A keyboard is one of the most recognizable musical tools, but it would be a misnomer to describe the keyboard as an instrument in and of itself. A more accurate way to put it would be that the keyboard is the control method of many different instruments, and that's why it's so important to choose yours carefully. In this guide, we'll touch on the various kinds of keyboards so that you'll know exactly what to look for when you set out to find the right one.
Common Keyboard and Digital Piano Terms
As different as keyboards can be, there are a few things that generally apply across the board. These are some of the first qualities you should get familiar with, since they'll factor into your decision no matter which kind of keyboard is destined for your fingertips.
The smallest MIDI controllers and synthesizers have as few as 25 keys, while full-sized digital pianos and organs may feature an 88-key manual. The right count for you depends on how much room you have for your keyboard as well as on the music that you plan to play.
This term refers to the physical mechanism behind the keys, and affects how they feel to play. Here is a breakdown of the actions you will encounter when you start shopping for keyboards:
Weighted and Semi-weighted: These are designed to feel similar to an acoustic piano, without too much complexity. They're the most common digital keyboard actions.
Hammer: Like a weighted action, but with genuine physical hammers to more closely simulate an upright or grand piano. This type of action has the closest feel to a traditional mechanical instrument.
Synth: This action is similar to an organ, with freely-moving keys. It makes rapid playing easier.
This is a keyboard's ability to detect the force (touch sensitivity) or speed (velocity sensitivity) with which you press a key. The keyboard can use the information to change the sound or adjust a MIDI signal.
Polyphony and Multitimbrality
These two terms have very similar meanings, but there is a key difference between them. In simple terms, polyphony is the total number of notes that a keyboard can play at once, while multitimbrality is the total number of unique sounds it can make. This means that a polyphonic keyboard allows the playing of complex music, in particular piano music with distinct left and right-hand parts or the sequencing of many simultaneous passages. A multitimbral keyboard, on the other hand, allows you to do things such as playing bass guitar sounds with your left hand while playing piano with your right, or layering timbres to make multiple voices sound in unison. On some models, you can even do this splitting and layering together at the same time.
First introduced in the 1980s, MIDI is a communication standard that allows controllers to tell digital instruments what notes to play and how to play them. Keyboards are the most common type of MIDI controller, so you'll find that many keyboards of all kinds have MIDI support. Some keyboards are explicitly designed as controllers and can only send MIDI signals, while others are able to receive them and function as players.
Not all digital instruments and tools are MIDI-based. If you want to use software on a PC or Mac with your keyboard, look for a model that supports other connections such as USB, FireWire, S/PDIF or mLAN.
Sequencer and Sampler
Like a modern version of vintage player pianos, sequencers are hardware or software-based players that allow a performance recorded in MIDI to be played back. These can be used to review your progress, brainstorm a sequence or even to create backing tracks for performing. Samplers are a cousin of sequencers, but instead of MIDI sequences, they can record, edit and play back actual digital recordings. A sampler is invaluable when you want to include an external audio clip in your music.
As its name suggests, an arpeggiator is used for arpeggios (chords with notes played one after another, rather than simultaneously). With an arpeggiator, you can set up an arpeggio to play with a single key press.
Input & Output
Depending on how you plan to use your keyboard, these can be very important. For example, a keyboard with digital input and output features will eliminate the need for a separate audio interface when used as a digital audio workstation. If you want to perform live, look for keyboards with outputs for mixers, amplifiers and speakers.
Some keyboards have just the standard black and white keys, but specialized models add further methods of control. Synthesizers, for example, will also feature pitch and modulation wheels. For a MIDI controller, knobs, sliders and pads are worth considering. And many keyboards have large displays (in some cases, even touchscreens) to make them easier and more intuitive to use.
Storage gives you a place to save the recordings, MIDI and other media files that you've created. Common options include USB ports for flash drives, varying types of card slots, CD burners and internal hard drives. If you use a keyboard with PC connectivity, you'll also have the option of using your computer for storage, transferring files to and from the keyboard.
Some higher-end and professional-oriented keyboards give you the option of adding ROM expansion cards to increase the sound library, or to install more RAM or storage space to improve performance and capacity for samples. This sort of expandability is worth considering if you plan to keep your keyboard for a long time.
Very well-known for their influence on music from the 1960s right up to the present day, synthesizers are keyboards that produce sounds electronically. The simplest synths make a variety of electronic tones, while more advanced models offer a library of sampled sounds. Many synths also support sequencing functions, and some include a built-in vocoder to make voice-powered sounds and effects.
There are two main types of synths:
Analog Synthesizers are the earliest and simplest variety, creating some of the sounds most closely associated with synths. Although they've improved significantly over the years, analog synths are the less common type today.
Digital (or sample-based) Synthesizers have overtaken analog as the go-to choice for most musicians, because their use of samples gives them a much larger sound library that can include instruments like piano, organ, horns and strings. Some digital synths can also re-create the sounds of classic analog synthesizers.
Things to Look For in a Synthesizer
The most important factor to consider is your own musical style, and finding a synth with the right sounds and samples to support it. Check online - many synthesizer manufacturers offer sound clip previews on their websites. If you want an easy plug-and-play experience, look for a model with plenty of built-in presets. Or, if you're the do-it-yourself type, check for a good number of user patch locations, which are memory slots for saving your own samples.
Here are some key features to keep an eye out for in synthesizers:
Envelope controls: For adjusting the attack, sustain, decay and release time of the sounds.
Low-frequency oscillator (LFO): Tweak the tone in various ways, for example adding a vibrato effect.
Filter section: Contains controls for removing specific frequencies and changing timbre.
Effects: Reverb, delay, chorus and similar modifications. These work like effects pedals for a guitar or bass.
The more you like to experiment, the more important these extra features will be to your own synthesizer playing experience.
The easiest way to think of a keyboard workstation is as a compact, all-in-one studio for composition, recording and production. These are large and full-featured keyboards with lots of multitrack recording capability, large internal storage and plenty of ways to export your finished creations. If you're searching for the ultimate keyboard to compose, record, edit and publish your music, a workstation is the way to go.
One of the most important things to look at in a workstation is its polyphony. If you plan to create complex passages with multiple tracks sequenced in layers, the keyboard will need enough polyphony to handle the total of all those notes at once. Sound libraries are also important, and since workstations are designed to meet professional production needs, there are generally plenty of instruments and samples to choose from.
Here are a few more features to consider:
Computer connectivity: It's very common to use a workstation together with PC or Mac recording software, which naturally requires a keyboard that can make the connection. It also allows the computer to be used as extended storage.
Audio inputs: Most workstations include audio inputs, allowing you to record samples directly from instruments.
Samplers: If a workstation includes a sampler, you can use any digital sound you wish in your tracks. That's a must-have feature for any artist who wants to add effects beyond what standard instruments can provide.
Trigger pads: Especially popular for hip-hop and R&B producers, these make notes and samples easy to incorporate. They're great for quickly creating beats and loops.
If you're searching for your first keyboard, a workstation could very well be outside the scope of your expertise. They're designed for experienced professionals who know the ins and outs of sequencing and recording. The next type of keyboard, however, offers a simpler and easier-to-learn option for the more novice producer...
These have a lot in common with workstations. In fact, a good analogy would be to compare them to cars: both will get you to your destination, but if the workstation were a stick-shift, the arranger keyboard is more like an automatic. In this case, the destination is a finished composition, and arrangers come with the professional-grade electronics and production tools to get you there. Arranger keyboards are sometimes called "bands in a box," offering most of the capabilities of a workstation in a much more portable and accessible package.
One of the best things about arranger keyboards is the ability to choose styles. These put your backing accompaniment together automatically, so all you have to do is outline your chord progression and the keyboard will generate music in the style that you picked. It's an instant way to create a full-band effect in genres as diverse as jazz, rock or Latin music. This feature of arrangers is also a fantastic learning tool. Their automation makes it possible to reverse-engineer your way through the elements of a musical style, helping you better understand the sounds and patterns that make it work.
Although there are portable models in most of the other categories discussed here, you will likely also encounter keyboards that are sold explicitly as "portable keyboards." This type is essentially a step down from an arranger in terms of features and size, offering a basic selection of samples without too many extra bells and whistles.
Portable keyboards are solid choices for beginners, because their straightforward designs are quick and easy to learn. They make good introductions to keyboards as a whole, and getting to know your way around one of these will give you a good foundation to build on before moving up to the more complex varieties. They're also a fair bit smaller and easier to transport, on average, which makes them ideal for taking to and from weekly lessons.
If you are looking for the electronic equivalent to a concert grand piano, this category is where you will find it. Digital pianos are designed for professional pianists and built to provide a sound so close to an acoustic piano that the untrained ear would not even know the difference. With some models including detailed learning assistance systems, these are also good choices for beginners in need of something more practical and affordable than an upright piano.
Digital pianos come in two varieties:
Console pianos are meant for permanent placement in a home or studio, with traditional wooden cabinet designs that draw stylistic influences from their acoustic cousins.
Stage pianos are designed for portability, and look similar to other kinds of digital keyboards.
The principal difference between the two is cosmetic, as many digital piano models are made in console and stage versions with the exact same electronics inside.
In order to replicate the natural feel of an acoustic instrument, digital pianos are more likely to have heavier weighted actions or even hammer actions. They most often have full 88-key manuals, but 61-key models are available if you need something that will fit in a smaller space. As with synthesizers, you can often find sound samples available on the manufacturer's website, which can help you decide which digital piano is best for you. When you listen to these, pay close attention to the subtle parts of the sound, like sustain and decay, to get a better impression of the quality.
Another aspect to consider is amplification. If space is at a premium, you can save room by choosing a digital piano with an internal amplifier and speakers. On the other hand, you might prefer the versatility of having your own choice of external amp. For stage pianos, connecting to an outside amplifier or sound system is par for the course, so be sure to investigate the output options when choosing one of those models.
If there's one thing that organs never were in the past, it's portable. The classic Hammond organs, with their big Leslie speakers and heavy frames, do not lend themselves particularly well to transportation. Thankfully, electronic organs offer a solution that's easier on your back - and your wallet. Today's digital organs are capable of capturing even the subtlest details of their traditional counterparts, including the "thunking" sound of the keys themselves.
Although digital samples and modeling are used in electronic organs, they stand out from other keyboards with their traditional drawbars for changing the sound. They also up the ante over their older cousins by including added features such as effects, MIDI support and wheels for modulation and pitch bend.
This is one of the most varied categories of keyboard that you'll come across, and the reason is simply that keyboard MIDI controllers come in as many shapes and sizes as there are different uses for them. For your own purposes, that means making a choice begins with identifying your needs. If you're working with MIDI, then you should already have a good idea about the kinds of features that you'll want in a keyboard controller.
The most basic MIDI keyboards are bare-bones models with nothing more than the keys themselves. Some have adjustment wheels like synths, some have sliders and faders and some have built-in pad controllers. Depending on which of those features you need and in what combination, you can start narrowing down your options. Combine that with general considerations like key range and action, and finding the right choice is surprisingly easier than it may seem at first.
The right keyboard for you is something that only you can decide for certain. Start by figuring out which category of keyboard is the way to go, and then narrow down your choices based on the features unique to that category. Then, factor in all the general characteristics covered in the "Common Considerations" category. Once you've weighed your options and taken the essentials into account, you'll be ready to make an informed decision and pick out an instrument that you'll be proud to call your own.