Digital piano

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1 Introduction

A digital piano is a kind of electronic keyboard designed to feel and sound like a traditional piano. In addition, a digital piano can include many features that are found in various other electronic instruments such as:

  • a MIDI interface and be able to act as a so-called Midi controller;
  • many sounds (including other types of keyboards, strings, guitars, horns, etc.);
  • metronome and auto-accompaniment with various levels of fingering (chord recognition) support;
  • demonstration, play-along features, recording, sequencing and play-back.

In this article we particularly will examine some of the features that are interesting for learning/teaching piano and other music subjects such as composition and improvisation.

See also:

2 Features and kinds of digital pianos

This section and associated list of products was put together in september 2011 with the purpose of getting a kind of overview before buying a digital piano. The same models are usually sold over a longer period, i.e. 5 years or more, which is quite a lot when compared to computers. However, at any time a manufacturer can bring out a whole new series of models and the one you bought yesterday will sell for much less. Even if most of todays mid-end and high-end models will last for many more years, some information here can become quickly outdated and we may not have time for updates.

A good digital piano should at least include the following functions:

  • A few good piano sounds either obtained by carefully sampling a real piano or by modeling a piano sound.
  • Connectivity: MIDI, USB, iPad, CD
  • Multi-track sequencing in various formats (including MIDI and WAV/MP3)
  • Piano-like action, i.e. a weighted keyboard, some kind of grader hammer action and ivory-feel keys.

As of fall 2011, a decent enough digital piano costs about 800 Euros. The cheapest good "arranger" piano (i.e. some built-in orchestra function) costs about 1200 Euros. Most popular makers in alphabetical order are: Casio, Clavia, Kawai, Korg, Kurzweil, Roland and Yamaha. Good quality higher mid-end digital pianos start around 3000 EUR and higher mid-end digital arranger pianos start around 5000 EUR.

Quality and price relates to several criteria. The must important ones could be:

  • The keyboard action, i.e. the touch - Generally the more it acts like a grand piano (heavy keys and fast action) the better it is. Also responsiveness is important, and dynamics (strong vs. nuanced).
  • The quality of sounds i.e. the tone. - This includes both sampled (sounds obtained from recording real instruments in very complex and difficult ways) and artificially made sounds. In addition polyphony (e.g. 128 is much better than 8 simultaneous sounds). Also some people then separately look at bass, midrange and high notes.
  • Main Functions - auto-accompaniment including fingering of chords, recording and editing, MIDI support.
  • Extra functions - USB/SD slots, I/O, Internet, monitor size, self learning capabilities.
  • Amplifier and speakers.
  • Overall design - Portability (within a given kind of keyboard), surface material, etc.
  • Robustness - How long does it last, how often (or not) does it need repairs.
  • Price (for a given category/class)

There exist several kinds of digital pianos. Below we shall present these in rough categories. We also shall mention some makes and models without aiming at being complete. These lists could help a reader to single out a few interesting models and get some kind of initial "big picture".

Cost estimates are based on "street prices" found in a few on-line sites, a typical VAT of 19% included. This means that one could pay less in some countries (e.g. the U.S.). In other countries like Switzerland it goes both ways. The same model can either cost less or more depending on the seller's margin. I'd say that digital pianos are one of the rare items whose price can be negotiated in most countries. E.g. for (regularly imported) Yamaha's it's possible to get 20% off the list price in western Switzerland and the same seems to be true in the U.S. according to comments found in several forums. Also a few month from now, there can be new model lines and prices then could fall dramatically .

- Daniel K. Schneider 18:42, 7 September 2011 (CEST).

2.1 Upright digital pianos

What we call upright digital pianos look almost like real pianos but weight less, i.e. about 80kgs, which is fairly heavy for a digital keyboard. These models implement a variety of keyboard sounds only sometimes other instruments. There exist both low-end and high end versions in terms of sound quality, keyboard action and extra features.

Entry models (around 1000 EUR) have decent enough sound and good enough keyboard action for beginners, i.e. they are no worse than an older cheap acoustic piano. Entry-level models also tend to have fairly poor e-piano and organ sounds and miss some connectivity features.

Good quality (Piano sound, e-piano, keyboard action, connectivity) seems to be available around 3000.- EUR. Some high-end versions also implement "arranger" and auto-accompaniment features found in "arranger pianos". The difference are a much smaller LCD screen, less control buttons (which makes it more difficult finding a feature) and less other features.

Typical examples:

  • Yamaha Arius (YDP) low-end series between EUR 800.- and 1300.-. The popular YDP 161 (EUR 980) features an OK Piano sound, limited other keyboard sounds, a rather difficult interface (using the keyboard), 50 built-in demo songs that can be played.
  • Casio Celviano AP220 (1000.- EUR).
  • Kawai CA, e.g. the CA18 (1600.- EUR), CA63 (3200.- EUR) or CA93
  • Kawai CN (mid-high end)
  • Kawai CS series
  • Kurzweil MP, X-Pro, Mark-Pro series
  • Roland HP series, e.g. Roland HP307 (EUR 3300)
  • Roland RG-1, Roland LX-10, Roland DP series
  • Roland RP-201 (EUR 1400)
  • Yamaha CLP series represent lower and upper mid-end, e.g. CLP-320 (1300.- EUR), CLP-470 (2700.- EUR) or CLP-480 (4300.- EUR).
  • Yamaha Modus F11/H11 series (good "visual design", between 5000.- and 15000.-)

Price range:

  • 450 - 15000 Euros

Note: Truly high-end "simple" digital pianos are packaged as baby grands (see below).

2.2 Compact pianos and stage pianos

We probably can distinguish between two kinds: home entertainment "compacts" ans so-called stage pianos for (mostly) professional performers. Some models fall between this and the compact and arranger categories.

Compact e-pianos

Are lighter than upright e-pianos below. Most models are entry-level in terms of sound, keyboard quality and extra features. But there are also high-end models, often also branded/usable as stage pianos. Most models have 88 keys, but there exist also 61 or 76 keys versions.

Typical examples:

  • Casio CDP series, e.g. CDP-100
  • Casio PX-330 (800 EUR, includes arranger features)
  • Kawai CL series, e.g. the CL-25 (800 EUR)
  • Korg SP170 ($ 500), Korg LP350 (1600.- EUR)
  • Roland F-110
  • Roland FP-4F/7F (stage pianos with rhythms)
  • Yamaha P-95 (540 EUR)
  • Yamaha YDP series (portable models like the YPG-535, YPG-635

Price range:

  • 200 - 2000 Euros

Stage pianos

Stage pianos are made for life concert performances. They have the same functions as upright high-end e-pianos but weight much less. They usually do not include accompaniment (rhythms). Compared to "compact" pianos, stage pianos are more solid and therefore heavier. Some don't have speakers, i.e. they need an external amplifier. In addition compared to all other kinds, stage pianos usually feature complex controls for adjustment of sounds. Some models produce the best e-Piano sounds while matching quality of grand piano sounds.

Typical examples:

  • Casio PX-3 (cheapest, 700 EUR)
  • Clavia Nord series
  • Kawai MP series, e.g. Kawai MP-6 Stage Piano, MP-10
  • Korg SP170, SP250, Korg SV-1
  • Kurzweil SP series
  • Roland FP-7F, Roland RD series (e.g. RD-300NX and RD-700NX), Roland V-Piano
  • Yamaha CP series, e.g. CP1 (4400 EUR), CP5 (2260 EUR), CP300

Price range:

  • 700 - 5500 Euros

2.3 Arranger keyboards

There are several kinds

Upright arranger digital pianos

These types include a built-in orchestra, i.e. add relatively sophisticated auto-accompaniment. They also support multi-track sequencing, editing features and usually feature a nice LCD display. Some models also can connect to the Internet.

Typical examples:

  • Casio AP series: the CASIO AP-620 is considered to be the best price/perfomance model (around 1200 Euros and 1600 for better paint). See also the PX330 compact model which is similar.
  • (Some) of the Kawai CN series, e.g. the nicely priced CN-43 (1600 EUR). Have a small LCD.
  • Kawai CP "concert performer" series (2006), e.g. CP-116 (EUR 3000?) CP-119, CP-136 or CP-179. Not sold in Europe or phased out ? Comparable to the CN series, but larger LCD and more powerful speaker
  • Korg PA588 (compact, light weight)
  • Roland HPi series, e.g. HPi-7F (EUR 3500), include DigiScore training programs and are based on V-Piano "modeling" technology.
  • Roland FP-4F and FP-7F (a stage piano with rhythms)
  • Roland KR (accompaniment) series, e.g. KR-75, replaced by Vima and HPi series ?
  • Roland RM-700 (2009) is Roland's high end arranger/entertainer upright piano. It also includes educational applications the "I" series have, but it has better sound, and probably more style features. It probably compares to a Yamaha CVP-505. Not sold in Europe ?
  • Roland VIMA RK-300 (sold as multimedia entertainment machine since it can produce visual output, e.g. karaoke movies)
  • Yamaha Arius YDP-V240 (EUR 1500.-) is Yamaha's entry model in this category. It has similar features as the Casio AP-620.
  • Yamaha CVP series: The CVP 501 (EUR 2300.-) is the entry model and the CVP-505 (EUR 4600.-) is often judged really good in terms of piano sound/action and electronic features. The CVP 509 is often considered to be the best model in its class (between 6800.- and 7600.- EUR according to visual finish). With respect to the 505 it has nicer keys, better grand piano sampling, and several other improvements.

Prince range:

  • 400 to 10000 Euros

Some grand piano versions exist, e.g. the Yamaha CVP-409 GP. See also some upright e-pianos like the Roland HPI or the Kurweil Mark-Pro. Finally, also see arranger keyboards, of which some are quite close to a digital piano (i.e.g 88 keys and weighed/graded keyboard action)

Compact digital arranger pianos

Same as above, but portable. Probably smaller loudspeakers and not always as good keyboard action.

Typical examples:

  • Casio PX-330 (750 EUR or 800 EUR for a stand/pedals bundle, 2009). Probably one of the best price/quality relationship if you need auto-accompaniment. The weakest part seems to be the keyboard, never turn it upside down! Don't expect it to last for many years. With respect to the heavy AP-620, this model has lesser audio and somewhat less good keys.
  • Korg PA588
  • Roland VIMA RK-300 (sold as multimedia entertainment machine since it can produce visual output, e.g. karaoke movies)
  • Roland FP-4F and FP-7F (a stage piano with rhythms)
  • Yamaha DGX-640 (EUR, includes "Yamaha Education Suite"), debatable quality of keyboard action(GHS system)

Arranger keyboards

Most so-called "arranger keyboards" and even high-end models like the Yamaha Tyros line only have 61 "light" keys, i.e. don't have the range and the hammer action of a accoustic piano or digital piano. Some models only have 49 keys and some very light-weight or mass-consumer entry models may have even less. Quality of arranger pianos differs very much from very cheap kids' models to what professional entertainers use for live performances and professional arrangers for composition. In other words, high-end arranger keyboards are superb music-machines, but are not meant for brilliant piano playing. Also they are easy to carry compared to a stage piano with weighted keyboards.

Few digitial pianos seem to have the features of the most recent high-end arranger keyboards. E.g. The high-end Yamaha CVP 509 arranger digital piano is based on the Tyros 3 arranger keyboard (and not the latest Tyros 4 line). There may be some convergence in the air. Some arranger keyboards have more keys, e.g. 76 and feature so-called semi-weighted action. Some models of the Korg PA series are good examples. Finally, some low-end stage pianos do include arranger features (e.g. the Casio PX-330).

Typical examples

  • Casio CTK-700
  • Ketron Audya series
  • Korg PA series, e.g. the PA500 (CHF 1500.-) the PA800 (CHF 3000.-)
  • Roland Prelude
  • Yamaha PSR series
  • Yamaha Tyros (high-end) series

Price range:

  • 100 to 6000 Euros

Workstations

Workstations are yet another keyboard variant, i.e. offer very good support for managing sound in performances. They may include thousands of sounds, sequencer, synthesizer, drum kits, audio files mangement and playback, etc.

Typical examples:

  • Roland GW-8 workstation, Roland Fantom G8

2.4 Digital grand pianos

Digital grand pianos can be very sophisticated, i.e. allow to adjust design of sounds and keyboard action. They may or may not include all the features of a good ensemble piano. Except for the sound system (there is a lot of space for speakers) visual aspect I don't see the advantage of building such beasts.

I can't understand why there aren't more high-end compact arranger pinao systems, e.g. a Roland Arranger V-Piano. As of fall 2011, the Yamaha CVP 509 seems to the only upright digital piano with both good sound/keyboard action and good built-in orchestra functionality.

Examples:

  • Kawai CP 209 (arranger keyboard)
  • Roland KR (accompaniment) series, e.g. KR115
  • Roland RG and Roland V-Grand
  • Yamaha Avant Grand N3
  • Yamaha CLP-295 (6000.- EUR)
  • Yamaha CVP 409 (an arranger keyboard, EUR 10'200.-)
  • Yamaha Diskclaviers series (some of these can play alone)

Price range:

  • 5000 to 20000 Euros

3 Digital piano sound

With respect to sound quality, in 2009, Dewster created a the DPBSD Project, accronym of "The Digital Piano Bs Detector" documented in Digial Piano Shootout and in a longer forum posting at Piano World (38 subpages of discussion).

He formulated the following listening suggestions:

  • Do you have a sense that this is a real, acoustic instrument? Can you picture someone actually playing these pieces? Or, is there something about the sound that destroys the illusion?
  • Is the emotion of the playing captured? Or does the music come across as emotionally monochrome?
  • Is there a clear distinction in dynamics between the playing beginning at :13 seconds and that beginning at :20 seconds? Are the transitions between soft and loud smooth?
  • A full-size grand piano is a very powerful instrument. Does the opening run sound powerful?
  • Is the instrument balanced? Or, for example, does the bass overpower the mid-range?
  • Is the instrument too bright? Or, too muted?
  • Does it feel "in your face?" Or, do you sense that you're in the room?
  • Does the character of the piano come through? Can you tell that it's a Steinway, or Bosendorfer, or Yamaha?

4 Educational features of digital pianos

Some digital pianos do have more educational features then others. These models can also include auto-accompaniment. In the other way round, high-end arranger pianos like the Yamaha CVP line include these educational features.

Globally speaking, models that are marketed as rich with educational features:

  • can play music (in addition some can move the keys or show lights or at least dots on the LCD)
  • can interact with special educational software, i.e. software that monitors the learners keystrokes
  • feature a larger LCD screen, i.e. allow to disiplay sheet music

Typical examples:

  • Roland HPi series, e.g. HPi-7F (EUR 3500), include DigiScore training programs
  • Yamaha DGX-640 ("Portable grand" series, mid-level)
  • The Yamaha CVP-505 or better

Price range:

  • 600 to 3500 Euros

Many features that are useful for learning are not just educational, but can assist other people playing or composing music. Many mid- and high-end ePianos will implement at least some of the features of interest to education or specially made for education that we shall introduce below.

4.1 Twin Piano Mode

Allows to split the keyboard into two equal sections, so that teacher and pupil can play the same piece together or otherwise interact through play.

4.2 Built-in metronome

Nearly every model has a metronome. I should be easy to use and to adjust to speed and style.

4.3 Music notation on LCD

Spell out chords

Play a chord and see it either as letter code or sheet notation or both. This is an interesting feature for both music theory and improvisation teaching.

Digital sheet music

Some models only can display sheet music. Models with larger screens such as the Yamaha CVP 505 or 509 or the Roland HPi series allow to display sheet music and to interact with the learners actions.

For example, the Roland HPi-7F "digiscore" series is marketed in the following terms: “A large, flat-screen LCD is built into the music rest of each piano, providing “digital sheet music” and a variety of skill-building programs. DigiScore makes learning fun, and can even evaluate your performances and check your finger strength.” (HPi-7F, retrieved 18:54, 5 September 2011 (CEST)).

4.4 Other sound/media sources

Be able to play music in the background for playing along

Many pianaos can read CD's, some can access the Internet and most can read USB keys and both WAV and MP3 files.

4.5 Recording / Sequencing

Mult-track recording

Multi-track recorder for recording one's own play. Most mid to hight-end model allow to register multi-track midi files. However, pure e-pianos and stage pianos may not support many tracks. However, high-end models have good connectivity (MIDI in/out, line out, etc.) so that one can record on another device such as a PC.

Built-in songs

Piano has built-in files with songs, typically in midi (expanded) MIDI format or in some more powerful proprietary format. A typical example that features recorded songs (but no auto-accompaniment), is the Yamaha P95 compact piano.

Play midi files

Most pianos can read and play an imported midi file.

Some models can light keys that a player should hit and/or display the music on the LCD with annotated dots representing the keys currently pressed.

MIDI Interfaces
  • Piano can interact via midi cables or a USB key with a PC and interact with composition software.

5 Links

5.1 General introductions

Overviews

5.2 Portals

5.3 User forums

5.4 Education

5.5 Makers

5.6 Software

  • WebOnlyPiano Midi CDs that play your digitial piano (either through simple midi or moving keys), available in every player-piano format: PianoDisc, QRS Pianomation, Yamaha Disklavier, PianoForce, Baldwin Concertmaster, Suzuki Digitial, Roland moving-key and Live Performance player systems.

See also and mainly (!)