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As an experienced piano player, I am shopping for my first musical keyboard. I am very early in the process of doing research and testing out specific models.

Here is a list of the main questions I have been asking myself when attempting to evaluate a musical keyboard:

  1. What is the quality of the keyboard itself (how many keys, what type of action/weight--for me, 88 weighted keys is a must)?
  2. What is the quality and diversity of the sounds that come out of the keyboard?
  3. If speakers are part of the keyboard (which they often are not on the high-end keyboard/workstations), what is the quality of the sound coming from the speakers?
  4. What features does the keyboard have that would make it a workstation, meaning something that would be ideal for producing/recording (ex. does it have an equalizer, can it record multiple tracks)?

From what I have heard in my very preliminary research talking to some music store associates and engineers is that connecting a musical keyboard to a PC (meaning strictly Windows or Mac, I don't suspect Linux is relevant here) enables a lot of powerful features to become available. I am not sure what software would be involved in such an initiative or what the cost would be.

When evaluating the value/quality of a musical keyboard, how important are list items 2-4? From what I gather, simply having a computer with the appropriate software actually enables a lower-end keyboard to have a lot (or all) of the features of a higher-end keyboard/workstation. A PC enables the recording of multiple tracks, the creation of new sounds, and is what would be used to connect and project out through external speakers/monitors.

In fact, I suspect taking a PC approach actually ends up being a better approach, in that the final product/configuration would actually be higher quality and more configurable than an approach revolving around the built-in features of a high-end keyboard. In other words, an $600 keyboard connected to a PC (via USB) with all of the best music software ends up being superior (at least in someways) and potentially cheaper than a $3500 keyboard/workstation.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Dan Hulme, Jason W, Michael Scott Cuthbert, Sergio, American Luke Oct 21 '13 at 2:06

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

It sounds like you've asked this question because you want a discussion about the merits of DAWs, not because you have a specific question to answer. If that's the case, I suggest a web forum or mailing list might be a better place to do that: Stack Exchange sites are not very good for discussions. –  Dan Hulme Oct 14 '13 at 9:05
I am aware of the anti-discussion nature of Stack Exchange. I tried asking a specific question (see title), but then tried to throw in as much relevant information as I could in the body of the post. I revised my post multiple times before posting and gave it my best shot at maintaining compliance with the standards of the community. –  nairware Oct 14 '13 at 22:52

4 Answers 4

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Specific connectivity to a PC or Mac is not really a differentiator. All decent keyboards offer MIDI and can be used to control/trigger hardware synths and tone generators etc as well as connecting directly into a DAW such as Cubase, Pro-Tools or similar.

This is standard connectivity - I would even expect it on a £100 keyboard.

So - assuming this connectivity, a DAW gives you an incredible amount of flexibility/power/capability to make music so that part of your friend's comment is absolutely correct.

to answer your specifics:

  1. Full size keyboard with weighted keys
  2. Less important. If you will use external synths or a DAW then it is unimportant.
  3. Same as 2. It can be useful for practicing, but not really that important.
  4. Similarly - if you have the keyboard hooked up to a DAW it requires no internal EQ or recording functionality.
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Isn't MIDI old and being replaced (has been replaced?) by USB? I have seen several keyboards, even new models, which are $800+ on the sales floors of music stores that do not have MIDI ports. They all seem to have USB though. –  nairware Oct 14 '13 at 22:47
@nairware Yes and no. USB is a hardware standard for physically transferring information. MIDI specifies both a hardware standard that serves a similar purpose, AND a file and streaming format for musical information. USB ports on MIDI controllers are more common now, but USB does not, of course, replace the file format specification of MIDI. –  Kevin Oct 14 '13 at 23:25
If everything were swapped over to USB then (ex. MIDI controller with USB), would something be given up in the lack of "file and streaming format for musical information"? In other words, do you have to connect via MIDI ports to gain that advantage? –  nairware Oct 15 '13 at 5:55
@nairware What Kevin is saying is that even when USB provides the physical connection between two devices, they're still using the MIDI protocol to talk to each other. –  Dan Hulme Oct 15 '13 at 9:18

Of the factors you listed, I believe the quality and feel of the keyboard is going to be the most important for you. However, as an experienced pianist, you may be disappointed in even high-end weighted key keyboards, depending upon your expectations. I'm an amateur pianist at best, and even I find that a high-end keyboard doesn't "feel" quite right, even as compared to a low-end upright piano.

So what are your aims? Are you expecting to record a fast, challenging piece and have a note-for-note perfect MIDI representation in your DAW? Are you expecting to record rough passages and tweak the MIDI heavily? Are you expecting to perform with it? I think these questions should guide you toward choosing what's right for you.

Factors 2 and 3, in my opinion, matter not at all, for the reasons Dr Mayhem mentioned.

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It is hard for me to say at this point exactly what I want since I do not know of every keyboard feature that is available to me, nor am I familiar yet with the prices of such features. I would be looking for a keyboard is the best representation of a piano I could find. I am used to playing on a Steinway baby grand. I do not want the keyboard to feel like a completely different instrument for me. Beyond that, portability, performing ability, recording ability, having a wide range of sounds--those are all better to have than not to have, but none are required for me. –  nairware Oct 15 '13 at 18:41
In my (admittedly limited) experience, proper feel (i.e., not just weighted keys, but properly weighted keys) is one of the factors that drives up the price steeply, and tends to be somewhat at odds with portability in particular. –  rotarydial Oct 16 '13 at 12:19

It is actually no problem, to wire an instrument to a Linux box (USB interface helps here, so no special 5-PIN connector MIDI card is necessary). In my opinion the price is mostly determined by the mechanics for the keys. To 1) Since you come from the piano, I would not expect, that your 600 $ price tag is realistic - you won't like the key feeling in that price class. Take care, that either a decent number of piano sounds are provided, or at least one you like. To 2 and 3: unlikely to be of importance in the remaining price range. 4) I would drop this requirement; software is cheap; freeware or a program below 100 $ will beat anything, which can be integrated into the instrument respective to features and ease of use.

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I think it's very difficult to answer your question without knowing what you want to use it for, or rather, what it's primary purpose is.

If it's a substitute for an acoustic piano and you will practicing for acoustic piano performances then you absolutely should be concentrating on the action and the sound. I have never played a keyboard that is anything like playing a real piano, but the good ones (expensive) are good enough. With regards to the sound there are 2 types of keyboard - ones with integrated speakers (these tend to be called "digital pianos") and ones without. Which one is preferable very much depends on what it's primary purpose will be. If it's for practicing and will be standing alone then integrated speakers will probably do. If it's as part of a studio set up, or for gigging, then you probably don't want speakers (or at least want ones that can be turned off). If gigging your sound will come from a PA and you'll want much beefier foldback via separate monitoring (PA wedges or in ear), if in a studio you'll be wearing headphones or monitoring off studio monitors.

Are you going to be gigging with the instrument? If so you need to factor in portability. Keyboards with good actions tend to be heavy. Add in a flight case and all of a sudden you'll end up with me, wishing you played the flute! Availability of sounds depends on what music you will be playing. Are you playing piano (e.g. rock n' roll piano therefore 1 piano sound for the whole gig) or are you playing orchestral sounds from the keyboard. If so, I think a few quality sounds built in are useful, but you can always expand/replace the sounds with additional external hardware or software via a computer.

If the keyboard is going to be the centre of a home recording studio type setup then you need to factor in connectivity (lots of midi functionality and I/O). Action is still important here, but sounds probably less so as you can always control a separate sound source (could be software synth, or a more old school hardware synth) from the keyboard, or from a MIDI score that you played in from the keyboard.

Once you know what you intend to use it for, primarily, I would go along to a big, reputable music shop and let them help you. There should be lots of stock for you to try and they should be able to help you weigh up what's most important.

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