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The Beginners Guide to Keyboards

Published: Thu November 25, 2010  News Feed

As recently revealed by a survey from the Associated Board of the Roayl Schools of Music, Keyboard and piano are the most played instrument by school children. That's greatr, but some customers may be slightly confused by the wide range of related keyboard products on offer in the market today: Digital Pianos, Home Pianos, Stage Pianos, Portable Home Keyboards, Arranger Keyboards, Keyboard Workstations, MIDI keyboards, synthesizers... What's it all about? We're here to help!

Updated For 2014/2015!

Have you been looking through our range of keyboards and digital pianos and wondering what is the difference between each of them? Should I buy digital or acoustic? What's the difference between a keyboard and digital piano? Why would I want light up keys? Why do some keyboards have 61 keys and digital pianos have 88? What keyboard is best for me as a beginner?

We realise that buying a keyboard for the first time with the choice available is quite a frustrating experience. Our keyboard buying guide will talk you through the basics and give you tips on what's best to buy to suit your needs. Plus, we give you a range of different pianos from £100 to £600, to suit everyone's budget.

The majority of our starter packs come included with a stand. All keyboards are made to be portable and for use with batteries, although please note that these aren't included unless stated! To make your keyboard purchase the perfect Christmas gift, why not take a look at our accessories and sheet music so yourself or the recipient can play along to more than the built in songs?

If you're a beginner, it's likely a keyboard will suit you more than a digital piano for several reasons:

  • A keyboard has 61 keys rather than digital pianos which have 88. 61 keys are much easier for a beginner to use...
  • Keyboard keys are also much lighter than a digital pianos. Touch Sensitive keys are what you should probably go for as a beginner, as the sounds respond to how hard you press the keys - making your playing much more expressive.

The advantages of digital

We wouldn't want to leave the grand acoustic piano out of the loop, and you're probably wondering why this hasn't been brought into the conversation yet? There are a multitude of non-technical and technical advantages to purchasing a digital keyboard/piano over an acoustic. Here are a few of the most important...

  • smaller size
  • a choice of sounds
  • no maintenance
  • never needs tuning
  • volume control
  • portability
  • private practice (headphones)
  • on-board recording

So before we give you a number of keyboards and digital pianos you may like, you may want to know a few of the basics. What's so good about weighted keys? Why is touch sensitivity so important?

Weighted keys
Weighted keys mimic the feel of an acoustic piano. Why is this important? Well as a student, you will develop the manual dexterity and muscle strength required in your hands to play more demanding compositions. Besides that, when you move on to an acoustic piano it will eliminate any difference in feel to you!

Touch sensitivity
A string on an acoustic piano will resonate louder the harder it is struck by the hammer. For a digital piano to sound realistic, this effect must be reproduced. Additionally, the sound from a single note will be unique when the string is hit at different velocities. When the digital piano is played, the appropriate sample is triggered according to the force of the key press.

With all of the above in mind... let's start choosing!!!

Digital pianos and electronic keyboards have surpassed acoustic pianos in popularity, because they are lighter and more affordable. Today, there's a keyboard for just about any sort of budget and need. Here's our quick guide to help you to find what what's the best option for you!


Dolphin Music's Guide to Digital Pianos and Keyboards for Beginners


IF YOU WANT SOMETHING PORTABLE AND CHEAP: Choose Home Keyboards

Image: Yamaha PSR-E343 KeyboardThe personal / portable keyboards, such as the Yamaha PSR-E343 Portable Keyboard, pictured above, are ideal as a first musical instrument and as a student keyboard. They are perfect for the entry level beginner.

They are cheaper, smaller, with less keys than a real piano, and not expected to be "perfect" reproductions of the "real deal", neither in terms of sound nor feel. Back in the 80's, similar products were, frankly, rubbish (though today they may seem to have some "retro" charm!) Now, however, they do a much better job at at least approaching a more realistic feel: thanks to touch response, the keys respond to the intensity of the playing, which is very useful for beginners learning to play piano.

The sound is much better too, and for untrained ears these keyboards will sound enough like a piano. Portable keyboards also do a greater range of different sounds (not always realistic) such as church organ, saxophone, orchestral instruments, drums and even hand-claps. They're a great learning tool for children, and fun for all the family! Not meant for professionals, recording sessions or live performance, though they could be used this way.

The Yamaha PSR-E243 Portable Keyboard is the cheapest model we stock, at only £127, and
Yamaha PSR-E343 Portable Keyboard is a slightly more expensive model, with more features.


IF YOU WANT THE CLASSIC LOOK & FEEL OF A REAL PIANO: Choose Digital Home Pianos

Yamaha Clavinova...Digital home pianos  are the perfect alternative to the old upright pianos. They can fit on most average-sized homes, and are not as heavy to transport. Unlike the small, portable keyboards, these home pianos are full-sized, with 88-keys like a normal piano. Most of them also have pedals like traditional pianos, and have a look, feel and sound much closer to a proper piano.

They sound realistic, look stylish and, besides serving as an alternative to traditional pianos, they actually offer some advantages such as cheaper price, no need for maintenance, never go out of tune, have in-built metronomes and can be played in silence thanks to headphone output.

PMT stocks some great digital home pianos, such as: the Yamaha NP11 Piaggero Portable Digital Piano is the cheapest at £167, but other great choices include Roland F-20 (only £479), the Korg SP-170DX Digital Piano in Black, the Korg LP Series Pianos and the sophisticated Yamaha Clavinova Home Pianos.

Here's a video that shows the different - and very realistic - sounds you can get from a digital home piano:



IF YOU'RE GOING TO PERFORM LIVE: Choose Digital Stage Pianos

Image: Nord Stage 2 HA76 Stage PianoDigital Stage Pianos share the same DNA of home pianos (super realistic sound and feel, full-sized with 88 keys on most cases) but, as the name suggests, they are meant to be used live. Which means: most of them don't come with stand, so they can be more easily transported; they don't have educational extra features; they don't usually have the traditional "wood finish" look; and some of them don't have a wide range of sounds - they're meant to do fewer sounds, better!

The red Nord Stage Pianos (pic left) are very popular and can regularly be spotted on stages all over the world, being used by top players in many famous bands. Today, more artists use a Nord keyboard onstage, when they want realistic piano, electric piano or vintage Hammond organ sounds, than they use the actual, original instruments.

Nothing stops a "stage piano" being used as a "home piano" either, and a few models actually fit both roles really well, such as the Yamaha NP11 (only £167!) and the Yamaha P35, which costs just £357: The P-35 is definitely the Best Buy option when it comes to Digital Pianos, as it also has a Graded Hammer Standard Keyboard (GHS), 88 keys that have a truly realistic feel across the board, the lower notes featuring a heavier action than higher notes.

Digital Piano Best Buy

This kind of realistic feel and playability is hard to find at this price point. Other great options include: Yamaha P-105, Roland FP80, Yamaha CP40, Roland RD-300NX, Korg SV1 73 and the Yamaha CP4.

Compare any of those with a Korg LP-380 Digital HOME Piano, and you'll quickly notice the difference between home and stage pianos.

Another thing to consider, is that many stage pianos do not have in-built speakers, since they would have to be plugged to PA or keyboard amp at a gig, anyway. Please check before buying a stage piano, as you may need to also get an amplifier.


WHAT ABOUT SYNTHESIZERS, WORKSTATIONS AND ARRANGER KEYBOARDS?

Synths
Synthesizers
are a different beast altogether. They vary wildly between themselves, and some don't even feature typical black & white keyboard keys. Check the pic above, showing three popular models: Roland Jupiter 50, Korg MS20 Mini, and Korg Volca Keys.

They may or may not have realistic piano sounds - often they don't, as this is not their main thing! Digital Pianos - stage or home - were created primarily as credible substitutes for traditional pianos and vintage organs. But no one really ever buys a synthesizer for piano sounds.

Since Moog introduced synths 50 years ago (read our 50 years of Moog article) they've become a popular musical instrument, used by many of the biggest artists worldwide. Synthesizers are capable of creating unique sounds, and they are still one of the most powerful tools available for any creative musician today. Synthesizers are supposed to sound like... synthesizers!

Image: Korg Monotron SynthesizerBands as diverse as The Beatles, Black Sabbath and Queens Of The Stone Age have used synths, and whole new genres of music developed around synthesizer sounds, with several electronic artists as varied as Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, The Orb and Ladytron relying heavily on synthesizers as their main (and sometimes only!) sound.

The affordable Korg microKorg is perhaps the most popular synth at the moment, costing just £279. And the Korg Monotron (see pic, left) is the smallest and cheapest synth around, at just £39. It looks like a toy, but is a real analog synth and serves as a great taster of what a synthesizer can sound like.

Keyboard Workstations and Arranger Keyboards were created as versatile music creation tools, too. Like synths, they also got many, amazing sound-shaping tools and high-end features that are, however, not of interest for those just seeking a good piano for the home.

At a first glance, Workstations and Arranger Keyboards look just like a personal, portable keyboard...  the truth is they are anything but! They are high-end music making tools, for performing professionals who need to do things as diverse as film-scoring, arrange songs etc.

This Korg video explains really well what they do, and how they differ:



IF YOU WANT TO SAVE MONEY & OWN A COMPUTER: Choose MIDI Keyboard Controllers

Arturia MiniLab Controller

The look of Keyboard MIDI Controllers (pic above) might deceive! They are not musical instruments per se - they don't produce any sound. What they do, is to provide an actual, physical control of computer software: instead of buying an actual synth or keyboard, for instance, you may have a software on your laptop that emulates the synthesizer or piano sound, and you then connect your keyboard controller to your laptop, in order to play this digital version as if it was an actual instrument.

The M-Audio Axiom Air series has some great controllers in a few different sizes.

You might also need accessories...

If you're choosing a keyboard or digital piano that doesn't come with a stand, don't worry! We have a range of stands for you to choose from...

Black Rat X Style Keyboard Stand

  • Standard X-Keyboard frame
  • Ideal for beginners
  • Lightweight

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