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I use an acoustic piano to learn/play classical music. I use a midi keyboard to record/produce own music. My piano has weighted keys while my midi keyboard has a very light touch. I find that I am able to play more expressively with my piano.

I would like to know if this is purely because of familiarity, or do the weighted keys offer more control. I do not know which of the two paths to take: practice more on the midi keyboard to gain familiarity with the light keys OR get a new midi keyboard with weighted keys.

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It very likely also has to do with the sounds you use with the MIDI keyboard. Modelling an acoustic piano well is still not a solved problem; even if your playing itself is very expressive on the keyboard it will likely not sound as expressive as the same playing on the acoustic piano, certainly not if you don't use a high-quality sound module or plugin. –  leftaroundabout Aug 5 '12 at 15:56
    
Professional piano players will try dozens or hundreds of pianos before selecting one to purchase, or even for a specific concert. Even though they are all acoustic pianos with weighted keys, they find that their ability to express the material can be different even between two of the same model of piano. Weighted keys may be part of the solution for you, personally, to express the music the way you prefer, but it might not be. There is no silver bullet - you will serve yourself best by trying a dozen or more keyboards with and without weighted keys and find which hits your sweet spot. –  Adam Davis Mar 10 at 18:10

3 Answers 3

If a piano key has inertia, varying the amount of force with which keys are played will vary the rate at which they move. A player need not try to "hold back" his fingers from pressing keys too quickly; if the player only applies a light pressure, the keys simply won't move as fast as if a heavier pressure was applied.

If a key has no inertia, then pressure and velocity will be essentially independent. Until a key hits bottom, the player will have no control over pressure; once it hits bottom, there won't be any velocity. A keyboard could have separate axes of control for the velocity with which the key hits the bottom and the pressure with which it is driven at that point, but it's hard for a person to control the speed at which fingers are moving without being able to regulate the pressure, or to control the amount of pressure that will be placed upon keys at the moment they hit bottom. Having an established the relationship between pressure and velocity makes it easier for the player to control the loudness with which keys will play.

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I played a semi-weighted MIDI keyboard for years, and usually play piano and organ sounds.

When my keyboard failed, I replaced it with a hammer action one and boy, was there a difference in what I heard from Piano synths.

The playing had so much more dynamics, and it was an audible difference. Even though the weighted keys are supposed to be harder to play, I actually found that it was harder and needed more effort and force to play loud sounds with the non-weighted keyboard, which is of good quality brand and make.

Also, besides the momentum mentioned, I notice by measuring that the keys of the Piano type weighted keys were longer by half an inch than the non-weighted and also maybe about 1 millimeter wider, so there is also a travel distance to consider. It is not the same to cram 128 values into a X distance, than into Y distance travelled if Y is larger than X. You immediately get more expression room.

I mention that on the first keyboard only a few keys failed, and so this comparison was done with both keyboard playing the same MIDI channel and the same exact patch and synth, with both connected and placed side by side.

I think is something similar to compressing audio. You compress audio, and you loose dynamics.

I even like the hammer action when playing B3 Hammond clones. One of them does respond to velocity sensing, another responds by making certain clicks and effects in accordance to velocity...So there IS expression there to be had too.

So if expression is dynamics, there is a definitive real, measurable difference in the distance travelled, where the 128 values are to be rendered.

In my opinion, and I have had various MIDI keyboards, and had to fix some and discard others, the best is yet to come when they stop using the silicon bubble switches to detect "velocity", and start using optical sensors.

I also would mention that by plain attention to the issue, we should realize that the velocity with which we play is not constant, but rather is variable, meaning that when we strike the key we can strike fast and modulate to soft and vice-versa. This is very difficult to formulate with only a starting time and ending time, as is currently done. So, a real piano, is way a difference in expression, and even more so in actual sound production, when compared to any computerized rendering, and hearing is the feedback to the pianist and is used to modulate the expression. We are fortunate to have the current technologies, though.

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Nice answer. Not sure about the comparison with audio compression though.. Also, MIDI has more than just start and end time - it also has things like aftertouch –  naught101 Oct 23 '12 at 4:05

Weighted keys offer a different kind of response to the touch of a finger since they have more stationary momentum. This helps connect your physical action to the sound itself, which results in what seems like more expressive piano playing.

The other thing you are experiencing is the difference between velocity control for either instrument. If both the MIDI keyboard and the acoustic piano had identical resolutions for velocity, then it would be theoretically possible to play each instrument with the same expression though it would be much harder to train yourself to do so on the MIDI keyboard (for the first reason mentioned). However, they do NOT have identical resolutions! The MIDI keyboard has 128 different levels of velocity it can communicate to the synthesizer module, while the acoustic piano has specificity down to the quantum level.

Lastly, non-weighted keys make more sense for different kinds of playing. If you are controlling an organ or synthesizer lead, non-weighted keys are going to be easier to play since those sounds can be very rhythmic or make use of glissando in a different way. But for piano playing, where velocity control and expression is much more important, an acoustic piano or high-quality fully weighted keyboard is preferable. If you're recording/producing acoustic piano music, then yes, a fully weighted keyboard will probably benefit you. If you're recording and producing organ sounds or synth parts, you should be fine with the non-weighted keyboard you have.

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I don't agree with the velocity control being a limiting factor. 128 levels is a lot, and I haven't been able to reliably distinguish between a level of, for example, 100 and 101. –  Babu Aug 5 '12 at 16:29
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@Babu Whether you notice it or not, it's still true. The MIDI keyboard is not going to have individual samples for every velocity increment either, everything is a compromise. There are subtle ways the acceleration of the hammer can affect the sound differently from the basic velocity as well; that has yet to be replicated digitally. –  NReilingh Aug 5 '12 at 17:01
    
I agree with every word you've said (especially your advice on when to use a weighted keyboard), but I don't agree that the velocity effect you're mentioning will be noticeable when comparing a good soundfont and a real piano. There are certainly edge cases where there is no substitute for a real instrument. But for most purposes, I don't think that there is a practical difference. –  Babu Aug 5 '12 at 20:26
    
The acoustic piano will have limitations too. It takes a great deal of effort to regulate the action and voicing so that E responds exactly as F does, and it doesn't take long to get out of regulation. I doubt that you can play E and F and get them within 1% of each other on a typical acoustic piano. –  Mark Lutton Aug 6 '12 at 1:37
    
@MarkLutton True, but that organic nature can also be grouped under expression (see also "Why music snobs prefer acoustic instruments over synthesized ones"). By the same token, won't you have the same problem with regulating the pressure sensors and solenoids of a MIDI controller? –  NReilingh Aug 6 '12 at 3:19

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