Same piano sample as PX-350, but with added DSP and
programming for even more realism. Dazzling EP, Clav, and complex synth
sounds. Deeply programmable synth with realtime control. Four zones each
of internal and external MIDI controller capability. Battery powered.
Stellar 88-key weighted action. Impossibly low weight and price.
No expression pedal input, split button (though splits can
be programmed), or music stand. Editing can be challenging without the
free Data Editor software. Tonewheel organ emulations don’t match the
high standards set by the rest of the sounds.
A first class digital piano, with a powerful synth engine
and deep editing, that checks in at 24 pounds and a thousand bucks? It’s
not too good to be true. Don’t buy a new stage piano until you try the
$1,299 list | $999 street
In 2011 Casio elevated their popular Privia piano line to
pro status with the PX-3, an 88-note, weighted keyboard stage piano and
controller. Essentially they swapped the onboard speakers and amps for a
professional player’s serving of sounds, DSP, and MIDI control. What
made this instrument instantly desirable were the $800 price tag and the
24-pound curb weight. Since then Casio introduced the XW series—a pair
of performance synths with complex sounds and deep editing
capabilities—and a significant upgrade of the Privia’s already
impressive piano sound and action. Now they’ve combined their uncanny
Privia piano experience with a synth section that bears some resemblance
to the XW-P1 (reviewed June ’12), but is in fact better sounding and
more powerful. Casio says the “S” in PX-5S can stand for either “stage”
or “studio.” I vote for “serious,” because with this incarnation of the
pro series, Casio is playing with the big boys—hardball.
Casio’s mantra with the Privia Pro line has been: under 25
pounds and under a grand. But unless you’re sitting in front of this
instrument, it’s difficult to appreciate fully. Yes, there are
first-rate, scaled hammer-action stage pianos and workstations out
there, but they weigh 40 to 50 pounds (or more) and cost twice as much
(or more). Casio has economized on a few features to keep their product
outrageously light and affordable, but what they haven’t compromised are
the fundamentals: sound, playability, and programmability.
Like most Privias, button-banks are center-clustered
around a small, backlit LCD display. In place of speakers, Casio has
added, on the left, a welcome array of four knobs and six sliders, plus
pitch-bend and modulation wheels. These control the deep—and I mean deep—DSP
and filter parameters. The Privia PX-3 did have quite a bit of sound
shaping and DSP onboard, but nothing as sophisticated as this and
without even a nod to on-the-fly control. Even plug-in-and-play
buttonphobes are going to get into the highly addictive twisting and
sliding options here.
On the right side is a rubbery, textured-surface to hold
your iPad (I’d add a couple of Velcro strips for security), which opens
to access the eight AA batteries that provide up to four hours of play.
Just above the C5 key is a USB flash drive port that lets you
save and load data, and also record and play 44.1kHz WAV audio files.
The casing is sturdy, two-tone plastic; jack insertion feels firm, but
without the rugged “chunk” that you’d get from a heavy metal frame.
(This is the last time I’m going to mention it, but complaining that the
Privia is plasticky is like whining that your Mini Cooper is
small—especially given how easy it is to throw the former into the
latter and go to the gig.) The black-on-white control surface really
makes the button lettering pop and all rear inputs are, thankfully,
As for the keyboard feel, it’s amazing. The same textured
keys and tri-sensor scaled hammer action as the PX-350, but with even
more expression and dynamics when playing the new electric piano sounds.
It’s become my default controller for the studio because not only is it
a joy to wail away on, but it’s so small and light that it lets the
PX-5S fit on racks and desks where few other 88-key instruments will.
There’s a bit of a muscle memory learning curve, but once you’re used to
it, you’re hooked.
The PX-5S sound array is made up of 720 Tones, 350 of
which are slots for user creations, and 100 Stage Settings (SS), which
are like Combis or Registrations. The really fascinating sounds, showing
off the wealth of zone and layering functions, are found in the Stage
Settings—and that’s the best place to go for sound auditioning. You can
step through the tone list in any SS, and many of them have hidden
dimensions. More about this later.
The keyboard powers up on “Concert Grand 0-0,” which is a
good place to start. As we pointed out in the PX-350 review in the
January 2013 issue, you’d have to go to a considerably more expensive
digital piano or one of the better software instruments to surpass
Casio’s acoustic grand. The PX-5S shares the same piano sample as the
PX-350, which was already emotional and expressive with its 256-note
polyphony, four-level sampling, and highly intuitive velocity mapping to
keyboard action. However, new DSP in the PX-5S elevates the experience
with sympathetic resonance, four-band EQ, lid position, reverb, and even
release velocity sensing that informs how staccato or legato your next
note(s) will sound. Note-to-note and velocity-sample transitions are
seamless; I couldn’t find one key to gripe about. There are no weird
aliasing or looping artifacts; sustain is long and natural.
Casio provides the standard array of piano variations,
which is less of a big deal on this keyboard than others, because it’s
so easy to customize sounds. Want to turn your concert grand into a tack
piano in three seconds? Dial out bass and mids and slide in some
EPs are a huge improvement over anything Casio has done
before, and meaningfully competitive with those on more expensive stage
pianos. The samples are rich and varied, but the magic is in the DSP;
the phasers, choruses, amp emulations, delays, and reverbs are all first
rate. Even the tremolos—which live on the mod wheel for electric piano
sounds—sound like the built-in ones on classic EPs. You’ll find the full
assortment of Rhodes and Wurlys in all their tiney, reedy, phasey,
funky incarnations. I played the “Dyno E.Piano2” Tone with full-on
tremolo and auto-pan for an hour one night—and I didn’t even like the real Dyno Rhodes.
Clavs are equally appealing, and a good example of the
options at your fingertips. Stage Setting 8-4, for example turns the
damper pedal into a wah-wah. You’d think that an on-off controller
couldn’t give you a full-throw wah . . . and you’d be wrong. So once
you’ve got the wah pedal technique down, you grab slider 1 and dial in
distortion pre-gain as you dial out distortion level. (Each slider
controls one or two parameters at once, and in the same, or opposite
directions. Think crossfading.) Slider 2 lets you run through a
selection of combo amps, bass amps, and stacks. Slider 3 has more
Distortion parameters to slather on the grease. Slider 4 offers a
full-throated Chorus. Slider 5 controls a Delay that you can instantly
match to your tune with the always-on Tap Tempo button. Slider 6 brings
in a short, platey reverb. This kind of programming and control
assignment is implemented across the PX-5S sound set.
The tonewheel organ simulations lack the satisfying
authenticity of the pianos, EPs, Clavs, vibes, and other
electro-acoustic instruments. You’ll find a selection to cover any rock,
pop, or church gig and you can live-tweak the sound with drawbars (via
the sliders) and a decent rotary speaker simulation, but other
manufacturers of late have raised the reality bar so high that, let’s
face it, we’re spoiled. I played a jazz gig with the PX-5S, did three
organ tunes, and had a blast stepping through the preset selections. If I
were to play three sets with organ sounds front and center, however, I’d want a dedicated clone.
The PX-5S handily covers the spectrum of real instruments
and shines equally brightly in the synth firmament thanks to a stacking
technology Casio calls Hex Layering: up to six samples, mapped to keys
and velocities, each with its own set of filters and envelopes. Every
Stage Setting lets you stack two hex layers and two single layers for a
14-layer sound. The results are what you’d imagine: galactic. Riveting.
Filled with surprises and on par with some popular workstations. The
PX-5S has only been in limited availability since April and already user
groups are popping up and late-breaking presets are flying through
Programming and Special Features
Casio provides free downloads of the Data Editor PX-5S for
Mac and Windows, with its 18 pages of straightforward controls of most
of the parameters in this axe (see Figure 1). If you’re doing serious editing you’re going to need it, because there’s more going on in the PX-5S than just pretty sounds.
For starters, the onboard arpeggiator sets you up with 100
patterns and invites you to program 100 more. You can then plug these
in to zones or individual keys in the Stage Settings and they’re all
instantly synced to MIDI or tap tempo—or not, if you prefer a Philip
Glass freakout. And this is not your father’s arpeggiator; you can play
in bass lines, montunos, pans, filter sweeps, whatever. If your musical
phrases get too complex for an arpeggio, you can use the Phrase
Generator to create looped or single-play sequenced mini-compositions
that you can also plug into Stage Settings, or string together to make
Need to send off a quick piano track to a friend? The
PX-5S lets you record anything you can play as a 16-bit/44.1kHz WAV
file, which you can save on a thumb drive for working with on your
computer. It also plays WAVs from the same device so you can jam along
with pre-recorded backing tracks.
So what doesn’t the PX-5S have? For one thing, a Split
button. This means that if you’re kicking bass, you need to set up your
splits as Stage Settings in advance because it’s too complicated to do
onstage. The good news is, once you have a zone template you like, it’s
easy to step through different instruments in the top and bottom parts.
The most head-scratching omission is that neither of the pedal inputs
can accept expression/continuous control pedals—though you can program
envelopes to fire when you hit a switch pedal and, by mapping them to
various parameters, sweep different aspects of the sound. This is how
the aforementioned wah effect is accomplished. Finally, there’s no music
stand included, which may or may not matter depending on the kind of
gigs you do.
Even if the PX-5S cost twice as much, its awesome sounds,
deep editing, and generous (and usefully programmed) realtime controls
would make it a prime contender for any gigging musician’s next purchase
of a main keyboard that inhabits the bottom (or only) tier on the
stand. That said, the feather weight means you could easily put it on
top. We applaud the Casio engineers and designers and their expanding
commitment to manufacturing lightweight, affordable keyboards that
seriously kick butt, and award the PX-5S our Key Buy for outstanding