An acoustic piano is no longer required when musicians want to achieve a full, rich, multi-layered tone. In fact, digital piano technology has come so far in recent years that even some trained musicians have difficulty distinguishing between what’s acoustic and what’s not.
Thanks to these improvements, digital pianos are beginning to have several advantages over their acoustic competitors. Among these advantages are:
- Generally less expensive
- Far more portable
- More lightweight
- No tuning required
- Recording features included
- Temperature and humidity changes don’t have an effect
- Can be used with headphones so as not to disturb others
- Built-in songs and metronome for easier learning
- Can be connected to other electronic or digital instruments
Nonetheless, purists are likely to argue that a digital piano simply cannot compete with the sound, feel and soul of an acoustic piano. Some people also think that digital pianos just don’t look as elegant, and they may even argue that this newer technology simply doesn’t hold its value the way that a traditional piano does.
These drawbacks aside, digital piano technology is improving in leaps in bounds. Thanks to their smaller size and lower entry-level prices, it’s becoming more realistic for people to bring a piano into their homes thanks to these innovations.
If you’re curious about digital pianos, then keep reading this buying guide to help you come to a wise and well-informed purchasing decision.
How Will You Use Your Digital Piano?
Before you even think about sampling and weighted keys, it’s vital to consider how you plan to use your digital piano. Most people have one of three possibilities in mind. These are:
- At-home practice;
- In-studio recording; and
- Live performance
Each of the various categories of digital pianos is particularly well-suited to at least one of these purposes. From there, you only have to decide which level of sound quality is acceptable to you and which keyboard feels “right.”
Identifying the Categories of Digital Pianos
With each passing year, the size and type of digital pianos become increasingly varied. Still, most of these products fit into one of four categories.
Portable Digital Pianos
If you need a piano that can go practically anywhere, then this is the perfect selection for you. They do not come with a base or pedals, making them incredibly easy to pack up and take along or store away.
Unlike a less-sophisticated electronic keyboard, a portable digital piano has a full keyboard of 88 keys, all of which feature hammer action. They typically produce great sound quality thanks to high-quality samples, yet they are really affordable.
However, it’s worth considering that you’ll likely have to spring for a stand and pedals if you want the ultimate in versatility and functionality.
Console Digital Pianos
In this category, you’ll find options that come really close to the look, feel and even sound of an acoustic piano but at a fraction of the price. They also weigh far less than acoustic pianos though they cannot exactly be considered portable with their furniture-style cabinet.
You won’t have to pay for pedals or a stand above and beyond the price of a console digital piano. It’s worth noting that these instruments are available at an incredibly wide range of prices that run from approximately $700 up to $5,000. Between the two extremes, you’re likely to find the perfect balance of value, functionality and price.
Upright Digital Pianos
Some consumers prefer a digital piano that looks more like an upright acoustic piano but is available at a more favorable price point. This option is more expensive than a console because of the upgraded cabinet. Once again, you’ll find a wide range of prices that begin well above the $700 minimum of the humbler console digital piano. However, you also get more realistic hammer action, samples with far better detail and range and a multi-speaker sound system that will impress discerning aficionados.
Digital Grand Pianos
With cutting-edge speakers, a startlingly acoustic-like playing experience and plenty of high-quality sound, digital grand pianos are the grande dames of the digital piano world.
While you can get one for as little as approximately $1,500, these instruments aren’t really worth the expense. You can get a superior-quality upright for that or less.
However, if you’re a concert pianist and money is no object, then dive into a $15,000 model that delivers sound quality that’s virtually indistinguishable from that of an acoustic grand piano.
Where Do Digital Pianos Get Their Sound?
Any discussion of how digital pianos sound is bound to get fairly technical, but we’ll try to keep things high-level here. Suffice it to say that the quality of the sound produced by one of these instruments is probably the single most critical factor when it comes to weighing the value of the digital piano.
In short, the higher the quality of the sound produced by a digital piano, the more it’s likely to cost.
The people who design and manufacture digital pianos are always striving to replicate the sound and feel of a traditional piano. As you can imagine, this is no small feat, especially because the technology is so different from that found inside an acoustic piano.
While traditional pianos operate by a hammer striking a string in response to pressing down on a key, a digital piano doesn’t have strings. It has hammers, but their only function is to recreate the feel of an acoustic piano.
Digital samples are used to produce piano-like sounds from a digital instrument. Sampling is a widely used technique in the music world to do things like capturing an excerpt of a song. In relation to digital pianos, sampling is used to replicate the sound of an acoustic piano.
The sound produced by each of the 88 keys is recorded at a variety of velocities so that when played, the recorded sound made by each key on the digital piano can respond with anything from pianissimo to fortissimo depending upon the pressure applied.
These samples are recorded in state-of-the-art sound studios using a precisely tuned acoustic piano. Several factors may affect the quality of the resulting samples. The placement and sophistication of the mics used in the recording process, the acoustic environment of the studio, the length of the samples and the condition of the acoustic piano all may affect the quality.
The best-quality samples feature a great deal of data so that they can produce a more realistic sound. On less expensive digital models, the manufacturers may take some shortcuts that require less memory. The result is a loss of nuance and tone, but beginning players are unlikely to notice these subtle distinctions. Someone with a highly trained ear might be bothered by this inferior quality, which means that they would need to spend more to get a digital piano with superior samples.
What About Weighted Keys?
If you’ve ever played an acoustic piano and then sat down behind an electronic keyboard, you probably noticed some significant differences in the playing experience. One of the most striking of these is the lack of weighted keys on the electronic keyboard.
Digital pianos try to straddle this chasm by using fully weighted keys. This makes the playing experience feel far more like playing an acoustic piano. Providing a richer, more nuanced experience, weighted keys are a major factor when it comes to deciding which digital piano to buy.
If you opt for fully weighted keys, the feel will be closer to that of an acoustic piano but you’ll pay for the upgraded quality. You might find that semi-weighted keys are a good compromise if the cost is your primary consideration.
How Important Is Velocity Sensitivity?
Cheap electronic keyboards lack any velocity sensitivity. That is, they sound the same regardless of how hard or soft you strike the keys. Digital pianos are an improvement in that virtually all models have some level of velocity sensitivity.
This means that you can produce far more nuanced and varied sounds. Accomplished via a keyboard that senses the force with which you strike each key and a sound engine that contains recordings of each key at various velocities, you may pay a premium price for the highest velocity sensitivity.
What to Look for in Speakers and Outputs
While some digital piano models put the emphasis on speakers, others prioritize outputs. If you’re planning to use your piano to practice at home, then you’ll want to focus on a model that has great internal speakers. People planning live performances will want to look for a piano with many analog outputs. For use in the recording studio, it’s wise to look for a model that includes both digital and analog outputs while speakers typically aren’t a high priority.
Do You Need Learning Tools?
One of the greatest advantages of a digital piano is the built-in learning tools that are so essential for the student. Metronomes, record and playback functions, visual aids for learning scales and chords and accompaniment tracks are just a few of the options. Any or all of these tools may be indispensable as you, your children or your students take a journey toward becoming proficient on the piano.
Here at Prodigies Music, we know how important it is to get a good start with musical training. Digital pianos are becoming more popular and sophisticated, making them a smart investment for players regardless of their age.
Thanks to superior portability, affordable pricing and ever-improving sound quality, digital pianos are an excellent choice at home, in the studio and in the performance venue.