Casio Privia Pro PX-5S Review

August 21, 2013
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Snap Judgment

PROS

Same piano sample as PX-350, but with added DSP and programming for even more realism. Dazzling EP, Clav, and complex synth sounds. Deeply programmable synth with realtime control. Four zones each of internal and external MIDI controller capability. Battery powered. Stellar 88-key weighted action. Impossibly low weight and price.


CONS

No expression pedal input, split button (though splits can be programmed), or music stand. Editing can be challenging without the free Data Editor software. Tonewheel organ emulations don’t match the high standards set by the rest of the sounds. 

Bottom Line

A first class digital piano, with a powerful synth engine and deep editing, that checks in at 24 pounds and a thousand bucks? It’s not too good to be true. Don’t buy a new stage piano until you try the PX-5S.

$1,299 list | $999 street

casiomusicgear.com



 


In 2011 Casio elevated their popular Privia piano line to pro status with the PX-3, an 88-note, weighted keyboard stage piano and controller. Essentially they swapped the onboard speakers and amps for a professional player’s serving of sounds, DSP, and MIDI control. What made this instrument instantly desirable were the $800 price tag and the 24-pound curb weight. Since then Casio introduced the XW series—a pair of performance synths with complex sounds and deep editing capabilities—and a significant upgrade of the Privia’s already impressive piano sound and action. Now they’ve combined their uncanny Privia piano experience with a synth section that bears some resemblance to the XW-P1 (reviewed June ’12), but is in fact better sounding and more powerful. Casio says the “S” in PX-5S can stand for either “stage” or “studio.” I vote for “serious,” because with this incarnation of the pro series, Casio is playing with the big boys—hardball.


Overview

Casio’s mantra with the Privia Pro line has been: under 25 pounds and under a grand. But unless you’re sitting in front of this instrument, it’s difficult to appreciate fully. Yes, there are first-rate, scaled hammer-action stage pianos and workstations out there, but they weigh 40 to 50 pounds (or more) and cost twice as much (or more). Casio has economized on a few features to keep their product outrageously light and affordable, but what they haven’t compromised are the fundamentals: sound, playability, and programmability.

Like most Privias, button-banks are center-clustered around a small, backlit LCD display. In place of speakers, Casio has added, on the left, a welcome array of four knobs and six sliders, plus pitch-bend and modulation wheels. These control the deep—and I mean deep—DSP and filter parameters. The Privia PX-3 did have quite a bit of sound shaping and DSP onboard, but nothing as sophisticated as this and without even a nod to on-the-fly control. Even plug-in-and-play buttonphobes are going to get into the highly addictive twisting and sliding options here. 

On the right side is a rubbery, textured-surface to hold your iPad (I’d add a couple of Velcro strips for security), which opens to access the eight AA batteries that provide up to four hours of play. Just above the C5 key is a USB flash drive port that lets you save and load data, and also record and play 44.1kHz WAV audio files. The casing is sturdy, two-tone plastic; jack insertion feels firm, but without the rugged “chunk” that you’d get from a heavy metal frame. (This is the last time I’m going to mention it, but complaining that the Privia is plasticky is like whining that your Mini Cooper is small—especially given how easy it is to throw the former into the latter and go to the gig.) The black-on-white control surface really makes the button lettering pop and all rear inputs are, thankfully, top-labeled. 

As for the keyboard feel, it’s amazing. The same textured keys and tri-sensor scaled hammer action as the PX-350, but with even more expression and dynamics when playing the new electric piano sounds. It’s become my default controller for the studio because not only is it a joy to wail away on, but it’s so small and light that it lets the PX-5S fit on racks and desks where few other 88-key instruments will. There’s a bit of a muscle memory learning curve, but once you’re used to it, you’re hooked. 

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Sounds

The PX-5S sound array is made up of 720 Tones, 350 of which are slots for user creations, and 100 Stage Settings (SS), which are like Combis or Registrations. The really fascinating sounds, showing off the wealth of zone and layering functions, are found in the Stage Settings—and that’s the best place to go for sound auditioning. You can step through the tone list in any SS, and many of them have hidden dimensions. More about this later. 

The keyboard powers up on “Concert Grand 0-0,” which is a good place to start. As we pointed out in the PX-350 review in the January 2013 issue, you’d have to go to a considerably more expensive digital piano or one of the better software instruments to surpass Casio’s acoustic grand. The PX-5S shares the same piano sample as the PX-350, which was already emotional and expressive with its 256-note polyphony, four-level sampling, and highly intuitive velocity mapping to keyboard action. However, new DSP in the PX-5S elevates the experience with sympathetic resonance, four-band EQ, lid position, reverb, and even release velocity sensing that informs how staccato or legato your next note(s) will sound. Note-to-note and velocity-sample transitions are seamless; I couldn’t find one key to gripe about. There are no weird aliasing or looping artifacts; sustain is long and natural.

Casio provides the standard array of piano variations, which is less of a big deal on this keyboard than others, because it’s so easy to customize sounds. Want to turn your concert grand into a tack piano in three seconds? Dial out bass and mids and slide in some chorus. 

EPs are a huge improvement over anything Casio has done before, and meaningfully competitive with those on more expensive stage pianos. The samples are rich and varied, but the magic is in the DSP; the phasers, choruses, amp emulations, delays, and reverbs are all first rate. Even the tremolos—which live on the mod wheel for electric piano sounds—sound like the built-in ones on classic EPs. You’ll find the full assortment of Rhodes and Wurlys in all their tiney, reedy, phasey, funky incarnations. I played the “Dyno E.Piano2” Tone with full-on tremolo and auto-pan for an hour one night—and I didn’t even like the real Dyno Rhodes. 

Clavs are equally appealing, and a good example of the options at your fingertips. Stage Setting 8-4, for example turns the damper pedal into a wah-wah. You’d think that an on-off controller couldn’t give you a full-throw wah . . . and you’d be wrong. So once you’ve got the wah pedal technique down, you grab slider 1 and dial in distortion pre-gain as you dial out distortion level. (Each slider controls one or two parameters at once, and in the same, or opposite directions. Think crossfading.) Slider 2 lets you run through a selection of combo amps, bass amps, and stacks. Slider 3 has more Distortion parameters to slather on the grease. Slider 4 offers a full-throated Chorus. Slider 5 controls a Delay that you can instantly match to your tune with the always-on Tap Tempo button. Slider 6 brings in a short, platey reverb. This kind of programming and control assignment is implemented across the PX-5S sound set.

The tonewheel organ simulations lack the satisfying authenticity of the pianos, EPs, Clavs, vibes, and other electro-acoustic instruments. You’ll find a selection to cover any rock, pop, or church gig and you can live-tweak the sound with drawbars (via the sliders) and a decent rotary speaker simulation, but other manufacturers of late have raised the reality bar so high that, let’s face it, we’re spoiled. I played a jazz gig with the PX-5S, did three organ tunes, and had a blast stepping through the preset selections. If I were to play three sets with organ sounds front and center, however, I’d want a dedicated clone. 

The PX-5S handily covers the spectrum of real instruments and shines equally brightly in the synth firmament thanks to a stacking technology Casio calls Hex Layering: up to six samples, mapped to keys and velocities, each with its own set of filters and envelopes. Every Stage Setting lets you stack two hex layers and two single layers for a 14-layer sound. The results are what you’d imagine: galactic. Riveting. Filled with surprises and on par with some popular workstations. The PX-5S has only been in limited availability since April and already user groups are popping up and late-breaking presets are flying through cyberspace. 

 

Programming and Special Features

Casio provides free downloads of the Data Editor PX-5S for Mac and Windows, with its 18 pages of straightforward controls of most of the parameters in this axe (see Figure 1). If you’re doing serious editing you’re going to need it, because there’s more going on in the PX-5S than just pretty sounds.

For starters, the onboard arpeggiator sets you up with 100 patterns and invites you to program 100 more. You can then plug these in to zones or individual keys in the Stage Settings and they’re all instantly synced to MIDI or tap tempo—or not, if you prefer a Philip Glass freakout. And this is not your father’s arpeggiator; you can play in bass lines, montunos, pans, filter sweeps, whatever. If your musical phrases get too complex for an arpeggio, you can use the Phrase Generator to create looped or single-play sequenced mini-compositions that you can also plug into Stage Settings, or string together to make songs. 

Need to send off a quick piano track to a friend? The PX-5S lets you record anything you can play as a 16-bit/44.1kHz WAV file, which you can save on a thumb drive for working with on your computer. It also plays WAVs from the same device so you can jam along with pre-recorded backing tracks. 

So what doesn’t the PX-5S have? For one thing, a Split button. This means that if you’re kicking bass, you need to set up your splits as Stage Settings in advance because it’s too complicated to do onstage. The good news is, once you have a zone template you like, it’s easy to step through different instruments in the top and bottom parts. The most head-scratching omission is that neither of the pedal inputs can accept expression/continuous control pedals—though you can program envelopes to fire when you hit a switch pedal and, by mapping them to various parameters, sweep different aspects of the sound. This is how the aforementioned wah effect is accomplished. Finally, there’s no music stand included, which may or may not matter depending on the kind of gigs you do.


Conclusions

Even if the PX-5S cost twice as much, its awesome sounds, deep editing, and generous (and usefully programmed) realtime controls would make it a prime contender for any gigging musician’s next purchase of a main keyboard that inhabits the bottom (or only) tier on the stand. That said, the feather weight means you could easily put it on top. We applaud the Casio engineers and designers and their expanding commitment to manufacturing lightweight, affordable keyboards that seriously kick butt, and award the PX-5S our Key Buy for outstanding value.

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