April 2002

Yamaha PSR-550 Portable Keyboard

Yamaha’s PSR-550 portable keyboard is a utilitarian concept for those who are space or finance challenged; who need a practice instrument to take on the road or nurture their kids; who desire an eminently affordable means of interfacing with a computer to share or store or create ideas—and which could easily, in a pinch, function as a professional quality performance/recording instrument.

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Yamaha PSR-550 Portable Keyboard

For a retail list price of only $799 (I’ve seen it on the Web for $550), the Yamaha PSR-550 portable keyboard offers an SUV full of functions: 700-plus voices, 32 notes of polyphony, a 16-track sequencer, a floppy disk drive for storage, a “to host” port (offering direct connection to a PC or Mac) and a built-in stereo sound system. At this price point, you don’t get a weighted piano-style action, but the 61-note keyboard is very sensitive to variations in touch and dynamics, and, having evaluated Yamaha’s top-tier S80 last year, I discovered that the PSR-550’s sounds rival that of the S80, thanks to Yamaha’s Advanced Wave Memory (AWM) tone generation architecture, beginning with a natural sounding grand piano in a cozy ambient space; a warm, spatial suitcase (read: Rhodes) EP; useful banks of jazzy organ sounds; reasonably realistic brass, reeds and woodwinds; and vast banks of synthesizer, ethnic, percussion and drum set sounds. I wish the mono output was in stereo and buffered a bit better, but as a performance instrument, it more than held its own in the company of acoustic and acoustic-electric combo instruments.

But the PSR-550’s most palpable value is as a bridge to computer-aided functions—it is a formidable teaching-practice-songwriting tool. Formidable? Make that friendly, as in fun. There’s a back-lit LCD display that changes colors as you move through menus that guide you through an extensive database of songs, beats, styles, auto accompaniments and fills, all programmable, editable and transposable.

The PSR-550 is scratch pad with soul—and way more.

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