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Buying a Digital Piano An Introduction

ALDEN SKINNER and Piano Buyer staff

If, after reading “Acoustic or Digital: What’s Best for Me?,” you’ve decided on a digital piano, the next step is to shop for and select the right model for your needs. There are currently some 200 models of digital piano on the market. Narrowing the field requires exploring some basic issues.


Kawai, Great Digital Pianos Begin Here


Style and Price

Digital pianos come in three basic physical styles: slab, console (also sometimes called vertical or upright), and grand (see illustrations). Which instrument style you choose will depend on use, space limitations, furniture requirements, and price.

 

Slab: A slab is simply a keyboard and, usually, pedal(s), without a stand. If you need to take the piano to a gig, or if home is a dorm room or a small studio apartment and you need to make the most efficient use of every square inch, you may opt for a slab that can be placed on a stand or table for practice, and stuck in a closet when not in use. Keep in mind, however, that slabs currently on the market weigh from 20 to 85 pounds, so be sure to choose one with a weight that you can handle.

Dynatone

Slabs generally come with a single pedal, but for many models, optional stands and three-pedal units are available. You may need to buy the slab, stand, and pedal unit separately and put them together, or a retailer you buy from may sell you all the parts as a package deal. Slab digital pianos start as low as $200, with most priced between $500 and $2,000, and a few as high as $7,000. An optional matching stand with integrated pedal assembly usually costs $200 to $300 more, but a simple, generic stand can be had for as little as $40. Note that some slabs don’t come with a stand to hold your music; you might need to provide one.

Console: A console is a keyboard with a stand or cabinet that contains a built-in pedal assembly. A console may look like an upright acoustic piano or organ, or simply like a digital piano. Consoles generally have a stand and pedal assembly built in at the factory. However, as mentioned above, many slabs can effectively be turned into a console by separately buying a stand with an integrated pedal assembly.

The cabinetry of console models ranges from two flat side supports with a cross member for stability, to elegant designs that would look at home in the most posh surroundings. It’s common for models in this category to be available in multiple finish options, including synthetic wood grain, real-wood veneers, and, on some of the better models, the lustrous polished ebony often found on acoustic pianos. Most of these models have the usual three pedals. Console digitals start at about $500, with most priced between $1,000 and $5,000, and a few as high as $10,000.


Casio PX-870 Privia


Grand: If the piano will be in elegant surroundings, you may choose a grand-style digital. Digital grands come in lengths of about three feet — just long enough to suggest the shape of a baby grand — to about five feet. Like some of the console models, these are often available in a variety of wood-grain finishes and the polished ebony finish common in today’s acoustic grands. You will usually pay a premium for the elegant furniture. Grands start at $1,500, with most priced between $3,000 and $10,000, and a few as high as $20,000.

Note that there is little or no relationship between an instrument’s physical style and its musical features — slabs are often used on stage by professional musicians, and grand-shaped digitals may have features no better than the non-grand versions they’re based on. However, the larger spaces enclosed by a grand-piano cabinet and some console cabinets can accommodate more, larger, and more advantageously positioned speakers, particularly bass speakers (woofers). This, and the sympathetic vibration of a wood cabinet, may result in better sound quality from the onboard speakers of some cabinet models than that found in digitals without cabinets, especially slabs.

Speakers, Headphones, and Stage Pianos

headphonesMost people who buy a digital piano do so, in part, so that they can play with headphones and not disturb anyone. For that reason, all digital pianos come with headphone jacks. When used with headphones, most instruments’ onboard (internal) speakers are silenced. Also, nearly all digital pianos can have the sound of their onboard speakers rerouted to an external amplifier and speakers if, for example, the onboard speakers are inadequate for the venue, or if you’d prefer to use the speakers of your home audio system.

Some slab digitals come without onboard speakers. These are called stage pianos, and are generally used by professional musicians in performance venues where an external amplifier and speakers are expected to be present. Not having onboard speakers saves a little bit in cost, weight, and space. However, if you’re planning to use the instrument at home most of the time, the convenience of having at least some onboard speakers is generally worth the trade-off.

(Note: The stage piano category also includes a few models of electronic keyboard with fewer than 88 notes and/or with keys that are not weighted to feel like an acoustic piano. For our purposes, those models are not considered digital pianos and are not included in our database.)

Taking Stock of Your Musical Needs

Inner Act

Unless you expect to buy another piano in a year or so, you need to consider your long-term requirements. Who will be the piano’s primary player today, and what are his or her musical interests and ambitions? If it’s for the family, how long will it be until the youngest child has the opportunity to learn? Does Mom or Dad harbor any musical interests? If so, it’s likely that one family member or another will use the instrument for many years to come. This argues for getting a higher-quality instrument, whose advantages of better tone, touch, and features will be appreciated over time.

If multiple players will use the instrument, it needs to meet the expectations of the most advanced player. At the same time, a beginner in the family will benefit from features that are of no interest to the advanced player, and still another family member may just want to fool around with the instrument once in a while. Easy-play features and educational software will keep these players happy — and you might be surprised how many people are enticed into learning to play as a result of these easy first steps. So, obviously, an individual player may search among a very narrow range of instruments, while a family may have to balance the different needs of several people. Fortunately, the wealth of available choices can easily accommodate any combination of individual and/or family needs.

Instrumental Voices (Sounds) and Ensemble Capabilities

Sounds in digital pianos are also known as voices or tones. Voices can include such sounds as:

  • Individual musical instruments, such as piano, electric piano, guitar, flute, etc.
  • Combinations of instruments, such as a string or brass ensemble
  • Percussion sounds, such as snare drum or cymbals
  • The human voice
  • Unusual sound effects, such as gunshot or helicopter

Some digital pianos may contain more than one example of a particular type of voice, especially piano, such as bright- and mellow-sounding pianos, or pianos that mimic the tonal characteristics of several different well-known makes of concert grand.

The sounds of many instruments can be played on a digital piano.

Standard or traditional digital pianos are designed mainly to emulate the acoustic piano, with the optional accompaniment of one or more other voices. Most will allow you to split the keyboard so that the right hand plays a melody in one instrumental voice while the left hand plays an accompaniment in another (such as piano and string bass); or to layer the sounds so that two or more instrumental voices sound together (such as piano and strings) when each key is played. These days, even the least-expensive standard digitals usually have at least a few different piano voices, as well as a dozen or two other instrumental voices, such as harpsichord, church and jazz organ, vibes, and strings. Many models contain hundreds of voices, built-in rhythms, sound effects like reverb and chorus, and a metronome for keeping time, among other features.

Other, slightly more expensive models, called ensemble or arranger digital pianos, generally have all the features of standard digitals, but also come with two other major features: Easy-Play and Auto-Accompaniment. With Easy-Play, playing as little as a single key will trigger the sound of an entire chord. With Auto-Accompaniment, an entire musical combo or orchestra (strings, horns, percussion, etc.) will back you up as you play, and automatically change its accompaniment to match your melody or changing chords. These backing tracks, known as styles, come in all kinds of musical forms, such as Swing, Latin, Rock, World, and so forth — with many different rhythms and special effects. The best of these styles are of a caliber that will please the most discerning ear.

You might not think you need the additional capabilities of an ensemble digital, but having them can enable the beginner, as well as family members who don’t take lessons, to have a lot more fun and sound like pros with minimal practice. The instant gratification provided by auto-accompaniment might keep a player with low attention span more fully engaged. For an advancing player, the opportunities for musical creativity are significantly enhanced. On the other hand, if you’re the only player and expect to play mostly classical piano music, you may not want to spend money on the ensemble feature.

When looking over the specs of digital pianos, it’s easy to be impressed by the large number of voices that some models contain, and there was a time in the recent past when the number of voices was closely related to an instrument’s quality and price. That’s no longer necessarily true. First, the price of memory has plummeted to the extent that even the least expensive models can be outfitted with hundreds of voices. Second, the quality of the voices, which is related to the amount of memory they take up, varies considerably; more voices doesn’t necessarily mean a better instrument. It’s expensive for a manufacturer to create or purchase custom, high-quality sounds, and these sounds take up a lot of memory. When an instrument contains more than a few dozen voices, often most of the rest are from a standardized set of voices, sometimes usable only for playback of files created elsewhere, but not selectable from the instrument panel by the user; or from a company’s library of legacy (older) voices; both usually using less memory, and therefore of lower quality than the company’s latest offerings. That said, these additional voices can still come in handy for the power user who needs a certain unusual sound or combination of sounds, or for the playback of some music files that call for them. And ensemble digitals, with the diverse instrumentation contained in their many styles, can make good use of the extra voices. But most home users of standard digital pianos will find a dozen or two high-quality voices to be more than sufficient.

Keep in mind also that we’ve been speaking here only of an instrument’s internal voices. These days, it’s also possible to install additional high-quality piano and instrumental voices on your computer, and play them using your digital piano as a keyboard controller; or to download voices to the digital piano directly from the Internet via Bluetooth (both discussed later).

Piano Sound and Acoustic Piano Realism

Manufacturers create digital piano sounds either by recording actual pianos (known as sampling) or by using mathematical algorithms to mimic the acoustic properties of piano sounds (known as physical modeling). Some instruments employ a combination of the two methods. Whereas even the most expensive acoustic piano has only a single set of sound characteristics, many modestly priced digital pianos can reproduce the sounds of multiple sampled concert grands, pianos with different tonal characteristics, and imitations of vintage electronic keyboards, among others. Digital pianos that use physical modeling, and some that use sampling, may even allow the user to make extensive custom refinements to the built-in piano sounds.

Some kinds of music, especially classical, require a level of musical expression that traditional acoustic pianos have evolved to satisfy. For those who play, or plan to play, this music, the ability of a digital piano to imitate the sound, touch, and pedaling of an acoustic piano is important. For players of other kinds of music, however, the ability of a digital piano to sound or play like an acoustic one may be less important. Although virtually all digital pianos are designed to imitate acoustic pianos to some extent — that’s why they’re called digital pianos, not electronic keyboards — they vary considerably in how accurately and thoroughly they do so.

The better digital pianos more accurately imitate an acoustic piano by, among other things:

  • Re-creating the piano’s acoustical resonance, and the sympathetic vibrations of the strings of an acoustic piano’s unplayed notes — that is, the keys the player hasn’t struck — especially when the sustain pedal is depressed, as well as the sound of a vibrating string being silenced by a damper when a key is released: sounds that are subconsciously part of the acoustic-piano experience.
  • Having a larger number of speakers, or speakers that are better positioned; or special features like a soundboard speaker system, in which an acoustic-piano–style soundboard is used as a “speaker.”
  • Containing higher-quality key sensors to more accurately translate the speed with which a key is depressed into sound volume; re-creating the acoustic-piano action’s feel of “escapement” as a key is depressed, and having wooden keys with keytops that imitate the feel of ivory, which absorbs sweat and so is less slippery to the touch than plastic.
  • Including three pedals that perform the same functions as on an acoustic grand (soft, sostenuto, sustain), and a sustain pedal capable of half pedaling, a pedaling technique used by advanced players.

Note that all of the models that we consider to be digital pianos have 88 notes, the keys are weighted, and, in virtually all of them, the touchweights are graded (i.e., the resistance to your touch gradually decreases from bass to treble) across the range of the keyboard — all just as in an acoustic piano. Instruments with fewer than 88 notes, or with semi-weighted keyboards that depend on springs for their weight, should be avoided by those looking for a realistic acoustic-piano experience.

Connecting to a Computer

 

USB connectorsVirtually all digital pianos can be connected to a personal computer, allowing you to:

 

  • Use computer software and a printer to record, notate (write), edit, and print the music you play
  • Use software that will, for example, help you learn to play piano, train your musical ear, or teach you music history
  • Use your digital piano as a keyboard controller for playing virtual instruments (i.e., instrumental sounds that reside on your computer)
  • Play duets or practice with someone in a different location

Digital pianos communicate with a computer and each other via a music-technology language called Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI). MIDI is not music — it’s a stream of data commands that basically specify which notes are played, when, and how loudly, among other parameters. This common language allows music composed on one digital piano to sound more or less the same when played on another (“more or less” because, even when both instruments are playing their respective “piano” voice, for example, the tonal characteristics of the two “pianos” might be quite different from one another). MIDI also allows your digital piano to interact with music software on your computer.

Most digital pianos connect to a computer via a cable that plugs into USB ports on both ends. (The USB port on the digital piano is technically known as USB to Host.) A few of the less-expensive models rely on an older method: a cable from the MIDI ports of the piano to a USB port on the computer. The newest method of connecting to a computer is wirelessly via Bluetooth.

Bluetooth and Internet Connectivity

Cellphone with BluetoothAn increasing number of digital pianos are now equipped with Bluetooth, to link to the Internet using your smartphone or tablet as a hotspot. This feature is still in its infancy, so many of its potential uses are not yet known; here are some of the ways it’s currently being used:

  • Stream virtually unlimited music, sounds, rhythms, and styles from the Internet, and play along with them and/or record them for later playback
  • Access an app on your smartphone to change your digital piano’s touch, tone, and tuning
  • Access an app on your smartphone for sophisticated recording in MIDI or digital audio
  • Access sheet music from the Internet and use an app on your smartphone to turn pages
  • Access apps and online video tutorials to learn to play piano, or to teach yourself a particular song
  • Access the piano manufacturer’s user guide, instructional videos, and apps to learn to use and customize your instrument

Recording and Playback

Most digital pianos allow you to record your playing for future playback. Here are some of the reasons you might want to do this:

  • To critically review your own piano playing, possibly with a teacher
  • To play a duet with a recording you previously made of yourself, or one made by someone else
  • To create a “one-person band” by recording different instrumental parts from the same piece of music on separate tracks and combining them into a single performance
  • To create a soundtrack for a home video

As mentioned earlier, digital pianos create and record music as a sequence of MIDI commands — thus the name MIDI sequencer for the most common form of internal recorder in a digital piano. This type of recording system is popular because it requires relatively little memory, and because of its simplicity and flexibility: If you later want to play the music back with different instrumental sounds, all you need do is specify the different voices, usually by pressing a button or two — you don’t have to re-record the music.

Digital piano models vary in their internal recording (MIDI sequencing) capabilities from one track to about 16 tracks. However, the trend in the industry today is to output the music from the instrument to a computer, and to use computer software, not the piano’s internal recorder, for sophisticated recording and music editing. This MIDI sequencing software is generally inexpensive, runs faster than the piano’s internal recorder, and is constantly evolving in sophistication. Thus, most digital pianos today have no more than three to five internal recording tracks, and often as few as one or two. A minority of models still have as many as 16 tracks, and the larger number of tracks could be convenient if, say, you wanted to sketch out an idea requiring many instrumental voices and a computer wasn’t nearby. But a few tracks will be more than enough for most nonprofessional users.

If you want to create a very high-quality recording, however, it’s generally necessary to record in a digital audio format, such as MP3 or .WAV, instead of MIDI; that is, to record the actual sound, rather than just the MIDI commands. This used to be the exclusive province of specialized, expensive workstations, but the ability to record in digital audio has now trickled down to many digital piano models. This type of recording is much more memory-consuming than MIDI sequencing, so it’s usually stored on a USB memory device, such as a flash drive, plugged into the piano. The recording can then be transferred to a computer, where you could use it, for example, as the soundtrack of a home video, or upload it to social media, or e-mail it to family and friends.

SELECTED OTHER FEATURES

External Flash-Drive Storage

Flash driveSome digital pianos allow you to store your recorded music and other files on USB flash drives or memory cards plugged into a port provided for this purpose. (This port is technically known as USB to Device.) These may be files you’ve recorded, files you’ve downloaded from the Internet, or files of additional rhythm patterns and styles, additional voices, and user data such as the instrument’s internal settings.

Vocal Support

microphoneSome digital pianos feature a microphone connection, on the theory that many who love to play also love to sing. At its most basic level, this feature simply uses the digital piano’s audio system as a PA system for the singer. However, some models can also employ effects processing to enhance the performer’s voice in some way, or can combine the vocal input with harmonizing to create four-part harmony. Some will also display karaoke lyrics, which, on some higher-end models, can also be output to a video display, such as a TV monitor. Without the vocal support feature, it would still be possible to run vocals through the instrument’s speaker system via its line-in connection, but the microphone would require its own amplifier (or the use of an amplified mic), and the special effects mentioned above would not be available.

Educational Support

digital piano lessonsSome digital pianos include educational extras, such as digital piano lessons, a DVD, or a teaching app that can guide the beginner through a number of factory-installed or downloaded songs, even integrating with Internet connectivity to provide interactive coaching. While not a substitute for a private teacher or class lessons, these materials can be very useful to those who have only a casual interest in learning to play, or whose budget for lessons is limited.

In this tutorial, we’ve only barely scratched the surface of the amazing features of today’s digital pianos. You can read about these and other features in greater depth in our online-only “Digital Piano Basics” articles. Read on for information and tips about the process of shopping for a digital piano

Shopping Options

Your shopping options depend on the type of digital piano you’ve decided to buy and the region you live in. In North America, different categories of instruments are available through different types of outlets. Furniture-style models, particularly the higher-end models manufactured by the largest suppliers, are available mostly through traditional bricks-and-mortar piano dealers, though increasingly they’re finding their way into other types of outlet. The lower-priced console, slab, or stage models, and some of the less widely distributed brands, are available from a cross section of traditional bricks-and-mortar music retailers, club and warehouse chains such as Costco, consumer-electronics chains such as Best Buy, big-box instrument stores such as Guitar Center, and online retailers such as Amazon, Kraft Music, Musicians Friend, and Sweetwater Music. If you enter into a search engine the specific brand and model of instrument you’re looking for, and the name of the city you live in or near, the search results will usually show both online and local sources for that model.

At a bricks-and-mortar retailer, prices are usually somewhat flexible, and negotiating the price of a digital piano is no different from negotiating the price of an acoustic piano (as is discussed in “Piano Buying Basics,” elsewhere in this issue). But wherever you shop, you’ll find that many of the simpler console digitals and nearly all slab and stage-piano models that are sold through a variety of local and online stores are virtually always sold at the same price. This is due to a pricing model called minimum advertised price (or MAP), that’s used for many categories of products.

A manufacturer’s or distributor’s MAP is the lowest price at which a dealer is allowed to advertise an item. Since prices are easily compared and all retailers want an even chance at winning your business, everyone advertises at the MAP. And since the MAP is typically lower than the price at which the dealer might have preferred to sell the item, the selling price is rarely lower than the MAP. Therefore, MAP has become the standard pricing for all non-piano-dealer models of digital piano. (Note: In practice, retailers will often get around the MAP advertising restriction by offering discounts on accessories when you buy the instrument. Also, the restriction is only on the advertised price, not the selling price. With online retailers, it may be possible to get a lower price if you can speak with a salesperson over the phone.)

In deciding where to buy, consider what level of service and support you require. Do you:

  • Want to try out an instrument before buying?
  • Need the help of a salesperson in choosing an instrument or in learning how to use it?
  • Need someone to come out to your home to install or set up the instrument?
  • Want local warranty support in case you encounter a problem?

If the answer to any of these is “yes,” then you should buy from a piano dealer, or other bricks-and-mortar music dealer, as these services will not be available from online retailers, and will be minimal at best from mass merchandisers like Costco. To some extent this will limit the models available to you, as bricks-and-mortar dealers are more likely to stock models whose higher prices and profit margin can support the services they provide. On the other hand, if you’re experienced at buying music technology online, pretty much know what you want, or are a beginner with few requirements and just buying something inexpensive, you may find it quicker, easier, and cheaper to buy online.

Tips for the Serious Shopper

If you’re going to be shopping for an instrument among local bricks-and-mortar music retailers, the following shopping tips may be useful:

  • Calibrate your ears. Before you shop, “calibrate” your ears by listening to recordings of solo piano. Listen to whatever type of music you enjoy — and use the headphones you bought for your digital piano. This will embed in your mind, as a benchmark, the sound of high-quality acoustic pianos.
  • Evaluate the tone. Evaluating an instrument’s tone is very subjective, and judging the tone of instruments that have a lot of voices can be overwhelming. Your best bet is to select the five or six instrument voices you think you’ll use most, and make them the standard for comparison as you shop. If you choose the digital piano on which those voices sound best to you, it’s likely you’ll find the other voices satisfying as well. Take detailed notes and use them to establish your favorite(s).
  • Turn off effects. Be aware that the default voice settings of most digital pianos include some degree of reverberation. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s worthwhile to listen to the piano voice, and any other voices that are important to you, with reverb and all other effects turned off. This will allow you to judge those voices without any coloration or masking from the effects.
  • Evaluate the touch. Aside from sound, the most important element in the selection of an instrument is likely to be the feel of the action. You’ll be selecting from a variety of actions that all try to emulate the feel of an acoustic piano — some lighter, some heavier. Just as there is no single correct piano sound, there is no single correct touch; rather, there is a range of acceptable touches. If you spend most of your playing time with a heavy action, then when you encounter an instrument with a lighter action, you’ll play too heavily — and vice versa. The cure is to play as many instruments as possible, as often as possible. Listen to how each piano responds and adjust your touch accordingly. With experience, you’ll learn to adapt.
  • Use the salesperson. Digital pianos are really computers disguised as pianos, and like some features of a PC, many of the capabilities of digitals are hidden from view, accessible by pressing a sequence of buttons or through multi-screen menus. While the owner’s manual will explain how to access these features or sounds, it’s impractical for you to study the manuals of every instrument under consideration. Enter the salesperson! This is one of those instances where a well-trained salesperson can be invaluable. But remember that the salesperson is not going home with you, so don’t be swayed by his or her talent. Listen to what they have to say, but focus your attention on the instrument itself.
  • Used digitals. Because digital-piano technology advances at a blistering pace relative to acoustic-piano technology, there is much less interest in used digitals than in used acoustics. Many of today’s digital pianos eclipse the capabilities of the models of even five years ago. Combine this technological advancement with the fact that support of older instruments may be limited — electronics manufacturers are required to maintain replacement parts for only seven years after production ceases — and investing in older models becomes worthy of serious second thoughts.

 

For more information

If, after reading the articles in Piano Buyer, you still have questions about buying a digital piano, I recommend visiting the Digital Pianos — Synths & Keyboards Forum on Piano World (www.pianoworld.com), the premiere website for everything related to pianos and pianists. The helpful folks there have a wealth of knowledge and advice they are happy to share.



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