What keyboard should I buy? | Printable keyboard shopping checklist
This is a common question that I get as a music teacher. So today in this video we’re going to go into some detailed specifics about what kind of keyboard might suit you as a musician.
As you’re aware there are so many different kinds of keyboards – some are fantastic and some of them are pure junk! The goal of this video is to find a good keyboard that fits you as a musician.
Click here to read a transcript of this piano lesson
Before we dig into the options available on electronic keyboards let’s talk about terms that you might hear. If you went into a piano store you’ll hear the salesman talking about something called a “digital piano”. This is actually is a keyboard but the digital piano market is primarily made up of keyboards that are designed to be used at home and not move around. For many of the digital pianos, the emphasis by the manufacturer is on making the keyboard look like a piece of furniture. So they’ll include things like wood grain or they’ll even go so far as to try and make the digital piano look like an acoustic piano. They may give the keyboard a grand piano lid, or a grand piano case. It’s amazing but the truth is that a big portion of what you’re paying for when you buy a digital piano is the appearance. If you also want to have a good instrument as well as a good-looking instrument when you buy a digital piano, you’ve really got to step up to the plate and pay the big bucks. Another term you might hear when you’re out looking for a keyboard is the term “synthesizer”.
This is really an older term dating back to the 60s when keyboards actually did synthesize the sound. This means that they actually created the sound as it was being played. So the keyboard would create a sound using all kinds of electronic components like modulators and oscillators and a bunch of nerdy things, but they were really quite cool. An interesting note is that synthesizers – true synthesizers – are making a come back just like everything vintage: it comes around again.
Most modern keyboards are not synthesizers. Most modern keyboards have all the sounds prerecorded. When you press a key they simply play back the prerecorded sound.
As you’re out keyboard shopping you’ll also hear just a general term: “keyboard”.
This refers to what you see most of the time – keyboards that are designed to take with you and are relatively portable. These keyboards have a whole range of options and really this is where we will spend the most time in our video today. We’ll be talking about the options of the modern keyboard.
The very first option that you should have on your list when you are looking for a modern keyboard is the feature: “touch sensitivity”.
This is very simple to understand, but it’s not included in all keyboards. Here’s how it works – when you press the key softly, the sound is soft like this… [keyboard playing]
And of course when you press the key harder the sound comes out louder. [keyboard playing]
My keyboard actually has the option to turn touch sensitivity on and off. Let me turn it off and play a passage for you. You can hear how sterile and lifeless the sound is because all notes will be exactly the same volume… [keyboard playing]
Now I’ll turn touch sensitivity back on and will play the same passage again. Listen to the differences in volume or dynamics between the notes. These differences are very natural and are one of the most powerful things that makes music come alive.
To get this feature you have got to spend somewhere the neighborhood $150 for a keyboard. To be honest this is very very cheap for a keyboard. The cheapest of all the keyboards are like $60 or $70 at Costco or BestBuy and probably won’t have touch sensitivity.
Here’s the danger: if you start playing on a keyboard that does not have touch sensitivity, you’ll develop a lifeless “typewriter” technique and your music won’t have any changes or dynamics. You’ll never have music that people will want to listen to! So put this at the top of your list as you’re shopping for a keyboard: a keyboard that has touch sensitivity.
Option number two
As you are shopping for a keyboard you’ll see that many keyboards have different numbers of keys. The maximum number of keys on the biggest keyboards is 88. This really is desirable – it matches the acoustic piano you’ll find in a concert hall.
If you can afford it get a keyboard that has 88 keys. Some of the smaller keyboards have 76 keys or 61 keys or even 49 or 44. The manufacturers just keep chopping keys off the top and the bottom to make keyboards a little cheaper.
Having said all that, sometimes you want a smaller keyboard just for portability. If you’re a keyboard superstar and you want to get a keyboard you can strap around your neck and runaround on the stage, you’re going to want a keyboard with maybe 44 notes or something like that. But for the vast majority of us you want to have a keyboard that has 88 keys.
Here’s a really important point – make sure the keys themselves are full-size.
On keyboards that are (for lack of a better term) “toys”, manufacturers will make the individual keys smaller. This will really give you lots of problems in the long run because as musicians we rely on something called “muscle memory”.
As you learn the distances between the notes, your hands will remember those distances. As you graduate from the toy keyboard with small keys to a bigger keyboard you’ll be playing lots of wrong notes!
I see people who have a very difficult time getting over this, so buy a keyboard that has full-size keys.
Option number three:
I really struggled whether to put this as option number 2 or 1 because these top options are just so important.
This option is called “weighted keys”.
If you find a keyboard that has weighted keys, you’ve found a keyboard that is going to be the best keyboard for the long-term health of your hands.
What I mean is this: a keyboard with weighted keys actually has parts inside that have mass or “weight” to them. When your finger comes down and starts to press the key, all of that energy is transferred into those moving parts inside the keyboard. Those weighted parts begin to move.
In a cheap keyboard where there’s no weighted keys, the key is held up with a cheap little spring. When your finger comes crashing down, that spring is compressed and the key hits the dead stop on the bottom of the keyboard, suddenly you’ve got a shock wave that goes back up your arms and guess what… after a couple months of playing a keyboard like that, you’ve got tendinitis!
I know because it happened to me.
Back in college I had a keyboard that didn’t have weighted keys. (College students have no money) I had a cheap keyboard that just had springs but I lived on that thing every night and day.
Eventually I started getting tendinitis in both my arms and the doc said “Listen, if you don’t stop doing what you doing you will not to be able to play”!
As soon as I found out about the keyboard I “deep sixed” it. I got rid of it and spent the money, I actually went into debt, which I wouldn’t advise. But I wanted to get a great keyboard with weighted keys and I haven’t had a problem since.
So if you want to play for years and years and minimize your risk of getting tendinitis spend the money and get a keyboard that has weighted keys.
Option number four:
This has to do with polyphony. “Poly” meaning many and “phone” meaning sound.
When you want to know about the polyphony of a keyboard you want to know how many sounds it can produce at the same time.
For instance cheap keyboards will have something like eight notes: meaning that it can play up to eight notes at the same time. You might be thinking “Well I only have 10 fingers, am I really going to be playing more than eight notes at the same time?” You’d be surprised – especially when you start talking about using the sustain pedal.
As you may or may not know the sustain pedal will continue holding the notes that your fingers have played as long as your foot stays pressed down.
Let’s say you played a 5 note chord (which is pretty common) and then you play a few melody notes on top and you add a bass line… suddenly you’ve used all the notes and what begins to happen?
If you exceed the polyphony of the keyboard, the notes begin dropping out.
It really sounds awful – you have a note underneath the chord playing, it drops out and it leaves a hole in your music! You really begin to notice if the polyphony of your keyboard is too low.
What happens if you want to layer sounds? You may want to have piano and strings at the same time as you play a 5 note chord. Guess what – when you’re playing a layered sound you’ve got 5 piano notes and five string notes but you’re keyboard only has 8 note polyphony – some notes are going to get cut off and it’s going to sound terrible!
So make sure you spend enough money to get at least 64, 98 or 128 notes of polyphony – that sounds like a lot but it’s actually becoming pretty standard. That way you’ll never run out of sounds as you layer sounds or use your sustain pedal.
Option number five:
“MIDI”: “Midi” stands for “musical instrument data interface”. It’s a way to communicate between keyboards and computers.
For instance using midi you can connect two keyboards together. You can then play one keyboard but you can have the sounds coming out of another keyboard!
That may sound crazy to you but is actually very useful – we’ll talk about that later.
Another application for midi is if you want to record what you play into a computer – you can simply connect your keyboard and computer via midi. Then the computer records the notes on and off, exactly when you play them and how hard you play them. Then you can play it back from the computer, fix anything and change the sounds on your keyboard so you can get it just right. Midi is a very useful technology.
Midi capability used to be an option on most keyboards but now midi capability is standard on most keyboards. The option now is how midi connects to your keyboard.
Midi connections used to only be available through midi cables and midi ports on your keyboard – “in, out and through”. Now that USB is becoming standard, you’ll find keyboards have just a USB port.
It’s very easily connected to your computer with a USB cable just like a printer. The great thing about the newer USB connections is that they’re screaming fast, so that as you play notes, they are almost instantaneously recorded in the computer or played on another keyboard. If you need to connect a USB keyboard to an old keyboard that has midi inputs you can use a converter the that is sold at music stores.
Option number six:
“Memory”: This is really a super important option and I’ll tell you why: Keyboard manufacturers try to sell keyboards (that’s obvious!) The way they typically will do it, especially lesser quality lesser expensive keyboards is to overwhelm you with thousands of sounds and dozens of buttons and knobs on the keyboard. They’re hoping that you look at the keyboard and say, “Look at this this keyboard – it has 1000 sounds, it must be the one to buy!”
What they’re not telling you is that they’ve got 1000 sounds but a very small amount of memory in the brain of the keyboard. So what they have to do is divide that memory into 1000 different sections – one for each of the sounds that’s prerecorded.
So what happens? You go into the store, you pick one of the sounds and you press and hold down the key. The problem now is the keyboard does not have enough memory allocated to that sound to keep it going.
So what do they do? The manufactures get around this by only recording the very beginning of each sound and then for the remaining time you’re holding down the key they continue looping the middle section of the sound over and over.
In the store it doesn’t seem like a problem because you’re overwhelmed by all the sounds etc. But when you get home and you’re playing those sounds your ear will start picking out the repetitive nature of the sound. You may not be aware of it, but your ears will get fatigued at that sound and you’ll think: “Why do I hate the sound of this keyboard”… and eventually it’s pushed back underneath the bed.
So what do you do? You go to the store and you ignore all the bells and whistles.
Ask the salesperson for some headphones, plug them in, pick one sound on the keyboard and then play a four or five note chord. Instead of playing other notes, just continue holding those notes down.
Then as the sound continues ask yourself this question - “Do I hear the sound looping or does it continue on naturally?”
If you start hearing the loops then you know that keyboard is going to bug you really bad within a couple weeks!
It’s really important to find out how that memory is allocated in the keyboard and that’s a great way to find out.
Option number seven:
“Type of Keyboard” – we’re going to look at three different types of keyboards.
The most common type of keyboard is just called a “keyboard”. It has sounds and speakers – you can pick from the different sounds and play to your hearts content. That’s a standard keyboard.
A step up from there something called a workstation.
A workstation also has sounds, it has keys, maybe it has speakers but it has the addition of something called a sequencer where you can actually record everything you’re doing.
This is similar to being in the studio meaning you can record a piano part. Then you can rewind that and while listening to your piano part you can record a bass part. Then you can rewind and do the same with many different layers.
With a workstation, you can emulate what a studio does.
The opposite to a workstation is something called a controller.
A controller is a keyboard that only has keys. It doesn’t have any sounds on board, it doesn’t have any sequencer to record anything. It simply has keys and then it has a midi connection so you can connect to another keyboard and play the sounds of the other keyboard.
Or you can connect the controller keyboard to a computer and play and record sounds out of the computer. That might sound really limiting to you – it doesn’t have sounds, it doesn’t have any speakers – “Why would I buy that?”
Here’s the giant plus for buying just a controller: When you buy a controller, 100% of your money is going to the quality built into the moving parts of the keyboard.
Realistically, most people won’t go out and buy just a controller, they’ll buy a keyboard that also has sounds on board.
So with that in mind, here’s my recommendation – buy a keyboard that includes sounds that you like, but make sure you focus on purchasing a keyboard that has 88 full-size weighted keys and includes a USB midi connection. That way, down the road, when you are ready to upgrade your sounds, you can use this first keyboard as a controller, and play new sounds through another (cheaper) keyboard or your laptop!
Guess what – the moving parts or the action of any keyboard are the only parts of that keyboard that don’t get outdated, or don’t go out of style.
For instance, let’s say you buy a keyboard that has good sounds and it’s got a good action – you spent a lot of money – but in a couple years what happens? The technology improves and the sounds are much better! So to upgrade you’ve got to buy a whole new keyboard with a good action and good sounds again – you keep spending this money year after year.
Here’s a much better plan: when you first buy a keyboard make sure you put money into a keyboard that has a really good quality action meaning it has touch sensitivity and it’s got weighted keys. In addition make sure you get 88 full-size keys.
Then when it comes time to upgrade the sounds of your keyboard don’t go out and buy a whole new keyboard with new sounds and a whole new action. Keep your good keyboard that has a great action and that you spent your money on. Then use your midi capability to connect to and play a newer keyboard that may have better sounds, but maybe not a high-quality action like the keyboard that you’ve already got.
Another option is to take this fantastic keyboard with a great action that you already own and connect with your USB cable to your computer. Computers obviously have way more horsepower than a keyboard ever thought of having.
What folks are doing is they’re taking their keyboard and connecting it into the computer with a USB cable. Then they’re downloading something called a virtual instrument (check it out online).
Virtual instruments are really the cutting edge of making very high-quality, very realistic sounds.
You’ll see a lot of performers that have their keyboard and maybe they’ll have a cable going off to their laptop. The sound is actually coming out of their laptop because that can be updated almost for free.
Your keyboard has to be bought with a pretty good chunk of change – especially if you get a good action and weighted keys and the whole nine yards. Once you’ve got that you can upgrade your sounds by using it as a controller and playing through a laptop or another keyboard.
So I hope this has been helpful for you – seven options to think about as you are going out to get yourself a keyboard that will fit you as a musician!
My name is David Sprunger from PlayPianoTODAY.com
Thanks for listening – now you know what to do…