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What’s the Difference: Keyboard vs. Digital Piano

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Digital VS Keyboard Piano - iMusician

Both digital pianos and keyboards are beautiful instruments worth exploring. If you’ve decided to take up the piano (which is absolutely amazing!) and have been wondering which option to choose, this article may be exactly what you need to make a decision. Let’s dive right in to discover the differences between piano and keyboard!

What is a digital piano, and what is a keyboard?

The first takeaway from this article is that digital pianos and keyboards are not the same thing.

As the name suggests, a digital piano presents a modern take on the traditional acoustic piano, producing sounds digitally to imitate the classical piano tone. Similarly to the acoustic version, digital pianos generally come with 88 keys that are almost always weighted to mimic the feel of a regular piano. Digital pianos are also usually available in three different arrangements — grand (built in a cabinet), upright, and portable on a keyboard stand.

Out of the three versions, a digital grand piano is likely to offer the highest sound quality and key movements but is also more expensive. The upright digital piano tends to be the most commonly bought version and is smaller in size than the grand piano (and surprisingly tends to weigh less than an upright acoustic piano). The portable digital piano comes in handy when you need to go places or travel a lot. It is typically made of plastic and comes with a stand that is relatively easy to manipulate and navigate.

Keyboards are generally designed to be more portable and easier to maneuver than a digital piano. This is also why they usually come with 61 to 78 keys, typically made of plastic, that are either semi-weighted or completely unweighted, making the instrument suitable for smaller hands.

Their unweighted character, however, takes away from the tactile feel similar to an acoustic piano — unless the keys are touch-sensitive, also called velocity-sensitive. This feature gives keyboards some ability to make sounds get louder and/or brighter in tonality when the keys are struck with a more prominent force. Without a doubt, the most exciting thing about keyboards is that they offer a great range of sounds — typically significantly more than acoustic or digital pianos — allowing one to play the most random and unique melodies.

Learn the difference: digital piano vs keyboard

We have already touched upon some differences between digital pianos and keyboards, but let’s examine them in detail.

1. Sound quality

Regarding sound, it ultimately comes down to quality versus quantity — and unfortunately, you can’t really have both. In any of its versions, a digital piano offers a higher sound quality that strives to mimic that of an acoustic piano. In fact, most digital pianos nowadays have a strong foundation in acoustic piano modeling technology, with many production companies making significant advances in their products’ sound qualities.

The samples of acoustic pianos stored in digital piano memories are usually multi-layered, making the instruments seem more realistic. Additionally, some digital pianos provide players with advanced features, further enhancing the acoustic piano experience.

As mentioned, keyboards are rich in the number and variety of sounds they offer — some have 100 or more sounds in total. Many keyboards also offer parameter controls that allow users to edit and dial into those sounds, at least to some degree. The wide range of sounds is valuable, particularly for artists looking to enrich their compositions with unique arrangements and sound combinations. However, it comes at a price of quality, as keyboards’ sound quality is generally lower than that of digital pianos.

2. Portability

Keyboards are more portable than digital pianos; there is no question about that. Even portable digital pianos are heavier and less maneuverable than keyboards—though they at least have a stand to use when moved around. Of course, if you have enough space in your apartment or studio to fit a piano, getting one might be a swell idea (superficially, it may also add to the aesthetics of the particular room).

However, getting a keyboard may be the perfect decision if you have to transport your instrument often. Keyboards are also easy to fit in a cramped or limited space.

3. Touch quality

Besides sound quality, it is also essential to consider the touch quality of either instrument, which adds to the overall playing experience. Digital pianos generally feel more like acoustic pianos than keyboards do as they have less of an artificial feel to them. This is mainly credited to the weighted keys many digital pianos have, mimicking the keys of the acoustic ones. Generally, the less weighted the keys are, the lighter their feeling touch is, but the less it resembles that of an acoustic piano.

More expensive, higher-end digital pianos usually offer some measure of control and adjustability to the weight and an after-touch setting, modifying the sound of the key after one pushes it down. Meanwhile, keyboards typically have semi-weighted or unweighted ‘waterfall’ keys, generally lacking that authentic piano feel. However, this doesn’t necessarily imply that keyboards are all that bad regarding the feeling of touch. The lighter keys are easy to play, suitable for smaller and younger hands, and great for slide effects or glissando.

4. Pedals

Something we haven’t discussed yet is pedals. A digital piano, just like an acoustic one, usually comes with three pedals — a sustain or damper pedal for longer sound endurance, a soft pedal for note-softening and better tone quality, and a sostenuto or practice pedal for reducing the volume. These three pedals are usually built into the instrument, especially in the case of digital grand pianos.

Keyboards are not traditionally supplemented with these three pedals. Instead, they usually have a ¼ input jack for a standalone sustain pedal that comes in various styles and colors.

5. Price

In general, digital pianos are more expensive than keyboards, which is due to their better sound quality and more advanced features. It’s also important to note that even the most expensive digital piano is still likely to cost much less than most acoustic pianos.

Therefore, if you’re looking for a ‘more affordable’ instrument with great sound and touch quality, digital pianos are the perfect alternative to acoustic pianos. Meanwhile, if you’re strictly on a budget, you may want to consider getting a keyboard. There are many cheap yet excellent keyboards on the market that are worth the try, such as the Yamaha PSR-E373, Roland: GO Keys, and Casio CT-S300.

What is the best option for a beginner?

So, what should it be? A digital piano or a keyboard? Well, as in most cases, it ultimately depends on what you want and need.

From our point of view, keyboards feel more like entry instruments and may be the best price-value option for learning to play. However, once your skills improve and you become more professional, you may also yearn for a higher-quality instrument. In such a case, you will, in the end, spend money on both the keyboard and the piano. Of course, this doesn’t have to be any bad. You can either sell the keyboard or enjoy having two instruments — one to keep at home or the studio and a portable one that’s easier to move.

It also depends on what you want to use the instrument for. Overall, the piano's use is quite diverse. While it plays a central role in classical and jazz music, it can also be utilized in pop or rock genres. The same applies to keyboards, yet in this case, it greatly depends on the quality and feel of the instrument.

Keyboards can be great for practice or provide value in terms of their wide range of tones. They are also an excellent option for electronic music producers and beatmakers, particularly MIDI keyboards, which use MIDI technology to transmit digital signals and connect to one’s DAW. On the other hand, a regular piano may be a better choice if you want to release and perform music with an authentic piano sound.

In other words, there are many factors to consider to make an informed decision about what type of instrument to buy. Overall, if you value the sound quality most, are not dependent on a minimal budget, and, additionally, have space for your instrument, a digital piano might be the better option. However, if you’re currently looking for something more low-cost that takes up less space, is more portable, and has a wide range of tones, we recommend getting a keyboard.

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