Kawai MP11 reviewed

August 13, 2014
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I love all my keyboards, but my absolute favorite is my K. Kawai KG-2C acoustic grand. No surprise there—Kawai has been a major force in the piano market for decades. Koichi Kawai was the first to design and build a complete piano action in Japan. Kawai began producing digital pianos with wooden-key actions in the mid-’80s; the company unveiled its first MP-series digital stage piano, the MP9000, in 1998 and has remained a staple in the industry, manufacturing some of the most respected and playable electronic instruments available. Consequently, when I got the opportunity to review Kawai’s latest MP series digital piano, I was excited to set it up next to my beloved KG-2C and find out how it stacks up against the real thing.

Overview

The MP11 offers 40 onboard sounds broken down into three types: Piano, E. Piano, and Sub. Each type has its own Volume slider; on/off button; a Key Range button that can be toggled between single, upper, and lower; and a mode that allows an upper and lower key limit to be set for each of the three sections. Four categories are provided for each type: Concert, Pop, Jazz, and Upright/Mono are found in the Acoustic section. Tine, Reed, Modern, and E. Grand/Clav inhabit the E. Piano section. Strings, Pad, Harpsi/Mallet, and Bass take up the Sub(sidiary) section. The Piano and E. Piano categories have three varieties, while each of the Sub section categories has four. 

All three sections have dedicated EFX and Reverb buttons, but the E. Piano section also provides another roster of effects (EFX2) and amp options. The effects, and many of the other functions of the MP11, can each be toggled on and off by briefly pressing the dedicated buttons, and edit modes can be accessed by pressing and holding the same. 

A medium-sized 128 x 64-pixel LCD screen takes up the middle, with two value knobs on either side and four soft keys directly beneath it. A fifth button under the screen toggles between internal sounds and MIDI options. To the right of the screen is the Edit section, which provides cursor, yes/no, and edit/exit buttons, as well as two more that let you store edits and lock the controls to avoid accidentally changing a sound while playing.

Next to the Edit section, the Setup section is used to select programs that feature combinations of the sounds, effects, knob positions, fader levels, and other adjustable parameters; 26 banks of eight Setups can be selected using Bank L/R and 1-8 buttons, and a dedicated button turns the Setup section on and off. Above the Setup area, Global controls allow access to EQ and transpose (touch to turn on and off, or hold to edit) and Local Off. Four buttons next to those toggle four MIDI control zones on and off, or allow editing of each zone.

The Recorder section captures and plays back MIDI data—up to 10 songs (90,000 events) to the internal memory—as well as stereo audio (MP3 or WAV) from the MP11 and its line input to a FAT or FAT32-compatible USB memory device. This section features a dedicated on/off button, Metronome switch, and transport buttons that allow Reset (jump to the beginning of an audio file), Record, Rewind, Forward, and Play/Stop buttons. A loop function is very useful for learning and practicing isolated passages. 

Keyboard Feel

The MP11 has one of the best-feeling keybeds I’ve ever played in a non-acoustic instrument: solid, smooth, and extremely responsive. Kawai calls it Grand Feel, and I can understand why. The action uses real wood throughout the key, and features a graded action (heavier in the bass) that pivots up and down on a center pin, pushing a hammer up to the contact point from the back of each key. The keys are long, too; the pivot length matches that of a real Kawai grand. Additional counterweights in the lower keys deliver a more realistic feel, along with a“let-off”mechanism that measures the speed at which each key is released, more closely duplicating the feel of an acoustic grand, especially when the instrument is played softly. Kawai’s triple-sensor system incorporates a damper sensor in addition to the two that detect keystroke strength, refining nuanced techniques like repeating the same note. The key surfaces have an “Ivory Touch” matte finish that feels similar to my K. Kawai acoustic grand. These touches make the MP11 heavier than some instruments, but it is worth it in exchange for the outstanding feel and performance. The only major part of the acoustic grand experience that’s missing is the mechanical vibration that a real piano generates, which Yamaha’s AvantGrand pianos simulate effectively. Then again, those are far heavier and more expensive instruments, with built-in speakers, meant for home and studio use.


Architecture

With up to 256 voices of polyphony, it’s almost impossible to choke the MP11, even if all three sound engines are engaged simultaneously. For the acoustic side of the instrument, each key of a Kawai EX Concert piano was sampled in stereo at multiple velocities, which were then spun together with Kawai’s Harmonic Imaging technology. This has been upgraded in the MP11 to the XL (extra long) revision, which more than doubles the resources devoted to the attack segment of each note—a critical time window in terms of the human ear perceiving realism. Dedicated mono samples are also provided for those who eschew stereo for live use. Seven different tunings are on hand (equal, pure major/minor, Pythagorean, mean tone, Werckmeister, and Kirnberger), as well as two user-definable maps constructed by fine tunings of each key. Stretch tuning can also be employed.

For sound sculptors who are anxious to dig deep, familiar synthesizer controls such as filter cutoff and resonance and ADSR envelopes allow shaping of the sample set, which can also be fattened using octave layering and detune parameters. As if that weren’t enough, vocal, bell, and air samples can be used to add another dimension to the instrument’s basic tones. Heck, even the metronome function goes above and beyond: Not only can you can select from ten different time signatures, but you can also use any of 100 onboard drum patterns.

As far as effects processing, the MP11 delivers in spades. Six fabulous-sounding reverbs (Room, Lounge, three different Halls, and Cathedral) that can be fine-tuned to taste are coupled with a comprehensive selection of 129 effects with up to ten editable parameters per effect . . . and that’s before even getting to the five kinds of tweakable amp simulations, which serve up tasty flavors such as suitcase, guitar stack, combo amp, and more. 

At the end of the audio chain, a four-band EQ comprising high and low shelving with separate fully parametric upper and lower midrange controls makes it easy to add the final touch to each finely crafted sound. Each reverb and EQ can also be offset globally, making it easy to compensate for problematic room sonics without having to tweak the EQ and reverb for each program. Whoever thought of that definitely deserves a raise. 

In Use

The MP11’s layout is incredibly intuitive, with the most basic sound controls for the 40 onboard instruments on the left hand side of the control panel, and the navigation, sound program selection, and recorder controls on the right. Section controls are simple and to the point, and incorporate sensibilities such as not cutting off a sustained note when each one is disabled in real time, so you can do things like turn off a stacked string pad under a piano program and still play the piano while pedal-holding the last triggered string tones. Dedicated volume sliders for each section are also helpful. It’s easy to use only the three sets of section controls and not even bother with multitimbral Setups. 

Sonically, the MP11 is superb. I put it through its paces in my living room next to my KG-2C, in my studio through top-notch studio monitors (with and without a sub), and at an “unplugged”-type blues jam at a friend’s place. The sample set is flawless—from top to bottom of the key range, at any dynamic level—and any issues that might arise as far as the frequency content can be addressed using the filters and four-band EQ. The acoustic pianos are a joy to play; I got lost in them for hours. I give deep props for all of the variations, but the “Concert” instrument was the one I kept revisiting. 

The electric pianos are no slouch either, delivering everything from subtle smoothness to fat crunchiness. I developed a special fondness for the suitcase-type tine EPs, especially once I started playing with the amp simulations. Also, it’s a pleasure to hear a different electric grand sound from the one in most stage pianos; the one in the MP11 is based on Kawai’s own EP308. [You may have seen Jeff Lorber endorsing it in 1980s-era issues of Keyboard. —Ed.] 

Supporting sounds are warm and subtle, and add a lovely sheen and presence to the bread-and-butter keyboard tones. Bonus points should be awarded for the onboard acoustic bass stacked with a ride cymbal; I love that sound in the left hand. It’s also satisfying to turn on all three engines at once and then mix them using each section’s dedicated volume slider. You can craft some deep, creative custom sounds doing that, and then knock it out of the park with the huge selection of onboard effects. 

I think Kawai made a mistake by not providing more than two buttons to navigate 26 possible banks. With such a tremendous amount of customizing possibilities, I wanted to build quicker access banks for several categories. I can also see some users being concerned about the size of the display. However, I’m not sure that a bigger or more colorful screen would justify the additional cost or add much functionality. As far as the recorder section, I didn’t spend much time with it—I’m more interested in the instrument itself—but everything I tried worked exactly as expected.

Virtual Technician

One of the unique aspects of the MP11 is the Virtual Technician, which lets the player customize the regulation and voicing of the onboard sound set. This is an extremely powerful and useful set of tools that let the sound set of the MP11 be dialed in to the taste of the individual performer, addressing even the most minute and subtle details.

Available parameters are:

Voicing: Adjusts hammers, action, and strings. (Normal, Mellow1, Mellow 2, Dynamic, Bright1 and Bright2) 

Stereo Width: Controls the stereo spread between lower and higher notes.

String Resonance: Adjusts sympathetic vibration of any undampened strings in response to further notes being played.

Damper Resonance: Adjusts vibration of all strings when notes are played with damper pedal down.

Key-off Effect: Adjusts the sound of the damper touching the strings to stop vibrations.

Damper Noise: Adjusts the sound of the damper pedal being pressed and released.

Hammer Delay: Most audible when playing pianissimo.

Fallback Noise: Alters the sound made after a key is released.

Topboard: Adjusts lid position (Closed plus three degrees of openness.) 

Brilliance: Adjusts the overall brightness of the instrument without affecting the voicing parameter.

Conclusions

If it isn’t already apparent, I’m completely delighted with the MP11. The sound set is outstanding, it’s tremendously easy to navigate, and it’s a pleasure to play. It is unquestionably one of the finest digital piano instruments I’ve had the opportunity to play.

PROS: Fabulous sound. One of the best feeling actions I’ve ever played on any electronic keyboard. A ton of customizability at just about every level.

CONS: Significantly heavier than the average stage piano. Bank selection is a bit awkward—only left/right arrow buttons to access 26 banks. 

Bottom Line: Killer keyboard feel, outstanding sounds, comprehensive sound-sculpting tools, and a ton of dedicated controls make the MP11 a serious contender for anyone looking for a high-end professional stage piano.

$3,299 list | $2,799 street | kawaius.com

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