Guide to Digital Pianos/Keyboards for Beginners

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Assuming you haven’t figured it out already…

Digital pianos are undoubtedly one of the most frustrating musical instruments to shop for…

And for many different reasons:

  • They’re probably the most “feature-rich” instruments in existence
  • They come in a huge range of prices, from $100 to several thousand
  • There’s several different “categories”, each designed for its own purpose

And yet despite these differences…

When comparing them online, they all kinda end up looking exactly the same.

Don’t they?

Especially since there’s a surprising lack of detailed information online…

To help you understand exactly what you should even be looking for in the first place.

So you either:

  • take a random guess, hoping you’re buying the right one, or…
  • give up choosing altogether, for fear of making the wrong decision.

And so for today’s post, I’ve created a detailed guide to help you make an intelligent, informed decision when finding your first (or next) digital piano.

Ready to begin?  Then let’s get to it.

First up…

Studio vs Live vs Home

Before even comparing any specific models or features…

You should first ask yourself…

Which of the following purposes will it mainly be used for?
  1. Practicing at Home
  2. Recording in the Studio
  3. Performing Live

Because this one bit of info alone eliminates a huge number of potential options right away.

So for the rest of this post, every:

  • feature
  • category
  • model

…of digital pianos will be tied back to these 3 primary uses.

Got it? Now let’s continue…

The TOP 4 Features to Look For

When comparing the features of different digital pianos…

It can be tough sorting through the dozens of functions and gadgets that mostly don’t matter…simply to find the few important ones that actually do.

So up next, here are the top 4 features to pay close attention to, as they will have the greatest impact on your day-to-day playing.

First up…

1. Digital Sampling

In order to simulate the sound of an acoustic piano…digital pianos work by playing back individual “samples” recorded from an actual instrument in a pro studio.

But it’s difficult…because recording these samples well takes a lot of time and painstaking effort…and a lot memory on the digital piano itself.

Therefore, digital sampling is perhaps the BIGGEST factor that ultimately determines both the price of a particular piano, and the overall sound quality.

2. Weighted Action

In order to replicate what your fingers would normally feel when playing the keys of an acoustic piano…

Better keyboard models use wooden “weighted” keys with dummy hammers, that simulate the response of the hammer striking the strings.

The most sophisticated setups even use graded hammers that feel progressively heavier in the lower octaves….creating an extremely realistic feel.

Typically, better digital pianos will be listed as:

  • Fully weighted – which has the most realistic feel, but generally costs more, or…
  • semi-weighted – which feels less realistic, but usually costs less.

So take note of this when comparing models.

3. Velocity Sensitivity

In order to create realistic changes in volume based on how hard you strike the keys…

Better digital pianos have a feature known as velocity-sensitivity which requires two separate elements to fully function:

  1. a keyboard that can sense how hard you strike the keys
  2. a sound engine that has recordings of each note at various “striking intensities”

With really cheap keyboards that have neither, you hear the exact same note played at the exact same volume no matter what.

With mid-range keyboards that can ONLY sense how hard you press the keys, you will most likely hear the exact same sample played over and over…but at different volumes.

With good keyboards using sophisticated sound engines, you get not only variations in volume, but in attack as well.  Which creates the maximum level of realism in the dynamics of your playing.

4. Speakers and Outputs

Depending on its intended use…a specific model of digital piano will prioritize either speakers OR outputs…but rarely both.  For example:

  • When playing at home – good internal speakers are essential, but multiple outputs are not.
  • When recording – a combination both analog and digital outputs are necessary, but speakers are not.
  • When performing live – multiple analog outputs are essential, but speakers are useless and only add extra size and weight.

4 More Things to Consider

While not quite as important as the ones we just discussed…here are 4 more features that MAY also matter to YOU, depending on your purpose:

1. Number of Keys

For live performances, in the studio, or as the center-piece of your living room…a full-sized 88 key piano is the obvious choice.

If however…

  • you’re a total beginner practicing in your bedroom, or….
  • it’s a secondary instrument in your small home studio…

…a smaller size, such as a 61 or 76 key piano might make more sense.

Sometimes you can even find mini keyboards at 25 and 49 keys.

2. Number of Sounds/Tones

These days almost ALL digital pianos offer a ridiculous variety of sounds (other than the piano) to choose from.

These may include:

  • melodic instruments – such as accordions, organs, synthesizers, flutes
  • rhythmic instruments  – such as drums and various hand percussion
  • effects – such as reverb, chorus, and delay

And while it’s easy to be impressed by all these options…

Once you’ve spent a decent amount of time with the instrument, and the initial “wow factor” has worn off…you won’t even use 98% of them.

Instead, the vast majority of your playing will likely revolve around 2-3 basic piano sounds, and probably some light reverb (if any).

3. Polyphony

Depending on the sound engine within the digital piano…one notable limitation that many buyers are unaware of…

Is the number of available voices that can be sounded ALL AT ONCE (polyphony).

On the cheapest keyboards, you’re likely to find 32-note polyphony.  In the higher price ranges, they can go to 64, 128, and all the way up to 264 note polyphony.

And this might sound excessive, since you only have 10 fingers to play with…

However…here are some examples when a higher polyphony may be necessary:

  • accompaniments – where the backing tracks use several dozen voices for the various instruments
  • sustain pedal usage – where every note you play rings out for several seconds before going silent
  • organ/synthesizer tones – where a single key stroke triggers many voices at once, and a single chord triggers possibly dozens.

4. Learning Tools

For beginners first getting started with the instrument…

One potentially useful feature to look for is the “learning tools” commonly bundled with cheaper digital pianos.

Examples may include:

  • built-in metronomes
  • record n play back functions
  • accompaniment tracks
  • visual aids for chords and scales

Up next…

The 4 Categories of Digital Pianos

Now that you know exactly which features matter…

Let’s look at the 4 common categories of digital pianos…

To see how each of these features are typically combined…

To create a single digital piano designed for a specific purpose.

The 4 categories we will cover are:

  1. Portable Keyboards
  2. Stage Digital Pianos
  3. Console Digital Pianos
  4. Multi-Purpose Pianos

First up…

1. Portable Keyboards

If you’re simply looking for a cheap starter option to get familiar with the instrument…

Or perhaps you’re gift shopping for your kid…

Portable keyboards are the obvious choice.

While it may be true that:

  • the sound samples aren’t very good
  • the playing feel of the keys is usually pretty bad
  • the internal speakers are mediocre at best

All these compromises are expected, since the typical price range of models in this category is only around $50-$300 (sometimes more).

But if this fits what you’re looking for, here are the top models I recommend:

Ironically, even though the name of this category is “portable keyboards”…

The truth is…portability is a mostly irrelevant benefit for digital pianos of this quality.  Because if you’re only using them to practice at home, where would take them?

Instead, it’s in this next category where portability really matters…

1. Stage Digital Pianos

At the opposite end of the spectrum is stage pianos

Which typically offer both the best sound quality and best feel money can buy.

No surprise…they’re the standard choice of professionals for both live performances and studio recording.

And while they obviously can’t be as small as the portable keyboards we covered in the previous section…

They still MUST be as light and compact as possible, since they’ll be constantly transported from one gig to another.

And since both on-stage and in the studio…they’ll connect to an external system such as a PA, amp, or audio interface

The best way to minimize weight is to eliminate the internal speakers entirely…which is standard practice with almost all stage pianos.

Among the top brands in this category, here are the ones I recommend checking out:

Up next…

2. Console Digital Pianos

So let’s say you’re a piano teacher and you hold lessons at your house.

Or…you practice daily at home, but don’t plan on performing any time soon.

Or…you just know a few cool songs and like showing them off when hosting parties and family get-togethers.

If any of these sounds like you…then console digital pianos are definitely the way to go.

As the least portable of all designs…

They’re mainly intended for those who plan to set it up in one spot and never move it.

The first upside here is that it allows the design to be much more robust and aesthetically pleasing.

And as you’ll notice, console pianos are often made to resemble the traditional upright acoustic piano that many of us had in our family living rooms when growing up.

The second and more important upside is that it has the largest and highest-quality internal speakers of all designs.

So if this is what you want, here are the top models I recommend:

Another category worth mentioning which is somewhat similar to console pianos is known as “baby grand” digital pianos…which are made (obviously) in resemblance of baby grand acoustic pianos.

Despite the fact that they sell at high-end prices, they’re mostly considered as a fun novelty….

Since they’re much bigger and heavier, but with very little added functionality compared to standard console pianos.

But if you think they look cool and want to check one out…here are two top models I recommend:

Up next…

4. Multi-Purpose Digital Pianos

While not an “official” category that you’d search for online…

For the sake of this article, I’m going to take the liberty of creating a 4th category of “multi-purpose” digital pianos…

For all of those models (and there are lots of them)…

That don’t quite fit into any of the 3 we previously covered…but instead, are a combination of all of them.

  • They DO have internal speakers like console pianos, but DO NOT bear the resemblance of an upright piano.
  • They’re somewhat more expensive and larger/heavier than most portable keyboards.
  • They’re somewhat cheaper with lesser sound quality than most stage pianos.

So while they aren’t perfectly ideal for home, studio, or stage…they can be useable for all 3…which makes them the perfect option for anyone looking for maximum versatility.

Now here are some of the top models I recommend in this category:

And finally…

A Quick Word About MIDI Controllers…

While not technically a category of digital pianos…

MIDI controllers do in fact look exactly like them…

And therefore, it can be easy to mistake one for the other if you aren’t aware of how they differ.

So to conclude this post, let’s clear things up, shall we?

The KEY difference between digital pianos and MIDI controllers is:

  • digital piano create their own sounds…
  • while MIDI controllers DO NOT.

MIDI controllers instead, are used to control the sound engines of outside sources, such as recording software, virtual instruments, synthesizers, and yes…even digital pianos.

And many digital pianos actually have MIDI outputs, which essentially allows them to function as a MIDI controller as well.

Make sense?