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Electronic Keyboards

Electronic keyboards are manufactured in a wide range of styles and capabilities. Find out which one might be right for you.

Electronic keyboards can introduce children to music and help musicians record songs. [© Jupiter Images, 2009.]
© Jupiter Images, 2009.
Electronic keyboards can introduce children to music and help musicians record songs.

From small children's keyboards to 88-key digital pianos, electronic keyboards come in a wide variety of styles and offer musicians of any skill level the ability to create, practice, record and arrange music. Although they're mostly used by piano players, people who play other instruments can use them to arrange and transpose music as well, making electronic keyboards a great all-around instrument. Read on for more information on electronic keyboards, including keyboards for beginners, synthesizers and digital pianos.

Keyboards for Beginners

Some of the simplest electronic keyboards may only have a two- or three-octave range, and their small keys make them ideal for young children. Parents often choose to buy these models for their kids to expose them to music and familiarize them with the keyboard's layout before enrolling them in actual piano lessons. These normally come preloaded with a limited selection of tones (instrument sounds), percussion sounds, songs and sound effects.

One step above these keyboards are models designed for beginning musicians and more musically experienced children. These keyboards typically have 61 or 76 standard-size keys, a few hundred tones, and a selection of built-in beats and songs to accompany musicians while they play. Although their keys are rarely weighted to feel like those of a real piano, they are often touch-sensitive, allowing the player a greater degree of musical control and expression.

Many of beginner electronic keyboards can play multiple notes at once, making it possible for the player to create rich, detailed music from a wide range of different instrument sounds. Normally priced between $100 and $250, these keyboards are also relatively affordable and present a good value for novice musicians.

Synthesizers

Synthesizers are a very diverse group of electronic keyboards. They work by generating different electrical signals, which they then transform into sound. According to Musician's Friend, digital synthesizers are designed to mimic the sound-producing capabilities of analog synthesizers and can reproduce and create a variety of instrumental sounds and effects.

Because they're so versatile, synthesizers are popular with musicians, producers, composers and songwriters working in almost every genre of music, including country, rock, hip-hop, new-age and jazz. Two popular categories of synthesizers are arranger keyboards and workstation keyboards.

Arrangers and Workstations

Both arrangers and workstations are special synthesizers used by producers, composers, songwriters and other music professionals to create complete musical tracks. Although they share many of the same basic features, these two popular styles have a few important differences worth noting.

According to Sweetwater's professional keyboard buying guide, arrangers mostly come preloaded with natural instrument sounds (piano, guitar, strings, organ, woodwinds and brass). Workstations, however, include these sounds and many other synthesized sounds, as well.

Arrangers also come preloaded with a variety of different musical styles that intelligently accompany musicians as they play. For example, if the keyboardist played a simple rock piano riff, the arranger could simultaneously build the sound of a complete rock band around the chords and bass notes the player plays. On the other hand, workstations come preloaded with arpeggios and loops, but not the chord recognition capability of the arrangers.

Perhaps the main difference between these two styles is that workstations often come with onboard audio and MIDI sequencers that allow the musician to record, edit, play and mix tracks without using outside equipment. Some workstations even have disc burners, allowing musicians to create audio CDs of their performances. In essence, a workstation is a rudimentary recording studio packed into a keyboard-sized package.

Arrangers and workstations are generally available with 61, 76 or 88 keys. Full-sized synthesizers with 88 keys are about as big and heavy as digital pianos, but their keys are often touch-sensitive and weighted, giving them an authentic feel that replicates that of an acoustic piano.

Digital Pianos

Unlike synthesizers, which focus on creating and manipulating unique digital sounds, digital pianos attempt to provide musicians with the closest experience possible to playing an acoustic piano. This means that, instead of coming preloaded with sound effects, digital pianos come preloaded with a wide range of high-quality sounds sampled directly from live pianos, harpsichords and organs.

Digital piano keyboards always have a full complement of 88 touch-sensitive keys, but their specific feel and weight vary from model to model. Most of the top keyboard-producing companies like Yamaha, Kawai and Roland have proprietary key systems that use a variety of small mechanisms to replicate the hammer action of an acoustic piano.

In general, digital pianos can be divided into two groups by their size and shape: stage pianos and home pianos. As their name implies, stage pianos are meant to be used on stage during musical performances. Like 88-key synthesizers, digital stage pianos don't have legs, so they need to be propped on a stand or mounted in a rack to be played. These are most popular with piano players and keyboardists in rock bands, jazz combos and other small ensembles who do a lot of touring and don't have the resources to transport an acoustic piano from gig to gig.

Record producers and sound engineers also use digital pianos as substitutes for acoustic pianos, which may not fit in the studio because of their bulk. Similar to synthesizers, digital stage pianos usually come with a small selection of effects, arpeggios and loops performers can use to fill out their ensembles' sound during a show.

Digital home pianos look and sound even more like acoustic pianos than stage pianos. They produce the same lifelike piano, organ and harpsichord sounds as stage pianos, but they come in upright and grand piano bodies, making them attractive to professional musicians and collectors alike.

One of the standout features of digital home pianos is that they can often play themselves. Known as "player pianos," these models can read preprogrammed performances loaded onto compact discs and play them back using the piano's sound engine and keys. The resulting effect is somewhat surreal; the keys move by themselves and the piano produces music. These models are understandably popular with people who either don't have the time or ability to play themselves, but who want to hear live, high-quality music in their homes.

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