Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Picking a good piano keyboard

If you're a keyboard player doing improvised theatre, you will probably spend most of your time using your keyboard's piano patch. So you should probably make sure it's a good one. Are you shopping around right now? Here are some things you might want to think about.

As an aside... This is easily the most popular article on Musical Hotspot, for musicians of all backgrounds. Google sends people here every day. If you're looking for a keyboard, hopefully you get some good pointers. If you find this article helpful, or later discover attributes of keyboards you wish we'd touched on, leave a comment! I'd love to know that it helped you find your way around.

If you're a non-improvising musician, the one thing you should understand is that musicians for improvised theatre can't predict what they might be playing from one minute to the next, so flexibility can be way more important than it might be to a more typical musician. That said, the tips below should still be useful.

Velocity sensitivity

Velocity sensitivity is of primary importance. A keyboard with velocity sensitivity gives you louder notes when you strike the key harder, and softer when you use a light touch. If you don't have this, you are going to struggle to put any kind of light and shade in the music you perform, and your ability to react to the players will be compromised.

Fortunately, apart from pretty inexpensive keyboards (generally designed for kids, and probably for when the parents aren't sure if it will be money well spent), most keyboards are velocity sensitive. If yours isn't, I'd at least suggest you go out and find one that is and have a play.

If you're reading this, you probably already have velocity sensitivity sorted out already.


Aside from just getting louder and softer, a good piano sound is going to change its characteristics as you vary the velocity, and also as you move up and down the board. If you don't know what I'm talking about, find a music store or a school or an eccentric relative with a good piano, and play it for a while. See how everything changes as you move up to the higher registers. Listen to the difference when you pound vs play gently. The change in characteristics is a function of the way the manufacturer does sampling of the piano sounds, how they layer them, how they transition from one sample to the next as you move up and down the board.

Volume control

Sometimes velocity sensitivity isn't enough, and you need to be able to either push yourself up and over a cheering crowd, or pull yourself back under a subtle scene. Being able to adjust the volume quickly is useful. Obviously real pianos don't have this control, but I've yet to see a keyboard without one. On my keyboard, the volume control is a vertical slider, right above the spot where I usually play a bass octave, I can hold an octave with my thumb and pinky, and stretch my index or middle finger to adjust the volume in a pinch.

Many musicians use a volume pedal to achieve the same thing. Assuming you are sitting to play, this is much more convenient than a slider - you dedicate your left foot to just controlling the volume.

Weighted vs non-weighted

To me this is just a matter of personal preference, but it's pretty important. If all you play is piano, weighted is probably perfect. If you do other stuff that requires a different action, perhaps non-weighted is what you need. But it comes down to what you're comfortable with.

Generally I'm used to non-weighted keys, and I have to acclimatise when I change to a piano with weighted keys. I tend to play very cleanly when I move from a keyboard to weighted piano keys. Recently I've had a solid season of shows using a nice Yamaha Clavinova electric piano. Right after that season, my non-weighted key skills were suffering, and I had to work to reacquaint myself with keys that trigger with only the slightest encouragement. My play became really messy on a non-weighted keyboard.

Fortune smiled upon me recently, and I got a similar Clavinova second-hand on Ebay, in perfect condition and an absolute steal. I'm getting better at swapping between weighted and non-weighted now.

Fast or slow action

Most keyboards have a pretty fast action; the note springs back quickly, ready for the next one. Pianos with weighted keys often have a much slower action, with the key taking a little more time to make it back home again.

Similarly to weighted keys, if all you do is play piano sounds, a slower action is fine. When you start doing odd things like drumming, that slower action can make things difficult. Think of the high-hat part in the Police's Walking on the Moon - something like that is hard to pull off when you've got a slow-action keyboard.

Back when I did band work, one of my favourite songs to perform was Billy Joel's Angry Young Man. The machine-gun piano part is quite hard to do on many regular pianos; the action is just too slow. Especially towards the end of the song where the speed is mindblowing. My Clavinova piano at home can't cope with that solo, but my gigging (non-weighted, fast-action) keyboard handles it just fine.

Balanced tone

Now we're getting to the really subjective part. You're looking for a piano sound that is going to compliment the voices on stage. Something really tinny, for example, will obscure performers' voices, and make it harder for you to craft music to sit around them. You're more likely to encounter overly-tinny piano sounds than overly-bassy piano sounds.

The tone and quality has as much to do with the sound reinforcement you're using as it does the piano sound; a bad amplifier will corrupt a good piano sound. My (10 year old!) Korg X5 has a passable piano; with a decent PA it has a really nice tone that compliments spoken or sung voice on stage. With my little keyboard amplifier, it isn't nearly as supportive. (In a side-by-side comparison with a good electric piano, the X5's piano will always lose, but on its own it's not too bad.)

Personal preference

At the end of the day, you are going to listen to a piano sound and either like it or not like it. You have to be comfortable with it and enjoy playing it. If you're shopping around for a new rig, go in to a shop and play! Play 10 or 20 different keyboards. Try them with headphones, but definitely try them through monitors as well. (If you're really friendly with the sales folks, see if they'll let you road test it at a gig.) As you try different keyboards, you'll find there are commonalities within the range offered by a particular manufacturer, and still there will be differences between one model and another.

1 comment:

stevgillamos said...

Some good points in your comments. I too prefer semi weighted (non-weighted) keyboards. I say prefer but as a sufferer of chronic RSI I've got no choice as just 10-15 mins on weighted keyboards mean my arms/hands will be aching for the rest of the week. Which brings me to my obsession/pastime which is, trying to find a 'semi-weighted'Clavinova-style 88 note keyboard with all the 'bells and whistles'. Of course, nobody makes one. The only one I've found was Roland KR 75 (circa 1998) but I'm still trying to find one for sale in the UK. Why do all the manufacturers assume that anyone who plays keyboards above 76 notes wants the damn things weighted to death to emulate a grand? Not me. I've managed on a Yamaha YDP101 for 10 years (i.e. no bells and whistles). This still has a decent piano-style action which is not too synthy or plasticy, (?presumably semi-weighted) but that's not for want of looking. I can only look on in envy at the Clavinova style keyboards available but can I as hell buy one! I'd prefer a whole in one rather than having boxes and speakers and controllers all over the place as it's for home use only. I've even tried to find a company who'll customise one but no joy there. Any comments would be welcome as I'm hoping that one day soon I'll be put out of my misery and find one!

Kind wishes to all

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