* Prices may differ from that shown
When it came to buying a keyboard for my computer recently I was at a cross roads to consider whether it would be a £70 to £100 "hand bag sized," MIDI keyboard with a couple of keys from a piano to input notes on my Sibelius and Garageband software, or to consider a full size home keyboard. This is a problem that many musicians, teachers, composers and arrangers face. For optimum portability a MIDI keyboard that only has say as much as one octave "face" of white and black notes from a piano tends to weigh as little as 2.5 kg and in terms of size mirrors the same portability as a 13" Macbook. The problem however then extends to what happens if you want other notes in the piano range to play and without having to twist dials, switches or anything electronically that is going to pivot the keyboard's octaves and pitches to suit your needs at the time of experimenting or note input. The other alternative is a full size MIDI keyboard, much of which Apple Mac stores nationwide happily show off in their stores under the M-Audio brand where the latest Keystation 61ES model looks quite promising as it is only powered by a USB cable and has no external power supply. At a cost of £150 however it made a lot of sense but not financially despite its endless features only suitable for MIDI and software note input. I knew that in the end I'd have to consider a digital home keyboard because sometimes I just like to play with stereo speakers built in - something that MIDI keyboards on their own just can't do.
** This is a long review! **
At a discounted cost of £135 at the Organ Studio in Edinburgh (its on sale on Amazon at £129 at the moment), I got a pretty good deal on one of Yamaha's best selling keyboards, the PSR- E323. The friendly owner of the shop also gave me a free adaptor in case the boxed keyboard didn't have one, as Yamaha are notorious for not including UK mains powered adaptors with their keyboards. Luckily there was one in the box and I took the spare one back to the shop; Yamaha adaptors can cost up to £15. I had also been recommended to try the Organ Studio in Edinburgh as several other sellers around Edinburgh were too pushed to give me the time of day. Well I got none of that at the Organ Studio and the friendly non-pushy but helpful staff gave me a few good unassisted hours to select various keyboards on offer before I decided which one I would go for.
The E323 has been on the market for some time now and follows Yamaha's usual marketing promise to "enrich," "educate," "empower," and "entertain," owners though I really wish they'd reconsider their stategy as it more or less says to people that anything with an "E" in it is good for you! Yamaha used to fit almost all of their home digital keyboards with MIDI points but their base priced keyboards lack MIDI even though they claim are fit for "universal," use. The E323 does possess a trick up its sleeve not just having MIDI capability thankfully, but with the use of a compatible MIDI cable with a single USB to computer feed, this keyboard has the capability of downloading style files and MIDI songs (up to 5 infact) of which is transferrable between the computer and the keyboard. Known as a "Flash ROM," the built in facility allows beginners and experienced players to download Yamaha's style files in order to learn music and this keyboard will retain it in its memory. MIDI capability also gives you direct access if you need a keyboard to input notes on music softwares like Cubase, Notator Logic and Sibelius, as well as giving you complete access to Garageband on MAC systems if you want to put in your own notes.
In terms of its spec, the features on the E323 look vast but they are not difficult to get around helped by slightly bigger diamond shaped buttons, bigger decals and labelling that is absent on the lower E313 model. Compared to the E313, the newer E323 comes with pretty much the same kind of spec on paper- 482 different voices, split into panel instruments and GM and XG Lite sounds and 106 different accompanying styles with double facility of extra styles with two different fill ins. The sounds on this digital home keyboard are precisely sampled electronically, so you get 2 styles of traditional piano including Portable Grand piano that gives an extra degree of reverb and then 4 other styles of piano like 70's, 80's and 1990's styles such as CP80 and more traditional expressive styles like harpsichord options. All the while, the Yamaha E323 possesses touch sensitivity, an option you can switch off and on if you need.
Basically GM to anyone means "General MIDI," where sounds are usually monophonic and lack a realistic noise to them - this is important for MIDI recording where sound is recorded in a two dimensional format so that reverb and sustain on notes don't cross over. "XG Lite," is a Yamaha derivative that Yamaha have worked on for many years trying to bring sounds as realistic to the real instruments themselves. That effectively gives you 212 drum beat styles with two variations! All the while on the Yamaha E323 there are several other sound additives at your fingertips such as 4 extra levels of Chorus, DSP levels and 9 types of acoustic values if you get fed up of the standard 2 way stereo surround sound. On the lower priced E322 there aren't extra levels of chorus for example. However the E series seems like it is built up from the base E313 model and that means the same tactile rubberised buttons in greys, whites and blacks as a contrast. The buttons feel good enough but in my experience following the E313, some of the rounded buttons don't last as long. Luckily in the E323's defence there are very few rounded buttons that are badly made as the E313. There are other surprising differences too:
Most of the built in digital sounds have been improved - their piano sound for example seems to be better engineered than that of the base E313 and to the most trained ears it seems Yamaha have perfected a nearer sound to that of a grand piano. The guitar sounds are amazingly realistic whilst the drum beats and styles could well generate a club feel in your home!
What a pity however that the volume output despite 2.5 watts per speaker isn't loud enough without using headphones. However there is an amp/auxiliary socket on the back where it can be mounted to an amplifier with more sound output. There are still a few downsides however and to those who are amateurs the internal features probably won't annoy. On the plus side there are 3 levels of touch sensitivity and finding the touch button to stop it from turning into an electronic piano with an "old fashioned" feel is easier to locate than on the older E313. The main LCD screen is a fair size although it could be bigger to see from a distance, glowing in orange with black LCD figures, it certainly looks like Yamaha thought about it when they put the darker stripe in the middle of the keyboard where the LCD screen is but then thought about the price as an afterthought.
For those who adore tech values and messing about with sound and wave values the same old procedure that blunts the old E313 is present in the E323. If you want to pick one of the particular editing menus on board you have to press the function button and then press the plus or minus to go through the settings. If you want to pick one of them that is within the "A to Z" style of settings available you have to keep tapping until you get to the right setting (and go slowly because if you miss it, you'll jolly well have to start again) and then tap the scroll pad again to change the setting. I don't know why Yamaha persist in changing the split point of the auto chords for example - either - they've always been at the left hand side of the keyboard and from two and half octaves up - on the E series, the chords have a shorter distance in terms of octaves and I grow tired of having to manually change the "height" of the chords I want to play on my left hand! There is also no change to the lack of quality displayed in the music stand. Luckily you get one free when you buy your keyboard but Yamaha have made no design attempt whatsoever to change it - so again any sheet music more than one page will fall off - even A4 stapled two pages can't sit on the stand for all that it has a good length to it and because there are two gaps in the stand, if you put a small bit of paper that is smaller in height than A4, the gaps make the paper fall over as it doesn't have a flat back to it. I use clothes pegs and alligator grips sometimes to stop music from falling off!
One rather excellent feature of the Yamaha E323 however is an updated version of the educational suite on the keyboard - not that it is of any use to me - but if I do decide to sell the keyboard later on it can be of help to those who haven't played piano before. The "Y.E.S / Yamaha Educational Suite," moves the game on from the four default settings on board the base E313 and newer E223 models. Whereas the latter models have the usual "chord dictionary," where you can build up your favourite chords as well as learn about chords, and the usual "Listen and Learn," (effectively the keyboard showing you how to play by ear,) "Timing," (where you can test yourself using the metronome and teaches you how to count) or "Waiting," (judging the chords, songs, melodies and timings) the E323 has two further developments such as "Phrase Repeat," and "Keys to Success." In the first newer development, "Phrase Repeat," is as simple as it sounds; allowing the player to select a phrase in any one of the 102 preset songs already recorded within the keyboard (thus also known as the demo songs) to learn along with and to keep practicing until they get it. In "Keys to Success," the whole format of any song that the player chooses changes the "Phrase Repeat," idea into selecting any phrase they wish and seeing if they can test themselves to play it, If they can play it, bit by bit or quite literally "step by step," a score value of 60 is displayed on the keyboard's main LCD screen to show that they have passed. The Y.E.S input on this keyboard is an effective bonus when it comes to purchasing for amateurs and beginners and even if I'm used to a real piano and don't use the Y.E.S system, it provides some insight and ideas for trainee teachers and musicians who have perhaps thought about introductions to music reading (as it does show notation) and general approaches.
At the back of the E323 apart from pedal jacks and headphone jacks requiring bigger 35mm size adaptors and jacks, one can always tell the age of a digital keyboard by the MIDI points and in this respect the Yamaha E323 uses the old DIN type jacks - current Casio keyboards are now using USB which really puts a black mark on Yamaha for not keeping up with the times. It can also take 9 cylindrical large batteries as a back up power supply if you don't have the mains power cord to hand. The design of this keyboard is robust enough even if the silver/gold champagne colouring does give it a rather classy look.
If you're stuck for ideas about what voice to choose with a drum style and auto chord for example, the music database upon the Yamaha will choose a suitable voice for you. This is a feature that is even present on my 15 year old Yamaha PSR 340 but what a pity Yamaha have been stingy again in reducing 5 tracks to only 2 tracks permittable on their recording feature, which means for those budding composers out there, you may have to tie your keyboard up to suitable software which will allow you to play about with more than two voices at the time of recording. There is however a large user manual that accompanies this keyboard and it is very well written with large diagrams and easy to understand terminology and their definitions.
Equipped with rich and realistic voices and a huge array of drum styles, the Yamaha PSR E323 maintains Yamaha's reputation for value for money and sound quality. At a total weight of 5kg with 61 keys and 32 being polyphonic, this full sized keyed digital keyboard is well worth looking out for, particularly for beginners or for those experienced enough but need something portable with a headphone for private practice. It is more than just a keyboard with MIDI capability and with features that are slightly more rewarding than just a MIDI keyboard alone without an expensive price. It is not an ELECTRIC PIANO with heavyweight keys and a limited sound base though. Thanks for reading. ©Nar2 2010