Whether you're just a beginner or you plan to hit the road to play a gig or two, there's a keyboard for your skill level and budget. To help make your decision easier, we've pulled together some tips to help you find your way around the different types of keyboards.
All keyboards have several features in common. Once you understand the basics you can then dive deeper into each keyboard type.
Keyboard or Manual
The term keyboard is used not only to describe the instrument, but the actual black and white keys as well. The keys are also sometimes referred to as the manual. Keyboards are available with various numbers of keys, starting from only 25 keys all the way up to 88. Models with 88 keys offer the same full range of a piano. Many keyboard or piano teachers require that their students use a full range keyboard. Smaller keyboards like 25 and 33 note ones are popular because they are portable. Think about the number of keys you need for the range of music you plan to play.
Each keyboard has its own feel and the keys respond to your fingers in a specific way. Weighted and semi-weighted keys feel similar to a traditional piano. Hammer action, also commonly referred to as graded action, uses a hammer mechanism to recreate the feel of a grand piano. As you go higher on the keys the action gets lighter. Synth action uses springs to balance the keys and make them more playable. They have a lighter and faster action and feel more like an organ. Unweighted action keys have a synth feel and are traditionally found on less expensive keyboards.
Each keyboard produces some sounds better than others so you need to decide which sounds are important to you. Look at the polyphony and multitimbrality capabilities to make sure they meet your needs. Test drive each model you are interested in or listen to its demo because after all, hearing is believing.
Not all home keyboards have screens, but if you prefer one with a screen, make sure it's of decent quality. The screen should be easy to read and large enough to clearly spell out the functions and sounds you are using. Smaller screens tend to use abbreviations and acronyms that aren't always easy to understand.
Now that you have a few key bits of information, you can start to explore all your options.
Things to Consider When Shopping for a Digital Piano
If you're just starting to learn to play, a portable keyboard is a good choice for you. It's easy to travel with and easy on your wallet. And if you get more serious about playing down the road, you can always upgrade to a synthesizer or digital piano later.
Portable keyboards can go most anywhere you can. Because they are lightweight, they are easy to commute with and are easy to play while sitting on your lap. And since portable keyboards come with built-in speakers, you won't need to carry any extra equipment to produce sound.
Features vary from portable to portable with some offering more advanced functionality than others. Most can produce dozens of instrument sounds and percussion rhythms and include basic sequencer options. Some also offer sampling functions allowing you to record and play back sounds.
USB connectivity gives you more flexibility in how you can use your keyboard. With a USB connection you can transfer sounds to and from your computer or the Internet, save projects, or even download songs for a karaoke session. Overall, this feature opens your keyboard up to many possibilities.
Portables are generally geared toward beginners and all the features and functions reflect a more basic skill level. Most portables include learning functions that help beginners find their way around the keybed and sequencer. No matter what level you play at, a portable provides fun and entertainment as you learn.
For a reasonable price you can usually get a portable keyboard that is large enough to learn on and to play simple arrangements, but portable enough to easily take with you. It all depends on the features and the level of functionality you choose.
Things to Consider When Shopping for a MIDI Keyboard
The main thing to understand about MIDI keyboard controllers is that most don't generate the sound themselves but almost all can control the sounds of other devices. Not only can you control piano type sounds, MIDI keyboards also allow you to control drum, strings, and many other instrument sounds.
The keyboard transmits MIDI data to external sound locations such as synthesizers, computer software synthesizers, or a hardware or software sequencer. The big advantage is that you have virtual control over a wide range of music and the keyboard is often compact enough to fit in your bag.
Most MIDI keyboards include a range of knobs, sliders, button, crossfaders and wheels above the keybed area. These controllers allow you to transmit MIDI data and give you hands-on and real-time control over modifying the sounds from the source you have connected to your keyboard.
Action and Feel
How the key responds to playing is a top priority when choosing a keyboard controller. MIDI keyboards can have different response characteristics:
• Velocity-sensitive keys respond to how fast they are pressed
• Weighted keys feel more realistic, like a real piano
• Aftertouch lets you assign additional effects to a key by pressing down harder when the key is already pressed
MIDI keyboards come with as few as 25 keys or as many as 88, and many sizes in between. If you are a club DJ and you intend to use the keyboard in a cramped space, a compact controller with 25 or 37 keys will work best. If you are looking for a piano-style experience then an 88-key controller is the better choice.
A standalone MIDI keyboard controller is good for players on a tight budget looking to create music on multiple instruments. The more functions and features offered plus the size of the keybed all factor in to the final price tag. Before you buy, consider how you will use the keyboard and then decide what functions and size you will need.
Things to Consider When Shopping for a Synthesizer
Synthesizers cover a wide range of applications and price points. Some entry level synthesizers make great sounds but don't allow a wide range of editing. Some higher level synthesizers offer much more editing and customization.
Acoustic Simulations vs. Synthetic Sounds
Most synthesizers use digital synths which tend to offer a much larger sound set, including piano, organ, horns, strings, and even digital re-creations of classic analog synths. Many synthesizers use PCM samples or recordings as the basis of their sounds. You can choose a sound or even combine sounds to create unique sounds. These are very good at reproducing the sounds of acoustic instruments. Analog modeling synthesizers are also found in this category. These use a limited number of waveforms to create sounds like older classic synthesizers decades ago.
Each synthesizer includes a number of sounds built into the ROM (Read-Only Memory). If you plan to create your own sounds, select a synth with plenty of expansion slots that allow you to save your new creations. If you prefer to just turn on and let loose on the keys, then look for a synth with lots of presets.
One way to explore your talent and unique sound is to shape the preset sounds that come with the synthesizer. Envelope controls allow you to tailor the attack and release time of sound. You can also experiment with tone by playing with the low-frequency oscillator (LFO) control. Perhaps the most important element of a synthesizer is its filter. Filters control the brightness and can produce a sweeping sound. Some filters even have envelope controls allowing the filter sound to change over time. These are called Time Variant Filters or TVFs.
Many synthesizers have built-in effects that let you alter sounds. When looking at the effects section, it is important to consider how many effects the synth can produce at the same time (number of EFX processors). Some effects to consider:
• A delay effect creates an echo-like sound
• A reverb effect produces a reverberation sound
• A chorus effect adds thickness to the sound, making it sound like more than one person is playing
If your budget is flexible, look for a synthesizer that has the most number of sounds and the best overall quality. If you're on a tight budget, take quality of construction over variety of sounds. In the end, it's better to have fewer sounds produced well than many sounds produced badly due to poor quality.