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Different Keyboard Instruments

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This looks at different types of keyboard instruments from a practical point of view. It covers different categories of instruments, according to their method of sound production through to their kinds of keys-weighted and non. It is useful for both scholastic use and for those interested in keyboards and those who may be looking to buy a keyboard instrument.
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  The keyboard world Knowing the main differences between keyboard instruments Keyboard instruments are those that are played through a keyboard, i.e. a horizontal bed of keys, just like in the piano. Some keyboard instruments have a lot of keys like in the case of the acoustic piano and some have much fewer as in the case of a synthesiser. There are different ways to class and categorise keyboard instruments. Clearly, this could be done by sound, by number of keys, by date of invention or by many more criteria. But a first very important distinction to be made, is based on the way the instrument produces its sound. Method of sound production -Acoustic instruments: these require no power to work and produce their sound. These often were the first keyboard instruments or have evolved from the very first and for their natural beauty of sound, are often replicated by electronic instruments. Examples include the piano, the harpsichord or the pipe organ. -Electro-mechanical instruments: these use a combination of acoustic/mechanical methods to produce their sound, coupled with some form of electrical amplification to produce their sound. Examples are the clavinet (as used in a lot of Funk music), the Fender Rhodes and the Hammond organ. -Electronic instruments: these instruments use electric power combined with electronics (in the form of circuit boards) to produce power. Examples include an electronic piano, a synth and a digital keyboard. Weighted keys Another important distinction made on keyboard instruments is between those with weighted keys and those without. A middle ground is occupied by instruments with semi-weighted keys. -Weighted keys: these instruments have a fairly complex mechanism that allows for the key to respond similarly to an acoustic piano. This enables dynamics to be played effectively. Because the mechanisms are more complex, heavy and involve not only more electronics but more wood and plastic, these instruments are more expensive.  Most electronic home pianos, stage pianos and full-octave arranger keyboards have weighted keys. -Semi-weighted keys: instruments with this kind of technology use a spring-action that responds when the key is depressed. These types of instruments weigh less, cost less and are easier/faster to play. -‘Synth’ action keyboards: These have little weighting and are very often recognizable by the keys having a ‘lip’ rather than being in a box-shape like in the case of weighted or semi-weighted keys. Synth action keyboards are faster to play and also offer the advantage that they can be played with your knuckles or thumb. This is particularly useful when playing organ sounds like a Hammond. Some keyboards do not offer weighted keys but do offer a form of compromise: touch-sensitivity  . This option is often available as a function that can be switched on and off, and allows the sounds to respond dynamically to the touch. Families of keyboards Finally, keyboard instruments-particularly of the electronic kind-can be divided in to large groups or families based on the kind of instrument and its purpose. Digital pianos: all electronic pianos that aim to replicate the feel, sound and look of an acoustic piano. These are designed for the home market and come in a variety of wood-veneer finishes to blend in well a the home’s surroundings. Please see my keyboard classification chart further on for manufacturers and indicative market prices. Stage pianos: these are electronic/digital pianos designed for the professional keyboard player in mind. They offer high quality sounds, MIDI functionality and often act as a master keyboard from which to play the more elaborate sections and also control other keyboards. All stage pianos have fully weighted keys, in most cases full octaves and a limited, but high-quality range of sounds, such as pianos, electric pianos, strings and organs. Keyboards: although this term has already been used to represent a host of instruments, used on its own can often signify a small, light and often inexpensive instrument, frequently referred to as a ‘portable keyboard’ or a ‘baby keyboard’. These kinds of keyboards have a limited number of octaves together with semi or non-weighted keys and a high number of mid-quality sounds. These keyboards, particularly of the cheaper type, have inbuilt speakers.  Workstations: These keyboards are designed to offer an all-round studio, built in to one instrument. Most workstations will offer some form of recording facility, the possibility for layering or splitting across multiple sounds and a large number of very high-quality sounds. Workstations occupy the higher tier of the keyboard range and are therefore expensive. Some workstations even offer weighted keys. Arranger keyboards: These have some features of the workstations but are designed to be an accompanying keyboard. They are particularly popular with solo singers who wish to accompany themselves with a rich, band or orchestra-like backing or a rhythm section in which drums and bass are triggered, based on the chords or notes played. There can be some overlap between keyboards, workstations and arrangers as some can combine features of the other and be suitable for more than one thing. For example many arranger keyboards offer functions similar to workstations, such as high quality recording and playback. Likewise, arrangers and workstations can work perfectly as basic or ‘slave’ keyboards. Synthesisers: often shortened to the word ‘synth’, these instruments enable their users to generate their own ‘sounds’, based on pre-existing ones, while using a range of synthesis models, effects and envelopes. These can require more time to use but ultimately offer the advantage of tailoring the sound to the user’s needs, while also helping to experiment with sounds when required. Synths are often used in experimental music but also, some atmospheric, dance and electronic styles. Controller keyboards: these are designed with the sole intent of controlling another source of sound. Therefore they do not inherently offer any sound, saving on circuitry and weight. These instruments are cheaper compared to stage pianos for example. Controller keyboards communicate via MIDI/usb with the ‘slave’ instrument which often is a laptop, module or another keyboard. Internal or external speakers Keyboard instruments often differ based on whether they have their own way of re-producing and amplifying the sounds on board-or not. Many lower end products like portable keyboards, home pianos or affordable stage pianos have inbuilt speakers  , offering a very acceptable sound quality. More professional products like workstations of quality stage pianos, do not offer inbuilt speakers as these are conceived with the professional in mind, who moves it regularly and therefore needs a product that can be easily carried. Instead, these instruments are plugged in to an amplifier or some kind of PA system. References Kovarsky, J, 2014, Keyboard for dummies, New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons http://www.haydockmusic.com/reviews/keyboard_weighted_keys.html#.VDafTSldVfE   Keyboard type   Description   Key features   Manufacturers/models   Market   price   (2014) Digital pianos Attractive electronic pianos designed for the home user. Limited range of sounds ✚  88 weighted keys ✚  limited sounds ✚  inbuilt speakers ✚  built-in structure Yamaha (Clavinova), Roland, Casio (Celviano, Privia), Korg £500-1500 Stage pianos High quality electronic pianos, designed for professional use ✚  76-88 weighted keys ✚  limited but high quality sounds ✚  portable Yamaha (CP-), Roland (RD-), Korg, Nord, Kawai, Kurzweil, £700-3000 Keyboards Low quality build for a range of uses: early piano learning, some performance, use as a ‘slave’ keyboard ✚  49-76 non/semi-weighted keys ✚  wide range of sounds ✚  inexpensive Yamaha (PSR-), Casio (CTK-), Korg, Roland £29-1000 Workstations Highly complex keyboards with arranging/recording facilities. High quality sounds for professional use ✚  61-76 (semi)-weighted keys ✚  wide range of high-quality and editable sounds ✚  expensive ✚  recording, arranging features Yamaha (Motif, Tyros), Roland (Fantom), Korg (PA, Kronos) £500-3500 Arrangers Fairly elaborate keyboards designed for accompanying solo artists, although can act as general purpose keyboards ✚  61 semi-weighted keys ✚  wide range of high-quality sounds and rhythm patterns ✚  recording, arranging features Yamaha (PSR-), Roland (BK-), Korg (PA-) £400-3000 Synthesisers Frequently analogue instruments that generate sound by modifying soundwaves ✚  limited number of non-weighted keys ✚  wide range of oscillators, envelopes and effects (LFO, ADSR, etc) ✚  endless potential for creative sounds Moog, Dave Smith (Prophet), Novation, Korg £50-4000 Controller keyboards Mute keyboards that drive an external source of sound ✚  variety of non/weighted key models ✚  12-88 keys! ✚  assignable controls like pitch benders, knobs, switches and pads  ✚  USB/MIDI  ✚  more affordable compared to stage pianos M-AUDIO, Novation, Alesis, Korg, Roland, Acorn, Arturia £30-600 Roland, Yamaha Korg, Kawai, Casio, Clavia (Nord), Kurzweil, Alesis, Technics, Farfisa, Hammond, Apple and Garageband are registered logos. Prices are based on 2014 and are only for indication. Names of manufacturers and models do not constitute actual advice. Any advice given, is offered independently of brands.
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