How to choose an electric piano?
INTRO 1: First of all, the brands that I don’t recommend and recommend are related to my experience and preferences. In my opinion, there is no one who can tell you which piano or keyboard is appropriate for your needs except yourself. The objective of this text is to help you (through what I have learned over the years) to understand the main questions to find your ideal electric piano.
INTRO 2: This document is specially written for many of my clients who have asked me about this topic. Many of these people do not know much about music or production, so, many words are “simplified” even knowing that this can misinform in the first instance, however, the confidence that I have with them allow me to clarify different concepts that they do not understand through practice. So, it is possible that people who are technical experts may feel disturbed by some technical words or superficially definitions.
Electric pianos usually have different functions, I will mention the ones that I think are relevant:
- Electric Piano to study or as a stage piano
a2 *) Electric Piano as a MIDI controller
b) Keyboard with medium weight or light keys that has its own sounds (Synth -analog or digital-, Sampler)
b2 *) Keyboard with medium weight keys as MIDI controller
As the decision of the ideal electric piano is qualitative, there is no a linear scheme to help you make the decision. However, to help you, I will explain a brief introduction (very useful to understand the next information) and also, I will talk about how I organize the essential questions to know which is the ideal piano considering the previously functions that I mentioned. If you prefer a video instead of reading, you can find here a VLOG where I talk about this topic (in spanish, but you can turn on the subs):
The paradigm of the electronic instrument (explained as simple as possible) :
An instrument is usually conceived as 1 object that can produce musical sounds (and music, in the hands of an expert). Each instrument has its own tone (distinctive sound of the instrument eg: A piano, which is basically a furniture with strings and mechanisms, generates the sound known as the sound of the piano, and so on with other instruments). The paradigm here is that the object instrument contains the potential sound (tone) and the mechanism to make it sound but the technology has broken this paradigm because nowadays, you can have the potential sound/tone in an object, that is, the mechanism that will send the necessary information in order that it sounds (what traditionally, in a piano refers to press a key) in another one (What’s more, another object to make the potencial sound appear in the reality!
I will separate both elements as “Controller” (the mechanism that calls the sound) and “Brain” (where the sound is generated).
In the case of the piano, the “controller” is represented by the keys and the mechanism which reaches the hammer and hits the string. On the other hand, the brain is represented by the harp where the string is located, which contains the potential sound. The sound is amplified by the resonance of the furniture itself and generated when the string is activated.
The “keyboards” that are normally sell in the market have the 3 things inside them, like the piano:
Controller – Brain – Amplification
The controller is not just keys. In pianos, it also involves hammers, hammer sensors, buttons, knobs, faders, pedals, etc. Today, there are controllers like clarinets or saxophones, even prostheses that allow dancers to generate MIDI information (which is among other things, the language in which musical instruments communicate today). Nowadays, there are keyboards (with both heavy and light weight keys) that only send MIDI signals and have no sound, these are the famous MIDI Controllers.
The brain can be an analog synthesizer (which generates sound from voltage), it can be a sampler (which “plays” pre-recorded sounds assigned to different keys and intensities), or digital synthesizer (which generates the sound from zero and one).
*I’ve always had the doubt of whether the synths of today actually have samples of synthesized sounds. If anyone can comment on it, it would be great.
In terms of hardware I can find brains inside keyboards (called synths, samplers, or workstations), in racks, and even inside a computer like VSTi (basically virtual instruments) both as in Standalone and inside another production program called DAW (Digital Audio Workstation).
The amplification usually consists of a pair of monitors (speakers, bocinas, parlantes, depending on what your country is), an amplifier or a box (how is called in Chile).
It is important to mention that most Synths usually have midi output, that is to say that having a brain does not take away the possibility of sending the MIDI signal to another side so that other sounds may sound. This signal can be sent by a MIDI cable (5 pins), by USB and nowadays by bluetooth and wifi.
What is relevant to me when choosing the driver?
Above all, being related to the sound that I press, blow or move directly, I believe that the hardware used is very important. If you are someone who studies or studied seriously technical piano, you should consider the construction of keys, hammers and their sensors. If you are going to play live and move a lot you should consider the weight too and how you will relate the controller to the sounds.
In my case the keys (88 full weighted) were essential and, investigating, I discovered (please correct me if I’m wrong) that almost all brands charge their hardware “controller” to FATAR. My experience with FATAR has been very bad, and although, obviously, I have not tried each of their keyboards I know that many of its constructions are excellent. However, all the FATAR keys have failed me, their mechanisms have been broken, chassis have been folded, what’s more, in a range of 6 months to 2 years I had to send, different keyboards to technicians to repair them. Most brands use FATAR pieces.
Kawai and Roland, on the other hand, create their own keys, and in my experience they achieve an excellent price / quality balance for someone who studied piano technique. In his professional range, I have had the pleasure of trying keys at the level of the grandpiano Stenway and Bösendorfer, as well as C7 of Yamaha. Therefore, those are the brands that I recommend for a serious study on 88 heavy keys.
A good story, relevant to the topic, is that the last few times I went to the technician who repaired my keyboards I asked him which were the brands that he repair the most and he mentioned and showed almost all brands except Kawai and Roland, who were the ones who arrived the least. I have seen Roland electric pianos with 20 years which have not had technical problems.
On the other hand, to control a DAW and produce do not necessarily need 88-key controllers. In my case, I have used several keyboards of 61 light keys with faders and knobs (to play live). Unfortunately, the same thing has happened to me, so Roland (again) is my choice when choosing a reliable driver.
Do I need sounds on my keyboard?
If you’re going to play piano, ideally you should have a piano, unless you have a good computer to run a VSTi. The essential question is: Do you need more sounds than the piano? Do you really use them? Where and for how long will you use them ?. Depending on these questions you can choose if you want a keyboard with synth, sampler, analog, digital, etc. or if you really need just a controller and you have the sounds somewhere.
It is also important to mention that the Workstation not only contains the controller and sounds but also a recording, editing and reproduction system within it, many of them include small speakers to listen references. Although in my professional experience, it is always better to listen through monitors (audio).
I am completely in love with the VSTi sounds, and I use them when I play live. There may be an ideal sound for you that you must look for on your own. I think it’s important to consider that the dynamic range is high, in other words: you can play very very slowly until very loud and feel the difference between all the levels (intensities).
Any other recommendation when buying an electric piano?
Try it, each key, each pedal, several sounds (if it has it). If they do not let you try it, do not buy it.
If you’re not going to record, forget about the workstation, if you’re going to use VSTi, you do not need sounds (although it’s always useful it should not be your focus in this case).
On the other hand, if you are interested in the tone, I have seen that some people buy a keyboard just for the sounds they have and then, they use another controller to use them.
The versatility that allows us today the separation between controller and brain is just beginning to show in these last decades. Discovering what is for you the most comfortable way is in your hands. Question, investigate and progress, it is practically inevitable to make a mistake, so at least in the first attempts give the best of you.
I hope this information could be useful.