The Roland RD-800 is the latest in Roland’s long line of
professional stage pianos. It follows in the footsteps of the RD-700
line, which included four models released across a dozen years: the
original, then improved models with suffixes SX, GX, and NX. The RD-800
follows similar structural paths, albeit with improved sounds and a
streamlined user interface meant for quick splitting and layering
onstage. It has Roland’s latest and greatest hammer-action keyboard. It
provides a vast array of world-class pianos, electric pianos, organs, Clavinets, and a host of other sampled and synthesis-based sounds, with
acoustic and electric pianos using Roland’s well known “SuperNatural”
technology: a combination of exhaustive multisampling and modeling.
Roland has also added some realtime controls that make this latest RD
much more flexible and enjoyable to play. Let’s dig in for a closer look
PROS: Stellar acoustic piano sounds. Same goes for vintage
electric piano and Clav sounds. Great feeling keyboard action with
simulated escapement. Full drawbar control over tonewheel organ sounds.
Excellent strings. Large variety of other sounds. Live Sets make for
powerful yet easy sound editing and organization.
CONS: Order of zone volume sliders may seem backwards at first.
Keys don’t transmit aftertouch. Tonewheel modeling mode lacks
Bottom Line: A must-audition if you’re in the market for a high-end stage piano.
$2,999 list | $2,499 street | rolandus.com
Owing in part to the action, the RD-800 weighs almost 48
pounds, and while that’s not for the faint of heart, it is about ten
pounds lighter than its predecessor, the RD-700NX. It feels substantial
because, well, it is substantial. I found the keyboard feel
extremely enjoyable overall. It gives you a very satisfying resistance,
and felt expressive and responsive to my “piano player” hands. The
RD-800 can also be used as a master keyboard for more complex setups
involving external sound sources, and all of its controls send
appropriate MIDI commands which you can map to external instruments.
Roland also provides a great color display as your window
into the RD-800—it’s both easy to read and nice to look at. Though I
have yet to put the keyboard through its paces in a bright, sunlit
environment, I found this display easy to see under most lighting
The front panel is very comprehensive, and if you’ve
spent any time on the RD-700 line, it will seem familiar and yet more
accessible than the previous layouts. Some of the knobs, including
master volume, are nicely backlit in color, which makes them easier to
find quickly. I must say I prefer a slider for volume (as on Roland’s
previous RD stage pianos), but I’m sure I’ll get used to this quickly.
You do get sliders for the individual layer volumes (we’ll
discuss layers shortly), as on most past and present Roland instruments.
Besides the volume knob, there are a series of knobs for adjusting
various global parameters such as reverb, EQ, delay, “tone color,”
modulation effects, tremolo, and amp simulation. Dedicated buttons
access menus, MIDI control, and transpose, and while there are no
dedicated octave shift buttons, it’s not critical to have them on an
Data entry is handled by the now-familiar encoder wheel
encircled by a cursor diamond of buttons. It doesn’t take much practice
to get to where you’re flying around the screen, entering rough values
with the wheel, and then getting them exact with the increment/decrement
We then find sound selection buttons for Tones and Live
Sets. Overall, the panel is clean and uncluttered, One quibble is the
placement of the Split button to the right of the display; I would have
preferred it to be positioned for a quick left-hand tap. Spacing between
controls is good, which reduces errors when performing under changing
A well-designed electronic instrument should address the
needs of both the musician who just wants to select individual sounds
individually and play them, as well as those who want to delve deeper
and create more complex multitimbral setups. The RD-800 delivers on both
counts. There are lots of parameters to adjust in the “Tone Designer”
mode, but there are limits—this is a stage piano with a focus on ease of
use, not a full-on synthesizer.
That said, I find it very functional and easy to get
around, and have not yet come across a musical situation I couldn’t
address with the available parameter set. The Tone Color knob deserves
special mention, as it varies a “macro” of parameters appropriate to
whatever sound you’re currently playing—varying an electric piano patch
from very dark to bell-like and tiney, for example.
You can easily select sounds, assign effects and realtime
controls to them, adjust their envelopes in some cases and their EQ
individually, as well as route them into a rather nice effects
processor. You can split and/or layer sounds across the keyboard, up to
four of them at a time. Once you’ve done that, you can adjust their
individual levels and access the individual component sounds for editing
easily from the panel while playing. You can save all of these into 200
locations called Live Sets (four-way multis) and recall them easily.
One curious design choice: the layer volume sliders and their zone
on/off buttons are organized, left to right: lower, then upper layers 3,
2, and 1. This makes sense in that the sliders are closest to the key
zones they’re actually controlling, but can take some getting used to.
Top to bottom on the display (i.e., the Tone names in a Live Set) corresponds to right to left on the sliders.
The Tones are organized in sound categories familiar to
us all: acoustic pianos (“concert” and “studio,” as in grand and
upright), electric pianos (“vintage” and “modern,” as in Rhodes and
Wurly versus DX-style), Clavinets, organs, strings, pads, basses, and
other various sounds grouped under the Other button. The OS offers more
category and Tone options once you’re using the screen to view the patch
lists, which makes finding “that particular harpsichord” that much
quicker. Once selected, tones can be easily stored on the category
buttons as assigned sounds for those buttons, so all of your favorite
variations can be easily available on the buttons in real time.
The piano sounds are clearly the main focus of this
instrument, and I found them excellent sounding and very enjoyable to
play. A wide variety of tonal qualities are provided, and without
exception, the sounds are well rendered and, to my ears, loop-free.
Additionally, there are numerous adjustable parameters unique to the
piano section, such as nuance, damper noise, string resonance, key-off
resonance, hammer noise, and some broader categories like “character”
and “sound lift,” the latter of which is meant to give the piano sound a
tighter “focus” for taking a solo without your having to turn the
volume way up. All of these tweaks can be stored as part of a Live Set,
letting you customize the pianos to your liking. However, I found the
factory settings to be so good that I didn’t need to spend time
Tonewheel organ sounds allow control over all nine
drawbar frequencies (four at a time, via the sliders), accessing an
engine derived from Roland’s VR series—an unexpected addition on a
“straight” stage piano. Harmonic percussion is fully adjustable and
triggers correctly. The organ sounds are uniformly excellent and quite
usable and the rotary simulation is very good. Not that I’d sell my
Hammond and Leslie, but for the few moments in our show where I require
organ sounds, the RD-800’s are quite sufficient. I’m admittedly coming
from more of a pianist background than anywhere else.
As I’ve habitually used Roland stage pianos onstage to
generate string sounds, the string library in the RD-800 was of great
interest. The RD-800 provides a large variety of string tones, with some
good timbral variety available on the Tone Color knob for each. There’s
a lot to choose from here, with both section and solo strings well
represented. Both “real” strings and those intended to sound synthesized
sounded great and were uniformly playable.
The rest of the tones available in the instrument are, by
and large, very well recorded and rendered, and extremely useful and
versatile. Because of the sheer number, I won’t go through them all, but
suffice to say there’s a lot to like here and very little fluff.
As mentioned before, the RD-800 stores up to four
user-edited Tones as an object called a Live Set. (Accessed via MIDI,
the RD is 16-part multitimbral.) Here is where the deeper power of the
instrument is revealed. One can easily assign sounds to different
keyboard zones. One can add and route effects, adjust volume and
panning, and so on. This is also the level at which modified single
Tones get stored. A dedicated row of Live Set buttons right above the
Tone buttons lets you organize and recall your Live Sets quickly, in ten
banks of 20 Live Sets each. Having used previous RD models a lot, I
found the increased flexibility this provided to be a welcome
addition—especially for creating and ordering set lists for shows.
Like its predecessors the RD-800 allows for storing of
Live Sets to USB flash drives as well as its internal memory. This is a
great feature for those of us who tour using rental gear, as I can show
up at the gig with just a flash drive and have my whole show loaded into
an RD instrument in seconds. You can save and load Live Sets
individually, or all in one go.
A Rhythm/Song area features over 180 drum patterns. The
patterns do make a nice starting place for songwriting and piano
practice, though it is hard for me to imagine using them for, say, an
entire solo gig.
Another aspect of the RD-800 is the Audio Record feature.
Here, one can record full performances as a 16-bit, 44.1kHz WAV file
straight to a USB flash drive, and then have playback of the audio start
and stop by striking a key. One can also use external audio for this
purpose. I’ve used this in the RD-700 series and found it to be very
convenient and easy to control onstage.
In the system parameters, one can adjust things such as
overall tuning, pedal settings, tuning temperaments (including equal,
just major, just minor, Pythagorean, Kirnberger, mean tone,
Werckmeister, and Arabic), which layers in a live set respond to MIDI
(crucial for playing a multi where you want the sustain pedal to affect
some sounds but not others), and more. System settings can be saved
internally. There’s also a multi-band system compressor just upstream of
the main audio outs. Among other things, this can act as “volume
insurance” if you bring up a Live Set whose tones have unexpectedly high
You can connect a USB WiFi dongle (not included; Roland
specifies their WNA-1100RL model) to the USB type-A port, and in conjunction
with a WiFi router (also not included), use the RD-800 with
wireless-compatible iOS apps. So far, this is just Roland’s Air Recorder
app, but given how deep you can get programming Live Sets, we’d love to
see an iOS-based editor/librarian for the RD-800 in the future. If
you’re not near an open router, the RD also supports ad-hoc networking.
The Roland RD-800 is an excellent and thoroughly
professional digital piano for stage and studio. The keyboard feels
solid without being fatiguing to play, and the huge complement of sounds
is uniformly excellent. There are ample editing features to personalize
your sound as much as you’d want, but the architecture is well designed
in that it’s never too complicated to get back to where you were.
Thinking in terms of Live Sets may be new if you’re used to how stage
pianos have worked in the past, but they’re easy to master and will
become essential to your gigging workflow once you realize their power.
The four total pedal inputs and available dual MIDI outs speak to its
seriousness as a master keyboard as well. All in all, the RD-800 is
musical instrument at the top of its class.
Reviewer Richard Hilton is the touring keyboardist with Nile Rodgers and Chic.