Piano and Keyboard Buying Guide

Confused about all the different types of pianos and keyboard instruments available? Want to understand the difference between keyboards, digital pianos, hybrid pianos, silent pianos, trans-acoustic pianos, and acoustic pianos!? We’re here to help you understand the different terms and find out which instrument is the best for you. Here’s the rundown….

Acoustic Pianos

Acoustic pianos are traditional instruments which don’t use digital technology, they produce a huge depth of sound and are designed and built to last generations.

How Acoustic Pianos Work

When pressing a key, a hammer hits the strings to produce a note which is amplified by the wooden soundboard. The player has complete control over the sound coming from the piano and can play with expression using the dynamic range (loud-soft) of the piano. Essentially, you play the pianos, listen to what comes out and then adjust how you play so you get the sound you want. Some people are more talented at this than others, but essentially anyone can learn to play it.

Digital Pianos

Digital pianos have been developed to replicate the sound and function of an acoustic piano, these instruments have a computer built in. When a note is pressed it sends a signal to the computer inside, responding with a recording, or ‘sample. This is then played back through a set of speakers to generate the sound of the note. The computer within the instrument works out how the note sounds when played in 70 different ways for all 88 notes. Due to this process, digital pianos are sometimes referred to as 3-step sample digital piano.

More expensive digital pianos will have more sampling – e.g. 5 steps, and more calculated variations – typically up to 128 different ways of playing each note. It will get better, and currently, one company has already sampled a Concert grand with a 70 step sample and over 1000 calculated ways of playing each note. Each sample also lasts for longer than 10 seconds which means that the sample files require large amounts of computer memory and the whole thing is over 40 terabytes!

Having got our sampled piano sound, we now need to replicate the weighted key action of a piano. The most common form is a plastic key mechanism with levers and weights, e.g. Yamaha Clavinova or Kawai CN Series. More expensive models start to use wooden keys with actions more similar to those of an acoustic piano giving extra degrees of control – e.g. Kawai CA series.

The limitation of digital pianos, however, is more to do with the number of different sounds for each note rather than the keyboard action as the number of different ways of playing each note on an acoustic piano is infinite!  The big question is  – “If I start playing on a digital piano, when might I reach its limitations?”. Well, you can expect this to be around Grade 4/5 standard; which, for a child starting to learn they might expect to reach with around 3-5  years of playing experience.

Advantages of Digital Pianos

Advantages of a digital piano include additional tones – e.g. strings and organ/harpsichord sounds; and because the way the key has been pressed is converted to a MIDI signal to communicate with the sound generator, this same signal can be used to link to computers and other keyboards etc. making writing music & composing much easier. Headphones can be used instead of the speakers, enabling you to play without disturbing others.

Featured Digital Pianos 

Keyboards

Portable keyboards are usually instruments with 61 or 76 keys and are not weighted, unlike the piano. The cheaper models are not often touch sensitive which means the keys always produce the same volume no matter how hard they are pressed. This means you can’t put any dynamics or expression into your playing and although some beginners start on such an instrument due to the affordability, you may find you soon need to upgrade!

Keyboards with touch sensitivity allow you to control sounds, but the technique is totally different to the piano which has weighted keys. The difference between a keyboard and a piano is similar to the difference between a motorbike and a car – they can both do similar things, but in reality are totally different.  So if you want to learn to play the piano, buy a piano; and if you want to play a keyboard, buy a keyboard.  You can, of course, start by learning to play a keyboard and then take up the piano later, but if you try and play a keyboard as a piano expect frustration to set in within a short time! (In the same way as it would be difficult to learn to drive a car practising on a motorbike!)

Hybrid Pianos

Hybrid pianos feature some, or all, of the features of both an acoustic and a digital piano.

Examples of acoustic pianos with digital piano features include the Yamaha Silent Series or the Kawai ATX series.  These are acoustic pianos with the sound generator/computer brain of a digital piano added.  Because the acoustic piano keys are already weighted, we only have to add a strip under the keys to sense how hard the note has been depressed to produce a MIDI electronic signal which is sent to the sound generator and you have added all the features of a digital piano.  We just need to add speakers – usually a pair of headphones – and a true “silent piano” will have a physical bar which can be put in place to stop the hammers a few millimetres short of hitting the strings, so there is no acoustic sound at all.

If you include a transducer, then the sound of the digital piano can be amplified by the actual soundboard – e.g. Yamaha Trans-Acoustic or the Kawai Aures pianos.

Examples of Digital pianos with the action of an acoustic piano include the Yamaha Avant-Grand series or the Kawai Novus NV10.  Here there is no soundboard and no strings.  Just take the mechanical action of the piano and use that as your weighted keyboard. e.g. the Kawai NV10 uses the same piano action as Kawai uses in all its grand pianos, and the Yamaha N1 Avant Grand using the same action as Yamaha uses in its upright pianos.

It is also now easy to fit, retrospectively, a digital piano into an acoustic piano which means that we can convert secondhand pianos or even your existing piano into one of these Hybrid pianos.

Further if we now add motors under the keys of an acoustic piano, and enable them to be triggered by MIDI signals, you will start to appreciate that we can have acoustic pianos which can record and playback acoustically; add in other sounds that are either produced from digital recordings or sound sampled technology and the possibilities increase further – we now have Digital Player Acoustic pianos. So if you could invite Jamie Cullum round to tea, and persuade him to sit and play your piano with a microphone, your piano would accurately record every key he presses down together with a recording of his voice singing.  On playback, you would have a recording of his voice synchronised with the actual playing of the acoustic piano.  All you now have to do is add (using the on board 16 track MIDI recorder – the backing bass, drums, horn section etc. etc. and you start to see all the possibilities!!  Examples of these player instruments are the Yamaha Disklavier, and again there systems such as QRS which can be fitted retrospectively to virtually any piano.

Featured Hybrid Pianos