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What kind of keyboard should I buy?

by / Sunday, 01 February 2015 / Published in Tech

What kind of keyboard should I buy? Should I get an acoustic or digital piano? What are the differences between the two? These are very common questions that I get as a piano teacher in Warner Robins and the Middle Georgia area. Before I get into that, there really are two things that are going define what direction you go.

Your budget

Obviously, how much you are willing to spend is going to have impact on the purchase you make. Both acoustic and digital pianos have a wide price range. You can generally find a used upright or spinet piano for $2000 in very good condition all day long, however on the other hand, you can buy a high-end, brand new digital piano for the same amount of money. If your budget is smaller, you can still find a used acoustic piano for say, around $500 that is in fair condition (many of them often need additional work), but for that same $500, you can buy a new 88-key, entry-level digital piano. Something else to consider is tuning. You really need to tune a piano at least twice a year. That can be anywhere from $100 to $250 depending on where you live. A digital piano, however, never needs to be tuned. Lastly, If you decide on purchasing an acoustic piano, there may be an associated cost of moving it to your home. Decisions, decisions!

Your space

Of course, space is going to dictate what you get. If you don’t have much room at your home or apartment, then a digital piano is optimal. Plus, most digital pianos are fairly light. You can move them around easily. Acoustic pianos obviously are going to take up much more space, especially if you are thinking of purchasing a baby grand. They aren’t exactly the most mobile instruments either!

The acoustic piano vs the digital piano

First, let’s talk about the difference between a digital piano and an acoustic piano. I understand that to some of you, this is easy to distinguish, but I’m not here to assume and it’s actually a very common question. So, no worries if you don’t know ūüôā

Digital pianos are electric and are designed to simulate an acoustic piano. Unlike an acoustic piano, they have no strings or soundboard. With an acoustic piano, once you strike a key, the hammer strikes the string that corresponds to the note being played. Conversely, digital pianos contain sampled piano tones that are stored in their Read-Only Memory (ROM). These tones are often taken from very expensive acoustic pianos, so what you are hearing is actually a sampled recording of a real piano! They typically have additional internal sounds such as harpsichord, strings, clavinet, organ and more. Note that all digital piano brands are NOT equal! Some definitely sound much better than others and each keyboard manufacturer utilizes different technologies.

Inside an acoustic piano (click on each pic for bigger image)

DEMO PREVIEW: 2002 Yamaha U1 upright acoustic piano

One of my favorite Yamaha models! Great sound.

Examples of digital pianos

The biggest differences in acoustic vs digital pianos

First, just let me say that nothing beats a real, acoustic piano. The feel and sound of an acoustic piano can’t truly be emulated. Teaching technique and dynamics (volume manipulation, staccato, legato playing etc.) is optimal on a real acoustic piano. Now don’t get me wrong. Digital piano technology has come a LONG way since I started playing. I remember back in the 80’s and early 90’s, you had to pay a small fortune to get a keyboard that had a decent piano sound. And even with that, they were never truly realistic. Most were very metalic sounding, and really only had a decent tone in the middle range. Nowadays, there are many digital piano brands and models that are very responsive and sound phenomenally good.

Number of keys

An acoustic piano has 88 keys. If you’re interested in a digital piano and ¬†want to emulate an acoustic piano, you first have to ensure that the digital piano you are buying has 88 keys. This is important so your playing won’t be limited. However, there are also digital pianos with 76 keys, which offers a cheaper alternative, and still not too bad. The typical “personal” keyboards you see at Best Buy, Walmart etc. have 61 keys, which are usually the cheapest keyboard models, but not dedicated digital pianos. In summary, all keyboards have either 88, 76 or 61 keys.

DEMO PREVIEW:The Casio Privia PX-350 Digital Piano

Although I am partial to Yamaha, the Casio Privia series have exceptional sound and hammer-action keys. They retail for around $700-$800.

Keyboard action

The “action” of a keyboard can vary from brand to brand, however the main issue here is “weighted” vs. “non-weighted” keys. An acoustic piano has true “hammer” action feel. Basically, the keys feel “heavier” when you push them down, however they are fully responsive to the players touch. Digital pianos also come with a variety of weighted key options. The fully-weighted, ¬†hammer-style or hammer-grade action is the best. This is going to closely emulate not only the key weight of a piano, but additionally, get heavier on the bottom range and lighter on top.

Most of the 61 key personal keyboards on the market are non-weighted, or what’s also known as “synth” weighted. They are light and have a spring action with no resistance. Examples of non-weighted key action include the traditional organ and a wide array of synthesizers. (For more on keyboard action, check out my post “What Are the Differences in Weighted Keyboards.”)

The Hammond B3 and the typical 61 key personal keyboards are examples of those that have non-weighted key action

Touch responsive

An acoustic piano is going to have the best response in terms of how you control the volume of a note by how hard are soft you play. With a good piano, you can place minimal¬†pressure on a key and it will still sound. That’s true hammer-action. However, with a digital piano, touch response varies greatly. As mentioned previously, digital pianos that have hammer-grade response, are the most optimal and will realistically emulate piano action. If you hit the key harder, it gets louder. Hit it softly, and the sound duplicates the pressure. Please note that there are digital pianos that only have semi-weighted keys with touch-response settings that let you set the volume response to lighter or heavier, depending on the setting. This is not true touch response action. Many non-weighted keys do have touch sensitivity (some don’t), but they cannot be controlled in the manner of a true hammer-style action of a piano.

Personal keyboards

Personal or “portable” keyboards typically have 61 keys. These are the cheaper keyboards that go from $125 to $275 and are normally found at Walmart, Best Buy, Target (and Amazon!). Personal¬†keyboards have extensive tone libraries ranging from organs, strings, brass and yes, pianos. They also incorporate beats, rhythm accompaniment and sometimes, the ability to record tracks. Depending on what brand and model, they usually have non-weighted keys and a variety of them are touch-responsive.

I often recommend this type of keyboard for beginning students, to save money while gauging their interest towards taking piano. I’m partial to Yamaha, as they typically have the better piano patches. The PSR-E443, as shown below, retails at about $225.

Shown here are the Yamaha PSR-E443 and the Casio CTK-7200 personal keyboards

The Yamaha PSR-E443 Demo

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