Keyboard and MIDI Buyer's Guide
It’s never too late to take up what many consider to be the greatest teaching instrument. With more than a 7-octave range and boasting the honor of being one of the most chosen major instruments (next to voice) in colleges across the United States, the piano is one of the most versatile, recognizable, and pleasing sounds in music.
Staring at the list of available instruments can bring back memories of looking at a list of colleges and trying to choose just one in the thousands across the country or around the world, a task that can still be made easier by knowing more about what you want or need for your situation. If you’re trying to start your children early on the piano or gearing up to tackle an instrument yourself, you need to know about all the hidden costs, the extra parts, the features you need, and (especially) the ones you don’t.
This guide deals mostly with keyboard choices. If you already have keyboards and are looking for information on MIDI applications, check out our MIDI Buyers Guide.
It’s our job here at MusicGearReview.com to help you get through this process a little easier and hopefully without any trips to the “Return” desk.
Is XXXX a good brand?
Since the first question I always get from beginners is about brands, let me recommend Yamaha, Korg, and Casio. These companies have it just about down when it comes to putting together a cheap learning keyboard for youngsters or the learning adult. Sure, there are models that aren’t as great as the others, but they are overall an arm and a leg above everyone else in the learner and budget categories in any comparison. I should make another recommendation. Department stores like Radio Shack, Target, Wal-Mart (ESPECIALLY Wal-Mart), Kohl’s, JC Penny, Sears, et al., almost NEVER have anything remotely decent or well-constructed and will regularly charge an extra 30-50% on top of the instrument’s actual price. This is also true for electric guitars. Just stay away from them and go to a store that specializes in musical instruments store if at all possible. You’ll pay less for equal or better quality there.
A second warning as to what NOT to buy: any keyboard that talks, has keys that light up so your fingers can follow, or any other form of “auto-teaching.” Avoid these like the plague. Even if it does come cheap enough that it seems worth purchasing, as an experienced teacher, please do NOT use these features. This is a keyboard teaching music the same way Playstation games teach you how to drive a car properly. It’s fake, and the child learns by rote but never learns to actually play or reproduce music on the piano.
What you want is a Digital Keyboard, or Portable Piano, or something with a similar name. It needs to have at least 61-keys (they come in 61, 73, and 88, the more the better), or you start to run out of room quickly as you learn. It also should have built-in speakers, and I recommend a headphone jack for those times when you don’t want to be heard, like late-night practicing or jamming. It should also come with its own wall adapter and a rack so that you can set your music on the keyboard while you play. It’s a plus to have at least a few sounds that you can play with other than the piano as well, whether for fun or otherwise, such as harpsichord, guitar, vibraphone, or others.
Most keyboards in this price range should come with all of these features, but it’s always helpful to check, just to be sure. A great example of a package deal from Yamaha can be found in the Yamaha PSRE223 Package ($109.99), which can be found here:
Notice that this comes with a damper pedal, which is an accessory many pianists and teachers prefer to simulate a real piano. Also notice that it does not come with a stand or a keyboard bench. The bench is not necessary; a chair without arms will do, or any kind of chair that allows for total freedom of the arms, but a stand is usually necessary to set it to the proper height so that your arms can be relaxed when playing. It’s usually a good point of reference to have your hands resting on the keys at a height right around the bottom of your ribcage.
So, to recap, necessary parts include a keyboard, stand, music rack, adapter, and usually a damper pedal is necessary. Other recommended models include the Casio WK-200 76-key Workstation ($179.99) for the inclusion of a drum machine, several effects, and a MIDI/USB interface for budding composers to use it with Finale, Sibelius or other MIDI/USB controlled software, and many features not found or of a higher quality than the previously mentioned Yamaha.
The Casio WK-200 also has another feature that the Yamaha does not – one that many, including me, find indispensable: touch sensitivity. It’s not easy to find on keyboards in this price range, although it’s becoming increasingly prevalent. Touch sensitivity responds to the softness or hardness of how you strike the key, more quietly and more loudly for those attacks, respectively. This makes models like this one a great find, and the more levels of touch sensitivity are on a keyboard, the more musical you will be able to be with it. For a great piano tone for the price range, a solid range of features mentioned above, touch sensitivity, and for including the adapter, this product gets a stellar recommendation from me for beginning pianists.
Have something bigger in mind to get things started? Already own a Digital Keyboard and want to upgrade? Full Digital Pianos can start at just over $400 brand new and open a whole new world of possibilities for gigging musicians, church pianists, or just more satisfying practice sessions.
Digital Piano Buyer’s Guide
When you ask about a digital piano, you may sometimes hear them referred to as “home pianos,” and, frankly, that’s rather accurate term for them. Most often, they become a part of the house, either as furniture, a part of a studio, a rehearsal space, etc.etc. What specifically sets them apart from keyboards is that digital pianos offer the full range (88-keys) and functionality of a real acoustic piano as well as several other features that you just can’t find on an acoustic instrument.
Digital pianos are lighter and therefore mobile. They do not need to be tuned as a real piano does. They also feature several sounds as well as the ability to record your playing. Most of the time (about 95%), digital pianos will come with a stand and a full compliment of pedals (3) on that stand. These are the basics, but digital pianos come with a great deal more options and possibilities than keyboards do.
If you’ve owned a keyboard before, you may wind up asking yourself where all the sounds went when you see digital pianos with 8 or 10 different sounds, but the difference is in quality. Whereas your keyboard likely had simple MIDI sounds, a digital piano has sounds that are sampled from actual instruments and reproduced, each note taken from a real grand piano, organ, vibraphone, harpsichord, etc., recorded through a series of microphones, and reproduced by the piano. That kind of quality takes up storage space, so keep that in mind when considering what your digital piano will have.
You are also going to hear and see a lot of new terminology about those sounds that you may not understand right away. Let’s go through some of the terms you’ll see and what they mean, in alphabetical order:
Action: This refers to the “feel” or “weight” of the keys as you press them down. The more a piano’s ‘Action’ feels like that of a real piano, the better it is said to be. In my experience, Yamaha has the best action I’ve used, followed by Casio.
Audio-in’s/Audio-out’s: Short for ‘Audio input’ and ‘Audio output,’ these are used to send external sounds (such as a CD player, microphone, iPod, etc.) through the piano so that you can play or sing along, or send the piano’s signal to an external amplifier for larger gigs, stages, or other venues. You’ll want to have at least a set of ¼” In’s and Out’s.
Hammer Action: This is the term used to mean that a digital piano has a some mechanism inside of it to simulate a weighted hammer action found in a real piano.
Layering: This means that a keyboard can be set up (usually by pushing two or more sound buttons at the same time) to play 2+ sounds at the same time for a more orchestrated effect.
MIDI: An abbreviation of Musical Instrument Data Interface. This allows all musical instruments with MIDI capability to connect and interact with each other, sort of a musical universal language. Digital pianos with MIDI have three ports on the back of the piano: MIDI In (to receive data), Out (to send data from the piano), and Thru (to replicate the data received by the MIDI In port and send it to another instrument or computer).
Polyphony: This is the amount of notes that can be played or entered into a piano before some start getting cut off. Think of it as a window with the notes moving from right to left. You can only play so many before the window frame fills up and you can’t see (or hear) the first note you played anymore. Many entry-level digital pianos have 32 or 64 note polyphony, but I recommend finding one with 128. There are certain pianos, even cheaper ones, that have this. Sure, there are only 88 keys, but when a note is struck more than once, the piano will still register the first attack on that “string.” Overall, the higher the polyphony the more full and realistic your digital piano will sound.
Touch Response: This is not anything to do with the weight or feel of the keys, but how the keys react when they are struck. Settings usually range from “Light,” which makes the keys very sensitive for pianists who don’t play very hard, to “Heavy” or “Hard,” for the pianist who tends to take after Jerry Lee Lewis’ playing style.
Now that I’ve covered the basics that you need as well as some of the terminology, let’s move on to brands, and, here, it gets a bit simpler. In terms of digital pianos, Yamaha is king. While you’ll have various retailers all trying to sell you Roland, Korg, Casio, etc. digital pianos and talking about how each of these brands are the most popular or the best such-and-such, facts are facts. I get no money for saying this, but Yamaha does have the numbers to back it up. While they are far behind Korg, Roland, and Nord in sales of stage pianos, especially recently, Yamaha have sold more keyboards and digital pianos than any other brand.
In the words of another piano critic whom I greatly respect, “Yamaha have gotten where they are today by superior branding, advertising and product development. They put so much effort into making their digital pianos and keyboards sound and feel as close to a real piano as possible.” Those are the most important two things, ladies and gentlemen. At the end of the day, it needs to sound and feel as close to a digital piano as possible, and Yamaha has that in spades. Some of my favorites out of their current models are the bargain-priced but still great-sounding P85 and P155 (http://www.yamaha.com/yamahavgn/CDA/List/ModelSeriesList.html?CTID=205900&CNTYP=PRODUCT) with street prices around $650 and $800, respectively. For someone with a little more pocket change to burn, the CLP (Clavinova) series has been an award-winning staple in their line for almost 15 years now. It’s a great product that’s continuing to get better and better. Prices range from around $900 to $2,000.
For those whose budget is a bit tighter, there’s the Casio Privia series – particularly the PX-120, on which I wrote an article for this very website back in 2009 (http://www.musicgearreview.com/article-display/2840.html). The series has since taken off and is selling particularly well as a budget piano with some higher-end features that make it a worthy comparison to Yamaha’s dominance in the field. You can find the PX-120 in stores for around $450 new or as low as $300 used if you get lucky.
In reality, the realm of the digital piano is much, much, broader than that. While Yamaha has the majority of the market, Kawai fits those who like a brighter sound, Roland has a rounded, warm sound but gets a little piercing in the higher range due to less than high quality sampling. It’s up to you what you like in the end. I’m just here to help you find it easier.
James “ShackMan” Rushin is a pianist, organist, bassist, and composer living and working in the Greater Pittsburgh area. He has no affiliation with any of the aforementioned brands and is reachable for questions or comments in the forums or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A little bit about MIDI: How Does MIDI Work?
MIDI files do not actually record the sound of the keyboard instrument, but rather record instructions on how to recreate that sound elsewhere. For instance, a keyboardist might play Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on a MIDI-compatible synthesizer connected to a computer. The MIDI file would change each note into a series of 1s and 0s, similar to binary code language. The MIDI coding incorporates other aspects of the performance besides notes, including dynamics, note-bending and changes in key pressure.
What is a MIDI interface?
MIDI interface is a device that connects MIDI devices to a computer and lets the computer record from them and plays back through them. MIDI interfaces do not pass sound or audio data through them, they pass MIDI data. Through MIDI you can connect keyboards, sound modules, samplers, effect processors and put them all under computer control.
What About MIDI Cables and Connectors
There are also many different Cables & Connectors that are used to transport MIDI data between devices. The "MIDI DIN" transport causes a lot of confusion because it has specific characteristics which some people associate as characteristics of "MIDI" -- forgetting that the MIDI-DIN characteristics go away when using MIDI over other transports (and inside a computer). With computers a High Speed Serial, USB or FireWire connection is more common.
In case you missed the link earlier in this article, our MIDI Buyers Guide can be found here.