How to choose a home keyboard
Whether you’re looking for a Digital Piano to grace your home or a Portable / Arranger Keyboard for enhanced music creation, the following Sweetwater Buying Guide provides keen insight into many questions you might have about owning a Home Keyboard. As additional questions come up, please don’t hesitate to call us at (800) 222-4700.
- What is a DIgital Piano and how can it help me play better?
- What is an Arranger Keyboard and why would I want one?
- What is MIDI, and what do I need to know about it?
- How do I amplify my Digital Piano/Arranger Keyboard?
- What to look for in a Home Keyboard
What is a digital piano and how can it help me play better?
Let’s begin by defining an acoustic piano, one of the most common musical instruments in history. A piano contains a series of strings stretched over a metal frame. These strings are struck by felt-covered hammers connected to the keyboard. The vibrations of the strings, combined with the resonance of a wooden soundboard, create the piano’s sound. However, there are many factors that must come together for a piano to sound good, including the room it’s in, the temperature and humidity, and the quality of its design.
A digital piano resolves most of these problems by replacing the strings with key-triggered samples – digital recordings of an acoustic piano. Since there are no strings or soundboard, it’s a much more compact instrument. Digital pianos range in price from under a hundred dollars, to several thousand dollars. The price depends upon each instrument’s qualities: the sound of the samples, the realistic “feel” of the keyboard, and the quality of the speakers and cabinet. Many instruments include additional voices beyond normal piano sounds and let you either play single voices or layers of different sounds.
A vital quality of any digital piano is the keyboard action. Virtually all digital pianos have 88 keys, but none can exactly match the mechanical action of a conventional keyboard. Different manufacturers use different methods of applying weights to replicate true “feel.” But you must decide whether you like the feel of a given keyboard: is the resistance too light or too heavy? Do the keys jump back into position when released? Are there mechanical or electronic adjustments you can make?
What is an arranger keyboard and why would I want one?
If you want to play songs with full accompaniment on your own, then an arranger keyboard might be ideal for you. These remarkable instruments combine the best features of synthesizers and sequencers, or “auto-accompaniment” (backing instrument sounds). With an arranger keyboard you can quickly select a style and song form, then start playing. The keyboard’s sophisticated electronics will follow your left hand and melody changes with realistic-sounding backing tracks, giving you the sound of an entire ensemble, in the style you want.
What is a style? It’s a combination of backing instrument sounds (like bass, drums, horns, etc.), chord progressions and rhythms that fit specific musical genres such as Rock, Rhythm and Blues, Latin, Country, Jazz, Techno and more. These Auto-Accompaniment styles let you focus on your playing while enjoying a full musical performance. Even entry-level arrangers offer dozens of styles, plus piano sounds and even DJ/techno sounds.
Once thought of primarily as home entertainment systems, arranger keyboards are now powerful, portable units used by many popular songwriters and recording artists. Arranger keyboards range in price from under $100 to $3000 or more. Some models are equipped with a microphone input, a digital mixer, or a screen that displays song lyrics or notation.
Arranger keyboards are available in several key formats. Some have 61 spring-loaded keys (called “synth style”); others come with 76 semi-weighted keys – a balance between organ-style keys and a realistic piano keyboard. Finally, a few have 88 fully weighted piano-style keys, just like a digital piano. See the section above for more information on these.
What is MIDI, and what do I need to know about it?
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is the networking software and hardware that allows electronic musical instruments to connect and communicate with computers. MIDI covers everything from the type of cables and plugs to be used, to other musical information such as volume, note durations, pitch bend, and modulation. If you intend to connect your home keyboard to an extra sound module or computer, you need to know that the MIDI Out jack on the keyboard plugs into the MIDI In jack on the other unit, and vice versa. This is the most common error people (even professionals) make when connecting MIDI gear! Much new equipment transmits MIDI data over a USB cable, which simplifies the connection process.
How do I amplify my Digital Piano/Arranger Keyboard?
Almost all digital pianos have amplifiers and speakers built in. The quality of those components is one of the important things to consider when you choose a digital piano for your home. Many arranger keyboards also have built-in speakers. Whichever keyboard type you have, you may require additional amplification to make your instrument heard at a performance. In this case, you’ll need a keyboard amplifier. See the Keyboard Amps Buying Guide for further information.
Whichever keyboard type you have, if you take it to a new location to play (such as to school, church, a party, etc.), you’ll need to make certain you have adequate amplification to make your instrument heard. You might find your piano’s built-in speakers are not powerful enough to project sound to the back row, or even be heard above the voices of the choir. Then you’ll certainly need additional amplification!
What to look for in a home keyboard
Your first decision is what kind of keyboard player you are or want to be.
Digital Piano: If your interests are mostly geared toward playing or learning to play piano, then a digital piano is your choice.
The next important issue is to listen to the sounds.
- Are the piano sounds convincing? Do they resonate and decay naturally?
- Do the bass notes have an appropriate piano-style “growl?”
- Do high notes have a “sparkling” quality? Or do they sound dull and muted?
How does the piano keyboard feel?
- Does it feel as close to a “real” piano keyboard as possible?
- Do you like the resistance of the keys? Are they too “light” or “heavy?”
- After playing for a while, do your hands feel stiff or sore? (This is often a sign of a too-light action!)
Is the Digital Piano self-amplified?
- How do you like the sound?
- Do you need a separate amplifier for your uses?
Arranger Keyboard: For songwriting, or performing live using backing tracks, an arranger keyboard would serve you well.
Does the Arranger Keyboard have the features you need?
- Auto-accompaniment or built-in sequencer
- Introduction, verse, chorus, bridge and other styles for different song sections
- Effective drum and percussion styles
- USB or SmartCard for loading and saving songs and styles
How does the arranger keyboard sound?
- Listen to ALL of an arranger keyboard’s sounds. Do they sound genuine? Can they produce a convincing background accompaniment?
How does the arranger keyboard action feel?
- How many keys do you need to make your music: 61, 76, or 88?
- For synth-style keyboards, are the keys responsive without being “stiff” or “mushy?”
Is the user interface easy for you to use?
- Is the display easy to read?
- Do knobs and sliders feel solid and consistent in their motion?
- Can you easily locate functions on the display and activate them?
Is the Keyboard Arranger self-amplified?
- How do you like the sound?
- Will you need an additional keyboard amplifier for live performance?