Roland RD-700NX

March 22, 2011
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RD-700NX_MAIN.jpgThe rear panel angle makes it easy to see the jack labels, even if you’re standing in front of the keyboard.

  

I was going to start this review by saying, “If I were out playing club gigs, I’d buy my RD-700NX review unit. I wouldn’t dare send it back.” But that’s not strong enough praise. This piano is so good, I’m tempted to go out and get some club gigs just so I can have an excuse to play it. It sounds great, the keyboard feel is amazing, and it has exactly the features gigging musicians need.

The RD-700NX is not just a digital piano. It has a strong palette of synth sounds, up to four of which can be played at once from the keyboard. As a MIDI sound source, it can respond on all 16 channels for playback from a DAW or sequencer, and is General MIDI-2 compatible. The master keyboard setup is superior, and the drawbar organ isn’t too shabby either. Let’s start with the piano side.

Piano Sounds and Keyboard

The RD’s keyboard feels and responds very much like a grand piano. The weight, travel, and surface texture of the keys are all exactly right. The escapement is a little faster than on my real grand piano (a Yamaha C3), so I found it slightly easier to play ornaments in Bach and Haydn cleanly on the RD. The velocity response is highly programmable, but it felt fine for me out of the box.

The piano tone sounds as if it’s based on physical modeling, but in fact, its “SuperNatural” technology uses samples—many hundreds of samples. Which ones are played at any instant depends on your playing and what choices you make in the user interface.

If Roland’s marketing term means “superlatively natural,” that’s how the RD sounds: I could hear no loops on sustained notes, and no zoneor velocity-based sample switching. The editable parameters include things like hammer thunk and let-off noise, which are more often found in modeling and software pianos. Press a low key silently and play a harmonically related higher key, and you’ll hear a bit of ringing due to simulated sympathetic resonance. The high end may not sing quite as lingeringly as a real grand, as the initial envelope decay is a bit too fast for my taste, and the low end doesn’t have quite enough dynamic range to roar. Even so, your listeners won’t be able to tell they’re not hearing a real piano—and once you get comfortable with the sound, you may be able to close your eyes and pretend you’re playing one.

RD-700NX_right_panel.jpgTop: Large one-touch buttons for acoustic and electric pianos are perfect for dark stages. Bottom: Category buttons for non-piano sounds.

 

The included DP-10 damper pedal works with the RD to produce not just half-pedaling but fine gradations from pedal-up to pedal-down. If you stomp it without pressing any keys, you’ll hear the dampers lift. Playing notes with the pedal down produces a fairly realistic duplex action haze, and pressing the pedal after starting a note adds a subtle but perceptible amount of air to the tone. The pedal itself has a “tongue” that can stick out under your heel, preventing the pedal from scooting away from you on a slick floor.

The EPs are a Rhodes and Wurly (each with its characteristic tremolo, which you can switch on or off by tapping a left-hand switch) and Roland’s own SA (Structured Adaptive) synth piano. All three are gloriously playable. To grab a variation, such as a grand layered with strings or a Rhodes with a phaser, select the basic sound and then tap the increment button a few times. You can’t choose which sounds the one-touch buttons call up, but there are plenty of other ways to make the sounds you need available quickly, so this is not a problem.

Non-Piano Sounds

Below the piano buttons is a row where, again, you select the category you want (Clavs, mallets, strings, etc.) then tap the increment button to get variations. I liked just about all of the sounds I tried. They’re solid, playable, and exactly what you’re likely to need onstage.

There are deeper features to dig into. Your choices aren’t simply ROMpler presets, they’re four-sound layers. In most cases, when you first select a sound, only one of the four layers is on. You can activate other layers using dedicated (and illuminated) buttons, then adjust their volumes with the sliders. Programming and saving your own layer setups is easy, and you have close to 1,000 synth presets to choose from.

Like on most stage pianos (as opposed to keyboards billed as workstations or all-around synths), the presets themselves are not very editable. Other than offsets for attack, decay, and release, and filter cutoff and resonance, you’re limited to adding and editing effects. The effects, however, are very good. With the distortions, for instance, you have a choice of amp simulators. Plus, each of the four sounds in a split/layer setup can have its own two effects. The RD-700NX is not trying to be a sound designer’s machine; it’s for gigging musicians who need useful sounds quickly.

Drawbar Organ

While the RD-700NX’s drawbar mode doesn’t compare to a dedicated organ clone (no stage piano’s does), you’ll be able to dig into a few Deep Purple or Jimmy Smith licks without embarrassment. The four sliders control drawbars, and the pitchbend lever changes speeds on a Leslie (rotary) simulator. The rotary effect isn’t going to tear anyone’s head off, but attention has been paid to detail: You can hear the bass rotor accelerate and decelerate at a different rate from the treble rotor. The staccatotriggered harmonic percussion behaves correctly, and turning it on silences the 1' drawbar—as on a real Hammond organ. You can split separate drawbar sounds for your left and right hands, as if you had a two-manual organ, or split/layer a drawbar sound with piano or any other nonorgan sound.

How can four sliders operate nine drawbars? You can switch the sliders to control one group of four drawbars or an alternate group—your choice of which drawbars go in the groups. If you’ll be working the 1-3/5' drawbar throughout a song, you might set up a preset with the 1-3/5' in both groups, then put some low drawbars in one group and higher ones in the other. As there are only two groups of four, at least one drawbar will be controllable only if you go into edit mode, so make that whichever one you’re least likely to change while playing. The sliders behave correctly in drawbar mode: Down is louder. Another nice touch is that one button-press gets the sliders in and out of drawbar mode: Hit the right arrow and they’re drawbars; hit the left arrow and they return to being a mixer for the four zones.

RD-700NX_left_panel.jpgGlobal effects and EQ get their own knobs. When it’s your turn to solo in the band, try “Sound Focus.”

  

Who Needs a Band?

In addition to being 16-part multitimbral, the RD can play MIDI files from an attached USB drive (the slot is recessed, so a USB stick won’t jut out too far), or load them into internal memory. After loading a few, I powered the unit down and back up, and found that the songs were still there. You can choose them one at a time, or play back a whole set with one command.

You can also stream MP3 or WAV audio files from the USB drive. You’ll need to format the drive in the RD first; it then appears on your Mac or Windows desktop, so you can drag-and-drop files. Because I dislike the sound of standard 128kbps MP3s, I tried a higher-resolution 256kbps file, and the RD had no problems with it. The manual says to power down the RD before inserting or removing USB memory, which is a bit annoying, but only a bit, as this keyboard is ready to go in less than five seconds when powered up.

The RD can also record your performance as a WAV file—perfect as a sketchpad for songwriters. A one-track sequencer would have been a good feature, but recorded audio is easier to export to your computer. There’s no mic input (nor any audio inputs), so you’ll need a separate vocal P.A. or recording setup if you sing.

The drum patterns in the RD-700NX might be usable onstage in a pinch, or for practicing, but you won’t find pattern or song sequencing. All you can do is start and stop an unvarying two-bar groove and adjust the tempo.

Other Features

In addition to its programmable effects, the RD has global effects: a fourband EQ, reverb, chorus/delay, compressor, and a sort of enhance/boost effect called Sound Focus. All have dedicated knobs and buttons. The center frequency and cut/boost of each EQ band can be adjusted. You can even set things up so that the EQ isn’t changed when you switch presets—perfect for tailoring your sound in a troublesome room.

In addition to USB MIDI, the three five-pin MIDI outs are an unexpected bonus. If your rig includes multiple hardware sound modules, you’ll appreciate that each output can be addressed from a separate keyboard zone. Even better, the four MIDI out zones are independent of the four internal-sound zones, and have their own transpose settings. Kudos to Roland for retaining this much old-school MIDI control.

Conclusions

The RD-700NX is a class act all the way. The piano sounds are spectacular, and I love the feel of the keyboard. The user interface is easy to navigate, the drawbar organ emulation is spiffy, and the ability to play both MIDI and audio files is a lifesaver at casuals and solo gigs. It’s great to see Roland addressing the needs of working musicians in so many direct and thoughtful ways.

Specifications

PROS Great-feeling keyboard. Superior acoustic and electric piano sounds. Drawbar organ mode. Four-way split/layer master keyboard setup. Plays MIDI, WAV, and MP3 files from attached USB stick.

CONS No music rack. Limited sound editing. No audio inputs.

RD-700NX_close_rear.jpgCONCEPT A no-compromise 88-key stage piano.
KEYBOARD Fully weighted, with escapement simulation and adjustable velocity response.
POLYPHONY 128 voices.
KEYBOARD ZONES Four internal, four external MIDI.
W x D x H 56-7/8" x 14-3/4" x 5-7/8".
WEIGHT 55 lbs., 2 oz.

PRICE List: $2,999
Approx. street: $2,600

rolandus.com

***Check out this video from author Jim Aikin as he demos the RD-700NX.

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