PSR-E443: Snap review

Ah, it’s always fun to post a “first impressions” review of a new toy! In this case, the Yamaha PSR-E443 portable arranger.

I like to use a battery powered keyboard at rehearsals since an all-in-one sets up and tears down without a lot of work. Up to this point, I’ve been playing an old Yamaha PSR-273. The 273 first made the scene in 2003, so it was definitely time for an update.

The PSR-E443 is the top of the entry-level portable keyboards from Yamaha. It has 61 keys and a built-in stereo sound system comprising two woofers and two tweeters. The E443 is powered by either an AC adapter (PA-150) or six AA batteries. So far, I’ve only used an AC adapter and don’t have a feel for battery life. Fortunately, the MOX6 uses the same PS-150 adapter and I didn’t need to buy yet another adapter. (The E443 does not ship with an AC adapter.)

For the sake of review, I played similar styles and MIDI songs on the old PSR-273 and the more expensive PSR-S950 arranger workstation ($250 street for the E443 version $1,900 street for the S950). The E443 sells for about the same price as a mid-range “boutique” guitar pedal. Given that the E443 consists of a computer-based sound generator, analog-to-digital converter (ADC) for the auxiliary audio input,
LCD display, keyboard and media content (e.g., styles, DJ patterns, voices), it’s quite a manufacturing feat to deliver a fun, usable product at such an aggressive price point!

In terms of build quality, you definitely get what you pay for. The build quality of the old PSR-273 seems to be more robust than the E443. Yamaha definitely has taken cost of the E443 in order to sell it for a $250 street price. Although the E443 is a reasonable solid product for the home, it would definitely not hold up on the road. The push buttons do not have the same solid feel as the S950 (or the MOX synthesizer) and one needs (and should use) a gentle touch when pressing buttons. Cosmetically, the only really bothersome observation is the obvious difference between the top C key and the rest of the keys in the key bed. The top C is an add-on key which is not aligned evenly with the rest of the keys and which has a slightly different color (shade of white) than the other white keys. In comparison, the old 273 and the more expensive S950 have nice even keys and consistent key color.

The E443 has a somewhat “retro” sound set augmented by many additional voices that were added over the history of the E4xx series. The E443 and 273 share many of the same panel voices which is a little disappointing. These common voices sound somewhat better on the E443 due to better effects, equalization and sound system. However, with only a few exceptions, the panel voices in common share the same waveforms. One of the exceptions are the string voices. The E443 strings sound much better especially in the lower octaves.

The XG sound set is definitely a step up from the 273 although the S950 XG sound set is at a still higher quantum level in quality. I played the same commercial XG file (“Smooth Operator” by Sade) through all three instruments. The 273 is truly pathetic, the E443 is acceptable, and the S950 is not too bad at all. The E443 does not have the benefit of the XG variation (DSP) effects as available on the S950 and the solo sax sounded just a tad naff. However, I think a typical consumer would be happy with MIDI file playback through the E443; it definitely beats the Microsoft wavetable synthesizer!

Although it sounds a bit negative at this point in the review, the E443 definitely shines brighter than the 273 due to the additional, augmented panel voices. These voices include the several “Cool” and “Sweet” voices, three dynamic velocity-switched voices, a handful of newer voices like “Woodwind Section”, and the many “DJ” synthesizer voices that were added to implement the DJ patterns. There are also some wonderful world voices like Trumpeta Banda and Harmonium. The sound designers also added a few dozen dual (layered) voices. Even though the dual panel voices use the same waveforms as normal non-layered panel voices, many of these dual panel voices are fatter, very playable and usable. I’m looking forward to using these “newer” voices and the improved strings at rehearsals.

The area where the E443 shines brighter than the S950 (!) is the real-time tweaking provided by the two sound control knobs on the front panel. Even though I’m not a huge synth enthusiast, I used the knobs to tweeze voices like the dynamic overdriven guitar while jamming over a style. I’m now sold on having a few knobs around for real-time tweaking and would love to see a couple of knobs on the mid-range arranger workstations. Pressing up/down buttons in the S950 mixing console just doesn’t have the same feel or immediacy. Further, a quick check with MIDI-OX shows that the E443 sends MIDI CC messages for cut-off frequency, resonance, reverb level, chorus level, attack time and release time when the appropriate knob is twisted.

The E443 also has some advantages over the S650 (the next model up in the arranger family). The E443 supports limited voice programming and stores the same six voice parameters for the main and dual voice. These voice parameters are stored in registration memory. This makes the E443 voices tweakable. The S650 lacks even this rudimentary level of voice editing.

Like voices, the styles are a mix of old and new. The styles include many old chestnuts like “Cool8Beat.” The older styles sound better through the improved sound system, but they retain the same essential phrases. The newer styles, especially those in the “Dance” category create more excitement. There are also a few fun additions in the Latin and World categories. Each style has a “One Touch Setting” (OTS) voice that selects a voice that Yamaha deemed to be appropriate for the style. Of course, this is somewhat hit or miss as personal taste and preference varies. There are a few surprises like a very nice Sweet Flute and Piano layer.

The E443 is reasonably adept at playing commercial styles in the original (and older) Style File Format (also known as “SFF” or “SFF1”). I played the styles in the MIDI Spot Soul and Blues pack and got a fairly decent result. These styles were developed for the PSR-9000 (circa 2000). It goes to show that good programming and musicality trumps mere technology! I had more trouble getting the recent “HappyBeat” style to sound decent even though Musicsoft sells this style as “PSR-E443 compatible.” It isn’t just a difference in voicing — the actual harmony sounds off and discordant. I am increasingly disappointed in Musicsoft’s notion of “compatibility.”

I successfully played back the DJX II patterns which I have been converting for PSR. More about this in a future post.

Speaking of DJ patterns, we finally are getting to the E443 functionality that makes it unique in the current arranger product line! There are twenty EDM patterns. I don’t work in the genre, so I’m not really qualified to speak to their currency or quality. However, I do know that EDM styles change with lightning speed! I also know that you cannot load new (user) patterns into the E443. You have to be happy with what Yamaha have provided. Yamaha, even if you continue to keep the internal patterns locked up — a user cannot save or play the patterns to a MIDI file or data stream — please, please, please add the ability to load new patterns. This capability would really enhance the product and create a community of developers around the E4xx series. As Patti Smith said, “This is the era when everyone creates.”

I like the Old Skool and R&B Smooth patterns the best, but that’s just me. Old Skool immediately brings up memories of Grandmaster Flash and “The Message.” Each pattern seems to have an OTS voice (panel voice number 000). The R&B Smooth pattern’s OTS brings up a nice Sweet Flute and Voice Lead layer.

The E443 has 150 arpeggios (musical phrases) for additional instant, real-time fun. The arpeggios track and respond to notes played with the right hand. (BTW, with the main, dual and split voice capability, you can play a left hand bass along with a two-voice layer with your right hand.) Wisely, there are also forty arpeggios voices which automatically bring up a voice and an appropriate arp. This makes it easy to jump into arpeggios without having to do any configuration. Of course, you can change the arp type, voice, etc. to come up with new combinations.

Between the DJ patterns and arpeggios, the E443 approaches the capabilities of the MM6/MM8 “Mini Mo” workstation. The Mini Mo had DSP effects and a smattering of Motif voices, but the E443 has more voice editing and more user style locations — all at a much lower price. If you crave the old MM6/MM8 patterns, they are available through the Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer (MMS), where Yamaha have re-purposed them. I tried MMS with the E443 and I’m happy to report that you can drive the E443 with MMS on iPad with a little knowledge and consideration of how MMS selects General MIDI voices and drum kits. This is a subject for another day.

The E443 has a pretty decent range of drum kits. Some of the kits have been around the loop once too often and lack punch. When I was experimenting with the DJX II patterns, I noticed that the E443 Dance Kit is the older version of the Dance Kit and has been assigned a different program change number (#113) than the most current kit on the S950. This may be an issue for content creators more so than regular players.

The E443 user interface is a significant refinement of the old PSR-273 era interface. The E443 provides many direct access buttons where you just need to hold a button for a little while in order to be taken to the appropriate editing screen. Further, Yamaha have made it much easier to navigate through the “Function” menu. In the 273 era, one had to repeatedly push the function button to step sequentially through the function menu. With the E443, you navigate through the function menu using the category buttons which do double duty as up and down. Another nice improvement is the transpose button on the front panel. On the 273, I would often skip past the transpose screen and have to circle all the way around the menu. This is a true pain at rehearsals as our music director will often call for a new key right on the spot.

Overall, the E443 is “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” For the street price, it’s hard to find a better value in both sound quality and fun!