Finding an affordable keyboard with a good weighted action and a healthy selection of sounds suitable for studio and live use isn't as easy as you might think. Could Yamaha's S08 be the Holy Grail?
The market for keyboards featuring a piano-like weighted action is quirky at best. Any musician who's ever played a real piano for any length of time, or anyone who's ever studied the piano, almost without exception, prefers to play a weighted keyboard when entering the realm of electronic instruments. But choosing a weighted-action keyboard for use in the studio, and maybe for live outings, can be quite a tricky task.
The best weighted actions are usually found on dedicated digital or stage pianos, but these instruments usually offer a limited number of sounds and features, making them less than ideal if you want a keyboard with plenty of sonic ammunition for stand-alone live or studio work where you don't want to use additional sound modules. Another problem with digital pianos is that those with the best actions are often more like pieces of furniture, so you need a team of removal men every time you do a gig.
There are many controller keyboards available featuring weighted actions, although I've yet to find one I liked to play as much as a digital piano, and these keyboards aren't exactly renowned for their built-in sounds. Finally, there are the high-end workstation instruments, such as Korg's Trinity and Yamaha's own S80 (and forthcoming S90) that are excellent products, but often outside many musicians' budgets.
So what if you want a keyboard that's portable, ideally costs less than a grand (in terms of money, not pianos), has a weighted action like a digital piano, and which contains a useful palette of sounds? Enter the S08.
Yamaha describe the S08 as an 88-note weighted-action synthesizer, although this doesn't really explain what could be viewed as the baby brother of Yamaha's S80 workstation (reviewed in SOS February 2000). Sonically, the S08 features over 700 bread-and-butter GM2 and XG-compatible AWM2 sample-based sounds (with the basic architecture and some waveforms culled from the S80), 64-voice polyphony and 16-part multitimbrality. The S08 also features a custom Yamaha DSP chip to provide 24-bit effects in the form of a reverb unit, chorus unit, and what Yamaha describe as a Variation effect. This can be thought of like insert effects, where the reverb and chorus are basically sends, including delay and distortion, for example.
There's also a built-in Mac and Windows-compatible USB MIDI interface, along with an onboard MIDI file player for playing files stored on a SmartMedia memory card that can be inserted directly into the S08 (see the box on the last page of this article). The back panel also has connections for headphones, stereo audio out, a foot controller and a footswitch (for the sustain pedal), MIDI In, Out and Thru ports, and a DC input for the separate (grrr!) power supply.
When it comes to weight, the S08 is described as being 'lightweight', although I tend to think of my 2kg iBook as being lightweight, rather than a 20kg 88-note weighted-action synth. But despite being physically inept, I was able to lift the S08 on my own without any permanent injuries, and it passed the 'Wherry staircase manoeuvre challenge' with flying colours, with no paint being chipped from the walls.
When it comes to pianos, I think it's fair to say that Yamaha know a thing or two about designing playing actions, both for hardcore electronic musicians and pianists. The S08 features a full 88-note keyboard (which truly gives a sense of freedom if you've ever been restrained by 61- or 76-note ranges) based on the graded-hammer action found in Yamaha's P-series digital pianos. The graded-hammer action tries to emulate the feel of a real piano, whereby the lower notes are always slightly more weighted than the upper notes, which is great for playing Scriabin, but not ideal when programming drums, for example — especially since drum notes are always situated at the lower range of the keyboard.
To make the S08 more suitable for a range of purposes, including playing drums, the S08 features what Yamaha call a 'balanced-hammer action', meaning that the weighting is equal over the entire compass of the keyboard. It'll take pianists a few seconds to adjust their technique, but generally the balanced-hammer action gives the best of both worlds.
I've owned a Yamaha Clavinova digital piano for around eight years and have only recently started being unfaithful to my now vintage model while having an MP9500 on loan from Kawai. However, I personally rate Yamaha's weighted actions as being among the best available, and the S08 felt quite similar to my Clavinova (though perhaps with a marginally lighter touch overall) feeling comfortable to play, with a reasonably natural and smooth action. While I'd be very happy with the S08 as my studio controller keyboard, I think I'd prefer a slightly heavier action for piano practice, purely from a personal control perspective, although I'd admittedly have to pay around twice the price of the S08 to get this.
The only aspect of playing the S08 that might annoy some players is the positioning of the otherwise easy-to-control pitch-bend and modulation wheels — they're placed above the lower part of the keyboard, towards the top of the main surface. The same is true of the S80 (the S08's big brother). Presumably, if the wheels were placed at the end of the keyboard, it would be more expensive to manufacture, in addition to making it about 10cm longer.
The most disappointing sound (and aspect) of the S08 is the rather crucial grand-piano preset, which is the first sound you hear when you power up the instrument. To these ears, the only reasonable-sounding range is between approximately two octaves below middle C and an octave above middle C. Below this, the sounds are muddy, and above this range, the sounds become thinner than the amount of oxygen at the top of Everest, and the loops become glaringly obvious. Sustain any key in this upper range and you'll see exactly what I mean.
Overall this first piano preset lacks depth, and the story doesn't get much better with the other acoustic piano presets, which are presumably based on the same source samples. The only saving grace of the acoustic piano sounds is that they'd be OK with other instruments (say in a band context), or when used in bright rock, jazz or dance music styles. They wouldn't be up to much on Chopin's Nocturnes, though.
Disappointing seems the most apt description for the S08's piano sound — particularly as it's from Yamaha, who, as they prove in other products, have one of the most extensive sampled piano libraries to draw from. The S08 isn't a digital piano, but its weighted keyboard will undoubtedly appeal to pianists, so having an instrument with a weighted keyboard and disappointing piano sound seems to me a bit a like having a caravan without a roof.
However, I don't want to dwell on negativity, because there are some fine sounds lurking elsewhere in the S08. Given that the S08 is a keyboard, it should come as no surprise that the first 70 presets are made up of keyboard sounds, including pianos (acoustic and electric), organs, harpsichords and clavinets. There are some playable Rhodes sound-a-likes, including the indulgently warm 'CrstRoad' and 'StereoEP', plus a deliciously DX-y 'FullTine', and the bells and vibes are also very enjoyable. There's even a good selection of organs for all occasions — the pipe organ is passable, although the 'Church' and 'Cathedral' presets aren't going to convince anyone.
Keyboard-based guitar sounds can always be a problem, and while some of the presets are fun, I don't think the guitar sounds are the strongest part of the S08's sonic arsenal, but I don't think many keyboard players will worry. The large string and smaller choir sounds would work well as pads, and I quite liked the loose pop-pizzicato 'Pizz Oct', but generally I think I've been too spoilt by GigaStudio libraries to get excited about the S08's offerings in this department. The ensemble and solo brass sounds are a pleasant surprise and could easily add some punch to a pop arrangement, although I don't see why the solo brass sounds have to be monophonic in the preset selection.
However, the S08 really shines when it comes to its synth sounds. This is perhaps unsurprising, since the CS1x begat the S80, which in turn begat the S08. The pads are great, such as the imaginatively titled 'Padpia', 'Fantasica', and the 'Ray Of Light Skin' soundalike 'Warmer'. I also really liked the Distorted Reality-esque Musical Effects patches, and there's a good set of pitched and non-pitched drum and percussion sounds.
From a player's perspective, rather than as a hardcore synth programmer, I found the S08 easy to use and there seemed to be enough physical controls to avoid having to dig through endless menus. One quirk that threw me initially was that when you switch sound memories, you have to remember to confirm the change by pressing Enter (Preset, User and GM/XG). Although this is explained in the reasonably well-written manual, it's something you can easily miss if, like me, the instructions generally stay in the box until you get stuck.
In addition to selecting the sounds from the memory banks, there's also a useful voice category search. When activated, you can press the Bass button, for example, which limits you to only selecting sounds in this category until the search mode is disabled again — very handy. Another interface feature that's useful is the task-orientated Job mode, allowing you to carry out relatively complex tasks with ease, such as resetting or copying parameters.
The orange backlight is also very good, making the LCD display easily readable in any situation, which Yamaha state is ideal for a darkened stage. Mind you, if the stage was so dark that such a good backlight was required, you'd probably have more difficulty in locating the correct operation controls than in reading the display!
While it sounds like a bland journalistic catchall, the S08 is very much one of those products that does what's intended, and if the features on offer are what you're looking for (aside from that piano sound), I doubt you'll be disappointed.
Alternative choices could include Yamaha's own P80 digital piano for around £300 less, but as this is just a straight digital piano, with only a smattering of other sounds, the extra features of the S08 (like the wheels, vast sound library and MIDI file player) make it reasonably good value for money if you want the Yamaha weighted action. Alternatively, with the release of the S90, you might be able to get an end-of-line deal on an S80 for around the same price as an S08, which is worth considering.
£1009 inc VAT.