Roland RD-700GX Digital Stage Piano

Pros perpetually seek the best re-creation of the experience of playing a real piano, which is why the 88-note stage piano market has become so competitive. Roland has just raised the bar another notch with the RD-700GX A new action and realistic-feeling key surface are melded with a fresh piano sound and lots of other goodies. Will this updated action and sound take us to a new pinnacle in digital piano performance?

OVERVIEW

When I first muscled the RD-700GX onto a stand, I spent several minutes checking out something that's totally new in stage pianos: the Ivory Feel keys. The GX marries this action with Roland's most advanced piano sound engine, a new way of dialing in electric piano sounds, and a full barrage of non-piano sounds, including the expected General MIDI set. The GX resembles its predecessor, the RD-700SX, with the same built-like-a-tank black anodized chassis and a similar control panel. One improvement is that the four cursor buttons are segments of a circle that surrounds the large main data dial. This makes grabbing these controls on the fly easy and elegant. While the sound selection buttons to the dial's right are larger than the RD-700SX's, I did find it a bit easy to hit the wrong one when under the gun at a gig.

SOUNDS

It is hard to overlook the main piano sound in the RD-700GX, aptly named "Expressive Grand." Under light playing, it's delicate and muted, becoming bold and brassy with heavy playing. Velocity switching of the samples is undetectable to my ears, whereas I've played workstations and older stage pianos that sound like they're using the same sample at three different volumes. The GX's decay is long and sounds natural " almost identical to my acoustic upright. On one gig, I had trouble getting "Expressive Grand" to fit in the sonic space that I need to fill in my funk band, but some very quick surfing through the (acoustic) Piano Designer menu and a quick twist of the high-mid EQ knob had me cooking with Crisco. This is one deep sound engine, and the most customizable piano I've encountered in hardware.

The "SuperNatural" Electric Piano Designer made it easy to create all the EPs that my band needed. The GX also includes a tonewheel organ simulation with faders doing drawbar control. While not in the same league as today's best clonewheels, the organ sound was respectable enough to use on any gig where I had only the RD-700GX with me. Playing organ licks on its weighted action is not for the meek, however!

Presets with "GX" in their name are brand new (e.g. "GX Clav" and "FatStringsGX"). All such sounds were very alive and instantly playable, particularly the various GX strings, which run the gamut from slow and lush to shower-scene staccato. Rounding out the set is a wide selection of additional ROMpler-type sounds, including a number of familiar chestnuts from the Roland JV, XV, and SRX catalogs. Basic synth edits are possible, but don't mistake the RD-700GX, which is primarily a stage piano, for a fullblown subtractive synth.

IN USE

I used the RD-700GX for two rehearsals and three gigs, all within ten days, plus many hours in my home studio. The Roland's user interface was put to its true test the day it arrived on my doorstep. I had a gig that night-with, my funk band, and literally two hours to recreate my gig setups on the RD-700GX in time to haul it onstage. We're talking dozens of layers, splits, and external MIDI zones for songs from the '60s to the present. The user interface is very friendly in terms of setting up these kinds of complex landscapes and saving them into multitimbral "Setups." I briefly got hung up on how to save my edits over the factory Setups, but a quick peek into the well-written manual gave me what I needed, and I didn't need to open it again as downbeat drew ever closer. All in all, I had a great time onstage, with minimal stumbling. MIDI control of two other keyboards from the GX was simple, and I was thrilled to leave my MIDI thru box at home, thanks to the three MIDI outs on the GX itself.

The next night, I had a last-minute call to sit in with a blues band. I dialed in some killer tones by tweaking factory presets using the EQ and Piano Designer features. I had a real blast and felt a very musical connection between the action and the sounds.

I was pleased to discover that the RD-700GX does "tone remain." That is, you can change patches without silencing the previous sound. Similarly to other keyboards with this feature (notably Kurzweils), you'll hear an audible "bump" if you change between sounds that have very different effects programmed in. Edit the effects so as to avoid this, and you can secretly pull off something that even the most well-prepared pro sometimes needs to: holding a chord with the sustain pedal while hunting for the next sound you need.

The knobs for EQ, chorus, reverb, and multi-FX aren't assignable to synth parameters such as filter cutoff or envelope times. The faders are assignable to do this, though my personal preference is knobs for synth settings and faders for mixing parts of a split or layer. Why? EQ tends to be a "set it and forget it" thing, so it's more flexible to open up those knobs for other things.

CONCLUSIONS

In my opinion, the Ivory Feel keyboard alone is worth the price of the RD-700GX. The only competitor committed to this level of high-end action is the Kawai MP8 II, which has real wooden keys, albeit with a standard-issue glossy surface. While the GX's action is heavier than much of the competition (and also than other Roland digital pianos), it certainly delivers the concert grand experience. While I wasn't floored by all the non-piano sounds, all the GX-designated sounds were inspiring, and the SuperNatural electric pianos were killer. Bottom line: The RD-700GX is a superb professional stage piano, with first-class feel and sounds in a roadworthy package.

Roland RD-700GX Digital Stage Piano photo