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M-Audio ProKeys 88sx Performance Piano

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The ProKeys 88sx digital piano from M-Audio is designed for working musicians.

This keyboard weighs 17 pounds-31 less than its older sibling the ProKeys 88-and carries a suggested retail price of $449.95-$300 less than the ProKeys 88. This huge weight and price reduction is made possible by dropping many bells and whistles that are only marginally useful to a gigging keyboard player. When was the last time you needed to emulate an alien invasion on your Friday-night trio job? The 88sx has seven onboard instruments, down from 14 on the ProKeys 88. No whooshing angels, gushing fountains or helicopter assaults here, but the seven available sounds cover most real-world needs of a jazz player. The choices are two pianos, two electric pianos, FM piano, clavinet and percussion organ. These can be modified by combinations of velocity, reverb, chorus and mod-wheel functions, thus expanding the sonic palette.

This is primarily a performance instrument, but M-Audio has provided a MIDI Out port for the electronic musician, enabling the keyboard to serve as a 16-channel MIDI controller for external synths, modules or computers. An advanced function and two data controller switches on the left of the keyboard allow entry to this operating mode. Instead of an LED panel, the ProKeys88sx assigns MIDI functions to labeled notes on the keyboard, so there’s no menu scrolling needed. Instead, hitting the advanced function switch and note will operate the function. Computer compatibility is limited to Windows XP on a minimum 350Mhz Pentium II or Mac OX X 10.2.8 or higher on a minimum 450 Mhz G3 or later. Either system also requires at least 128 MB RAM and a native USB 1.1 port.

The onboard instruments are tonally good through headphones and output through a Barbetta SE41 keyboard amp. Including the off settings, there are four levels each of velocity, chorus and reverb. In addition, the mod wheel applies slow tremolo to the electric and FM pianos and a fast vibrato to the organ. Pitch bend can be used with any of the instrument settings.

The instruments are modeled on classic keyboard sounds-Yamaha grand, Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos, Yamaha DX7 for the FM piano and Hohner clavinet. I tended to use the fourth velocity curve, which gave the widest dynamic response, with the first reverb, which added slight hall ambience. Little or no chorus was applied to most of the instruments. With those settings, Piano 1 came across as a very acceptable grand with a warm tone. Piano 2 was brighter and would cut through a group effectively but seemed a little less dynamically responsive than Piano 1. Electric Piano 1 has a nice suitcase sound, especially with a little tremolo applied along with the chorus, and EP2 has a contrasting reedy tone. The FM piano is mellowness defined, and the organ gives a punchy B3 sound with a biting percussive attack. The mod wheel vibrato for organ is heavy; I used chorus instead.

The clavinet’s sound seemed thin, although attacks and releases were crisp and excellent for rhythmic comping. I would probably use an effects or wah pedal to fatten the sound in performance.

The light weight is great, but there are tradeoffs. During exuberant playing, the keyboard has a tendency to slide around the stand a little. The “semi-weighted” key action is very light, closer to organ than piano touch. While this makes it easy to really fly on a solo, it’s also easy to brush and sound wrong notes. Maybe a little heavier key weighting would be worth a few more pounds overall.

The 88sx allows transposition (up to one octave) and master tuning (up to 100 cents) as well as inputs for sustain, sostenuto and expression pedal jacks. The included sustain is designed like a switch pedal and is a little awkward to use. The sostenuto pedal is a curious option. It’s rarely used even in classical piano. Perhaps in future models, an input for una corda pedal would be more useful, since it would offer an additional way to modify the sound.

A couple of items round out the wish list: It would be helpful to have a visual indicator of exactly which reverb, chorus or velocity setting is in use. One LED for each of these functions turns off when the effect is off, but they glow green indiscriminately for all the “on” settings. Layering and keyboard split options also would be nice features. Finally, the onboard demo could be replaced with something more useful, as there is a terrific demo on M-audio.com by Mike Garson.

Overall, I like this keyboard. The features are well chosen and the instrument sounds are robust. Although there are a few tradeoffs, the low price and weight make it a good value.

Originally Published