Digital Piano Buyers Guide
From Beethoven to Brubeck to The Beatles and beyond, the concert grand piano remains one of the most compelling of all musical instruments. The piano offers unequalled polyphony, is capable of vast levels of expression, and is playable over a nearly eight-octave range. Today, the Digital Piano recreates that unique concert grand piano experience in a compact, cost-effective, and portable package that is virtually maintenance free—no tuning required!
Call them what you will—Stage Digital Pianos, Home Digital Pianos, or even Compact “Slab” Digital Pianos—each one is designed to deliver the sonic satisfaction and the authentic playing experience of sitting down at a real piano. This guide can help you choose the digital piano that is the perfect match for your needs, your ambitions, and your budget. So before you dig in to all of the digital pianos available at Sam Ash Direct, take a few minutes and learn what to look for in your next instrument.
The Piano Promise
Bartolomeo Cristofori is credited with creating the first piano-forte around the year 1700 in Padua, Italy. Cristofori sought to combine the loudness (forte) of the harpsichord with the softer (piano) sound and dynamic keyboard of the clavichord—all in a single instrument. Over the next 150 years or so, the piano-forte evolved into the concert grand piano we know today, complete with three pedals, a cast iron harp frame, and 88 keys.
And since then, musicians have been asking just one thing: “Can it be made smaller”?
With today’s digital pianos, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” But it wasn’t always that easy. On the acoustic side, piano makers introduced all sorts of shapes and sizes—uprights grands, giraffe and lyre models, square shapes, and spinets. In the wake of the electric guitar came the electric pianos; amplified instruments that used a keyboard to strike or pluck at steel tines and reeds. While not providing a true piano sound, these instruments—the Fender Rhodes, the Hohner Clavinet, the Wurlitzer electric piano, etc.—did deliver a portable playing solution that offered an expressive keyboard with a full range of dynamics. Smaller still, the transistorized electronic models that followed in the 1970s took a step closer to that elusive grand piano sound, but often lacked the vitality of their electric counterparts.
Digital Sampling to the Rescue
Digital sampling technology changed everything, providing the realization of the age-old quest for a piano sound in a portable package. Using Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) technology, Digital sampling captures short, individual recordings of a specific note being played at a specific dynamic level, and on a specific instrument. Playing the corresponding key on the digital piano plays back the sampled recording. No longer is the electronic circuitry used to imitate a piano, but to capture and reproduce an accurate sampled recording. This remains the foundation for nearly all digital pianos on the market today.
Improving with Age
As with all digital technology, processing speed continues to increase while memory costs decrease. Faster processors, longer samples, and more samples at more dynamic levels place today’s digital pianos light-years above their early ancestors. In addition to spectacular piano sounds, today’s digital pianos offer more sounds, more effects, and more control than their predecessors. You’ll also find digital pianos with built-in recorders, metronomes, lessons, drums, or even a computer connection to get the most from your musical investment. Best of all, digital pianos are maintenance-free and never require tuning. You can even play through headphones to keep your practice private.
WHERE will the instrument be used? (Home/Stage/Compact)
Digital pianos tend to fall into one of three categories, based on features, style, and where the instrument will be used. On the concert stage? In the recording studio? In the family home? In the bedroom or dorm? Or just to have around? By considering where your new digital piano will be used, you can ask yourself a few more questions to refine your search. Speakers or no speakers? No stand, metal stand, or matching wooden stand? Full pedals or one? The answer to these questions can help narrow down your digital piano choices
Home Digital Pianos
Nothing enriches the family room like a digital piano. For the home—and for other more permanent placements—look for a digital piano that offers an integrated furniture style stand, built-in speaker system, and often the full set of pedals (Soft/Sostenuto/Damper) available on a concert grand piano. Home digital pianos will usually offer the most robust built-in sound system, with larger speakers and more amplifier power. Other available features may include a sturdy music rest and folding key cover to protect the instrument while not in use.
Digital Stage Pianos
Designed to be played through an onstage sound system or connected to a recording console, these models often have no internal sound system. In addition, these stage pianos may feature a more active control panel, enhanced performance control, and can also include more professional inputs and outputs for connection to other stage equipment. The ability to not only choose sounds; but to zone, split and layer sounds, add multiple effects, and create performance presets can also be found on select models. Items normally found on synthesizers and MIDI controllers—wheels, joysticks, assignable knobs, and MIDI controller mapping are all finding their way on to higher-level stage pianos. For the multi-keyboardist or computer musician, the digital stage piano is often the foundation of their entire setup, serving as the centerpiece for MIDI, USB, and audio connections—as well as overall performance control. The sustain pedal is almost always provided.
Compact Digital Pianos
Often referred to as “slab” pianos due to their rectangular package, the Compact Digital Piano falls somewhere in between the Home Digital Piano and the Digital Stage Piano, and probably represents the largest slice of the digital piano pie. The speaker system is designed more as a personal monitor and less as a performance system than on the home digital pianos. These instruments are light in weight and easily moved. In tight quarters, they can even be placed out of the harm’s way when not in use. Most often, these instruments are similar in features to their home digital piano counterparts; many models will feature additional sounds and other features more closely related to a digital stage piano. Again, the sustain pedal is often provided, and select models have been packaged with a portable stand, headphones and other accessories to make your new digital piano complete!
WHO is the player? (Keyboard Action)
Keyboard action—the actual feel of the keys—can be one of the most personal deciding factors in choosing a digital piano. For the accomplished piano performer, having an accurate and responsive piano action is paramount. On the other hand, the beginning student or novice player may not be so demanding. And if you’re a keyboard player looking to add a piano to your stage rig, issues such as portability and sound selection may take rank over an authentic piano action. The standard piano is equipped with eighty-eight keys; certain digital pianos are available with seventy-six, seventy-three, or even fewer keys to increase portability and to reduce the overall size. Adjustable dynamics (also known as velocity curves) allow the player to match the keyboard response to their own playing style. Let’s take a moment to learn about different keyboard options. Many keyboard actions provide more than one of these features.
Light-touch or synth-action piano keys provide a uniform feel across the keyboard. Adding extra weighting to the keys provides increased resistance that mimics the amount of force needed to lift and throw the hammer inside a traditional grand piano.
The longer the string and the lower the note, the larger the piano hammer that is used to strike the string. These larger hammers possess more mass and offer more resistance. Graded or progressive weighting takes this into consideration, with the lower keys offering more resistance, and the upper keys providing less—just as on a traditional grand piano.
Unlike an organ—or many synthesizer keyboards—which rely on springs to return the key to its original position, a hammer action recreates the piano playing experience by throwing a hammer when the key is depressed. It is the weight of the thrown hammer that returns the key to its original position when the key is released. There are two benefits to a hammer action. First, it is more accurate to the way the keystroke creates the sound; secondly, there is little upward pressure from the key once it is played (unlike a spring or non-hammer action) and therefore there is less fatigue on the player’s fingers.
The actual keys are often nylon or plastic, providing strength and reducing the overall weight. Piano purists may prefer wooden keys for the most life-like grand piano experience. Certain models even focus on the materials used on the individual key surfaces—imitation ivory and ebony—to provide a tactile feel that is superior to traditional plastics and that is much more accurate to the feel of a concert grand.
WHAT sounds do you need? (Presets/Effects/Polyphony)
All of the digital pianos offered by Sam Ash Direct provide incredible piano sounds that deliver breathtaking realism; and many offer more than one, allowing you to choose a piano from a different continent, with a darker or sweeter sound, or a piano sound optimized for a particular music genre. Today’s digital pianos often include additional samples of the undamped string resonance, the pedal movement, and other mechanical noises that deliver a satisfying and authentic piano experience. Next come the electric pianos; the plucked reed, struck tine, and funky clavi sounds that have become such an integral part of the keyboard lexicon—often with an FM electric piano sound added for good measure! Keyboard instruments are well represented, and nearly all digital pianos offer some sort of harpsichord and organ sounds. Other popular sounds include a string section that can be layered with the piano for a rich, sweet, sound. Mallet percussion, acoustic guitar, and choir are often included as well.
Sounds & Presets
Many of the digital pianos offered by Sam Ash Direct go far beyond the mainstay sounds mentioned in the previous paragraph. So if you’re looking for a digital piano that can cover a lot of bases, be sure to check the specs for additional sounds. For example select Roland, Yamaha, and Kurzweil digital stage pianos include gobs of premium sounds taken from their companies immense sound libraries; Nord even allows you to download your favorites from their online library. And don’t forget—performance models allow you to create multi-zoned programs with splits, layers, and assignable MIDI controls! Even the more conservative compact instruments may have a rich array of additional sounds.
Onboard effects add depth, warmth, and motion to the digital piano sound. Reverb and Chorus are the most common effects; the effect depth and other parameters are under user control. More advanced models will have a specific effect pre-assigned to complement each sound. Professional models—including most digital stage pianos—may include multi-effects processors that can be freely assigned to any sound.
Polyphony is the number of electronic voice circuits that are available simultaneously. This number is often thought of as the number of notes that can be played at once, but certain features may limit that. When playing the piano, this number may not seem like such a big deal; if I only have ten fingers, ten notes of polyphony should be enough. But once you layer two sounds, hold down the damper pedal, and maybe introduce a drum beat, you could soon be running out of voices. Sequencing and recording parts can also use up additional voices. So the importance of polyphony depends on how you will be using the instrument.
HOW can I enhance this instrument? (Connections)
Your new digital piano is an amazing instrument all on its own, but the fun doesn’t stop there. Audio inputs and outputs; USB and MIDI connections; assignable controls and optional pedals may be available to allow your new digital piano to serve as the foundation of your state-of-the-art setup.
Practice in private by plugging a pair of headphones into your digital piano; plugging the headphones in will mute the internal speaker system. Many home digital pianos offer two headphone outputs—ideal for parent & child; student & teacher; etc.
Left and Right audio outputs allow the instrument to be connected to an external amplifier, speaker system, or recording setup while preserving the stereo image. Balanced outputs provide a cleaner signal that can be carried a bit further, and the XLR outputs are ideal for connecting to the house sound system or to a recording console, without the need for any impedance-matching direct boxes.
Having a stereo audio input is very convenient. You can play along to a CD, MP3, or any other audio source as learn a new song. This audio input is also ideal for adding a drum machine, synthesizer, or other instrument to your rig, and listening to it through the digital piano’s internal speakers.
MIDI & USB/MIDI
MIDI is the common language between electronic instruments, computers, and more. Today, MIDI information can be shared with a computer via a single USB connection. This way, your digital piano can serve as the master keyboard for your computer music system or DAW setup. For interfacing with “old school” music gear, look for a digital piano with 5-pin MIDI In and MIDI Out connectors as well.
LIVE and LEARN (lessons and self-teaching tools)
Nearly all Home Digital Pianos and many Compact Digital Pianos are equipped with valuable lessons and teaching aids to benefit the evolving or beginning piano player. Digital Stage Pianos do not generally offer such features.
Different piano provides have different names for this feature, but the outcome is the same. In this mode, the keyboard is separated into two shorter keyboards, placed side by side and pitched in the same range. This powerful addition allows student and an instructor to play the same notes, in the same octave while sitting together at the keyboard.
Lessons & Etudes
Select instruments include a built-in repertoire of classical pieces and piano etudes that can be played back using the onboard sequencer/recorder. Often, the left hand and right hand can be played back separately, allowing the player to master one of the parts while listening to the other, before being able to try to combine them both. Scores are often provided.
Each digital piano is host to a number of valuable features that make the instrument more versatile and the performer more satisfied. As with the Learning features above, these functions are more common on the home and compact pianos, and rare on the stage piano models.
Digital pianos can transpose into any key at the touch of a button. Now can accompany any singer in any key, while playing using your original fingering. Tuning provides fine control of the overall pitch of the piano. This allows you to tune the digital piano to match an instrument or recording that cannot be retuned—such as pipe organ or an old record LP, etc.
Many home, compact, and some stage pianos feature either a simple metronome or an internal drum box, available for rhythmic training or to provide an accompaniment.
The overdubbing recorder allows you to record yourself keyboard performance, and to then play along with the recording or add an additional part. The drums/metronome can be used to provide timing information or as an accompaniment part. Songs can be saved to the internal memory, or often exported via USB stick, memory card, etc. A smaller selection of these digital piano models function as mini-workstations, allowing you to record, overdub, and sequence on different tracks and playback a fully arranged composition.
Not all models will have all of the features mentioned in this guide (for example, a digital stage piano may not rely on internal sequencer/recorder, because it is designed to work with an external MIDI sequencer or computer sequencing software). Determine which features will be the most important to further your playing and meet your desires. Pick a piano style that will suit your needs. And finally, make the most of the digital piano you order by learning its features and using them to enhance your musical ambitions.