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Ted Landau's User Friendly View - Navigating the Digital Keyboard Maze: Part I

by Ted Landau
August 24th, 2005

For some weird reason, despite my infatuation with almost all things digital, and despite the fact that I have played an acoustic piano since I was 8 years old, I never made the move to a digital keyboard. That all changed with the release of GarageBand. Within hours of breaking the shrinkwrap, I knew it was time for me to take the plunge.

I purchased the M-Audio Keystation 49e (US$99 - Amazon), the keyboard offered by Apple as the "perfect keyboard complement to GarageBand." True to Apple's hype, it was indeed a great device for experimenting with GarageBand's array of software instruments. Suddenly, my keyboard playing could sound like anything from a jazz organ to a trumpet.

Still, it did not take long to discover that the GarageBand-Keystation combo had some significant limitations:

  • The loops in GarageBand are not ideal for working as background accompaniment to a piano. While your playing may casually shift rhythms, tempos and key signatures within a song, getting the loops to follow suit is far from a trivial task.
  • Any 49-key keyboard is not ideally suited for playing piano music. Period.

So I decided to upgrade to a new keyboard. The question was: What new keyboard? Like a mirage in the desert, a decision kept receding in the distance, no matter how much I kept chasing after it. There were just too many different keyboards and too much that I did not know about them.

Still, I persisted. And eventually I was rewarded with a keyboard that has since given me hours and hours of pleasure. It's not perfect for everyone, but it was exactly what I wanted.

If you have ever contemplated purchasing a digital keyboard but are unsure which one to get, this column is for you. It's the first of two columns in which, from the perspective of an informed neophyte, I share what I learned on my road to keyboard enlightenment.

This month, I try to untangle the maze of features that separate low-end from high-end keyboards, and help you assess which options you need and which ones you can skip. As you might expect, high-end options typically come with a high-end price tag. In some cases, your budget, more than your desires, may dictate your choice.

Next month, I'll look at the varied categories of keyboards (e.g., MIDI controller, synthesizer, digital piano), describe the pros and cons of each (including how well they work with GarageBand), and help you decide exactly what keyboard best fits your desires and budget. And I'll finally tell you what keyboard I purchased and why.

Note: Some options, such as the number of instruments that a keyboard offers, will not be directly relevant if you intend to use the keyboard only as an input device for GarageBand, as it will be GarageBand itself rather than the keyboard that determines your choices.

The number of keys. A digital keyboard may come with as few as 25 or so keys or as many as the full complement of 88. A piano player might well ask, "What's the point of only 25 keys? Unless I limit my song playing to 'Mary had a little lamb,' I am going to need more than that."

True enough. But bear in mind that many people use a digital keyboard not to play sheet music but to add digital accompaniment to other instruments.

For example, maybe you are using GarageBand primarily for playing your electric guitar, but you would like to add some custom percussion background. A 25-key keyboard is more than adequate to play GarageBand's Drum Kits, but if you intend to use the keyboard as an actual piano, you'll want at least 76 keys. You can probably get by without the last 12 (of the standard 88) keys, but anything less than 76 and you'll inevitably be pounding the edges of the keyboard looking for keys that aren't there.

The number of notes. When you read over the specs of different keyboards, you may see a reference to "polyphony" with an indication of a maximum number of notes (typically 32, 64 or 128). This refers to how many notes the keyboard can "play" at one time.

Again, if you are a piano player, your initial reaction may be: "Whoa! I can't play more than about 6 notes at once. So why would I care about maximums in the range of 32 or more?"

Fair enough, but remember that most keyboards are capable of special effects that involve more than one note. A single press of a key, for example, could produce the sound of a four-note chord. Even without special effects, any keyboard being used as a piano should be able to retain the fading sound of previously played notes as you add new ones. The faster you play (and especially if you throw in a sustain pedal) the greater the number of simultaneously heard notes.

Finally, if you get into recording your own music, you may want to lay down multiple tracks (playing a duet with yourself, for example). Add all of this up and you can exceed even a 64-note limit without much effort.

Still, most users should be able to get by with a 32-note limit. [Similar limits apply to GarageBand; check out this Apple Knowledge Base article for some details.]

If you expect to exceed the polyphony limits of your keyboard with any regularity, check out what it does when you push the envelope. The best approach is where the "oldest" notes get dropped to make room for the most recently played ones, a sort of first-in-first-out prioritization.

The feel of the keys. With a "real" piano, each key is connected to a hammer. When you press a key, the hammer strikes a string that produces the sound. Thicker and longer strings produce lower sounds. A digital keyboard has none of this. Pressing a key simply creates a digital output; there are no hammers or strings.

As a result, the tactile feedback from pressing keys on a digital keyboard can be quite different from that of a real piano. The keys may have a "too light" feeling, almost as if the keys are broken. This difference is more than an aesthetic issue; for acoustic pianists, the feel of "real" keys is critical to properly expressing the nuances in piano music.

Recognizing this, the makers of high-end digital keyboards have figured out how to get the keys to feel almost exactly like playing an acoustic piano. Here is where you get into terms such as "weighted keys" or "graded hammer action." These generally describe keyboards where you can feel the apparent weight of a virtual hammer movement when you press a key, with keys at the lower end of the board having more "weight" than those at the upper end - just like a real piano.

A related issue is whether or not the loudness of a key varies as a function of how hard you press down on the key. With a real piano, it does vary, and again this is critical to achieving the desired piano sound. Most digital keyboards provide some sort of similar touch sensitivity, at least as an option you can turn on or off.

A true piano feel, however, is not always essential or, in some cases, even desired. Piano players can get used to something less than a "true piano" feel (I certainly have!). And, for those who use the keyboard to play non-piano instruments, weighted and touch-sensitive keys may actually be more of a hindrance than an asset. There is only one way to know for sure what works best for you: Sit down at a keyboard and test it out. Don't rely on written descriptions.

The quality of the sound. The promotional material for a digital keyboard may claim that the device can sound exactly like an acoustic grand piano. Yet, when you actually play it, its quality may range from an amazingly realistic near duplicate to something that barely sounds like a piano at all. Leaving aside the important role that speakers and amplification play in such matters, much depends on how the digitized sound is created by the keyboard itself. At the high end, a manufacturer may have sampled the sound of a real piano from multiple positions (in front of, to the side and behind the piano) as well as at different piano volumes. All of this sampling information is then "built in" to the keyboard's computer. At the other end, a keyboard may use just a digital algorithm to produce an approximation of what a piano sounds like. Done well, the former will produce far superior sound.

The number of instruments. The original electric pianos, way back in the 1960s and 70s, could only produce one type of sound: what is now called "electric piano." As I have already indicated, one of the truly amazing features of today's digital keyboards is that they can successfully mimic almost any instrument. You can choose to have a keyboard sound like an electric piano, or you can instead have it sound like a muted trumpet or a steel guitar or you name it.

Digital keyboards vary, however, with just how wide a selection of instruments they provide. If intend to use a digital keyboard primarily as a keyboard instrument, you may prefer a board that focuses just on the sounds of pianos, organs and related instruments. Otherwise, you may want one that offers a much wider range. Alternatively, if you intend to use GarageBand as the source of your instruments, you may not care what selection is built in to the keyboard at all.

This begins to drift into the subject of the different types of digital keyboards available, the focus of next month's column. See you then.

Ted Landau is the founder of MacFixit, and the author of Mac OS X Help Line, Tiger Edition and other Mac help books.

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