Which Keyboard is Right for Me?
by Steve Young
As a keyboard player, I’ve been asked this question many times over the years. Having been asked yet again this week, I’ve decided to put together some thoughts regarding how to choose the right keyboard for you. The landscape of available options has never been greater, which makes it even more important to have a strong sense of your specific needs before shopping. Unfortunately, keyboards are not one-size-fits-all. To help you figure out your wish list, I’ve created a list of questions designed to help anyone who is thinking of upgrading their current keyboard or buying one for the first time.
- How important is feel? Are you a pianist? Do you want your keyboard to have a similar feel to an acoustic piano? The good news is that there are a variety of options out there simulate a hammer action keyboard. Unfortunately, the more realistic the action (think actual wooden keys), the heavier the keyboard gets. Which brings us to the next question…
- Do you need it to be portable? Most keyboards are technically portable. A better question might be: Do you need it to be light? Some manufacturers make their keyboards lighter by simulating a weighted action by using springs to create resistance. My M-Audio Axiom Pro has “semi-weighted” keys, which makes it very portable, but I do find it difficult to play pianistically. It feels nothing like a piano. For years, I played a Roland Fantom X8, which has real wooden keys. It’s still my favorite keyboard that I’ve owned for a variety of reasons. However, I ended up selling it a couple years ago because it was too heavy and I have a bad back. My current main keyboard is a Nord Stage 2 HA76, which has a pretty decent action and addresses the weight issue by only having 76 keys. It’s almost 50 lbs. lighter than the Fantom. It doesn’t feel as good and I wish it had a full 88 keys, but it was the right trade-off for me. What is the right combination for you?
- What kind of sounds do I need? Are you the kind of player that uses the same 7-10 sounds 99% of the time? Or are you willing to spend the time finding new sounds in order to create new and different sonic landscapes for your set list? If you’re in the former group, a Digital Piano might be best for you. Today’s digital pianos are organized on those basic sounds like piano, electric pianos (Rhodes/Wurlitzer), organs, strings, pads, bass, synth leads, and even percussion. The Roland RD series digital pianos we have at Concordia Irvine have a library with up to 300 sounds depending on the model.
- Do I need connectivity? A lot of players are using their keyboards to connect to their computer for sequencing or recording using software such as Pro Tools or Logic. Others connect to computers for notation (Sibelius, Finale, etc.). Probably the hottest thing to emerge in the last few years is Apple’s MainStage (Watch Joel Endicott’s great MainStage tutorial). It’s basically a software program that lives on a Mac, allowing you to use your Mac’s processing power to play large, high-resolution sounds triggered from your keyboard. It’s extremely powerful, has a great graphic interface, and allows the user to continually upgrade your sound library without purchasing a new keyboard, thus extending the life of your keyboard. The easiest way to connect to a computer is through a built-in USB output on your keyboard, though this can also be accomplished through a standard MIDI output (with the additional purchase of a MIDI interface). If you value this kind of connectivity, you’ll want to choose a keyboard with a USB output.
There are other questions that deal with budget, user interface, etc. However, those questions tend to answer themselves. My best advice is to consider the above questions before going shopping. I’ve known many people to get completely caught up in finding a great deal without considering whether that keyboard will meet their needs over the long term. Let the answers to these questions create a shopping list. If you care about feel, then play as many as possible. Ask other keyboard players (The WALI Facebook page is a great place) what they use. There are great professionals that can help as well. Do your homework and you’ll enjoy your keyboard for many years!