How to Buy a Digital Keyboard

If you decide to buy a digital keyboard instead of a piano, make a list of which features you need and which you don’t. For example, if you don’t tour with a band, you have no need for a feature allowing “quick live performance flexibility.” If you play concerts, however, this may be an important feature. Features and the type of keyboard to turn to for them include:

  • Realistic piano sound: Look at the home digital pianos with the best piano samples.

  • Realistic piano action: Look at the home digital pianos with the best touch-sensitive keyboards and the best weighted-key action.

  • Built-in speakers: Home digital pianos, for sure.

  • To perform onstage: Look at stage pianos, and keep in mind that you also need amplification.

  • Portability: Look at stage pianos and arrangers.

  • Multi-note polyphony: Look at home digital pianos, stage pianos, and workstations. The bigger the number, the more notes you can play at once, so try for at least 32-note polyphony. Sure, you don’t have 32 fingers, but if you use MIDI, 32-note polyphony comes in handy. Some models even have 128-note polyphony, which is excellent.

  • Multi-timbral: Look at arrangers and workstations for this ability to play more than one sound at the same time. For example, you can play sounds from a piano, a violin, a banjo, and a bagpipe together on “Danny Boy.”

  • MIDI capability: You’re okay with any digital keyboard.

  • Pitch bend and modulation: Look at arrangers, synthesizers, and workstations. These fun little effects make your sounds say “wah wah” and “woob woob.”

  • Sound editing: Look at workstations if you want to change the sounds, making the piano brighter, the horns brassier, and the goose calls goosier, for example.

  • Internal recording, editing, and sequencing: Want to record what you play without using external recorders or a computer? You need a sequencer, which most digital keyboards have, but only workstations have the most advanced editing and sequencing features.

  • Automatic rhythm, harmony, and bass accompaniment: Look at arrangers.

  • Strange sound effects: Look at synthesizers if you want to program your own sounds. Be aware that some synthesizers are monophonic, meaning they can play only one note at a time.

  • Other mumbo-jumbo: Flash ROM, DSP plug-ins, BIAS Peak, sub-oscillators, vocoders, modeling filters, arpeggiators — all this is very cool, but what does it have to do with you playing music? Not much. It simply indicates that your model is on the cutting edge of current keyboard features.

As you shop, keep in mind that, unlike pianos, keyboards can be outdated as quickly as they reach the stores. However, keyboard manufacturers try to make products that can be upgraded or added to as technology advances.

Ask the manufacturer or a salesperson the following questions to minimize the possibility that your keyboard gets shoved aside when the next big thing comes along:

  • Can I add memory? Adding memory to keyboards is quite common these days. More memory means the ability to accommodate new sounds, software, and hardware at a later date. Also ask what the memory limitations are.

  • Is the unit upgradeable? Workstations offer operating system and software upgrades, making it easy to keep up with the latest improvements. You want to be able to simply upgrade your model, not throw it out.

  • Can I purchase extra sound cards or libraries? Many workstations have vast libraries of sounds. Whether they’re developed by the original manufacturer or other sound developers, you can add extra sound cards and libraries to make old keyboards sound new again.

  • Is the company still making this model or series? If not, the keyboard is already headed toward the land of obsolescence. But if it meets all the other criteria on this list and you can get it for a good price, just add memory, upgrades, and sounds over the years.

Whichever way you go, ask yourself this important question before you buy: Do you like the keyboard as an instrument? Take your time and make sure it sounds good to your ears. All the options and models can make you feel like a real novice, but your ears know what they like. Also consider whether the keyboard looks good, and whether you’ll enjoy having it set up in a spot in your home where you’ll feel comfortable and free to practice and play.

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