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Keyboard and Synthesizer Buying Guide

Keyboard and Synthesizer Buying Guide

Keyboard and Synthesizer Buying Guide

 

From affordable starter pianos and MIDI controllers to sophisticated synthesizers and keyboard workstations, learn what to look for when you shop for an electronic keyboard to match your budget, music and skills.

The keyboard category at Musician's Friend includes a broad range of products, from simple MIDI controllers and basic digital pianos to multi-thousand dollar keyboard workstations. Before diving in, it's important to know exactly what you're looking for. This guide will help you figure out what features and functions will best suit your needs and budget.

 

Types of Keyboards

Understanding what each type of keyboard and piano is intended for and capable of can be confusing. Given the large number of products in each of the keyboard categories at Musician's Friend, it's important to have a clear idea of what you're shopping for before you get started.

Common Keyboard Features

There are many features and terms common to all or most categories of keyboards. These are basics that you should familiarize yourself with before getting into the specific features of each keyboard category. Also check the glossary at the end of this buyer’s guide for help with keyboard-related terms you’re unfamiliar with.

Number of keys » Keyboards are available with various numbers of keys, ranging from 25 on small MIDI controllers up to 88, just like on a traditional acoustic piano. Things to consider when deciding how many keys are right for you are space restrictions and the types of music you'll be playing.

Action » You will come across various terms relating to the response of the keybed. Weighted, semi-weighted, synth, and hammer action each offer a different feel. Weighted and semi-weighted actions have a response similar to a traditional piano. Hammer action adds actual mechanical hammers to enhance this response even more. Synth action is more like an organ; there is no resistance and the keys can be played very quickly. If you're accustomed to the feel of a piano, you'll want a keybed that's weighted or semi-weighted, and perhaps with hammer action if you really want a true piano feel. If you're the type of player who plays a lot of fast lead passages, a synth-action keybed will probably suit your needs better.

Touch or velocity sensitivity » The ability of a keyboard to sense the force or speed with which a key is pressed and create a sound or send a MIDI message accordingly.

Polyphony » The number of sounds a keyboard can generate at one time. Keyboards with extensive polyphonic capabilities and sufficient instrument voices can mimic an entire orchestra.

Multitimbrality » The ability of a keyboard to play different sounds at once (i.e., flute, drums, strings, piano). Multitimbrality should not be confused with polyphony.

MIDI compatibility » MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a communication protocol established in the 1980s for electronic instruments and computers. MIDI messages contain no sounds as such, rather serving as a blueprint that tells a hardware or software instrument what notes to play and with what velocity. For example, a MIDI passage could be sent to a keyboard that in turn could play the same passage with any of the sounds available in the instrument. MIDI compatibility enables a keyboard to send and receive MIDI messages.

Computer connectivity » Today's keyboards can connect to a computer in a variety of ways. USB, FireWire, MIDI, S/PDIF, mLAN, and other types of interfaces, either external or built into a keyboard, are ways for computers and keyboards to communicate.

Sequencer » A hardware or software device that records MIDI performance data and plays it back in a user-programmed sequence. Think of it as a 21st-century player piano.

Arpeggiator » An arpeggio is a chord whose notes are played in succession rather than all at once. An arpeggiator electronically creates an arpeggio when a single note is played on the keyboard.

Sampler » A device that records digital audio and allows it to be altered and played back in various ways. If you plan to incorporate external audio clips into your music, you'll definitely want a keyboard with built-in sampling capabilities.

Input/output » The input and output section of a keyboard is something you'll want to consider before buying. If you plan to use your keyboard as a digital audio workstation, having audio ins/outs can save you from having to purchase a separate interface. Audio outputs that connect to external amplifiers, mixers, and speakers are a must if you plan to play live with your keyboard.

Controllers » The amount of control a keyboard offers depends greatly on what you'll be doing with it. For synths, you'll at least want pitch and modulation wheels. As you get into working with MIDI, you may want to have knobs and sliders as well, especially if you're shopping for a MIDI controller. Many keyboards offer visual displays—some with touch capability—to give you more control and ease of use.

Storage » Many keyboards offer internal storage options such as USB flash drives, SmartMedia card slots, CD burners, or hard drives. Others offer external solutions such as USB connectivity so you can transfer data between your computer and other USB-enabled devices and your keyboard.

Expansion » A keyboard with ROM (Read-Only Memory) expansion slots allows additional sound cards to be added giving you additional sound sets. This is a valuable feature if you plan on having your keyboard for a long time. RAM (Random Access Memory) expansion slots allow you to add more memory for samples on a keyboard with sampling functionality.

Synthesizers

Synthesizers are keyboards that for the most part just produce sounds. Most synthesizers today use sample-based synthesis—that is, they use pre-recorded sounds as opposed to analog synths that manipulate electrical signals to create their sounds. Analog synths still exist, though they are few and far between. The technology of analog synthesizers has improved greatly over the years, and they have distinct sounds that many players demand, although many digital synths emulate them with great accuracy. Sample-based synths generally provide a much larger sound set, including piano, organ, horns, strings, and even digital re-creations of classic analog synths. Some synths offer basic sequencing functions as well.

The first thing you should do before shopping for a synthesizer is define your needs. What style of music do you play? How many keys will be sufficient for you? What sounds are most important to your style? A keyboard player in a metal band will obviously have different answers than someone in a country-western band. Sound clips for many of the synthesizers are available for online preview to help you get an idea of their soundsets. It's also important to decide what your budget will be for your synth. Thanks to technological advances, even less-expensive synths come with quality soundsets and keyboard action. So there are plenty of synths to choose from if you don't have tons of money to spend.

Syntesizers include a number of sounds built into the ROM. If you are the kind of player who just wants to plug in and start playing, then you'll want a synth with a lot of presets. If you'd rather create your own unique sounds, be sure to select a synth with plenty of user patch locations (memory slots that allow you to save your sonic creations). Being able to expand the ROM is valuable as well, as it will allow you to update your synth with new or different sound sets.

Other Things to Look for When Shopping for a Synthesizer

Check the ROM capacity; more is better in terms of saving and expanding sounds. As noted above, things like weighted keys, and high-polyphony counts make the synth more playable, powerful and versatile.

Envelope controls let you tailor the attack, sustain, decay, and release time of a sound. A low-frequency oscillator, or LFO, allows you to alter various parameters of a tone. For example, applying the LFO to a tone's pitch creates a vibrato effect. A synthesizer's filter section can be used to remove certain frequencies from a sound and change its timbre. Many synthesizers also have built-in effects like reverb, delay, chorus, and more. If you enjoy pushing the sonic boundaries with what you play, then these are features you'll want to look for in your purchase.

Keyboard Workstations

A keyboard workstation can be thought of as a miniature composing, recording, and production studio. Most workstations have a number of recording features, such as the ability to record audio, an internal hard drive, multitrack recording, built-in CD burners, etc. Workstations are the pinnacle of the professional keyboard world, and will provide the experienced songwriter or producer with the tools needed to craft, record, edit, and finalize songs.

In choosing a workstation, it's important to be sure it provides enough polyphony to handle the passages you'll play and record. When doing multitrack sequencing, the notes on any track are subtracted from the workstation's total polyphony. The more notes the unit can handle, the more you'll be able to make good use of its recording and sequencing capabilities.

Korg Krome 73 Keyboard Workstation

The Krome 73 Workstation from Korg gives you spectacular piano sounds along with a host of other quality voices plus a highly intuitive interface for building your music easily.

The sound sets in most workstations rival those of the top synthesizers. Manufacturers understand that the device will be used for composing and recording, so they tend to load them up with massive sound libraries. You'll typically find a huge array of instruments, such as pianos, guitars, horns, strings, drums, and more. This, of course, lends itself to the workstation being a complete studio-in-a-box.

Computer connectivity is an important function to have in a workstation too, as it allows you to easily sync your workstation with computer recording software. Most workstations come with MIDI and/or USB connections, and some incorporate an mLAN interface that handles MIDI and audio data transfers to and from other devices in your recording network via a FireWire cable. Workstations usually provide audio inputs as well so you can record instruments directly.

Yamaha MOTIF XF Music Production Synth

A massive 741MB of internal ROM, sophisticated 8-element synth architecture, plus super realistic sounds and drum kits give the Yamaha MOTIF XF Music Production Synth huge creativity potential.

Trigger pads are a valuable feature if you want quick access to notes or samples. Hip-hop and modern R&B producers tend to like them for laying down quick beats and loops, though they can be used in a variety of situations.

Some workstations also incorporate a sampler. Having a sampler means you can import any digitized sound you can think of and put it to use in your music—a worthwhile feature if you like to experiment with sounds outside the realm of standard instruments.

Workstations are powerful instruments designed primarily for players who are experienced with sequencing and recording. Chances are if you are shopping for your first keyboard, a workstation might be a little over your head. That's where our next category comes in.

Arranger Keyboards

If a workstation can be viewed as a studio, an arranger can be compared to a songwriting partner. Arrangers are portable-style keyboards with professional sound engines and a number of compositional tools to enhance the songwriting process. Sometimes referred to as a band-in-a box, an arranger provides the sounds and sequencing tools necessary to flesh out an idea and create a full-fledged song. Arrangers are also powerful instruments for live performance, and often the instrument of choice for one-man bands.

While most arrangers do have great sound engines, the scope of available sounds typically isn't as broad as that of a workstation. Arrangers offer a good selection of the main sounds you'll need for a live-band type of feel, such as drums, piano, organ, horns, etc.

Arrangers offer a number of styles (backing accompaniments) that let you tailor the instrument to your particular brand of music. This means you can plug in your chord progression, choose the style you're after, and you'll instantly have a jazz, rock, Latin, or other type of feel to the music with a full band behind it. This is a huge advantage for both composers and live performers.

Arrangers can also be powerful learning tools that familiarize you with the sounds and patterns of various styles of music. Because they are more automated than workstations, arrangers can help you work backwards through a particular style to fully understand all its elements. If workstations and arrangers were automobiles, the former would have a manual transmission, the latter an automatic.

Portable Keyboards

Portable keyboards are generally oriented toward beginning players. The sequencing functions are more basic than those of an arranger, and most include learning functions that help beginners find their way around the keyboard and sequencer.

Casio WK-6600 76-Key Portable Keyboard

Loaded with realistic instrument sounds and accompaniments, a sequencer, and piano-style touch and response, the Casio WK-6600 76-Key Portable Keyboard will get the new piano player off to a great start.

Many portables also feature USB connectivity for transferring sounds to and from your computer or the Internet, saving projects, or even downloading songs for karaoke. If you're a beginning player, or perhaps you play another instrument and would like to have a keyboard to learn or experiment with, a portable is the way to go, as they deliver great bang for the buck and provide fun and entertainment as you learn.

Yamaha PSR-E443 61-Key Portable Keyboard

A full suite of Learn to Play tools, connectivity to iOS and USB devices, an arpeggiator and huge set of great-sounding voices makes the Yamaha PSR-E443 a great bargain for the beginner.

Getting Started Playing the Piano

As noted above, many portable keyboards include tools to help you learn to play piano. While having a professional teacher or pianist friend is an optimal way to learn, there are many other resources available to help keyboard students develop their skills for a lifetime of satisfaction and fun. These include a myriad of teaching methods, books, CDs, and DVDs, all aimed at building your piano skills. You’ll find age-specific tutorials and piano methods that are specifically designed for kids or adults. Many have simplified chord-based approaches that will have you playing songs in no time. Some of the piano courses we sell at Musician’s Friend are made up of multiple volumes, building your skills in logical steps as you graduate from absolute beginner to advancing player to an accomplished keyboardist seeking to refine your piano mastery.

Digital Pianos

Digital pianos can be divided into two categories depending on their intended use. Console pianos are generally intended for use in the home, while stage pianos are designed for the performing musician who needs something more portable. The major difference in these categories is the exterior design, as many stage and home pianos share the same electronic “guts” and sounds. Console pianos incorporate not only the sounds of a piano, but traditional cabinet design elements as well. Console pianos are an ideal choice for the home.

Important elements to consider when buying a digital piano are the responsiveness of the keys, its sound quality, the amplifier and speaker system, and the design that best fits your needs. Many digital pianos include comprehensive learning systems that make them ideal for beginning keyboardists.

Casio Privia PX-150 Digital Piano

Casio's Privia PX-150 has an 88-key hammer-action keyboard and super-realistic grand piano voice for satisfying feel and sound.

As stated earlier, weighted keybeds will provide a more realistic piano feel as you play. Adding hammer action to this equation simulates a traditional piano’s feel even more closely, making the transition between digital and acoustic pianos easier. Most digital piano have 88 keys, just like their acoustic counterparts, though a few are equipped with 61 keys.

The sound a digital piano produces is dependent upon the samples that are embedded within. Most digital pianos get their samples from high-end acoustic pianos, so they all generally will produce quality sounds. Many manufacturers offer sound clips of their pianos. Listening closely for nuances like the sustain and decay of the instrument's sound will help you pick a piano with satisfying sound quality.

Amplification is another important consideration when shopping for a digital piano for home use. If space is a concern, be sure to select a piano with an internal amplifier and speakers. Musician's Friend has a big selection of keyboard amplifiers if you think an external amplifier will better suit your needs.

If you’re looking for a stage piano to use in performance, you’ll probably want output options to connect to either an external keyboard amplifier or sound system.

Organs

Anyone who has dragged a classic Hammond B3 organ and its hefty Leslie speakers to a gig knows what a hernia-inducing experience that can be. The good news for today’s organ players is that modern electronic organs can capture the retro sound of old Hammonds and Wurlitzers without breaking your back (or wallet). The best modern organs replicate subtle nuances of old-school organs right down to the sound of their key-thunk! Most organs today use digital modeling, but incorporate drawbars like a traditional organ to change the sound. Digital organs also have features like effects, pitch bend and modulation wheels, and MIDI compatibility.

Keyboard MIDI Controllers

Before buying a MIDI controller, it's important to define what you need to control, and how much control you need. While MIDI controllers come in different forms, the most common ones have keys. Keyboard-style MIDI controllers can have varying numbers of keys and different response characteristics such as velocity-sensitivity (the keys respond to the speed with which they're pressed), weighted (more realistic, piano-type feel), and aftertouch (allows additional parameters to be assigned to a key such as vibrato or filter sweeps).

Novation Launchkey 49 Keyboard Controller

Novation Launchkey MIDI controller integrates with Mac, PCs, and iPads and works seamlessly with all major DAWs.

MIDI Control Surfaces

Not all MIDI controllers have keyboards. They come in various forms including drum pads, control surfaces (for controlling a software mixer, for example), wind controllers, and combination controllers with keys, knobs, and sliders. The first question to ask yourself when considering a MIDI controller is "What will I be controlling?" The answer to this question will largely dictate the kind of controller you need, and what sort of features and controls it will offer. For example, if you plan on doing mostly synth work (with a software synth like Reason, for example), you will want a keyboard-style controller with your preferred keybed action. From there, you can decide whether additional buttons, sliders, or trigger pads are necessary for your setup. With the power that software synths, sequencers, and recording programs offerr these days, many players are opting for a robust computer setup with a comprehensive MIDI controller.

Native Instruments MASCHINE MK2

The Native Instruments MASCHINE MK2 combines sampler, arranger, mixer, and effects with industry-standard groove box workflow for intuitive creativity.

Summing Up

By now you should have a pretty good idea of the important things to look for when considering a keyboard or digital piano. Armed with that information, you’re now better equipped to find the right gear to match your needs and budget.

 

After reading this guide, if you’re still not sure which keyboard or digital piano is right for you, we invite you call to one of our friendly and knowledgeable Music Bliss 016-3111 286

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