You’ve saved your pennies and you’re ready to invest in a new keyboard that can do it all. And as you start to explore your options, you come to a fork in the road. Down one path lies the world of workstations; down the road less traveled live the arranger keyboards. At first glance, they seem to be more alike than different, as both offer many of the same features:

  • Excellent sound
  • Killer drums
  • Multi-timbral synthesis
  • Onboard storage
  • Onboard sequencing
  • Built-in effects
  • Extensive control

So how does one decide, and what’s the real difference between workstation and arranger keyboards? To begin, let’s take a quick look back in time at how these instruments got their start.

The history of workstation keyboards

While many companies laid the groundwork, the workstation category began in earnest back in 1986 with the Korg M1.

This revolutionary keyboard combined an advanced (for its day) PCM synthesizer, digital drums, effects, and a multi-track sequencer to put it all together. The result was a self-contained instrument that could be used to create and playback a complete musical production.

It didn’t take long for the workstation to earn its place on stage, recreating intricate studio productions for a live audience.

Over the years, improvements in sounds and sequencing, the addition of sampling and audio recording, and a streamlined interface (can you say touchscreen!?) have brought the workstation to the vanguard of keyboard-based production.

The history of arranger keyboards

Throughout the years, accordion players, organists, and even piano players have longed to embellish their performances with the addition of a robust accompaniment. As electronics came of age in the middle of the 20th Century, this desire led to the development of add-on devices and home organs that could replicate a simple drum beat or even add a bass line and chords.

In 1983, Korg added micro-processor intelligence to the latest electronic accompaniment engine and placed it in a small, portable keyboard instrument known as the SAS-20 — the SAS standing for “Super Accompaniment System” — and the arranger keyboard category was born!

Still the mainstay of the live solo/small combo performer arranger keyboards have also found their way into demo and jingle production as well. Although wildly popular around the globe, the arranger keyboard remains an underdog here in the USA.

So, what’s the real difference between workstation and arranger keyboards?

Even from these early examples, you can see how the different goals of both the workstation and arranger addressed two distinct groups of users.

The workstation aimed to recreate the recording studio environment and satisfy the needs of the composer. The arranger keyboard was designed to embellish the live performance of the entertainer or songwriter.

Both the workstation and the arranger keyboard combine multiple sounds, drums, sequencing and effects into a single instrument. Under the surface they are very much the same. But it’s how those features are accessed and presented that makes all the difference.

Workstation keyboards

Workstation keyboards are self-contained production studios: a blank canvas for the artist to create. Call up a sound, try out some ideas; record, copy, paste, and transpose and all of a sudden you have a solid groove going. Tap in some beats, add a few parts, and you’re on your way.

What makes it all possible is a multi-timbral synth engine capable of playing multiple sounds at once, combined with a multi-track sequencer.

Individual programs are combined into larger entities known as combis, multis, etc. Individual sounds can be zoned across the keyboard in overlapping or layered areas — or certain sounds can be played by only the sequencer, leaving the keyboard free for adding that live element.

Sequenced parts can be highly edited to create just the right feel for an original composition or recreating complex studio productions. Effects can be applied to an individual program sound or to the overall output.

And despite their all-in-one persona, the workstation is often the main keyboard attached to a computer-based DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). Their multi-timbral engines and advanced MIDI options make them ideal for this purpose. On the concert stage, the workstation allows your detailed studio sequencing and sound creation to be recreated with flawless detail.

Today’s workstations also have added features that can jumpstart your creative juices. Drum patterns and grooves offer something to play against to get a feel going. Newer workstations include sampling and beat-slicing. Templates assign commonly used sets of sounds to the appropriate effects and the proper tracks to make song creation simple.

Arranger keyboards

While the workstation is the empty reel of tape in your virtual recording studio, the arranger is a roomful of musicians awaiting your direction.

To understand arranger keyboards, you need to understand the “STYLE.” Each style offers a complete musical environment for playing or creating a song. The instrumentation or style normally includes everything you need to get a song going:

  • Drums
  • Percussion
  • Bass
  • And a handful of other instruments (Guitar, Organ, Piano, Horn Section, Marimba, etc.)

The style then creates a cohesive backing track that follows the chord changes you feed it. Each style also includes several variations (for verse, chorus, bridge, etc.), as well as intros, endings, fills, and more.

Start with a style you think might fit your song. Tap in a tempo, play the first chord, and you’re on your way!

As you change chords, the backing tracks follow your changes with the instrumentation assigned to the style. Change from variation to variation as the song progresses from verse to chorus to bridge and back again. Add fills where and when you need them.

Select a different registration (or STS) to change the instrument mix to match the emphasis of the song. When you’re done, select an ending flourish, opt for a fade-out, or segue into the next song. Whether you’re writing a song, creating a demo, or performing on stage, this is the essence of the arranger Keyboard.

Because of their affinity for live use by the solo performer, many arranger keyboards provide built-in vocal processing, offering improved dynamics, vocal harmonies, and even pitch correction in certain cases. In addition, the solo-instrument articulation can often exceed that of traditional synths and workstations.

The sequencer of an arranger keyboard can often function in the same multi-track manner as a workstation, but arrangers can offer some unique differences.

For example, the chords that drive the style can be entered in real-time or step mode. Changing a chord is easy — just edit the chord name — and all the parts being played by the style engine are automatically re-written.

Amazingly, you can also create an entirely new arrangement of the song simply by swapping the style in the sequencer. Imagine your latest death-rock anthem played as a southern samba!

Should you get an arranger or a workstation?

A keyboard is a keyboard is a keyboard, right? We’ve gone through some of the differences between workstations and arrangers — and it was totally gibberish, right? But let’s get to the most important part: which one is right for you?

The answer basically comes down to your musical goals. What are you trying to create?

The composer

Picture Bach, pen in hand, scribbling away trying to transcribe the music in his head. Or picture Todd Rundgren, sitting huddled over the console, building that perfect song track by track. Or picture any of the beat-dropping, hit-making producers of today’s top hits surround by stacks of samplers and synths. For this type of artist — the composer — every note of every instrument is their creation; it comes together as a singular sound in the finished piece.

Maybe this is how you like to work: creating that killer beat, driving it forward with an impulsive bass line, laying on some lyrics, and adding all the hits and pads to make the tune complete. And whether you keep it in the studio or take it to the stage, the workstation is the ideal candidate for the Composer.

The entertainer/songwriter

The entertainer can be anyone from the host at the piano bar taking requests to the solo performer delivering a dazzling performance of popular standards. The songwriter has a different talent. A perfect melody matched to a captivating chord progression, all topped off with a dash of entertaining or emotive lyrics; that is the songwriter’s skill.

To make it come together, the songwriter relies on top players — from a solid rhythm section to a grooving band and maybe even a featured soloist — to create a compelling demo or satisfying live performance.

This is where an arranger keyboard shines. It’s the backup band. Tap in a tempo, tell it a style, show it the changes, and then let the magic happen.

Even with all this, you — the performer — remain in complete control. The arranger keyboard follows your playing. You add the breaks and fills, and you switch between variations — and you can even change the instrumentation on the fly.

As with all generalities, there will be exceptions; and only you can decide what is best for you. Workstations and Arranger Keyboards represent the latest technologies and the best ideas each manufacturer has to offer. Consider your needs, examine your desires, and come to American Musical Supply for superior service and the best price on your next instrument.

Find your perfect keyboard

Modern keyboards have so many features, you’d have to bring all your friends and family together to count them on fingers. And even then, someone might have to take their shoes off. Stupid jokes aside, there are a ton of features available on keyboards today.

When you’re looking for your perfect keyboard, whether it be an arranger or workstation, look no farther than AMS. We have a huge selection of keyboards to help you find the perfect one to reach your musical goals.

And if you’re still not sure about which one is right for you, give us a call at 800-458-4076. The AMS Gear Nerds are standing by to answer all your questions — and they know everything there is to know about keyboards! Just like Cinderella with the glass slipper, we’ll help you find your perfect workstation or arranger.