Getting Personal With Personal Keyboards
The Keys to Your Future
by Malcolm Doak
Okay, so you’re not a rock star and you’re not a concert pianist—or at least not yet. You may be a budding keyboardist; a singer/songwriter; a guitarist or bass player; a sax player, drummer, or other instrumentalist. And you would love to have a keyboard nearby to noodle around on, to work out some songs, to augment the music apps on your computer or other devices, or to simply entertain your friends. Whatever the case, the Personal Keyboard may be just what you’re looking for. The problem is, you’ve only seen one or two models at the local department store or warehouse club, and you’re not sure if they are toys or real instruments. No problem. American Musical Supply is here to help, with dozens of personal keyboards to choose from—including top brands like Yamaha and Casio. Whether you need a handful on-the-go mini-keys, the standard complement of 61 keys, or even a 76- or 88-key personal piano, AMS is pleased to present this quick guide to help you make the best personal keyboard choice to satisfy your musical ambitions!
Equipped with stereo speakers, the personal keyboard is completely self-contained. Connecting your headphones mutes the onboard speakers to allow private practice. In addition, many models offer audio outputs—and inputs—as well. The digital display provides valuable performance information at a glance. Falling somewhere in between a digital piano and a polyphonic synthesizer, the personal keyboard offers up both piano sounds and a vast assortment of other instrument sounds. Unlike a synthesizer, however, most sounds are preset; only certain personal keyboards allow for the editing and creation of new sounds. As with an arranger keyboard, onboard drum patterns and styles can offer a rich musical accompaniment to any performance. Create a complete version of your latest song using the built-in sequencer or recorder.
Plug 'n' Play: Play Today
For many, the personal keyboard may be their first keyboard. From lighted keys and built-in lessons to software packs and online services, numerous personal keyboards provide powerful tools to make getting started on the keyboard simple and easy. In addition, many instruments can connect to a computer via USB or MIDI, or to a tablet or iOS device to access other programs, apps, or online services. Depending on the model, you may also find an SD card slot or USB drive port for saving and loading songs and other data. Power can come from batteries; larger models will require an AC connection. Nearly all battery-powered models can also use an AC adapter (often included). Finally, different personal keyboards come with specific accessories, so American Musical Supply has put together select Premium Packages that include popular accessories, or look for Yamaha models that include the Keyboard Survival Kit.
Personal Keyboard Feature Finder
In the world of personal keyboards, there are many similarities from model to model in terms of sounds, drums, styles, and design. There is also a world of difference. Extra features such as MIDI sequencing, audio recording, USB and SD card storage and/or playback, built-in lessons, and light-up keys—as well as USB, MIDI, and audio connectivity infuse each model with unique abilities. So how does one decide?
American Musical Supply has put together this guide to Personal Keyboard features. Keep a checklist of which features you feel are must-have items, as well as features you might like to experiment with or that you could grow to use. Be honest with yourself about what you will and won’t use; and look for a model that meets your needs—and your budget. Ready? Here we go!
What kind of keyboard do you prefer? While most personal keyboards offer a five-octave (61 key) keyboard action, there are portable models and piano-style models, allowing every player to choose their preference.
Mini-key models provide the ultimate in personal keyboard portability. Compact, portable and surprisingly full-featured, mini-key models feature a headphone/line output that you can use to connect the instrument to a larger amp or to your audio recording setup.
For the aspiring piano player who appreciates the all-in-one satisfaction of a personal keyboard, these 76- and 88-key models are the perfect solution. Although a true hammer action (as found on many digital pianos) is rarely available in a personal keyboard, the keyboard action is often graded—with a heavier touch in the low end and a lighter touch up top—to mimic the feel of a piano. Piano-style personal keyboards are generally lighter and more portable than their digital piano counterparts.
Five octaves, or 61 keys, is the standard complement of keys found in most personal keyboards. This is the same number of keys found on the most polyphonic synthesizers. With 61 keys, the performer can reach the most often used area of the keyboard with ease, while preserving portability.
Once a feature reserved for professional synthesizers and workstations, the bend wheel (or pitch-bend wheel) is showing up on more and more personal keyboards. This wheel provides an extra level of expression when creating a flowing melodic line, or can be used as a special effect with chords.
Personal keyboards rely primarily on PCM sampling technology to create a wide array of authentic and imagined sounds/voices—and of course, piano. In addition to the traditional sounds, certain manufacturers have given special names (Cool, Live, Sweet, etc.) to classes of sounds that offer improved realism or an extra measure of articulation. Nearly all personal keyboards with a MIDI or USB input are GM (General MIDI) compatible using GM sounds. Built-in effects add warmth, depth, and motion to the sound.
For nearly all keyboard performers, piano is the go-to sound. If you feel intimidated by all of the controls found on a personal keyboard, look for a model with a dedicated “Play Piano” button that quickly calls up the main piano sound and cancels the accompaniment with a single push. The sustain pedal is a must for nearly any piano-style performance, and many models include the pedal. If the model you have chosen does not include the pedal, they are available as a separate purchase from AMS.
Aside from the piano, the tonewheel organ is probably the next most sought-after sound. If playing an authentic jazz or rock organ is important to you, seek out one of the models that has sliders on the front panel that can mimic the action of the drawbars on the organ.
While most sounds come preset on a personal keyboard, select models may have a Tone Edit feature, allowing you to customize the attack, release, filter, and other timbre parameters—just as you would on a traditional synthesizer.
Splits & Layers
Many of the personal keyboards available from AMS allow multiple sounds to be layered together, or split so that each sound plays on a separate portion of the keyboard. If you are considering using your personal keyboard live, you may wish to consider one with a Registration Memory and/or One Touch Settings that can save your custom splits and layers, so you that you can set them up in advance for quick recall on stage.
Styles, Rhythms, and Accompaniment
The personal keyboard is designed so that the individual performer can single-handedly create a complete musical performance. A broad selection of styles and/or rhythms are provided to cover a broad range of music genres. Each style/rhythm can deliver not only an authentic drum part, but a full accompaniment section that follows the musical progression you play on the keyboard. In addition, each rhythm or style includes an intro, an ending, and a variation(s) so your song can be played with a full musical arrangement. If you have specific style needs, look for models that allow you to create your own musical styles or rhythms, or models that can download new styles from the internet (more on that later …).
Sequencing / Audio Recording
To make the most of their self-contained design, many personal keyboards come equipped with a musical sequencer designed for automatically capturing and playing back your keyboard performance. The Sequencer can capture your entire performance—complete with accompaniment—or you can build up your song one track at a time, just like in the studio. If you plan on using your personal keyboard as a production studio, search for a higher number of tracks and more extensive sequencer editing features such as event copy, event insert, event delete, and even quantization to neaten up your playing. Higher end models can even function as an audio recorder, capturing not only the keyboard performance but the audio and microphone input as well. This data can be exported, and transformed into a shareable WAV file using your computer.
Ins/Outs and Memory
Every electronic personal keyboard is equipped with a headphone output for private practice. In most cases, this same jack can be used as an audio output, useful for connecting your instrument to an external amplifier or a recording system.
In addition to the headphone jack, many models will also have an additional audio output. The audio output will generally produce a cleaner sound with better results than the headphone output, so if you are looking to play gigs or rehearse with other musicians, you may want to choose a personal keyboard with an audio output.
Choosing a personal keyboard with an audio input is one of the easiest ways to enjoy playing along to your favorite songs, or to listen to another audio source as you rehearse and perform. Almost any source—from a CD/MP3 player to an external sound module—can be connected to this input. Select models can add effects to the incoming audio signal (such as Yamaha’s Melody Suppressor). For the consummate entertainer, certain models may even offer a microphone input.
USB/MIDI and Memory Card Connections
USB (Universal Serial Bus) and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) are both digital formats that allow your personal keyboard to connect with a computer to access musical production software programs and applications. In earlier times, MIDI used a pair of dedicated ports, and a computer interface was often necessary. Today, MIDI information is sent via the USB connection. Additional capabilities can be unlocked by connecting your personal keyboard to an iOS device, such as an Apple iPad.
USB to Computer Port
This single cable will provide a two-way connection between your personal keyboard and your MAC or PC computer, allowing you to interact with musical software programs and apps.
USB to Device Port / SD Card Slot
By connecting a USB flash drive to this port—or by insert an SD (or other format) Memory Card into the provided slot—you can save data and restore data created on or for your personal keyboard. This includes sequencer files, edited sounds, and even additional song files, styles, and lesson available from the manufacturer.
Lessons and Learning Aids
The personal keyboard companies know how difficult it can be to get started; at the same time, they want you to be happy with your purchase. To meet these two notions, a number of different methods to jumpstart your playing abilities have found their way into today’s personal keyboard. Often these are in the form of lessons, songs, and etudes that come preloaded into the keyboard’s memory. The playback can often be set to wait for the correct note from the player, or to just play at the normal speed.
Playing both hands of a lesson or etude simultaneously can be difficult. One method to ease this burden is to learn each hand separately, such as in the Yamaha Education Suite (YES) system. Lessons can be played one hand at a time; the performer can play along to practice one part, or can play one part while the keyboard plays the other. Eventually, both parts can be played together as the user’s abilities increase.
As the song and accompaniment play, the keys used to play the melody of the tune will light to show which key should be played next. The idea here is that learning to hit the correct key at the right time will help train not only the ear, but the hands as well.
Certain keyboard may include additional software elements as part of the package. In addition, keyboards that have a USB to Computer port can make use of the vast array of software titles available on the market. Once connected to your computer, certain downloads and online enhancements may be available for your instrument.
This is by no means a complete list of every feature found on every model, but it is a very comprehensive overview that can help guide you through the many personal keyboards available from American Musical Supply. Use this guide as a checklist to see what features are important to you, and then refer to it as you look at each model individually. New models are added often, and some current models will eventually be retired. In fact, new models are often added to introduce a new feature, so look carefully at all the offerings. Most of all, don’t forget the AMSADVANTAGE, including Free Shipping on items over $29.95, 0% Interest Payment Plans, and our exclusive FREE Extended Warranty!