The Key Points of Keyboards
Keyboards come in many shapes and sizes, with lots of different features and options… so when you’re buying for the first time, it can be a real challenge to sort through it all. The good news is that it’s not as tough as it seems at first glance. By understanding each type of keyboard and what it can do, you’ll be able to narrow down the choices to find the ones that are music to your ears. And with a little practice on your new keyboard, you can make it music to everyone else’s ears as well.
As different as some keyboards can be, there are a few things that apply across the board (or boards, in this case). The first step in figuring out which instrument to choose is getting a handle for the traits that they all have in common… so let’s start our keyboard conversation there. Here are some points that will come into play no matter what kind of electronic keyboard you’re looking at.
Number of Keys
A traditional piano has 88 keys, and that’s also the case for the largest keyboards. But it’s no secret that pianos are big instruments, and even though keyboards are a lot smaller, that still makes them very wide if they have a full set of keys. This is why 61-key and 76-key models were created: they’re more portable, but still have a big enough range to handle plenty of different music. In some cases, especially synthesizers and MIDI controllers, the number of keys can be as low as 25. That’s because those kinds of keyboards are used in ways that don’t usually need as big a range, and being travel-ready is a common priority for them.
This is a keyboard’s ability to tell how fast or how hard (or both) you’ve pressed a key. It’s found on most keyboards, with different effects depending on the keyboard in question. For example, a touch-sensitive digital piano will behave more like an acoustic piano with realistic softer notes for lighter key presses. A MIDI controller, on the other hand, might actually send a completely different MIDI message based on how you hit a key and how you have your system set up.
As you read up on individual keyboards, you’ll notice that most are described as “weighted,” “semi-weighted,” “non-weighted” or “synth.” These terms are referring to the action, or moving parts, beneath each key. Naturally, they’ll affect how the keyboard feels. Weighted keys have resistance to them, in order to feel more like an acoustic piano. Semi-weighted keys are similar, but the amount of resistance is less. Non-weighted and synth keys are the same thing: they move freely, like the keys on an organ, which allows for very fast playing. There’s also a more exotic action called a hammer action, which creates the most authentic acoustic-piano feel and is usually found only on high-end digital pianos.
The Keyboard Family Tree
One way to think about modern keyboards is like a big family. Descended from acoustic piano ancestors, they’re a really diverse bunch! Each member of our keyboard family has its own unique traits and talents. This means that, in the same way you probably wouldn’t ask Grandma and Grandpa to ride the triple-inversion roller coaster with you, you’ll also want to think about the kind of music-making you want to do before deciding which keyboard to invite along. Getting to know them is the best way to get a sense for what each kind of keyboard is up for, so let’s start by meeting our keyboard family in a little more detail.
Portable Keyboards: The Well-Rounded Aunt and Uncle
These might be the first type of instrument to spring to mind when you think of electronic keyboards, and that’s great because they’re fantastic for beginners. Portable keyboards are like the fun-loving relatives that are up for just about everything: they may not always have the biggest and best toys, but they’re down-to-Earth and easy to get along with.
Here are a few ideas of what to expect and look for in a portable keyboard:
- Shortened Manuals – 61 and 76-key models are popular in this segment, which is one reason why they’re called “portable.” This makes them easy to transport and set up when travelling to lessons or bringing your keyboard along to practice when you’re out of town.
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- Learning Functions – Since they’re designed with beginners in mind, portable keyboards can help you develop your skills with features like built-in exercises or keys that light up to guide you through scales and melodies.
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- Basic Arranger Tools – Some portable keyboards will allow you to play along with accompaniments or even record yourself as you play. MIDI playback is a common feature, and a well-equipped keyboard can also have support for digital audio file playback and more.
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- Built-in Speakers – Portable keyboards are meant to be played without the need for an external amplifier, so they’ve got a small amp and a decent set of speakers built right in.
Considering all that they have to offer, portable keyboards really are the jacks of all trades. They pack a ton of musical potential into a compact, affordable package that gives you a lot of power to explore the ins and outs of keyboards and pianos in general. If you’re looking for a general-purpose instrument that can get you off to a great start with ease, a portable keyboard is the way to go. Or, if you’re looking for something more specialized, read on for some more introductions.
Digital Pianos: The Sophisticated Grandparents
There’s no instrument in the keyboard family more closely connected to its acoustic piano forefathers than the digital piano. These instruments have a very specific purpose: to feel and sound as much like an upright or grand piano as possible. You might find a few options for various instruments and electronic effects on these, but not as many as on other types of electronic keyboard. In fact, the different voices available on a digital piano are often simply different kinds of piano rather than entirely different instruments.
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What else sets digital pianos apart? Here’s a run-down:
- Weighted Keys – These instruments are designed to simulate the feel of an acoustic, so you won’t find synth actions on digital pianos. On the contrary, they’re the most likely type to come with the oh-so-satisfying hammer action.
- Sound Quality – A digital piano’s notes are usually based on samples recorded from high-end acoustic pianos. This, combined with pressure and speed sensitivity, is how they manage to sound so lifelike.
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- Size – 88-key models are par for the course with digital pianos, since that’s the same count as the acoustic instruments they take after. If space is tight, though, you can find options with narrower manuals.
- Amplification – Unlike portable keyboards, digital pianos do not always have speakers built in. If you want something all-in-one, be sure to limit your search to models that do. Otherwise, be prepared to shop for an external keyboard amp as well.
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Digital pianos are the ideal choice if you’re looking for an electronic instrument that can directly replace an acoustic piano. They’re also a real life-saver when you want a piano in your home but simply don’t have the space or budget for an upright acoustic. These keyboards come in two general varieties: console and stage. Look for a console piano if you want something permanent for the house – they’re full-sized, often with a built-in stand, and are basically like a piece of furniture. Or, if you aspire to perform for live audiences with your digital piano, consider a stage model for a more portable alternative.
Keyboard Workstations: The Hard-Working Parents
Practical and professional, workstations are the breadwinners of the keyboard family. Their purpose is to get things done, and they have a lot of capabilities aimed at doing just that. These are the kinds of keyboards that you’ll find in production studios, used in the day-to-day tasks of producing music for TV and film, as well as creating tracks for recording artists everywhere.
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There’s a long list of features that allow keyboard workstations to do their jobs. Here are some of the most important:
- Recording Functions – In many cases, workstations can record not only passages played on their keys, but also external audio from an outside source. To store these, they tend to have internal hard drives and other storage options, sometimes even including CD or DVD burners.
- Polyphony – This word describes a keyboard’s ability to play multiple notes from different voices all at the same time. Since workstations generally support more than one simultaneous audio track, sometimes with many voices on each one, this is a very important feature.
- Editing Tools – With a workstation, it’s even possible to make edits and changes to what you’ve recorded, though the exact tools you get can vary quite a bit from one workstation to another.
- Many Sounds – Since they’re used for making entire songs and soundtracks from scratch, workstations have a lot of voices to choose from. You can work with virtually any instrument in an orchestra, as well as lots of different percussion and electronic instruments.
- Computer Connectivity – Although workstations have a slew of built-in sequencing and arranging capability, they become even more powerful when you can hook them up to a computer and use the massive library of music software that’s out there today.
- Trigger Pads – These usually appear as a grid of buttons, but some keyboard workstations will offer controls like sliders as well. They’re very useful if you want to cue MIDI signals or lay down beats, samples and loops in your track.
Keyboard workstations have a steep learning curve and a lot of bells and whistles that you simply won’t need as a beginner, so they may not be the best choices for starting out. However, if this sort of “studio-in-a-box” is the kind of thing you’re looking for, there is a more novice-friendly option: check out arranger keyboards; they’re like a back-to-basics version of a workstation, which makes them the perfect place to start preparing yourself for the real deal.
MIDI Controllers: The Tech-Savvy Kids
These are a specialized type of keyboard, so if you’re considering a MIDI controller, make sure that you have a good idea of what you want to use it to control. Also, be sure to check that you’re choosing the right controller for the job. They can be a viable option for a beginner, since the MIDI standard brings with it a lot of virtual instruments and learning tools. When it comes to these keyboards, the hardware or software that you connect them to is actually more important than the controller itself.
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Here are a few things to note about MIDI controllers:
- Size – Together with synthesizers, these have the biggest range of available key counts. Some are as small as 25 keys, while others have the full 88 of a piano.
- Pressure and Speed Sensitivity – The potential for what you can do with these is as wide-open as MIDI itself. With the right software settings, you can have all kinds of different effects happen depending on how you hit the keys.
- Aftertouch – This is a feature that you might find on other keyboards as well, but it’s especially powerful on a MIDI controller. It allows you to add “follow-up” sounds and effects that happen after the key’s note plays.
One of the best things about MIDI controllers is that you can go as big or as small as you want. Get a tiny keyboard with an iPod interface, and you can use a MIDI app to create a backpack-sized studio. Or, go full-sized with high-end virtual instruments and you’ve got all the ingredients for a world-class concert or recital. These keyboards are versatile enough for any skill level or playing style… as long as you’ve got the right MIDI back-end to support them.
Synthesizers: The Robot Neighbors
Everyone has heard the work of synthesizers before, especially if they’ve listened to music from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Those years were the golden age of synths, when their unique sounds were sought after by recording artists everywhere. Modern synthesizer use is usually more subtle, but they’re still some of the most commonly-played keyboards around. A synthesizer gets its name from the way it produces sounds electronically, although most of today’s synths actually use samples as the basis for their sounds.
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If you’re interested in a synth, here are some things to think about:
- Analog vs. Digital – The earliest synthesizers were analog, which means that they generated their electronic tones completely from scratch in a device called an oscillator. You can still get an analog model today, but most current-gen synths are digital, or sample-based. A digital synth has the advantage of versatility: by playing the sampled sounds unaltered, they can work like a standard keyboard. Or, turn on the various effects, and you’ll get all the unique sounds that these instruments are known for.
- Effects and Filters – These give you a ton of control over the sound that comes out of your synthesizer, from changing timbre to adding reverb, delay, chorus and more.
- Vocoders – You’ll notice that some synthesizers have a microphone attached. That’s because these models have a feature called a vocoder, which lets you use your own voice as one of the samples.
- Pitch and Modulation – Be on the lookout for these controls when you’re choosing a synth. Usually they come in the form of two wheels that you can roll up and down, and they’ll really connect you with the music you’re making.
With a synthesizer, it’s all about the automatic – that’s why we’ve called them the “robot neighbors” of the keyboard family. Learning how to adjust all their knobs, dials and sliders to achieve your own signature effects is a big part of playing a synth. Once you’ve got your settings dialed-in, though, the synthesizer will do whatever you’ve programmed it to do. They’re challenging instruments that pay off your efforts with rewarding results. If you’re considering a synth for your first keyboard, you can definitely make it happen – just know that you’ve got your work cut out for you!
The Keyboard Family’s Household Terms
Looking for a quick recap of some of the terms we’ve touched on? Or, are you looking into keyboard options and running into words that haven’t been mentioned elsewhere in this guide? If so, don’t sweat it. Just check here for a few excerpts from the keyboard family dictionary:
- A/D Conversion – Changing an analog signal (such as from a microphone) into a digital one.
- Action – The mechanism of motion for the keys. Synth actions move freely with no resistance. Weighted, semi-weighted and hammer actions have ‘push-back’ like an acoustic piano.
- Aftertouch – A control that triggers when you press a key further than the point where the note plays.
- Arpeggiator – An arpeggio is a chord (multiple notes together) played in a sequence instead of all at once. Keyboards with this feature can be programmed to play a full arpeggio with a single keypress.
- Assignable – The ability of a keyboard’s keys or buttons to be reprogrammed to do different things.
- Auto-Accompaniment – Backing performances built into the keyboard that can be played on-demand.
- Bit Depth – Think of bits as the vehicles that carry digital sound from place to place. Bit depth describes the ‘resolution,’ or number of bits, that the keyboard can process when converting between digital and analog. As a rule of thumb, higher bit depths mean better sound quality.
- CompactFlash – A type of digital storage that uses small memory cards to store files.
- D/A Conversion – Changing a digital signal into an analog one. A keyboard might do this to send sound to a speaker, for example.
- Damper Pedal – A foot pedal that keeps a note going as long as it’s pushed down. Also called “sustain.”
- DSP – Digital signal processing. This is how most keyboards handle effects, equalization, filters and other alterations they may make to the sound.
- Effects – Modifications made to the audio to create a certain impression. For example, reverb and delay effects add an echoing quality, and chorus effects make one instrument sound like many.
- Envelope – Usually found on synthesizers, this is a circuit that can be programmed to alter settings during the playback of a sound to change its characteristics “on the fly.”
- Filter – A type of circuit, common in synthesizers, that removes frequencies from a signal to affect the overall sound.
- FireWire – This connection standard is a faster alternative to USB 2.0 for connecting your keyboard to a computer.
- Hammer Action – In an acoustic piano, the sound is made by hammers striking strings. A keyboard with a hammer action has a physical mechanism with similar hammers behind the keys, in order to give them a virtually identical feel.
- Keybed – A catch-all term for the keys and their actions. Another word for this is “manual.”
- Layer – The layering feature allows a keyboard to create complex sounds by playing multiple tones at once.
- Low-Frequency Oscillator – Also called “LFO,” this is a hallmark of synthesizers. It alters the sound in such a way as to produce “shaky” effects like vibrato or tremolo.
- MIDI – Short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. This is a standard first developed in the 1980s that gives digital instruments and controllers a common “language” for communication.
- mLAN – A type of network connection created by Yamaha, which allows the transfer of digital audio and MIDI data over FireWire cables.
- Modulation Wheel – A type of control that can work on various elements of a keyboard’s tone, depending on the instrument and setup.
- Multitimbrality – This represents a keyboard’s ability to play different voices at the same time: for instance, a flute, drums, strings and piano all at once. Not to be confused with polyphony.
- Oscillator – The electronic part that produces the base tone in an analog synthesizer.
- Pitch Bend Wheel – A control that shifts the pitch of a note up or down. Think of this as the keyboard equivalent of a guitar’s whammy bar.
- Polyphony – The overall number of tones (in any voice) that a keyboard can produce at once. Not to be confused with multitimbrality.
- Rhythms – Built-in percussion accompaniments and similar beats, usually provided in various musical styles.
- Sample Rate – This measurement describes the number of times, per second, that an A/D converter ‘listens’ to the analog signal. The higher this number, recorded in kHz, the better the sound quality.
- Sampler – A feature for recording and playing-back digital audio samples. Samplers usually include the ability to alter these recordings and play them in varying ways.
- Semi-Weighted – This is a type of keyboard action with some tension on the keys, but not as much as an acoustic piano, hammer action or weighted action.
- Sequencer – A component that records and plays MIDI performance data. Can be hardware or software, depending on the keyboard.
- SmartMedia – A Toshiba-developed storage format. Like CompactFlash, it uses memory cards for data transfer, but SmartMedia cards are smaller.
- Sostenuto Pedal – This pedal is available as an accessory for digital pianos and keyboards. Like the grand piano pedal of the same name, it works as a sustain pedal for notes played while it’s pressed down.
- Split – With this feature, you can divide the keybed into sections and use different settings on each. For instance, you could make your left-hand notes a bass guitar sound and your right-hand notes a piano, all at the same time.
- Style – Similar to a demo, this is a built-in musical passage with multiple instruments. Styles can be used as accompaniments or even learning tools.
- Tones – Also called waveforms, these are the sounds made by a synthesizer or keyboard. They’re usually described as having certain “shapes,” each with its own tonal properties.
- Touch Sensitivity – The ability of a keyboard to detect the pressure and/or speed with which you press the keys. It’s essential for lifelike emulation of an acoustic piano, and can have other useful applications as well.
- USB – Short for Universal Serial Bus, this is the most common standard for connection to computers and is found on many keyboards.
- Velocity Sensitivity – A type of touch sensitivity in which the key responds specifically to speed.
- Waveforms – Another word for tones (see above).
- Weighted – A kind of keyboard action designed to simulate the feel of an acoustic piano. It’s the next most faithful type after the hammer action.
Sing Us a Song; You’re the Piano Man
Now that you’ve gotten a good overview of the different kinds of keyboard, you’re just about ready to hit the shops and look for your first one. Learning an instrument is a big commitment, so make sure you’re not facing it alone: there are lots of resources out there to help you.
If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, method books and DVDs will be a huge help. They give you the information and exercises you need to teach yourself at your own pace. As well, there’s a lot to be said for experience, so don’t be shy about reaching out to the local music community to find an instructor. The great thing about learning piano is that it makes basic music theory easy to understand, which provides a great foundation for learning other instruments like guitar or woodwinds if you want to diversify your skills later on.
With enough time spent practicing and building your abilities, you can become a great keyboard player from any starting point. Remember to be patient and stick with it, and use the information in this guide to pick out the perfect instrument to get you started. We’ll wrap up with a summarized run-down of what to look for.
The Last Word on Your First Keyboard
With the quality of modern keyboards, even the simplest models should have everything you need to begin self-study or taking lessons. Go for these features as a starting point:
- 61-key format (5 octaves)
- Touch sensitivity
- Good selection of sounds and rhythms
Features beyond these are worth considering, but aren’t likely to come into play until you’ve mastered the basic knowledge and built up some experience.
Remember that there’s no pressure to get the biggest and best. In fact, it’s generally a better idea to start with an affordable no-frills keyboard and upgrade to new ones later, as you grow into the expanded features. There’s also no need to get the newest model on the market – sometimes you’ll find a great deal on last year’s keyboard when the only difference between it and this year’s model is the shape of the plastic shell. Shop smart!
The bottom line is that it’s up to you to decide what the right keyboard is for you, and at what price. Use this page as your guide, and once you find the one that hits the sweet spot, don’t hesitate to take that first step to making your musical dreams a reality.