There are so many factors to consider when trying to choose a digital piano or keyboard. Everyone had advice on what features are the most important, as if the were no other possible opinions. But this is a wrong-headed approach. What makes the best music keyboards for one person is not the same as for another. That’s why there are so many different types of keyboards to choose from.
Workstations help electronic composers make layers and effects while digital baby grands help players maintain their skills for acoustic play. Our electronic keyboard reviews are designed with the understanding that different people are choosing their keyboards according to different needs, but even our simplified articles can be guilty of making the assumption that users know the difference between types of keyboards available on the market. This short guide will explain what different types of digital keyboards are available for you to buy and what purposes most musicians find them useful for.
Arrangers: The Swiss Army Knife of Digital Piano World
An arranger is a type of workstation that is designed to provide an accompaniment to a musician in real time as they play. Basically, it gives the composer the ability to split the keyboard in half and play the chords or other accompanying background sounds while playing the melody with the right hand. Basically, it’s a bit like having a backup band built into your keyboard.
What Can You Do With an Arranger
Arrangers are useful for both onstage performance and for composing. The looping autochord function will play the accompaniment according to the internal metronome set for the song without the need to record background tracks ahead of time. You can change the rhythm, instruments and chords as you work, continuing to tweak the song to your liking. This is particularly useful for composers as they sometimes want to compose a melody while getting a feel for what their background will ultimately sound like.
These days, most arrangers will have microphone inputs, tons of digital effects processors and harmonizers that let composers sing their own harmony. Arrangers can be used to create percussion accompaniments as well, which is very useful for pianists who haven’t learned to play the drums (yet). While the sounds may not be what the composer is ultimately shooting for as they write, if they hear something that they like while experimenting, they can record it or note it down and use it to modify the composition.
Here is a demonstration of an arranger being used to play The Girl From Ipanema to give you a little more idea of what an arranger is capable of.
Can I get One?
Casio is recognized as one of the best producers of arrangers on the market. They vary greatly in price, but the Casio PX350 is a good example of what can be found for a slightly higher investment. They run a little over $700 and are capable of 128 notes of polyphony.
This makes a huge difference for creating complex background accompaniments because the processor and speakers can handle a large volume of simultaneous sound. Part of the expense of this arranger is the scaled hammer action keys, which create such a realistic feel that it’s difficult to tell from a piano.
The 3 pedal input allows for the same pedal options as an acoustic as well, so a very high quality pedal system will create a very authentic playing experience. This is one of the better arrangers on the market, but they can be purchased for anywhere from $99 to thousands.
Synthesizers: Manipulating Sound
Synthesizers are what originally made digital music so popular. They are entirely electronic musical instruments that work by generating electrical impulses that become sound through the use of amplifiers and speakers. They can be made to imitate the sounds of instruments, or simple sounds like forest insect buzzing or wind. They can also just make electronic buzzing sounds of various timbres. There are many types of waveforms used to make the sounds, such as wavetable or frequency modulation. Suffice it to say that producing music in this manner is a science in and of itself.
What Can You Do With a Synthesizer
A synthesizer generally just makes sound and needs a keyboard or computer to tell the synthesizer which sounds to create. Whether they come in analog or digital models, they all have one thing in common — computer connectivity such as USB or MIDI. They are designed specifically to work with computers to create and manipulate sound and tons of preset voices. They also have the ability to create sounds out of nothing more than mathematical equations. This makes it so that players can create any sound their imaginations can dream up. Good synthesizers can also take digital samples of any sound and then fully manipulate it for integration into a composition. Keyboards now are used synonymous with the word synthesizer because many of them contain synthesizer like devices within their arsenal of tools. Synthesizers are designed specifically with the purpose in mind of mixing and producing music.
Here is an example of an emulator called the Throbbing Gristleizer, which is based on the sounds created by the original synthesizer crated by founding member of Throbbing Gristle Chris Carter along with co-bandmember Peter Christopherson. There have been only a handful of genuine Throbbing Gristleizers created, but it became a legendary example of what early synthesizers were capable of. The music created by these innovative new technologies gave birth to a musical movement called industrial. The movement became so huge that it birthed bands such as Nine Inch Nails, Ministry and Marilyn Manson.
Teenage Engineering OP-1 is an interesting little synthesizer model that is made in Sweden (they are masters of all things synth, having been the birthplace of goofy, synth-laden death metal). It’s a quirky little bird that can sample absolutely sound and then turn it on its head and tie it in knots.
Digital Grand Pianos: A Grand Don’t Come for Free
These are, of course, the creme of the digital crop when it comes to electronic music production. They are designed to closely simulate the sound and action of one of the world’s most beautiful musical instruments while combining the connectivity and features of keyboards. If a digital grand is designed well, then it will be able to keep up with any virtuoso playing a wicked Rachmaninoff. If not, well then, they are nothing more than a standard keyboard in a pretty package.
What Can You Do With a Digital Grand Piano
What you can do with a digital grand piano depends entirely on the amount you are willing to spend on the purchase. The quality of a grand is expensive to say the least. It’s impossible to bring down the price without sacrificing some sort of feature or choice of materials. The best digital grand pianos will come with at least ten different voices that were sampled with a level of depth that allows recreation of harmonics, sound dampening and sustain that fully reflects the sound of an acoustic. This is, needless to say, quite an engineering feat. Once this quality is achieved, it must be equipped with a set of speakers that are capable of faithfully reproducing this carefully sampled and crafted sound.
After these qualities are achieved, the rest of the features on the piano are simply a matter of choice and what you are willing to spend for extras. It also depends on whether you are planning on using the piano for performance purposes or recording purposes. Performance will want to pay extra attention to speaker quality and appearance while recorders will want great connectivity options and additional voices and sound effects. Here is a demo of a gorgeous Yamaha Clavinova CLP-465GP Grand Piano demonstration.
The ONE Smart Piano Digital Piano is an affordable option for those who want the sound of a grand piano that fits into a small space. Because it is a digital instrument, it does not need the horizontal soundboard to create the sound an action of a grand.
This makes it not only smaller, but affordable as well. It can be purchased for around $500 online and is worth every penny for the beautiful sound.
Stage Pianos: Performer’s Tool
Digital stage pianos are designed for stage performance in front of an audience. These digital pianos don’t have built-in speakers because they are meant to use external amplifiers. This is because the internal speakers that come with most digital pianos are not powerful enough to create the type of sound that is meant to be heard in a large venue or stadium. They can be played at home with headphones as well, but for the most part, the manufacturers of these instruments splurge on the sound processors and internal electronics so the piano can keep up with the volume production of a large amplifier.
What Can You Do With a Stage Piano
Stage pianos are made for just what their name implies–stage performance. If you are not in need of a piano for this purpose, then spending the extra money on one of these instead of a workstation or standard keyboard may be an unnecessary expense. They also don’t have as many functional capabilities as an arranger or a workstation. All those extra knobs and gadgets aren’t nearly as useful during a live performance as they are during a composition session or practice gig with your band.
For the most part, digital stage piano producers try to recreate the sound production of an acoustic as closely as possible. There will usually be around ten voices to choose from, with the greatest quality time spent on the grand piano voice. Here is a demo of the Yamaha CP4 Stage Piano, explaining how its features and technology are particularly suited to stage performance.
Can I get One?
The Yamaha P115 88-Key Digital Piano is a very nice middle of the line example of a well-built stage piano. The weighted action keys and sustain pedal are the most important performance features of the keyboard, but it also has iOS connectivity so that an Apple device can be used to control the piano’s other features.
Workstations: Some Call it Work
Workstations are essentially the workhorse of the music world. They are so complex in their features that they might as well be computers instead of keyboards. Actually, that’s exactly what they are–specialized computers in a keyboard package. A workstation will have all the bells and whistles a keyboard player could want, including computing power capable of processing and melding many layers of sound. They come in all sizes, from 61 to 88 keys and can be very expensive when compared to standard keyboards.
What Can You Do With a Workstation Piano
While they are an expensive investment, workstations have become an almost indispensable tool for those who compose all types of music. A quality workstation is capable of producing a song from beginning to end, with all accompanying instruments. They will reproduce the sound of drums, guitars, classical string instruments, woodwinds, brass and any manner of sampled sound. Vocals can be recorded directly to the board and all recordings can be imported to and exported from a computer to further tweak the mixing and production.
This is the type of keyboard you will invariably find in a recording studio. Key weight and action won’t be considered nearly as important for this type of keyboard as the extra features. A good workstation will have as much as 256 note polyphony to keep up with the sounds of an entire symphony. You should also look for extra inputs for sustain pedals, vocals and MP3 input. Many have Bluetooth connectivity as well as MIDI interfaces to add to the convenience and full color LCD screens that help composers find the notes in their compositions. The best workstations usually cost over $1,000, with some topping $5,000 or more, so expect to spend as heavily on one of these as you would for the best digital baby grand piano. Here is a demo of a Yamaha Montage, recognized as one of the best workstations on the market.
The Yamaha DGX-660 Premium With Matching Stand is a nice quality digital piano with basic workstation capabilities that will give you many of the features of a more expensive workstation for under $1,000. It contains a 6-track onboard recorder that can add layers of sound.
Combined with a computer and the built in MIDI outputs, it should be possible to do anything a more expensive workstation could do with a good computer and decent sound processing software such as Final Cut.
Now that you know a bit more about the intimidating variety of available digital keyboard options, you can decide which type of keyboard is best for you. Understand that most keyboards serve more than one purpose, despite their labeled use, and are often capable of doing much more depending on their available features. Happy shopping!