Keyboard Buying Guide

Whether you're just a beginner or you plan to hit the road to play a gig or two, there's a keyboard for your skill level and budget. To help make your decision easier, we've pulled together some tips to help you find your way around the different types of keyboards.

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Finding the Right Keyboard

Keyboard or Manual The term keyboard is used not only to describe the instrument, but the actual black and white keys as well. The keys are also sometimes referred to as the manual. Keyboards are available with various numbers of keys, starting from only 25 keys all the way up to 88. Models with 88 keys offer the same full range of a piano. Many keyboard or piano teachers require that their students use a full range keyboard. Smaller keyboards like 25 and 33 note ones are popular because they are portable. Think about the number of keys you need for the range of music you plan to play.

Action Each keyboard has its own feel and the keys respond to your fingers in a specific way. Weighted and semi-weighted keys feel similar to a traditional piano. Hammer action, also commonly referred to as graded action, uses a hammer mechanism to recreate the feel of a grand piano. As you go higher on the keys the action gets lighter. Synth action uses springs to balance the keys and make them more playable. They have a lighter and faster action and feel more like an organ. Unweighted action keys have a synth feel and are traditionally found on less expensive keyboards.

Sound Each keyboard produces some sounds better than others so you need to decide which sounds are important to you. Look at the polyphony and multitimbrality capabilities to make sure they meet your needs. Test drive each model you are interested in or listen to its demo because after all, hearing is believing.

Display Not all home keyboards have screens, but if you prefer one with a screen, make sure it's of decent quality. The screen should be easy to read and large enough to clearly spell out the functions and sounds you are using. Smaller screens tend to use abbreviations and acronyms that aren't always easy to understand.

Now that you have a few key bits of information, you can start to explore all your options.

5 Things to Consider When Shopping for a Digital Piano

The cost, massive size and price of acoustic pianos make them out of reach for most people who want to learn to play. And for seasoned players who perform regularly, traveling with a standard piano is near to impossible. In both cases, digital pianos are often the next best thing.

1. Console vs. Stage You have two options when buying a digital piano. Console pianos are typically used in your home and look a lot like acoustic pianos. Stage pianos, also called slab pianos, look like a keyboard and are designed for players who need something more portable. Both styles share the same features and sounds; the big difference is the size and the design.

2. Action >Most digital pianos have 88-note keybeds similar to acoustic pianos. Weighted keybeds have a realistic piano feel and hammer action simulates a real piano even better. When you test a keyboard, think about whether the resistance is too light or heavy for you. Also keep in mind that an artificially heavy action will make fatigue set in faster since you have to play with more force.

3. Sound Quality Most brands get their digital samples from high-end acoustic pianos, so they typically produce good quality. A great way to test a digital piano is to play any demo songs that are built in to it, since these songs tend use complex sounds.

4. Amplification Although most digital pianos have amplifiers and speakers built in, the quality varies from brand to brand. Before you buy, think about how and where you will. Ensure the internal speakers are loud enough for your environment. Keep in mind that speakers add to the weight of a piano. If you need to move the piano and have a PA system or amplifier, there is no need to carry the additional weight.

5. Cost Digital pianos range in price from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. For the most part, the final price depends on each instrument's qualities:

• Are the piano sounds convincing?
• Does the keyboard feel realistic?
• Is the key resistance too light or too heavy?
• How is the quality of cabinet and finish?
• Will you need a separate amplifier?

5 Things to Consider When Shopping for a Portable Keyboard

If you're just starting to learn to play, a portable keyboard is a good choice for you. It's easy to travel with and easy on your wallet. And if you get more serious about playing down the road, you can always upgrade to a synthesizer or digital piano later.

1. Transportation Portable keyboards can go most anywhere you can. Because they are lightweight, they are easy to commute with and are easy to play while sitting on your lap. And since portable keyboards come with built-in speakers, you won't need to carry any extra equipment to produce sound.

2. Capabilities Features vary from portable to portable with some offering more advanced functionality than others. Most can produce dozens of instrument sounds and percussion rhythms and include basic sequencer options. Some also offer sampling functions allowing you to record and play back sounds.

3. Connectivity USB connectivity gives you more flexibility in how you can use your keyboard. With a USB connection you can transfer sounds to and from your computer or the Internet, save projects, or even download songs for a karaoke session. Overall, this feature opens your keyboard up to many possibilities.

4. Learning Curve Portables are generally geared toward beginners and all the features and functions reflect a more basic skill level. Most portables include learning functions that help beginners find their way around the keybed and sequencer. No matter what level you play at, a portable provides fun and entertainment as you learn.

5. Cost For a reasonable price you can usually get a portable keyboard that is large enough to learn on and to play simple arrangements, but portable enough to easily take with you. It all depends on the features and the level of functionality you choose.

5 Things to Consider When Shopping for a MIDI Keyboard

The main thing to understand about MIDI keyboard controllers is that most don't generate the sound themselves but almost all can control the sounds of other devices. Not only can you control piano type sounds, MIDI keyboards also allow you to control drum, strings, and many other instrument sounds.

1. Virtual Playing The keyboard transmits MIDI data to external sound locations such as synthesizers, computer software synthesizers, or a hardware or software sequencer. The big advantage is that you have virtual control over a wide range of music and the keyboard is often compact enough to fit in your bag.

2. Controllers Most MIDI keyboards include a range of knobs, sliders, button, crossfaders and wheels above the keybed area. These controllers allow you to transmit MIDI data and give you hands-on and real-time control over modifying the sounds from the source you have connected to your keyboard.

3. Action and Feel How the key responds to playing is a top priority when choosing a keyboard controller. MIDI keyboards can have different response characteristics:

• Velocity-sensitive keys respond to how fast they are pressed
• Weighted keys feel more realistic, like a real piano
• Aftertouch lets you assign additional effects to a key by pressing down harder when the key is already pressed

4. Size MIDI keyboards come with as few as 25 keys or as many as 88, and many sizes in between. If you are a club DJ and you intend to use the keyboard in a cramped space, a compact controller with 25 or 37 keys will work best. If you are looking for a piano-style experience then an 88-key controller is the better choice.

5. Cost A standalone MIDI keyboard controller is good for players on a tight budget looking to create music on multiple instruments. The more functions and features offered plus the size of the keybed all factor in to the final price tag. Before you buy, consider how you will use the keyboard and then decide what functions and size you will need.

5 Things to Consider When Shopping for a Synthesizer

Synthesizers cover a wide range of applications and price points. Some entry level synthesizers make great sounds but don't allow a wide range of editing. Some higher level synthesizers offer much more editing and customization.

1. Acoustic Simulations vs. Synthetic Sounds Most synthesizers use digital synths which tend to offer a much larger sound set, including piano, organ, horns, strings, and even digital re-creations of classic analog synths. Many synthesizers use PCM samples or recordings as the basis of their sounds. You can choose a sound or even combine sounds to create unique sounds. These are very good at reproducing the sounds of acoustic instruments. Analog modeling synthesizers are also found in this category. These use a limited number of waveforms to create sounds like older classic synthesizers decades ago.

2. Sounds Each synthesizer includes a number of sounds built into the ROM (Read-Only Memory). If you plan to create your own sounds, select a synth with plenty of expansion slots that allow you to save your new creations. If you prefer to just turn on and let loose on the keys, then look for a synth with lots of presets.

3. Controls One way to explore your talent and unique sound is to shape the preset sounds that come with the synthesizer. Envelope controls allow you to tailor the attack and release time of sound. You can also experiment with tone by playing with the low-frequency oscillator (LFO) control. Perhaps the most important element of a synthesizer is its filter. Filters control the brightness and can produce a sweeping sound. Some filters even have envelope controls allowing the filter sound to change over time. These are called Time Variant Filters or TVFs.

4. Effects Many synthesizers have built-in effects that let you alter sounds. When looking at the effects section, it is important to consider how many effects the synth can produce at the same time (number of EFX processors). Some effects to consider:
• A delay effect creates an echo-like sound
• A reverb effect produces a reverberation sound
• A chorus effect adds thickness to the sound, making it sound like more than one person is playing

5. Cost If your budget is flexible, look for a synthesizer that has the most number of sounds and the best overall quality. If you're on a tight budget, take quality of construction over variety of sounds. In the end, it's better to have fewer sounds produced well than many sounds produced badly due to poor quality.