Roland RD-800 stage piano reviewed

December 11, 2013
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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 and listen.

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 vibrato/chorus parameters.

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


Overview

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 conditions.

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 88-key instrument.

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 buttons.

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 stage lights. 


Sound Selection

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.


Sounds

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 modifying them.

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.


More Features

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 entry volumes.

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.


Conclusions

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.

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