Buying a keyboard is expensive. Whereas an entry level guitar can be bought for a couple of days’ wages, a decent keyboard might be several weeks’ or months’ wages, and a real piano, much, much more. That kind of investment needs to be made wisely.
I often get asked for advice on which keyboard to buy. The Market is too big and diverse to make specific recommendations, however, in this blog, I will give you some tips on what to consider when making your own keyboard purchase. I trust you find it helpful.
Five kinds of keyboard
1. Acoustic Piano
(see Buying A Piano)
2. Digital/Stage Piano
The main aim of a digital piano is to reproduce the experience of playing an acoustic piano. However, they usually have other sound choices too (electric pianos, strings, and organ). They may also have beats and backing tracks. They should also be compatible with digital technology, via MIDI or USB. Many digital pianos have built-in speakers, which means you don’t need to purchase a keyboard amp to perform with your instrument. You can also use headphones, which means practicing late at night won’t wake the rest of the household. Some look like an acoustic piano and have a price tag to match. But stage pianos with a simpler design, can be quite competitively priced and are much more portable. Digital pianos don’t need tuning.
Light and portable, a keyboard has built in speakers. It comes with pre-programmed drum beats and backing tracks and hundreds of different sounds. The quality of the sound library will depend on the brand, but with today’s technology, most major brands have great quality sound, even in their low-cost ranges. Compatible with digital technology, via MIDI or USB, it will not look or feel like a piano. But, a good keyboard will respond to your dynamics as you play. Many keyboards have a record/sequence function, which can be helpful when songwriting or working out arrangements.
A synthesizer does exactly that, it synthesizes sounds. Modern synths come with hundreds of pre-set sounds, though some still have live manipulation controls, and most offer the ability to create and store your own sounds too. Many of the sounds bear no relationship to ‘real’ instruments. A synthesizer will be fully compatible with digital technology, via MIDI or USB. It will not look or feel like a piano, but should respond to your dynamics as you play. Synthesizers almost never have built-in speakers, so you will need to invest in an amp or a good pair of headphones. Workstations also contain a record/sequence function, which can be helpful when songwriting or working out arrangements. A good synth will cost far more than a keyboard, and sometimes you pay a little extra for a ‘good name’.
5. Software synth
Very light and portable. This option connects a MIDI controller to software on a laptop or tablet. This offers crazy levels of customization and a remarkable array of sound options, if you know your way around a computer. The feel of your MIDI controller will depend on how much you spend. But good quality sounds are available at a fraction of what it costs to buy hardware synths. If you already own a laptop or tablet this might be a great option, otherwise, the biggest cost is probably going to be buying a good enough laptop.
Questions to ask yourself
How much can you spend?
Don’t set your sights on a top-of-the-line synthesizer if you can only afford a few days wages. Be realistic, watch the second-hand market, and look out for sales. My first synth was a second-hand Kawai that had seen some heavy use and been put back together with superglue! It is essentially a get-what-you-pay-for market. Big complex keyboards and synths cost a lot. So, don’t plan to buy something with tons of functions you won’t use, you’ll just be wasting money.
How will you use your keyboard?
Are you an accomplished musician, looking for an instrument to earn a living with? Then you need a good stage piano or synth. Or are you a beginner and not sure yet whether you’re going to pursue keyboard for long? Then you can settle for a simple, low-end keyboard.
Will you want to carry it around, or is it just to play at home? Acoustic pianos and some digital pianos are not portable. Don’t make a purchase without considering this.
Are you are buying the keyboard for a church or school context where it will be used by many different musicians (and non-musicians!). Go for something ruggedly built and simple to use. Most of those playing will not have a lot of time to get to know the keyboard. A synth, with a complicated touchscreen interface, is less suited to this application.
What is your preferred sound?
Do you prefer the classic sounds of Fender Rhodes, Hammond Organ, and a Steinway Grand? You will find all these sounds on a digital or stage piano. Or do you prefer the modern pop sounds of envelope filters, oscillators, sweeping soundscapes, and otherworldly industrial or sci-fi noises? For those, you will need a synthesizer.
In a church context, consider the scale of the congregation. A massive wall of synth sound may be appropriate in a hall with a thousand plus people. But, if your usual Sunday is less that 300, you probably want to dial back on the Jean Michel Jarre and go with some simpler tones.
How many keys do you need?
A grand piano has 88 keys. But most electric keyboards come with options of 49, 61, 76 or 88 keys.
If you are not studying classical piano, there is little reason to get 88 keys (even the classical repertoire has few works that use the full range of 88-notes). 76 keys is plenty for piano style playing, if you are a synth player then you can happily survive with less.
Piano-feel vs Touch Sensitive
TOUCH SENSITIVE – This means if you play it hard it will be loud, if you play if soft it will be quiet. Most modern keyboards do this, but it is always worth checking.
PIANO-FEEL / WEIGHTED – This means the keyboard has an additional mechanism built in, to replicate the feeling of the hammer action inside an acoustic piano.
AFTERTOUCH – This means, when playing a note, you can apply extra pressure to the already depressed key, and it will influence the sound. Depending on how the sound is set up it may mean it effects volume or tone. This is especially useful for synth playing.
What is your playing style?
Are you mostly a pianist or do you want to play synth? Depending on your playing style, you may not want or need your keyboard to feel like a piano. None of the classic synths or organs were built with piano-feel keys, as it is not required for that style of playing. The additional mechanism means additional weight and cost, and additional stress to your fingers, due to the greater resistance from the keys. If you are playing for long periods, that can become uncomfortable. Many companies only put piano-feel keys into their 88 note models. So, a shorter keyboard may mean no piano-feel anyway. But at least it will fit in the car!
If you are looking for a portable keyboard, have you considered how you will transport it? A college friend of mine played double bass, her parents had to buy a Volvo so they could take her to recitals!
Remember, if your keyboard is going to travel a lot you will need a decent case. A padded bag is ok, but will not protect it as well as a solid “flight-case”. These are expensive, so budget for that when considering your purchase. The flight case I have cost the same as the keyboard inside it. But the keyboard and case have lasted over 20 years.
A guitarist friend of mine always says that tone is in the fingers. This is true of almost any instrument. The human component is the most important. I’ve seen good musicians make cheap instruments sound fantastic, and bad musicians make expensive instruments sound cheap.
Money or gear is not a replacement for practicing hard. As my piano teacher told me, don’t practice till you get it right, practice till you can’t possibly get it wrong.
I hope this has been helpful. If you can think of anything I missed, please comment below. Otherwise, have fun, and happy shopping.
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