THE FIRST DIGITAL PIANO
In 1986 Roland introduced a new technology that should really have caused a massive ripple.
However successful, ripples it didn’t cause.
During the whole decade of the 80’s one innovation after another was fighting for centre stage and even though Roland’s innovation was one that drew a lot of attention, most attention at that stage went to Sound-Sampling (or simply "Sampling"). The reason why sampling seemed more attractive was only because of one thing: the battle for the piano sound. Sampling had been around for about 6-years at that stage and a convincing piano sound was still the hardest to reproduce. The king of instruments, with all its complex textures, dynamics and musical versatility became an obsession to replicate.
Kurzweil were the first to nail a pretty amazing sounding piano on the K-250 keyboard instrument in 1984.
Combined with an amazing 88-note wooden keyboard, it seemed that the race was won, but the instrument also had a hefty price-tag and its weight and dimensions wasn’t a feasible proposition for gigging players, so the race for market homogeny fiercely continued.
Is an acronym for Structured Adaptive Synthesis which can be considered as the first Physical Modelling technology to be commercially available.
Roland had managed to create an algorithm that analysed the tonal characteristics of several keyboard instruments.
There were a total of eight keyboard instruments that Roland modelled.
Piano-1: Grand Piano.
Piano-2: Upright Piano.
Piano-3: Yamaha CP70/80 piano.
Vibraphone (the only non-keyboard sound)
Electric Piano-1: Rhodes
Electric Piano-2: FM style EP.
When you play these sounds, you will instantly know what they try to sound like, but you also immediately realise that they sound very synthetic.
The most striking aspect of the sounds is the dynamic/timbral change that takes place. It sounds like a piano, it plays like a piano, but it’s not a piano. When playing a sampled piano you get a stronger sense of playing a real piano sound, because you are actually playing a real piano. Well, it’s a recording of a real piano.
Where samples were (i’m still talking 1986) static, meaning they play back the same sound at different velocities, giving you the illusion that it’s dynamic because of the volume changes, SAS also changed the timbre of the sound when played at different velocities, thus more closely mimicking the experience of playing a piano.
None of the 8-sounds are unusable, they all hold up really well and all sounds can be heard on many recordings of that era. Especially the EP sounds are very strong, but something has to be said about that too.
As with a few Roland products from the era, a lot hinged on the fact that they had amazing sounding Choruses.
Without the chorus, which was the only analog component on the MKS-20, the EP’s sound rather thin.
The Vibraphone is possibly the most convincing sounding instrument of all. This sound is absolutely sublime and will sound even impressive without the chorus or tremolo effect.
The pianos are great and because they were used on many records have become signature sounds, but had Roland released this technology a couple of years earlier, just ahead of the commercial success of sampling, these piano sounds would have blown people away.
So who won the race?
Well, perhaps the race is still ongoing, with new technological changes still happening to the digital piano.
It’s a bit like the 100-metre sprint, the world record is still being broken, but everyone still remembers that landmark moment when someone broke the 10-second or 9-second barrier.
In 1988 the Korg M1 was released, which had a pretty decent onboard piano sample. Roland also released the U-110 with more realistic piano samples at a much more affordable price than the MKS-20. The MKS-20 was only used by professional, studio players who were aware of its dynamic range and timbral changes. The general public just wanted realistic sounding pianos. They got that and so much more with the M1 and U-110 at a much more affordable price.
My first SAS piano
The flagship model was the RD-1000, but Roland also released two new models shortly after that, which were the RD-300 and RD-200. The only differences between the cheaper models and the RD-1000, was that the keys were completely made out of plastic and patches could not be stored. The sound however was identical. My dad and I fell in love with the RD-300, which had 88-keys compared to the 76-key RD-200.
Now comes the tragic part.
My dad was gigging with a DX7 and Prophet-600, making his Rhodes Suitcase and Minimoog obsolete. In order to fit an RD-300 into the house, the Moog and Rhodes had to go. It seems inconceivable these days to trade in a Minimoog and Rhodes piano for a cheaper instrument, but this was a cold hard fact of life in 1986. These instruments were worth next to nothing.
The RD-300 was used a lot and I still miss it, but again with technology marching on at a fast pace, the RD-300 was later traded in as well. This is proof that even in the 80’s we had developed an insatiable appetite for new gear. Each new release would spark this weird feeling of anxiety. Still, both my dad and I were missing that sound, so we both bought a 2nd hand P-330. This must have been around 1990.
This anxiety for having the latest gear got numbed a fair bit with the following purchase.
I bought an Alesis S4+ rack synth in 1994. I bought it because I thought I needed it and I wanted something new. The price had dropped dramatically as well, which had become routine with Alesis products. The Plus referred to the better onboard piano sample. The original version seemed to have a less good sounding piano, so they put a better piano sample in there, together with some extra Rhodes samples. However, Alesis also made Q-Cards for the Quadrasynth, which were extremely pricy. They had one Q-Card containing an 8MB Bösendorfer piano, which sounded absolutely stunning. I decided to buy the card, because the P-330 was starting to sound dated. This was also the time that having an amazing piano sound on an instrument was the number one selling point for companies. These marketing tactics had finally also entered my psyche. Every time I used the Q-Card piano by itself it sounded amazing, but as soon as I used it in a track it just got lost. Mind you, in hindsight this was due to the lack of knowledge and the lack of outboard gear in my studio. My studio revolved around MIDI gear only and I was completely unaware of the need for outboard gear such as compressors and EQ’s to mix the piano properly. Whenever I would replace the sound of the Q-card with that of the P-330, the track would come back to life again. Another thing I should mention is, that my music was all Funk and Fusion oriented, so I needed a punchy sounding piano. The EP sounds on the Quadrasynth were great too, but also suffered from presence in a track. I traded the Q-card in for a Vintage Synth card for the JD-990 in 1996. From that moment I knew that the SAS piano was here to stay, regardless of its dated sound.
I had kept the P-330 for a long time, but somehow I could never get the Chorus to sound right, until I learned that the chorus on the P-330 was digital. In 2012 I saw an MKS-20 advertised for a good price. The MKS had a faulty LCD, so I had that fixed. I sold the P-330 to fund the repair.
The MKS-20 was used a lot on Fusion albums during the late 80’s and early 90’s. One of the most consistent users of Piano-2 was Russell Ferrante of the Yellowjackets. Another frequent user was Jeff Lorber. Many R&B records used the Roland piano too. Of course I had to use the MKS-20 on my own Fusion album from 2015, which you can check out here.
You’ll always be able to spot the MKS-20, just like you can spot a Hammond or Rhodes, so in that regard this instrument is totally unique and distinct sounding. Roland slowly started to realise that this sound had become a classic, as they featured all the sounds on their new RD-2000 piano. Spectrasonics have also included MKS-20 sounds on their product Keyscape. There’s even a software version of the MKS-20 called MKSensation, made by Gospel Musicians. They even made an iPad version.
Still, in comparison there’s nothing like the real thing. There is always something missing on an emulation, whether it’s definition, low end or the chorus not sounding quite as rich.
These modules are quite hard to come by, because they were not a major commercial success.
If you do find one, prices are reasonable, but going up all the time by small increments.
This is because it’s not really a very versatile box that has many applications, it only really does those 8-sounds, but because of its narrow appeal to the broad public, second hand prices have not risen much. However, because there are not many on the market, prices are still steeper than one would expect for a one-trick-pony.
The price also depends on the condition, as the MKS-20 can suffer from a few age issues.
One is the display, which can lose the backlight, or even cause a buzz due to a shared power source.
The other thing is the DAC’s that can reveal clipping noises, especially on the EP sounds.
It has not quite become the classic it deserves to be, but who knows that miracle might still happen one day.