(No. 4 in a Series) For this installment, we consulted Will Kaplan, professional keyboard player, composer, and music editor in residence at Warner Bros. Studios.

Like guitars, there are plenty of variations on keyboard instruments to keep the first-time shopper dizzy. Everything you need to know about buying an acoustic piano is at the end of this article, but we will start by focusing on electronic keyboards in three major categories: Digital Pianos, Synthesizers, and Workstations.

Digital Piano – There are two basic types: consoles, which come with built-in speakers and a cabinet to mimic an acoustic piano, and stage pianos, which are designed for portability and have audio outputs for connecting to an amp, PA, or powered speakers.

Yamaha Arius YDP141 88-Key Digital Piano with Bench

Yamaha Arius YDP141 88-Key Digital Piano with Bench

Yamaha CP-33 88-Key Stage Piano

Yamaha CP-33 88-Key Stage Piano

Synthesizer – while a digital piano is typically limited to just a few (mostly keyboard) sounds, synthesizers are designed to reproduce the sounds of many instruments, as well as unique electronic sounds.  A synthesizer will allow you to program your own sounds, and interface with a computer through midi or USB ports.  Synthesizers also have audio outputs designed for connecting to an amp, PA, or powered speakers.

Yamaha MM6 Package

Yamaha MM6 Package

Workstation – A workstation adds sequencing, recording and other capabilities to a synthesizer, allowing you to output complete works of music with an integrated production studio.

Korg M50 73-Key Compact=

Korg M50 73-Key Compact Workstation

Some features cross over these categories, and there are keyboards that fit between them.  As discussed in Part 1 (How to Buy a Musical Instrument), buying a brand-name will ensure a certain level of quality, enable you to find replacement parts when repairs are needed, and get you a higher resale value when it’s time to trade up. For keyboards, here are the brand names you should consider:

  • Korg
  • Roland
  • Yamaha

That’s it.  There are other companies that make fine instruments, but these are the most popular brands, and you will be able to find multiple models in every category from each of these manufacturers.  Having too many choices not only makes it harder to arrive at a decision, but you often end up less satisfied with your final selection.

Keyboard Specs

If you like to dig into the details, there are all kinds of specs for you to pore over, but the ones that everybody should care about are:

Number of keys – A full piano keyboard has 88 keys, and most digital pianos have the same number.  Many synthesizers and workstations also come in 61-key and 73-key versions.

Action – there are three basic types available:

  • Synth action – light, springy keys, similar to an organ
  • Weighted action- provides some resistance to mimic the feel of an acoustic piano
  • Hammer action – adds small hammers to a weighted action keyboard; graded hammer action increases the resistance as you move from the top notes to the bottom

Polyphony – the number of simultaneous notes an instrument can sound; you may only have 10 fingers, but when using sustain and sequencing, you will want many more notes to sound (acoustic pianos can sound all 88 notes at once, workstations can have up to 128-note polyphony)

Multitimbrality – the number of simultaneous voices (or presets, or programs, or patches) an instrument can sound, e.g., piano, bass, drums, horns; used mostly for layering sounds and sequencing

If you plan to take your keyboard out of the house, another important spec to check is weight.  A 61-key synth may be just over 10 lbs., while an 88-key weighted action keyboard will be closer to fifty.

Before choosing a keyboard, think about the type of music you want to play, the sounds you will use most often, and how the keyboard will be used.  The features you want in a keyboard for a home studio can be very different from the ones that are important to you in a live performance.  We asked Will about other considerations:

What should a new player look for when buying their first keyboard, and what should they avoid?

Simplicity in design is crucial. A new player should receive as much help as possible so easy-to-use presets, drum patterns and the like are important. A weighted keyboard is probably best for someone with piano experience, but weight is a consideration if the owner is contemplating playing out.

What is the minimum amount they should expect to spend?

These days you can get a usable keyboard pretty cheap. Anything halfway worthwhile is probably $500 – 1k to start.

Would you recommend anything different for a young beginner vs. an adult beginner?

I don’t think the key factor is age anymore. Computer literacy is a more compelling consideration. A kid who can set up a website is going to have an easier time with a workstation than an adult who can’t work a TiVo.

Should they consider used?

Sure, but pay close attention to the condition of the exterior of the keyboard. If it’s battered, there are probably circuit boards that could be close to coming apart inside.

Some Final Words on Shopping

In Part 1, we suggested that you buy brand-name equipment at a price that is appropriate to the level of commitment you (or the recipient if it’s a gift) have to the instrument. If you are unsure of the commitment level, it’s OK to buy a sub-$500 keyboard to test it out.  Just know that if you (or your kid) decide to pursue piano or perform in public, you are going to want something better.

Also be aware that most of the keyboards in this lineup do not come with speakers, so be prepared to spend some more for those — around $150 to start.  The good news is that you can use headphones to practice without embarrassing yourself or bothering others.

Electronic keyboards are generally reliable, are of consistent quality, and you don’t need to be a skilled player to know how good they can sound. So you can feel more comfortable buying used or buying online than you might be with other instruments.  As always, it’s best to take along someone with more experience when shopping, especially when evaluating used equipment.

Everything You Need to Know about Buying an Acoustic Piano…

is in the The Piano Book: Buying & Owning a New or Used Piano by Larry Fine.  This is a big topic, but if I had to boil it down to one sentence, it would be this:  Buy the best Yamaha piano that you can afford and will fit in your home.

It can be new or used, but if used, have it evaluated by a piano technician before finalizing the purchase.  This should be considered a long-term investment, and you will be spending a few thousand dollars at least.  Larry used to publish annual updates, but that information is now available in a separate book or online at http://www.pianobuyer.com/.