When it comes to Yamaha digital pianos, I’ve played more than my fair share. There was the Clavinova CLP-300 on which I made my audition tape for the Eastman School of Music and the Yamaha P200 I used on my first recording gig. I’ve played tiny European jazz clubs with the P95, and the 2,000-seat Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London with the CP300. Until recently, I used a CP33 as my go-to portable, preferring it to more recent stage pianos for its near perfect pairing of touch, tone, and un-terrifying weight. In 2011, I reviewed Yamaha’s newest stage pianos at the time: the CP1, CP5, and CP50. “CP” designates Yamaha’s most professionally-targeted stage pianos, and the CP4 seeks to surpass all that came before. How does it fare?
PROS: Spot-on acoustic and electric piano emulations. Excellent additional sounds. 128-voice polyphony. Realistic, graded, real wooden key action. Manual sliders for 5-band EQ. Balanced XLR outs. Records audio to USB drive. Light, portable, and roadworthy.
CONS: No onboard speakers for practice.
Bottom Line: The new stage piano to beat: a lean, mean, gigging machine.
$2,999 list | $2,199 street | yamaha.com
These days, you’ll see many kinds of “88-ers” on stages, workstations such as the Yamaha Motif XF8 included. The CP4 isn’t one of those; there’s neither multitrack sequencing nor every sound imaginable inside. But if you’ve been searching for an acoustic piano replacement-slash-vintage keys machine that sounds great and weighs less than 40 pounds, you’ve just met your match. The CP4’s reduced weight comes in part from not having onboard speakers. True, most pro stage keyboards don’t have them, but the CP300 and many Yamaha P models did, which I always found nice for practice or for warming up before the show when the monitor system was muted.
With the CP4, Yamaha has returned to the streamlined style of its earlier stage piano models like the CP33. The front panel is easily navigable, with a large, backlit LCD display and a generous array of well-placed sliders and buttons. Where the CP1, CP5, and CP50 had only a pitch-bend wheel, Yamaha has added a modulation wheel to the CP4.
Around back, you’ll find foot switch and controller jacks, five-pin MIDI ports, music stand support holes, and a 1/8" stereo input for routing a music playback device to the outputs (saving you a mixer input for backing tracks or break music). In addition to headphone and 1/4" stereo outputs, the CP4 includes balanced XLR outs—a pro touch for running directly into a stage snake.
A USB-B port provides MIDI connection to your Mac or PC, and a USB-A port lets the CP4 record a stereo WAV file of your performance to an attached drive. There’s also an internal power supply, so no wall wart!
On the CP4, Yamaha has updated their stage piano action yet again, with real wood white keys and synthetic ivory key tops—the white key surfaces are slick, though, not textured. Yamaha calls this new action the NW-GH, which stands for “Natural Wood Graded Hammer.” It combines the best aspects of the NW-Stage action (non-graded wooden keys) of the CP1 and CP5 with the GHaction (graded plastic keys) of the CP33, CP50, CP300, and now the CP4’s little brother the CP40. How does it feel? In a word, great. Not many other 88- digital instruments feel this piano-like. The CP4 has that convincing combination of resistance and playability that makes real pianos so pleasing. While some players thought the key dip on the CP1 and CP5 was too shallow, under my fingers the CP4 felt uncannily like a real piano. There’s no aftertouch, but for most applications this won’t be a deal-breaker.
Unlike Yamaha synths and workstations (like the Motif and S-series), the CP4 has no separate “User Voice” mode for single sound programs. All data are stored in a Performance (multitimbral setup). Each Performance can have three internal sounds (Main, Split, and Layer) as well as address four zones from external sound sources. This doesn’t mean all the sounds have to be active at once, but they’re saved and able to be called up. The Main sound always stays active, while the Split and Layer sounds can be set to off. Don’t worry—if you don’t hear a sound, it’s not taking up polyphony.
Other editable aspects of a Performance include system-wide effects like reverb and chorus, and insertsincluding Yamaha’s VCM effects (Virtual Circuit Modeling), which model classic outboard hardware and stompboxes. A Performance can have two inserts at once, each of which contains two independent effects. Your choices for types from stereo tremolos and flangers to detail-oriented options like adjusting the hammer strike position on a Rhodes sound and altering its preamp. There’s also a Master Compressor (with seven presets) to help the CP4 cut through a mix, a five-band master EQ, and a surprisingly useful onboard metronome.
My demo CP4 arrived just as I started writing sessions for a new album. While I usually write on an acoustic grand piano, I thought jumping in with the CP4 would be a great test. I powered on, and up popped “CFX St.”, the sound of Yamaha’s new flagship CFX concert grand. I got to play a real CFX earlier this year, so I know what that nine-foot beast sounds and feels like. In an instant, I was back at that behemoth, with its rumbling bass and crystalline top end. The sampling here sounds crisp and clean, with no audible signs of looping. There’s something organically intoxicating about the CP4. It draws you in. The NW-GH action is a perfect complement to the new CFX sound set.
A press of the “Layer” button followed by the “Pad” button got me channeling my inner Bruce Hornsby, with the sumptuous “NeoCrystal” dialed in behind the CFX. Volume adjustment per Voice is immediate: just grab the corresponding slider for the Split, Layer or Mainpart.
The two other concert piano sample sets (each, like the CFX, with 15 variations) impress as well: the CFIIIS with its darker timbre, and the S6 with its round, intimate allure. While playing the S6, I hit the “Split” button and then chose the Guitar/Bass voice named “AcousticBa.” In an instant, a jazz duo was born. The S6 is a natural choice for more intimate ballads and jazz fare, in settings where the tone of the CFX or CFIIIS might be overkill.
A quick turn of the Data dial reveals the numerous variations on each Voice. Electric pianos impress, with realistic Rhodes, Wurlitzer, CP80, and DX-type sounds.
Much like the CP4’s acoustic pianos, the vintage EPs are rich and detailed, with just the perfect amounts of low-end bark. Adding onboard chorus to “71Rd I” brought back memories of hearing Billy Joel’s “James” (from his 1976 album Turnstiles) for the first time. Again, variations abound, and there are so many good presets that I could imagine using the CP4 without ever building Performances of my own. Other EP favorites included the psychedelic “75Rd Phase,” a spot-on Wurly entitled “77Wr Trem,” and “CP80 Chorus,” which nailed the Peter Gabriel “In Your Eyes” sound perfectly.
Organ sounds are usable, but don’t put your clonewheel on eBay—playing them on a weighted, wooden piano action can be be tricky. They’ll work in a pinch, as will the passable Leslie simulator you bring in with the modulation wheel. Among the rest of the CP4’s 433 factory sounds, synth, guitar, and percussion patches stand out as impressive.
While the stage piano market gets more crowded with each NAMM show, the CP4 is proof that Yamaha continues to blur the boundaries between acoustic and electronic instruments. It has just the right amount of resistance for a keyboardist to truly connect with the piano sounds, and a satisfying sound set that pairs exceedingly well with its action. From raucous rock and pop gigs, to funk, R&B, and intimate jazz settings, there’s a piano patch on the CP4 to fit just about every conceivable bill. It’s not a do-every-sound workstation like the Motif family, but it’s not supposed to be. If you’ve been searching for a lightweight and thoroughly professional stage piano with great sounds and a lifelike action, the CP4 is your ticket. It’s the kind of digital piano that reminds me of why I started playing piano in the first place.