Yamaha look to reclaim their stage keyboard crown with two world-class live instruments.
Yamaha's stage keyboard heritage goes back more than half a century, and in the 1970s their CP-series electro-acoustic pianos and YC combo organs were amongst the most useful and desirable instruments available to gigging keyboard players.
After a long hiatus the CP-series was revived a decade ago, and the CP4 Stage (which I reviewed in SOS February 2015 issue) is often cited as an ideal stage piano of the modern era: musical, practical, versatile and musician-friendly. It's not entirely clear yet whether the CP88 on test here is a complement to the CP4 or a replacement, but either way it's a new interpretation of the stage keyboard concept for Yamaha.
And now the YC series makes a storming comeback too. Well, we already had a sniff of it in the form of the little mini-key Reface YC of 2015, but the new YC61 is a different and bigger beast altogether.
We'll dig into the detail of each individual keyboard in a moment, but let's first consider what unites them.
To start with I'll just come out and say it: these Yamahas are really Nord-like! If you've even a passing interest in stage pianos and Hammond emulators you'll know that the Nord Stage, Piano and Electro are huge players in this field. The Swedish way has always been to make most aspects of sound selection and control knobby, tactile, direct and responsive, which is a far cry from some Japanese stage keyboard designs of the last two decades (not least the CP4) which have voluminous hidden feature sets in the depths of menu systems.
A Nord-like directness is exactly what we see here. Although both keyboards rely on 128x64 dot LCDs and a menu system for many tasks, all the individual sound-generating sections are equipped with chunky knobs, rocker switches, encoders (with LED surrounds) and two-digit displays. Particularly distinctive are the retro silver metal switches near the keyboard: these toggle a section's on/off status when you momentarily push them up. The overall design gives the impression of interacting with lots of single-task discrete devices, very much in keeping with the current vogue for all things analogue and/or modular.
Another leaf out of the Nord book: these new keyboards are chips off the same block, clearly part of the same wider family. Casework is all metal, high quality, and really confidence-inspiring. The heavy-duty vibe extends out the back too, with sockets nutted firmly to the casework and proper 3-pin IEC mains inlets. The CP88 weighs 18.6kg and the YC61 7.1kg.
There are big overlaps in sound-generating technologies and soundsets too. Yamaha say an Advanced Wave Memory AWM2 engine is used for everything but the YC61's organ sounds, but the pianos have the seamless velocity response behaviour of an acoustic modelling system, and there's plenty of FM knocking about too. Seamless sound switching is evident, allowing presets to be dialled in without silencing anything already sounding. The implementation looks robust except for an edge case where the YC61 VCM (Virtual Circuit Modeling) organ section changes mode, and that is perhaps why Yamaha don't trumpet this ability in its marketing blurb.
So this is all a bold and interesting design departure for Yamaha. Let's see how it plays out in practice.
Although smaller than the CP88, and at first glance simpler, the YC61 is arguably the more sophisticated of the two models on test here. It's cheaper than the big hammer-action board, but not by much.
Centre-stage goes to a fully featured organ emulator, which is supplemented by a broad base of gigging sounds with simple editing features. The 61 semi-weighted velocity-sensitive waterfall-action keys are fast in action and perfect for slippery organ playing, palm glisses and fall-offs. Yamaha employ its slightly narrower 160mm octave width here, which I personally don't notice, and should concern only a small subset of players very sensitive to it.
There are in fact three separate, independent sound generators on board: the VCM/FM Organ, plus two identically equipped 'Keys' sections, A and B. Tied to these are no fewer than nine effects processors of one type or another. The Organ has a dedicated preamp drive, and each of the Keys its own pair of multi-effects in series. An additional multi-effect is on hand to be applied to a single section of your choice and a Speaker/Amp simulator naturally fulfils Leslie speaker duties, but can just as easily dirty up your electric pianos. A simple Reverb is shared by all three sound generators in a send/return arrangement, and finally there's a master-level EQ.
The YC61's organ section is really versatile. On the Hammond front you have the choice between a 'standard' model called H1, a more aggressive midrange-driven and electrically aged H2, or H3 with its very pronounced percussion. Beyond this there are three FM-based organs: a clean sine-wave model and emulations of British and Italian (presumably Vox and Farfisa) transistor designs. The other characterful originals from the Reface YC — the Acetone and a '70s YC — are sadly missing.
All of the organ models will work as two organs in parallel, with separate registrations for a notional Lower and Upper manual that can be played from either side of a keyboard split, or from the YC61's own keyboard in conjunction with an external keyboard controller feeding the MIDI In socket.
The Hammond sounds, allied with the Rotary speaker effect, can be staggeringly good. Other manufacturers also get great results these days of course: the best Nord, Roland and Kurzweil tonewheel sounds are also hugely convincing. But the sense of realism and responsiveness here is uncanny, and it really can feel like you're in the company of a large, loud mechanical presence! At full tilt the organs snarl and growl as does a B3 and a cranked Leslie cabinet. All manner of remarkable...