When you’re just starting out on piano, you may be confused by the language.
What’s the deal with digital pianos, keyboards, synths, stage pianos and so on?
Well, I’m here to explain it to you.
In this guide, we’ll cover some common types of acoustic pianos, why digital pianos are different from keyboards, what keyboards do that digital pianos don’t, what synths are, and why they are different from everything else.
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What Is Piano?
I love having a real piano in the home. Placing it in a common area encourages music in the home, practice and playing in general.
A piano is self-explanatory; 88-keys, only produces piano sounds.
Generally speaking, you can’t use these instruments with headphones (there are some fancy pianos that you can use headphones with) but most just make piano noises. Which is what they’re meant for!
You’ll probably have to get it tuned once every couple years and you should try to keep the humidity well-balanced. That will keep it in good tune and working order.
When you’re buying a piano for the home, you’ll want to consider space. There are a few different options to consider.
Apartment Sized Pianos
Apartment sized pianos hold the strings and hammers in the back of the piano. They aren’t as tall as an upright and are easier to move.
Width and length-wise, they take up roughly the same amount of space, but they’re definitely easier to approach.
There are a few different kinds of apartment sized pianos.
Spinets are the smallest. They have dropped action – the backs of these pianos are so small that you can see right over them.
The most popular apartment sized piano is the Console Piano. The action of these pianos sits directly on top of the keys and the hammers sit in an upright position. The action is not as quick as a grand piano, but they play nicely!
Lastly, Studio Pianos are slightly taller than Console Pianos – you probably can’t see past them. The tonal quality is the best of the apartment sized pianos, and many new Studio Pianos try to mimic the quick action of a grand.
The tallest vertical piano is the upright piano.
These days, this refers to older, tall pianos. The kind you find in Grandma’s basement.
Less of these are made these days – most were made from 1920 to 1960. Console and Studio pianos are more popular now, because they are a more manageable size.
If properly maintained and preserved, these are great instruments that can be found for a bargain price.
But you should always go try an upright before you commit. Many are way out of tune, and some are just not salvageable.
Refer to a piano tuner – they will tell you if the instrument can ever be truly in tune.
Sometimes, an out of tune piano is fine, so long as it can be in tune with itself.
If you want to record the piano or play with others, that is no longer true.
It’s unlikely you’re going to want a Grand piano, but just in case here’s some info.
True Grand pianos are the pinnacle of piano-making.
Aesthetically beautiful, they are also a joy to play. Quick action, and the top, when raised, deflects sound to the listener and the player, in the best way possible.
The problem is, a Concert Grand piano is eight feet long… or longer.
For this reason, Grand pianos have been getting smaller and smaller. Now, you can get a Grand piano that is less than 4 ft. 10 in. long.
The truth is, if you’re buying a Grand that short, you may be better served by a good Upright.
When Grands get that small, the strings must be small too. The tone then suffers as does the action – the two things besides appearance that tend to set Grands apart.
Grand pianos should be at least 4 feet 10 inches to produce the signature Grand sound.
What Is A Digital Piano?
Digital pianos are different from keyboards and synths.
It’s easy to think that they are the same thing, with interchangeable names, but this is not true.
The main difference is how a digital piano is meant to be used. Digital pianos are designed to replicate the experience of playing a real acoustic piano.
Whereas acoustic pianos are not portable, digital pianos aim to recreate the action of an acoustic piano with the portability of a keyboard.
They usually have 88 keys, because again, they are attempting to bridge the gap between concert halls (which have real pianos) and bedroom practice sessions, background gigs and moving rehearsal spaces.
A good digital piano will have the same feel as an acoustic piano. Heavier action, but still quick. The keys will be the same size as a real piano and the same width and depth.
Digital pianos also usually have computer connectivity (to use MIDI) and digital effects as well.
Most digital pianos will have a few other sounds on them. These are usually a few types of electric pianos, harpsichord, clav, maybe an organ and sometimes human voice.
These other sounds are often disappointing in digital pianos, because that’s not what they’re for.
A huge amount of time and resources go into sampling and creating a real piano sound, and the other sounds are often neglected.
Digital pianos usually have built-in speakers (again, mimicking an actual piano’s ability to be played aloud without an amp).
Most digital pianos are moveable and require a piano stand, but some are designed to a be a semi-permanent fixture that stands alone.
A couple good options for digital pianos are:
- Casio Privia PX160BK 88-Key Digital Piano
- Yamaha YDP143R Arius Series Console Digital Piano (this piano is not designed to move, it looks like a traditional Console Piano)
What Is A Keyboard?
The main purpose of a keyboard is inherently different from that of a digital piano.
Keyboards are designed to simulate hundreds of sounds. They are designed to be ultra-portable, and are more suited towards a gigging player or a music producer than a digital piano.
Keyboards will have all sorts of extra features – the ability to design set lists for your different patches, the ability to combine and layer sounds, the ability to store hundreds and sometimes thousands of sounds.
Often, keyboards will have extra modulation features like a pitch wheel, a modulation wheel, and a Leslie on/off switch.
Keyboards will usually have a lighter action, so that the keyboard is suited to different styles of playing. For example, if you’re playing organ, having fully-weighted keys is impossible. You need to slide around on the keys.
Whereas digital pianos almost always have 88 keys, keyboards vary. Some have 88, but most have less. Anywhere from 41 to 73 keys is common.
Keyboards usually don’t have built-in speakers, unless they are cheap keyboards designed for new piano players.
This brings us to a major difference amongs keyboards – some keyboards are designed for the professional, working musician, and some are designed for players who have never played before.
A keyboard like the Alesis Melody 61 Beginner 61-Key Portable Keyboard is easy to play, compact, has built-in speakers and is a great, cheap option for beginner players.
But included in the keyboard family are Nord Electros, which will run you upwards of $3,000 or more, and are used by professionals at the highest level. I own one, and it is fantastic.
A Nord Electro (or Stage) will have everything. It will have a great piano sound, an upright sound, a great Wurlitzer sound, a great Rhodes sound, a great clav sound, the ability to run all of these sounds through various effects and amps.
It will also have a convincing organ simulator with real or digital drawbars and a Leslie run/stop switch.
On top of that, you’ll have a customizable sound bank with dozens of pre-loaded sounds and the ability to create your own sounds and load these sounds.
You can also create set lists of sounds, to easily switch from one song to the next.
A few good professional keyboard options are
- Nord Electro series
- Korg Kronos
- Korg SV-1 Stage Vintage Piano
- Yamaha MX88
What Is A Synthesizer?
Answering this question is at once both simple and complicated.
Synths are known as electronic keyboards that produce a wide variety of sounds – from piano, trumpet and percussion, to the wide world of bleeps, bloops, throbbing bass, sweeps, UFO landings, wind sounds and more.
More accurately, synthesizers are a collection of sound creation modules that you then run through sound processing modules to achieve different effects.
Synths almost never have 88 keys, because they don’t need all of them. Many synths are just 25 keys.
NOTE: synthesizers are different from keyboards, because they create sounds. They do not sample the sounds. Keyboards sample small bits of existing audio to create sound. Synths create and process their own sound.
A synth can be broken down like so:
Synthesizers create sound with an oscillator. They put out a pulsing electrical signal to create a waveform. The frequency of the pulse determines the note it outputs.
Oscillators can put out different looking waveforms, which all sound different. Sine waves, triangle waves, sawtooth waves, etc.
After the sound is created, it is generally run through a filter. This will increase or decrease different frequency regions – a high-pass filter will control how much low frequency gets passed through, a low pass will do the opposite.
As filters are applied, overtones are added and removed, creating different sounds.
The amplifier controls the volume of the sound being passed through the synth.
It essentially raises or lowers the height of the waveform, thereby raising or lowering the sound volume.
This is often expressed on synths as “VCA” – Voltage Controlled Amplifier.
Lastly, the envelope helps create the character of the sound. Without it, you would press a note, and the sound would immediately begin, full volume, and sustain forever. This is unnatural sounding, and doesn’t allow for much sensitivity.
Envelope controls how fast the sound begins when you press a key, how quickly it gets to full volume, how much and how fast the sound decays, and how long it takes the note to fully die once it’s released.
These are the basic elements that make up a synthesizer.
Another area of confusions is: AM vs. FM.
AM – or Amplitude Modulation Synthesis is the process I just described. A sound is created, and the run through processing to alter the sound. This is also called subtractive synthesis.
FM – or Frequency Modulation is different. It’s more complicated. It’s hard to create and meddle with your FM sounds.
At its most basic, FM synthesis is modulating (or multiplying) two waves to make a very complex wave.
Normal AM subtractive synthesis could be expressed as 100 – 90 = 10.
Additive synthesis is also a thing, requiring more oscillators for every sound. It could be expressed as: 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 10.
FM synthesis is: 5 x 2= 10. FM is easy to screw up, because 5 x 3 = 15 is only one number away.
Hopefully that gives you an idea of the differences.
Some great AM synths:
- Dave Smith Prophet Series
- Korg Monologue
- Moog Sub Phatty
Some classic FM synths:
- Yamaha DX7 – classic
- Yamaha Reface DX – new version of a classic
- Volca FM