People who plan to start learning to play keyboard instruments may feel lost in the maze of concepts and types of instruments with which we deal.
We hope that reading this article will help you understand the basic differences in the types of keyboards based on electronic circuits to help you choose the starting instrument.
We will also review pros and cons of different popular types of electronics keyboard instruments like: MIDI Keyboards, Synthesizers, Romplers, Digital pianos, Portable Keyboards, Arrangers and Digital workstations.
This article was inspired by the numerous questions we received:
- What instrument should we choose? If I want to start playing electronic keyboard instruments?
- What is the difference between synthesizer and portable keyboard?
- Is MIDI Keyboard necessary to compose music on computer side?
- Do I really need to spend a lot of money for digital keyboard workstation
- What is the difference between digital piano and portable keyboard
- What is the main advantage of synthesizer
- What is Digital Piano or Stage Piano and who should use it.
- Which type of keyboard instrument provides the best, the most realistic sound quality
- Which type of keyboard instrument has the biggest number of features
- What type of digital keyboard in best for song writing and composing ?
As is often the case in the world, the lack of standardization means that the clear division into the categories of electronic keyboards is sometimes quite disturbed by the instrument manufacturers themselves.
It is happening there for marketing reasons. Manufacturers who want to increase sales expand new models of their instruments with functions from instruments for other purposes.
Currently, it is quite difficult, for example, to pinpoint clear differences between an arranger and a workstation.
In this article, we have introduced our own division according to the complexity of the instrument and its primary purpose.
People who are just starting their adventure with keyboards will be able to go from the simplest to the most complex instruments and find something for themselves in various categories.
Basically, we will be focusing only on electronic instruments, so we will skip pianos, harpsichords and other analog keyboard instruments based on classic hammers hitting the strings.
Electronic music is a relatively new field of music when we look at the historical framework for the entire history of music.
Basically, the great boom of music synthesized by means of what are synthesizers devices took place in the 1980s, although the first synthesizers appeared before 1970 and were the result of the work “A Mathematical Theory of Music” which provided a mathematical model and an algorithm of musical composition.
So let’s start our review in which we will discuss the different types of keyboard instruments in turn, along with their characteristics, price range and purpose.
The simplest electronic device which appearance indicates that it is a keyboard is the so-called Midi keyboard.
MIDI (Music Instrument Digital Interface) is a standard for the exchange of information between music devices, and these can be both physical instruments and software installed on laptops, computers or tablets.
The MIDI standard allows not only to transfer note control signals, but also many other operations, which include:
- Tempo synchronization between devices (MIDI Clock)
- change the selected preset or bank
- volume control
- changing parameters influencing the sound, eg filter frequency values or frequency of oscillators (LFO).
The MIDI control keyboard is therefore not an independent musical instrument as it cannot produce any sound.
The control keyboard, as the name suggests, only allows us to control another instrument or sound module via a communication protocol via the Midi interface.
In order for the Midi control keyboard to sound, it must be connected via USB Midi or a standard 5-pin DIN-5 MIDI plug to a computer equipped with DAW software or a so-called hardware music synthesizer or other type of sound module, e.g. Rompler (PCM synthesizer)
So if you plan to create music using a computer in programs that allow you to synthesize sound using special mathematical algorithms, the Midi control keyboard is a very good solution.
The control keyboard will allow you to play like a classic piano or other keyboard instrument and the boredom you push will be transferred to a computer or other device such as a synthesizer that will receive this signal and generate the sound itself. The Midi control keyboard also allows you to play live using the included software because the sound generated by the synthesizer can be performed in real time – without delay.
However, it must be recalled again that for the full operation of a MIDI keyboard, an external instrument is required, which may be software or a standalone device.
The device constituting the sound module can be either the aforementioned synthesizer – generating sound using mathematical functions, or a rompler, i.e. a device that plays previously recorded audio sounds from an analog instrument.
In the case of recorded samples – we do not deal with generating sound, but only with its reproduction – most often by converting from the digital version (PCM, MP3) to analog sound. It takes place in a part of your sound card called a digital-to-analog converter (DAC).
It is also worth paying attention to the fact that a MIDI keyboard is not absolutely required to work with a computer.
Without the Midi keyboard, it is also possible to use the computer software to create music.
We can play sounds using a computer keyboard (the one for typing) or a mouse. Nevertheless, it is quite an inconvenient solution and it is difficult to get a realistic game in real time.
Another problem with a mouse or a computer keyboard is that it is difficult to articulate the keys pressed. The variable volume of individual notes allows for a more expressive and realistic playing.
MIDI keyboards more and more often have a built-in pressure sensitivity mechanism called Dynamic Keyboard.
It used to be a solution used only in expensive digital pianos. Today, the technology of manufacturing electronic instruments has developed significantly and production costs have fallen.
Thanks to this, we can enjoy having a dynamic keyboard in MIDI controllers.
In such devices, in addition to the code of the pressed note, the MIDI communication standard transmits the strength of the pressed key, which directly affects the volume of a single note or chord.
So it is worth paying attention to the fact that the MIDI keyboard is equipped with a dynamic keyboard – a feature mentioned above – that is very convenient if you need a fully expression performance.
Another important advantage of a MIDI keyboard is its very compact size – sometimes 2 or 3 octaves and a few knobs. Thanks to its small size, it is very easy to carry the MIDI keyboard even in a backpack. Artists eager to create can take it with them virtually anywhere.
Of course on the market you can find MIDI Keyboards with full piano-like keyboards 6-8 octaves (like Korg Microkey2 61 that offers 61 keys). Generally we consider the compact size of keyboard MIDI controller as main advantage.
In our humble option if you need more keys it is better to consider portable piano – most of them has all MIDI Keyboard features plus they could be used as standalone instruments.Our opinion about large-sized MIDI Controllers.
A common set is a MIDI keyboard and a laptop with the appropriate software. Eg FL Studio, Ableton, Cakewalk or Cubase.
MIDI Keyboards – popular models:
- AKAI MPK mini
- ARTURIA MiniLab
- ALESIS QMINI
- KORG nanoKEY Studio
- M-AUDIO Oxygen PRO 25
- NOVATION Launchkey
When discussing MIDI control keyboards, we have already mentioned that there may be so-called hardware synthesizers, or devices that use waves generated by algorithms to produce sound.
There is a whole theory / science of producing sound (acoustic waves) using mathematical functions and frequency generators (oscillators), filters and other effects.
Theoretical considerations on this subject have created a whole new range of instruments built on the basis of electronic systems – which synthesize the sound which means create the sound without the participation of a physical instrument.
Analog vs Digital synthesizers
Classic synthesizers were so-called analog synthesizers because they used electronic circuits for generating waves of different characteristics. The bae wave could be based for example on sinusoidal, trapezoidal or square wave. Such wave generated with given frequency (number of cycles per second) transformed to speaker could generate sound at a specific tone.
With the help of additional effects such as low-pass filters, envelope modeling, low frequency oscillators and so-called LFOs, it was possible to obtain a wide variety of colors reminiscent of analog instruments such as pianos, violins, acoustic guitars, bass guitars, trumpets and so on.
The name synthesizer specifies that the instrument that is played sound is not a natural sound but is an artificial sound – synthetic sound produced by means of electronic circuits.
The sound is nothing more than a wave. An acoustic wave to be specific, while a synthesizer generates a wave system using electronics.
Classic synthesizers were based on analog circuits in which electric current flows through various modulating circuits, filters, etc. So they were quite large and relatively inflexible devices.
Capable of generating sound within the parameters designed by the manufacturer. If the owner of the synthesizer wanted another LFO chip in his compositions – he could not “add” it – he had to buy a new version of the device.
Such analog synthesizers were also pretty heavy and big – especially in old times – before the great era of miniaturization in electronic industry.
Modern synthesizers called digital synthesizers can generate a lot of effects without the need to build special electrical circuits. In digital synthesizers, everything is done in software and a DSP processor – just like CPU in a computer.
The reference to the computer is very accurate because now all classic analog circuits can be simulated using the software.
Thanks to the enormous computing power of modern computers and even mobile devices, it can be done in real time – without delays and with great quality.
Digital vs analog synthesizer – which is better
It is not true that digital synthesizers are better than analog ones. There is a large group of fans of the classic analog sound of the 80s synthesizers who are huge opponents of the use of digital sound generators.
Some people in the music industry are just conservative in their choices, and as in many other areas – it’s hard to convince them to try something new.
Artists playing on stage are also strongly divided as to the choice – new digital versus old analog. This applies to keyboards as well as guitar amps and effects.
The situation is similar with old, classic type guitar amplifiers and effects and modern devices that generate guitar effects digitally.
Disadvantages of digital sound generation
In general, the problem of generating digital sound using software is quite complex, as the final sound quality is influenced by parameters such as sampling frequency and sample resolution.
The higher the resolution (hertz) and the more capacious the sample (bits), the more realistic sound it gives – but it requires more computing power.
This is a general rule for digital music – there is always a compromise between the cost of the device and its capabilities and problems, e.g. with delay in sound generation called latency.
In general It should be emphasized that synthesizers are electronic devices that generate sound in an analog or digital way. But it is not that important for their further discussion about synthesizers as general.
Does the synthesizer need a piano keyboard
Contrary to popular opinion, a synthesizer does not have to be a physical device that has a keyboard like we find in a piano. The synthesizer can be a small cube that, for example, generates sound only using the MIDI interface.
Of course, there are keyboard synthesizers, so-called “all-in-one” devices. Such sets are thus essentially a combination of a control keyboard and a hardware synthesizer in one device.
This is what synthesizers are commonly associated with.
As we have already mentioned, there is also a large group of synthesizers emulated by software, for example, constantly classic synthesizers such as:
- The Minimoog by Bob Moog,
- The Jupiter 8 by Roland
- The Prophet 5 by Sequential Circuits
- The ARP Odyssey by Korg
- The DX7 by Yamaha
All these very famous and expensive vintage devices can be simulated with the software. So you can play them on your computer after connecting the appropriate software and MIDI keyboard.
As I mentioned, there are devices that combine the keyboard and synthesizer. An example would be Korg Monologue or Arturia Microfreak.
Synthesizers allow us to create very complex forms of sound, because we influence all parameters that allow us to obtain both quick short sounds (hook) and instrumental backing (pad) Most comon parameters of the synth voice could be:
- Waveform shape (type) : sin, triangle , square
- Frequency of Low Frequency Oscillators (LFOs)
- Modulation type
- Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release – parameters of ADSR envelope generator.
The most characteristic feature of synthesizers, is that the production of sound is based on algorithms or electrical signals in analog circuits.
Synthesizers will prove themselves if you want to create modern electronic music.
It is true that a synthesizer can generate a sound very similar to a trumpet, a crowing guitar or a violin but the sound generated by synthesizers will never be a super natural sound, so if you think about designing film music or writing variants for a symphony orchestra, a synthesizer is completely unsuitable for that.
If you want a true very natural sound – close to physical instruments – then you’ll need a rompler – that we will describe next.
A rompler is an electronic device that plays back samples of some voice, i.e. digitally recorded versions of an “analog” instrument. The rompler can reproduce samples of any instrument: for example, violin or guitar pianos that have been recorded with microphones and digitized which means converted into digital form – usually called PCM Waveform
After pressing the appropriate key – a sample matching the sound of a given key is played by such a device – exactly as if we pressed the same sound on an analog piano or other instrument.
Romplers most often look like keyboards synthesizer , although, like synthesizers, they can also be in the form of pads or other types of buttons – not necessarily looking like piano white and black keys.
An interesting fact is that the so-called drum machines are nothing more than romplers – because they reproduce the sounds of samples of previously recorded percussion instruments, such as the drum, hi-hit or bass.
An example of a rompler is The Korg M1. Currently, however, romplers rarely constitute a stand-alone device.
Currently, the rompler is most often a component of the arranger or workstation, about which we will talk about later in this study.
Rompler vs Synthesizer – the most important difference.
While it can be very difficult to distinguish a synthesizer from a rompler by appearance, the difference in their performance and sound generation principle is very large.
It is worth knowing the concept of a rompler and understanding how it differs from a synthesizer in the context of how those both types of devices generate sound.
Let us recall that the rompler recreates the recorded final digital form (PCM Waveform) of sound and the synthesizer creates it in real time using the musical theory of sound and mathematical functions.
This has very big consequences in terms of what we can do with the rompler sound in relation to the synthesizer sound in real time.
Well, the sound from the synthesizer can be changed in many ways, for example by using parameters such as the ADSR envelope generator.
So we can very intensively influence the final form of sound coming from the synthesizer while in the case of a rompler, we have very little possibilities
In the case of a rompler, we basically have very few options. We can pass the sound through frequency filters or use a compressor, or reverberation or echo effects. However, we will not be able to change, for example, the time of rising, duration or falling of the sound – because the saved sample is not able to “produce” the missing elements (samples)
So what’s the biggest advantage of rompler?
The most important advantage of rompler is the realism of the sound.
No synthesizer, even the best one, can produce the sound that matches analog instruments so accurately.
That is why synthesizers are the basis for modern – usually electronic music where realism of sound is not important.
In the case of classical music based on analog instruments – rompler is able to provide us with a listening experience at the level of analog instruments of the highest class and at a fraction of the price.
The recorded sound sample and a good speaker system guarantee that we are practically unable to distinguish the sound from a rompler from the sound of an analog instrument.
So this is the second big advantage of rompler – low cost of high quality analog instrument sound.
A very common use for rompler is the digital piano, which we’ll talk about in the next section.
Digital piano and stage piano
A special case of a rompler, i.e. a device that reproduces previously recorded analog versions of the instrument, is the so-called digital piano.
A characteristic feature of a Digital Piano is that the piano’s keyboard is built to resemble a real analog piano.
Usually, in Midi control keyboards or synthesizers equipped with keyboards, we have very simple keyboards that are not weighted or have the characteristic resistance to pressing – which is found in analog keyboard instruments.
The keys of a digital piano are built in such a way as to reflect the realism of playing an analog instrument that has hammers hitting the strings.
A weighted and dynamic keyboard – must have in a digital piano
The weighted keyboard is characterized by the fact that the lower notes on the left side of the piano are heavier to press than the notes above or on the right.
Basically every digital piano also has a dynamic keyboard, so one that reacts to pressure, if you hit the key lightly, the sound will be delicate if you hit it harder, play fortissimo.
How manufacturers obtain sound samples in digital pianos
Digital pianos, as we have already mentioned, are rompers because they play samples of previously recorded analog pianos.
For example Kawai KDP-110 plays samples of the top stage Kawai’s grand piano – model Shigeru Kawai SK-EX.
On the other hand Yamaha CLP-635 R Clavinova plays samples of Yamaha CFX and Bösendorfer Imperial.
In other manufacturers, it is very similar: The digital piano has build-in samples of the most expensive and best-sounding analog instruments of every producer.
As we know, analog versions of such instruments have such high prices that they can surprise even wealthy people.
The digital piano is intended for people who want to learn to play the piano, but due to the cost or little space in the apartment, they cannot afford a full-size instrument.
Digital piano – realistic look and sound, but few additional functions
Digital pianos are also equipped with a very limited number of additional functions.
The digital piano’s interface is designed to resemble an analog instrument, so the number of additional buttons or screens is negligible.
In a digital piano, we usually have a very limited number of available instruments (samples). Other features like multi-track MIDI recording and MIDI editing are not available. We will also not prepare an arrangement of a musical piece on a digital piano.
Digital and Stage Pianos are mainly used for home training and live performance on stage.
Digital pianos are made of high quality and make a great instrument in the living room – at home. Their stately appearance matches classic home decor.
Additional functions such as the ability to record and edit MIDI, a large database of instruments or the ability to arrange songs are a characteristic feature of the next groups of instruments that we will discuss in a moment.