The Piano Compromise Part 3 - Casio/C.Bechstein
This is part 3 of a discussion about how I solved the problem of being a pianist unable to afford or accommodate a piano. In the previous article, I discussed Modartt's Pianoteq software and how it brought levels of depth and sonority to my playing experience, which, whilst fantastic, highlighted my dire need for a new, better quality, 88-key weighted/piano-action MIDI controller. This article will follow my research into various models of digital pianos and MIDI controllers, and how I came to settle on my new MIDI controller of choice.
Shedding Preconceptions - These Are Not The MIDI Controllers You're Looking For!
I was in the market for a new MIDI controller, and so I spent days researching the MIDI controller market I'm familiar with, i.e: "slab" pianos (MIDI controllers that go on keyboard stands and can be easily moved around).
I was looking for piano-like actions with wooden keys, however, after much research, I concluded that the Kawai VPC1 was the only real contender in this arena, and there were none anywhere in the UK for me to try before possibly purchasing (and I wasn't going to spend over £1000 without testing the thing first).
Side-note 1: StudioLogic have a part wooden action in their "Grand" range, however, it's the same as one of their all-plastic models, with the addition of wooden inserts on the keys. I was unable to try this exact model, but was able to try the all-plastic version, found in several Nords, and it didn't suit my tastes.
It seemed that conventional "slab" piano MIDI controllers were not what I was looking for. I turned my attention to the digital piano market. My only experience with these sorts of instruments had been a long time ago and with several lower-range models, so whilst I approached this market with an open mind, I did so with a sense of trepidation and uncertainty.
Side-note 2: presumably to make periods of lockdown/isolation more bearable, the global demand for digital pianos since the pandemic started has sky-rocketed and far outweighed supply. This has been further complicated by manufacturing and global transport logistics being slowed and delayed due to Covid-related problems (and the current microchip shortage is not helping either!). This means some models are hard to find and/or test, and also meant that if I found a piano I liked, I needed act quickly, as I couldn't guarantee stock would be renewed in the near future.
Digital Pianos - A Whole New World (To Me)
I spent several weeks researching the consumer/domestic digital piano market (as there was a lot to get my head around!). I read through numerous manufacture websites, watched hours of YouTube videos, trawled through piano forums and more. This is a complicated world with many different models and many different keyboard-action specifications that was all quite new to me (as I tend to only focus on the pro-audio market, as opposed to the domestic market).
What I discovered was that most digital piano manufacturers have various "key-bed" actions and various sound-engines and these are pieced together in different ways to satisfy different price-points of the market. For example, for a similar price-point you can have a high-specification action, with limited sound-engine or you can have a limited action with a high-specification sound engine.
The leading manufacturers are Kawai, Yamaha and Roland, with Casio mostly tending to the entry-level market (with one exception that I'll get to later). Each manufacturer has several tiers of plastic key-beds (incrementally stepping up in realism) before graduating to wooden, even more piano-like actions. I decided to discount the plastic key actions from my search and go straight in at the wooden-keyed portion of the market (which is still rather broad and diverse with many variants to try out).
I created a list of piano actions to test and spent over an hour in a local dealership which had examples of every action I was interested in. I focussed on less-expensive piano models with fewer sounds and features, but that still retained the same wooden keyboard-actions as their more expensive, feature-laden counterparts (as I'm primarily only interested in the keyboard action for MIDI purposes).
First up I tried Yamaha's GrandTouch (and their GrandTouch-S, which, despite being a "lower" spec version of the GrandTouch, I found to be nicer). I also tried the Roland Hybrid Grand Keyboard and PHA-50 key-beds. Both the Yamaha and Roland key-beds utilise a mostly-plastic key with wooden inlays on the side to simulate authenticity and improve the "dynamic weight" (how the key feels when in motion). These actions were respectable and pleasant, but I found myself more drawn to the similarly priced competition with full wooden key-sticks (such as Kawai), as they simply felt truer to acoustic piano actions.
Kawai's Grand Feel Compact and Grand Feel 3 key-beds utilise a similar piano key-stick as found in their grand pianos (pictured here on the right). At the point of the capstan (at the opposite end of the key to the playing surface) the key-stick throws a metal counterweight intended to simulate the feel of a piano hammer. I had anticipated liking Kawai's action the most (as they have a strong reputation). Whilst I didn't much care for the soft and spongy feel of the Grand Feel Compact, the Grand Feel 3 action found in the Kawai CA79 and CA99 played very nicely. I would have settled on a CA79 with its Grand Feel 3 action were it not for the unexpected curveball of Casio's flagship model.
I wear a cheap Casio watch. I bought my son a cheap Casio calculator for school. I've played cheap Casio toy keyboards. I recently published an article about my Casio digital guitar, discussing how gimmicky and unplayable it is. Casio are a cool and interesting electronics brand, often associated with inexpensive, toy-like gimmicks and gadgets, but not something I'd ever associated with high-quality digital pianos. So, what gives?
The C.Bechstein Connection
Casio have a strong presence in the entry-level/beginner portion of the digital piano market, leaving premium level instruments to Kawai, Roland and Yamaha.
Presumably however, in a bid to reposition themselves in the digital piano market, and also offer a premium instrument, Casio have teamed up with the iconic and legendary piano builders C.Bechstein.
In case you don't know, C.Bechstein are one of the world's leading piano manufacturers held in equally high regard as Steinway, Bösendorfer and Fazioli. In the 1800s and early 1900s they were the piano of choice for much of Europe's royal families, as well as famed composers such as Brahms, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and many more. They're the piano of choice for a number of today's leading concert pianists and their pianos can be heard on a great many iconic records, as they were used for many years at Abbey Road Studios among other places. I.e. they are giants of the piano world and now some of their piano action technology, expertise and design can be found in a Casio digital piano of all things!
As shown in the diagrams above and on the right, Casio's Natural Grand Hammer Action Keyboard utilises a C.Bechstein key-bed (made of Austrian spruce - the same as their acoustic pianos) that's been adapted and tailored for a digital application. It has a 16" key-stick (like a mid-size grand piano) meaning the pivot point and dimensions provide the same degree of weighting, balance and touch as a mid-sized grand piano. In place of the complex escapement mechanism (which is not needed in this digital application) is a piece of equally sized and weighted carbon/plastic, and each synthetic, plastic hammer is graded and weighted the same as an acoustic piano hammer (on each respective note).
Pressing a key on this action actually throws a correct-feeling hammer that strikes a MIDI sensor (a triple sensor for improved accuracy). The proportions, angles, dimensions and transference of energy from key press to hammer movement is the same as that of an actual C.Bechstein action.
The key-tops are the same acrylic (white-keys) and phenol (black-keys) as what's found on a C.Bechstein grand piano, and the response to touch is simply fantastic; it feels akin to a high quality, mid-sized grand piano. I've played several C.Bechsteins in the past and have always been impressed by their actions and playability, so in many respects, it's no surprise that this action is also very playable.
In the showroom, I spent an hour going between the Casio Natural Grand Hammer Action Keyboard models, and the Kawai Grand Feel 3 models. Whilst the Kawai action felt very good, the Casio won out quite convincingly, as I felt its action was truer to that of an acoustic piano and was able to respond more accurately to the most delicate, pianissimo input.
It's difficult to pinpoint precisely how and why, as honestly, the differences at this level of the market are very small, subtle and nuanced (and purely preferential; not a matter of better or worse). In my case, I preferred the tactile feel of the key-tops on the Casio/C.Bechstein, as well as the profiling on the edges of the keys. I also preferred the key-depth, key-resistance and return-speed of the Casio/C.Bechstein. Lastly, the tactile feedback of hammer-movement vibration through the cabinet and keys themselves was a level of realism I didn't think I'd find within my budget.
Side-Note 3: The action on the Casio doesn't simulate the "notch" sensation of the escapement mechanism found near the bottom of the keystroke on acoustic grand pianos, whereas other manufacturers of digital pianos do simulate this "notch". Casio and C.Bechstein's justification for this is that it's not technically necessary in this digital-action's function, it has no relation to sound generation, and by not simulating it, they're able to increase the smoothness of the key-action as well as note repetition speed, to be greater than that of their acoustic pianos. The lack of escapement "notch" in this instance didn't bother me, as it's a feature commonly only found on more expensive digital piano actions and I usually find artificial simulation of the escapement sensation to be inaccurate and/or unnecessary. If escapement is a major concern for you, you will want to take this into consideration when digital piano shopping.
Side Note 4: It's also worth noting that there's some discourse in the piano scene about the use of the word "hybrid" in Casio's marketing for these products. It's somewhat a semantic debate, but has seen Casio come under criticism from some corners of the digital piano market. Kawai and Yamaha both have digital piano models (far beyond Casio's price range and physical size) that utilise actions which are identical to an acoustic piano's, up to the point of the hammer (which triggers a MIDI sensor). Some digital piano models even have wooden soundboards (the same as acoustic pianos) which are resonated by transducer-speakers fixed to the soundboard, as opposed to conventional loud-speaker systems. There are even acoustic pianos with silencer/muting systems and MIDI sensors that turn an acoustic piano into a digital piano. It's therefore argued by some that Casio's "Grand Hybrid" models aren't "hybrid" enough to earn the name "Grand Hybrid", as their action ceases to be an acoustic mechanism at the capstan and is otherwise digital. If we're to take these commentators at their word, then the Casio GP-510 and GP-310 sit alone in the market, arguably superior to competitors at a similar price point and not technically as "hybrid" as the Kawai Novus or Yamaha Avant series (significantly more expensive instruments). But whatever...
Having tested every wooden action available in the upper price regions of the market, both within and above my budget, I was smitten with Casio/C.Bechstein's offering. The Casio/C.Bechstein held its own against the far more expensive Kawai Novus and Yamaha AvantGrand models (in terms of action and touch response - Yamaha and Kawai's inbuilt sound-systems were understandably superior, given the much higher price-point). Between the Kawai Novus Grand, Yamaha AvantGrand and Casio/C.Bechstein Grand Hybrid, I can't confidently say that any one of them had a superior action compared to another, they're all superb; it's purely a matter of preference. Importantly though, the Casio was less than half the price and considerably smaller than the Kawai and Yamaha digital grands (both of which are shaped like miniature grand pianos, thus having too large a footprint for my studio space.
So, I'd found it! I'd found the piano action to pair with Pianoteq for the most piano-like experience I can hope to have in my limited space and relatively budgeted financial situation.
Casio offer two models with the C.Bechstein action: the GP-510 and GP-310. The GP-510 is their flagship model, comes in gloss black, and utilises numerous technical features with many tone customisation options and sound-banks for storing presets. The GP-310 comes in matt black, utilises the same action, but contains a simpler sound-bank with reduced features. As my plan was to make a long-term investment in a piano-like keyboard action (and not sound), I opted for the GP-310.
A New Family Member - The Casio GP-310 Is In The House!
The Casio/C.Bechstein is in the house! I only had to make minor adjustments to my studio setup to accommodate it, as its footprint was similar to the two-tier stand on which I had my StudioLogic prior to this.
I have foregone the sheet-music stand, placed protective rubber matting on top (so as not to mark the cabinet) and sat my Nord Electro 2 atop, as I don't currently have space to put it anywhere else. I liked the idea of having the lid open and peepholes visible (to see the hammers moving), but that's an aesthetic indulgence I can live without.
After six months of ownership and daily play, I'm still excited about owning this instrument. The action is everything I could hope for, as is its ability to deliver immersive realism. The control and expressiveness when paired with Pianoteq is something I've never before experienced with a digital instrument, and rarely experienced such expressiveness even on acoustic pianos. I simply can't stop playing the thing!
It's integration with Pianoteq is seamless. No changes or configurations were necessary, aside from a tweak to Pianoteq's velocity curve. The Casio outputs high-resolution MIDI (which Pianoteq supports), meaning there's scope/range for greater dynamic subtlety and nuance. The sustain pedal is also continuous (as opposed to switching), so I can half pedal the sustain (another feature Pianoteq supports).
Whilst I still maintain the sound and realism that Pianoteq generates is superior to the built-in tones of the Casio, the Casio has some very nice sounds itself. I've come to think the built-in sound system doesn't quite do the tones justice, as the line-out signal is richer and more detailed than the speaker system (in my opinion). I think a four-band parametric EQ in the menu settings would go a long way to solving this problem and allowing users to customise their instruments' EQ curve to suit their homes/studios.
That said, I still enjoy treating it like an actual piano, playing it "acoustically" for leisure (i.e. using its built in speakers without having to fire up my computer, launch software, wear headphones, etc).
The speaker system is extremely powerful, projects with a broad diffusion, and transfers vibration through the cabinet like a real piano. The power of the amp and speakers also enables the emulation of mechanical noises (such as key and pedal noises) to feel extremely real. Sometimes I can't tell if their emulated or real, such is their depth and realism, and I have to turn down the volume to double check.
Recently, I've been taking advantage of the line-inputs on the GP-310 and enjoyed routing Pianoteq's signal into the Casio (and switching off the Casio's local audio in the MIDI settings). With Pianoteq's ability to simulate ageing and imperfection, and having that routed through the Casio's internal sound-system, I'm able to make the Casio feel like a homely upright piano; warm and characterful, with all the nuanced imperfection of a typical household piano (inconsistent mechanical noises and all). Again, the immersion this offers is simply wonderful!
All things considered, the sounds, keyboard-action and overall aesthetic design go a long way to feeling like an actual acoustic instrument, as opposed to a digital "keyboard" (more so than I anticipated, which is very significant in terms of my enjoyment and appreciation of the instrument). I will also take this moment to give a shout-out to it's electric pianos, which are very warm and musical.
When I first decided to overhaul the piano-playing experience in the home, I was envisioning an external hard-drive housing an enormous sample-library, and probably investing in a Kawai VPC1. As intriguing an idea as this was, I wasn't particularly excited about it and I didn't feel very enthused by the idea (in an emotional way... if that makes sense?).
Little did I know that a 50MB virtual modelling software synthesiser would be a truer piano than any sample-library could hope to be.
Furthermore, I had no comprehension that I'd be getting a little slice of legendary piano builders C.Bechstein in my home, let alone courtesy of Casio!
I've been playing this combo of Casio/C.Bechstein and Pianoteq for almost six months now, and the sheer range and scope of this combo is something I've not experienced with a digital instrument setup before. Even the cat approves!
After all is said and done, and all things considered, this combination of Casio, C.Bechstein and Pianoteq is truly the closest I could hope to come, to the sensation of playing an actual grand piano in my tiny studio space. Of course, it's not the real thing, but as established in part one of this blog, a real piano simply isn't feasible. So whilst it's a compromise, it's the most worthwhile compromise I could hope to make, and it's one that I'm more than satisfied with. I'm enthused about playing, I feel energised every day to play, create, compose and try things that wouldn't occur to me, or that I wouldn't feel confident to do on my old setup. The whole thing is simply wonderful.
Hats off to Modartt for creating such a monster of a software program, and hats off to Casio and C.Bechstein for punching above their weight in the digital-piano market so triumphantly. It's truly a privilege to work with such tools.
Epilogue (a note of thanks)
I want to take a moment to extend my thanks and gratitude to you, the reader. As you can probably gather by the tone and length of this 3-part article, this issue and subsequent investment is of great importance to me, not just for the music I make, but as an improvement in my overall quality of life and wellbeing.
This article addressed investing a sizeable amount of money, the likes of which I've never before spent anything close to, on a single instrument. 100% of the funds that have paid for this digital piano and software setup have been saved up from OSC-related earnings. If you're reading this, chances are you follow me on social media, have streamed my music and maybe even purchased some of my music and/or merchandise. If so, this means means you've contributed to this genuinely life-changing investment. So sincerely, from the bottom of my music-making heart, thank you, and long live the piano!