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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Kawai MP9000

Professional Stage Piano

Reviews : Keyboard
Nick Magnus gets his hands on an instrument which is claimed to provide the best reproduction yet of the feel - and sound - of an acoustic piano.
For many people the quest for a believable acoustic piano substitute has almost amounted to a search for the Holy Grail. The latest pretender to that title is Kawai's MP9000, a sample-based digital piano which doubles as a MIDI master keyboard controller. The concept is not new, as recent offerings from other major manufacturers will attest, and the MP9000 faces competition from the likes of Roland's A90, Korg's SG ProX and Yamaha's P200.

Weighty Keyboard

Let's kick off with the usual hardware tour. The MP9000 has an 88-note weighted keyboard, which sports a very sleek, rather retro-styled, brushed-aluminium top, housing the key/hammer mechanism and providing a slanted panel for the LCD display and controls. To the left of the keyboard are pitch and modulation wheels. It's a heavy beast, at 34 kilos, and its smooth surfaces offer little in the way of gripping points, which makes handling it on your own a bit tricky!

KAWAI MP9000 £1699
Superb acoustic piano sounds (though this is a subjective view, naturally).
Electric pianos are not too shabby, either.
Extremely playable keyboard.
Useful range of effects.
Straightforward editing and programming of sounds.
Useful MIDI controller if your needs are not too ambitious.
No internal EQ via XLR outputs.
Fairly weighty for one person to handle (though this is true of most instruments with a wooden weighted keyboard!).
Impressive in sound, classy in feel, solid and stylish in build, the MP9000 has already become a cherished possession to those who own one. It's not difficult to see why.

The front panel provides controls for sound selection, editing and storage, as well as the extra knobs, buttons and sliders that enable the MP9000 to act as a master controller for your studio/stage MIDI rack. On the rear panel we find the IEC mains connector, stereo outputs, headphone jack, a damper/soft pedal socket that accepts a dual pedal, one momentary-contact control pedal socket, one variable control pedal socket (both assignable), MIDI In, Out, and Thru, and a pair of balanced XLR outputs for 'professional' use. Good idea, the XLRs, but just to jump the gun a little I am slightly curious as to why they bypass the internal, programmable EQ. I'm sure the idea is to provide the cleanest possible signal, but it ignores the fact that the player may have programmed patches that specifically rely on the EQ as an effect. This is not so terrible in the studio, where one has recourse to all sorts of outboard goodies, but it could be an annoyance on stage.

You Hum It, I'll Play It...

Let's get to the nub of the matter straight away. Lengthy descriptions of knobs, buttons and menus aren't worth a thing if the instrument sounds like the proverbial dog's dinner - so what does it sound like? Well, since the primary concern is likely to be the quality of the acoustic piano sounds, I'll stick my neck on that old reviewer's block and say "bloomin' lovely, guv'nor!" (see the 'Kawai's Harmonic Imaging' box). This instrument is, quite simply, a joy to play. The MP9000's keyboard is perfectly calibrated to give effortless control, from the softest pp to a stentorian ff. The dynamic progression between quiet and loud sounds seems to be totally smooth and seamless; in fact, the dynamic range in general is quite remarkable for a sample-based piano.

Closer examination of the sounds via headphones provides the cruellest test of all, as it can reveal nasty artefacts such as audible multisample split points, buzzy sample loops, painfully obvious dynamic velocity switching, and overly compressed samples. The MP9000 acquits itself wonderfully well on these counts. If the sounds loop at all, it is next to impossible to tell when it occurs, and the tone remains rich and full until it has decayed to silence. The consistency of tone across the keyboard is very impressive too, but to be hyper-critical for a moment, I did notice that the Concert Grand sound (as an example) has a small cluster of notes immediately above middle C from F4 to G#4 that are marginally harder-sounding than the rest. As that area of the keyboard tends to be quite a 'heavy traffic' playing area much of the time, the difference in tone is more likely to draw attention to itself. However, I've not yet discovered a digital piano that exhibits none of these problems, and the MP compares more than favourably against the competition in this respect.

The acoustic piano sounds' stereo spread is also worth a mention, being pleasingly realistic as opposed to the exaggerated left-to-right key-follow panorama often employed to make up for the use of mono samples in synths. Oh, and the MP9000 has a maximum 64-note polyphony, with concomitant reduction for layered and stereo sounds. It also utilises a system whereby the stereo piano samples 'overflow' to mono when you exceed 32 notes, providing up to 48-note polyphony for those voices, so you can be cautiously reckless with the sustain pedal (and your oxymorons) before the notes run out.
The Sounds

There are 16 basic sounds to choose from (see 'The Basic Sounds' box), the first five of which are acoustic pianos. The usefulness of these five acoustics will depend on personal taste and the style of music you'll be playing, but my money goes on Pianos 1, 2 and 3 (Concert Grand, Studio Grand and Mellow Grand) as the most realistic. Happily, the MP9000 is not plagued by the heavy, overstated bottom end found on some other digital pianos; the level seems very well-balanced across the range. The Concert Grand is big and rich, with a nice cutting edge to it; Studio Grand has a brighter lower range and has slightly less body resonance in the mid-frequency range; the Mellow Grand is plummier, thus more suitable for solo classical music, yet still retaining a clarity that prevents it from becoming swamped within a larger arrangement. Piano 4 (Modern Piano) is a little more artificial-sounding, with lots of bite suitable for cutting through your typical pop mix. Piano 5 (Rock Piano) is mildly reminiscent of the old Yamaha CP70, but doesn't quite make it for me, being a bit too cheesily artificial and insufficiently CP70-like to find favour with fans of Tony Banks. Maybe the dance fraternity would take to this one?

The Electric Pianos are eminently useful: E. Piano 1 is an excellent imitation of a well-maintained Rhodes Suitcase piano, which is only slightly marred by abrupt velocity-switching of the four dynamic tone variations. E. Piano 2 is a wiry sounding, FM-type Rhodes sound, and E. Piano 3 is reminiscent of a Wurlitzer EP200 - very chunky, although perhaps a tad 'harder' than the real thing. The remaining sounds are on a par with those found in other digital pianos, the Strings, Choir and Upright Bass being at least as good as the best of these, but if you're using the MP9000 in a larger setup you will probably have better options available from elsewhere.

Take Us Ahead - Full Impulse...

The MP9000 has three operating modes: Sound, Setup and System. When you power up, the instrument presents itself in Sound mode, when it functions, in Kawai's words, as a "stand-alone digital piano." Sound mode's main function is to provide you with access to the 16 principal sounds, or patches, of the MP9000. In its out-of-the-box state, each of the 16 patches is set up to play one of these sounds, so Patch 1 plays Piano 1, Patch 2 plays Piano 2, and so on. These patches can be edited to your own tastes in a number of ways. Firstly, you can split the keyboard into two zones at an assignable split point, or use two sounds layered together. 
As you would expect, you can also specify the zones to overlap. The two leftmost faders act as volume controls for each of the internal sounds so you can get the balance just right. Editing the sounds is straightforward: you just press the Select button above the appropriate Upper or Lower zone fader, click through the parameters using the Menu buttons, and alter the values using the Value buttons. Any edits you make in Sound mode can be stored back into the original location. Your window to the inner heart of the MP9000 is a two-line backlit LCD - small by today's standards, but it tells you all you need to know, one parameter at a time, in a reasonably clear fashion.

Further editing is possible via the four rotary knobs. The function of these can be changed via the four accompanying buttons to the left, and the knobs are clearly labelled to reveal what their function will be in association with each of the four buttons. The top button accesses the Effects (see Effects section below), the second controls a 4-band EQ, and the third offers control over the ADR envelope and filter cutoff frequency of the internal sounds. The fourth button, as far as the internal sounds are concerned while in Sound mode, does nothing. However, if you have either of the two external zones switched on (thus transmitting MIDI messages to an external instrument) these knobs will send preset controller messages using controllers 10, 11, 16 and 17.
Kawai's Harmonic Imaging
Although the owner's manual makes no mention of it, Kawai's glossy brochure for the MP9000 reports that they employed a technique called Harmonic Imaging to create the acoustic piano samples for this instrument. Minimal clarification is given here, except that they used a soundproof anechoic chamber at their facility and a team of "piano sampling specialists from around the globe" to record a Kawai EX Concert Grand piano, "free from external noise or colouration." Apparently, the Harmonic Imaging process involves creating a map of the EX's harmonic structure at all pitches and dynamic levels. Kawai have also added Virtual Voicing (which appears as a parameter in the edit menu) to further extend the variety of tones from the MP9000. This enables you to simulate the way an actual piano technician would adjust the hardness of the hammers to produce a softer or harder tone. To top it all off, Sympathetic Resonance has been added (found as an effect in the EFX list) to simulate the harmonic 'ringing' sound of un-damped strings. You can read about all this in more detail on Kawai's US web site at www.kawaius.com/mp9000.htm.
The Effects

The MP9000 comes equipped with a varied and useful range of effects, which come in two sections, Reverb and EFX, independently switchable for each of the internal zones. The reverb comes in seven flavours: Plate, Room 1, Room 2, Stage 1, Stage 2, Hall 1 and Hall 2, each with only two editable parameters, Time and Depth (ie. Level). They sound pretty smooth, while generally being a little on the bright side; it would have been nice to have an HF parameter to round them off a bit, but as internal reverbs go, they're more than serviceable.

The second effect type, EFX, sports a respectable 21 varieties (see the 'EFX Types' box) which are also editable in a limited way. As with the reverb, you can vary the EFX depth, plus one other parameter - usually Rate, Time or whatever is most appropriate for the effect in question.

The MP9000 can only do one Reverb and one EFX per patch, globally for the whole instrument. If you have two sounds in a split or layer, you can have different amounts of each effect for the Upper and Lower zones, so your Concert Grand could be awash with reverb, while your Electric Piano has just the merest halo. However, the reverb time and EFX Rate (or Time, or whatever) are common to both sounds, so if you speed up the Chorus for one sound it'll speed up for both.

Setup Mode

If you want to use the full complement of master keyboard functions, you will want to use Setup mode. This enables the MP9000 to double as a MIDI master controller, offering 64 user-programmable patch locations in which to store your own Setups. These include your choice of sounds and effects on the MP9000's keyboard, together with the parameters for communicating to your MIDI rig in the way you'd like. Up to 32 of these Setups can be 'linked' in any order to form a chain that can be stepped through sequentially. Thirty-two is perhaps a little on the stingy side, but nevertheless the facility is a boon for live work. As well as the two Internal zones (and their associated sounds) there are two extra zones for communicating with the outside world via MIDI. These zones have their own faders, which send Controller 7 volume messages, and switches. The switches below the faders turn the zones on and off, while the switches above the faders are used to select which zone is to be edited, one at a time. Each zone can be set to transmit on any of the 16 MIDI channels, and like the internal zones, can have independent key ranges specified. 

EFX Types
Chorus 1.
Chorus 2.
Chorus 3.
Flanger 1.
Flanger 2.
Delay 1.
Delay 2.
Auto Pan.
Phaser 1.
Phaser 2.
Rotary 1.
Rotary 2.
Auto Wah.
Sympathetic Resonance.

The external zones are where the four rotary knobs come into their own. When either or both of the external zones are active in Setup Mode, and the EFX button is lit, knobs 2 and 4 send Chorus depth and Effect depth messages (controllers 93 and 91) from the MIDI output. The EQ button, when lit, serves to affect the internal sounds; if the Tone Modify button is lit, the knobs send control change messages 74, 73, 75 and 72 to respectively control Cutoff, Attack, Decay and Release parameters on an external synth. However, when I tried this, the only instrument in my studio that responded to these messages was my Roland JV2080 in GM Mode, and even then it ignored controller 75 (Decay). I can only assume that these messages are primarily intended for instruments dedicated to GM/GS use, but having no access to such a GM device, I could not examine this fully.

Lastly, pressing the MIDI button allows the knobs to send other controller messages. Whereas the knobs' controller numbers were preset while in Sound mode, in Setup mode you can choose your own controller numbers for each zone, thus opening up the potential for a wider range of control over your external MIDI kit. The MP9000 doesn't go as far as other more sophisticated MIDI controllers on the market that allow you to assign SysEx strings to knobs or faders, but it does cover the basic performance controller options most people are likely to need. In general, the MP9000 seems to have been designed more for on-stage immediacy and use with GM and GS modules than down-in-the-dirt MIDI power users.

Stage Versus Studio

Aside from the Sound and Setup modes, the MP9000 has two distinctly different personalities. 
As the subtitle 'professional stage piano' suggests, Kawai view the instrument primarily as a live performance tool. However, many players will want to record an MP9000 studio performance into a sequencer and have it replay their efforts. To this end, Kawai have blessed the MP with a further two playing modes, selectable from the System menu - one for live performance, and the other to cope with sequencing applications. The System parameter in question, 'Int TX' defaults to Off (for live performance) on power-up. If you want to use the MP with a sequencer, you must set this parameter to On, otherwise you will not hear the same sounds that the MP's keyboard generates. It seems a little bit cumbersome to have to consciously select a 'sequencer' mode, but having done so, it does what it says on the tin, and enables your sequencer to play the MP's internal sounds and effects exactly as they sound on the keyboard.

Unusually for an instrument majoring in piano, the MP9000 is also 16-part multitimbral. 'Int TX On' uses up parts 1 and 2: to access the other 14 parts you must go to the System menu, choose System channel 1, then set the desired parts to receive MIDI data. Selecting the sound for each part entails sending program changes to the MP9000 on each channel to select the desired basic sounds (PG#1 corresponds to Piano 1, PG#6 corresponds to Piano 6 and so on.) The effects are reserved only for Parts 1 and 2 (ie. those that are actually played by keyboard), so any sounds on Parts 3 to 16 can have no effects. I personally felt the general implementation of this to be rather arcane, and the lack of effects limits the usefulness of the additional multitimbral sounds somewhat, but the facility is there if you can think of 16 simultaneous things for the MP9000 to do!
The Basic Sounds
1 Concert Grand.
2 Studio Grand.
3 Mellow Grand.
4 Modern Piano.
5 Rock Piano.
6 E. Piano 1 (Rhodes-type).
7 E. Piano 2 (FM-type).
8 E. Piano 3 (Wurlitzer-type).
9 Organ 1 (Jazz/rock. Hammond-type with percussion).
10 Organ 2 (Church/rock Hammond-type).
11 Clavi (Clavinet).
12 Vibraphone.
13 Strings.
14 Choir.
15 Bass 1 (Upright).
16 Bass 2 (Electric).
The Keyboard

Last, but certainly not least, it's time to discuss the feel of the keyboard (see the 'Enhanced AWA Grand Action' box below). First impressions were favourable: it has a firm, fluid action, not too heavy, with a satisfying thud as the keys hit home, and a nice grand-piano bounce to it. Fast repeated playing of single notes is easily accomplished without the keys 'bottoming out', and the overall touch response of the instrument can be adjusted in the System menu to suit any type of player from an elephant to a weak and feeble crone. Further playing transformed my favourable impression to one of admiration; other weighted keyboards feel, well, dumpy by comparison. As I've already mentioned, the ease with which the dynamics can be controlled is sure to become a source of deep and lasting joy.

Working With The MP9000

So, how well does the sound of the MP9000 integrate with your music? Having been using it in various mixes, I found the acoustic pianos blended very well indeed with other instruments, the lower registers in particular benefitting from a clear, unmuddied character. I also found that it responds best to velocity, and therefore sounds best, when played from its own keyboard. This became clear when playing the MP9000 via MIDI remotely: the MP's dynamics are clearly tailored to suit its own keyboard. For the same reason, a sequenced piano part that was originally recorded on a different keyboard for a different sound source will probably not replay satisfactorily on the MP9000.

Enhanced AWA Grand Action
The MP9000's keyboard boasts Kawai's newly developed Enhanced AWA Grand Action. This mechanism accounts for the height and weight of the instrument, and consists of 88 balanced and weighted wooden keys, incorporating a pivoted hammer mechanism to closely approximate the feel of a real piano action. Unlike standard keyboard designs where the electrical contacts are under the keyboard, the contacts on the MP9000 are attached directly to the hammer rail - in other words, when the hammer strikes, that is the exact moment the note sounds.

As a MIDI controller, the MP9000 provides reasonable flexibility for general use, both on stage and in the studio. Whilst the facility to assign the control knobs to SysEx parameters would have been a huge bonus, one has to appreciate the directness and simplicity of what it can do. As a piano sound source its merits are, of course, more subjective, but from a personal point of view I found it very rewarding and inspiring, and never tired of playing the instrument. Indeed, I'd suggest that a MIDI sound module incorporating these piano sounds could also sell in quite respectable numbers. Admittedly, we already have the Korg SG Rack, Kurzweil Micropiano, GEM Realpiano and Alesis Nanopiano to name a few other modules: nevertheless, there are probably many people who already own a weighted keyboard that suits them well, but would love to get their hands on these classy Kawai piano sounds once they hear them.

Ultimately, it will be the combination of sound and feel that will sell the MP9000, and it certainly represents the upper class of digital pianos. You could liken it to a Bentley: very classy, solidly built, and extremely luxurious. I'll hold back from comparing it to a Rolls Royce - you have to leave room at the top for future developments in this area - but the MP9000 is definitely a feast for your fingers and ears! 

Published in SOS January 2000

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