A true acoustic piano sound is what inspires a lot of singer-songwriters. I am one of them. If your instrument sounds and feels right, you are moved to do more–play more and be more creative. Plus, you can hear the piano parts for your songs in exactly the same terms as you expect to record them, with no compromises. As our portable keyboards have improved, I’m just about convinced that my songwriting has improved, too. I don’t think it is a coincidence. So I was anxious to try out the Yamaha P-121 73-key digital piano that not only advertises a great concert grand sound with 192-voice polyphony, but also promises to be a super value and is very portable. Knowing Yamaha’s well-respected history with digital pianos, this was certainly a piece worth investigating.
Top on my list for the perfect digital piano of songwriters is sound and feel, but as a working musician, the portability of my instrument is also important. Like many piano players, I have made concessions over the years, sometimes trading a good piano feel for an instrument that is more convenient to transport and set-up. So, I was pleased to discover that one of the most amazing features of the P-121 is evident as you lift it out of the box: It weighs just 22 pounds. For many digital pianos, an easily portable weight like this too often means a piano action that doesn’t feel like a real acoustic piano. However, the P-121 has a very responsible feel. In fact, the weighted action on this keyboard is graded to be heavier in the low keys and lighter in the high keys, just like an acoustic piano. Also, the matte black keytops offer a good feel without becoming slippery. If a real piano feel is important to your playing style, you’ll likely be as surprised as I at how good this piano behaves under your fingers. Adding to the easy portability of this piano is it’s modest 73-key length and a handhold depression in the bottom of the keyboard that makes lifting out of the case onto your stand easy and secure.
Yamaha keyboards have a good history of realistic acoustic piano sounds. The P-121 is no exception and advertises the company’s Pure CF Sound Engine that leverages four-level sampling to faithfully reproduce the tone of a sampled Yamaha nine-foot CFIIIS concert grand. You’ll find several other useful acoustic piano samples available and, adding the sounds’ realism, are key-off samples and Yamaha’s String Resonance algorithms that recreate the sympathetic sounds of all undamped strings. For me, in addition to great acoustic samples, it’s these interesting sonic innovations that add to the believability of a grand piano sound. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that these sounds are actually coming from this compact digital keyboard. Yes, it’s that good.
In addition to several useful versions of sampled grand pianos, in total there are 24 voices with variations of popular electric pianos, clavinet and vibraphone, organ and bass. Along with the ability to combine voices, the keyboard provides a one-button split mode handy for left-hand bass players.
To hear all the nuances of these great samples, the P-121 has built-in, two-way stereo speakers that easily produce enough volume and low-end to play a small event or rehearsal. For larger venues and use on stage, two ¼” outputs provide stereo or combined mono output. It also provides two ¼” stereo headphone outputs handy for rehearsing or teaching. While the keyboard does not have the more typical MIDI in/out connections, it does provide for a USB to Host with MIDI and audio transfer for single-cable connectivity to your music software. Players have the option to use the included sustain pedal that plugs into a standard ¼” jack or Yamaha’s optional pedal unit that connects via a DIN connector.
So where does this ultra-light, great-sounding digital keyboard at a street price in the mid-$500 range fall short? For many players, it won’t. It will work perfectly. However, professional players will have to consider the P-121’s limitations for real-time control and the lack of a display. The P-121 has no modulation wheel and the only indication of sound settings and variations is by the LEDs next to each sound bank. Less frequently used options are controlled by pressing two buttons along with a specific key or range of keys on the keyboard. The keyboard transpose function and changing the split of zones on the P-121 are examples of this. If you are used to making changes like these on-the-fly and don’t need visual feedback, this keyboard can work well for you. However, ‘flying blind’ with real-time keyboard control is something many professionals won’t consider.
All things considered, Yamaha’s P-121 is a great keyboard for anyone who wants a realistic piano sound in an easy to transport package. In fact, it sounds so good and costs so little, in some situations even hardened professionals might consider overlooking the lack of real-time controls to take advantage of the portability of this keyboard. I know I am.