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There has been plenty of guitar research in recent years. And manufacturing improvements have certainly been applied to band and orchestra instruments. But no other instrument category has experienced the explosive innovation that has happened in the world of keyboards.
Modern keyboards can be thought of in two categories, each with two sub-categories. The first distinction is digital pianos versus synthesizers. On the digital piano side, there are home pianos (console types with built-in stands) and stage digitals (portable weighted-key keyboards for professional performance). On the synthesizer side, there are workstations (instruments designed for studio applications) and performance synths (designed for stage applications).
Digital pianos designed for home use feature 88 weighted keys, a built-in speaker system, attractive cabinet housing, and a selection of sounds. From there, brands and features differ greatly.
Yamaha is one of our best-known suppliers in this category, offering both the Clavinova and the Arius series. Both are superb home instruments, with the Clavinova line leaning more toward features-rich designs and advanced user functions. The Arius series focuses on great sound and looks, excellent playability and basic user functions.
We have partnered with the Williams company to develop a line of digital pianos that are loaded with great sounds and features, but are affordably priced. Development of the Williams brand has been a years-long process. They are well-built, sound great, and have a handsome appearance. Williams pianos include the Rhapsody 2, Overture 2 and Symphony Grand.
Korg and Roland are quality builders in this area as well. Roland models include the DP-603, RP501 and RP102, all of which are beautifully made and sound superb. They are available in the price range of the Arius line of Yamaha home pianos. There are four Suzuki baby grand-style models available as well, from the MDG-300 to the MDG-4000. The various models feature Bluetooth compatibility, a 4.3 True Color LCD display, and powerful sound.
Many keyboard players prefer an authentic weighted keyboard action in order to deliver their best performance. Instruments designed for professional performers typically have a wider selection of sounds than most home digital pianos, but that is not always the case.
Portability is also a factor in the design of modern stage pianos. The nature of 88-key keyboards with weighted key beds is that they are heavy no matter what. Great design care has to be taken that the chassis, internal electronics and output panel are both roadworthy and lightweight. There are many well-established leaders, as well as exciting new manufacturers, in this instrument category.
Roland, Korg and Yamaha each offer solutions for the professional who needs a weighted keyboard. The CP series (CP1 and CP88) is Yamaha’s flagship stage piano as of 2019. They feature incredible piano sample sets, including the Yamaha CFX 9’ Concert Grand Piano, a Bosendorfer grand, the Yamaha S700 grand and two sparkling uprights. Of course they have a wide selection of electric pianos, vibes, strings, synth and organs as well.
Korg offers the Grandstage as a worthy competitor to any digital stage piano on the market. It too presents a broad selection of stunning acoustic pianos from European grands to Japanese uprights. Its seven sound engines provide a vast palette of additional sounds as well.
Roland’s RD series is among the industry’s most respected legacies. The current top model is the RD-2000, preferred by many of the busiest performers in the world. Other big players in the digital stage piano world include the Nord Stage 3 and the Kurzweil Forte.
Workstation is a term applied to keyboards developed in the late 1970s that incorporated a wide selection of sounds and effects, as well as a sequencer and a sophisticated output panel. These instruments were great stage tools, but their chief design was aimed at the studio.
Yamaha currently offers the Montage, Roland the FA-08, and Korg the Kronos. These are their flagship designs, but each of these manufacturers offer models in lower price ranges. Yamaha has the MOX series and Korg has the Krome. Roland offers a seven-octave FA model.
Most of the popular keyboard workstations are available in a variety of key beds—typically 88 weighted keys or your choice of 61 or 73 synth-action keys. Very often these models have identical sound engines and output panels to their 88-key counterparts, the only difference being their playing action and range.
As more musicians get away from sequencing and signal processing inside their keyboard workstations, however, this field is not as crowded as it once was. Many modern musicians prefer to run virtual instruments inside the computer from an external MIDI controller that itself has no sounds. Leading instruments in this category include Akai’s MPK series, available in 25-, 49-, 61-, 76- and 88-key versions. Novation, M-Audio, Studiologic and many others have designs of this type as well. But MIDI control does not reside only in keyboards. The Native Instruments MASCHINE and Novation’s Launchpad are examples of grid-based MIDI controllers.
There’s still nothing like a live show, and the available selection of performance keyboards is as exciting as a great gig. Naturally, the “big three,” Korg, Roland and Yamaha, all have superb designs in the performance synth category. Most of the workstation designs are available in 76 and/or 61-key designs, which make them a lot easier to transport, and more convenient for performance. This is true of Montage, FA and Kronos. And especially if you don’t do any live sequencing, there are many keyboards well under $1,000 that are 100% professionally presentable. Roland’s Juno series, Korg’s KROSS series and Yamaha’s MX series all fit this description.
Another exciting performance category is the growing field of organ emulators. The keyboard feel of an organ and its unique control elements lend themselves to specialty designs. Nobody knows organs like Hammond, and their SK series keyboards have been satisfying Hammond B3 players for years. Nord is a major competitor in this area with the C2D, a dual manual organ with a discrete set of drawbars for each.
This has been only a very surface look at the wonderful world of contemporary keyboards. You can spend a lot of time deciding what instrument is right for you, and we hope you do.
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