Buying A Keyboard

Introduction

This article is intended to help you find the best keyboard for your home studio or gigging. The answer won’t be the same for everyone, so I’ll give a few ideas based on a few different user types. One of these should have you covered.

There are advantages in having the ability to visit a local music store with a great selection of all the most popular keyboards, and it might be worth a drive some distance to find such a place if one isn’t close to you. Not many music stores stock all of the brands and types unless you happen to live close to a major national music distributor who also happens to have a large show room.

Usually the store stock is based on the kind of customer most prone to frequent the store with brands that are known to have had appeal in the past. Undoubtedly some consideration can also be made for markup and profit. After all, the store is in business to make money. I won’t get into the possibility that you may be shown brand A in contrast to brand B because it has a higher profit margin, but it probably happens.

Many music stores have quiet areas for acoustic players to demo instruments. Not so much for keyboards. You might get to the store and several other people could be demoing keyboards all hooked up to audio systems and all going at once. My local Guitar Center is one of these kinds of setups. For this reason it’s best to call ahead and ask if you can have a private time to see the keyboards or when the best times are to try out the stock when there would be less customers there.

How a keyboard sounds though headphones may be way different than how it sounds through studio monitors, all depending on the headphones/monitors, so I think it’s a good idea to demo keyboards you might be interested in in both ways.

Many of these keyboards are very complex and a simple visit to the store might not yield all the information you need to make an educated decision. This is why I suggest doing a lot of web research on the keyboards you’re interested in. Read lots of user reviews. Find out what things you like and see which keyboard would suit you best after you’ve done some homework. Hopefully this article will help you along.

I wouldn’t eliminate used keyboards as an option. If the keyboard has been well cared for it might be just the thing you need without spending a ton of money. One drawback is a warranty isn’t usually offered on used keyboards.

What kind of user are you?

We’ll begin at the bottom of the market which accounts for a large portion of keyboard sales, beginners. Most beginners have no idea what some of the more recent keyboards are capable of, and it really doesn’t matter because they simply need something they can play that makes sound. At the very low end of the market are beginner keyboards. These keyboards are excellent for children just starting out in music. Surprisingly many of these keyboards sound good!

Keyboards in this range have built in speakers and may have educational helps built in such as keys that light up to indicate when they are to be played, or built in song sets to play along with. Made of light weight plastic with keys that are functional, but have a flimsy cheap feel to them. These keyboards are battery or wall powered.
A few words of advice to the beginning keyboard buyer:

If you intend to transfer skills learned to a piano don’t buy a keyboard with mini keys. I would recommend to get a keyboard with full sized keys even if you never play on a real piano since any future purchase will almost certainly involve a more advanced keyboard with full sized keys. The larger keys make playing easier.

When buying a keyboard there’s semi-weighted, non weighted and weighted keys. The most common keys on beginner keyboards are non weighted. The most common key beds on intermediate keyboards are semi weighted, sometimes called “keyboard feel”. Keyboard feel strikes a balance between something that doesn’t feel cheap when playing but isn’t fully weighted. Since semi weighted keys are usually lighter and faster than weighted keys, many keyboardists prefer semi-weighted keys when playing fast synthesizer parts.Weighted keys are mostly reserved for people who desire the keyboard to feel as much like a real piano as possible.

It is possible to buy a low end keyboard with 88 keys and a feel close to a real piano. This is a great choice for anyone who wants to learn piano on a budget. These keyboards are slightly more expensive, but I feel are a good investment in a young player who doesn’t have a piano available and who is taking piano lessons.

The number of keys is usually 49 and upwards. I recommend a minimum of 61 keys. Some configurations eliminate the lowest octave and a few of the highest notes which are seldom played and come up with a 73 or 76 key keyboard. On the least expensive keyboards 61 keys are most common. You might find a 76 or 88 key keyboard for about the same price if you shop around.

Electronic keyboards rely on something called velocity layers to get the sound being played to become louder or softer. If each key has four velocity layers, there are four potential sound levels. Depending on how hard and how fast the keys are played each of these velocity layers is triggered and give the overall effect of playing a real acoustic piano. In the less expensive keyboards there are less velocity layers. The implementation of the layers isn’t as responsive, which makes the instrument feel less responsive to your playing. This is why a better keyboard plays better.
Sometimes additional nuances are also programmed into the sound based on the layers. For instance, playing a key harder might give a piano sound more resonance or an electric piano sound more grit. The less expensive beginner keyboards have less of these features or none at all.

The Gigger

Keyboardists who play out frequently are usually trained pianists and they like a solid instrument that won’t let them down in gigs. Since most keyboards don’t usually offer everything you need at a gig, gigging keyboardists take several keyboards to a gig that has a lot of material from different styles or genres. One keyboard might have an excellent B-3 organ sound while another has the best piano sound. They usually have at least one 88 key weighted keyboard of good quality. These players demand the best. They want something they don’t need to fool around with on stage. They prefer light weight if possible, but they will usually select a heavier keyboard if it’s a better keyboard unless their back is giving out. Although midi controllers have been in vogue using outboard computers, these are usually limited to the techno crowd. A regular gigging keyboardist doesn’t want to hook up cables and boot up computers.

The Yamaha Motif has gained a reputation as a road worthy sturdy instrument that has great sounds and doesn’t require a lot of hassle to operate in a live situation. The trade off is that it isn’t a light instrument, but it has a great key bed. Nord is a Scandinavian maker who make very well built good sounding intuitive keyboards. Usually their designs have an easy interface and not too many additional features that could actually end up becoming problematic for a live player. You might see Korgs and Rolands in the gigging setup among others.

Sometimes the gigging keyboardist goes into the studio and records, so it’s always good for them to have a keyboard they are accustomed to playing that can adapt well to the studio. They don’t usually want or need a sequencer,sci fi sounds or 100’s of thick pads. Most live players are too busy playing out to sit in the studio programming or making mood music, but this is a stereotype, and I’m sure there are some who do both.

The Studio Musician

This group accounts for a very large segment of musicians who buy keyboards. Probably the majority of mid to high end keyboard purchases are studio musicians.This group can comprise a lot of personality types. Some of these musicians are people who like to play organ or piano and have picked up a few recording skills along the say. They might not have the time or the desire to gig, so they make music at home with a keyboard and a computer. They might be a multi-instrumentalist who combines tracks to make songs, or they might use the different sounds in the keyboard.

There seem to be several different types of studio musicians and combinations of both. There are the programmer types who aren’t especially strong musically but they love computers and they like to sit in a room and program midi or play with recording software to make tracks. These are the people who make their living usually involving computers or some other technical line of work. They like gizmos and gadgets and they like to see how they work together. Most of their work would be considered more technical than artistic, but this point could be argued.

There are the musically gifted and or trained musicians who adopted technology to further their artistic pursuits. These are the people who wouldn’t use technology at all if it wasn’t a necessity in making music. This group sometimes sees technology as a necessary evil and they don’t always like to deal with it.If they can come to grips with the technology, it’s like giving them a set of wings.

There are musicians who are good at both technical and musical pursuits and everything in between. There probably isn’t an ideal keyboard for all of these people, so there are many types to choose from.

The prime consideration in making music for distribution at home for this larger group is this: Will you make music inside the computer or will you make music inside the keyboard? This is purely a choice you will make based on your needs and wants.

Some people would prefer to do everything without ever looking at a computer. These are also the people who usually prefer hardware recorders For this group, something like the Korg Kronos would work nicely. Be forewarned that these keyboards have a steep learning curve because they are also a recording studio with multiple sound set types and layers of menus. It’s probably more difficult to learn one of these than to learn to use a computer to record. On the plus side. The sounds are some of the very best and it can be used with a computer. If you have the aptitude and the patience to learn the complexity of this instrument it will pay huge dividends. There are other brands of keyboards that can also record both audio and keys parts into an internal recorder via midi.

At some point, if you want to put your music on the web, you’ll still need to get it into a computer. Software synthesizers can be played by an external keyboard midi controller. This option is used quite frequently for several reasons. There are many very good software synthesizers that can be loaded into your computer that rival and even surpass the sounds in hardware keyboards for several reasons. They also usually cost less than typical keyboards and make a great way to expand any keyboard setup in the studio using any existing keyboard equipped with midi.

Dedicated midi controllers are usually less expensive than buying a keyboard with built in sounds. A word of advice, all midi controllers have midi but some offer more control over midi parameters. Velocity layers,midi channel programming and selection, the way the sustain pedal responds might be better thought out in one controller over another. Some controllers have 88 keys and some far less. Look for the same kinds of quality in a midi controller you would look for in any other keyboard.Also consider the level of control and access the controller offers when playing and controlling soft synths in real time.Most soft synths can be mapped to the controls of a midi controller.

Midi controllers are good choices for a studio musician who frequently use a computer and recording software. This kind of arrangement is best as a non mobile setup since moving a large controller and computer to a gig can be a real chore to unhook, and re connect, transport etc.Even when using a laptop cables still need to be connected and computers need to be booted up and connected to the controller. Some musicians go to the trouble because they like the way that setup works better than a hardware keyboard.

The Mobile DJ Musician

These are the people who love to mix loops. Some of them make their own loops. These types of musicians also work in a performance mode. Their palette is the loops and the way they mangle and mix the loops and tempos.They might combine loops as backing and play an instrument with it. There’s a lot of possibilities for the keyboardist/ DJ.

These methods can cross several genres such as rap, techno and electronica.

For these musicians the focus is usually on the groove and is heavily rhythm and beat oriented.They might use several different ways to control the beats. They may use pre made backing tracks with loops and playing added or it could be a totally improvised on the fly performance usually done with the aid of programs like Ableton.

The type of keyboard most favored by these musicians are smaller keyboards and controllers since they mostly play solos over loops or use the keys to trigger loops. The keys don’t need to be weighted action and the number of keys can be 49 or less. Midi controllers are usually favored over hardware keyboards with internal sounds.

This is the most common arrangement, however there are exceptions. If you want o get into the looping scene and want an 88 key controller no one is going to stop you.

One of the reasons DJ’s prefer a smaller keyboard is because a small keyboard and a laptop will fit right into a carry bag. Most don’t need a larger setup for this type of music.

Which Type Are You?

Ask yourself how you will use a keyboard and what you hope to accomplish with it. Will you be in the studio more often than you’ll be out gigging?
Or will you do both?

Do you prefer 88 keys and a weighted touch? Do you prefer semi weighted action over weighted action? Try a few keyboards out and decide for yourself.

Do you plan to record into a computer with recording software? Do you want to have sounds inside of the keyboard instead of or in addition to sounds and software synthesizers played from your keyboard and through a computer?

Is weight a factor in your purchase? Do you have the time to learn all of the functions in a sophisticated hardware synthesizer, and are you the type that isn’t frustrated with technology?

Considerations when comparing keyboards-

After you narrow down what it is you want in a keyboard it’s time to examine the most important features of keyboards and midi controllers.
– Velocity layers and touch sensitivity
– Key quality and action, weighed, non weighted and semi weighted
– Number of keys
– Most used features organized in an intuitive way
– Sound quality, PCM sampled or streamed from internal disk, methods used to achieve realism. Audible sound quality when compared to others
– User ratings,user supported sound programming, reliability, company support and warranty of product
– Connectivity for your applications, midi on/out, hardware 5 pin or usb connections? analog and or digital audio connections
– weight and transport considerations
– Construction quality
– Depth of control when using soft synths and or recording functions inside of a computer using keyboard controls
– The extent to which dedicated internal recording is implemented, both midi sequencing and audio recording
– Compatibility to outboard recording applications, drum templates, included interface software

In the end it’s going to be your choice because your needs may be entirely different than mine.

The Best Choice For Me

I’ll tell you the best choice for me based on my needs and why I made the choice.

My most recent keyboard purchase wasn’t due to a want but a need since a few of the keys were failing on my old Roland Keyboard that had, up until recently, been a great keyboard.

Things I considered based on my needs/wants and budget :

I have loads of sounds already in my computer, both the synths that came with my DAW software and some I had purchased, so I didn’t really need any sounds other than the basic staples such as a decent piano, organs, some nice pads. Bread and butter kinds of sounds.
I didn’t need or want to invest time in learning to record inside of a keyboard sequencer since I have recording software and computer plug-ins.I record both midi and audio in my studio computer.
The few gigs I play out usually have a piano on location, no keyboard needed. I only needed a keyboard for the occasional outdoor gig. That might only be once a year.
I would have been fine with one of my other keyboards and an 88 key midi controller. Instead I opted for the Casio PX-5S for the following reasons:
Pros-
The PX-5S was priced comparably to a good midi controller but it offered much more.
It has excellent midi I/O for my needs, both usb and 5 pin midi connections.
Excellent sounds and deep programming options for a keyboard at this price point
88 weighted keys with additional mapped knobs,sliders and mod wheel all could be mapped to other uses or used as programmed with the included sounds.
The sounds are excellent and surprisingly well done in a keyboard at this price point.I plan to use a few of them for recoding instead of my computer synths
Very responsive velocity and feel
Great factory support as can be seen in regular support over several years so far
A solid base of users who contribute additional sound programming and ideas on facebook and the Casio factory site
Very light weight, especially for an 88 key weighted keyboard
usb port can play prerecorded tracks on usb memory stick

Cons– Small screen. Programming and basic operation not intuitive.

Prior to this article I would never have considered Casio in my choices because I viewed Casio as being in the beginner segment of the market. A friend tipped me off to this keyboard since he had been using it to gig regularly, so I looked further into it and was pleasantly surprised.

My situation may be different than yours. Luckily, there’s enough information out there to make an informed choice based on your needs. I used my example as a way to show you the kind of research I usually do when buying a keyboard and hopefully this will help you in making your decision. Good Luck!!

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