With the huge variety of voices, splits, layers, effects, and styles, it's handy to have a way to store favorite combinations. Many digital pianos come with a number of preprogrammed presets, and almost all of the more advanced models have programmable presets as well. These presets should be able to capture every possible setting on the instrument, from the obvious to the most obscure. Aside from the number of presets available, the placement of the preset buttons themselves can make a huge difference in their usefulness. Small, closely spaced, inconveniently placed presets might as well not be there — part of the pleasure of presets is not simply to instantly recall a setting that you've worked out in excruciating detail, but also to access that setting quickly and easily while playing. Even better is being able to assign preset changes to a seldom-used pedal (anything other than the sustain), so that each time you press the pedal, the instrument advances to the next preset. This can enable the creative player to step through sonic and rhythmic changes with ease while keeping his hands on the keyboard and distractions to a minimum.
Song Settings, Music Libraries, and Educational Tools
Many digital pianos are equipped with a list of song presets, a feature that goes by a variety of names depending on the brand of instrument. Like the memory presets described above, song presets incorporate all of the capabilities of that particular digital piano, but they work with particular songs. When you're new to the vast choices offered by some of the more advanced digital pianos, and unsure what sounds and styles to use for a song, these presets will set everything for you in a way suited to that song. Of course, this depends on the song you want to play being included in that instrument's song list in the first place. These lists range from a hundred or so built-in songs to downloadable databases containing thousands of songs, and the best of them accurately reflect the instrumentation, rhythms, and tempo (which you can slow down or speed up if necessary) of the original recordings. It's important to note that these song presets don't play the music for you; they just set up the instrument so that it will sound right when you play the music.
A related feature, but with a different purpose, is the song library. Once again, this feature goes by different names depending on the instrument's brand. Unlike the song presets, the song libraries do contain the actual music. In most cases these are from the classical piano repertoire and are recorded with the left- and right-hand parts on separate MIDI channels. They can be played with both hands turned on for listening or studying, or with only one hand turned on so the player can practice one hand's part while the instrument supplies the part for the other hand. In this way each part can be worked on separately, while both parts are heard. Although the tempo can be adjusted (for most of us, slowed way down), playing along with the other part keeps your tempo steady and your meter honest. Even without built-in libraries, an enormous amount of music has been recorded in this manner and can be purchased — frequently with the printed notation — or downloaded free from the Internet.
Combinations of song libraries and computer-based educational software can be found on both entry-level and top-end instruments. These range from simple separation of left-hand/right-hand practice to complete lessons, tests, and tips on fingering. Some of the greatest aids to beginners are systems that combine the display of notation with visual cues as to which keys to play. Upper-end models use either lights aligned with each key, or movement of the key itself, to give the beginner a hand in correctly associating the note on the printed music with its key on the instrument. However, seeing which key to play, and actually playing it before the music has moved on, are two different things, and trying to do so can be a frustrating experience. Some instruments make it easier to follow the light or key movements by waiting until the correct key is played before moving on to the next key. As a less expensive alternative, some lower-priced instruments show a small keyboard on the display with the required key indicated. While this still provides some guidance for the beginner, it's not nearly as easy to associate movements between the tiny keys in the display with the correct keys on the keyboard.