Before we get too deep into a whole discussion regarding keyboards, let’s make sure we understand some of the basic terminology that is commonly encountered.
- Digital pianos – electronic instruments meant to emulate a real acoustic piano as closely as possible in terms of sound and feel, and sometimes even the look of a real piano. Generally not a lot of bells and whistles but has weighted keys, usually some sort of “hammer action,” and most often a full 88-key keyboard. Example: Yamaha DGX-650
- Synthesizers – synths are electronic instruments that usually contain a large number of sounds, samples, and patches, usually with the ability to drastically alter the sounds by using various onboard effects, parameters, and functions. Oftentimes has “waterfall keys” (non-weighted keys), lots of bells and whistles, a vast amount of onboard buttons and knobs, and can be anywhere from 25-88 keys. Example: Nord Electro 4D
- Controllers – generally are keyboards with “waterfall keys” (although sometimes weighted) and usually a selection of knobs, buttons, and sliders. All of these can be used to transmit MIDI data (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) to an external source, such as a computer. Example: M-Audio Oxygen-49
- Workstations – Sort of a combination of all of the above. Generally has all of the same attributes of a synthesizer, but also includes an onboard sequencer (ie, ability to record, mix, edit, and manipulate various tracks). Can have either waterfall, semi-weighted, or fully-weighted keys, and can be available in 88-key size or varying smaller sizes. Example: Korg Kronos
Anything can be had for the right price, and the various keyboards on the market can range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to five thousand dollars. The bells and whistles are the features that really start to drive up the cost. But this article is going to take a practical approach to buying a keyboard and assume the perspective of an average piano student who wants a quality keyboard instrument that can be used for practice, and maybe the occasional gig, at under $1000.
For starters, if we are considering a keyboard as a primary practice instrument for piano repertoire, then we really want it to have three essential features :
- 88 full-size weighted keys;
- responsive action (sometimes called “hammer-action,” as would be found in a real piano); and
- quality internal sounds.
For the most part, this means we’re not really concerned with controller keyboards or synths, but something more in the digital piano-type family (and if we can get some synth or workstation features too, that would be great). Finding the three features mentioned above in a digital piano-type keyboard that costs $1000 should be very easy, as most keyboards at that price will undoubtedly have such traits. Students need something that feels and responds like a real piano because this will make any transitions (from digital instruments to real pianos) easy, natural, and familiar. Here at JazzEdge, we use the Yamaha DGX-640, which could accurately be described as a digital piano (88 weighted keys, graded hammer action, real feel, some good sounds, etc). The Yamaha DGX-650 sells for about $800-$1000(The 640 can still be found for sale online but has been discontinued). Yamaha really does have the “real piano feel” technology mastered. Their upper-tier keyboards feel great and have excellent responsiveness, and there is a lot of similarity in terms of “feel” between real Yamaha pianos and their keyboards. And of course, for a few hundred dollars more you can graduate from a model like the DGX-650 to the Yamaha Arius which will feature a better sound engine, 3-pedals (as on a real piano), and even a small sequencer (giving you the ability to record yourself). “But let’s get to the bottom line. We get it – you like Yamaha keyboards. I thought you said you were going to lead us to a keyboard that costs under $1000. As in, maybe in the $500 range?” And my answer is – yes! Again, we’re looking for 88 weighted keys, responsive hammer-type action, and some good piano sounds for about $500. Here are my top two choices at that price range:
Neither of these two keyboards will have many bells and whistles, but they are the most affordable options that get all the big things right (in my opinion). These keyboards allow you to own something that serves as a viable substitute for a real piano without holding you back if you ever decide to transition to a real piano as your primary instrument. They also give you the ability to take your keyboard with you, either on vacation or on a gig (both are very lightweight). In addition, you will have a headphone jack (great for practicing when you do not want to disturb other people), and almost everything made these days is MIDI-capable, meaning you could use these keyboards as controllers if you’re someone who uses DAWs (digital audio workstations) or computer-based applications like Sibelius or Finale.
While these keyboards are affordable substitutes to owning a real piano for practice purposes, they are not the best option for gigging keyboardists playing in a variety of different styles and professional settings. The simple reason is that they do not provide enough features (those bells and whistles I keep referencing) to allow the player to be versatile, nor are the sounds advanced enough to be used in a professional capacity. If you’re someone who is planning to buy one instrument that can be used for practice in place of a real piano, and also can be used in a professional, live-music, gig-type setting, then you may need to budget more money for your purchase. I’m often asked what keyboards I use for practice and gigs. Staying in the Yamaha family, I’m a big fan of the Motif series. I’ve always had a Motif in my rig, either in a full 88 weighted-key form or at present a smaller 61-key synth. The weighted action in the full-size Motif series feels great, the sounds are excellent (including a huge array of rhodes, wurli, organ, string, brass, synth, pads, and percussion sounds), they offer loads of effects, and they feature onboard sequencers (which these days are taking a backseat to programs like Logic and ProTools). And then there is their flagship workstation keyboard, the Tyros, which costs over $5000.
I also play (and endorse) the Nord keyboards, which are bright red (I think they sell a lot of keyboards just because the color is so cool). I own a Nord Stage 2 and must admit that it can pretty much do everything I’ve ever needed a keyboard to be able to do. The thing I enjoy most about the Nord keyboards is that you do not need to mine through endless screens of headings in order to find the one effect or parameter you want to tweak. It’s all right there, in tangible form. Just spin the knob or press a button and you have the ability to alter your sound in real-time. If I had to name one shortcoming of the Nord Stage 2 it would be that the “feel” of the keys (the piano action) is a bit too light. The Nord keyboard feel is not problematic or distracting, but I just prefer the feel of the Yamaha keyboards over that of the weighted-key Nords. And the Nord Stage 2 (as with all the Nord keyboards) is pricey, and probably a bit of overkill for someone primarily looking for a practice instrument.
If you haven’t guessed already, my suggestions at the more expensive end of the spectrum, for advanced players looking for gig-worthy instruments, are the Yamaha Motif and Nord series instruments. Just be prepared to play quite a few gigs before you are able to pay off your investment.
But what about those keyboards in the middle-price range? What do I suggest as my personal “likes” in the $1000-2000 field? I still like some of the Yamaha instruments, including the Motif series, which can sometimes be found in “used” condition in that price range,as well as the Yamaha Arius digital pianos. Roland also offers some great keyboards in this price range, including the FP-50, FP-80, and RD-300NX, featuring very realistic feels and sounds.
So there you have it – my top keyboard picks at the most affordable, mid-tier, and Donald Trump levels. Now I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you own? What would you like to own? And what is out there on the market that I missed?