Casio: The Secrets Behind Making Keyboards Sound, and Feel Like the Real Thing!
Since the launch of the Casiotone keyboard in 1980, the electronic keyboard has become a popular addition to our homes. A more affordable and portable option to the classic piano, it opened up an exciting new era of musical expression to a generation of consumers. Their latest model, the PX-S7000 in “harmonious mustard” from the Casio Privia range, is not only going down a storm with musicians but it’s also a thing of beauty winning design awards for its unusual look.
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The piano is the most popular instrument in the world, but owning a piano isn’t within the grasp of everyone. As well as being expensive, they can take up a lot of space and add up to 200 kilos – getting them up flights of stairs is notoriously difficult. Thanks in large part to the launch of the Casiotone electronic keyboard in 1980, we all got the opportunity to bring an affordable, portable alternative into our homes. Since then, the company has sold over 100 million musical instruments. Casio keyboards have become so popular over the years that many famous musicians, like Gary Barlow, have credited their starting music to them. Plus, they’ve given birth to some of pop’s most well-known songs such as Pulp’s smash hit Common People, which Jarvis Cocker wrote shortly after getting his new Casio keyboard home.
A mathematical game changer
Casio was started by four brothers in Japan in 1957. Their ethos was to make products that are useful for everyday life. Their very first major product was the first electronic calculator in 1957. Prior to that, calculators used pulleys and levers and motors, and very large systems to do these basic sums. But this was the first electronic device that could do it easily and quickly. We say it was compact, it was the size of a fridge freezer at the time, but it was a game changer to do those maths calculations.
A musical history
Casio has made many different products in lots of different fields over the years. In the 70s they started to make electronic watches. But the journey from that very first calculator has included things like digital cameras – Casio was the first to market with the consumer digital camera. It wasn’t until 1980 that the company started its journey into musical instruments. One of the brothers had a real passion for music. At the time, you could either buy very complicated, big synthesisers or big, bulky home organs with two manuals and pedals. So the idea with the first keyboard was to make something small, compact, with a speaker built-in, that anybody could use. That was the CT-201, the Casio 201, in 1980. Since then, Casio has sold over 100 million instruments of various different shapes and sizes.
The Casio Privia range
The PXS-7000 is a very modern and contemporary-looking piano. It has the full 88 black and white keys housed in a very shortened slim design. The control interface is completely touch, just like on a tablet or an iPhone, and it sits on a stylish four-legged stand. There’s been a real focus on this range of pianos in terms of the way they look. Traditionally, keyboards and pianos are black or white, but the design team came up with a striking yellowy-green harmonious mustard finish. Surprisingly, it’s been the number one seller around the world. It has many different piano sounds, all with slightly different characteristics. Some are mellow, some are brighter, some have effects on them, so they all vary.
From synthesizers to sampling
The fundamental principle of electronic keyboards or electronic pianos is how it produces sound, or reproduces sounds. In the early days, these sounds were synthesized, so they were artificial, and the microchips and all the wizardry behind it were creating a sound to emulate the sound of another acoustic instrument. So you would try and get as close to a piano sound as possible, or you would try and get as close to a violin sound as possible, but it was synthesized. Over the years, technology has developed significantly to sampling.
How sampling works
Rather than trying to artificially generate a sound, they use a very high-quality digital recording of a real audio performance. So, for instance, on a piano, using a very, high-quality microphone, they record every single note individually at different volume levels from very quiet, a little bit louder, loud, very loud, and then almost as hard as you can hit it. That reproduction in detail in terms of sampling is one of the major shifts that’s happened over the last 35-40 years. So what you’re hearing now is much more convincing, which means that the user experience is on another level. The engineers have also been able to replicate piano sounds from famous pieces of music.
Technology as a creative force
Many of Casio’s keyboards over the years came with preset sounds and/or rhythms. They often take different genres, so there might be a jazz element, a Latin element, rumba, dance music, etc. Neil Evans, who runs Casio’s electronic musical instrument division (EMI) in the UK and Ireland, recalls, “There was a product that we launched in the early 80s called the MT-40, which had quite an unusual rhythm at the time which had a bit of a reggae feel to it. Composed by a young music student at the University of Japan, this rhythm effectively launched an entire genre of reggae music, referred to as Sleng Teng, after it was used by a chap called Wayne Smith to write a popular piece of music. The lady who wrote that rhythm all those years ago is still at the company to this day. She’s very proud of what she wrote when she was young and in her early Casio career, and the fact that it spawned this entire genre of reggae music is an amazing journey.
A tactile experience
Over the years, the touch and feel of keyboards and pianos have changed massively. Early digital pianos often used very basic spring mechanisms. Neil says, “We have teams of engineers that will meticulously go through the design process, looking at how heavy the keys are on an acoustic piano. They will weigh them, they will put pressure sensors on them, and use this information to design a keyboard that, when you’re playing it, not only feels as close to an acoustic piano as possible, but responds like one too. This allows players to be expressive. If you press the keyboard keys lightly, you are going to get a softer tone and a quieter tone. Gradually, as you increase that pressure and the strength that you hit the keys, the sound is going to get louder, but the tone of the piano changes as well. So all of these fine nuances and details have to be taken into account when you’re recreating the sound, feel and touch.
Re-creating the acoustic experience
It’s not just the note that you’re hearing, it’s not just that string, you’ve got the other noises that make up the overall sound of a piano. So you’ve got the hammer noise, the noise of the hammer physically striking the string, you’ve got noises like damper resonance or noises. So if you press the right pedal on an acoustic piano, it lifts all of the felts off the strings. And when you do that, it creates a little sort of zing. And you can hear that on a piano. And we incorporate that into our samples.
There are other nuances around sound called sympathetic resonance. So if you press the right pedal down on a piano, you’ve lifted up all of the dampers off the strings, if you press one note down, it’s oscillating, and that string is vibrating. But so are all of the other strings immediately around it. And you get these resonances and noises that have been sampled as well to incorporate into the overall piano sound. So it’s got to a point where it is so authentic, and the recordings of some of the noises and clicks and the resonances and the pedal noises, we get customers calling us saying, “What is that noise?” And we say, “Well, that’s the noise you’d get on acoustic piano. It’s the noise of the felt dampers being lifted off the string, but they’re being digitally recreated, which takes it to another level.”
The hammer action on this particular piano, the PXS-7000 is a brand new action. It’s the first time we’ve made a hybrid action. So a lot of our actions are made of plastic and counterweights. This is a mixture of resin and wood so it gives it a more authentic feel. So the sides of the keys are actually wood, the tops and the surfaces are resins, and it’s designed to feel and have the look and touch of a traditional wooden acoustic piano action.
A range of sounds
Away from the piano sounds, there are other sounds included in the piano as well, such as electric pianos and other acoustic instruments. Depending on the style of music that you’re playing, you might want some string sounds, or you might want a synth sound to accompany the band. If you’re composing, you can use a whole range of different instruments. You’ve got bass sounds, you’ve got drums, you’ve got keys, and there is an onboard recording facility as well. So you can multitrack and record yourself playing different instruments and play that back together. So if you’re into songwriting or composing, it’s a great tool to have. It also has a microphone input and effects like reverb and harmony, which makes it an all-round option for musicians. It’s a great piano, it looks amazing, you can record your songs on it, and you can plug a microphone into it as well and perform and sing.
The future of the keyboard
It’s always going to be important for piano players to have a physical product of some sort, because it’s very much a tactile experience playing the piano. You need to be able to play the piano and get a response back from it. Things like the weighted action and the key bed are integral to the playing experience, so the thought of having just a touchpad with no physical resistance probably wouldn’t work. The piano has changed significantly over the last 40 years, and the digital piano has changed significantly, and the focus now is on design and the aesthetics of pianos to fit in with modern lifestyles. Who knows where it could go next? Perhaps into customization, where you can choose the design and the colours to match your decor or living spaces. That’s probably some years off but could be a possibility.
Using Creo to develop the Privia range
Design and innovation has been at the heart of making Casio’s keyboard sound and the musician’s playing experience as authentic as possible. With their new, award-winning Casio Privia range, they’ve created a premium instrument that is also a beautiful piece of decor. They use Creo to further develop the Privia range in terms of the ECAD/MCAD collaboration. But as compact as it is, there’s still a challenge there from a mechanical engineering point of view because there are a lot of ECAD components in that design that has to be integrated with the mechanical design. The ECAD world and the mechanical CAD work – in other words, the world of designing boards that carry the electronic components that fit inside the mechanical designs – are very, very different. The way circuit boards are designed is very different from the way mechanical hardware is designed, so it’s not surprising that the two worlds speak very different design languages.
The ECAD/MCAD challenge
The packaging challenges had to have been really, really significant for this product. Thankfully, there’s a standard for the way the mechanical CAD world and the electrical CAD world can communicate. And Creo has abided by that standard for many, many years. What it gives engineers the ability to do is to share an initial design so you can imagine an electrical board design in 3D in the mechanical design environment in Creo. But more importantly, it allows the two worlds to be able to synchronously work across the ECAD and CAD domains.
How Creo overcomes the challenge
A mechanical engineer can suggest changes to the position of an electrical component, the electrical engineer can review that change in the board design to see if that change makes sense based upon the packaging needs, and they can go back and forth and hone in on the design that works best – not only for just packaging, but you could imagine things like thermal design and so forth. There are also issues because these electrical components can generate heat, so you’ve got to make sure you can dissipate that heat correctly. And so, we’ve been doing this for many, many years, and it’s great to see a company like Casio take advantage of it. I’m confident that, in their next-generation design, if it’s even better than Privia – which will be hard to beat, it’s a great-looking product – I’m confident they will be even better going forward.
Thanks to Neil for showing us around Casio’s headquarters.
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This is an 18Sixty production for PTC. Executive producer is Jacqui Cook. Sound design and editing by Ollie Guillou and Clarissa Maycock. Recording by Hannah Dean. And music by Rowan Bishop.