Yamaha CK61 - The BEST Yamaha Keyboard You Can Buy!
In front of me is the best Yamaha stage keyboard you can buy right now. This keyboard has the best combination of price, sound quality, features, functionality, and key action. Whether you are a performing musician or a bedroom music producer, you won’t get anything better than this - especially not at this price. Is it a coincidence that this keyboard has an interface that looks uncannily similar to a top-of-the-line Swedish stage keyboard that is 300% more expensive? I’ll leave that conclusion to you. In this article, I’m going to tell you 8 reasons that clearly show Yamaha has listened to casual performing musicians before creating this beast - the best Yamaha stage keyboard you can buy right now! But no keyboard is perfect & I’ll also tell you a few things I wish this keyboard had. So stay tuned till the end of this article Before we get started, you can check out my list of recommended digital pianos, keyboards, and music-learning apps that I personally use.
Uncompromising Performance Capabilities
For most musicians, an expensive $5,000 Nord stage keyboard or a Yamaha CP, YC or MODX is an overkill. Yamaha recognised that their Reface series of mini keyboards are extremely popular for its high quality sounds but many owners wanted full size keys instead of the 37 mini-keys as well as the ability to save panel settings. This keyboard is literally a “Reface Pro”, combining the sounds from pretty much every Yamaha Reface keyboard and is equipped with full size keys, an expanded interface and the feature to save sound settings.
This keyboard is designed to be versatile enough for use in any performance scenario. I was immediately at ease playing on this for Sunday worship, in my studio connected to a DAW, jamming at my neighbor’s barbeque or even just noodling with musical ideas on the park bench. At a mere 12 pounds for the 61 keys version, the portability, battery operation and onboard monitor speakers makes it ridiculously easy to take this with me wherever I go. You can find the full detailed specifications right here.
Premium Key Action
The CK61 is one of the 1st Yamaha stage keyboards to use the FSB synth action keys that was originally developed for Yamaha’s ridiculously expensive FX-1 organ, which adjusted for inflation costs more than $100,000 in today’s prices. You heard me right, $100,000! The FSB keyboard has been improved over the years and is now found on Yamaha’s flagship PSR-SX arranger workstations and on Yamaha’s extremely expensive Electone organs sold exclusively in Japan and a few Asian countries. In my opinion, the FSB key action is quieter, better cushioned and feels more premium compared to the key action on Yamaha’s flagship stage keyboards that cost many times more.
This key action is a great compromise between synth action keys and weighted piano keys with a heavier initial key resistance and an increased key travel for a wider range of expression and stability. Five preset touch velocity curves ensure you find the perfect key response for your playing style.
The CK88 that comes with Yamaha’s GHS weighted graded key action is more suitable for pianists but you pay a penalty with a weight that’s 2 ½ times or 16 pounds more. In my opinion, you wouldn’t buy the 88-key version of this keyboard for its key action. Serious piano players are better off with another similarly priced 88-key keyboard from another brand and I'll link right here.
Studio Quality Sounds
Both the 88 & 61 keys CK keyboards come with 363 sounds from all 4 Yamaha Reface keyboards. You get the acoustic pianos and iconic 70’s electric piano sounds from the Reface CP, the FM sounds from Yamaha’s legendary DX-7 found in the Reface DX, vintage drawbar organ tones from the Reface YC and a virtual analog synth engine from the Reface CS.
To get you up and running the minute you get your keyboard, Yamaha sound engineers have pre-programmed 80 “Live Sets” containing patch combinations that will cover you for pretty much any live performance. If you don’t like the factory programmed Live Sets, you can overwrite them with your own. You get a total of 160 slots for storing your own “Live Sets” - which can be dumped onto a USB stick if you need more space.
This level of professional functionality and sound quality that’s great to gig with for a mere $999 is unheard of until now. Link right here to a list of all the sounds found on the CK61 & CK88 keyboards.
Intuitive Controls for Instant Sound Crafting
One of the biggest advantages of an expensive stage keyboard is an interface giving you the ability to craft and morph sounds on-the-fly in real-time. The CK stage keyboards have a super intuitive interface that makes it easy to tweak your tones. I never once had to use the user manual since getting it. Various knobs and sliders allow you to adjust parameters like filter cutoff, resonance, and envelope settings. There are also independent control sections for the filter, envelope generators, and effects blocks which makes it child’s play to shape your tones in real time while you're playing.
I also love the overdrive amp simulation giving the onboard samples a gritty organic tone. Just like Yamaha’s top-of-the-line YC stage organ, this keyboard has a dedicated built-in drawbars from the Reface YC exclusively for real-time control of the onboard classic organ tones. With five different organ types and nine dedicated drawbars with controls for the rotary speaker, percussion and the newly enhanced vibrato/chorus section, you get to control the various harmonics of the organ sound in real time, just like how you would on a real organ. I’ve found the best bundled deals and you can find the linked right here.
Intuitive Voice & Parts Volume Mix Controls
There is no other keyboard from Yamaha at this price which provides this advanced level of layer and split functionality. You can create complex sounds by layering up to three different parts from any of the 363 sounds on top of each other which is great for creating lush, full-sounding pads and textures. You can assign and turn on or off A, B and C on the fly with the back-lit multi-color LCD buttons. Volume mixes for the voice parts are easily adjusted with 3 conveniently located sliders.
These realtime sliders enable you to fade additional layered voices in real-time while performing. Intuitive graphical icons on the LCD screen shows which section of the keyboard your 3 voices have been assigned, giving you an almost infinite number of layer and split combinations. You can, for example, assign 2 voices to the left of the keyboard and play a melody line on your right. Or have 3 voices assigned in a single layer with Voice A on the left, Voice B in the middle of the keyboard and Voice C on the right side. Octave shifts, on-the-fly key transposition, modulation, pitch bends and portamento are also easily accomplished with easily accessible controls. This makes it easy to add these effects in real time to your live performances without having to menu dive and fiddle with complex settings. If you find this tiny monochrome LCD screen too small, check out another Yamaha keyboard I recommend right here with a massive full color screen.
MIDI Master Controller Keyboard
For those who are into desktop music production on your laptop or want to control external sound modules and synthesizers, this keyboard is a ridiculously competent master controller keyboard for the price you pay. You can configure this keyboard as a four-zone controller allowing you to control up to 4 different external synths, sound modules or virtual instrument plugins and make octave adjustments, complex patch changes and transmitting advanced MIDI CC messages. You can even mix the onboard sounds with your connected sound generators and virtual instrument plugins and save your complex MIDI rig as a “Live Set” for instant recall during live performances. This keyboard has the best MIDI implementation on a $999 Yamaha keyboard that I’ve seen so far. If you do not need onboard sounds, you can find the ultimate 88-key weighted controller keyboard I recommend.
Unparalleled Connectivity Options
If you can imagine it, you can connect it. Yup, I was absolutely surprised at the pro-level connectivity options on this keyboard. You get a robust ¼” headphones jack and there’s a USB port which not just supports MIDI data but is also a digital audio interface for sending audio data to and from your connected devices. 5 DIN MIDI ports, which have pretty much disappeared in every keyboard under $1,000 are present on this keyboard. These 5 DIN MIDI ports are needed for connecting to other sound modules and keyboards. There is a USB “To Device” port which is where you plug in a USB stick for you to dump your data as well as for storing sound samples you trigger with the keys. You get a pair of proper stereo ¼” line outs for connecting to external speakers and Bluetooth for streaming backing tracks to the onboard speakers wirelessly.
An A/D input lets you connect a dynamic microphone or a guitar and route the audio signal through the keyboard’s DSP adding effects such as reverb, distortion, compressor and EQ to sweeten and thicken up your vocals. 2 assignable pedal inputs that supports half pedaling for classical and jazz pianist, expression pedal for organ players as well as a huge list of possibilities too long to be covered in this article.
Professional keyboardists might scoff at the onboard stereo speakers and battery operation. But with these monitor speakers and 8 regular “AA” batteries, I could make music and rehearse with my band everywhere. I didn’t have to lug along heavy amplifiers or hunt for a power point. To be honest, the pair of 12 watt amplified onboard speakers, which comes with a fantastic dedicated on/off physical switch, are not meant for you to perform with but they are great for solo practice and band rehearsals.
There is absolutely no doubt we are getting an amazing deal with this value packed do-it-all keyboard but there are 5 features I would have loved to see on this keyboard. These are not deal-breakers but would make this a truly unparalleled keyboard for the price.
The CK61 does not come with a music rest. I struggled to prop up my sheet music and my iPad which is really quite a shame since a detachable wire frame music rest doesn’t cost much to manufacture.
I do not expect a full-fledged sequencer on this keyboard as it is meant more as a stage keyboard and not a workstation, but a simple single-track, single song recorder would be useful for sketching out musical ideas. You can download and use Yamaha’s Rec’n’Share app to record your playing with videos if you want but it is an additional step and I had to have a suitable cable to connect my smartphone to the keyboard.
A 73-keys version of this keyboard would have been nice as most electric pianos and stage keyboards that the CK61 is emulating have 73-keys. The added keys would mean I do not have to reach for the octave +/- switch as often.
The Bluetooth connection of this keyboard only supports audio streaming from your smart device to the keyboard onboard speakers. It would have been nice if we had wireless MIDI via Bluetooth for less clutter when connecting to my DAW.
For such a ridiculously competent, full-featured MIDI Master Controller keyboard, I was surprised an arpeggiator was omitted. Even Yamaha’s entry-level $199 keyboard has an onboard arpeggiator but it is sadly missing on both the CK keyboards.