Review – Model 80 Electric Grand from Chocolate Audio

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Not quite a grand piano, not quite an electric piano, this classic 70’s staple is a curious hybrid of the two. Want a piano that cuts through the densest rock mix like a chisel? Here ya go.

 

By Dave Townsend, Nov. 2015

 

The Instrument

 

In the mid-70’s the quest for a portable stage piano that actually sounded like a real piano led to an ambitious hybrid called the Yamaha CP-70.

Unlike a Rhodes, Wurlitzer or RMI, this novel instrument had real piano strings and a real piano hammer action, so it felt like you were playing a real piano. But the hammers were leather rather than felt, the strings were shortened and reduced in number to reduce size and weight, and each string had a piezo pickup underneath, so the sound was only reminiscent of an acoustic piano. It was weak on the lowest and highest octaves, but had an aggressive midrange that adapted well to progressive rock and funk.

Yamaha made several models. The CP-70 was the most popular, being a 73-key version and lighter than its rarer 88-key sibling, the CP-80, that was sampled for this library. “Lighter” is a relative term, though, as the CP-70 still weighed 300 pounds. Of course, if you could afford the $4,000 price tag chances are you also had a road crew to move it for you. Later variations added balanced outputs and MIDI.

The CP- models, along with similar offerings from rivals Akai and Helpinstill, had a decade-long run. However, they quickly fell out of favor when digital pianos came along that sounded more like the real thing, didn’t require tuning and weighed one-tenth as much. Yamaha ceased manufacturing them in the mid-80’s, although they did license samples of it for use in General MIDI sound modules, samples that are still in use today in Yamaha ROMplers such as the Motif and MOx series.

Second-hand units are still available, but finding one in good condition is hard and replacement parts are no longer available for them. You’d have to be a hard-core aficionado to maintain one. Fortunately, Simone Coen, proprietor of Chocolate Audio in Milan, Italy, has given us a deeply sampled Kontakt library of a refurbished CP-80B. Thanks to some clever scripting, the sampled version is much more configurable than the real thing.

This “Model 80″ is part of a collection of piano libraries Simone calls the “88 Series” that also includes a Yamaha C7, a vintage Steinway, and a Steinbach upright. All of which are outstanding, by the way. But it was the Model 80 that caught my eye because in the pantheon of piano libraries it’s one of a kind.

 

The Samples

There are nearly 2,000 individual samples, representing 12 dynamic layers. Each note was sampled chromatically, meaning there is no note-stretching. Even the release samples have nine (!) chromatically-sampled layers. That’s pretty deep for an electric piano, but then the CP-80 is more dynamic than your average electric piano and warrants such resolution.

Because this is an electronic instrument (despite the hammers, strings and soundboard), the samples were recorded direct from the CP-80B’s balanced output. Consequently, you will not find microphone options in this Kontakt instrument like you will in the other 88 Series pianos. Instead, you get controls more typical of an electric piano: tremolo, EQ, compressor, distortion, delay and reverb.

You will also not find any key-switch assignments. It is, after all, an 88-key instrument; there wouldn’t be room for them even if they’d been needed. Of course, like any Kontakt instrument any and every parameter can be automated.

All samples are contained in a single NKI. There is no need for additional instrument definitions, as the full range of what this instrument can do is available from the one NKI. However, I did find it useful to stack two instances in a multi for layering.

 

The UI

The user interface is clean and simple, as you’d expect given that the real instrument only had six knobs to begin with. Of course, in the digital age 6 turns into 50, so all those extra controls are conveniently organized into three separate tabs: Performance, Advanced and Effects.

On the Performance tab you’ll find the most-used controls: tremolo, EQ and effect-enable buttons. Most of these are self-descriptive, but there are also a few less-common and less-obvious controls that warrant additional explanation.

The first of these, labeled “Velocity”, lets you alter the velocity curve. How I wish all sampled pianos had this feature! It’s so handy when dropping the instrument into an existing project where a MIDI piano part already exists.

The second, intriguingly labeled “Realism”, is just a master volume control for all the various mechanical noises.

Then there’s the one labeled “Piano Tone”.  You might wonder why a tone control is needed when there’s already a three-band equalizer on the same page. Well, it’s not that kind of tone control; it actually sets a velocity bias. This should be the first one you get familiar with, as it can radically alter the character of this extremely velocity-sensitive instrument.

NOTE: The documentation I have erroneously mentions a “Lid” control that doesn’t apply to this instrument, only to the three acoustic pianos in the 88 Series collection. The CP-80 was recorded direct, so even though it does have a lid, it has no effect on the sound of the instrument.

 

The Advanced Tab

 

The Advanced tab gives you several other controls for tweaking the piano’s character, such as an AHDSR with selectable attack curves. Most interesting of these is the Touch Response knob, which shifts the samples in time to simulate the natural latency of a mechanical instrument. Crank it clockwise for minimal latency when recording in real time, then turn it back prior to rendering for maximum realism.

 

The Effects Tab


The effects page should be pretty-much self-explanatory. Click on the button under the Compressor Amount knob to choose one of 22 factory compression presets. Click on the ROOM button in the lower-right to choose one of 17 convolution reverb presets, a mixture of standard and custom impulse response files.

Note that the on/bypass switches for these effects are on the Performance tab. Enable an effect there first, then come to the Effects tab to tweak them.

 

Audio Examples

There are some demo songs on the product page that contrast some of the factory presets. They’re worth a listen. These are my favorite type of demos: naked, meaning they’re not dressed up or buried in some grand composition, so you get to hear the actual instrument as it really sounds. Kudos to Chocolate Audio for demo honesty!

Along the same lines, here’s a clip of me noodling about on the Model 80, first with the default settings and then a handful of the 22 factory presets. This will give you an idea of the instrument’s surprising range. (Warning: some of the high-velocity notes in the upper octaves may be painful – don’t listen at high volume.)

  Presets

Having had the pleasure of occasionally playing a CP-70 back in the day, I was initially interested in how authentic the library would sound. Oh, it’s plenty authentic. But what took me by surprise was the range of tonal personalities that it’s capable of. Far greater than the original instrument, in fact. Here’s an un-pianolike pluck pad, for example:

  Pluck Pad

One of the authentic quirks I noticed about the instrument is that it’s very sensitive to velocity. If you’re a heavy-handed player like me, you may find that you need to back off the velocities a bit. Unless your dynamic range is huge, the Piano Tone knob can conveniently handle that adjustment. It’s more versatile than editing the MIDI data because it can be easily automated and auditioned.

Here’s a clip that demonstrates the Piano Tone knob in action. In it, I’ve automated the Tone control to start at a moderately soft setting and gradually change to a very bright setting. Note that this isn’t just a tone control, it’s a velocity bias, meaning that at the soft setting it’s as if you’d played the part very softly.

  Tone

This next one shows the Model 80 in context with other instruments. OK, it’s not a busy rocker, but even though I’ve used its compressor to soften transients (using the handy “soften transients” preset) and laid on the reverb pretty thick, it still cuts through like a hot knife.

  Demo Mix

 

Conclusion

Granted, you probably won’t be doing Rachmaninoff on this thing. But for funk, jazz and rock it’s such a uniquely edgy take on the electric piano, so bright and in-your-face punchy, that it’ll fit roles that a Rhodes or Wurly are just too polite for. Add the amp sim for some crunch and you’ll be ready for that piano-based punk grunge revival that’s I’m sure will come around eventually.

What you’ll need and where to get it: this is a Kontakt 5 instrument, so you’ll need the full version of Kontakt 5. It goes for $79, and is also available as part of the 88 Series Pianos Bundle for $299. Get it at Chocolate Audio’s website:

http://www.chocolateaudio.com/products

 

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