So you want to learn piano. Or you want to replace that big, old, heavy, out-of-tune piano in your house with something more practical. A keyboard or digital piano can be a great option. They’re generally a lot lighter, cheaper, and they don’t require tuning. But where do you start? This is a guide for people who don’t know what to look for.
Pic: If your old acoustic piano looks like this one it might be time for an upgrade! Why not go digital?
Key points (generalised):
- Keyboards: lighter, generally more features, non-weighted keys, 61 -76 notes
- Digital pianos: 88 notes, weighted keys, more like a real piano.
Electronic Pianos are basically basically broken up into two main categories: keyboards and digital pianos. There are also stage pianos, synthesizers, midi controllers and more, but for the home user just starting on their journey we’re going to focus on the first two.
The main differences are that a keyboard is usually lighter, more portable, and doesn’t have weighted keys. Keyboards will often also have less keys. Most keyboards are either 61 notes or 76 notes, where a digital piano is usually 88 notes, like an acoustic piano. Digital pianos are usually heavier and have keys designed to behave and feel more like a real piano. This feel and response comes from specially designed hammer mechanisms. In general, a keyboard will be the cheaper option, although you can pay plenty for a higher end keyboard if you choose to!
Pic: The Yamaha Tyros. This high end keyboard is proof that a keyboard isn’t always the cheaper option! It even has a sub-woofer! (That’s the bass speaker on the floor).
The main thing to look for in a keyboard is touch sensitivity. This is different from weighted action. Touch sensitivity means that the volume of the sound is affected by how hard you strike the keys. The cheapest keyboards often don’t have this, meaning the notes are simply on, or off. This means that you can’t play with any kind of dynamics. Even a child in the earliest stage of learning needs to understand that how hard or how softly they play makes a difference. Music without dynamics (loud and soft) is really just noise. Listen to a child beating a pot with a stick. They will hit it harder to make it louder, or more softly to make it quieter. This is the basis of musical dynamics. You may have to pay slightly more for a touch sensitive (also known as touch response) keyboard, but touch sensitive keyboards can still be purchased fairly cheaply, and it’s worth the little bit extra.
Left: The Medeli M15 is a really easy to use, excellent value for money touch sensitive keyboard. It’s priced less than some other brand’s non-touch sensitive models.
Right: Casio Key Lighting keyboards have keys that light up to help you learn to play.
Keyboards generally come with either 61 or 76 notes. A 76 note keyboard means you’re less likely to run out of keys when playing more advanced music. It’s still less than a full 88 note piano keyboard, but it is only missing the most extreme highs and lows. 76 notes should be sufficient for the vast majority of musical pieces.
Pic: The Yamaha NP32 keyboard is 76 notes. It has a better sound and is slightly more expensive than the previous two models shown, but less ‘bells and whistles’. It has only a handful of sounds and no beats and rhythms.
A lot of customers who are looking at cheaper keyboards see all the bells and whistles, beats and rhythms, hundreds of sounds, etc and say ‘I don’t want to pay for all that, I’ll never use it all.’ Ironically though, often the cheapest keyboards are loaded with this stuff, because they’re aimed at the fun end of the market. Sometimes you have to pay more to get less! A Steinway piano for example only has one sound, and no beats and rhythms, but it probably costs more than your house!
As you go up the ranges you usually get better quality, more realistic sound from higher spec speakers and more accurate sampling. Keyboards definitely aren’t just beginners instruments. Not only do they tend to be more portable, the lack of weighting can actually make certain styles of music easier to play, especially faster passages. You will see higher end keyboards on big stages all the time.
For the home user learning how to play piano, a digital piano will give you a more realistic feel, similar to to an acoustic piano. When you strike a key on a real piano, it triggers a hammer that strikes the piano string. This action creates the heavier feel of piano keys. Digital pianos have weighted keys that simulate this feeling. More expensive digital pianos will ideally have better feeling ‘action’. Often they will have ‘graded’ or ‘graduated’ action, which means the keys will have a heavier feel towards the bass end and a lighter feel the further up the keyboard you go. A digital piano will be less portable and might take up a little bit more space in the house, but still not as much as an acoustic piano!
Left: Digital pianos feature simulated hammer action. Here are a couple of different examples of what that looks like on the inside. This is why digital pianos are usually a bit heavier!
The cool thing about having a digital in your house is that it becomes something the whole family can use. A lot of people are reluctant to spend too much in case their kids don’t stick to it. But a digital piano is always something you can go back to. Having it in the house can inspire people to play, and the nice thing with digital instruments is that you can turn them down, or plug headphones in, and you don’t have to bother anybody!
Right: The Casio PX-160 is a lower priced Digital piano with plenty of great sounds and graded hammer action. Shown with optional stand and 3 pedal upgrade. Bench sold separately.
As with keyboards, the higher you go up the range, the better the sound. Bigger, more powerful speakers can make a huge difference to sound quality, as will the quality of the sampling. If you can afford it, it doesn’t hurt to go up a level. A great sounding instrument will only inspire you to play more which will help you improve faster!
Polyphony: This is how many sounds the instrument’s sound module can play at once. For example, if you’re playing a chord with 3 notes in it, you’ll need at least a 3 note polyphony. Most keyboards and digital pianos on the market today will have anywhere between 32 and 128 note polyphony. That may sound over the top (who plays 128 notes at once?), but consider that beats and rhythms and other effects all contribute to the amount of sounds being played at one time, so if you plan to use those built in accompaniments you’re going to want a decent polyphony count.
I hope this helps. If you need any further assistance, please give us a call.