Yamaha CP 1, CP5, and CP50
By Jon Regen
Tue, 22 Mar 2011
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CP1_downshot.jpgCP1

  

Yamaha’s CP designation first launched in the ’70s, on electronic stage pianos but more famously on the electro-acoustic CP60, CP70, and CP80, which used real strings and hammers but pickups in place of a soundboard. Though heavy by today’s standards, these transportable instruments became the industry standard for getting real piano sound onstage when you couldn’t tour with an acoustic piano. Some three decades later, Yamaha’s new CP series aims to be the new standard. Does it succeed?

***Check out video demos of the CP 1 here.

Keyboard Feel

CP1 and CP5. Yamaha’s flagship CP1 and lower priced (but sonically more diverse) CP5 feature a newly designed wood and imitation ivory action, the NW-Stage.

Interestingly, Yamaha went with a uniform weight across the keyboard, as opposed to the graded weight (with more resistance towards the bass notes and less towards the treble) that conventional wisdom says you put in a high-end stage piano. Though it qualifies as fully weighted, the NW-Stage keyboard is definitely on the lighter side, and to my own fingers, the key dip feels shallower than other digital pianos I’ve played. This serves the spectrum of acoustic and electric pianos well, though: Rhodes and Wurly actions are almost always lighter than those on weighted digital stage pianos, as are the actions on many acoustic grands that have seen years of use. However, if your expectations have been shaped by more traditional weighted actions—such as the Yamaha P250, CP300, or Motif 8 series—it takes some getting used to. The more you play the CP1 or CP5, though, the more you see just how well the action’s nuances serve the dynamic and harmonic variations in the new acoustic and electric piano sounds.

CP50. The supposed baby of the CP family is no slouch. Featuring a more traditional graded GH action, the CP50 feels familiar, having been used in other Yamaha digitals in the past. There’s no wood or simulated ivory here, just an eminently playable weighted keyboard. Considering that the CP50 is less than a third of the price of the CP1 and nearly $1,000 less than the CP5, that’s cause for celebration. I like the throw of the CP50’s keys; it feels deeper and more—for lack of a better word—classic, to me.

CP5.jpgCP5 (Key Buy winner)

  

Acoustic Piano Sounds

CP1. Unlike its siblings, the CP1 is dedicated solely to acoustic and electric pianos. How do these sound? In a word, spectacular. I was lucky enough to audition the CP1 at Hal Winer’s BiCoastal Music recording studio in Ossining, New York, hearing it through a megabuck monitor system that pulls no punches when it comes to revealing sonic flaws. Yamaha has really captured the three-dimensional sound that large concert pianos emit: the rumble of long bass strings, the “air” that surrounds sustained notes, and the bell tones of the mid to upper registers. On the CP1, you choose between two vaunted Yamaha pianos: the nine-foot CFIIIS concert grand, and the seven-foot S6B grand. Both emulations are extremely detailed. The S6B is a welcome addition, with its woody, retrojazz quality—think of engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s ’60s-era Blue Note recordings, with their characteristically round piano sound.

Each of these two pianos is available in versions with either a twoband or a three-band EQ. Initially, learning to play these monster sounds with the new NW-Stage action was a bit of a challenge, as it really is a new breed of weighted action. But the more I played the CP1, the richer the experience became. I have yet to hear a hardware digital piano on a recording that’s as convincing as the CP1. Many digital instruments “sound like” a piano, but the CP1 really sounds like one—I can think of no better way to put it. More than a few professional session and touring keyboardists have told me that the CP1 sounds so great when recorded that they’ve considered selling their acoustic pianos. How’s that for an evaluation?

CP5. Like the CP1, the CP5 gives you the choice of CFIIIS or S6B concert grand Voices. Unlike the CP1, the CP5 offers just one version of each, but you’d be hard pressed to find a situation in which these presets wouldn’t work. The basic piano sounds are crisp and detailed, and while they lack some of the jaw-dropping detail of those in the CP1, they’re lush and expressive nonetheless.

CP50. Clearly aimed at the gigging musician on a budget, the CP50 is the baby brother with an overachiever complex. It’s packed with most of the CP5’s sounds and features, but costs almost $1,000 less. The CP50 offers only one acoustic piano, the CFIIIS grand. Compared side-by-side with the CP1 and CP5, this doesn’t have as much detail and resolution. Taken on its own, though, it’s completely convincing for stage work in a band, and I really like the fingers-to-sound connection of the GH action. To me, this is a classic representation of a stage piano in a lean, mean package. At 46 pounds, the CP50 strikes a good balance between stability on the keyboard stand (ultra-light stage pianos can move around unnervingly when I lay into them) and portability.

CP50.jpgCP50

  

Electric Piano Sounds

The vintage electric piano sounds simply shine. Tine- and reed-based simulations (called “Rd” and “Wr” respectively—guess what those mean) make use of SCM across all three CP models, and are top notch. They sing, bark, and bite just like on your favorite recordings of the real deal. Doing justice to the letters “CP,” electric grand sounds are present in all their Peter Gabriel glory. My ears say they’re a dead ringer for the original black beast with its unmistakable trapezoid-shaped harp.

The CP1, CP5, and CP50 all offer a good variety of EP Voices (13, nine, and five, respectively), with the CP1 adding authentic DX7-style pianos created by a real FM tone generator. Adjustable settings for these “DXEP” sounds include decay and release times, attack and release tonal character, and oscillator detune. There’s no operator programming, though, so don’t expect to find a full DX7 lurking under the hood. On the CP5 and CP50, DX pianos are sample-based.

Yamaha’s SCM seems tailor made for killer EP simulations. Nearly every pro I invited to play the CP series raved about the quality and realism of the electric pianos. As with the acoustic piano sounds, there’s a slight loss in detail and dynamic range as you migrate from the CP1 to the CP5 to the CP50, but make no mistake—every one of these retro patches will bring the utmost in vintage credibility to your gig.

Piano Details

Yamaha’s goal of modeling the nearly infinite array of variables that make up a real piano’s sound was met with flying colors here. On the CP1, six knobs let you alter characteristics such as hammer hardness, damper resonance, key-off noise, and hammer strike position. On the CP5 and CP50, three knobs perform similar tasks. By default, they control parameters for the first sound in a layer, but you can quickly reassign any knob to any setting for either layer.

Much like a piano technician will voice and regulate an instrument to the player’s needs, these parameters let you become your own piano tech. Initially, control over this many options seemed daunting to me, as I tend to be a plug-and-play kind of guy. But the more I delved in to the settings, the more use I found for them. For example, take the CP5’s “Hammer” parameter for acoustic and electric piano sounds. I’ve had numerous vintage Rhodes, Wurlies, and acoustic pianos over the years. Hammer hardness is a huge part of the signature sound of different eras’ instruments, and re-creating these on the fly was very cool. The same goes for being able to shape the tone and timbre of the acoustic pianos in different live situations. Every gig requires a different tonal toolkit—here you come armed and ready. I also employed the “StrkPos” (strike position) parameter quite often to alter the sound of the EPs’ virtual pickups.

CP5_close_rear.jpgBoth the CP1 and CP5 (shown) feature balanced XLR outs alongside the usual 1/4" ones. The CP5, though, is the only member of the family with a mic input.

  

Other Sounds: CP5 and CP50

The new CP line diverges when it comes to non-piano sounds. While the CP1 does just two things—acoustic and electric pianos—extremely well, the CP5 and CP50 devote more resources to being all-around gig machines. Entirely absent on the CP1 (given its price tag, some might say puzzlingly so), the 305 additional patches on the CP5 and 216 on the CP50 cover just about every sound you might need. From surprisingly effective Clavs and tonewheel organs to guitars, basses, brass, strings, pads, and lead synths, the variety is more akin to a workstation than what I’m used to from stage pianos. Though these sounds use samples rather than SCM, there’s nary a dog in the lot—strings are big and lush, analog synths don’t sound brittle, and so on. If you’ve worked much with the Motif or Tyros series, you’ll find plenty of familiar friends here. Of course, you can split or layer these sounds with the SCM-based acoustic or electric pianos to create performance setups. The CP5 lets you play up to four sounds from the keyboard at once: two layers in the left hand and two in the right. The CP50 allows for either a simple dual layer or two-way split.

Also, the CP5 and CP50 feature 14 drum kits and 100 pre-programmed patterns. These are convincing grooves that come in 3/4 and 4/4 time and cover all the stylistic bases. While you won’t fire your drummer anytime soon (at least not for this reason), they do make decent backing tracks for solo acts. Speaking of backing tracks, the CP5 and CP50 also let you record your playing as a MIDI sequence, storing the data internally or on a USB stick. The CP5 lets you plug in a mic so you can sing along with your keyboard parts. The CP5 and CP50 also record and play back WAV audio files.

Panel Design

The redesigned front panel on all three CP pianos is a far cry from past Yamaha digital pianos like the P250 or CP300, where you simply pressed a preset, added an effect, and hit the ground running. With the inclusion of so many new sounds, effects, and modeling components, it does take a player some time to get used to the layout. Some Yamaha naming conventions are unchanged: single sound patches are called Voices and split/layer setups with associated effects are Performances. There’s a new kid on the block, though, and it’s called . . . the Block. A Block is child to the Performance’s parent, and it’s either a Voice (or multitimbral stack of Voices) along with its associated parameters, or it’s something that affects the Voice along with its associated parameters.

In other words, a Block is a station on the sonic assembly line. For example, the CP1 has four blocks. In signal chain order, these are Piano, Modulation Effects, Power Amp/Compressor, and Reverb. You engage or bypass each Block using the identically-ordered row of buttons on the left side of the panel, and since the CP1 can do two layers, there are two rows of buttons, except for reverb—it’s global to both layers, so there’s one button. Though the manual says preamp simulation settings are part of the Piano Block (not their own Block), each row also has a dedicated button to engage or bypass preamp modeling, sensibly located between the Piano and Modulation Effect buttons.

I get what Yamaha is going for with this “signal chain” panel design, but it does require more getting acquainted than many stage piano users are used to. The CP line also diverges when it comes to splitting the keyboard. On the CP1, you set your split point in the Common settings, and turn parts 1 and 2 on or off by hitting their Piano buttons. The CP5 and CP50 take the more intuitive route of having a dedicated Split button, not to mention volume knobs for each part in the split or layer. At first, it seemed weird that the CP1 was different, but then it made sense: Unlike its siblings, the CP1 doesn’t do basses, lead synths, or other sounds you’d want to split with your piano—but it does do electric pianos you’d want to layer with the acoustic pianos. Hence, the controls are layer-centric, letting you toggle either part, plus each of its sound-altering Blocks, with one button-press.

Effects

The CP family’s effects capabilities are mind-numbingly powerful, and include convincing vintage and modern chorus, delay, wah, amp simulators, compressors, rotary speaker with speed control (CP5 and CP50 only), and on and on. These use the same Virtual Circuit Modeling (VCM) that trickled from its birthplace in Yamaha’s higher-end digital mixers to the Motif XS and XF—it’s just that given the CP series’ comparatively basic displays, you don’t get the plug-in-like graphics. In a nutshell, VCM models the components and circuit paths of classic stompboxes and rackmount effects you may have hunted for on eBay. Using the knobs to adjust the chorus and phaser took me back to when I lugged a real Rhodes to gigs, and mixing and matching effects as I played imparted a thoroughly vintage vibe to my playing, especially with electric piano sounds.

Conclusions

From the three-dimensional sound of the flagship CP1, which to my ears sounds more like an acoustic piano than anything I’ve ever heard from a digital keyboard, to the highly flexible CP5 and CP50, these are devastatingly good digital pianos. I’d prefer the NW-Stage actions in the CP1 and CP5 to have more key travel and convey more of a sense of hammer throw, but I was able to adjust my playing accordingly. Add dynamite EP simulations and effects that rival dedicated plug-ins and hardware boxes, then consider the extra sounds of the CP5 and CP50, and you have three stage pianos that cover nearly every conceivable sonic circumstance.

It has to be said: The CP5 hits the sweet spot. Above it is the CP1— the “concept car” for those who want absolute detail and realism in their acoustic and electric piano sounds and have their Clavs, synths, and organs covered by other equally enviable keyboards. Below the CP5 is the CP50, which is the one to get if you’re on a budget but still want Spectral Component Modeling pianos and EPs that you wont find in a P-series Yamaha piano, an S90XS, or even the latest Motif. But it’s the CP5 whose acoustic and electric pianos sound almost as good as the CP1; likewise, it’s the CP5 that has the largest number of Motif-league sounds in other categories, not to mention four-way splits or layers as opposed to twoway on the other two models. That makes the CP5 our Key Buy winner.

On all three models, the user interface can be tricky at times, but so can regulating a concert grand piano, and both endeavors ultimately leave you with sounds that inspire and invigorate. The new control panel design is a marked departure from how a stage piano usually works, but so was the CP70 when it was first introduced. Now, as then, Yamaha seems to have thought from the desired result back to what would be necessary to achieve it, as opposed to, “How can we get the desired result based on ‘how it’s done’?” In so doing, they’ve changed “how it’s done” in a way that other brands are likely to study and imitate for years to come.

Spectral Component Modeling

Yamaha developed an entirely new sound engine for the CP family, one they call Spectral Component Modeling (SCM). In SCM, the core samples are manipulated along with a vast array of modeled sound aspects, from the hardness of a piano’s hammers to sympathetic resonance to the spot where hammer hits tine on the electric piano patches. Though you can adjust these settings, the CP philosophy isn’t about tweaking tons of parameters (contrast: Roland V-Piano or Modartt Pianoteq). Rather, it’s about the player not having to think too much about such things. One of the benefits is inaudible transition between whatever different sample sets are involved, another is absolutely realistic harmonic generation in response to your keyboard dynamics.

THE VIEW FROM THE GIG

Three heavy hitters in the keyboard world put the three CP pianos through their paces. Here’s what they had to say:

Michael Ghegan on the CP50
Justin Tthumb mgheganimberlake, Pat McGhee Band, Cirque du Soleil | michaelghegan.com

Controls: I like the sensible navigation of controls, and the general ease of patch navigation, effects, and editing on the fly.
Keyboard feel: This keyboard is a tank. It’s solid under the fingers and has a bit of a hard touch, but it’s great for the meat-andpotatoes rock gig.
Acoustic pianos: They cut through a mix very well. I like to EQ them a little to get the midrange right.
Electric pianos: I love the Rhodes-like pianos. They have the perfect amount of bell tone and attack, and are warm with very nice imaging. The Wurly is also a very good sound, but needs a bit of EQ.
Summary: The CP50 is a very good keyboard for the weekend warrior, rehearsal space, and home studio. I found it to be a very strong all-around ’board for a working blues/rock player. The tonal palette is diverse and covers a lot of ground. The key action has heft and will withstand a good hand hammering. It’s nice to see a quality instrument that can take a beating and keep on rolling!

Jonathan Hamby on the CP5
thumb hambyCarrie Underwood, Amy Grant, Peter Cetera | keytracks.net

Controls: I like that each voice and effect section has a button to toggle it on and off instantly—great for changing on the fly.
Keyboard feel: It’s a bit different than other digital pianos I’ve used, but I really like it. The parts I play on this piano are more like what I would play on a real piano than any other digital piano I’ve tried.
Acoustic pianos: They’re well done from top to bottom. On the CFIIIS, each register has its own character without getting lost or overshadowing other ranges like on some digital pianos. The S6 has its own character as well, which is a nice alternative in certain situations.
Electric pianos: The Rhodes sounds are really great, especially with the phaser and chorus effects. Go start a Steely Dan cover band! The CP80 [electric grand] is also really well done.
Summary: The CP5 is probably better suited to gigging than the CP1 because it has a bigger sound set. It also works well as a writing or practice keyboard because you can record performances for playback as WAV files to a thumb drive, which is very handy. The CP5 has worked really well for me in live situations.

Scott Healy on the CP1
Conan on TBS | bluedogmusic.com

thumb scott healyControls: Everything is right there in front of you. Changing patches and banks is a snap, and saving presets is painless. The screen is bright, and on the CP1 you have some really useful parameters, such as hammer hardness, which I find myself using the most.
Keyboard feel: The weighting feels natural, not too heavy, like a light to medium Yamaha grand. It is, I believe, the most realistic feel of all the digital pianos I’ve played.
Acoustic pianos: The overtones don’t build up in an unnatural way as they do on so many sampled keyboards. The pedaling is realistic, and the imaging in headphones is amazing. It sounds great loud, and cuts through the band. It sounds great soft—the mid octaves are warm and rich. There’s no perceptible looping or cross-fading.
Electric pianos: The Rhodes sounds are decent, a little quieter than I’d like, but the onboard effects really add punch. The Wurly is good, but the growl and bark sounds a bit unnatural to me, especially compared to other keyboards out there, like the Nord.
Summary: I’ve used it onstage in front of 15,000 people, in clubs for 15 people, on records, and in my studio. It sounds great through a stereo P.A. and through a good amp in mono. I play it on the Conan show on TBS, and for recording sessions. I also just played the CP5 at a jazz gig, as well as onstage with Jack White. I think the CPs are the best digital pianos out there, and I’ve played them all. I now endorse Yamaha, but it was because I liked the CP1 so much that this happened.

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