In terms of pure bang for your buck, it doesn’t get much better than Yamaha’s CK keyboards.
The CK61 and CK88 on test here represent a completely new range from Yamaha. They join a stage keyboard line‑up that is still spearheaded by the more expensive CP and YC series I reviewed in SOS back in September 2020, but seem to have acres of overlap with them. What are Yamaha thinking, and what compromises have been made?
I’ll start by thanking Yamaha: the CK61 and CK88 are very easy to review and describe as a pair, with identical capabilities, and only physical differences.
The CK61 has a five‑octave velocity‑sensitive keyboard with Yamaha’s FSB (Future System Basic) action, which apparently was developed for their Electone organ range. It has a slightly narrow 160mm octave span (as does the YC61), compact 14cm‑deep key tops, and a touch which offers strong springy resistance in the first few millimetres of travel, before the key really falls. It makes for a reasonable piano‑playing experience from an otherwise fast synth‑like action.
Meanwhile, the CK88 has a piano‑like hammer action, using the Yamaha GHS (Graded Hammer Standard) keybed. That represents the first rung of Yamaha’s piano action ladder, but it’s perfectly nice for typical stage and studio use. There’s a normal 165mm octave span, spacious 15cm‑deep white key tops, sculpted black key fronts, and a precise, modern‑feeling 10mm key dip. No ‘escapement’ resistance of Yamaha’s high‑end Clavinovas, but certainly a supportive, swinging release. It’s mechanically quiet too, especially compared to something like a Fatar TP40, with little more than a dull thud at the bottom of the downstroke. As on the CK61, there’s no aftertouch sensitivity.
Then the only other difference is in the provision of mount points for a YMR‑03 music rest: the CK88 has them (though the rest is not provided as standard) and the CK61 doesn’t.
As to what the CKs have in common: well, how long have you got? Despite being at the affordable end of the market, these keyboards have feature sets that are surprisingly extensive. So much so in fact that there’s no way I can cover everything here, though I’ll try my best to pick out all the really interesting and pertinent points.
The headline features start with the provision of a do‑it‑all soundset: tonewheel and transistor organs (with physical drawbars), some top‑class acoustic and electric pianos, and (to use Yamaha’s own front‑panel button groupings) brass and wind, guitar and bass, strings, synth pads and leads, chromatic percussion, and a few ‘others’. Approaching 400 preset sounds in total, which is more than the current YC or CP series can offer put together, even after a series of firmware updates that have extended their abilities.
You employ these presets in a three‑part multitimbral architecture, which proves to be a doddle to work with thanks to dedicated level faders and part on/off and selection keys just to the left of the central 128 x 64‑pixel white‑on‑dark LCD display. Any type of sound can be loaded to any part, so it’s quite possible to have three organs or three pianos on the go at once, or to start layering up synths alongside more bread‑and‑butter split‑keyboard combos. What’s more, each part gets its own independent effects chain. That includes a drive section (which also undertakes Leslie speaker duties), plus two multi‑effects engines. There’s a further master‑level delay, reverb and three‑band EQ.
Entire three‑part setups, encompassing sound selection, flexible keyboard splits and layers, transpositions, effects and additional settings can be saved to a kind of ‘multi’ memory called a Live Set. There’s room for 160 of these, directly accessible from eight front‑panel buttons across 20 ‘pages’ from which they load instantly. They can further be liberated to a plugged‑in USB thumb drive, either individually, in page‑size chunks, or all in one go. There’s also a global option to move forward and back through Live Sets one at a time using an appropriately configured foot pedal.
And talking of pedals, real‑time control provision on the whole is rather good. Two pedals can be attached — switch or expression types in either socket — and their function determined on a Live Set (rather than global) basis. They’re by no means limited to sustain and level duties: either or both can drive virtually any parameter that has a hardware control, including the volume of individual parts or the whole instrument.
The front panel manages to be busy but clear. The drawbars are very serviceable, despite their only 21mm travel, and the action of all buttons and knobs is very nice indeed. No wobbles or flakiness anywhere. And it’s worth noting how many single‑function buttons there are too, both for real‑time sound control (mono keyboard mode and unison) and functional operations (keyboard split and Live Set store).
All buttons that can benefit from it are capable of being backlit, to show on/off status: they can even do a variety of (user selectable) colours, which helps confirm which part is selected. As an aside it’s worth noting that the backlights seem to employ a ‘field‑sequential’ design, like some digital camera viewfinders, whereby some static colours are generated by rapidly strobing others. Glance quickly left or right while using your CK and you might see flickering or colour ‘tears’, which can be a bit disconcerting at first. You get used to it.
I’ll quickly mention two other interesting abilities, before we dig a bit more into the detail of the sounds on offer. First, any (or all) of the three multitimbral parts can be exclusively driven via an external MIDI keyboard. This gives the possibility of using the CK61, say, with an 88‑note controller keyboard, for that ‘best of both worlds’ setup where pianos are played from a hammer action, and synth or organ sounds from the built‑in lighter‑action keyboard. A parallel scenario can easily be imagined for supplementing the CK88 with a synth‑style or waterfall organ keyboard. Or, it’s a great way to incorporate a MIDI organ pedalboard. The way this is done is simple and clear, and a Live Set’s part list will show ‘EX’ next to any sound set being driven externally.
Second, a Master Keyboard mode, which happily runs alongside internal sounds, lets you define four keyboard zones that can transmit MIDI messages to external gear, with their own channels and transpositions. On recalling a Live Set where this mode is active, the CKs can even send out MIDI bank and Program Change messages to coordinate external synths, and there...