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Yamaha P155 Digital Piano

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My acoustic piano is one my favorite toys. At least, it is for a few weeks after Tim the piano tuner’s been by to sort out its workings and make it sound like a piano again, rather than a sack of ferrets. After the first change in the weather, however, it gradually loses its grip on reality, a few beats work themselves into its keys, the odd screw comes loose and it becomes increasingly objectionable again.

Tim suggested that the best remedy for this would be to have him ‘round every few weeks. Sadly, at a hundred dollars a throw, this wasn’t wholly practical.

Wooden pianos are inherently unstable, no matter how well they’re made and how expertly they’re serviced. Temperature, humidity and the general perversity of the universe all conspire to detune them. This is not to say that mine was particularly well made. Tim continues to refer to it as “the nicest cheap Chinese stencil piano I’ve ever seen.”

In fairness, this is probably higher praise than it deserves.

Of late, I’ve found myself unwilling to schedule my playing around Tim’s visits, and I began thinking that this might be one of the rare instances wherein I could find space in my digs for an electronic instrument. There are a lot of digital pianos about, and I believe I’ve now played most of the better ones. Some of them, like the higher-end Roland Digital Grand Pianos, even look like traditional instruments. The Roland Grand is priced pretty much like one, too.

Most of the digital pianos I tried sounded really nice – but they didn’t sound a lot like acoustic pianos. At least, they didn’t sound a lot like mine, when it’s been properly tuned. Contemporary pianos seem excessively bright, and their electronic progeny have clearly been crafted to duplicate their sparkling dispositions. This unquestionably suits really bad pop and country-and-western tobacco-spittin’ music – keyboards can aspire to loftier things.

The Yamaha P155 was the last digital piano I tried, having checked out the lower-end Yamaha P95 early in my quest and been unimpressed by it. This was something of an oversight, in reflection, as I could have saved buckets of time and gasoline had I done otherwise.

The P155 absolutely rocks. It sounds like a traditional concert grand piano, and with one of the nicest simulations of graded action mechanical keys, it plays like one as well. Actually, it can sound like any of a number of acoustic pianos, with adjustable brightness and a selection of samples.

Unlike inexpensive electronic keyboards with synthetic piano voices, the P155 is based on real-world recorded samples of an impeccably set up Yamaha CFIIIS nine-foot acoustic concert grand. Technicians apparently digitally recorded every key of the original instrument at various degrees of key action, and those samples are what play whenever you hit a key on a P155.

There are samples of the sound of a felt damper muting the strings of a real piano that play when you release a key, and samples of piano strings decaying naturally, should you stand on the sustain pedal.

The P155 also includes two twelve-watt amplifiers and some unsurpassed internal speakers. Not surprisingly, you can close your eyes while playing one of these things and imagine yourself before an acoustic piano with little difficulty.

Finally, the P155 comes with a really nice simulated piano pedal, rather than a cheesy foot switch. It’s intended to be used as a sustain pedal, although it can be assigned to other functions.

Tickling the Ivoroids

I’d have had been entirely satisfied with the P155 if it had been little more than a full-size concert grand in a five-foot box. In fairness, this is pretty much all I do with it… most of the time.

The P155 has bags of secrets under its hood, however.

It includes two basic sets of piano samples. However, it also offers two electric piano voices – which sound like 88-key doorbells, just like a real electric piano – a jazz organ, a pipe organ that can loosen your roof joists if you crank up the volume, two synthetic string voices, a middling harpsichord voice, a clavichord, a vibraphone from hell, a better than average choir, a simulated guitar and several pretty respectable basses. If you’re sure that no one’s listening, you can go insane with its extra voices. No serious playing will get done while you do, of course.

The P155’s keyboard can be split between any two of its internal voices. As such, you could play an organ bass and piano lead, for example. Some combinations of voices probably shouldn’t be heard together. With awesome power comes awesome responsibility. Use this feature wisely.

The P155 also comes with an extremely flexible reverb system. It can simulate anything from a piano store with carpeted walls to a concert hall in which you can hear mice sneeze. Correctly set up, it refines the grand piano simulation of the instrument perfectly.

You can configure the P155 for different levels of touch sensitivity, to make it better suit your playing style.

The P155 has a built-in metronome that will help students learn to play in time without the danger of the swinging pendulum of a traditional mechanical metronome hypnotizing them and making them bark like a chicken for the next three days. Actually, there are a great many teaching tools built into this instrument.

The P155 offers several internal recording functions, allowing it to both store its performance data as MIDI streams and to record acoustic performances as audio recordings. It has a USB port, into which you can plug a portable hard drive or a Flash drive to serve as a recording medium.

It also has MIDI IN and OUT jacks, allowing it to serve as the known universe’s sweetest workstation keyboard.

Perhaps more impressive still than its inexhaustible palette of features, the P155 offers an intuitive, easily mastered user interface that will let you access those of its toys that you’re interested in without having the rest of its functionality get in your face. You can readily use the bits you like and never know anything else is lurking within it.

This said, it comes with a lucid, well-organized manual to get you up to speed with all its secrets, for those occasions when you just have to push the envelope.

Despite its embodying enough musical technology to have powered a medium-size orchestra a century earlier, the P155 lives in a case not much larger than its full-size piano keyboard. It weighs 41 pounds, making it reasonably portable. It’s solidly built – it even has a wooden top board, for those keyboard players who miss “real” pianos. It’s available in three styles as of this writing – I sprung for the black one.

I should also mention that the P155 offers mono and stereo audio output jacks. On those occasions wherein twelve watts won’t quite cut it, you can plug it into the biggest amp you can stand and be heard from space.

Aside from having the most convincing piano voices I’ve heard to date, the P155 includes a perfect mix of features. It has pretty much everything you’re likely to need in a digital piano, with a minimum of superfluous gadgets. It bespeaks decades of electronic keyboard designs having come before it, and flawless attention to detail. Its most difficult control is its OFF switch.

Powering it down and leaving it to get some real work done is the hardest part of my day.

Comments (2)

ChrisMay 11th, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Great review! The P155 sounds like an awesome digital piano. It’s nice to hear a point of view from someone who is used to playing the acoustic piano and that has tested many digital pianos. Thank you for the great information about the P155.

Digital Piano Guy BrazilAugust 24th, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Hi there, very nice review. I work with digital pianos in Brazil and this model is one of the betters between the “real portables” digital pianos. Great option for the professional musician that plays each night in different places.