Bleg: Digital Pianos

I am hoping someone out there might know something about digital music. I am a person of many hobbies. Sadly, most of them are holes in which money is poured. If I did them all at once, I’d quickly go broke. I tend to get into a hobby very intensely, then put it away for a while and pick up another one until I get bored with it, then continue the cycle. Shooting is a hobby I was very intensely into 2007-2011 or thereabouts. Since then I haven’t really been shooting or collecting much. About a month ago, I decided to revive a hobby I’ve literally been keeping in the closet for the past 20 years.

I was trained in classical piano from the time I was 5 years old until I was a junior in college. Then my mother died, and my grades started taking a nosedive. I stopped lessons with my teacher of, well by that time pretty much all the life I remembered, and just stopped. I had to focus on getting my GPA back up, and I did. A few years later, my piano ended up with my sister, and the synth I had bought with the proceeds

Ensoniq SQ2 Innards

Ensoniq SQ^2 innards. They don’t make ’em like this anymore! Look at that 68000! Same CPU in the first Macintosh. Vintage!

of a summer job when I was in high school got put away, not to be thought about until, well, about a month ago when I pulled it out and set it up to play for the first time since I was in college. Other than having to solder in a new battery to the mainboard, the thing still works fine. Pretty good for a 1991 manufacture date!

I set out with the goal of learning something new. Learning an instrument is not like riding a bicycle. Your fingers forget how to do all that! I could remember nothing of pieces I played for years, so I started new with something new (to me) and simple:

It took about two weeks to memorize it, and then another two to work out all the MIDI stuff so I could use the Mac to act as the synthesizer for a harpsichord SoundFont I wanted to try. The default harpsichord that comes with Garageband sucks (Garageband itself, I’m convinced, is meant only to convince you to fork over $200 to Apple for Logic Pro), and the synth has no native harpsichord sample (though you can construct a pretty convincing facsimile from other instrument samples). I managed to find the open source FluidSynth and a decent Virtual MIDI router for the Mac, in order to fix the key velocity, so it wouldn’t be louder or softer depending on how hard you hit the key (real harpsichords don’t do that).

So after learning this first piece, an amazing thing started to happen. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain, neurons started to bring some old files out of storage, and some of my old pieces started to come back without me having to refer back to the music much. I might plod through once or twice, but then something clicked, and suddenly I remembered it. I got through the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata that way, since I learned that when I was quite young. The second and third I learned later, so they are not coming back very much. The third is difficult, and even referring back to the music, my fingers still aren’t up to the task. My non-dominant hand is still partially “disabled” when it comes to articulating piano keys, over what it used to be.

I’ve gotten to the point that the unweighted keys on my synthesizer are driving me batty, and I don’t really want to deal moving and finding room for a large acoustic instrument, so I’m thinking of going digital. I have my eye on a Kawai ES100, but there are no dealers in this area who seem to sell it, and I’m a bit nervous about ordering an 800 dollar piece of gear without first trying their “AHAIV-F Graded-hammer action.” I’ve read good things about it, but everyone is different in what feel they prefer. I’m hoping I have some musician readers who can offer advice. Any at all would be welcome!

14 Responses to “Bleg: Digital Pianos”

  1. Neill in California says:

    First, congrats on getting back into piano! Second, the bad news – if the unweighted keys of your synth are bothering you, eventually the weighted action of a digital piano will too. Nothing compares to the real thing; I spent 15 years playing an Alesis QS8.1 with a weighted action because I was living in small urban spaces. You will eventually find it unsatisfying as any music that requires any subtlety is frustrating to play on a digital piano. Take the plunge and get the real thing!

    • Sebastian says:

      Thanks for the advice. The solution may be asking my sister if she really wants my old piano :) I notice Kawai makes “hybrid” uprights, where the hammers can sound strings, or be pulled back and used to actuate digital sensors.

      But I don’t imagine they are cheap.

    • Alpheus says:

      I’ve only had about two or three years of lessons in college, but one of the things I loved to do is to step on the sustain petal, and then repeatedly do a chord all up and down the piano, and listen to (and feel) the reverb fade over time. You can’t do that with an electric piano!

      Having said that, I have a weighted keyboard in the closet, and if I could ever find a place for it and start playing again, I am happy that I could have it, if for no other reason than it gives me an easily-stored instrument that I can theoretically have access to even when I can’t afford a real piano.

      As an aside, I can’t help but be intrigued by the “Janko” keyboard, that I learned about while in graduate school, and it’s been a long-held dream of mine to build a MIDI version and plug it into my electronic keyboard.

      (For the record, while I was in graduate school, I also transitioned to the Dvorak keyboard…and I’m not completely satisfied with it, if for no other reason than I’d like to push the edge of input method technology…)

      • Sebastian says:

        Digital piano, not electric. You can do that with a digital piano, since they have sustain pedals. One thing that attracted me to the Kawai is that it can do a half pedal, though I doubt it’ll be anything like half pedaling on a piano, since most of the time that’s something you do by feel and not by “I will release the pedal, but only halfway,” sort of thing. I’d imagine it would be like trying to operate a clutch in a car simulator. But at least they tried.

        • Alpheus says:

          My keyboard sortof has a sustain pedal, but I kindof wish it functioned more like the three pedals available on a real piano. Having said that, I had a lower-end budget (I paid about $1,200 for it, new, early 2000’s) and I seem to recall a lot of nicer models, typically priced around $8,000…

          And I would have to agree that, even if to me all these keyboards are “electronic”, I wouldn’t have gotten my keyboard if it hadn’t been a digital piano (with “electric piano” and “organ” modes as well…)

      • Sebastian says:

        The storage is a big part of why I’m thinking of going digital. I don’t expect it to be exactly like a piano, but just “good enough.” Given my ADD with hobbies, chances are it’ll spend a good deal of time in the closet.

      • Alpheus says:

        Gah, my edit was lost. I wanted to add:

        Unfortunately, I cannot give advice on models; the one I have was discontinued years ago. But I definitely like weighted better than not, for two reasons: non-weighted keys feel too “plastic” for my taste; and I like to be able to control how loud I play.

        • Sebastian says:

          Yeah, with no weight on the keys, control over loudness is theoretical at best. The keys on my old synth are velocity sensitive, but without the weight, you can’t really exercise any fine control.

  2. Duane says:

    I suspect Neill is right. My son has been using this model (Casio Privia PX-135) for almost three years (IIRC), and both he and his piano teacher are pleased with it, however. It is no longer available, but I assume that one like it still is. His has the three-pedal accessory, though, not just the one pedal.

    • Ian Argent says:

      My wife bought a Privia 100 a while back, and as far as I know likes it. I don’t know if you want to make the hike to test drive it.

  3. Johnny Derp says:

    No matter what instrument you play, play an instrument. I do not currently have any keyboards in the house, but as someone who plays guitar and various horns, play any instrument you can! The rewiring of your brain brought about by thinking of the notes and then playing them, using more than one limb at a time in coordinated effort, all contribute to higher performance in other activities like shooting or driving, just to name a few

  4. SteveG says:

    Can’t say anything about the ES100 but a while back my wife selected the Kawai ES7 and she really likes the weighted key system it uses. If memory serves correctly the Kawai keys are similar to those you find in a grand piano. The sound is incredible* too.

    *Full disclosure: I play banjo

  5. Robb Allen says:

    When it comes to my keyboard, I only sound like I might know what I’m doping. But that’s what it is – a keyboard (an Akai MPK49 to be precise) and not a piano. While I can play a piano too, I only have a couple of feet on my desk so a 49 key keyboard is all I get.

    I use Native-Instruments Komplete Ultimate (which is currently on sale!) and they have some phenomenal piano kits in there. I know purists will say nothing beats the real thing but I’m not a purist. Nor a piano player by trade (I’m a guitarist, and a shitty one at that!). I would venture to bet that if a professional pianist recorded something using the Berlin Concert Grand sample set, most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

    But, not only do I have 9 different pianos to choose from, I have thousands of other instruments. Everything from real harps, piccolos, bassoons, and orchestra gear to exotic synths and soundscapes. Which is what I like, YMMV.

    The good thing is a home recording studio is available to anyone now (for better or worse) so if you’re ok with staying in the digital world, there’s a ton of sonic space to explore.

  6. SJ says:

    Both you and Robb Allen are going musical. (Though I kind of suspect you won’t be cooperating with him on any virtual-duets…)

    In any case: I learned piano on an old upright that my parents had access to. To clarify “old”: it had real ivory keys, and a manufacture date in the 1920s. Impressive sound, but the pegs were old and it didn’t hold tune very well.

    Sometime in 2003, I got a Yahama P120. It has touch-sensitivity, and moderately-weighted keys. There was a bit of a learning curve in transitioning from the physical piano to that model, but I was able to master it.

    I’ve also had opportunities to play on an Alesis QS7, and a Korg something-or-other Music Workstation. (The Korg came with a 3.5-inch floppy disc slot on it, a MIDI jack, and a hundred or more built-in sounds…I think more recent models offer USB and/or SD cards, rather than a floppy disc.)

    Both those were nice, in terms of weighted keyboard and touch sensitivity.

    However, I can’t recall ever trying a Kawai. So I’m not sure I can give advice on that one.