Well, I guess all the previous commentary about GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) must have had a lingering affect as I succumbed this past weekend to the newly released Roland RD700GX Stage Piano/Master MIDI Controller. Suffice it to say that this is a serious piece of kit, so I’m dividing this post into two sections: an easy non-technical read and another aimed more at fellow musicians because I know there’s lots of you out there waiting to hear some early reviews before pulling the trigger!
The new Roland RD700GX installed
And my view!
|In the “old days” a keyboard rig with lots of sounds required lots of keyboards – you’ve probably seen pictures of old classic rock bands with monster rigs, stacks of keyboards? Today, most keyboard players (both in live performance and in the studio) rely upon a smaller number of keyboards, and quite often a SINGLE keyboard is now used to control multiple sound sources. This is possible because these devices are inter-connected with each other through a technology known as MIDI; which oddly enough has been in existence for more than 20 years! It’s just been refined and improved over the years such that you no longer experience some of the earlier woes (such as “delays” or “drop-outs”) when pressing a key that ultimately triggers a tone from a different unit. I very much subscribe to this model because it allows me to save space and simplify by using one keyboard to control EVERYTHING (well mostly everything). In fact, I’m not sure I even count how many sound sources I have when you get right down to it… Definitely in the healthy thousands when you factor all of the software-based sources – so you can easily see the power of having everything connected via a MIDI “Master Controller”. That’s why we refer to such a keyboard as the Master Controller – because it is!
The new Roland unit replaces my long-standing Kawai MP8, which I used for over 3 years; so this was by no means an impulsive purchase. But it stands to reason that technology evolves in that time frame, and the new Roland definitely introduces some pretty cool goodies. You might expect that the most important criteria would be the “sound” of the unit? Well, that’s really not the case for me because as mentioned, the Master Controller triggers sounds from a variety of sources not just itself, so if I don’t like or can’t find a particular sound (or “patch” as we term it), I can just redirect the Roland to trigger an alternate sound source – in fact that’s pretty much modus operandi. You might recall that earlier MP3s I provided from Seduction used the on-board Kawai piano sound, but I switched to a higher quality piano sample as the song progressed even though it was still played from the Kawai…
Therefore, the most important criteria, at least for me, is the FEEL of the keyboard. When you close your eyes and play it, does it FEEL authentic – as in like a real piano? Of course, it’s impossible to replicate the feel of an acoustic grand for several reasons, and even worse, I am spoiled with an absolute reference vis-a-vis my Steinway Grand that sits in the living room. But still, the feel (or the action as it is often termed) is very important. One of coolest things about the Roland is the introduction of this Ivory feeling material on the keys; it’s great because your fingers don’t slip after long sessions – hence the reason why ivory was once the preferred surface for higher-end pianos.
That said, the RD700GX also sounds pretty damn good! Very good, in fact! The piano patches are exquisite and very adjustable. Another sign of the times is the inclusion of a USB port into which a USB drive (or thumb drive) can be inserted with MP3s to be used for backing tracks within the RD700GX! That’s a pretty cool feature for practicing and/or composition as tunes are often derived from a simple riff or rhythm. Suffice it to say that no buyer’s remorse so far!
Alrighty then! I assume that if you’re reading this, you long since read the Specifications provided by Roland so I won’t regurgitate those, rather I’ll focus on providing my personal perspective and some comparison to the Kawai MP8 that I replaced. Let me start by saying that this was not an easy decision because the Kawai MP8 is a fantastic board with some distinct advantages particularly if you’re accustomed to the feel of an acoustic piano – and are primarily interested in just piano. As you probably know, the Kawai MP8 series uniquely employs real wooden keys making it the benchmark in terms of an authentic weighted-key experience. Since its introduction, the MP8 has since been replaced by the MP8-II, and while this is subjective, I personally believe the MP8-II is a step backwards from the original MP8. The MP8-II has a notably lighter feel, BUT it still has that same “soft bed” of the MP8 so you find yourself unable to dig into the notes the same way encouraged by the MP8. That’s the best I can describe it, and while Kawai claims to have improved the “speed” of the action, I don’t equate a lighter feel to providing greater speed; the response is equally important. Lastly, I’m not sure what they put on the key surface, but it feels like a “cheap plastic” almost like a toy (dare I say)? Let’s just say that when the MP-II came out, I drove a long distance to test it, and walked away from the unit in less than 5 minutes. This was the background that created my curiosity for Roland’s then forthcoming RD700GX. I always liked its predecessor, but the action of the earlier RD700SX was no where near the MP8, but it wasn’t that far off. Given that Roland was professing the benefits of its new PHA II “Ivory Feel” with Escapement action, I was sufficiently intrigued.
Roland first showed the unit at the Winter NAMM ‘08 show here in Los Angeles, but had the damn thing literally “locked down” – very few people were able to sneak in any playing time as if this was some threat to national security? I suppose they’re aware of how fast the word travels these days good or bad! Regardless, there was really no way to test drive the unit until it finally hit the Streets in late May. And of all places, my local Guitar Center had one on the floor, and my first impressions were pretty strong, but alas, Guitar Center is no place to evaluate an instrument. That said, I spent a lot more than 5 minutes on it! Turns out, my good friend Kelly is even a more ambitious early adopter than am I so he picked one up and I had the opportunity to spend an entire afternoon testing it in a proper room.
No question that the claims of the PHA II action are entirely valid! It’s a lighter feel than the MP8 (owed to not using wooden keys) but it’s a much faster action than the MP8 – a compromise I’m willing to live with and arguably advantageous for longer sessions. The response of the action is very impressive and combined with the on-board expressive patches you can really play an amazing range, much more than any board I’ve experienced to date. And that “Ivory Feel”, well I wasn’t expecting too much, but it’s pretty damn good – it sure as hell beats the glossy plastic surfaces you routinely find and feels quite nice to the touch.
Clearly, this unit is aimed at the live performing musician (which I am not); for example, having 4 physical MIDI outs – very cool, as well as balanced XLR outputs. Having 4 mappable Zones is also quite handy both for live performance as well as inside the Studio.
I haven’t had the unit long enough to dive into all of the sounds and editing, but I’m duly impressed. Up until now, my reference piano sources have been Ivory (on the Muse Receptor) and/or various Gigastudio libraries (such as PMI). I’ve never fancied on-board piano samples, but times are changing and this new Roland provides some very convincing patches. The escapement provides the sympathetic resonance only found in more substantial (multi-gigabyte) libraries. Sure, in a head to head test, Ivory will probably win out, but the Roland is by no means a distant second. I envision that my composition process will greatly improve owed to my ability to now dial-up some very inspiring sounds by simply turning on one device! I haven’t tried the backing track capability provided by the USB memory interface, but I suspect that will also help with productivity…
It’s probably worthwhile listing the other keyboards I’ve recently owned and since replaced for various reasons just to provide some additional perspective of my personal taste:
Kawai MP8 – Great feel, but the action didn’t quite have the speed I was looking for…
Lastly, here are a few tips that may save you some troubleshooting headaches, especially if you’re using the GX in a studio setting. By default, the ‘Part Mode’ parameter in the System Settings is set to ‘16PART+PERF’; without getting into the details, the net affect of this setting is that the performance on the keyboard ignores any MIDI messages from MIDI IN – so if you’re running the GX in a studio setup (where the GX is functioning as a master controller), and you want to take advantage of its onboard sounds, you must change the value of this parameter to ‘16PART’ (and write it to memory). Then, your MIDI IN messages will work as expected and GX will provide the expected multi-timbre capability across 16 channels. The other caveat is that the GX always powers up with LOCAL ON set to ‘ON’ – so one must quickly change that value (to ‘OFF’) every time you power up. For whatever reason, the LOCAL ON setting cannot be written to memory. Please feel free to PM me with any specific questions you may have!