In the golden age of analogue synthesis, mimicking a real piano had been an untenable proposition for an electronic keyboard. Manufacturers such as Fender Rhodes got round the problem to an extent by building small mechanical pianos which didn’t have an acoustic output per se, and instead had their mechanically created sound amplified through pickups. They didn’t sound like real pianos, but they behaved like them, giving musicians similar attack, sustain and dynamic characteristics.
Even at the start of the 1980s, the acoustic piano sound could not be accurately synthesized. But as the mid 1980s dawned, the first widely adopted commercial digital synth – Yamaha’s famous DX7, raised a few eyebrows. Its impersonations of acoustic pianos were not overwhelmingly convincing, but they were a noticeable step forward for a synthesizer. Its simulation of the Fender Rhodes electro-mechanical piano, however, could get close enough to fool people.
In the wake of this breakthrough came the first wave of 'digital pianos'. These instruments were not inherently any more capable of simulating the sound of an acoustic piano than the synths of their day, but they had special features which would truly appeal to the rock or pop pianist. The digital piano’s weighted keyboard action was a major selling point, and because users tended not to want sound editing facilities or multitimbrality, pricing could be kept at realistic levels whilst polyphony was maximised.
The Rhodes MK-60 was a slight departure from regular digital pianos in that its primary goal was to imitate the earlier electro-mechanical pianos rather than acoustics. The instrument's brief was to provide three or four superb, digitally simulated Fender Rhodes electric piano sounds, plus a couple of classic acoustic piano tones, a clavinet, and for some reason, a vibraphone.
The MK-60 featured a logical, simplistic layout, a 61-note weighted-action keyboard, plus the tremolo and chorus effects which had suited original Rhodes pianos so well in their 1970s heyday. Using, quote: a "refined ASA sound source" to produce its tones, the MK-60 sounded impressive even before you got to play it. With the Rhodes brand now out of Fender’s jurisdiction and in the hands of synth experts Roland from 1987, the new MK-60 looked a likely candidate for success. It was well made, as you’d expect from Roland. Very sturdy, with everything in the right place, and made from decent materials.
When you powered up the instrument and were greeted by the ‘Classic’ preset, things looked very promising. It wasn’t exactly like a real electro-mechanical piano, but it was a really nice sound. Very playable, with great dynamics. The second preset was entitled ‘Special’ – another recognisable Rhodes sound with added glitter at the top end. Again, a lovely tone, especially with some onboard tremolo and chorus added, but it didn’t quite have the feel of the ‘Classic’ preset. Next in the bank of presets came ‘Blend’ - another pretty sound with sparkling top. It didn’t sound like the combination of presets one and two, as the name would seem to imply. Instead it sounded brighter than both, without losing the body. Nice with chorus and/or tremolo, but still not as versatile as that opening preset.
From here, things went downhill. The ‘Contemporary’ preset was an overbright electric piano tone, sounding like the typical modded DX7 Electric Piano patch with glass-shattering treble. The chorus helped, and maybe the first three presets were so good they made the player over-critical, but this type of thin, brittle sound was basically a synth preset, not an electric piano tone, and in my view the MK-60 could have done without it. A harpsichord sound would have been more welcome.
The two acoustic piano presets were the biggest disappointment. Many people bought digital pianos specifically for their acoustic sounds, and these certainly weren’t the best around in the late 'eighties. Ironically, for me, the factor which really brought the electric piano sounds to life was the same one which rendered the acoustic tones inferior. Namely, the MK-60 was a synthesised, rather than a sample-based digital instrument. You can find out more about how this worked in What Was The First Digital Piano? The MK-60’s acoustic piano sounds were admittedly more usable than those you’d find on a DX7 (and more polyphonic), but they haven’t stood the test of time. The warmer of the two, described rather hopefully as ‘Concert Grand’, was vaguely reminiscent of the sound of a Yamaha CP80 electric grand, except it was very unnatural in the middle of the keyboard. The brighter preset was very sharp and cutting. Typical of the early digital pianos. Unashamedly synthetic, but somehow maintaining enough acoustic characteristics to work in a mix. Rock & roll or blues tracks of the period sometimes used this bright sound, but it became more closely associated with house music.
The MK-60 was undoubtedly a well-made instrument which performed its basic role (providing a modern rendition of an electro-mechanical piano) well. But the original asking price of £1299 was steep. Evidence of this lay in the fact that by summer 1991, prices had collapsed completely and the MK-60 was being offered brand new at £599. The real problem, however, was perhaps not one of price. It could be said that the manufacturers misjudged the market, offering an electric-piano-focused digital when what musicians really wanted was a digital acoustic. The MK-60 did, however, capture a variety of high quality representations of the Fender Rhodes electro-mechanical piano sound. Without concerns about tuning or maintenance, without the need to shell out for an expensive amp and peripherals, and importantly, without any impending deterioration in the sounds.
I believe that £1299 was too high an asking price, especially given the 61-, as opposed to 88-note keyboard, but I'm sure that today one of these pianos could be found for a realistic price. I saw an example go for £139 on ebay around a week ago (I'm writing this on 24/10/11), and provided everything was in good order, that, to me, seems like a very good deal indeed.