Introduction and requirements
Looking forward to the January sale, it became clear to me that there is no way of not getting an instrument this year, despite the crisis, the global freeze of musical equipment supply, the cataclysms and the post-covid apocalyptic situation. 😀 Like any self-respecting keyboard player popular in the neighborhood, it became clear to me that I had a missing link in the gear with the following requirements:
Something compact with 61 keys to easily carry on my back/bike/in public transport
To be lightweight enough ... still, it will be carried on the back.
The keyboard should have semi-weighted action, but not be disgustingly springy like those 100 bucks keyboards.
To fit stylistically within the genres of pop/funk/blues/rock/jazz/world music. I'm not looking for anything ethno, folklore, balkan, sirtakis, turbo-folk oriented, etc. (BTW nothing against these genres! 😀)
The sounds should have acceptable quality. I don't want some mind-blowing samples like Spectrasonics or high-end Nord Piano 5/Yamaha CP88, but at least to be fun and inspiring to play.
The amount of sounds should be sufficient. Besides the classic Grand Piano, Bright Piano, Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Clavinet, Yamaha DX7, Hammond, to have something more wacky, like synths, experimental sounds, and some Strings, Brass, effects ... I play with different musicians and it would be good to cover most arrangement wishes.
Easy to change the "octaves" +2 and -2. With 61 keys, when you want to play in some high/low octave, there has to be a reasonable way to make it happen. On some keyboards this is achieved with some weird combination of keys and system button, which borders on pure incantation while playing and is terribly inconvenient… 🙁
To have a pitch bend/modulation regulator. However, for some synth solos we have to go for it! 😀
Have built-in speakers. We have to play in a basement and there is no PA system. 😀
Have a way to plug it in a PA system. I might drag it to a jam and still want to hear it through the "big speakers" or through some combo that's out there.
To have a sustain pedal input. I may have to hit a ballad and we need sustain. 🙂
The price should not be high. By high I mean high class Nord/Yamaha/Roland/Kawai/VOX/Kurzweil etc.
The keyboard has a very light, plastic nasty bouncing action and you have the feeling that you are playing a children's synthesizer for 50 bucks. The sounds - relatively okay, but you can feel that artificiality in the sound and the direct decay in the tone, without enough overtones and reverberation. The speakers are small and unpresentable, so if I play at home in order not to wake up the neighbor, it works, but if I go to an acoustic jam, there will be no way that I can cut through the wall of sound. There was only a 3.5mm headphone output, meaning an additional 1/4” adapter would be needed if it was to be connected to a PA system. Its only advantage is its extreme compactness. I feel like I can put it in a big backpack both in terms of weight and size.
Things are more or less okay here. The interesting thing about Casio is that the CTS-1xx series goes pretty linearly from the worst to the best keyboard (CTS-100, CTS-200, CTS-300, CTS-400, CTS-500, CTS-1000) and the quality of sounds, keyboard and options smoothly rises with each subsequent model. Such is the situation with the CTS-500 as well. The keyboard is semi-weighted but nice. The annoying springy bounce of the keyboard action is gone. The front panel interface is nice and logical - there are three large potentiometers, one is for master volume, the other two are cutoff filters that, depending on the selected sound, either start/stop the organ rotor, change EQ, filters and so on. Convenient and pleasant for people who want to experience tentacle touch. The display is logically large enough and bright.
The connection to the PA is nice and there are no problems with it - 1/4” jack for left and right.
The sounds are what stopped me from choosing this keyboard. As quantity - sufficient, as quality - questionable. At first listen, they are pleasant and do not irritate, there are overtones and realism, but the whole engine lacks volume, nothing that fights in the chest with the loud-sounding AiX Sound Source technology, which supposedly gives "good sound". I haven't run them through the Spectrum Analyzer, but with the headphones I know well, I just feel the lack of bass and low mids that I'm used to hearing. The other thing that annoyed me was the lack of sustain on the pianos. However, the module with synthesizers was quite interesting and had a variety of sounds ... but that on its own was not enough for me, so this candidate didn’t make it as well.
The difference with the CTS-500 is that this one has an additional functionality called Vocal Synthesis which simulates a voice through a vocoder and transposes it polyphonically to the chords and tones that are pressed... to be honest, I don't see how I would need this, maybe if was doing Daft Punk/Jamiroquai covers I'd consider it, but at this point, it's not exciting enough, which makes the choice of this keyboard out of the rankings as well.
Yamaha Piaggero NP-12BK
The keyboard is realistic, the sounds are nice and the build looks more solid. This keyboard has a large 1/4" output stereo jack, which makes it a bit easier to play in the connection, but still, if one wants left/right, you will still need some adapters/special cables. The downside is that it was oriented towards classical musicians and there aren't many modern sounds like Hammond, Wurlitzer, Clavinet, and even if there are, they aren't available on-demand, nor is there a convenient display to get to them. It's more classical oriented, in my opinion.
This is perhaps the most interesting option listed so far that failed to qualify. The keyboard is really nice, although semi-weighted, it gives a piano-like feel. The sounds are realistic and rich and perhaps the best possible in this price range. Interestingly, they use the AiX Sound Source technology again, but here already in combination with Casio's Advanced Tones libraries, which are more refined than those found in the CTS-500 and CTS-1000V. There is only a 3.5mm headphone output, which means an additional 1/4” adapter would be needed if it were to be connected to a PA system. The reason that put me off getting it is that it's difficult to change the chords with some combination of button and keys, no pitch-bend/modulation wheels, and changing presets isn't very easy with only the buttons that appear on the front panel (on demand). I also missed distortion/overdrive effects and crazier synthesizer sounds. However, I'd recommend it to anyone who wants something light, is more classically oriented (in terms of musical style), won't be doing many tricks on stage, and can swallow the lack of 88 keys.
Roland GO:KEYS - The winner
A mid-weight acceptable keyboard comparable to that of the CTS-500. Not as cool as the CTS-1, but still absolutely usable and logical. Classical pianists would rather loathe it, but its advantage is wonderful if you play a Fender Rhodes or Hammond organ sound, especially the latter... I used to wonder why on earth it was so difficult for me to make ghost notes/slides short accents on the keys) playing with such a sound ... the keyboard just wasn't right, so several times I ended up with bloody fingers from aggression and lack of finger technique. For those of you who have touched a Hammond organ keyboard, you will immediately know what I mean. The same goes for the Fender Rhodes and the Clavinet. Although the description loudly calls it Ivory Feel, the first day I got it I had a bit of trouble registering because I'm used to the heavier feel of the Studiologic Numa Compact 1 and 2, and I wasn't getting all the pressed tones out, but with a little more playing it I got the hang of it ... still it is not for everyone and in this price range one compromises between a keyboard or the quality of the sounds, so it may not appeal to some of the players. From the menu, you have three options for touch sensitivity (velocity) when triggering the sounds - Low, Medium and High. I set it to the middle option, which also comes by default, and I'm satisfied.
They are 554 sounds (128 voices each), nicely divided into several banks - PIANO, ORGAN, STRINGS, BRASS, DRUMS, BASS, SYNTH, FX GUITAR. I dare to say that most of them are realistic, with good frequency response, stereo volume and transients, absolutely radio ready, they can be used both for live performances and recordings. Roland didn't involve some big name in the sound engine, despite the sound being good.
One of the downsides of changing sounds is that if you change a sound from the same bank, everything is okay, but if you change a whole bank, then if you say you hit a chord, everything is muted. Apparently, the CPU doesn't have enough capabilities to "remember" the chord between the banks, but that's the situation... After all, this is an entry level class keyboard and you can't expect much from it. 🙂 The good thing though is that it remembers the last selected sound from each bank, even after powering off. This is convenient if you need three sounds from three banks in one song - tune them in advance and you're done.
Most pianos have nice sustain and realism. To be honest, I'm used to slightly more compressed sounds (like dynamics), but these are also okay, listening to them on record, they don't make a bad impression on me. Perhaps, rather psychoacoustically, I have not quite taken them in. Playing the headphones, I notice that the pan of the low octaves on the pianos are shifted slightly to the left in the stereo, and the highs slightly to the right ... this is a cool effect, intended to mimic the way the human ear perceives the piano and the position of the strings of the lyre, only if it's PA, I don't know how much sense it would make in a stereo context, because the left side of the audience will hear a little more than the right side ... but that’s not critical, the pans aren't brutal, and it's just implied as an artistic decision. 🙂 In terms of quality, the sounds are a bit softer in terms of richness and harmonic content compared to those in the CTS-1, but they are light years ahead of the CTS-500. In this bank they included Grand Piano, Stage Piano, Honky-Tonk, Fender Rhodes, DX7, Wurlitzer, named in some weird way and combinations of effects on them. Not all are realistic, but most are great and do a wonderful job. The only thing I would criticize Roland for is that they didn't put in any simulation of the legendary Yamaha Grand Electric (CP-80), but there is another one that looks a lot like it ... so I'll settle for that. 🙂
The organs are nicely mapped with the touch-screen for modulation, so you can stop and play the rotor of the leslie simulation, in the context of the synthesized sounds, this is a cutoff filter. They range from Hammond, Farfisa, Gospel, Blues, Church and some weird ones as well. 🙂
There are all kinds - synthetic, realistic, with staccato and so on ... usually for my live performances I use Piano + Strings/Pad, so pure strings rather maybe for intros or some recordings, but I don't need it that often, generally.
The brass situation is similar to the STRINGS module and most things are nice and absolutely usable.
They have brought in electronic and acoustic sets here. The electronic ones are nicely sampled and would work even for recordings, the acoustic ones I don't think are production ready and would rather be okay for demo recordings.
A variety of combinations with rich timbres, ranging from finger bass guitars, string bass, double bass, synth bass and what not... as I said above, you can easily replace a bass guitarist if you have to.
The synth module is superb and is a nice mix of modern and classic sounds, including Moog, Oberheim OB-X, Square Lead, Saws, Roland Juno and everything a modern keyboardist needs. Roland has a lot of experience with synthesized sounds and has tried, if I had to qualify one bank stronger in quality than others, the synthesizers definitely shine. They even put in a D-50 Fantasia, which was taken from the legendary Roland D-50. There's some sort of distortion sound in every bank if you need to stand out above the squealing guitars in some rock/metal context ... you’ll definitely make it! 🙂
Things fall into two big sub-categories here - synths with strange effects and guitars. Experimenters would have the most fun here, there are a variety of flavored options for every taste.
Effects and blanks
The only manipulable effect is the Reverb, which is global for all sounds. Roland has decided to put a medium-long Plate, which is completely usable and pleasant, there are no nasty artifacts or glitches when it sounds, and it can be safely used with a mixer without effects or through the built-in speakers. There are 5 levels, and one can easily be selected from the menu.
All others such as delay, tremolo, chorus, distortion, phaser are built into the presets and cannot be turned on and off. In other words, you may come across blends of Electric Phase Piano, Tremolo Piano, and more. This has its pros and cons. On one hand, you are locked in by the manufacturer and whatever is provided as options, you play with it, on the other hand ... you choose a sound and there is nothing to think about it, most of them are dosed sensibly and are absolutely logical and pleasant.
The change of the brackets is done with two buttons "+" and "-", which is completely expected and logical. The range is +/-3 octaves, which is more than enough.
Gain, overall sound, inputs/outputs
It's relatively quieter than most keyboards I've come across. If you're using high impedance headphones, you might find it quiet, and also if it's played in a mixer and there's no channel preamp, the volume should be cranked up. On a positive note, I can say that it is very quiet, and there is no white noise or hum, even with a heavily boosted mixer channel. The connection to the PA isn't very nice and requires a 3.5mm → 1/4” adapter to get it to play, but it's not a pain to die for either. Although the line output and the headphone output are combined, when connected to a mixer there is no problem - it is heard clearly and there is no distortion due to any impedance mismatch. There is also a 3.5 mm Aux In input, into which you can plugin an audio player/laptop. The other way it can play sounds is with Bluetooth, I tested it and it works, no glitches or jams, maybe it's possible to play live with a backing track with it.
There is also some built-in loop module, but changing styles and rhythms is not very easy, and that was not part of my requirements either.
It's all plastic. There are practically no buttons, and everything is based on a touch screen technology, which is surrounded by circles, so that the player knows what and where to press ... for people who are used to tentacle touch, this will be a big pain, and for me it is kind of a hipster decision on Roland's part without much practical value. The good thing about this is that you won't be replacing potentiometers and knobs when they fail. 🙂 The same goes for the modulation/pitch/cutoff/bend module, it's a series of squares that are surrounded and you have to press there with your finger ... to be honest, I prefer the classic jog wheel, but in this price range the only one that made sense was CTS-500 ... however, I did not like the sounds there, as I mentioned above. 🙂
The speakers are small, but strong and cut-through sonically - 2.5W each. In terms of quality, they sound like TV from the 90s - there is no mind-blowing bass, but when they are turned up, they break through and do the job. They're great for jamming with acoustic guitars, but if you're going to play with a rock band, consider using an amp or running it into a PA.
Design and manufacturing
It weighs 3.9 kg and can easily be carried on the back/in the hand. The red color I think reminds me of some Nord influence because there is no other color range that one can choose from … maybe it will get dirty more than the black but we'll see how that works.🙂 It has the option to run on batteries but to be honest I've never had to play in such a barn without electricity ... 😂 but who knows, maybe one day we'll get there. The display is nice, the only thing I miss is that the buttons don't light up and in a dark room, that would be a problem.
Well that's basically it, if you're someone who's willing to sacrifice a more compromise keyboard for a variety of good and different sounds at a good price - this is the solution. There are enough demos on the Internet, but the keyboard and sounds are something that is super personal (especially the first one) and it's always good to try it out in person.