Introduction

Selecting an entry-level digital piano can be daunting for parents who don’t have a lot of musical background; there are lots of models to choose from, with plenty of opinions floating around. What’s more, only in the last few years has this category received any sort of musical credibility, so opinions are changing quickly on whether these under $1000 units really should be thought of as ‘musical instruments’ (hint: the answer is YES). In this video/article contribution by Stu Harrison at Merriam Pianos, we’ll be covering what you need to know about weighted keys, hammer action, stage pianos vs digital pianos, and how it all compares to an upright piano or grand piano.  We’ll also cover some of the offerings from Korg, Roland FP Series, Casio Privia, Yamaha P series, and Kawai ES and KDP series.  More expensive options like the Clavinova from Yamaha, or the CA series from Kawai isn’t covered here, but many of the principles still apply.  Also, all the recommendations or instruments discussed are 88-key digital pianos, we don’t get into shorter keyboards.

How to Choose a Digital Piano for Beginners Video Transcription

Can An Electronic Keyboard Like a Yamaha / Kawai / Roland Replace An Acoustic Piano?

Hi, everybody and welcome to another piano video here at Merriam Pianos. In this video, we’re going to be addressing the question “How to choose the best digital piano for a beginner?” “Will it be good enough so that we don’t have to buy an acoustic piano”?  Well, before you hop over to Amazon to pickup the the latest and greatest new piano, have a read below.  We’ve presented a short “Buying Guide” to buying a basic digital piano here, so you know exactly what to prioritize in this price range. My background is as a piano player and educator, as well as being an industry professional for around 15 years – and consequently, I’ve had literally hundreds of conversations with parents that start out with that question, how do I know what to choose for a beginner? And so, I have sort of gathered a lot of that feedback and I’m going to try and pass it along to you today. So, as a piano player, one of the things that cannot be changed once you buy an instrument is the feel. My very first piece of advice is that buy an instrument that has the best feel either that your son or daughter really enjoys playing on or if you’re working with the teacher possibly to help you to give you some expert advice. If you yourself don’t have any experience with pianos that’s what I would say is, you can with MIDI and Bluetooth connections, you can always extend a keyboard’s functionality with other apps. If it doesn’t have the speakers you want, you can always put it through an amplifier. If it doesn’t have the right music stand…there’s virtually anything you can do to sort of workaround shortcomings in any other area. But you can not change the action. Once you buy the instrument, the action is what it is. When I’m talking about the action, of course, I’m referring to the feel of the piano keys, and whether they feel like a real piano (or how close it gets to the feel of an acoustic piano), as well as how well the sensors interpret what you’re doing and turning that into sound. So generally, we mean the entire responsiveness of the instrument. Therefore, always buy the best action that you think you can afford and if you need to sacrifice in other areas, that would be my suggestion.

Suggestions for Great Key action in an digital / electric piano

Roland PHA-4 Piano Action So, in the kind of the entry-level category for digital piano, there’s a few that really stand out to me as having exceptional actions for the budget. And so, I’ll mention that there’s not one single instrument I’m going to try and focus on, but I will name a few that we’ve had really, really good success with here. One of them is the Roland FP-10 or Roland FP-30. The FP-10 stands out to me for the exact reason that we were just mentioning. It has an exceptionally good action for its price. It has the PHA for action from Roland, which is the same action that they put in FP-30, the FP-60, the RP501, the F140. So, it has the same action as instruments three times it’s price. But as a trade-off, you are getting it in a relatively small case. It doesn’t have a whole lot of other features on top of that, but it does have an exceptional piano tone as well, if you’re going to use speakers or headphones, but the action on that FP-10 is great. FP-30 is basically just the FP-10, but like the frills version of the FP-10 is the no-frills version. So, those are two potentially to check out, keeps the budget in a reasonable range and really delivers a high-quality feel. Kawai KDP110 is another one that has just a sensational action for the price. Both the KDP110 and the FP-10 and FP-30 have what’s called a triple sensor. So, it’s really accurate. It’s really sensitive feel. They’re well-built. They’ve been out in the market for several years and we can see that they’re robust and they’re, you know, not coming back with all kinds of warranty claims. So, those are two possibilities for you to go and check out that, in my opinion, have excellent feel, excellent touch, excellent build quality in the action for something in the entry-level range.

Prioritize Higher-Quality Piano Tone

The second thing that I think needs a consideration is the quality of the piano tone as well. Digitally mimicking Because yes, you have some of these models with all kinds of features and you can hook it up to your tablets and you can do this and we do that. But I have found that to have an instrument where it’s literally you just turn it on, you sit down, you start to play and it’s got great sound quality, essentially right out of the box, just leads to a more engaging experience and there are fewer barriers, there are fewer steps to go through, to just sit down and start making music, whether it’s for fun or if you’re a student, you’re just having to sit down and crunch out 15, 20, 30 minutes worth of practicing. And so, getting something that has a really great piano tone that you enjoy is also excellent. Now, there’s less agreement out there, or I should say there are fewer ways in which two objectives we say that one piano tone is better than another piano tone. So, you’re just going to have to get out there and compare some of them side by side. We’ve done some comparison videos on the channel that might be helpful in this regard. We’ve done some Yamaha P-125 versus a Roland FP-30 or no, Roland FP-10. We’ve done some Kawai ES110 versus some Rolands and Yamaha. So, we’ve done a lot of comparisons of the instruments in the range that we’re discussing right now. Perhaps you want to check those out. It might be helpful for just comparing some piano tone. Specs such as polyphony or the type of tone engine can help to objectify sound, but it is ultimately a personal preference. As long as you’re dealing with quality sound, and it reasonably replicates an acoustic instrument, that’s pretty much the point of any digital keyboard / piano.

Features and other Considerations

Roland F140R On top of those two considerations, the things to me that sort of fall lower on the priority list now become things like features, and those features are going to take the form of, I would call them almost “edutainment”. These are rhythm accompaniment options or built-in integrations with book systems so that you can use an Alfred’s book along with it. These are conveniences and these are kind of enhancements to the playing experience, which to the right student and the right player absolutely can be worth it. But in my view, if you were buying it for beginner who is going to be working with the teacher, I would never sacrifice action and piano tone for some of those other features. There are going to be players out there and they’re going to be teachers and parents out there who will disagree with that. And I totally appreciate that. Totally respect that. My opinion is coming from the place of a pianist and somebody who’s worked with younger students before. And that’s just what I think is a really important thing to focus on. So, some of those features that I’m talking about that would be a lower priority for me, I already mentioned the rhythm accompaniments. It also might be like the number of sounds because some instruments really promote that like, oh, it has 300 piano sounds or 200 sounds or, to me I don’t care if it has 15 sounds. If the sounds that are on there are high quality, that’s important to me. The fourth thing really would be kind of cabinet style and whether it needs to be portable or not portable. If you don’t need the instrument to be portable, I would highly advise getting a cabinet which is sturdy, which isn’t very wobbly and is going to feel substantial. If you get an instrument that’s portable and it’s sort of feeling like it’s loose or the stand is a little bit tippy, it’s going to feel like a toy. And in my experience, it’s something that kind of gets treated, even if it’s subconsciously, kind of gets treated less seriously than an instrument that’s sitting in the house that physically has a more dominating presence. I have not done scientific research on this. So, this is totally anecdotal. But I have noticed it in a number of family situations where I was working with the parents and this was the feedback, is when they went to a more substantial instrument, they just noticed that there was visually more interest from the student in being in front of that instrument that was just physically a little more imposing in the room. I felt like it was a larger investment, felt more important that it was a signal with from the parents. So, this doesn’t mean spending more money necessarily. I would just say if it doesn’t need to have portability, make sure that it looks, you know, official, it looks like a real instrument. It doesn’t look like a toy. It doesn’t look like it’s something that’s temporary. So, in addition to the earlier models I mentioned, here’s a few more that you might want to put on your list. I’ve played them and they’re definitely worth a consideration, whether or not they’re at the top of list or not. So, that would be the Yamaha P-125 digital piano, I think delivers a good value. I also think that the Casio PX-160 and the new 1000 model, what is it? PS X-1000. Don’t know if I got that quite right, but somebody can correct me. You know, I think Casio Digital Pianos deliver a pretty good value as well. So, make sure that you get out there and test them out. Kawai in 2019 still producing the ES110, which I know there’s a big fan base for that instrument that would argue hardly that it has the best piano tone and action for a sort of an entry-level price point. So, you know, continue to do some reading and get in front of as many as you can. But like I said at the beginning of the video, I hope that these observations help you to make a more informed decision. If it is the first time to the channel, we’d really appreciate if you did subscribe. It’ll help you stay up to date with all things piano. So, thank you so much for watching. We hope to see you back for another video. My name is Stu Harrison. You’ve been watching Merriam Pianos. Have a great day. Browse all of our digital pianos here.

Definitions:

Acoustic Piano / Traditional Piano

A mechanical, non-electronic musical instrument configured with 88 notes, which correspond to 88 different pitches which are assembled in order of ascending frequency.  Every 12 pitches, the frequency doubles, or what’s called an ‘octave’.  The acoustic piano creates its tone when a key is depressed, which sends a felt hammer travelling towards a steel or copper string. The resulting vibrations from the string activates wooden parts in the piano that then resonate and create sound waves.  Acoustic pianos don’t use any electronics to function, and require regular maintenance. They are considered superior to digital pianos in the following ways: their dynamic range (volume range) is far greater, the control over that dynamic range is more precise, and the tonal complexity is greater with more nuance. They also last for decades. Digital pianos on the other hand are maintenance free and often cost much less, making them more accessible and easier to own.

Damper Pedal / Sustain Pedal

Both acoustic and digital pianos have sustain pedals. The function of the sustain pedal is to cause all notes on the piano to be sustained (or continuously ring on) even after the key is released, which allows for a wide variety of musical effects. For digital pianos, sustain pedals with “half” pedalling are preferred, as are pedals that are full size and properly weighted (vs. small plastic foot switches).

Digital Piano / Digital Keyboard / Synthesizer

Digital Pianos are musical instruments which attempts to mimic the sounds and action of an acoustic piano by simulating the overall piano experience as closely as possible, in a smaller, typically lower-cost package.   Digital Keyboards can offer up the sound of a piano, but are normally shorter and have less keys than a full piano, such as 61 notes or 73 notes. Synthesizer is a term more associated with the creation of non-organic / acoustic tones, such as sine waves, modulators, LFO’s etc, and effects overall. HOWEVER, it should be noted that none of these terms are strictly observed in the industry and at times they are used interchangeably.

Escapement/Let-off

With an acoustic piano action, there is a point in the downstroke of the key where a part called a jack stops pushing the hammer towards the string, so that the hammer is free to hit the string and bounce back without any physical contact with other parts. The moment that the jack ‘disconnects’ with the hammer is called the let-off or escapement, and produces a slight sensation on the finger of a small ridge, or even a small “speed bump”. On many early digital pianos, this sensation is missing. More advanced digital pianos have started adding this to their action mechanisms, and it’s called both Escapement and Let-Off. They are interchangeable terms.

Keyboard Action

A keyboard action refers to the mechanism and attached keys that is supposed to simulate the physical feel of an acoustic piano, as well as translate that motion into digital information. Keyboard actions come in a wide variety of configurations, from 100% plastic spring-loaded ‘waterfall’ actions, to wooden key actions with proper hammers and let-off/escapement.

Metronome

A basic tool – either analog or digital – which allows a user to set a specific tempo in Beats Per Minute (BPM), which is normally heard or indicated by a constant short beep or click. For example, a metronome marking of 60 BPM will produce a click exactly once per second (since there are 60 seconds to a minute)

MIDI

A universal ‘open’ language that allows digital musical instruments to communicate with one another. The most common application is the use of a digital piano as an input device into a computer or smart device / smart phone for either recording purposes, or the use of software instruments. This connection can be made three ways, depending on the device: a traditional 5-pin MIDI connection, a USB port, or Bluetooth MIDI.

Sostenuto

The middle pedal on an acoustic grand piano is normally called the sostenuto pedal (in a few cases the middle pedal has a different function, such as bass sustain). Sostenuto allows a player to selectively sustain individual notes, unlike the sustain pedal which universally sustains all notes on the piano without discretion. It is a seldom used function in contemporary music, with advanced classical pianists usually being the only users of this pedal.

Polyphony

Refers to the maximum number of sounds that a digital instrument can simultaneously produce. A Max. Polyphony of 128 means that 128 notes can ring at one time before it needs to start ‘shutting off’ notes.  Higher polyphonies have become increasingly necessary as sound engines have started layering multiple elements to create a single ‘note’. For example, the note itself, combined with string resonance, damper resonance, and cabinet resonance, might actually use up 4-5 polyphony on a single note. Which means playing 4-5 octaves of scales with the pedal down has completely used up the 128 note polyphony. Generally speaking, the higher the number, the better!

Tone Engine / Sound Engine

The sound engine is the digital piano’s internal computer. It’s job is to take the pitch, velocity, and after-touch information from the key, and generate a wave signal based on each manufacturer’s proprietary algorithms and samples. It then sends this wave signal to amplifiers which either power the onboard speaker system, or headphones. Modern sound engines are capable of producing thousands of different sounds, and with alarming accuracy. Sound engines are also responsible for adding effects such as reverb, chorus, tremolo, amp ‘drive’, and other popular effects.

Sequencer

A sequencer is a MIDI-driven non linear editor / recorder which allows for multiple recordings to be layered and played back simultaneously. The basic MIDI language allows for 16 tracks, where DAW software such as logic can permit hundreds. It is used as a composition tool.

Speaker System

Refers to the amplifier and speaker box / speaker cones on a digital instrument. The signal is received from the sound engine, which is then amplified and projected through the onboard speakers or to the headphone jack. It is essentially like an internal pa system. Most digital pianos have two speakers, although it is becoming more common for higher-end digital pianos to come with 4 or more speakers to better simulate the acoustic experience of playing a piano.

Touch Sensitivity

When a piano key can detect whether it has been pressed down soft or hard (or slowly or quickly) and send that information to the sound engine, it is referred to as ‘touch sensitive’. Sensitivity is normally assessed by the key sensor as a number between 1 – 128.  The softest possible reading being 1, and the hardest / fastest being 128. The more accurate the sensor, the more responsive the instrument normally feels.