Assuming that you already considered your options between a real piano and keyboard, buying a keyboard can still be an intimidating process. There are a variety of manufacturers that make a broad range of boards to fit different situations. My goal in this guide is to inform you of the main difference between the keyboard types in hope that you can make a solid choice to fit your needs.
Digital Piano vs Keyboard vs Controller
Before I can suggest what kind of keyboard to get, we must be clear about the different kinds of keyboard options on the market. Here's the breakdown and a highlight of the differences between the three:
A digital piano is meant to be a close approximation to a real piano. Instead of being loaded with a ton of features and sounds it is a basic instrument as to not overwhelm the player with lots of technology. Moreover, many digital pianos come with a build-in stand that includes pedals. Other boards require that you purchase an x-stand and pedals separately. Digital pianos work best for people interested in just piano and do not want to worry about the cost and maintenance of a real piano.
- Sounds: usually includes patches that cover piano, harpsichord, electric piano, organ, vibraphone, and strings
- Keys: usually weighted
- Features: has built-in speakers with and headphone jack; includes a metronome and a few extra buttons or knobs for changing sounds
The term keyboard covers a wide range of instruments from electric piano, organ, to synthesizer. They come in a variety of lengths or key numbers (often 25, 32/37, 49, 61, or 88). Some have weighted keys and others are non-weighted (light to the touch). Moreover, keyboards create sound on their own through built-in speakers (for the cheaper models) or through patching the instrument\'s output into some form of amplifier or external speaker system (for the more quality instruments). Lastly, they can come with a variety of sounds and extra programmable feature sets. Keyboards are often broken down further into common subcategories I have listed below. Sometimes the lines between these subcategories can be blurred due to multiple feature sets included on one board. To generalize, here are the main differences between the keyboard types.
- Sounds: the most common being jazz organ but may include electric organ or church/pipe organ
- Keys: non-weighted
- Features: often includes drawbars and/or some form or tonal control
- Sounds: a variety of electronic patches found in modern pop or dance music
- Keys: non-weighted
- Features: includes extra buttons, knobs, and faders for sound manipulation; may include a small display for programming
- Sounds: widest variety including pianos, synths, orchestral, horns, bells, and whistles; the sky is the limit with the more advanced boards
- Keys: may be weighted or non-weighted
- Features: includes a sequencer (ability to record your performance and layer other instruments); includes extra buttons, knobs, and faders for sound manipulation; includes a small display for programming
- Sounds: similar to workstations having a wide variety of sounds
- Keys: usually weighted
- Features: similar to a workstation but has fewer buttons, knobs, and faders for sound manipulation; includes a smaller display for programming
MIDI Keyboard Controller
A controller looks very similar to a keyboard, however, has one big difference, it does not create sound in and of itself. Instead of having patches (sounds) built into the instrument, the controller interfaces, usually through USB or midi, with a computer or connects to an external sound module. As a result, the controller is usually cheaper than a keyboard. This option is best for people interested in working with and through recording programs such as Garageband, Logic, Pro Tools, and the like. Furthermore, by using a controller, you are not limited to the internal sounds as you are with a standalone keyboard. This means that you can upgrade your computer software and have new patches (called software instruments). Although controllers are flexible, keep in mind that they always require a computer connection and software to make sound which for some people is an added headache.
- Sounds: none internally; requires software or external sound module
- Keys: usually non-weighted; some also include drum pads for programming beats
- Features: includes buttons, knobs, and faders for manipulation of sound via software; may include a smaller display for programming
Pricing & Suggestions
There are so many options available and different price points to consider. A few notes to keep in mind when shopping is to get a keyboard that includes:
- Velocity sensitivity which some manufacturers call "touch sensitive" (the ability to change the volume of the note based upon how hard the keys are pressed).
- Sustain pedal input (you can get the pedal later).
- If the piano does not come built into a stand, purchase one.
- Try to get a 61 key instrument or more (no less than 49 keys if it is your primary board).
Budget: Under $100
Keyboards in this price range tend to be less of a real instrument and more like a children\'s toy. The patches sound less realistic and they lack other features such as velocity sensitivity which allows you to make music dynamic. Furthermore, students outgrow budget keyboards relatively quickly and find themselves needing to upgrade sooner rather than later. You can still learn the basics of the keyboard layout but will never be able to create music that is expressive and inspiring.
Tip - Avoid going cheap unless you are on a shoestring budget and plan to upgrade at a later point in time. Instead, find a hand-me-down or get something within your price range that's used instead of buying new. If you are patient and willing to spend the time you can get more bang for your buck by going used.
Econo keyboards are a better option for people looking to get a board without breaking the bank. The features are similar to a budget keyboard but include velocity sensitivity, sustain pedal input jack, and sometimes a USB input for interfacing with a computer (sometimes they can even function as a controller).
Most keyboards in this price range fall into the category of digital pianos, smaller keyboards, and controllers.
Semi-Pro & Professional: $750-$$$$
Professional keyboards have great sounds, a wide range of additional feature, mainly for manipulating sounds and integrating with other musical equipment. They have a lot of cutting-edge technology integrated and therefore the price reflects it. The learning curve on these boards tends to be steeper.
Tip - Every musician's genre and musical demands are different and therefore no one-size-fits-all suggestion can be made. That said, here are the key players for semi-pro keyboards: Alesis, Roland, and for professional keyboards: Korg, Hammond, Kawai, Kurzweil, Moog, Nord, Yamaha.
Where to Buy
If you are looking to buy new you can check out your local music store or piano dealer. There are also many online distributors but I have kept the list short focusing on retailers I have had experience with.
- American Musical Supply
- Full Compass (most knowledgable and best customer service)
- Musician's Friend
- Sweetwater (most knowledgable and best customer service)
If you are looking to save some cash you can get a great instrument for well under the price of a new board. Just make sure to test all the keys and buttons before you buy. Be sure to give the instrument a good look-over for any damage or defects. Lastly, when buying used online make sure to vet the seller and know the return policy!