Pianos were one of the most desirable items to have in a household, just over a century ago. Times have changed, and TV took over. But today, digital pianos and keyboards remain popular, our piano and keyboard buying guide will help you to choose the best one for your home!
Thanks to Digital Pianos and Keyboards, the number of people who enjoy tickling the ivories remains high, with no sign of dwindling: in fact, according to a recent research, keyboard and piano are the two most popular instruments among school children, played by 58% of the children interviewed by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, on a study published last September.
Actual acoustic pianos (upright or grand style) are not very common anymore, that's true. Too heavy and too expensive, they're a luxury few can afford, and often not suitable for the average home. Today, they have been replaced by a wide range of different instruments, and brands such as Yamaha sell many different types of keyboards.
Casual buyers and beginners might find it a bit confusing: what's the difference, then, between digital pianos and keyboard synthesizers, stage and home pianos, personal portable keyboard and keyboard controllers?
PERSONAL / PORTABLE KEYBOARDS
The personal / portable keyboards, such as the Yamaha PSR range, are ideal as a first musical instrument and as a student keyboard. They are cheaper, smaller, and have less keys than a real piano, and are 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 now 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! They're practical because have built-in speakers, and are very straight-foward to use because they only have preset sounds, which you can easily select.
Not meant for professionals, recording sessions or live performance, though they could be used this way.
DIGITAL HOME PIANOS
We couldn't have a piano and keyboard buying guide without a digital home piano. 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 small, portable keyboards, these home pianos are full-sized, often with 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.
Here's a video that shows the different - and very realistic - sounds you can get from a digital home piano:
DIGITAL STAGE PIANOS
Digital 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 above) are very popular and can regularly be spotted on stages all over the world, being used by top players in many famous bands. Today, most artists use a Nord keyboard onstage instead of a real piano, electric piano or vintage Hammond organ, for instance - they're simply much more convenient, and sound the same!
Nothing stops a "stage piano" being used as a "home piano", and a few models actually fit both roles really well, such as the Yamaha P45.
Another thing to consider, is that unlike home pianos, stage pianos do not have built-in speakers, since they would have to be plugged to PA or keyboard amp at a gig, anyway.
To learn more about Digital Pianos, please check the excellent Roland Digital Pianos Guide
SYNTHESIZERS, WORKSTATIONS AND ARRANGER KEYBOARDS
Synthesizers (or simply "synths") are a different beast altogether. They vary wildly between themselves, in looks, size and sounds - and some don't even feature typical black & white keyboard keys! Some extremely popular models such as the Arturia MatrixBrute Analogue Synthesizer, Korg MS20 Mini, and Korg Volca Keys are widely regarded as some of the best ever created and we definitely recommend them in this piano and keyboard buying guide.
They may or may not have realistic piano sounds - and 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!
Bands 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 (pictured) relying heavily on synthesizers as their main (and sometimes only!) instrument.
Some great synths we currently stock include: Korg Volca Bass Analogue Synthesizer, Yamaha MX61 Music Synthesizer, Korg Minilogue Polyphonic Analogue Synthesizer, Roland SH-01 Gaia, Arturia Microbrute Monophonic Analogue Synthesizer and, of course, some classic Moog synths!
The affordable Korg microKorg is perhaps the most popular synth at the moment, costing just over £300. And the Teenage Engineering pocket operator synths are the smallest and cheapest ones around, at just over £50. They look like toys, but are real digital synths and serves as a great taster of what a synthesizer can sound like.
Arranger Keyboards and Workstations 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:
Want to know more? Check out our blog on the The Top 7 Best Keyboard Workstations to see some of our favourites.
The look of Keyboard MIDI Controllers might also deceive! They are not musical instruments per se - because they don't make any sound! What they do, is to provide an actual, physical control of computer software: instead of buying an actual analogue synth, for instance, you may install a software on your laptop that emulates the synthesizer sound, and you then connect your MIDI keyboard controller to your laptop via USB, in order to play the digital version as if it was an actual instrument.
Check out our 7 Best Midi Keyboards for more information on our favourite options!
FINALLY: THE ACCESSORIES
There are a few Keyboard Accessories that are useful for the keyboard players, such as benches, stands and, especially, keyboard amplifiers, which are great in order to make your keyboard and digital piano sound louder and better, since keyboards can only house small speakers.
Many keyboard / synth players also use FX pedals originally meant for guitar, because they help adding an extra dimension to the performance. To find out more, check our PMT Guide To Keyboard FX Pedals.
Watch our video on the best FX pedals for keyboards and synths with Gaz at PMT Newcastle.