The piano is one of the most popular instruments around the world. It is a great way to get acquainted with the inner workings of music, and its layout presents an excellent opportunity to experiment with all facets of music. As an entertainment tool, it is unmatched; everyone likes to join around the piano and sing along at gatherings.
At first, a lot of terms used by manufacturers are vague, and proprietary handles might be hard to understand. The more you immerse yourself, the clearer everything gets and the easier making a purchasing decision becomes. No matter where you are in your musical journey, there are plenty of models to choose from. This digital piano buying guide will guide you through all these options.
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Types of keyboards
There are many digital piano styles, and many of them resemble each other. A good understanding of these will help you to make the right choice and avoid any unpleasant surprises.
Portable keyboards are extremely popular and are the most common type. Depending on the model and the price, they present somewhat different features. One commonality though is the reduced weight thanks to light keys. Most manufacturers have a dedicated line of these portable products and gear them towards beginners. These models don’t have all the bells and whistles of the premium products, but instead they present a decent starting point, allowing you to decide if the instrument is something you want to pursue.
Usually they will include a lot of different sounds to attract potential buyers, integrated speakers, and have several playback and arrangement options. A small screen might be present to help with the navigation of all the options. Some of the most affordable keyboards do not include touch sensitivity. This means that the volume won’t match the strength you use to play the keys. This lack of dynamism is something to consider when looking through the specifications of a particular model.
Arranger keyboards are very similar to portable ones, but they include a number of additional features which enables the player to create complete songs on the spot. While some portable models have similar options, full arranger keyboards are very flexible. As you are playing, you can easily cue different sections and tweak the accompanying tracks in various ways. Although this is definitely a more advanced way of playing and may not be suited to beginners, it’s an amazing way to delight listeners in your home or on the move. This is also a great feature to expand your listening abilities and connect the dots on how different instruments work with each other in the context of a song.
These keyboards are either placed on a stand or are integrated into a piece of furniture. If you are convinced you’ll be playing the piano for years to come, this is an excellent place to start, and it will provide years of service. Featuring 88 weighted keys and slightly simpler features, they are an excellent way of learning and growing without getting an actual acoustic piano. Although they are equipped with speakers, they also offer a headphone output for silent practice at any time. You can find products that house the keys in convincing upright or even grand piano style cabinetry.
Performing musicians and professionals favour these models. They present high quality features in a portable, yet complete package. Counter-intuitively, they do not present speakers. That is only because these instruments are intended to be used on stage, amplified by the house’s PA system. Sounds are high-quality samples, multiple effects are available, and, sometimes, the products feature full synthesizer sections for the ultimate workstation.
Synthesizers and MIDI Controllers
This last category is worth mentioning because these types of keyboards look a lot like the others, but they are used in completely different contexts. Synths enable the user to create entire tones from scratch thanks to the built-in sound engines, or oscillators. These are popular amongst music creators and established players. MIDI controllers, on the other hand, do not have any kind of sound library. They are used to control sound libraries on a computer or sound module. While these are very powerful products, they are not suited for beginners looking to explore the piano and develop technique.
Key weight is an important topic when it comes to keyboard instruments. It determines the amount of force needed to press the key down and how similar it will be to an acoustic piano.
Synth or Non-Weighted
Synth keys do not imitate acoustic piano keys as they are spring loaded and return very quickly. You will find this weight on synths, most portable and entry-level keyboards, and various higher-end models. While these aren’t ideal for a piano-like experience, they do feel right at home for synth parts, organ samples, strings, and other non-piano sounds.
While similar to synth keys, the semi-weighted option offers a little more resistance and acts as a compromise for those players that need a middle ground for playing various tones. These types of keys are found throughout the different keyboard categories and might interest the musicians seeking the most versatility possible.
Weighted, Fully Weighted, or Hammer Action
The weighted keys simulate the feel of an acoustic piano. Thanks to an internal mechanism, the level of realism is very high. A lot of teachers insist on the weighted key feature for beginners. This option develops the student’s technique accordingly and offers a more realistic and nuanced playing experience. These keys significantly raise the weight of the piano and are usually featured in console products.
Samples and Polyphony
If you ever consulted a spec chart for a keyboard, you probably encountered these terms. Samples are actually tiny recordings of individual notes of various instruments (such as the piano) that are stored in the keyboard. Many variations of volume are recorded for each note. These are played back when you press on a key. The sample used will match the velocity you used to play the note.
With current technology, it’s no wonder that most of these modern keyboards sound so amazing. Talented sound and tech engineers are constantly devising new and better methods to get pristine studio recordings of beautiful instrument tones to you and your keyboard. You will find more sophisticated sound libraries on more expensive keyboards, so it’s worth trying them out in person, or at least auditioning them online.
Polyphony can cause a bit of confusion. It represents the number of sounds the keyboard can reproduce simultaneously. This amount always seems a bit high to what’s physically possible for a human to play and hear, but it’s important to realize how things are processed under the hood. While you might play a 6-note chord, each of those notes might have multiple samples playing, especially if you’re adding a reverb effect or using the sustain pedal. Also, if you’re using a self-generated backing track (such as on an arranger model), all those sounds take up polyphony as well. All this adds up rather quickly, and it’s best to aim for a higher polyphony count, especially if you plan on using accompaniments.
The different connectors on keyboards enable a ton of handy features and might future proof your investment.
The most common one, the headphone jack, is an absolute godsend and will save you tons of embarrassment when practising in a crowded house. The added privacy is an excellent way of getting over hurdles without the added pressure of an ever-present audience.
USB ports are very handy to make different connections to your computer. This enables your keyboard to double as a sound interface or even a MIDI controller that enables total control over any sound library on your computer. Also, there are an impressive number of apps that help you learn, write, and record music, and that integrate with the USB connectivity of your keyboard.
Line outs are a great way to amplify your keyboard with an external amplifier or PA system. They are indispensable if you are interested in playing live. Integrated speakers cannot provide the appropriate volume and sound direction to cover more than a handful of listeners.
Finally, MIDI ins and outs are slowly being phased out, but are still included in some of the more fully featured models. This is because they can interface with some older gear that a lot of keyboard enthusiasts enjoy. Make sure to consider this option if you are interested in making your keyboard communicate with other MIDI enabled products such as other keyboards, drum machines, and sound modules.
Your First Keyboard
The two most popular categories for a first keyboard are the portable and the console models. Depending on your needs, these categories can definitely introduce you to the world of the piano.
First of all, if you are shopping for a child, it might be wise to look at portable models. These have a lot of features that kids really enjoy. This will hopefully help to keep their attention for the longest possible time. The number of sounds usually included in these products will help too. Also, some series such as the Casitotone from Casio include a really engaging composition tool that enables the user to create songs on the fly by using short musical loops. This can really enhance the young musician’s experience and inspire him or her to keep playing and practising. The long-standing and best-selling PSR series by Yamaha is another time-tested line. It has been introducing millions to the piano for close to forty years.
If you have been dreaming about playing piano or have a few children that are interested in learning, you might be better served by a console model. Some of the units available are no frills and offer a convincing feel thanks to great keys. Portable stands can support a lot of the entry-level models. Some are also available with optional stands that offer a more long-term solution. A great advantage of these models is their very long lifespan that might just serve more than one generation of aspiring pianists. Yamaha and Casio have excellent choices here again, but Roland’s very popular FP line is worth checking out also.
The Next One
Depending on your first purchase, a few interesting options are available to you. If you picked a portable model, a more piano oriented product might interest you to further develop your technique. The weighted keys are really the major difference and will greatly influence the way your technique develops.
If you already have a console model, why not try a portable option? The arranger keyboards are a great source of entertainment—but also a very good learning experience on the intricacies of music. You’ll develop your ear quickly and might even write a couple of songs that will stay with you forever.
Once you’ve made good progress, you will probably want to move on to live performance. A stage piano might be the right tool for you. At this point, you are probably aware of your preferences (as well as your needs), so it’s more a matter of taking the time to audition different models and ideally try them out in person. Popular models include the RD series by Roland, the CP line by Yamaha, and Privia keyboards by Casio.
The Higher End
For experienced users and players that often perform, there will come a time to move up to a high end keyboard. These models offer tremendous processing power, which translates into very high quality samples and multiple options that you can stack on top of tones. You will often find the Nord Stage series in many live performances—and with good reason; these premium machines offer great sounds as well as authentic feel.
For piano lovers that are not considering an acoustic one, the Clavinova line from Yamaha is the finest approximation you can find. This premium line feels, sounds, and looks great, and will last a very long time.
For the creative keyboard players out there, there is nothing like owning your own synthesizer. Although it is very different from playing piano, learning to use a synth is an excellent way of developing listening skills. They enable you to channel your creativity and explore the wonderful soundscapes of audio synthesis. Very versatile models are available from Roland and Korg.
The Next Step
Hopefully this digital piano buying guide has cleared up the most common jargon. It’s time to take a look at some of the different models available. Best Buy has many choices in every category, and you will surely find the right keyboard for you.