Our Shigeru Kawai SK-6 7′ Piano

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About The Piano

Shigeru Kawai pianos are one of the most highly respected, and secretive pianos in the world.  Many people have heard of them, but few actually know what they are, or where they come from. Firstly, the piano is a descendent of the Kawai Corporation, a company that is known primarily for building reliable, mid-range, institutional and home pianos. But it is far from a fancied-up Kawai. The Shigeru project was a special division of Kawai which was created back in the 1970’s by then-president Shigeru Kawai. It wasn’t at that time labelled the “shigeru” project, but simply S. Kawai.  The goal of the project was to design and build Japan’s first and foremost world-class concert grand piano.  Both Yamaha and Kawai previously had concert-level instruments that were well respected in school circles, but neither were appearing on the world’s fine concert stages. That was almost exclusively Steinway’s domain.

The materials of the piano were to be a mix of modern and ancient – work on what would become Kawai’s Millennium III action began, with trials on using carbon composites for the action components. At the same time, Kawai envisioned one of the largest stockpiles of exotic hardwoods and maples, to be dried and cured over a decade, and then supply the project for decades to come. Matoa, maples, beeches, Ezo spruce, mahogany, and hornbeam were collected and set to dry for close to 25 years.

The pianos construction process is probably the most unique element to the piano. From the outset of Shigeru’s dream, Kawai began recruiting and training the very best piano craftsman they could find, and eventually settled on a little more than a dozen Master Piano Artisans (MPA’s). The concept was to give ownership of each piano to an individual – when you purchase a Shigeru, it’s not a factory that built it…it’s a single person, whose name you know, and whose face you see. To our knowledge, this is the only performance piano whose builders demand this level of personal ownership.  Each piano is hand-made, and as the pianos are sold around the world, the MPA that built it is given a small plaque to show who and where their creation was eventually delivered.

 

Why We Picked It

The Shigeru Kawai line has many qualities which make it an ideal recording piano. It’s action is superb, the tonal palette is rich and very diverse, its dynamic control is light-years beyond 95% of all other pianos, and it has a sustain matched by only one or two other makes in the world.  And specifically when it comes to this SK6, there are even more specific reasons. In no particular order:

  • The SK6 uses one of the most dense rims of any 7′ piano on earth. The SK6 weights 842 lbs, compared with a NY Steinway at 720. General opinion is that the denser the rim of a grand piano, the greater its projection and sustain potential, because there is less energy loss/absorption by the rim.
  • The SK6 uses a longer key length than any other 7′ on earth.  This is the measurement between the front key pin and the center pin, and the measurement between the front of the key to the cap-stand. Shigeru has innovated this to give all of its line a similar level of control and dynamic range as it’s 9′ concert grand.
  • It uses Ezo spruce, which, next to Fazioli’s Red Spruce soundboards, have some of the longest sustain times, and are very reactive. This gives an unusually responsive pp range, a significant benefit to solo piano recording.
  • The tonal range of the instrument is probably its most iconic feature – it has some of the darkest tones from a piano you’ll hear, and yet it can, when needed, sound as bright as a Yamaha or Bechstein.

How it Compares

 

…to a Steinway B

Steinway B’s are a staple in the recording business, and they can be a very fine instrument. What makes it difficult to compare anything to a Steinway B is that there is such a huge variety of quality and levels of preparation amongst the instruments. It’s very common for many institutional owners of Steinway B’s (studios, schools, churches, halls) to simply assume that since they “own a Steinway”, that there is nothing else required to deliver a great musical tool to their musical guests. Any seasoned piano players will know this is far from the truth, and that most NY Steinway B’s require a significant amount of prep out of the gate, and an experienced tech who can maintain prep at a high level over the lifetime of the instrument. Further, since Steinway generally leaves the final voicing up to its field technicians, there is also a great variety in the tonal quality and evenness that you get. So the first point of comparison would be that generally speaking, a Shigeru Kawai SK6 is going to deliver a consistent and reliable experience, whereas any Steinway should probably be evaluated individually before committing to a studio.

Once that’s out of the way however, there are some points of comparison that would apply in most cases:

  • Both pianos have a wide tonal palette, but the Shigeru’s clarity is far more even across the scale
  • The actions are quite different, although both deliver a high level of control
  • The B’s scale tends to have a dip in projection and sustain in the 4th and 5th octave range, whereas the Shigeru is dynamically even throughout the range
  • Due to the Shigeru’s clarity and even scale design, generally you have more mic’ing options, including highly detailed close mic’ing when called for

…to a Yamaha C7

The C7 by Yamaha is one of the great studio pianos of the 20th century, principally for two reasons: cost and performance. The C7 was certainly the most affordable semi-concert piano in the market for many decades, and the instrument delivered a huge dynamic range and was a rugged, easy-to-maintain piano for a relatively low cost (when compared with the Steinway option). You still see many studios offering Yamaha C6 and C7 pianos, and it’s a common, well-known sound. Unlike a Steinway B, you pretty much know what to expect every time with a C7, and so the comparisons are even easier to make between it and the SK6.

  • The two pianos have a very similar dynamic range (the range between its minimum and maximum volumes), however the dynamic curve is significantly more even on the Shigeru vs. the Yamaha. What this refers to is how evenly the dynamic output is matched to the physical input as you move from the very quietest to the very loudest ranges of the piano. The effect this has is that the player has far greater control and range between the ppp  and the mf levels on the Shigeru than on the Yamaha.
  • The Shigeru’s action will feel closer to that of a 9′ than the C7, owing to its increased key length
  • The Yamaha also has a classic brightness to it, but many players find it difficult to achieve the same type of warmth as they would expect out of a Steinway. The SK6 gives both, which is one of its hallmarks, and certainly the most significant reason for its increasing popularity amongst studios and institutions.

 

…to a Mason & Hamlin BB

Mason & Hamlin BB is another very interesting piano to record on, and although there are some commonalities between it and the Shigeru, in most ways the pianos are drastically different. People who are used to the Mason sound will be quite familiar with its complex mid-tones, its super clear treble, and the aggressive bass. It might best be described in a studio context as ‘a Steinway B with a longer-sustaining treble, and a wider, clearer bass. The actions on the newer carbon-fibre Masons are quite fast and responsive, but there is a considerable difference even between them and the Shigeru’s.

  • Mason BB has a darkly-coloured tone which, in a live setting, can be rewarding to listen to, however it can come across as unclear in the hands of an inexperienced engineer
  • The Shigeru Kawai SK6’s treble is more consistent tonally with the rest of the instrument, although it may not project as much as the Mason in a typical live playing situation – a preference for recording
  • The Shigeru’s action is more inline with what many pianists will expect to feel from a 7-9′ Steinway, whereas the Mason has really defined their own response curve (this isn’t a good or bad thing necessarily, just to say that predictability is always a good thing in a studio situation)

 

…to a Fazioli F212

A few studios in the world have the Fazioli F212 as their recording instrument, and they can be extraordinary pianos to play. In fact, it is generally our opinion as former Fazioli dealers that the two finest 7′ recording pianos in the world were the F212 and the Shigeru Kawai SK-6.  Both went through many, many side-by-side comparisons, and the ultimate conclusion was generally that the differences were almost exclusively subjective.  In fact, the 9′ versions of both pianos were ultimately the Burlington Performing Arts Centre’s final two choices for their principal piano, of which they selected the Shigeru Kawai.

This does not mean in the slightest that the pianos are similar. They could be compared in terms of their design and construction quality, but tonally they are going for two very different visions. The Fazioli is focused on ultimate clarity of tone, having tried to engineer out almost all impurity (or as some might call it ‘colour’), and generate the most number of perfectly preserved upper partials. This is a very interesting sound to listen to live, and when in the hands of an experienced engineer, also very interesting. The Shigeru took a different approach, and started with a more traditional piano tone and increased its sustain and projection through construction refinement, and evened its response and its range through selecting and building the best soundboard and bridge that they possibly could.

  • Fazioli = extreme clarity; Shigeru = wide dynamic range, and super complex
  • Both actions are highly responsive, with the Fazioli feeling a little lighter, and the Shigeru feeling more like a perfectly regulated Hamburg Steinway
  • On versatility, a greater number of people have commented on the Shigeru’s wider palette, although the Fazioli still handles nearly any genre or setting quite well
  • Because of the Fazioli’s unique tone, very specific mic’ing setups have to be used – the Shigeru requires no such consideration, and a wide variety of setups are possible