P150 as such, Yamaha offer some good old‑fashioned drawbar parameters for the Organ 1 voice, on the 'Organ Combination' page. Not only can the basic levels of the various harmonic registers be set, but the overall attack and individual percussion times for the higher registers can also be edited. Another feature I welcome is multiple (polyphonic) or single (monophonic) percussion modes, the latter going a long way to making Hammond emulations more authentic. I was somewhat dismayed to see this Organ Combination editing restricted to the Organ 1 voice, since I found the sound of Organ 2 to be more up my boulevard. Such is life...
- Superb, realistic piano voices.
- Beautifully responsive keyboard action.
- Master keyboard facilities with MIDI merge feature.
- Available polyphony could be a problem, especially with layered voicings.
An excellent electronic piano with a liberal sprinkling of master keyboard facilities. If a realistic weighted‑action keyboard is high on your list of priorities, this could be the one for you. It looks good in the drawing room too!