PRACTICAL GUIDE TO CHOOSING AND BUYING YOUR KEYBOARD
The objective of this article is to help all those who want to undertake the adventure of buying a musical keyboard, either to learn or to improve the one they already have, it is always difficult to make this decision given the large number of options that exist in the market .
The first thing we should do is segment all the possibilities and characteristics in order to direct our gaze towards a smaller group of products and facilitate the purchase decision … as that takes time and requires knowledge, we are going to do it for you. It goes without saying that this categorization is very subjective and everyone can make their own, for our part we start from the base of our experience on the needs of buyers.
REGARDING THE NUMBER OF OCTAVES, TOUCH OF THE KEYS AND THE DESIGN
We have keyboards on the market that range from 25 keys, 49, 61, 76 and 88 … (it is commonly named by the number of octaves as 2, 4, 5, 6 or 8 octaves) although this describes them imprecisely (88 keys are not 8 octaves). Octaves are groups of 12 notes. Normally knowing the number of keys we want to have does not solve the doubt of which keyboard to buy but it helps a lot.
Apart from the number of keys that the keyboard has, these can also be normal or mini-keys, although this is a smaller segment.
25 KEYS KEYBOARDS:
They are the smallest keyboards, allow you to play practically with one hand and are useful for the stage where we only need a little support or triggering sequences or samples using keys. They are easy to transport and inexpensive due to their fewer number of keys, although not as much as one might think compared to those with 49 or 61 keys, since the control part is usually common to the various models of a range or brand and the keys they are the cheapest component.
This type of short keyboard is often widely used in MIDI controller keyboards (lacking internal sounds) or in authentic analog synthesizers or their digital simulations, since these types of analog sounds are commonly applied to creating bass lines and playing them with only the left hand while using the right for another keyboard is common practice.
49 OR 61 KEYS KEYBOARDS:
They allow you to play with both hands and the difference of one more octave in 61 is definitely something that anyone who knows how to play the piano will appreciate, as it will allow them to make longer phrases. The extra keys can also be used as control keys or articulation adjustment keys, which is useful when triggering certain sounds loaded in software samplers like Kontakt from the keyboard.
While 49-key keyboards are almost always soft keys, in the 61-key range we find brands that offer double or triple choice, soft keys (softkey), semi-weighted (semi weighted), or weighed in the acoustic piano style. (fully weighted).
Because they are keyboards that allow a comfortable interpretation (soft key for little-trained hands) of all kinds of sounds and complete (two-handed), they are the best-selling keyboards and also those that usually come integrated with synthesizers of all kinds. Soft key and 4 or 5 octaves is what we usually find in all kinds of backing keyboards with rhythms, whether they have these speakers or not, and also in a large number of MIDI controller keyboards.
76 AND 88 KEYS Digital Piano:
They are definitely a professional option, given that it is rare for a beginner to buy a keyboard with these characteristics unless the beginning of regulated piano studies is considered very seriously, for which one of these keyboards is undoubtedly necessary; not only because of the number of octaves available, corresponding to those of a classical acoustic piano, which will allow you to practice and perform works of classical or blues-jazz music with it, but also because they are usually weighted touch keyboards, also called «fully weighted »In English or hammer action« hammer action ».
This means that the keys will have a lot of weight and simulate the bouncing of the hammers of the pianos against the taut strings which produces a characteristic bouncing effect without which classical musicians cannot interpret well. Their greater weight and size make them options to place in the studio or for live professionals who carry them well protected within good flight cases.
The 88 keys are usually the format used in furniture digital pianos, since these are intended for the study of classical piano, although it is also used in many MIDI controller keyboards since the piano establishes a long-term relationship with the pianist as they get used to it. completely to your touch, so it is usual not to pay much attention to the sound (synthesizer) part of the keyboard since it is preferred that this be external to be able to change it over time, acquiring different external sound modules while keep the same keyboard for many years, if not for life.
ADDITIONAL CONTROL ELEMENTS:
Very commonly keyboards, especially those that belong to the group of MIDI controllers, therefore lacking internal sounds and audio outputs, have a large number of extra control elements on their front panel (Pad keys, faders, encoders, controls transport and even display screens) with which it is intended to facilitate the musician the arduous task of controlling the large number of synthesis parameters present in current virtual instruments, as well as the transport control of the most common DAWs in software or to facilitate the Track mixing tasks with these programs.
TIPS YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE CHOOSING THE DIGITAL PIANO OR KEYBOARD:
Choose a 25-key keyboard to play little bass lines or sequence some chords and if you do a lot of little direct ones. Choose to be compatible for the control of some reference software, like this Reloop Keyfdr of 25 mini-keys for Ableton Live, which ensures functionality and integrated workflow immediately. Sei also includes some LE version of the software, well bingo.
Choose a keyboard with 49 or 61 keys if you make modern music and generally play synthetic sounds (typical of the keyboard or virtual) and not so much if you use classical pianos and make compositions of soundtracks with a large number of orchestrations, in this case you will lack keys and you will prefer the 88.
The fact that they are compatible with software for iOS, like this SAMSON Graphite 49 and that we can use our iPad with the keyboard can be an interesting differentiator.
Choose a keyboard with 76 or 88 keys if you are going to study classical piano or are a professional pianist and are looking for a team that will accompany you for a long time live or in the studio.
Read Full review Casio CDP 88 Key Digital Piano
Do not be impressed by a huge number of extra controls on the front panel, since although they can be useful since the designers have put them there for that, the current trend is that certain virtual instruments or DAW’s incorporate their own additional control surfaces and specifically designed for them (with a very competitive price) like MASCHINE, for example. Using all of these controls depends on creating a personal workflow that typically takes a long time to develop and rarely has any specific functionality when opening the product box.
Focus on the keys and their quality and feel to make a lasting investment.
Apart from the number of keys and their touch, keyboards can have some characteristics to take into account such as velocity sensitive keys and the aftertouch in them.
Regarding the pulsation sensitivity that will make the sounds sound louder or looser reflecting the force exerted (or rather speed) when playing on them, years ago it might be a factor to take into account but today what it would be. news is that a keyboard did not have it. Only the mini-keyboard models can make us doubt in that sense so we should ask.
As for the after touch effect, we will say that it is the ability of a keyboard to send constant MIDI data depending on the force we make on the keys once they have been pressed and that they are applied to affect different aspects of the sound that is sounding. The vast majority of current keyboards have this capacity at least in its monophonic version (the same sensor for all keys). The polyphonic after touch (involving different sensors for each key) is reserved for the more expensive keyboards.
REGARDING ITS SOUND CHARACTERISTICS:
The keyboards are for playing music, so the built-in sounds seem like something to consider when deciding on one. Let’s see the aspects to consider in this regard.
MIDI CONTROL KEYBOARDS:
They do not have hardware sounds (that is to say on the keyboard itself), their essential task is to trigger the external sounds of synthesizer modules or those present in the computer in the form of virtual instruments. Their production technology is generally low and therefore we will find dozens of competitors offering us “clone” options in all possible price ranges and sizes.
When choosing one of these, concentrate on the keys and their quality, the absence of gaps or mechanical noises when playing since they are very annoying and if the keyboard provides us with extra functionalities when it comes to integrating with some reference software in the market, such as Cubase, Reason, Ableton Live, Complete or Machine. In many cases some of these applications in a reduced version are included, which represents a great added value that is often neglected.
The long-term availability of drivers will force us to trust reference manufacturers with many years in the market. It is preferable to avoid very unknown brands.
It is common that some keyboards do not have a power supply and are “USB bus powered” which can be an advantage in the live stage but it can overload the buses of our computer and if you ever want to use it outside of it, you will not be able to.
That the keyboard has standard MIDI output may seem silly these days when everything has USB, but it guarantees compatibility with any external equipment and allows keyboards bought 15 or 20 years ago to work without the need for drivers in all current operating systems and They can be used in many different situations and in the absence of a computer.
Read Complete Yamaha P85 Digital Piano Review
One of the most tedious things any musician can do is have to map the existing controls on the front panel of a keyboard to the virtual instruments that they open at any given time.
As we do not have internal sounds, the fact that the manufacturer includes us a good set of quality virtual sounds is decisive in the final value for money obtained when buying our keyboard.
Some brands have tried with more or less success to find communication standards that allow this assignment (mapping) of parameters automatically, although it can be modified by the user and in such a way that we do it only once and forget it forever.
One of the brands that has achieved this with great success is Native Instuments, which thanks to the development of the COMPLETE CONTROL S-Series keyboards and the NKS technology for programming virtual instruments, allows an automatic assignment of each parameter to the 8 controls that we have on the front panel of the 4 keyboards in the range. Countless software manufacturers have already joined this standard and it seems that this is going to be the definitive solution to the headaches of computer musicians for decades. You can read more information about this format here.
In addition, these keyboards incorporate advanced search technology for presets, by labels, among all the VST instruments that we have loaded on our computer and many other interesting technologies, such as the RGB light guide lights above each key, smart scales, single-key chords , arpeggiator, etc.
You can see below a complete video tutorial on how the COMPLETE CONTROL sound choice works and other functionalities of what a smart keyboard should be today.
ACCOMPANYING KEYBOARDS AND RHYTHMS:
They represent a product segment in themselves as they are aimed at a very specific type of audience. Typically 49 to 61 soft keys and with or without built-in speakers, these keyboards represent the gateway to music for thousands of people in the same way that the Spanish guitar or recorder is for others, they certainly are (or should be) an inexpensive and low-difficulty way to enter the world of the keyboard.
Their main argument is that they are “plug and play” equipment, that is, extremely easy to use and offer a wide range of popular dance sounds and rhythms (in some cases user-modifiable or expandable by purchasing external cards. ). They are multi timbral (that is, we can create complete songs that include different instruments or “timbres”). They have simple sequencers to record our sequences and evolutions. They are located in an amateur and learning segment (although there are some very professional models and brands) and it is difficult for you to see pop or rock bands whose members use this type of keyboard.
TIPS: Other features to be evaluated will be that they have headphone and line outputs, microphone inputs for singing or auxiliary for playbacks, expression and volume pedals inputs, modulation and pitch wheels, MIDI OUT for use of external modules, MIDI IN for use of external sequencers with the internal sounds, USB as MIDI Interface or also for loading more user sounds or the possibility of expansion through memories or SD cards of the most common.
To compete with computers, many DAWs have incorporated large control screens or have developed integration systems with them.
This category encompasses different user niches and despite having many of its features and sounds in common, it is subdivided into two very well differentiated groups, those for the study of piano technique with a design focused on the home or school and those for the live performance. .
Those destined to study at home or at school, these tend to be «furniture», eliminating the need for unsightly supports and legs and integrating the pedal board into the furniture itself. The materials used for its design take into account the factor «decoration »Choosing fashionable colors, such as beech, cherry, lacquered or aluminum or metal finishes, which are well integrated into the furniture and decoration of the houses. At benchmark brands such as Casio, the “decoration” factor never leaves the search for outstanding sound quality and performance aside.
As for the sounds, digital pianos usually have a small set of them but of enormous quality. Varied sounds of classic acoustic pianos, electric pianos, vintage “rhodes” or “hammond” type organs, and more. These sounds will be multi-sampled with as much detail as possible such as internal mechanical resonances, harmonic simulations, etc, etc.
Of recent appearance are the Casio Grand Hybrid digital pianos, which represent a great advance since they involve the integration of the mechanical parts of an acoustic piano thanks to the century-old technology of the German firm Bechstein with the electronic and sound generation part of the Japanese Casio. that have led the industry for decades. Detailed information about these new keyboards can be found by clicking here.
As for digital pianos for live performances, we will also generally find products of enormous quality as they are intended for specialized users with great experience who play in bands where all the other components also have the best. Aspects such as sound should be left out of all doubt and the quality of its reproduction should not present any problem in professional environments. Details like separate balanced stereo outputs with 1/4 or XLR jacks or even multi-format are common, group outputs to direct different sounds to them are also highly appreciated as well as digital outputs, etc.
The sound set of a good digital piano usually contains a good handful of presets of all kinds, from acoustic, electric and organ pianos to pad and string sounds, as well as possibilities (on the more sophisticated models) for loading sampler samples that allow us to attack the most “modern” musical styles or with synthesis sounds. The ability to easily layer and split the keyboard with the different sounds is a must. In general these pianos will not seek so much to have thousands of presets but perhaps a few dozen or a hundred, but of the highest quality. The touch and quality of the keys must be in line with the market to which they are directed.
TIPS: In these keyboards, due to the demanding conditions of use that they usually experience, the after-sales service that the different manufacturers can give is very important. A reasonable repair time or the existence of spare parts for many years are points to take into account when choosing. Save a few euros or it makes sense if you later have to rent a keyboard for your performances.
Before buying, spend enough time to test the keyboard you like well, ask that they turn it on and connect it to a sufficiently powerful equipment, such as what is usually used as a stage monitor, touch and feel each key, its weight and Play it slowly and then harder to assess its dynamics, turn the volume all the way up without touching anything and make sure there are no background noises like blowing.
Buy a good cover or flight case for the keyboard, well padded or with cushioning foam, with lock for the keys and no gaps that allow vibrations or shocks when transported.