Digital Piano Buyer's Guide
King of the Jungle
by Malcolm Doak
In the world of musical instruments, the piano is king. With a whopping eight-octave range, 88 notes of polyphony, and an improbable dynamic range, the piano stands apart. This hulking behemoth is a complex system of keys, hammers, levers, and pedals that imposes itself on the performer—and the venue. And it’s worth it. The awesome sound of the piano is not a single sound, but a range of sounds from a light, delicate chime to fearsome rolls of thunder.
Fortunately, today’s technology has harnessed the awe-inspiring essence of the concert grand piano into the more manageable, portable, and maintenance-free format known as the digital piano. Additional sounds, onboard effects, a metronome, and other extras can add to the enjoyment of your new digital piano. American Musical Supply is proud to provide the top names in digital pianos for the home, the stage, and the studio. This guide will help you to understand the features, functions, and common concepts of the digital piano, allowing you to find the perfect instrument to meet your specific desires.
A Quick History
On the road to creating a portable, affordable, and reliable keyboard instrument that could stand in for an acoustic piano, there were many stops along the way. Piano companies such as Lesage, Yamaha, and Kawai created compact pianos using shorter string scaling and built in pick-ups in place of the traditional sounding board. Transistor organ companies also tried their hand at creating a totally electronic piano. The electric piano first took center stage in the 1960s and 1970s. And while these electric pianos (Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Hohner Clavinet, etc.) each possessed a distinct sound, they could not provide an authentic piano sound. However, the sounds of these early instruments remain popular even today, and nearly every digital piano includes at least a couple of these vital sounds as well.
In the end, it was the advent of digital sampling technology (PCM) that put the digital piano on the map. Sampling involves capturing the sound of the piano by making digital recordings of individual keys being played on a particular piano. Pressing a key plays back the recording. Many factors affect the final sound of the digital piano. The piano chosen, the audio response of the microphones used, and the skill of the engineer all play a part in the accuracy and authenticity of these recordings. In addition, the number of samples taken, how many different velocity levels were captured, the length of each sample all contribute to the faithful reproduction of the piano sound.
Home or Stage
Digital pianos come in two varieties: The Digital Home Piano and The Digital Stage Piano. And while the technology employed and the features offered can be very much the same, there are key differences that make each particularly well-suited for a specific environment. Here are some things to look for when shopping at AMS for the perfect Digital Piano to meet your needs.
Digital Home Pianos
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Before the advent of the radio, television, and the internet, the piano was often the principle source of entertainment in the home—gather the friends and family around to sing carols, hymns, and popular standards. Today, the digital piano can still be the centerpiece of any living area, from the bedroom or dorm to the family/living room. Designed to be completely self-contained, digital home pianos are equipped with a built-in speaker system, and often include a stand and a pedal(s). Select models come in multiple finishes, allowing your new digital piano to blend with your existing décor. The key cover included on select models can help protect your digital piano from spills, dust, and unwanted intruders. Best of all, a digital home piano never needs tuning!
Polyphony is measured in voices, (not to be confused with the number of sounds) and generally means the number of notes that can be played at once. At first, the numbers may seem high, but keep in mind pressing the sustain pedal can hold older notes as new notes are played. Certain sounds that are in stereo may require two voices per note. Sympathetic pedal samples may require an additional voice or two, and often times turning on the chorus effect can use an extra voice as well. If your digital home piano has a recorder, drums, and/or accompaniment, each of these features will use up more voices.
Piano—a rich and robust grand piano—is the most important sound in any digital piano. But take a moment to consider what other sounds you might need to play your favorite songs or practice your next set. In addition to electric pianos, many digital pianos include at least one or two organs, a harpsichord, and strings. Other sounds may include guitar, marimba, etc.
Digital home pianos generally provide onboard effects to enhance the sound. These can range from popular chorus and reverb effects, to more specific effects such as a rotary speaker for the organ sounds, etc.
Many digital pianos allow you to layer two sounds together, such as piano & strings, etc. Usually, the balance between the two sounds can be easily adjusted.
By splitting the keyboard, you can play a different sound on each half of the keyboard. The most common use is to allow the bass to be played on the lower portion of the keyboard, with piano or another sound up top. One special type of keyboard split (select models) divides the keyboard into two identical areas placed side by side. This is ideal for having the student and instructor play together, sitting next to each other at the same instrument.
Tuning and Transpose
While digital home pianos never need to have individual notes tuned (as on a traditional piano), these two controls can prove quite helpful. Use the tuning feature to match the pitch of the digital home piano to that of another instrument—such as an organ—that cannot be easily retuned. Using the Transpose feature allows you to perform in any musical key to match a singer’s vocal range, or to play a tune in a new key without re-learning the fingering of the piece.
Next to the piano sound, the keyboard may be the most important factor in choosing a digital home piano. The typical piano has 88 keys. If space is a concern, AMS also offers compact 76/73 key models. An accomplished piano player may prefer a keyboard action that is as close to a real piano as possible. Other players may not be so exacting in their keyboard needs.
With adjustable dynamics, you can chose a velocity curve that is the best match for your own playing style.
The grand piano uses wooden keys. Digital home pianos equipped with wooden keys will provide a more authentic feel.
Imitation Ivory & Ebony
Real ivory is now illegal and is no longer used on piano keys. However, some manufacturers use an imitation key surface with an ivory feel. For the piano purist, these ivory-like surfaces and ebony feel accidentals deliver a confident touch.
Hammer Action Keys
This type of keyboard is closest to how a piano keyboard works. The weight of the hammer provides the initial resistance to the keystroke. Once the key is depressed and the hammer is thrown, there is little upward pressure on the, and it will return to its original position under its own weight.
Graded or Progressive Touch
On a real piano, the hammers that strike the strings get progressively smaller in size—and therefore weight—as you go up from the low end of the keyboard. A digital home piano with a graded or progressive touch recreates this effect by changing the key weighting in the same way.
Synth-Action or Soft-Touch Keys
These types of keys are similar to the types of keys found of synthesizers and other electronic keyboards.
Digital home pianos come with a stereo sound system and speakers that are built into the instrument. Generally, the higher the amplifier power, the more bass can be produced before distortion occurs, and the more volume the instrument will seem to have.
Oval speakers save space and are often used in compact instruments. Round, full range speakers are the most common. Advanced models will feature a two-way sound system, with either separate woofers and tweeters, or a co-axial style speaker
Nearly all digital home pianos allow for private practice through headphones. Many offer two headphone jacks, allowing the student and teacher or parent and child to listen and play together. This feature is also great for just having fun with a friend.
Stands & Pedals
Most digital home pianos come with a stand. Larger instruments come with a console style stand that is perfect when the piano is permanent addition to your home or room. A matching bench is provided with certain models. Individual benches can be ordered from AMS. Some of the smaller digital home pianos come with a collapsible metal stand that makes it easy to transport the instrument and set it up quickly in a new location. With this latter arrangement, your digital home piano could perform double duty as your travelling and gigging piano.
Most console style stands include all three pedals (soft/una corda; sostenuto; sustain/damper) found on a concert grand piano. Often, the more portable models will just have the sustain pedal. In some cases, it may be possible to upgrade from a single pedal by adding additional pedals.
Lessons & Learning Aids
The digital home piano manufacturers know that student use and learning to play are often the reason for purchasing a new instrument.
Almost all digital home pianos come with a built-in metronome for practicing while playing to a beat and developing rhythmic abilities.
Another popular addition is a recorder/sequencer, allowing the user to record and playback his or her performance, as well as accompanying themselves by playing along to the recording. Often the student can master a piece by playing each hand separately, one track at a time, and them playing them together.
Many digital home pianos come with popular etudes, lessons, and classical selections stored in memory that can be loaded into the recorder and played back, providing the student with the opportunity to play along to a near perfect performance and improve their skills.
Interfacing with other Products
Today’s digital home pianos are completely self-contained, yet they can expand their potential by connecting to your computer and other electronic audio and musical equipment.
MIDI & USB
MIDI is the computer language that allows keyboard, computers, iOS devices, and other musical equipment to communicate. MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) information can be sent and received by dedicated 5-pin DIN MIDI connectors, or via a USB port. Digital home pianos equipped with MIDI can interact with computer music software, or integrate into a computer-based recording setup. Select digital home pianos may be able to play your music files directly from a USB stick drive!
In addition to the built-in sound system, your next digital home piano may have audio outputs for recording, or for playing through an external amplifier. Audio inputs allow you to listen to another audio source through the digital home piano’s speakers—an excellent way to play along to your favorite tunes on CD, MP3, etc.
Within the digital home piano category is a special breed of instrument known as the Arranger Piano. These instruments combine the style and accompaniment elements of an arranger keyboard with the enhanced keyboard of a digital home piano. For performing, for songwriting, and for sheer entertainment, an arranger piano might be just what you are looking for. As with all arranger keyboards, a Digital Arranger Piano features a built in drum machine and an accompaniment engine that follows your chord changes to create a complete musical performance, on the fly. Simply choose a style, set the tempo, and press start. For some, an Arranger Piano is the ultimate solution; for others, the Arranger Piano offers too much distraction. Either way, you’ll find just what you’re looking for at American Musical Supply.
Digital Stage Pianos
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At American Musical Supply, we know that the heart and soul of many a keyboard player’s live rig is the piano. When that big piano solo rolls around, the sound, the feel, and the touch all have to come together to meet the performer’s needs. In addition, the digital stage piano may also double as the controller keyboard for the performer’s other MIDI equipment—both onstage and off! For today’s performer, portability is a key factor. After you’ve narrowed down your choices, be sure to check the weights and dimensions to make sure getting your piano to the gig won’t break the bank—or your back!
There is no substitute for a great piano sound; it’s the “must have” sound for nearly every keyboard player. In addition, a great digital stage piano needs to cover all the bases. Electric pianos of every flavor, a few organs, and handful of sought-after sounds ensure you can play your way through a decades-deep repertoire with confidence.
Presets and Programs
In addition to simply selecting a sound, many of the more advanced digital stage pianos allow you to create your own performance presets or programs. Here you can split, layer, and/or zone certain sounds to specific areas of the keyboard; transpose each sound or shift its octave range; assign different effects to each sound; and assign various controller functions to both the internal sounds and external MIDI devices.
Tuning and Transpose
These two features both affect the overall pitch of the digital stage piano. Tuning allows you to match the pitch of the piano to an existing instrument that cannot be easily returned, or to match the pitch of a recorded track. Transpose, on the other hand, allows the instrument to play in any musical key using the same fingering—a big help when accompanying multiple singers with different ranges, or when transposing a chart on the fly.
For the most part, the onboard effects of a digital stage piano go far beyond the preset reverb, chorus, and other effects found in most digital home pianos. Instead, multiple DSP (Digital Signal Processing) effect engines are provided, each offering specific programmable parameters to achieve exactly the sound you need for your new composition, or to play an accurate version of the latest request. In many cases, a dedicated equalizer (EQ) is provided for shaping your tone to meet the venue.
To truly sound like a piano, the digital stage piano needs to play like a piano. The performer’s technique needs to translate perfectly to the instrument, and that requires a keyboard—or action—that responds the way a real grand piano might. Most digital stage pianos provide the full 88 keys found on a traditional concert grand piano. For extra portability—or for use where space is a concern—AMS is pleased to offer compact models featuring 76 or 73 keys instead.
Regardless of the keyboard type or construction, you can often chose a velocity curve that best matches the dynamic response of the instrument to your own playing style.
Hammer Action Keys
As in a traditional piano, the weight of the hammer—the part that strikes the string—provides the initial resistance to the keystroke. Once the key is depressed and the hammer is thrown, there is little upward pressure on the, and it will return to its original position under its own weight. This type of keyboard mechanism is closest to how a grand piano works.
Graded or Progressive Touch
On a real piano, the hammers that strike the strings get progressively smaller in size—and therefore weight—as you advance from the low end of the keyboard to the top. A digital stage piano with a graded or progressive touch recreates this effect by changing the key weighting in the same way.
The grand piano uses wooden keys. Digital stage pianos equipped with wooden keys will provide a more authentic feel and a more rewarding touch to the discriminating player.
Real ivory is now illegal and is no longer used on piano keys. However, some manufacturers use an imitation key surface with an ivory feel, and/or simulated ebony for the accidentals. For the piano purist, these ivory- and ebony-like surfaces deliver a confident touch.
Command and Control
While many digital stage pianos keep controls and clutter to a minimum, other models provide a robust control surface for an integrated MIDI setup. Joysticks; pitch bend and modulation wheels; map-able knobs and faders; dedicated controllers; and editable program change commands allow many of these digital stage pianos to serve as the complete nerve center of your onstage rig. Take a moment to analyze your current setup and decide how much control you need. You may want to have some extra control available to accommodate your evolving and growing setup.
Sustain (damper) is the standard pedal that comes with every stage piano. More professional models include all three pedals found on a grand piano (sustain, sostenuto, and una corda/soft). Pianos in between may have an assignable pedal jack that can provide these same functions with an optional pedal controller.
On stage or back in the studio, your new digital stage piano is equipped to serve as the centerpiece of your setup. Audio, MIDI, USB and other connection points provide extensive versatility to meet of all of your needs.
MIDI & USB
MIDI is the computer language that allows keyboard, computers, iOS devices, and other musical equipment to communicate. MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) information can be sent and received by dedicated 5-pin DIN MIDI connectors, or via a USB port. Select digital stage pianos may be able to play your music files directly from a USB stick drive!
Although some digital stage pianos feature built-in monitor speakers, all models feature stereo audio outputs for connecting the piano to an onstage amplifier or the house sound system. In the studio, these same outputs can connect the piano to a mixer or recoding setup. For professional results, look for an instrument with XLR balanced outputs that eliminate the need for transformers and direct boxes.
Models with either a line input or an aux input allow you to add another audio source (a MIDI synth module, MP3 device, drum machine, etc.) to the outgoing audio path of the piano. A headphone output is provided on all models.
No matter where your musical journey takes you, American Musical Supply has the digital piano—for home, stage, or studio—to bring you to the next level.