So, this blog post is specifically about how to select a keyboard for you or your child if you’re just starting lessons or if you have been playing for a while and need to upgrade. If you want to go to the store and buy like a pro, but don’t know what to look for or ask for. This post is for you.
So, just for reference, this is my keyboard setup. Don’t get scared, I’m a professional musician and you probably won’t need anything this in-depth. I’m going to walk you through what kind of keyboard is needed for each level of musician, from very beginner student to advanced professional, divided into three classes: Portable Keyboards, Digital Pianos, and Synthesizers/Workstations
Piano vs. Keyboard
Okay, so first we’ll talk about what reason would you have to choose one over the other. I started my journey with a Casio piano and undoubtedly, a piano is great for learning, because of the feel of the instrument, which is where the expression comes from. The highest end keyboards have a wide range of sounds to fit the occasion, but more importantly will mimic the feeling of a piano to give the most realistic playing experience. A keyboard to learn on can be okay for a while, but there are certain things you need to be aware of.
These are typically called “Portable Keyboards”. They are easy to be moved around the house and with a small case, can go with you on vacation or other places. They’re usually around $100 – $300. Here are some key features that beginners should know.
Number of Keys – How To Select A Keyboard
This first one isn’t as important of a decision for beginners, but it’s the most visible. Keyboards come mainly in variety of 61-keys, 76-keys or 88-keys. The reason for choosing one over the other is for the range that you would like to play. A piano has 88-keys, which is good for a beginner to get comfortable with when starting to play, but not required.
This is probably the most important aspect of a beginner musician. If you’re going to buy a keyboard, it must have this feature. Playing loud and soft are essential to knowing how to create music. Imagine if your voice could only be heard at one volume and you couldn’t change it at a moment’s notice. If a teacher speaks at one volume the whole class, that class is automatically boring. It’s the same for music. So, make sure your keyboard has this feature.
Although you can get a metronome separately, it’s pretty convenient to have one that plays straight from the keyboard. This is an important feature for a beginner. When learning how to play, timing is sometimes very difficult to adjust to when counting while you’re playing. So, make sure the keyboard has a metronome.
Other features like a pitch bend wheel, lighted keys, portable grand buttons, etc are meant to get your attention (AKA gimmick) more than they serve any real purpose for a beginner.
Most of these are digital pianos and synthesizers, and what I recommend to a beginner. They come with more features and realistic sounds, and many mimic some aspects of a real piano and other instruments. Here are some of the important features of digital pianos and intermediate keyboards, which range from $300 – $1,000.
Weighted Keys and Hammer Action
Digital pianos can have one of these or both. When upgrading to an intermediate piano, it’s good to make sure that your keyboard has this feature. This allows for bigger expression, and more volume control than touch response alone.
Number of “Voices”
Most digital pianos only have about 8 – 16 high quality “voices”, which are the types of instruments it can play. A synthesizer will have literally hundreds, and also pre-recorded music that you can play to, usually called “styles”. This is the most prominent factor that separates a digital piano from a synthesizer.
You will see most keyboards tout 64-note polyphony, which is most common around mid-level and advanced keyboards. This is how many notes can be played at once. The higher the polyphony, the more smooth the sound is going from note to note. Toy keyboards have one to five note polyphony. Don’t buy a keyboard that has anything less than 32-note polyphony, and I recommend something with 64-note polyphony or higher.
So, this class is mostly referred to as professional synthesizers or workstations. There are some digital pianos that will fit here as well. However, digital pianos that fit here mostly look like acoustic pianos and are just electronic versions of a full size piano.
These types of synthesizers and workstations are used mostly for recording and performances by professional musicians. The key difference between a synthesizer and workstation is that both can play high quality sounds, but only a workstation can record, edit, store and send to other recording stations.
Beginners don’t really need this level of keyboard. This is more for the performing musician or intermediate pianist who wants to learn about recording or thinks they would like to be a performer someday. If you are at this level, here are some key features to look for.
When performing in live situations, it’s imperative to have a split feature. It allows one half of the keyboard to play one instrument and the other half to play another. Another aspect of this is a customizable split point, where you can change what note the split happens. Most musicians use it to play a bass guitar in the left and chords with the right. But can be used to play jazz chords in the left and some type of improvisation with the right.
Being able to create your own sounds, store them and easily find them again at the press of a button is also massively important. When performing, you need to be able to change sounds quickly to fit the texture of that section of a song.
Where this feature means nothing at the beginner stage, to a performing musician, it’s massively useful. It creates a texture not able to be created on a real piano, but that other instruments enjoy. If used correctly, it can make a guitar solo or brass really come alive.
This last feature unlocks the world to you through your keyboard. Even if the sounds that are on the keyboard leave much to be desired, having the ability to expand the sounds with either expansion cards or through MIDI control, your board can be used to make beautiful music.
This list is not comprehensive; however, even just mentioning a few of these to someone at a music store will get you headed in the right direction. The most important aspect about buying a keyboard is that you like the way that it sounds. Buying a keyboard is mostly about expressing yourself through music in the way that your mind hears it. No keyboard is magic and will make you become the greatest musician alive, but a great sound will inspire you to create more sound after you’ve learned how to play from your teacher.