Choosing The Right Keyboard

Essential things to think about before buying a MIDI controller keyboard, Personal Keyboard or Digital Piano

Number of keys?

  • 49 key controllers are excellent for entering music and basic or intermediate keyboard learning. They don’t require a lot of space and are quite inexpensive. They will certainly take you up to Grade 3 standard without any problem
  • Larger keyboards are essential if you plan on learning advanced piano techniques or are used to playing on a full size keyboard
  • For composing and sequencing, maybe the number of keys are not so important as the availability of a range of controllers such as knobs and sliders to get more hands-on control of the software control panels

Controller or keyboard or piano?

  • A controller doesn’t create any sound on its own – it uses the sounds in your computer or sound module. The advantages of controllers are their price and the fact that you can upgrade your sound card or software in future without having to buy a new keyboard
  • A personal keyboard doesn’t require a computer or sound module to create sound. Some will also include speakers. Keyboards are generally more expensive than controllers, but they can be used as an instrument on their own.
  • If you really want to play the piano, and have it available without turning on the computer, then a digital piano is also a great option. They all come equipped with MIDI ports to connect up to your PC. The only disadvantage might be the physical set up you can achieve as digital pianos are larger than keyboards, which may make it tricky to site them right next to your computer workstation though if you are planning to use a laptop or ipad then this won’t be such an issue.

Touch sensitive or weighted action?

  • Touch sensitive keyboards will play louder or softer according to the velocity of your playing (how hard you play)
  • Weighted action keyboards imitate the action of a real piano – these keyboards are usually heavier and more expensive. Choose a weighted action keyboard if you want to be as close to real piano action as possible

More Details

If you’re just starting out, and are contemplating buying a digital piano or keyboard of some kind, then it can be difficult to know where to start. The right answer depends on three things: your budget; physical space; and some thought about what it is you want to do with the keyboard when you’ve got it. For instance, do you want to learn the piano, or play personal keyboard, or do you want to use the keyboard to interact with software?

If you are not sure, the the cheapest option is to simply buy a controller keyboard. It may seem alien to invest in a keyboard that makes no sound of its own, but it will then enable you to use any music software, and will get you up and running for a very low cost.

A controller keyboard acts in a very similar way to the typewriter keyboard you have attached to your PC. It transmits messages when you press the keys: messages like which note you pressed, how hard you pressed it, how long you held it down. This information is then used to drive the music software. You will hear sounds, but these sounds are made by the synthesiser in your sound card, or by other sound modules if you have them installed. Because controller keyboards make no sound of their own, they are relatively inexpensive – and they have the added benefit of being small in size.

For most people, space is a real consideration. If you are just starting out, then a 4-octave controller keyboard will be perfectly adequate in the short term, and can easily be placed on a table or stand directly in front of the PC. You can buy inexpensive add-ons like a foot switch to give your controller keyboard a sustain pedal action, just like a piano.

If you know you really want to play or learn the piano without having to turn on your computer then buying a digital piano may be for you instead. Digital pianos still take up relatively little space, and of course can be used without even having to switch your PC on. They generally have high quality piano sounds along with other functionality, and high quality keyboardswith excellent response. You can still use the digital piano for your computer music, as they all come equipped with MIDI input and output for this purpose. These are the nearest to owning a real piano – but of course are much cheaper and smaller than the real thing.

Personal keyboards are also popular, and have many inbuilt additional features such as banks of sounds, rhythm and accompaniment options, recording facilities and so on. If you know you want to go down this route, then there is a wealth of fabulous instruments to choose from. The added advantage is, like the digital piano, they can be used without the computer, and they have the added benefit of being transportable if you want to play with other people.

Comments

    • Jane Sherratt says

      Not entirely sure I understand your question. Many Yamaha keyboards will connect directly to computer via straight USB – check the manual. If not, then to make a MIDI connection you should get yourself a USB-MIDI interface (don’t go for the Midisport Uno as it is not compatible with Yamaha PSR keyboards. Any other branded one should do the job)

  1. Alain says

    Thanks!

    I was searching for some info about the difference between a piano and a controller in regard to computer music creation. Your site was quite helpful.

  2. Aadam says

    Hi,
    I would like to begin playing the piano and have a pretty high end computer.
    In terms of piano, I had experience when I was much younger. I actually play the harp, but would like to begin the piano again, but one that would be able to plug into my computer. Would you have any recommendations, I’m looking for one at an affordable price?
    Aadam

  3. phil says

    Hi Jane, I was wondering if I could pick your brain. I want to buy a gift for a friend. In her younger days, she used to compete in piano competitions.

    She is looking to get back into it playing for pleasure now, but using something electronic that would best simulate using a real piano, without the mass and something that reasonable in budget. I was wondering if you could recommend anything.

    • Jane Sherratt says

      Hi Phil, difficult to recommend without any budget. For someone who wants to get something that approximates to a real piano you will want something with at least 61 keys and good hammer action if possible. If your budget is very stretched, then at least semi-weighted keys. I personally have an entry level Korg digital piano which is fantastic for the money, it has quite a natural action. I’d go for something that had built-in piano sound and that would work stand alone rather than a controller keyboard. Hope that helps you narrow down your search!

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