Why classical pianists go digital, at least some of the time.
From price, to transportability, to multiple sounds and tonality, Digital Pianos have become irresistible
If you’re a classically trained pianist, then the odds are good that you learned to play on an acoustic piano. You may have fond memories of lightly hitting the keys during a quick, staccato-rich song, or pounding out a dramatic Beethoven sonata. People who grew up with a love of playing the piano maintain that love for life. Unfortunately, the practical reality of owning a piano creates a significant barrier to continuing to play. Pianos are extremely heavy, difficult to transport, and arduous to maintain. They are easily impacted by climate, requiring careful tuning and even hammer re-felting to maintain an optimal sound. They take up a lot of space. And those same qualities that made playing Beethoven so fun also makes them extremely loud, rendering them nearly impossible to own if you live in a small apartment with close neighbors.
And yet, many people who are used to acoustic pianos have a very difficult time deciding to go digital, despite the relative ease of owning and maintaining a digital piano. The classical pianists’ ear is trained to hear note richness, harmonics and overtones; and despite the many advanced features in the average digital keyboard, they may feel limited in what they’re able to play. If you’ve been considering making the leap to a digital piano but you’re concerned about sound integrity, this guide is for you. Don’t let space restrictions or other limitations prevent you from playing the songs you love. Simply choose the right digital piano for your needs, and play on!
Key Factors Acoustic Pianists Seek
You may know what you’re hoping to hear when you play the piano, but if you’re just starting the foray into digital, you might not have the language to describe it. To help you out, we’re compiling a list of the top elements that acoustic piano players are usually looking for when they’re hoping to find a model that best imitates the sound they’re used to. These include:
A piano’s key action is the mechanical assembly that translates the depression of the piano key into a sound. Acoustic pianos have organic key actions; a key is hit and a hammer strikes a string. Digital pianos have modified key actions, usually plastic or plastic/wood hybrids, many of them weighted just like acoustic piano keys. The vast majority of acoustic players who are disappointed in the digital piano’s “sound” are actually disappointed in the key action. If you’ve ever sat down to play a digital piano and decided that it just didn’t “feel right,” or that the piano was producing sounds that didn’t respond appropriately to the heaviness or lightness of your touch, then you were playing a keyboard without a strong key action.
Because of this, acoustic piano players often prefer fully-weighted digital keyboards, which make the most admirable and realistic effort to imitate the hammer mechanism of acoustic pianos. The best of these will even weigh the bass notes bit heavier, just as an acoustic piano uses larger hammers and strings for the lower octaves. If you see the words “partially-weighted” or do not see a reference to weighted keys at all, be forewarned that it will not play the way you’re used to.
If you’re planning on switching between a digital piano and acoustic (for example, if you want to practice on digital at home but you plan on performing at a venue with an acoustic piano), then your left hand will thank you using a digital piano with heavier bass notes; otherwise, when you switch back to acoustic, your left hand will feel weaker than you think it should. Everyone else can probably get away with a fully-weighed keyboard without the heavier bass notes.
Closely tied to key action is another quality acoustic piano players rely on:
Classically trained pianists don’t just play the notes; they emote through them. The loudness or softness of the chords are just as crucial as the chords themselves, as are their ability to reflect the smoothness of legato or the playfulness of staccato. Again, a fully-weighted key action will best facilitate expressive playing. Like acoustic pianos, fully-weighted keyboards respond to how heavy or light the pianist plays, producing dynamics that are whisper-quiet, loud and booming, and everything in between.
Most digital pianos have a “Sustain” pedal, which operates the same way an acoustic sustain pedal does by allowing each note to play out, creating a lush sound. It’s a bit harder to find keyboards with the other two pedals acoustic players are used to – the una corda (soft pedal), which dampens noise and creates a softer sound; and the sostenuto pedal, which allows the player to sustain certain notes while playing the rest regularly. If you’re someone who can’t live without the three pedals, there are models out there for you. However, many players find that the sustain pedal is the only one they regularly use and that the three-pedal functionality is not a priority.
Realistic Piano Sound
Next to key action, the most crucial component of finding the right digital piano for acoustic players is, obviously, whether it sounds like a piano. Even the most advanced digital pianos simply provide recordings of the “real” thing. Most use recordings of grand pianos, and some provide a couple different piano options. As you decide which one has the sound you prefer, keep in mind that the keyboard that provides the best array of instrument choices may not be the best fit for you. Many of the highest-quality digital pianos are also the most pared down, providing only a couple sound options.
Remember, too, that to truly get a feel for the keyboard’s sound, you should invest in a great pair of headphones. Most digital pianos have fairly small and quiet built-in speakers, which aren’t able to represent the full tonality of the keyboard. If you’re not a fan of headphones or prefer to play out loud, a high-quality amp will also enhance the sound.
Polyphony is an instrument’s ability to play multiple simultaneous notes, or “voices.” Most digital pianos come in polyphones of 32, 64, or 128; which literally means 32, 64 or 128 “voices” that can be played at once. If you’re playing a C chord with your left hand, you’re using three “voices.” Add in your right hand, and you’re using six. Add another player to the mix, and you might be using 12. If you’re wondering how it’s possible to achieve a polyphony of 32 voices, let alone 128, then consider that sounds in the digital piano voice bank automatically use two or three “voices” at once; and then consider that every time you hold down one key and play another, you’re not letting go of the initial key’s voice. That means that any time you use the sustain pedal, you’re engaging dozens of different voices in a row. Try imaging four octave chords in a row with each hand, with four notes apiece in each chord, using a sustain pedal. It adds up rather quickly, which means most acoustic piano players do best with a 128 polyphony.
Number of Keys
For the acoustic piano player, 61 keys or 76 keys might sound intriguing. The smaller keyboards are easier to transport, and they almost always provide an array of tantalizing features for recording, mixing or composing. Anyone who composes music (or creates any work of art) can also tell you that sometimes constraints, like fewer keys, make it easier to be creative, as it’s often the overwhelming set of possibilities that causes a block. So while an acoustic piano fan may find some compelling reasons to go for a digital piano with 76, 61 or even few keys, most will prefer an 88-key version. This will provide the full range of what you’re used to, and it means that if you frequently read music, nothing will have to be modified.
Now that you’ve chosen the right digital piano for your needs, it’s time to have some fun with it.
Using Your Digital Piano for Advanced Practicing
Unless you’re one of the lucky few who can sit down and sight-read a song perfectly, practicing is probably an essential part of your music career. This is where digital pianos can really shine, even beyond acoustic pianos. Here are a few practicing techniques you can take advantage of with your digital piano:
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Many digital keyboards have built-in metronomes, drum machines, or other timekeeping devices. If you’re just learning a song in a difficult time signature, remember to take advantage of the precise timekeeping abilities your piano may feature by setting the beat and then playing along until you know your song’s rhythm inside and out. This can also aid in composing.
Recording components are one of the most exciting aspects of many digital pianos. Even if you don’t plan on professionally recording or sharing your music, do record yourself as you practice and then listen back. This is one of the best ways to hear your work objectively. If you compose, recording as you go can also help you experiment with different arrangements to your heart’s content, feeling confident that you won’t forget about a particular chord progression that you loved.
Is your song part of a larger arrangement, and you’re not sure how it will sound? Play the other parts, record it, and then accompany yourself. Are you trying to master a particularly difficult song? Play each hand separately, recording one of your hands and then playing along with the recorded track with the other.
In a similar vein to accompanying yourself, if you’ve often thought that the only thing your song is missing is a violin or other instrument, a digital piano will allow you to imitate that. So unless you have the privilege of practicing with a full orchestra every day, simulate the instruments you need so you can hear how you’ll fit into the bigger picture. If you compose, the additional instruments can help you add harmony, bridges and more.
If you’ve ever tried to practice on an acoustic piano without hitting the keys, then you know the power of silent practice. This technique allows you to hone your tactile memory of the notes. Many people who employ the silent practice technique find themselves “correcting” less mid-song, because you learn to rely on physical cues rather than auditory feedback (think of what a wrong note feels like versus what it sounds like). It’s also a crucial way to memorize songs; again, without being able to rely on the auditory cues, you’ll have no choice but to commit to memory the physical shapes of the chords and the feel of the progressions. In short, sound cues themselves can be a way of “cheating.” Eliminate your ability cheat by turning the volume down completely on your digital piano or by plugging in some headphones without putting them on your ears.
Piano practice can be slow, arduous, and frustrating. If you’re working through a particularly difficult song, it’s going to sound imperfect for what will feel like far too long. You may even find yourself spending months on one particular song, or weeks on just a few tricky measures. Have you ever decided that you just weren’t making progress fast enough? Then let your digital piano’s recording capabilities be your encouragement.
Record yourself practicing a new song on the very first day, no matter how long it takes and no matter how many mistakes you make. Then set it aside in a folder in your computer, and record yourself the second day. From there, feel free to change the frequency of recording to once a week, as your daily progress might not be as drastic after that. The first day to the second day almost always provides an interesting leap due to the way our brains consolidate memories overnight, so that’s worth documenting. And the weekly progress from there will be noticeable and pronounced.
Listen to your weekly recordings as you need to, noting the progress you’ve made. Then think about the progress you’ll get to listen to the following week if you keep at it. With just a few clicks of a button, you can make your digital piano your biggest cheerleader.
Now that you’ve had a chance to dabble with a few of your digital piano’s basic features in your practice, it’s time to take your digital experience to the next level with some more advanced techniques.
Advanced Digital Piano Techniques
Depending on the digital piano you chose, you’ve just been introduced to a wide range of features that you didn’t have the opportunity to explore with your acoustic piano. Even the most advanced pianists can feel overwhelmed by the plethora of styles, sounds, rhythms, recording capabilities and more that a digital piano opens up. While we could write all day about all the ways in which you can take advantage of recording software and your digital piano to hone your skills or compose new music, but what follows are a few tips that are geared specifically to classically trained musicians.
Use Reverb, EQ, and Compression to Produce an Authentic Sound
It may seem ironic, but where digital pianos are concerned, computer software might just be your best bet at replicating the sound of an acoustic piano exactly. This quality is most essential for songwriters or composers who truly want the music they disseminate to sound like it originated on an acoustic piano; it’s less important for people who practice on digital but perform on acoustic. Good mixing programs like Ableton will allow you to modify your song after it’s recorded so that you can focus on the factors that will make it sound more acoustic.
You can either use acoustic samples to flesh out your existing work, or you can modify tonality and other factors until you’ve created the sound that best imitates the one you want. The three main mixing ingredients in imitating an acoustic piano are reverb, EQ, and compression. Reverb can be thought of as the acoustical reflections that happen whenever a sound is created, so it’s essential in imitating an authentic acoustic instrument. If you’re using the reverb in your mixing software to mimic an acoustic piano, then keep in mind you’re using it to create space, not as an FX. That means you’ll be using a smaller reverb time. You can then use another, longer reverb to add a subtle wash to the sound, but use it lightly!
If your digital piano is producing a brittle timbre, then both compression and EQ can be used to overcome this. It can add some warmth and distortion to the sound when used properly; however, if overused, it can make the audio sound a bit overproduced or cheesy. Think of it as the “soft focus” effect on a photo lens and use it sparingly.
Amp Your Digital Piano
Others may choose not to wait until the mixing station to enhance their digital piano’s sound. Another option would be to hook an amplifier up to your digital piano prior to recording. You can then mix in a distance, or “room” mic, which captures the amp pushing the air into an acoustic environment. This can more closely imitate the way an acoustic piano reverberates throughout the room. You may even choose to set up an additional mic pointed closer to the amp’s speaker, and then blend together the sounds of the room mic, closer mic, and electrical piano.
Play with Other Sounds
If you’re not an acoustic piano purist, then you may be interested in some of the other features your digital piano can offer. Many pianos will allow you to experiment with a wide range of sounds, like drums, synths, bells, strings, organs, trumpets and much more. If you’re reading sheet music, try modifying the sound to see if it inspires you. Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” for example, sounds completely different on a harp, with the water-like quality of the music taking precedence. Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” on the other hand, sounds downright eerie on the harp. The bottom line is, a shift in instrumentation can change the entire mood of a song, and can often provide a theme or a musical direction that you can then run with. Digital pianos make experimenting with this shift a breeze.
“Bury” Your Piano Into Other Sounds
If you do find a set of instrumentals that you’re willing to play with, then recording those first can save you some of the headache of mixing your digital piano to produce the sound a solo acoustic would make. Combining your digital sound with other instruments won’t just take the pressure off producing the perfect acoustic pitch; it will also provide a creative and compositional wealth of opportunities. And speaking of opportunities, here’s our final piece of advice:
Compose, Compose, Compose
The most beautiful part of a digital keyboard is the ease with which you can compose. So see this as an opportunity to expand creatively! Even if you’re only used to reading sheet music, stop halfway through and add your spin to the song. Start playing with patterns and sounds. Play three notes in succession, and then play three different notes in the same key, and then play three more with a shift in harmony. Break your block chords into arpeggios or double the speed of your song and change your legatos to staccatos. Shift everything from a major to a minor key. Add a drum beat in the background. You have an unprecedented opportunity to experiment with tonality, dynamics, pacing, rhythm, instrumentation, dissonance, and much more.
Far from being seen as a concession because you don’t have the space or money for an acoustic piano, digital pianos should be seen as a chance to learn an entirely new set of skills while continuing to hone your craft.
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