REVIEW: Roland RD-2000 Digital Stage Piano

June 15, 2017

Setting a New Standard in the Field of Digital Stage Pianos

In a world where hype like “game changer” describes instruments that might have only one or two new features, it’s refreshing to see some understatement. Case in point: Roland unassumingly classifies their new RD-2000 as a digital stage piano.

It’s certainly that, as its core piano sounds are excellent. But it also packs a workstation-class quantity of electric, acoustic, synth, and other sounds with nary a bad sound in the bunch; an organ mode with drawbar control and rotary simulation; USB audio interfacing to your computer; extensive splitting and layering; and MIDI capabilities deep enough to recall the heyday of master-control keyboards such as the Roland A-90. We’d label the RD-2000 a main keyboard for professional stage and studio work—and a beast of one at that.

Organization

Technically the RD-2000 has two sound engines, but you encounter three “classes” of sounds. First, an all-physical-modeling engine straight out of Roland’s ambitious and concept-proving V-Piano generates its star acoustic pianos. These are the first ten sounds in the machine and are tagged with “MD” in the display.

Second, SuperNatural sounds, which show “SN” in the display, employ complex multi-sample switching to capture the nuances of vintage electric pianos, Clavs, classic organs, and still more acoustic pianos.

Then there’s everything else—strings, brass, pads, guitars, basses, synths of all kinds, drum kits—which don’t have a corresponding tag but are thoughtfully organized into sub-categories. A tagless sound isn’t necessarily less than an SN in sound quality, but the SN sounds do tend to have more tricks up their sleeves in terms of editing and performance control.

The RD-2000 labels single instrument sounds Tones and combinations of multiple sounds (e.g., splits and layers) Programs. This is a departure from traditional keyboard-speak, in which “program” usually means a single sound and “performance” or “multi” refers to a combination.

A Program can contain up to eight zones, split and layered any way you like among internal Tones and external soft synths and MIDI’ed-up keyboards. You’re limited to a single instance of the V-Piano engine, but this piano Tone will have effectively unlimited polyphony. SN and other Tones offer 128 voices. Playing the MD pianos with lots of note density and sustain won’t drain a note of polyphony from your other sounds.

Fig. 1: Even when browsing single sounds, more sounds are assigned by default to neighboring zones, making for quick splits and layers.

The RD-2000 is effectively always in multi-timbral mode, with Tones ready to go in zones 1 through 4: Simply hit a zone on/off button and bring up the fader (see Figure 1). A nice touch is that you set key ranges for each zone by striking the actual low and high keys you want. A dedicated Split button shortcuts to two-way splits such as piano and upright bass. Once you get everything how you like, you can save it as a Program.

If your set doesn’t require a lot of patch changes but, instead, a group of staple sounds, you could set up a single Program with piano in zone 1, organ in zone 2, strings in zone 3, and so on, and simply turn zones on and off as needed. In fact, the panel layout sort of suggests this as an intuitive way of working.

Scenes offer more organization still. Like Programs, Scenes can store a single Tone or a bunch, plus all related zoning and settings. They offer two things Programs don’t: one-touch recall via the Tone buttons and custom text memos in the display, with text file import. Functionally, Scenes improve upon the Live Sets from the RD-800 (reviewed June 2014 in Keyboard; see keyboarmag.com) and are your go-to for organizing patch changes for an evening’s worth of tunes.

Acoustic Pianos

Laying into the RD-2000’s modeled acoustic piano sounds is just so satisfying. A few minutes shedding your favorite songs, and you just don’t want to stop. The premiere MD piano presets give you ten timbral variations to fit different styles of music. Overall, they’re wonderfully warm with long, singing sustain. Collectively, they’re flexible enough to go from Debussy demure to “Benny and the Jets” bombast in response to velocity, with the base “Stage Grand” Tone covering much of this territory by itself.

The physical keyboard is a huge factor here. The RD-2000 uses Roland’s new PHA-50 action, which is subtly graded, has “ivory feel” textured surfaces to increase finger grip, and wraps wooden key sides around a synthetic frame. There’s also escapement, which on an acoustic piano refers to the point at which the hammer is destined to hit the string even if you pull your finger back from the key. On a digital piano, simulated escapement makes for an organic and non-fatiguing feel that’s especially noticeable on fast single-note repetitions and arpeggios.

Modeled pianos have a different character than even carefully multi-sampled ones. Along any audible index—pitch, brightness, loudness, sustain, whatever—they somehow feel smoother and more “together.” Are they always superior to sampled pianos? No. Good sampling beats bad modeling. That said, the RD-2000’s modeling is so good that a fair shootout would invite the biggest and best sampled software pianos on the market, not the “bank A” piano patches in most stage pianos and synth workstations.

Fig. 2: Modeled pianos in the RD-2000 can be voiced note by note for tuning, volume, and character (brightness).

The RD-2000’s modeling also provides fine control over acoustic piano nuances, via Tone Designer. This is an editing mode that digs into parameters of the selected sound, and it shows up in one form or another across all Tones. With the modeled pianos, Tone Designer includes lid position, several kinds of resonance (things in the piano vibrating in sympathy with struck strings), key-off noise, and much more. Even more surgically, it allows you to adjust the volume, tuning, and character (essentially brightness) of each note. This lets the more obsessive create and save custom piano profiles (see Figure 2).

The RD-2000’s home-oriented sibling, the FP-90 (see the review at keyboardmag.com), also has V-Piano sounds and lets you edit the same set of parameters from an iOS/Android app called Piano Designer. There doesn’t appear to be any such provision here, nor any editor-librarian app in either the mobile or desktop realms. Stage pianos usually aren’t deep enough to warrant a software editor, but the RD-2000 is, so put that on my wish list.

A plethora of SuperNatural and other sampled pianos are also on hand for backward compatibility and sheer variety. Another reason to use these in a Program or Scene is that, because the modeled piano Tones come from a separate engine, they don’t support “patch remain” (e.g., held notes sustaining over a program change). All other Tones do, in any combination.

EPs and Organs

SuperNatural programming is put to good use in the RD-2000’s electric piano, Clav, and tonewheel (B3-style) organs. A huge menu of Rhodes and Wurly sounds is on order, with Tone Designer covering various mechanical noises as well as a “sound lift” parameter that can bring your keyboard solo forward in a mix without having to increase the master volume. The balance of bell versus body in the sound is more a matter of which Tone you select, but there are so many of them that you’re bound to find a match for what’s in your mind’s ear.

These EPs are stellar. For realism, detail, and plain attitude, the “Vintage” bank exceeds anything I’ve heard from Roland before, and yells “Come at me, bro!” at the Kurzweil banks that have long been my vintage keys comfort zone. The Clavs are as good, with the different pickup settings of the original represented, not to mention a nice, funky touch-wah. The “Modern” EP bank showcases Roland’s RD-1000, which in 1986 launched Structured Adaptive (SA) synthesis—an early form of modeling—to produce acoustic and electric piano sounds with then-unprecedented expressiveness. If you want something a bit different, these Tones hold up surprisingly well today.

Many tonewheel organ Tones have drawbar control with the nine faders behaving authentically (e.g., down equals louder). Flicking the pitch paddle toggles the speed of a rotary speaker simulation that’s deeply editable in Tone Designer: fast and slow speeds, transitions, rotor balance, stereo spread, overdrive, and more details can be adjusted. The “ping” of harmonic percussion is covered on the Tone Designer screen, but Harmonic Bar mode doesn’t assign this to any panel buttons. The Organ tones are meaty and the rotary simulation is quite credible, but the scanner vibrato/chorus—which was part of the organ, not the rotary speaker—is absent. In this way, the RD-2000 is a hair shy of the full “clonewheel” status of Roland’s VK- and VR-series keyboards.

A number of lush, breathy pipe organs round out the Organ bank, with enough variation to cover most stop registrations that might be called for in classical and liturgical repertoire.

Even More Sounds

Across all Tones, nudging the data dial one click brings up a list, then cursoring left or right navigates sub-categories. This is useful because there’s so much material that the RD-2000 could really use a second row of Tone category buttons.

Where to begin? There are ensemble and solo strings for days, suiting moods from cinematic to disco. Apropos of nothing, I threw the “SS Phaser” effect onto “Hybrid Strings” and got crazy close to the Eminent 310 sound beloved by Jean Michel Jarre. Pads and choirs are abundant, with some expectedly harkening to bell pads from the D-50 and JD-800 synths. “Warm Soft Pad” cops a lush Bruce Hornsby vibe when layered under a piano.

Electric and acoustic guitars, as well as plucked instruments such as sitar and mandolin, all cohabitate under the Bass button next to a trove of upright, electric, and synth basses. If there’s a weak suit in the RD-2000, it’s crunchy distorted guitars, which reminded me of playing Doom through a SoundBlaster card. The nylon-acoustic guitars, on the other hand, are expressive and realistic, and the synth basses are rubbery and greasy.

The Other button is home to a plethora of fat and compelling synth textures in several sub-categories: leads, synth brass, “poly key” comping sounds, and more. Throughout, almost none have any of that bathroom-tile ROMpler sound that flags legacy wave content in keyboards. Rather, they sound like they’re from a good, current virtual-analog machine. The Beat/Groove bank contains retro drum machine loops that are distinct from the basic auto-rhythms found in the onboard song recorder, though they do sync to its tempo. So, do any synth Tones with rhythmic or pulsating elements.

Acoustic brass and woodwinds live in Other, as well, and only sound sampled if you play outside the pitch range of the real instruments. There are some nice octave stacks for covering “What Is Hip?” with too few musicians.

The RD-2000 has two sound expansion slots. You fill these not with ROM cards but with downloads from the Axial website (axial.roland.com/category/rd-2000). My first request? Bring back the section-building and divisi voice allocation prowess of the ARX-03 brass expansion for the Fantom-G.

Two words need to be said about how the RD-2000 Tones blend together—very well. Even with excellent sounds, I’ve usually found that stacking too many from the same machine begins to sound General MIDI-like. The RD-2000 really minimizes that. It’s not impossible to create layers where something about the intonation or temperament drifts a bit off, but you have to work at it.

Effects and Playability

Effects show up in three ways: Zone Effects, send-based global reverb and delay, and a final master compressor found in the System menu. As the name implies, Zone Effects apply to the internal Tone hosted by a given zone, and cover modulation (phaser, chorus, etc.), a separate tremolo, and amp sims. The RD-2000 has enough processing power for four internal zones to migrate into a Program or Scene with their effects unchanged.

The Zone Effects include renditions of classic Roland and Boss hardware such as the CE-1 chorus, Space Echo tape delay and SDD-320 digital delay, among others. Throughout, I found these to be deliciously true to the originals. The global reverb and delay sound great as well. Where appropriate, both zone and send effects’ rates can sync to the RD-2000’s internal tempo.

I can’t emphasize enough that the level of synth-like control over your sounds is an order of magnitude beyond what you’d expect from something that calls itself a stage piano. Via the rotary encoders, you always have the often-grabbed cutoff, resonance, attack, and release, not to mention all the effects settings. Those encoders also have an assignable function row, as do the faders. Then, Tone Designer is always up to something cool, even on non-V-Piano, non-SuperNatural sounds. Zone by zone control over vibrato and portamento? Yeah, for starters. You still can’t drill down to the level of editing oscillators and waveforms, but the immense variety of Tones assures that for everything but truly custom sound design, you don’t need to.

MIDI control over external sound sources is likewise deep. You can determine how every control on the RD-2000 affects what, channel by channel. If you use software instruments, you probably set key ranges and Learn controller assignments in host software such as Apple MainStage, and may never touch this aspect of the RD-2000. But if you roll even a little old-school, the programmability is on par with what better MIDI controllers had to offer in the late ’80s and much of the ’90s, when playing a single master keyboard and a rack of sound modules was what the cool kids did. Back to the future, the RD-2000 will even transmit high-res velocity to instruments that can use it.

Preset rhythms, as well as stereo audio recording to a USB stick, have become standard issue on better stage pianos, and the RD-2000 is no exception. Rhythms are largely in 4/4 time, though, since the metronome is a simple click that doesn’t accent the downbeat, you could use it to practice in any time signature. Audio file playback also includes a center-cancel function, which is often used to mute vocals for karaoke.

For browsing, editing, and building Programs, there’s often more than one way to navigate to the same place. The final page of the owner’s manual lists a bunch of panel shortcuts, and though the user experience is pretty intuitive just poking around, it gets better if you learn these the way you would key commands for your DAW.

I have just a couple of complaints. Stage pianos usually don’t have Aftertouch, but the RD-2000’s great synth sounds make me wish for it here. More strangely, while the RD-2000 can output MIDI clock (not to mention its rhythms as both MIDI and audio), I could find no setting to make it sync to external tempo. A look at its MIDI implementation chart confirmed that it transmits but does not receive MIDI clock. This won’t be an issue in most stage-piano use cases, but I could see wanting to add an RD-2000 sound that has some baked-in rhythmic aspect, or time-based effects, to an existing DAW project. Fortunately, tap tempo is supported. There isn’t a dedicated button, though: You assign it to a switch or pedal.

Conclusions

Trying to sum up the RD-2000, I keep coming back to the word “professional.” That’s another one of those overused terms that many products want to be called, but here, it’s both accurate and precise. If you make all or part of your living playing keyboards, whether on a bandstand or composing in your studio, this latest RD is both a powerful workhorse and a reliable source of joy.

First, there’s an entire V-Piano in it. Given that the original still sells for seven grand, Roland cutting no corners here is a big deal. It’s also darned nearly a vintage electric-piano museum. The organ section is robust and perhaps a firmware update away from competing with dedicated clones. All the other Tones cover everything you might need and most don’t come off like afterthoughts.

The RD-2000 has real-time performance control on par with some full-fledged synthesizers. It’s your audio interface for gigging with a laptop, with a highly intuitive method of putting internal sounds next to external ones. It’s a MIDI brainiac. Finally, the price is a chunk less than that of many other keyboards that can do this much, this well, all at once. As an anchor keyboard for your, well, professional musical workflow, the RD-2000’s value is off the charts. 

STRENGTHS - Stunning modeled acoustic pianos. Electric pianos have tons of realism and character. Organs have individual drawbar control. Fabulous piano action. Synth sounds galore. Extensive MIDI control. Integrated audio interface.

LIMITATIONS - Keys don’t sense Aftertouch. Drawbar-organ mode could be more fully implemented. No sync to external MIDI clock.

$2,499 street

roland.com

 

Good Connections

XLR main outputs speak to the RD-2000’s positioning as a pro instrument. One pair of 1/4'' outs mirrors these. Another output is an aux to which you can assign things separately for, say, sending a rhythm track to your drummer or an organ zone to a real Leslie. The MIDI Thru acts as a second output by default, which is great if you need to control hardware synths.

The sole analog audio input is a stereo mini jack meant for piping in a music player; there’s no way to route external audio through the synth engine or effects. But in a two-keyboard setup, you could route in your second keyboard using a Y-cable, sparing you from carrying a mixer.

The RD-2000 is plug-and-play with MIDI over USB, but getting USB audio to work requires downloading a driver from Roland’s support pages and following the steps in exactly the order the accompanying read-me prescribes. You also need to set the RD’s driver to “vendor” in its system menu and do a system write so it stays that way. Then, you can stream stereo audio at resolutions up to 24-bit/96kHz, with input gain on the ninth fader. This makes the RD-2000 a great master keyboard if you gig with a host program such as MainStage or Deskew Technologies Gig Performer, because you can leave your audio interface at home. Latency seems low, too: It was imperceptible in a MainStage test project loaded with Waves Electric Grand, Native Instruments Session Strings, a couple of factory Logic synths, and a buffer setting of 256.


Stephen Fortner, the former editor-in-chief of Keyboard magazine, is editor of the new Synth Expert website. 


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