The World of Digital Pianos Has a New Top Contender
Korg has been a major presence in the digital piano market for decades, and with its new flagship model, the Grandstage, it hopes to continue its influence.
The 88-note version of the Grandstage weighs just over 44 lbs. (the 73-note version weighs 37.5 lbs.), which to me is neither light nor excessively heavy. On first look, it does a great job of reminding you of a grand piano. The deep black, shiny fluting around the keybed, combined with the perfectly placed red felt ribbon across the tops of the keys, trigger all the right memory neurons in the brain to make you feel like you’re sitting in front of a glossy basic-black piano.
To the audience, Korg adds a decidedly 21st-century touch to the rear panel: an LED-illuminated Korg logo that can glow in 7 user-selectable colors, and is even velocity-sensitive! That’s downright flamboyant coming from one of the “Big 3” keyboard manufacturers. Boldness wins points in my book!
The keybed is Korg’s own RH3 (RH stands for “real hammer”). I first tried playing the Grandstage with the sound off, just to get a sense of the action, and I found three significant ways in which the RH3’s feel differs from, say, a Fatar hammer-action keybed (found in many other 88-note keyboards). First, it puts up more resistance on the downward travel than the Fatar typically does. Second, it has a softer “landing” at the bottom of key travel. And third, the overall depth of the key travel is slightly shallower.
Whether any of these differences is an advantage for you or a drawback depends entirely on your style, technique and taste. Personally I don’t really prefer one keybed over the other (especially when considered apart from sound), as to me they both feel somewhat different from a real piano action, albeit in different ways.
The proof of the pudding is in the way the keybed and the sound engine, working together in tandem, react to your playing. As I will explain further on, I found the Grandstage to be capable of great “pianistic” expressiveness.
The instrument’s MIDI implementation is fairly straightforward. The Grandstage, when used with the split function, can transmit messages on two separate MIDI channels—one for the upper part (higher note range) and one for the lower part (lower note range). For fairly simple live rigs, it should provide as much MIDI control as most players will need.
The Grandstage takes about 35 seconds to start up after powering it on. This is about average in time; quicker than some keyboards with computers inside, slower than others.
At the center of the front panel is a bank of buttons labeled Favorites. The first four banks—labeled A, B, C and D—are filled with factory presets that can be edited and overwritten in a very simple, straightforward manner. Banks E through H contain the default program, Grandstage Piano, and are available to be filled up with 32 of your customized programs.
The factory presets in Banks A through D are a good way to get acquainted with the Grandstage’s wide range of sounds, splits and layers. But you can just as easily select sounds manually from either side of the Favorites buttons. The right-hand sound selection area is labeled Keyboards, whereas the left one is labeled Ensemble. Each has a separate OLED display telling you what you’ve currently selected.
Illuminated buttons indicate whether Keyboards or Ensemble are activated, or both. (One of them must be active at all times.) Each has a big knob for category selection and a smaller knob labeled Variation to access specific programs in each category. You select a category first, then use the Variation knob to find a specific instrument. The categories on the Keyboards knob are Grand, Upright, EP Rd, EP Wl, EP Syn, Clav, Organ, and Ensemble. On the Ensemble knob, the categories are Strings, Brass, Synth, Lead, Bell/Gtr, Bass, SFX/Hit, and Keyboards.
Notice that the last category for knob is the name of the other section. This is so that you can easily combine two keyboard sounds, or two ensemble sounds in a split or layer. Layering is accomplished by simply pushing and lighting up whichever button is unlit.
To split the keyboard, hold down the Split button and hit a key to select a split point. You can easily swap your upper and lower sounds by hitting the Swap button. Need to transpose one of the sounds up or down an octave quickly? Push the Edit button and the first parameter that comes up is Octave. Tweak the Level knob to adjust the octave range and you’re done. The Reverb/Delay knob lets you set one of those effects, then apply it to both layers or both halves of a split.
The pitch and mod wheels are a pleasure to use, very responsive but not too much so. The top panel also provides two programmable switches, a Dynamics knob and a 3-band graphic EQ. The Dynamics control has a dramatic effect on the responsiveness of the keyboard. It’s a quick and intuitive way to tailor the Grandstage’s overall feel to your playing style.
In addition to the selected sounds, the Reverb/Delay settings are saved within a Favorite program, as are the split and swap states. EQ and Dynamics are not saved within a program, which is fine because live players often like to tailor those parameters to a specific gig situation. Thus you’ll probably want to change them on the fly, leave them set for the show and change them at the next gig, rather than have different settings come back at you every time you recall your fave presets.
Acoustic Piano Sounds
LISTEN TO: "GRAND PIANO" SAMPLE HERE
LISTEN TO: "UPRIGHT BOOGIE SAMPLE HERE
You get six grand pianos—Grandstage, Italian, German, Japanese, Berlin and Austrian—from Korg’s SGX-2 acoustic-piano sound engine. Each is beautiful, authoritative-sounding, responsive, and has a distinct flavor.
I tended to gravitate toward the German grand, which most resembles my personal Steinway baby grand at home, but I also really appreciate the personalities of the others, such as the Italian, which I assume to be a Fazioli, and the Japanese, which sounds just like a Yamaha C7. All of them have something unique to recommend, and they are all sampled in top notch quality. Most can stand on their own live as solo piano instruments. In an onstage mix you’ll find many “sweet spots’ where one particular piano or another will absolutely shine. I’d be happy to use this group of pianos on any stage, whether in front of 50 people or 50,000.
You get programs featuring each grand in stereo, mono, dark, bright and flat-tune—very useful for various situations you’ll come across playing live. To show off some of the excellent onboard effects, certain pianos appear with compression, chorus, rotary speaker, flanger and pedal wah. They all sound great and are customizable. These programs allow you to get an idea of some of the sonic possibilities of the Grandstage. For example I had great fun recreating the flanged piano part from David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes,” and it took me all of 10 seconds to adjust the flanger speed and depth to match the settings on that classic rock track.
The Grandstage also includes two uprights, numbered 1 and 2, in both stereo and mono. One is a little more “primitive”-sounding and one I would describe as more “civilized.” You get compression, honky tonk-style de-tuning, dark and bright EQ. All these are a joy to play, from moody low-fi balladry to ragtime stomping, and every point in between.
LISTEN TO: "RHODES MK1 STEREO TREM" SAMPLE HERE
LISTEN TO: "RHODES PHASER" SAMPLE HERE
LISTEN TO: "WURLY TREM" SAMPLE HERE
LISTEN TO: "CLAV GROOVE" SAMPLE HERE
Two words—warm and alive. Courtesy of the EP-1 engine, you get Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Clavinet, and Pianet tones. I can honestly say that all of them sound absolutely beautiful. Lovingly sampled and paired with gorgeous effects, these electric pianos are inspiring right out of the box. You’ll find the following Rhodes models: Mark I, Mark II, Mark V and Dyno. I would have loved a Sparkletop model as well for that really retro flavor, but you can get close enough with the EQ and amp simulations. Count me well pleased. Each of these Rhodes just jumps out and grabs you the moment you start playing.
Wurlitzers? Spectacular. You get a 200A and a 200 (the red one). The 200 is a little punchier, as expected. No tube Wurly’s? Not a deal-breaker for me. You can get a close approximation with the amp cabinet simulations and some EQ. These are such fine examples of a Wurlitzer that it didn’t occur to me for quite a while that there was no model 140B or the like. The tremolo is not quite the original speed (5.40 Hz as opposed to the standard 6 Hz) but can certainly be adjusted. And, crucially, it has the right character. There’s a great line-up of effects including chorus (Supertramp, anyone?), phaser, and wah, among others. I found the factory-set overdrive a little excessive, but you can dial that down to a nice subtle crunch if you want. This is one ace of an electric piano machine.
The FM electric piano is well-represented here, with seven different takes on the DX7 “FM Tine Rhodes sound.” You also get it layered with lush, velvety synth pads worthy of the finest Whitney Houston cover band. There are some really nice “analog synth pianos” courtesy of the AL-1 analog modeling engine. You get a bit of basic virtual-analog programming capability when you hit Edit (albeit with one knob for every parameter—Release, Filter Cutoff, Resonance and Filter EG amount). A nice extra feature!
I have to mention the Clavinets as well. You get all the pickup combinations (I presume the samples are of a D6) plus auto wah, pedal wah, compressor, phaser, chorus and flanger. Korg also provides a glorious rendering of the Clavinet Pianet Duo. (There’s a Pianet sample available, as well, and I’m guessing it’s of the T model.) The mod wheel lets you dial in the damping on the fly, just like the damping lever on a real Clav, only more easily accessible. Very cool.
There are a lot of nice preset Hammond-B3 programs, brought to you by the CX-3 engine. You don’t have drawbar control but you can turn on percussion and chorus-vibrato with the SW1 and SW2 buttons, and control the Leslie speed with the pitch wheel.
You cannot alter the drawbar settings but you can increase/decrease brightness a little with the treble EQ slider, dirty the sound up with more amp gain and tweak the upper/lower rotor balance to your taste. And you have 32 different drawbar settings, which covers a lot of territory. So, if you really need more than what the Grandstage has to offer here, it’s time to invest in a clonewheel (or a B-3!).
The instrument includes several nice Vox and Farfisa combo organs; the latter comes with left-hand bass tones. Lastly, there are some lovely pipe organs with nice sounding reverb to go with them. They are so realistic that you actually need to hit lower notes earlier so that the “pipes” will start vibrating on time, just like on a real pipe organ.
From the Ensemble section, the HD-1 PCM sound generator provides a quantity of usable extra sounds. Many seem designed for layering on top of the pianos and electric pianos, but most stand up perfectly well on their own. You’ll find strings, brass, woodwinds, synth pads and leads, SFX and hits. The Bell/Gtr takes you on a tour of world-music instruments in addition to bells and guitars, whereas the Bass section gives you acoustic, electric and synth bass tones galore (with some nice forays into early-‘70s, Stevie Wonder Minimoog-bass territory.
There are 500 Ensemble programs in all, and I can’t imagine them not coming in handy; there are some very evocative pads and other mood-setting textures that could easily inspire both songwriters and soundtrack composers. Count these textures as a major bonus.
The Grandstage includes Korg’s SST (“Smooth Sound Transition”) feature, so that sounds are not interrupted when you transition from one program to the next. And it works seamlessly. I tested it by setting a delay on a piano sound with near-infinite feedback, playing a chord, then holding it while changing programs. The delay on the piano kept going, as did the tail of the piano sound, even while I hit new notes playing an organ sound with a spring reverb. Impressive.
It should be obvious that I really dig the Grandstage. It’s an excellent stage piano, but just as importantly, it’s also an excellent product. The overall sound quality and playability is nothing less than stellar. And there are many sonic high points: the electric pianos are one of them for me, though I also thoroughly enjoy the grands and uprights. There just aren’t any sounds on here that don’t work well, or wouldn’t be right for some conceivable real-world musical use. And it is very easy to find the sounds you want, dial in a comfortable keyboard response, set up splits and layers, and just get playing.
The Grandstage can transition from a solo-gig instrument to a large-band keyboard to a MIDI-studio instrument as seamlessly as it transitions from program to program. Korg has succeeded in creating a powerful new contender in the area of digital stage pianos.
Overall quality of sounds is excellent. Instruments are very playable, with easily adjustable keyboard response. Very wide sound palette. Easy to find sounds on the fly. Excellent effects. Readable displays. No glitches when transitioning between sounds. Construction appears solid. Not too heavy at 44 lbs.
None that I can think of!
A roadworthy, digital stage piano that provides a wide variety of quality sounds in a stylish package.
88-note version: $2,499 (Includes Korg's Standard M-SV A-frame stand, music rack and DS1H sustain pedal).
73-note version: $2,299 (Includes Korg's Standard M-SV A-frame stand, music rack and DS1H sustain pedal).
Reviewer Andy Burton has toured as the keyboardist with John Mayer, Rufus Wainwright and many others. He is currently the touring keyboardist with Cyndi Lauper and Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul.