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