Not Just Sushi

How to buy a piano keyboard

I grew up playing the piano and always thought that if I went for an electric piano then it must have weighted keys and an action that felt like a proper acoustic piano. I bought the Fatar SL 880 as I thought it would fit the bill. But the downside? It’s a bit big and heavy and has no on-board sounds. That meant that I would also have to fire up the laptop and connect the keyboard whenever I wanted to play. The result? I hardly ever played.

What to look for in a keyboard?

  • Do you need 88 keys / 7 whole octaves? — This is a tough one. When I was a kid, practising scales and arpeggios, it seemed all those notes were needed. But if I think about what I want to use the piano for music production purposes, it’s more about using it as an input device. Additionally, though, I want to actually practice the instrument so I don’t want to make too many concessions there.
  • Weighted Keys — To get that true piano feel, this is probably the way to go. Even if it makes the keyboard rather heavy.
  • Included voices — Do you want to avoid the hassle of connecting to the laptop every time you want to practise? At least some on-board piano voices would be handy
  • MIDI — Definitely need this for the purposes of connecting to the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) but need to consider whether the keyboard will have only have MIDI out or if I should get one with USB out which would allow me to connect directly to the laptop.

Types of keyboards

TypePositivesNegativesPriceBest For
Midi controller
— Just a “dumb” keyboard
Light, Cheap, SmallNo onboard sounds of its own
No weighted keys
Not 7 octaves
$100 and upComputer nerds who want to create music with their computer or phone app
Portable Keyboard
— Cheap and cheerful
Cheap, Light, in-built speakersNo weighted keys
Not 7 octaves
$50 and upPeople who want to dabble and have a bit of fun
Synthesizer/Workstation
— Get back to the 80s
Lots of built-in samples
Ability to edit and create sounds.
Don’t need a computer
Probably unweighted keys
Probably no built-in speakers
$700 and upCreating and modifying sounds “on the fly” without the need for a computer hook-up
Digital Piano
— For piano practice
Feels and sounds like a real piano with 88 weighted keys.
Good quality sounds and speakers
Heavy
Bulky
$500 and upAspiring or accomplished pianists who want to have that authentic piano feel
Stage Piano
— Portable Pro option
Quality digital piano but
Rugged and portable
Bulky
Expensive
$1000 and upTouring professionals for live use

For anyone who aspires to improve their piano technique and would also like to be able to unleash their music-making creativity by connecting the keyboard to a Digital Audio Workstation, then a Digital piano would be the way to go.

Best Digital Pianos Under $500

Even though these are essentially entry-level digital pianos, they will all have the essential weighted keys. Aside from the quality of the sound, this is perhaps the most important feature as without this, the playing experience will feel inauthentic. If you aspire to improve your technique, you need an action that is similar to that of an acoustic piano. They will all have midi connectivity so they would also do the job of a midi controller keyboard.

Here’s the best of the sub-$500 bunch

Roland FP-10

This instrument tends to get the top vote from reviewers of pianos in this class.
The key action feels true and the sound engine is the same as its more expensive sibling, the FP-30. In fact you can feel mechanical movement under your fingers, giving that piano-realistic feel. It uses the SuperNATURAL sound engine which combines sampling with sound modelling to summon forth an fairly naturalistic sound. Also, there are organic piano elements that simulate damper resonance, key off response and string resonance.
You won’t find many knobs or dials as functionality is pared down to leave just the essentials as opposed to the gimmicks.
Blue tooth connectivity will come in handy for connection to the Roland Piano Partner 2 app

Downsides

  • No Split mode
  • No optional 3 pedal unit
  • No onboard recording function (unless you use the app, above)

Yamaha P-45

If you’re at all brand-conscious then this, the cheapest digital piano offering from big-name Yamaha will likely catch your eye. The key action weighted feel is quite good though would probably lose out to other entries in this list. Using AWM stereo sampling, the quality of the sound is up with the best of them but it really often comes down to personal taste.

Downsides

Like the FP-10, there is no split mode so you can’t “split” the keyboard into 2 where you might have piano on the left hand and strings on the right, for example.

The speakers are a bit quiet though you can save that problem by plugging in headphones

There’s also no MIDI recording on board which would allow the “layering up” of recordings using different on-board sounds

Casio CDP-S-150 / S-100 / S-350

If space is an issue then this series may be for you as the depth especially is one of the smallest around. Also, if you connecting to a power source is an issue then the battery power option may come in useful here. In terms of bells and whistles, the CDP-350 has quite a lot going on:

  • 700 built-in sounds
  • Built-in display
  • 6 Track midi recorder
  • 200 built-in rhythms
  • Pitch bend wheel
  • USB Type-A allowing the connection of a flash drive for exchange of files

A possible downside is the quality of the piano sounds – not quite up there with the Roland or Korg

Korg B-2

Around since June 2019, the B2 models have some new features that were missing from their previous incarnations. There are actually 3 new models; the B2, B2N and B2SP. Although the B2N is lighter, the downside there is that the keys are only semi-weighted so it will offer less of that authentic piano “touch”. You also get 120-note polyphony so that should deliver some rich tones. There are 2 acoustic pianos – German Grand and Italian Grand, together with a bunch of other instrument variations. Along with the Roland SP-20, string resonance and damper resonance are reproduced which adds to the natural sound. The keys utilise Korg’s NH natural hammer action which is fully weighted so should suffice for the inexperienced pianist.

Downsides

  • No Split mode
  • A little on the bulky side
  • No recording function

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