7 Factors to Think About Before Buying a Digital Piano
One of the music producer’s most important tools is the keyboard, and if your compositions rely on realistic piano sounds then you’re going to want a good piano. Unfortunately, not everyone has the room for an acoustic piano, or can afford to buy one. That’s where the digital piano comes in – a digital piano uses recorded samples and an electronic keyboard to recreate the sound and feel of acoustic pianos. Digital Pianos typically have more than just one sound in addition to a Grand or Upright piano, sounds like: Organ, Strings, Harpsichord, etc. The quality of these internal sounds, the build, and the other included features will determine the cost of the piano. We’ve assembled a list of factors to think about when searching for the right digital piano, read them below.
The keyboard of a piano can vary from 25-key, 37-key, 49-key, 61-key, and 88-key ranges. The number of keys determines the number of octaves you can access at once without having to hit the transpose buttons (the octave up or octave down buttons). The more keys your piano has the more dynamic range you’ll be able to create at once, the heavier your piano will be, and the more your piano will cost. A piano with forty-nine keys will have 4 Octaves which is a nice middle ground if you’re on a tighter budget. The more keys you can afford to have the better because the beauty of pianos is in their dynamic range. Acoustic Pianos are built with three strings per note which means when you hit a key you’re striking three strings and each key then creates a tone full of harmonics (much more capable than one note on a guitar). If you don’t mind the extra heft and you can afford the higher cost then opt for an 88-key piano.
Another factor to consider when thinking about the keyboard is the type of keys it has, and one of the most tangible things about the keys is their weight. Imagine piano keys like a see-saw, with one end being the side you strike and the other being attached to a hammer that strikes strings when you let go of the other end. Acoustic piano keys were once created exclusively from ivory and ebony, they had a natural weight that helped them see-saw back into position after hitting the strings. Using those materials eventually became cost-prohibitive for manufacturers looking to sell more pianos. The change to wooden keys was a popular alternative, but once digital pianos came along cheaper options were available. Plastic keys became the norm as they were lighter and cheaper to manufacture, but their lack of weight created another problem – the natural action of acoustic piano keys was lost.
To recreate this, weights were put at the end of the keys (closest to the piano player) in order to emulate the see-saw feel of an acoustic piano. Instead of hitting strings the keys would hit sensors that would trigger the recorded piano samples. Eventually, the weights were removed entirely and spring mechanisms were used – this is called synth-action. Graded Hammer Action keys most accurately recreate the feel of an acoustic piano, their difference in weight requires you fingers to develop stronger muscle memory associations with the pitch. If you want the closest thing to an acoustic piano then go with this option (it will cost a lot more, but feels incredibly real). Fully weighted keys are weighted to feel like an acoustic piano without the difference across the range, they weigh the same. Semi-weighted keys will have less resistance than fully weighted keys but will pop up into position quicker as well. Synth-action are the lightest keys to work with as they are spring loaded, they are bouncy.
The Hammer Mechanism
The Hammer mechanism on a grand and upright piano each work in similar ways, but a digital piano may have an extremely simplified mechanism in place to emulate the feel of the real thing. Most mid-to-high tier digital pianos will have something in place to perform this action, you want to look for a key that bounces back into position in a way like an acoustic piano. If your keys are operated with springs then they’re likely to have a snappier return to position and feel less like an acoustic piano. It’s a matter of personal choice at this point for what you want.
The escapement on an acoustic piano is the point where striking the key moves the hammer off of the string. If the escapement isn’t activated then the hammer would stay on the string preventing it from sustaining. Digital pianos won’t have an actual escapement mechanism but high-end ones will have something to emulate it. If you learned how to play piano on an acoustic then you may want to reach for this feature in your purchase.
Acoustic pianos have three pedals that are dedicated to three separate functions – Una Corda, Damper (sustain), or Sostenuto. You’re most likey familiar with the sustain pedal, most MIDI keyboards are equipped for use with those. The Una Corda and Sostenuto pedals are far less common; the una corda pedal pushes one or two strings away on a piano so the hammer only strikes one or pair of strings creating a softer tone; the Sostenuto pedal lifts the damper on the keys only that are played while it is pressed, once it is released any keys then played will be quickly muted (staccato).
Stage piano VS. Upright Digital
The answer to this question will determine how portable your piano is, and what kind of stand you will want to get for it. A stage piano will not come with a stand but most will come with internal speakers. This is in contrast to the upright digital piano which will not have internal speakers but their stands will house those and pedals. There is very little difference between the two nowadays, most people will opt for the portability of a stage piano, but if you have no intention of performing outside of your home/studio then an upright digital may be a better fit.
The final consideration you’ll want to make is how many and what type of connections does the piano have? All digital pianos will have at least a single audio output and most will have stereo outputs. Most digital pianos nowadays will have some type of connection for transferring MIDI information, you will find either a 5-pin connection or a USB (sometimes both). This matters if you intend to sync your piano to other gear. Bluetooth is the latest innovation in being able to transmit MIDI dating wirelessly, and some digital pianos will have this option available.
Whichever digital piano you go with make sure to consider all of these things, you’ll be making an investment and want to stick with this instrument for a long time. There may be some other factors we didn’t mention, like the piano’s color or soundbanks, but if you thought of something comment in our comments section and let us know!