Digital Piano FAQ
What are the differences between "acoustic",
"digital", "electric" and "electronic" pianos?
An "acoustic" piano is the traditional piano everybody is familiar with, that produces sounds by means of hammers striking strings. It is generally referred to as "the piano." The term "acoustic" is usually used when specifically making a distinction between other various forms of piano (digital, electric, etc.)
A "digital" piano is an instrument which does its best to duplicate the sound and feel of playing an acoustic piano. It uses digitally sampled sounds, amplifiers and speakers instead of strings and hammers to produce the piano-like sound. They have weighted key action to imitate the action of an acoustic piano.
An "electric" piano is an electro-acoustic instrument analogous to an electric guitar. It has a real action, some sort of metal tine or string which vibrates, and pickups to detect the audio signal for subsequent amplification.
An "electronic" piano, better referred to as an "electronic keyboard" is an instrument with a keyboard, but usually without the weighted key action or velocity sensitivity, and the sound is usually generated through synthesizers (computer-generated); however, some may have sampled sounds. This type of keyboard is the one you see most in bands playing popular music.
Okay, now that I know the difference between
acoustic and digital pianos, tell me more about
Okay, now that I know the difference between acoustic and digital pianos, tell me more about digital pianos.
A complete digital piano system consists of the following: a keyboard with a weighted key action, optical or other electronic sensors which detect the velocity with which you strike the keys, a digitized sound bank, an amplifier or two, and speakers/headphone jacks. Usually the sound for each note has been sampled off a high-quality acoustic piano. When a key is pressed, the sensors detect the key's velocity, and a microchip produces the note with corresponding loudness (the faster, or harder you hit the keys, the louder), just like a piano. Keys are usually weighted to approximate the feel of a piano's keyboard rather than that of an organ (soft, very little resistance, light).
Most digital pianos also offer other than piano sounds (such as pipe organ, harpsichord, etc.), plus miscellaneous digital technology "gadgets". Since all the sounds are stored in electronic form, you can listen to the piano through headphones instead of speakers, thereby allowing you to play the piano without anyone else hearing it.
What are the advantages of buying a digital piano as
opposed to an acoustic one?
Relative portability. Most digital pianos weigh less than 200 lbs., as opposed to 450--500 lbs. for a typical upright and much more for grand pianos. You have the luxury of disassembling the major parts of the digital piano, stash it in your hatchback, and drive away with it.
Does not need tuning. If you have a piano, you will usually have to tune it once or twice a year. The sounds for a digital piano are recorded and stored "digitally" within the hardware, so it does not go out of tune.
Option to play silently. By using headphones, you can play a digital piano as loud as you want whenever you want without producing any sound which others can hear (well, except for your fingers hitting the keys and some low-level noise from the keys moving). If you live in close-quarters or in an apartment with poor sound insulation, this silencing ability is very useful.
Relatively low maintenance. Beyond the usual practices of keeping liquids away, keeping it out of direct sunlight, and occasional dusting, etc., digital pianos are virtually maintenance-free.
Electronic interface. Many digital piano models have a MIDI interface capability, which allows you to connect the piano to your favorite computer or other MIDI hardware and enjoy the benefits of digital technology. As you pay more, the built-in recording and playback capability available will become more elaborate.
Many voices. Most digital pianos come with several different types of piano sounds, plus the sounds of other instruments. For example, with a press of a button you can make it sound like a harpsichord, a pipe organ or something else. The variety of sounds you get differs among models, but generally as you pay more, you get more voices. Some models come with a full orchestra sound, allowing you to compose a symphony right on your piano!
What are the drawbacks?
Sound quality. No matter how well the piano sound is sampled, you can never truly get away from the "amplified", "digital" sound quality. As digital sampling technology improves, the gap between the acoustic and digital sound may diminish, but digital sound will never equal or be superior to those of an acoustic.
Inability to produce a "color" to the tone. In an acoustic instrument, by using various playing techniques, you can produce almost infinite kinds of "color" to the tone. Digital pianos can only produce sounds that were originally sampled (recorded), and thus very limited in terms of variety in the sound produced. For a very accomplished pianist, the limited sound produced by the digital piano can be disturbing.
As with any electronic mechanisms, digital pianos can develop problems like damaged spring action on the keys, bad contact, bad amplifier, bad speaker, etc. Digital pianos in general are considered relatively robust, but there has been reports of key action break down, hissing and crackling speaker noise developing, and having difficulty in getting it fixed correctly.
As with any electronics, the technology used to create the current digital piano may (well, almost certainly will) become obsolete in the near future. Whereas, in an acoustic piano, one can assume if you buy a good piano and take good care of it, your grandchild or great- grandchild can still play it and will find someone who can maintain your piano. This is not necessarily the case with digital pianos. Digital pianos haven't been around long enough to really make a good case study of its longevity. One reason to purchase digital pianos from a reputable company.
Should I buy a digital piano or an acoustic piano?
The technology of digital pianos has made some impressive strides in the last couple of years. For between $2000 and $3000 (at the best available discounts), you can get some fairly satisfying instruments. However, the current state of the art isn't perfect (yet), and for those prices you can pick up a decent used acoustic piano. If your situation doesn't require the advantages of a digital piano (relative portability, and the option of practicing silently with headphones are the big ones), you might be happier hunting down a good deal on a new or used upright. If you really want to splurge, you can get something like a Yamaha Silent Series, which is an acoustic piano with the digital piano silencing capability added. You get the best of both worlds, but you also pay the price.
What are the basic things I should look for in a
What are the basic things I should look for in a digital piano?
Before you set out shopping, fetch a good-quality (the best quality you can get your hands on) headphone sets and take it with you to the piano dealers. If you're buying a digital piano instead of an acoustic piano, the chances are you'll be practicing through headphones a lot and should determine how it sounds through a headset as well as through the speakers. Using headphones is also practical because it is easier to hear many subtle defects which might be masked by the speakers. Don't be afraid to play away on the floor models. That's what they're there for. If you want, you can grab a friend who can play the piano well, so you can listen how it sounds while your friend plays it. But don't be a passive observer. Also, if the showroom also has fine acoustic instruments, use them for comparison.
Keep in mind that it is *you* who will be playing the digital piano, and not your friend or the salesperson. Buying digital piano is like buying a stereo system. You can spend almost infinite amount of money if you don't watch out. Get what you are satisfied with, not what others say that you will be satisfied with.
Here are some common concerns for picking a good digital piano, whatever your needs.
Action. Does it *feel* like a piano to you? Do the keys have the proper weight and do they move under your fingers the way you remember a good piano does? Is it easy to imagine that you are picking up and throwing a hammer forward at the end of each stroke? Some pianos offer many levels of velocity-response (i.e. how heavy you have to hit the keys before you get a sound out), so check those settings also.
Dynamic range. Does it respond to velocity properly? How loudly and how softly can it be played? Is it easy to play and maintain an even dynamic level? Does the timbre change properly with dynamic shifts?
Sound. Pick a note, play it loudly, hold it and listen carefully while it decays into silence. Does it sound natural? Does it take long enough? Does it last *too* long? (Time a note at similar loudness on a grand piano for comparison). Can you hear obvious, repeating patterns ("loops")? Repeat this test, playing a chord instead of a single note.
Realistic sound source. Play something moving up and down the keyboard (scales, arpeggios, etc.). Does the sound "move" realistically from side to side (do the bass notes seem to be coming from the left side of the cabinet while the treble notes come from the right)?
Polyphony. How many notes can you hear at once? Ones with less polyphony (12-16), you can run out of notes quickly if you start sustaining multiple notes or playing big chords, resulting in notes being abruptly "cut-off". A good test is to hold down the sustain pedal, play the two lowest C's, then play a glissando about five octaves or more long. Not-so-good models will prematurely and abruptly drop notes in a fashion that you can hear clearly; the worst models will drop one or both bass notes. The best models will chose notes that are acoustically masked by others.
Design. Is the control panel (and the manual) well laid-out and easy to understand? Some poorly designed panels have buttons which are too close to the keys, and while you play you may accidentally hit the control buttons and change the setting of the instrument.
Gadgets. Does it have many bells and whistles? Are the ones it does have useful for you? Is there a built-in key cover? If you need some non-piano voices, does it have the ones you want? Are they good enough for your purposes? Some models offer various levels of reverb, imitating the acoustic "echo" effect you hear when you play an instrument in different environment such as, room, concert hall, studio, etc.
Fine-tuning capability. What kind of hidden "effects" does the model have? Some digital pianos offer a few special purpose modes (like alternate tunings, variable harmonics, adjustable decay length, etc.). Alternate tunings are useful if you play in an ensemble often, because you will be allowed to tune your piano to the ensemble. Others are useful for those who like to fiddle with electronics to get the sound "just right."
Pedaling levels. Does the damper (or sustain) pedals have multi-level of pedaling response, or is it just on-off? In a piano, depending on how much you depress the pedal, you get different amounts of sustaining of the notes. A simple "on-off" pedaling may hamper pianists who are trained to use half-pedaling techniques in a piano.
How powerful is the amplifier/speaker system? Bigger amplifiers and multiple number of speakers generally give you a better sound. You may not necessarily ever use all that excess power, but having that excess power can give you more balanced sound when you play (doesn't sound as if the speakers are straining, etc.).
Are there any magazine reviews on digital pianos?
Are there any magazine reviews on digital pianos?
The December 1993 issue of "Keyboard" had a review of many models, and the July/August 1994 issue of "Piano and Keyboard" had a similar review -- Obviously there are more recent versions available by the time you read this. I suggest that you check your local library or search the web and see if you can find them.
"Electronic Musician" publishes a yearly "Digital Piano Buyers Guide" (the last one came out around October 1994. Again, newer versions are probably available by the time you read this); you won't find any recommendations for specific models, but it gives a pretty comprehensive listing of *everything* on the market, and an easy overview of the current technology for people unfamiliar with it.
The December 1995 issue of the "Keyboard Magazine" is a hardware buyer's guide, and it seem to have specifications on most digital pianos and synthesizers. Check for newer issues that may have more recent listings.
What's different between the different manufacturers
and the different models?
As for *manufacturers*, they usually differ in:
how they sampled the sounds,
key action design,
sound output design,
Thus each company's product line has a distinctly different feel and sound. There are many makers out there. (In alphabetical order) Baldwin, Casio, Kawai, Korg, Kurzweil, Roland, Samick, Technics, Wersi, Yamaha, to name a few. The best way to decide what these differences mean to you is to go to a local dealer and try out the different brands.
Usually, the main differences between various models within the *same maker* are in:
the weighted key action (how the keys feel),
number and size of speakers,
number of voices (piano and non-piano sounds),
polyphony (how many notes you can play simultaneously),
the miscellaneous "gadgets" (like sequencing capabilities, metronome, etc.)
In general, the more money you shell out for a digital piano, the more closely it imitates a piano and better sound. The difference between a low-end model and a mid-range model is usually pretty dramatic. Some low-end models do not have all 88-keys. Some may not even have a sound output system (you basically play it through your stereo speakers or use headphones). The difference between a mid-range model and a high-end model is mostly in the "gadgetry" department and in amplifier power; most of the key elements don't vary a whole lot. The majority of the digital piano market is in the mid- price range, and that's usually good enough to keep most people happy.
What are the most popular brands?
For overall satisfaction within this newsgroup, the general consensus seems to center around Yamaha Clavinova and Technics Digital Piano series. Roland HP series seems to have good reviews on key action and miscellaneous sounds, but they tend to be more expensive. Kurzweil is another brand which is well received. But as stated before, go check them out yourself. Like/dislike is a very personal thing, and you should not make a decision based on what others say.
What is the mean time between repairs?
No body really seems to know the answer to this. This is akin to asking how often does a new car or a stereo component breaks down. There are many people who have had the digital pianos for 10+ years with absolutely no problem, and there are people who ended up with a "lemon" which needed frequent repairs soon after the purchase (within the warranty period).
How much pounding can they take?
The general consensus is that digital pianos can take as much pounding as a piano can. One would hope that the manufacturers have designed them with that in mind. But there have been reports of people chipping the plastic on the key, or losing a spring which helps the feel of a weighted action and have been playing gingerly ever since, but this seems to be in the minority.
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