In 2004 a dumb racquetball move made my shoulder unreliable, and my 75-pound stage pianos became just too heavy to haul to gigs. What half my buddies seemed to be playing then was a brown slab from Yamaha called the P-120. It was everywhere, and as it was priced at only about a grand and weighed only 40 pounds, I understood why. Plus it had a serviceable piano sound that—while it wasn’t the 40-gig Synthogy Ivory sampled piano in my studio Mac—was more than sufficient for gigs. I lusted after the P-120’s big brother, the P-250, but that was a thousand bucks more and 30 pounds heavier. So flash forward a decade and imagine my delight sitting down to a new Yamaha board that’s even lighter than the P-120 (by two pounds) and sounds better than the P-250. The new P-255 exceeds my expectations in ways I couldn’t have imagined a decade ago.
The Piano Experience
UPDATE June 12, 2015:
I recently happened to play the P255 right next to it’s fabulous inspiration, the Yamaha CFIIIS concert grand, and I could not have been more impressed. The sluggish action that I noted in the prototype is now nimble and expressive in the production model – just like its acoustic relative. For a grand piano experience at a mid-level price-point I cannot recommend an instrument more highly than this one.
The Yamaha CFIIIS Concert Grand is one of the world’s greatest pianos. And the first sound up in the P-255, “G1,” uses a multisample of the CFIIIS. No piano sample coming through a 15W-per-channel onboard speaker system has a chance of making you think you’re playing a real concert grand, but “G1” captures the essence of that fabulous instrument in a fundamental way. You can listen critically to all 88 notes (which I did, natch) and you will hear the compromises any manufacturer must make to fit a fantastically complex sample-collection into a mass-market instrument. This is a convincing and emotional emulation that will invite you to play and explore.
Of course, half that experience resides in the Yamaha’s Graded Hammer action—graded because the keys offer progressively more resistance as you step down the keyboard, just as an acoustic piano does. Yamaha’s version engages you in a pleasing way. For how I play, I’d have made it a notch less resistant towards the bottom, but many pro players prefer an action with weight and substance. The P-255 doesn’t quite feel like a Yamaha grand, but it feels fantastic, and you quickly adjust to it and exploit this action’s pluses: a bounce that encourages you to rock out on rhythmic passages and a key dip that gives you more dynamic control on subtle ones. The other design feature I would tweak is the bevel-cornered white keys; they scrape your fingers a bit when you’re grabbing big intervals—finger-wimps like me prefer more rounded corners. But one nice thing about those keys is the synthetic ivory playing top, which absorbs moisture; even if you’re not sweating through some athletic Rachmaninoff, it feels darned natural.
As you’d expect from the top of Yamaha’s P-line, the first-up piano sounds offer sample enhancements that are now de rigueur: string resonance that duplicates the sound of all the non-struck strings that vibrate when a note is hit; key-off samples that trigger when a note is released—slowly or quickly; and sustain sampling, which reveals the complex mélange of sound produced by the soundboard and strings when you depress the damper pedal. It even displays the shadings of sound as you play with the pedal at different levels. And all the grand piano sounds have 256-note polyphony, which is as good as you can get these days and is probably at the limit of what’s needed to convince your ears and hands. I did quite a bit of recording and playback with this instrument, so I could hear what it really sounds like, and it’s superb—it held its head surprisingly high next to Synthogy Ivory, even. The only playing technique that challenges the P-255’s authenticity is extremely short staccatos that sound like striking a key with a finger on the strings.
The P255 is very much a performance piano, without the synthesizer sound-shaping tools of, say, a Motif or the Casio PX-5S, but the customizing options it offers are all right at your fingertips. There’s a three-band master EQ that’s always online, a bank of excellent effects (chorus, phaser, tremolo, and rotary speaker) and—crucially—some basic but delicious room and hall reverbs. Yamaha has a 35-year legacy of digital reverbs dating back to the legendary Rev-5, and you can hear this provenance in the four simple reverbs onboard the P-255. In fact, they dramatically contribute to the emotionality of this instrument without suffering any of the cheesiness that lesser reverbs can impart.
My verdict is still out on one feature of this instrument. The Sound Boost button provides three volume and EQ presets for a variety of playing situations: accompanying a voice, cutting through a band, playing a solo. The gradations are subtle, and I never felt the need to use them on the gigs. Let’s say it’s my second least favorite feature—my least favorite being the ten pre-programmed rhythm accompaniments that are acoustically exquisite but vexingly short at one bar each. Even with the provided intros and outros, one could do a lot better with these wonderful drum sounds. And speaking of sounds . . .
Voices and Bells and Whistles
In addition to the four grands—the CFIIIS, which is the overall winner; a sparkly Live Grand; an overly Bright Grand; and a slightly muted Ballad Piano—the P-255 lays out 20 other must-have gigging instruments. None pushes the limits the way the stellar grand does, but all are respectable: There's a convincingly EQ’ed Rhodes, a sassy little Wurly, a tiney DX-7, and a swooshy Synth Piano. There are also a couple of Jazz Organs—with and without Rotary—Pipe Organs, a scrappy Clav, mellow Vibes, and two of the most authentic Harpsichords I’ve heard on a performance keyboard, both of which will speak to your inner George Martin. There are no surprises in the Strings and Choirs: slow and fast. But the stand-up Jazz Bass and Fender are well-defined samples and a joy to play in Split mode, where I’ve spent more of my fooling-around time than on any other digital piano; I sing, and this is a very supportive companion to the human voice.
You can really hear this instrument step out when you give it outboard amplification. So far I’ve put it through the Adam and Tannoy monitors in the studio, my Barbetta 41c keyboard amp, and my Yamaha DXR powered stage speakers, and the instrument voices—particularly the basses and pianos—sound expansive and complex. Having said that, the built-in speakers are the possibly the best I’ve heard on a slab. There are tweeters firing at the performer and larger midrange speakers aimed out the back at a listener. Yamaha explains that the rear-facing speakers are circular rather than oval, and this makes all the difference. I would never use it on a gig un-amped, but the internal speakers are smooth and musical at all volumes. And on both of the gigs when I test-drove the P-255, the instrument’s sound was unusually similar to what comes out of the amp and P.A. Even in a 500-seat theater going through a Meyer sound system, the bass/keyboard splits in particular were reassuringly accurate.
As you’d imagine on an instrument of this quality, there are the by-now-expected USB and MIDI connectivity options: You’ll find a no-frills 2-track sequencer for jotting down ideas; it actually lets you get in and alter a couple dozen MIDI parameters (voices, effects, levels, tempos) after you record, so it’s more than just a notepad. And there’s a digital recorder that tracks up to 80 minutes of CD-quality stereo audio and ports it out to a front-mounted a USB flash drive. There’s also a USB port on the back that hooks you up to an iPad or iPhone for what has become, for me, the most surprisingly indispensable feature on the keyboard…
Yamaha’s controller app for the P-255 was clearly designed by sensitive human beings worthy of our love and gratitude. It lets you do every editing feature I’ve mentioned here—and loads more—in a user world of highly realistic graphics and effortless controls. The app handles every single function on the keyboard: Tasks like transposing, recording sequences and WAV files, and editing splits are suddenly a breeze. Even the more sophisticated settings like Key-Off Sample Volume and Damper Pedal Resonance Depth are a slide away. Bored with Equal Temperament tuning? Try the Werckmeister, and don’t forget to pick a new base note or your mazurka will sound goofy. I spent hours dealing with the buried functions on my old P-120. Sometimes I wouldn’t even bother balancing splits because it was just too much trouble. This new app is so crucial to my enjoyment of the P-255 that I’d buy a used iPhone 5 and Velcro it to the top of the piano. The one thing I’d change on this app would be to let me store all my edits in the keyboard as well as on the iOS device.
For the same reasons that the P-120 was ubiquitous 10 years ago, the P-255 is going to be an irresistible choice for a lot of players. It’s got a magnificent piano sample, admirable electric pianos, organs, Clavs and basses; and all the most important functions are right at the working pianist’s fingertips: transpose, split, and global EQ. Yes, it’s weightier and pricier than the current crop of entry-level slabs, but it feels more roadworthy, and the Controller app is the easiest and most fun user interface I’ve seen on any keyboard. The next price-leap up takes you into the world of real wooden keys and triple-digit sound banks. But do you need all that for your rock or jazz or worship gig? And think of the great songs you’re going to write at home or in your hotel room using those built-in speakers.
First-rate emulation of the flagship Yamaha CFIIIS concert grand. Downright wonderful editing app with zero learning curve. Balanced onboard speaker system capable of smooth sound at soft and loud levels. Three-band EQ at your fingertips. Very giggable sound array. Fun to play and built like a tank.
Three-character display makes some features slow to get to. Graded hammer action, while convincing, seems a bit sluggish at the bottom octaves. Beveled-corner white-keys can get scrapey when you’re grabbing big intervals like tenths.
Don’t be fooled by the built-in speakers. This is a pro instrument to be reckoned with—that’s also just as apt at being your living-room digital piano.
$1,999 list | $1,299 street | yamaha.com