I am in a band that plays live every week, and I've recently had to return the borrowed Yamaha P120 stage piano I've been using to its rightful owner. Is there a keyboard out there that concentrates primarily on piano, electric piano, clav and other funky sounds that you would generally want to use in modern tunes? I read your 2001 review for the Nord Electro 2 which initially seemed to fit this bill, but Gordon Reid, who reviewed it for you, didn't seem that inspired by it! Is there anything else on the market that I should look at? I'm looking for something costing £1000 to £1500 (preferably less) that is professional enough to use on stage, sometimes at pretty big venues. Lastly, is it better to get a synth separately, as built-in ones are a bit rubbish, or is there anything that competently covers it all?
Managing Editor Matt Bell replies: This is a tricky question to answer, as there are many keyboards currently available in your price range that seem to fit the bill. Since you've been using the now-discontinued P120, I'll assume that you want something similar — an 88-note, piano-action keyboard where possible, with a few good other sounds in addition to piano. But you also say that you'd like a synth of some kind. Assuming that this all has to come out of your stated budget of £1000 to £1500, there are various ways to achieve your aims, depending on how important the synth is to you, and how much flexibility you want that to have.
Well beyond your price range is the Clavia Nord Stage 88, at £2195, which is sturdily built, focuses on exactly the kind of sounds you want, and also includes a reasonably flexible built-in synth derived from the Nord Lead 3. This has the virtue of satisfying all your instrument requirements neatly in one product, but it's outside your budget, and what's more, as it's a recently released product, you can't yet find it in shops at much below its stated RRP. However, Clavia are planning to release a 76-note version shortly which will be cheaper, and possibly closer to the upper limits of your budget. Although it's still going to be more than you wanted to pay, perhaps that's the 'aspirational' product that you might be prepared to stretch to or save up for because the feature-set closely matches what you're after. If you'd like more information, the Nord Stage 88 was reviewed in SOS back in February this year (see www.soundonsound.com/sos/ feb06/articles/clavia88.htm).
If you can't afford the Nord Stage, there are still plenty of other options. You mention the Nord Electro 2. This is right on the upper limits of your budget at £1449 for the 73-note version (the largest). Don't necessarily be put off by our 2001 review — that was actually of the original Nord Electro, not the revised Electro 2 now on sale, whose fine built-in sounds and semi-weighted keyboard definitely merit an audition. However, the Electro 2 contains no synth section of any kind (despite its name, which might suggest otherwise to some readers), and since the 73-note Electro 2 would use up all your budget, there'll be nothing left for a separate synth. There are some deals to be had here — as this article went to press, searches of UK retailers revealed Electro 2s on sale for more like £1300 — but £200 left at the top end of your budget won't buy you much of a synth.
Again, though, you might be able to get around this by trading down to the 61-note version of the Electro 2, which officially retails for £1295, assuming you could still be happy with the 61-note confines of the cheaper version. This doesn't leave you much change either, but at current retail discount prices of around £1100 to £1200, you could still have enough dosh left to pick up an Alesis Micron or Korg Microkorg synth (both of which nominally retail for £349, but which can currently be found for around £250) without busting the upper limits of your budget. The Micron was reviewed in SOS in January 2005, the Microkorg in January 2003 (see www.soundonsound.com/sos/ jan05/articles/alesismicron.htm and www.soundonsound.com/sos/ jan03/articles/microkorg.asp respectively).
On the other hand, there are sturdy stage pianos from the big players in the market that include reasonably decent synth engines. Roland's RD700SX nominally retails for £1600, but can currently be had for under £1400, and has the kind of keyboard and sounds you're after, including electric pianos and tonewheel organ sounds alongside the acoustic pianos, plus a GM2 synth engine. There's also Yamaha's P250, which supposedly retails for the higher price of £1629, but can be found for between £1400 and £1450 if you shop around. As well as an onboard sequencer and a GM sound engine, the P250 incorporates Yamaha's XG (eXtended General MIDI) sound engine, which can be reprogrammed via MIDI to create some excellent synth tones if you have the patience — see Mike Senior's excellent articles on this subject in SOS April, May, and June 2004, available for free at www.soundonsound.com/sos/ apr04/articles/xgmasterclass.htm (change 'apr04' in the URL to 'may04' and 'jun04' to access the latter two parts of the series).
However, if having a good-sounding, easily editable synth alongside your stage piano is really important to you, you might want to reduce the amount you spend on the stage piano and increase what you devote to the synth. There are so many digital stage pianos now available at different price points that this is easily done while remaining within your budget. Let's take just three examples, as there's a possible list of many!
Firstly, there's the cutdown version of the Roland RD700SX mentioned earlier, the RD300SX. This retails for £999 and loses the electric piano and Hammond sounds of the 700SX, but it can currently be found for between £700 and £800, which would leave you a maximum of £800 for your synth. This is sufficient for a wide variety of choices, from far-ranging, versatile sample-based rackmount affairs like the Yamaha Motif Rack ES (RRP £949, but currently on sale for around £800 in many stores) or the Roland Fantom XR (RRP £999, but again findable for around £800) to the more affordable virtual analogues like the Alesis Ion keyboard (RRP £680, currently on sale for around £400) or Korg's MS2000B (RRP £600, but now available for under £500). All of these choices have been reviewed in SOS (apart from the MS2000B — we only reviewed the original MS2000), and the articles are available to read at our web site.
Secondly, there's Korg's SP200 stage piano, which has the virtue of simplicity, with just four piano sounds, one honky tonk, and one electric piano sound. It retails for £615, but deals are available on it for as little as £429, which might allow you to also net (say) the aforementioned Alesis Ion or Korg MS2000B and still get a reasonable chunk of change from a grand.
Finally, no aspiring stage piano buyer should make their purchase without at least trying out the recently released M Audio Prokeys 88. At its ludicrously low RRP of £469, you might think that it can't possibly be the one for you, but like Paul Wiffen in our review (starting on page 134 of this month's issue), you may well be surprised by just how good it is at its price — and this choice would obviously leave you a great deal of money to devote to your synth.
Of course, a low price isn't everything, and this is particularly the case with stage pianos. Piano sounds and keyboard actions are such personal matters of preference that you really should attempt to audition the pianos suggested here before making any kind of decision. But I hope these recommendations at least give you some starting points to think about. Let us know how you get on, and good luck!