Almost a decade since the release of their classic EMT10, Yamaha have returned to the piano module market, spinning off some of the technology used in their top‑end digital pianos and packaging it in an inexpensive half‑rack expander format. Dave Crombie tickles the virtual ivories...
When it comes to reproducing piano sounds in the studio, there's nothing like the real thing, but unfortunately, a real piano isn't a practical option for most people, especially those working in a MIDI environment. Many people think that they can get by using a synth preset or a sampler for their piano sounds, but there are good reasons for getting a dedicated module to handle your piano duties. Firstly, consider the problem of polyphony: you need at least 24 voices to get a realistic piano sound that really plays like a piano. You might have a killer set of Steinway nine‑footer samples, but try mapping them across your keyboard and playing them with an 8‑voice sampler: a sustained arpeggiated run up the keyboard will have those notes dropping like flies. And if you have a dedicated piano module, you free up all those sampler voices for other purposes. The second reason is that nine times out of 10, a dedicated device simply does the job better. This, of course, is where the likes of the P50m come in.
The P50m is apparently the first piano module to be produced by the professional MI division of Yamaha. The company's EMT10, the piano module by which all other piano modules have been judged, was released many years ago by the home keyboard division of Yamaha, and utilised AWM (advanced wave memory) technology from their Clavinova range [the EMT10 was reviewed way back in SOS October 1988 — Ed]. The P50m is not related to the EMT10, although it is the same size, and uses AWM2 technology. In fact, the P50m shares many of its raw waveforms with Yamaha's more high‑end P‑series digital pianos, such as the P150 (reviewed in SOS June '96). As a result, the P50m is a much more happening product than the old EMT10, but it's nevertheless worth mentioning that anyone wanting a low‑cost (and really very good) piano module could pick up a second‑hand EMT10 for around £100, and have a pretty authentic piano sound to play with, as well as a range of other preset sounds, including an excellent (although now dated and over‑used) Choir patch.
On the face of it, the P50m is a simple device, half‑rack in width and 1U high. It can be rackmounted using Yamaha's RK101 rack tray kit, although its dimensions are also suitable for free‑standing use (the top panel even has the list of preset programmes printed on it). The controls are all mounted along the front panel, with LEDs indicating switch status. A 3‑digit numeric display shows data levels, which are set using a stepped rotary dial, and a 3‑band graphic EQ (low, mid and high) can be brought in to adjust the overall tone. The P50m can also be tuned from its front panel, and the output can be transposed up or down 12 semitones. However, the front panel does not provide access to all controls — despite having an onboard chorus unit and reverb (which are used to enhance certain presets), the P50m has no front‑panel controls that let you alter the chorus parameters; you have to resort to MIDI commands. Talking of MIDI, the P50m works neatly within XG or GM setups so that the piano tracks of a sequence will be played only by the P50m.
Naturally for a piano module, the P50m is touch‑sensitive, and a Touch control utility is provided to enable the P50m to be matched to your keyboard and/or playing style, offering eight velocity curves to choose from when setting up the unit. These vary from 'Easy1', which enables a loud volume to be achieved from a relatively soft touch, to 'Hard 2' which produces a loud volume only from a strong, fast touch. The two 'Cross' curves produce a compressed response, so that the output spans a narrow dynamic range.
The P50m has 28 programs, accessible via MIDI and the data dial. Some of the voices feature stretch tuning — a slight sharpening of notes in the upper register, which is designed to give a lift to the overall sound. The sounds are typically 32‑note polyphonic, but some layer voices, which reduces the maximum number of notes that can sound to 16. I feel this isn't quite enough, but if you remain aware of the programs that layer in this way, you can probably work around this limitation. Should you want to seriously increase your polyphony, two P50ms can be linked to provide up to 64 simultaneously‑sounding notes.
Sounds can be modified from the front‑panel controls: a Tone control can cut or boost the overall brightness of a voice, and the Reverb Send button enables you to program the mix of the reverb. When these two parameters are altered for a sound, their new values are stored, even after powering down. Each of the 28 presets has its own brightness and reverb setting. It's all very well being able to change the tone of the piano sound, and add reverb and maybe chorus, but acoustic pianos are about a lot more than tone. The beauty of the acoustic piano's sound lies within the rich harmonic structure of the instrument, and this structure is constantly changing throughout the duration of each note. Recreating this electronically is damn difficult, and doing so for £349... well, you can't expect a Bösendorfer, but with the P50m you certainly get your money's worth. A full list of sounds is given in the 'Programs' box, but some are worthy of special mention. '05 Dark Piano' is a warm‑sounding preset, and is very pleasing in the upper registers, without being too strident. The Grand Pianos (06‑09) are especially good in the upper top registers, with the transients (the sound of the hammer striking the string) accurately recreated, although the non‑pitch related elements of the sound do actually vary in pitch depending on which note is played. The bass end is pretty good, if lacking in animation.
'10 Dance' brings us up to date — it's a very usable hard contemporary percussive sound, rich in harmonics. Programs 19‑22 provide an excellent collection of Rhodes Piano‑like sounds, with just the right amount of distortion, and '26 Wurli' achieves a spot‑on rendition of a classic Wurlitzer, without the crackles and smoke. The Clavi sounds (27 ands 28), though found within the factory presets of virtually every synthesizer, are also extremely good.
On the whole, the sounds are extremely well balanced, and have the air of quality you would expect from a Yamaha product. But perhaps they are a little too clean — even the distortion is clean. The acoustic pianos, for example, do not live and breathe like the genuine article, and there's no natural movement to the sound — a problem especially noticeable in the mid to lower registers. Maybe that's why Yamaha added chorus and reverb, but I believe the fundamentals should be right first.
This piano module is nicely designed, very simple to use, with clear control surfaces, and a good wide range of piano sounds. Although, with the Clavi, there is a nod in the direction of those modules that try to 'do‑'em‑all' — ie. those that include harpsichords, vibraphones, celestes, chimes, glockenspiels and so on, mercifully Yamaha have restricted this unit to acoustic and electric piano sounds. The latter are excellent, but the acoustic pianos, always a problem, do leave a little to be desired, and tend to lack life. Having said that, the P50m does represent excellent value for money, and can be favourably compared to the likes of the Emu Proformance Plus, the Kurzweil MicroPiano and the Voce Electric Piano Module (although this only has electric piano sounds). I think that the P50m will work best in live applications, where the environmental factors generally enhance the naturalness of the sound. The unit seems to record well, especially in ensemble pieces, but I don't think the P50m could be considered as a replacement for the acoustic instrument in classical solo applications — but then that's not what its designed for. The acoustic piano is probably the greatest instrument in the world, and a £20,000‑plus masterpiece, the result of 300 years of mechanical design, is not going to be replaced by a £349 black box! Nevertheless, the P50m is a very handy piece of kit to have around, especially in a MIDI studio, and is well worth its price.
Dave Crombie is the author of Piano — Evolution, Design & Performance, a lavishly illustrated and detailed history of the development of the pianoforte from its earliest roots to the Grands and uprights of today. The book is available from the SOS Bookshop, priced £19.95, plus £3.95 UK postage, £7.50 for Europe and £14.50 for the rest of the world.
- Tone Generation: AWM2 (Advanced Wave Memory 2)
- Polyphony: 32‑note (16 for layered voices)
- Presets: 28
- Effects: Reverb, Chorus, 3‑band Graphic
- Touch Sensitivity Curves: 8 Types
- Display: 3 x 8‑segment LEDs
- Ports: MIDI In/Out; DC In; Outputs R, L/Mono jacks
- Power supply: PA3B AC adaptor
- Dimensions: 220 x 210 x44 mm
- Weight: 1.2kg
- Good range of piano sounds (and some particularly fine electric piano sounds).
- MIDI access to many preset parameters.
- Excellent dynamic range.
- Good value.
- Easy‑to‑use, nicely‑produced manual.
- Acoustic piano sounds a little lifeless, especially in the lower mid and lower region.
- 16 voices can be a bit limiting.
A very worthwhile successor to the EMT10. Perhaps a little too clinical in overall sound quality, but if you use a weighted keyboard and a little imagination, you might just fool yourself you were playing an acoustic instrument.