The Man-Machine Interface, or MMI, as designers and engineers typically refer to it, defines how the player interacts with the instrument's controls. All of the amazing capabilities of the modern digital piano are of little value if the player can't figure out how to use them, or can't access them quickly while playing. The considerations here are the location, spacing, grouping, size, shape, colors, and labeling of the controls. Take the example of the rhythm break discussed earlier. Its purpose is to alter the rhythm during playing. If the button that activates this feature is inconveniently located, small, and surrounded by closely spaced buttons of a similar size, shape, and/or color, its usefulness is severely limited. If, however, it's within easy reach of the keyboard, of decent size, and somewhat distinctive in appearance or markings, it becomes a useful tool.
In the case of instruments with displays, considerations include the size, resolution, and color capabilities of the screen and--more important--the logic behind its operation. Two types of screen interfaces are currently used on digital pianos: touchscreens and softkeys. Most readers are already familiar with touchscreens from ATMs and other modern institutional uses. The term softkeys doesn't refer to the feel of the keys, but to the fact that their functions are displayed on the adjacent screen, and change depending on the operation being displayed by the screen. This is as opposed to hardkeys, which have a single dedicated function. Each method has its proponents, but the interface type is less important than the MMI design. A smaller monochrome display that you can intuitively understand is better than a large color display that makes no sense to you.
Also worth considering is the placement of connections you'll use often. If you frequently switch back and forth between speakers and headphones, you'll want to make sure the headphone jack is easy to locate by sight or feel, and that the cord will be out of your way when plugged in. If you'll be using a USB memory device to transfer files between instruments or between the instrument and a computer, make sure the USB port is easy to get to. In newer designs, a USB port is placed above the keyboard level for easy access, as opposed to earlier models in which the port was below the keyboard or on the instrument's rear panel.
We can't leave the subject of user interfaces without discussing the owner's manual. As with the MMI itself, a well-written manual can make it a pleasure to learn a new instrument, and a bad manual can be worse than useless. This is particularly important for higher-end instruments. Fortunately, many manufacturers allow you to download the manuals for their instruments. This lets you compare this critical aspect of the instruments you're considering. The manual should be thoroughly indexed, and clearly written and illustrated. Third-party tutorials are available for some instruments, especially the more complex models. These tutorials step you through the model's functions with audio or video instructions, and provide an alternative to sitting down with the manual.
FALL 2009 -- page 124
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