A Handy Guide To Choosing Your New Keyboard

Want to buy a new keyboard but not sure where to start? Are you confused about the differences between the various types of keyboard instrument? This handy guide outlines the main characteristics of each and lets you know their best uses. There is a lot of crossover these days but this guide will point you in the right direction so that you can make an informed decision when it comes to choosing your new instrument.

Keyboard

Although this is a general name give to all types of keyboard instrument, in the business it also refers to home or beginners keyboards. Most have fairly lightweight plastic bodies and lower quality sounds than pro instruments, although still very good. Some home keyboards have mini keys rather than standard, full-size piano keys. A few in the range have ‘key lighting’ tuition, so that you can follow the illuminated keys for faster learning.

The main characteristics of a home keyboard are:

  • Onboard speakers so that no extra monitors are needed
  • A large selection of mid-quality preset sounds
  • A selection of popular accompaniments and beats
  • The option to play chord accompaniments with the left hand
  • Often have 49 or 61 keys
  • Usually uses a power supply unit

Who is this for:

  • Beginners
  • Amateur musicians
  • Anyone wanting a fun keyboard at home with lots of sounds and beats to keep their interest
  • Mostly just for fun, casual use and learning for enjoyment rather than with a view to pursuing a serious career in music, although some Pro’s started out learning the basics on a home keyboard

Digital Piano

Here, the emphasis is more on quality and emulating the experience of playing a real piano. There are far fewer sounds and beats but the quality of sounds are usually much higher than a keyboard. The keyboard itself is much nicer to play, often being the full 88 note width and with some weight and resistance in the keys that brings it closer to a piano feel. There is the option to choose from upright or baby grand designs. Stage pianos are also available for pro musicians who are looking for a high-quality piano with more portability.

The main characteristics of a digital piano are:

  • A quality ‘keybed’ to emulate the feel and expression of a real piano, often 88 notes
  • Fewer sounds but much higher in quality
  • Beats are not so much a priority but a few are provided
  • Designed to look more like a piece of furniture
  • The higher range models are like traditional pianos with strings but have the option to switch to digital mode for quiet practise

Who is this for:

  • Classically trained musicians
  • Jazz pianists
  • Pro players
  • Piano teachers
  • Those looking to do formal training with a teacher
  • Those wanting a beautiful looking instrument for their home

Synthesizer

‘Synths’ are aimed at the pro user as they offer a lot of editing capabilities, with the option to tweak sounds in real time using sliders and knobs. There is often a strong emphasis on retro, analogue sounds and some modern synths have ‘patchboards’ to recreate the feel of early analogue models. They are more sturdily built with many having wood or metal elements in their casing.

The main characteristics of a Synthesizer are:

  • High quality sounds that can be tweaked and edited for precise control
  • An emphasis on synthetic retro, analogue sounds loved by pro musicians and producers
  • No onboard speakers, these are designed to be played through studio monitors and PA systems
  • Usually much sturdier and heavier in design to withstand life on the road
  • Often use ‘kettle leads’ rather than power supply units to avoid any audio hum issues within a pro setup

Who is this for:

  • Pro touring musicians
  • Pro studios
  • Producers
  • Retro synth lovers

Controller Keyboard

Controllers started to become popular in the 80s with the introduction of MIDI and more recently with USB and Bluetooth. This type of keyboard instrument is favoured by DJs / Producers who just need a way of triggering sounds within their software programs (DAWs). They are widely used by Pro players too, who can now operate with a much lighter setup by using controllers along with ‘softsynths’ on their laptop. Controllers are likely to grow in popularity as they now also allow beginners to purchase a small, cheap keyboard and connect to their computers, phones or tablets for learning.

The main characteristics of a Controller Keyboard are:

  • No onboard sounds at all, these are designed to be used with sound modules and software
  • They can start at just 25 keys and can go up to 88, depending on your requirements
  • Many often have pads for triggering samples, drums, etc
  • The pads are usually assignable so that you can create a custom setup for your studio or live performance
  • Connect to sound apps on your phone or tablet using a camera connection kit or by choosing a model that has bluetooth connectivity
  • Can often be powered by USB

Who is this for:

  • DJs and Producers
  • Pro touring musicians looking for a lightweight setup
  • Studios with limited space or no need for external synths
  • Beginners / home users who are comfortable connecting to computers, phones and tablets for their sounds
  • Teachers needing a portable setup
  • Songwriters for composing while on the road

Keytar

These quirky little instruments have been around since the late 60s in various formats and every few years they come back into fashion. Keytar’s come with strap connectors that allow the instrument to be worn like a guitar. There’s usually one available at any time and some smaller synths come with kits that allow a strap to be added.

The main characteristics of a Keytar are:

  • They allow for connection of a strap so that the keyboardist is free to move around the stage
  • Genuine keytars have a ‘neck’ that incorporates various controls that can be operated via the left hand
  • The newer models can be used wirelessly for complete freedom

Who is this for:

  • Gigging musicians who want to be more mobile and active during their performance

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