Digital Pianos: An Introduction

Back in 1988, when Merriam Music first began, the mainstream digital revolution in music was just in its infancy, and most people had never heard the word “MIDI” before. Merriam quickly became one of the largest dealers of digital pianos in Canada, being one of the first to package customer training, MIDI modules, and the digital pianos themselves. Digital continues to be a significant part of what we offer to our customers, and just like our early days, is very much close to our hearts.

Because of the latest improvements in digital pianos, an entirely new audience is starting to explore music making through the piano.

Twenty years ago, it would cost at least $4000 (in 1990 dollars) for someone to get their hands on the lowest quality acoustic piano available in the North American market. Nowadays, someone can bring home a fully weighted 88 key digital piano for as little as $500.

Most people have heard of digital pianos, but far less people really know how digital pianos work. In fact, one of the most common question we receive is “what’s the difference between digital and acoustic?”

What makes a digital piano “digital”?

A digital piano is the combination of a 88 key weighted action, a small onboard computer, and a set of speakers. Once you understand how digital pianos work, it substantially simplifies the shopping process.

How They Feel

Like all components, but not all weighted keys are created equally. Weighted keys can range from an action that truly feels nothing like an acoustic piano, to an action that actually uses the same materials as an acoustic piano. The goal of a digital piano is to sound, feel, and react as similar to an acoustic piano. As a teacher, I can tell exactly who is practicing on an acoustic piano or good quality digital piano, who is practicing on a keyboard, and who is choosing to NOT practice. Someone who is learning the piano will spend 90% of their time playing the piano they have at home, as supposed to the piano they are taught on or use to perform which most likely will be an acoustic. There are a number of habits you can pick up when you are practicing on a digital with a poorly designed, or poorly built key action. The piano keys are the tools that you use to build and create your music with. If what you are practicing on does not let you control the sound at a certain level, the final outcome of the music will suffer. That being said, someone who has been playing for 2 years does not need the same degree of control over their art as someone who has been playing for 20 years. There will always be a gentle compromise between cost and quality, but for each playing level, most people will be able to find the sweet spot between the two.

Explore key actions further.

How They Make Sound

A digital piano is a computer. When you press a key on a digital piano, much like a key on a laptop, it sends a signal to the computer inside, which then responds with some sort of action. Now with a digital piano, instead of a letter showing up on a computer screen, a recording of an acoustic piano is played back through a set of speakers. This is how the vast majority of digital pianos work! The biggest names in the digital piano industry are always racing to come out with the highest quality recordings of the best pianos. These recordings are referred to as “samples”. Sound engineers will spend countless hours recording every note of a piano sometimes over one hundred times to “map” the tone and timber of the specific piano. The more recordings you have for each note, the more control over the dynamics and tone you have.

Explore the sound computers.

The Sensors

In order for a digital piano to create sound in the first place, it must first receive information about what your fingers are doing. This is different than how a piano ‘feels’, which is purely the mechanical action parts. The sensor interprets what your finger is doing, and sends that signal to the computer to create the corresponding sound. And just like all other components, there are different quality levels to the sensors.  Some keyboards are only capable of consistently transmitting 3 or 4 bands of touch velocity.  Other sensors, when used in multiples, or using infrared technology, can accurately interpret over 1000 touch velocities.

Explore the key sensors.

The Speakers

The quality of a digital piano’s speakers has one of the highest amount of control over a digital piano’s tone. A just like a stereo system, a higher wattage does not always mean better sound quality! Higher wattage speakers will be louder, but it is the overall fidelity of the speakers that make the biggest difference in how realistic a digital piano can sound. Pianos cover such a broad range of frequencies from booming bass strings to delicate treble notes.

Like any technology, digital pianos are improving at a drastic rate. Over the last 10 years, digital pianos have developed far more than traditional acoustic pianos. Engineers are pushing the envelope on the three things making up digital pianos. The actions are getting faster, the computers are getting smarter, and the speakers are becoming better and better at replicating the tone of that 9’ grand piano we all wish to some day own.