Kawai MP10 and MP6

March 22, 2011
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MP6_MAIN.jpgThe quest for the ultimate digital stage piano is obsessive and at times frustrating. We’re always in search for that magic combination of sound, feel, and portability, and if our wish list expands beyond acoustic piano sounds, the plot thickens. Kawai’s MP line has long been a draw, thanks in part to their hammer-action keyboards, and now has two new models: the MP10 (successor to the MP8 II, reviewed Aug. ’08), and MP6 (successor to the MP5). Both models sport significant upgrades from their predecessors, and in the case of the MP10, an all-new look and layout.

Keyboard Feel

MP10. Kawai’s weighted actions first launched their digital pianos to major-contender status when the MP9000 hit the scene more than a decade ago. The MP10 has Kawai’s best action to date, dubbed the RM3. It feels great, and it ought to: The keys are made from long pieces of wood, and the graded hammer action has counterweights and simulates let-off, that subtle click you feel at the bottom of a key’s travel if you press it very slowly. The geometry and mechanics of this action are very close to an acoustic grand. The feel is substantial but not soggy, and very satisfying.

MP10_MAIN.jpgYou can get rapid-fire repeated notes, but you’ve got to work for them, just like on most real pianos. The new “Ivory Touch” surface has a more subtle texture than that of Roland RD-700NX (see page 50) or V-Piano (reviewed Sept. ’09). It feels good under the fingers, doesn’t distract from your playing, and actually wicks away moisture to minimize slipperiness at sweaty gigs. The RM3 just may be the best action available in a digital piano, and I enjoy it more each time I play it. The tradeoff is that largely due to this action, not to mention a tank-like overall build, the MP10 weighs just over 70 pounds. That shaves off a few pounds from the MP8 II, but we’d love to see this action housed in a keyboard that one person can carry more easily and safely.

MP6. Weighing in at just over 47 pounds, the MP6 sports a simpler weighted action, the RH. Honestly, I was expecting quite the compromise after playing the MP10, but I was pleasantly surprised with how musical and well built this action is. It too is graded with let-off simulation, and while the keys are plastic instead of wood, the tops have the same texture as the MP10’s keys.

In my opinion, an action that tries to please everyone (piano, organ, and synth players) often pleases no one, so I commend Kawai for committing to a piano feel. Despite their meaty keyboard response, I didn’t feel any premature hand fatigue from extended playing on either model. Finally, though neither keybed senses aftertouch, the MP10 can respond to an aftertouch message from the modulation wheel, an expression pedal, a footswitch, or one of the four assignable knobs. The MP6 responds to aftertouch from the expression pedal only.

03-2011 Kawai MP10 and MP6 Audio Examples by KeyboardMag

Acoustic Piano Sounds

MP10. The MP10 features brand new main piano samples. Many digital pianos sample Yamaha and/or Steinway grands, but Kawai samples their own acoustic concert grand, the EX. Kawai doesn’t reveal the memory size of the sample set nor the number of samples per key, but they do report that all 88 notes were sampled individually. You get three main pianos: “Concert,” “Pop,” and “Jazz.” The “Concert” and “Pop” pianos use different sample sets—both from the same piano, but recorded with different microphones, mic positions, and preamps appropriate to each musical genre. “Jazz” uses a hybrid of the various sample sets, and also includes the piano samples from the MP8 II.

The piano sound itself is warm while retaining presence, and is easily the best sound Kawai has produced in a digital piano. Feel usually affects one’s opinion of a keyboard’s sound, and on the MP10, I especially liked the timbral response to velocity using the “Heavy” and “Heavy +” touch curve settings.

At times, I wanted longer note decay and more sustain, as I do with just about every hardware digital piano. Thankfully, the synth-like envelope controls (attack, decay, sustain, and release) let me adjust the contour to taste.

MP6. The MP6 uses the same core piano sound as the MP10, with some differences. The sample sizes are smaller, and they employ a simpler version of “Harmonic Imaging,” Kawai’s method of creating realistic tonal changes in response to velocity. The MP6 piano is quite strong, though not as robustly detailed as the MP10. Piano sounds from the previous-generation MP5 are included as well. The envelope control is simpler (attack, decay, and release), and the MP6 provides string and damper resonance, half-pedaling, and voicing control. The MP6 features more sounds overall, including a mono piano. If you’ve gigged with a digital piano and are running in mono, you know this is useful. Why? A stereo piano sample, when summed to mono, may sometimes thin out due to phase issues. A dedicated mono piano sound won’t have this problem, may provide more presence and clarity in a live setting, and though I hate this cliché, “cut through the mix.” At first I dismissed the mono piano because the samples were relatively short, but when gig-tested it proved most effective.

MP10_rear.jpgThe MP10’s balanced stereo XLR outputs include a ground lift switch, and output at fixed unity gain independently of the master volume slider.

  

Piano Details

Under the hood of the MP10’s “Virtual Technician” settings are four types of voicing from mellow to bright, including a “dynamic” setting that’s mellow when you play soft and brighter when you play harder. There’s also adjustable string and pedal resonance to simulate the sympathetic vibrations that occur inside a real piano. Mechanical noises include keyoff, pedal, and damper fallback. If desired, a “hammer delay” effect can simulate the lag of the hammer striking the string when you play very softly. I like bringing some of this “junk” into the sound, because that’s what real pianos do.

The MP6 doesn’t have “Virtual Technician” per se, but it does feature voicing, resonance, and key-off effects on acoustic piano sounds. A global three-band EQ has a sweepable midrange frequency. This affects every zone when active, and is controllable via front panel knobs on the MP10 and MP6. Make an adjustment, and the screen jumps to indicate your changes. This is especially effective on the MP10, whose larger screen displays a nice EQ graph.

Electric Piano Sounds

The Rhodes and Wurly presets on both the MP10 and MP6 deserve a serious listen. The dynamics respond nicely to both actions, and just feel musical. The electric pianos nail some detail magic as well: You can adjust the key-off noise (and delay it if you wish) on the Rhodes, Wurly, and Clavinet. The “E. Piano” section on the MP10 (and Zone 1 on the MP6) is treated to an amp simulator (see “Effects” below), which goes a long way towards realism and vibe.

The MP10 has a suitcase-style Rhodes, a brighter “Dyno,” and a Stage Rhodes. The suitcase simulations shine with realism and responsiveness. Oddly, the Stage patch sounded like it had a chorus even when all effects were turned off. The Wurly is excellent, with brighter and darker variations. The Clavinet is tight and punchy on both the MP10 and MP6, but not as authentically vintage as on the Nord Piano (reviewed Sept. ’10). Both the MP10 and MP6 provide a Yamaha DX7-style FM piano as well.

Other Sounds and MP6 Organs

The MP10 and MP6 take a very different approach beyond acoustic and electric piano sounds. You’d think that the MP10 would be the one with more sounds, but the opposite is true. You get three types of strings, three types of pads, harpsichord, vibraphone, and choir, plus 100 preset drum patterns in the metronome section. No basses, no organs, no fake sax. I didn’t miss them at all. This is an instrument for the piano player.

The MP6 takes the one-stop gig machine approach, packing 256 sounds. You get variations of strings, pads, brass, winds, synths, mallet percussion, choirs, basses, guitars, and drum kits. You also get pipe and drawbar organ samples. A pleasant surprise on the MP6 is a tonewheel simulator, which lets you program organ sounds drawbar by drawbar, like on a Hammond B-3 clone. You do have to program them—the drawbar control isn’t realtime while playing. This was a little confusing at first, as the first five presets in the “Drawbar” category didn’t use the tonewheel mode, but were sampled organs (decent ones at that) and were velocitysensitive (though you can turn this off). I then discovered that the tonewheel simulator organs reside in drawbar presets 6 through 8.

These presets play at fixed velocity, offer level control of each drawbar, second and third harmonic percussion with slow or fast decay, and key click. There’s no Hammond-style vibrato/chorus, but there is a rotary effect with speed control (assignable to a footswitch) and overdrive. The result is a useful toolkit for getting good organ sounds on the gig, though it won’t fool Booker T. or Joey D. into thinking there’s a B-3 in the room.

Effects

Both the MP10 and MP6 have a healthy array of built-in effects, and they sound fantastic. The effects sections are nearly identical, save for the MP10’s six amp models versus the MP6’s one. Reverbs are warm and unobtrusive. Modulation effects (chorus, phaser, and so on) sound rich, work fantastically with the electric pianos, and make for a powerful combination with the amp simulator. This has adjustable drive, amp level, EQ, and on the MP10 only, a selection of classic tube and solid-state amp models. Overall, this really brings the electric pianos to life, and both keyboards’ front panels make it easy to find, adjust, and bypass effects while playing. Bravo.

Pedal Power

MP10. The MP10 comes with a double pedal (model F-20), which defaults to sustain on the right and soft pedal on the left. The soft pedal takes the overall velocities down, but triggers the same samples, not samples of the hammers hitting a single string (una corda), which is the behavior the soft pedal triggers on a real piano. You can assign sostenuto to the left pedal instead of soft, and if you need sustain, sostenuto, and soft pedaling, you can connect another pedal to the footswitch input. A cool MIDI feature is that you can assign the left pedal to transmit a MIDI continuous control message independently of the internal sounds. The modulation wheel can do this as well.

MP6. A single sustain pedal is included, though the MP6 is compatible with the double pedal that comes with the MP10. Both the MP6 and the MP10 (and their included pedals) support half-pedaling, where pressing the pedal halfway down yields a semi-sustained resonance effect. Like the instruments themselves, both pedals are very sturdy.

Panel Layout

The MP10 breaks from Kawai’s previous MP layout and presents an entirely re-thought control panel. To the left of the display you’ll find EQ and separate select/control sections for acoustic and electric pianos. To the right are the “Sub” section (it holds strings, pads, and other sounds), MIDI (which includes all recording controls), and Setup (user presets and utilities). Any adjustments you make show up immediately in the LCD, which is flanked by four knobs and four soft buttons for contextdependent control. The whole thing is so easy to understand that you may forget that there’s even more power to be found in the editing menus. Though I was spoiled by the MP10’s controls, the MP6 was also easy to navigate. It’s more similar to previous MP models.

Conclusions

The MP10 is one of the nicest stage pianos I’ve played. The keyboard action is magnificent. The panel layout is designed for performing musicians, not technology enthusiasts. It would be a joy to gig with the MP10 every night, provided you’ve got some help transporting and setting it up.

The chief competition for the MP10 includes the Yamaha CP5 (see page 36), Roland RD-700NX (see page 50), and Nord Piano (reviewed Sept. ’10). You could put ten seasoned gigging pianists in a room with all four and not get a unanimous favorite—this goes for the electric and acoustic piano sounds alike. That’s no cop-out; on the gig, it’s a toss-up among which of these four best suits your sonic taste. That said, the MP10 has a major polyphony advantage (192 notes), an intuitive user interface, and my favorite action ever.

The MP6 hits the same price point as the Yamaha CP50 and Roland RD-300GX. The construction is very roadworthy, the front panel is easy to navigate and offers some realtime control over sounds and effects, and there’s a larger palette of sounds than on the MP10. Four internal and external zones make it a capable MIDI controller as well, provided you don’t need aftertouch. If you’re carrying your gear solo, the MP6 is a compelling choice and a leader in its price class.

***Check out this sweet video of Marian Petrescu on Kawai grand pianos at NAMM.

 

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