September 23rd, 2005
Last month, in the first of this two-part series on digital keyboards, I looked at an assortment of keyboard features: what they are and why you may or may not want to pay extra to get them. The emphasis was on offering advice to piano players looking for a keyboard to use with GarageBand.
This month, I take a look at the pros and cons of different keyboard types. Most importantly, I try to disentangle the terminology that can easily bewilder a neophyte to this field. How can you tell if you want a MIDI controller or a workstation, if you have no idea what these terms mean? Making things trickier, the dividing lines between the categories are sufficiently murky that a given keyboard may not clearly fall into just one category. Still, I try to make some useful generalizations:
Digital pianos. These devices are intended to be the digital replacement for an acoustic piano. As such, they emphasize the features that best mimic a true piano. For example, all but the least expensive in this category will come with a full 88 keys. Also expect them to have weighted keys and the highest quality multisampled sound (features I covered last month).
These pianos can be portable or console. Portables are obviously best if portability matters to you (such as if you play in a band and need to carry the keyboard around). Consoles have the wood cabinetry of an acoustic upright (or even grand!) piano. They thus feel sturdier and look a lot better in your living room. On the downside, a console typically costs significantly more than a portable version of the same keyboard (even when you throw in the price of a portable stand).
Console models always come with built-in speakers; portables may or may not. In either case, you can connect these keyboards to an external sound source.
What these devices generally lack (except for some top of the line models), as compared to workstations, is the ability to mimic hundreds of instruments and accompaniments. Instead, they focus just on piano (and usually organ) sounds. This is intentional. You expect an electric guitar to sound like an electric guitar, and not double as a substitute for a saxophone. The same logic goes for these pianos.
Still, all of these keyboards should also work with a Mac running GarageBand (although making the connection may require additional hardware)-at which point the full range of instrument choices and loops in GarageBand becomes available.
Workstations. These devices can simulate a wide range of instruments and rhythm accompaniments. They offer numerous controls to edit their built-in sounds as well as to create your own (which is why they typically come with an elaborate array of knobs, buttons and sliders). They are almost always portable and may or may not have built-in speakers.
What is also distinctive about workstations is their ability to edit and record your own compositions. In this sense, a workstation has the equivalent of GarageBand-like software built into it. Workstations can't offer all the flexibility you can get with a computer, but high-end workstations can come pretty close. And they have one advantage over a computer: all the software and hardware is combined in an integrated unit, designed from scratch to work together.
Still, as with all of these keyboard categories, you can connect a workstation to your Mac. You can then bypass many of the built-in features in favor of GarageBand or other music software. That's also why, if your primary intent is to use the keyboard with your Mac, a workstation is probably overkill. You'll get more bang for your buck with one of the other keyboard types.
MIDI controllers. These devices typically have neither a editing/recording capability nor a collection of built-in instrument sounds. They also have no built-in speakers. All they do is produce the appropriate MIDI output for the key that you press-and send it on to another device that actually produces the sound.
A technical aside: If you have no idea what MIDI is, this is not the article to give you the full scoop. But here is a very brief synopsis: MIDI (which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a set of digital instructions describing the characteristics of a sound (such as its pitch and volume). A MIDI controller can send MIDI output to another MIDI-supported device (such as a Mac running GarageBand) which interprets the data and ultimately produces the sound. The more expensive MIDI controllers allow for more fine-tuned control over the sound parameters.
At the low end of the price range, these devices can be ideal for beginning users to connect to GarageBand. They don't have an overwhelming array of controls; they are lightweight and portable. The M-Audio (49 key and 61 key) Keystation keyboards sold at the Apple Store fall into this category. The M-Audio keyboards have an additional advantage over some other MIDI controllers: they can send the MIDI data through a USB port-eliminating the need for a separate MIDI interface to intervene between the keyboard and the Mac. They even draw power from the Mac's USB port, so no separate AC adapter is needed.
Of course, all of the devices discussed in this column provide MIDI output. So, unless the M-Audio controllers' relatively low cost and convenience for connecting to a Mac are overriding considerations, I would shy away from them. Remember: without another MIDI-supported device to translate its instructions into sound, MIDI controllers are just a paperweight.
Consumer keyboards. This last category is sort of a hodgepodge. It includes a collection of keyboards that start at the very low end (under $100) and go up a bit from there (topping out at around $750). At their core, they are a cross between a digital piano and a workstation, but with compromises in quality that you would expect from the lower price (even mid-range digital pianos and workstations can easily cost well over a $1000 dollars!). Still, they can offer an impressive array of features. Technology has advanced so dramatically and rapidly in recent years that what you can get for a few hundred dollars today would have cost thousands of dollars a few years ago.
These keyboards are designed to appeal to the home market. As such, they typically also include teaching tools such as built-in metronomes and piano lessons. If you don't want or need these tools, you can easily ignore them.
Which device is for you? How does all of the above translate into buying advice? Let's summarize:
Low-end MIDI controllers are a good inexpensive way to get into using GarageBand, especially if you don't need more than 61 keys (88 key controllers are significantly more expensive!). However, a decent consumer keyboard offers many more features and is an overall better value. For starters, you can use it as a standalone piano/workstation in addition to using it with GarageBand. Consider a digital piano (if a true piano experience is a primary concern) or a workstation (if you want to be able to simulate many instruments and rhythms in a standalone device) only if you have money to burn or truly need professional-level quality.
Which device was for me? What did I finally decide? I went for a consumer keyboard: the Yamaha DGX305. Yamaha technically calls it a piano-focused keyboard. It costs less than $400 (keeping the price down was important in my criteria), has USB output (making it easy to connect to a Mac and use with GarageBand), is portable with built-in speakers and has 76 keys (although they are not weighted keys). There were a few other keyboards that were also in the running (especially some Casio models and the Yamaha DGX505), but the DGX305 emerged as the winner.
What I especially like is how well the Yamaha works as a stand-alone keyboard. It offers a dizzying array of instruments and musical accompaniment styles (including great intros and endings!). And the accompaniments automatically change chords based on what I am playing (as opposed to GarageBand loops which are static), making it easy to be a one-man band. It also features dual (two instruments at once), split (lower keyboard plays a different instrument than the upper keyboard) and harmony options. It can transpose key signatures (this is great if you have sheet music in one key and you want to play along with a recording that is in another). You can do 6-track recording and save the output as a file to a SmartMedia card (which you can use to transfer the file to a Mac). And it is all tied together with an informative LCD display (which even has a sheet-music-like mode).
When I purchased the keyboard, I expected to use it mostly with GarageBand. Instead, I find that I use it more often as a standalone keyboard. It's that much fun. If your criteria fit well with mine, I highly recommend it.
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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