Digital pianos FAQ

This digital pianos FAQ is based on questions that we get from customers, which will hopefully help you in deciding and understanding more about digital pianos and which one would be right for you – even if that’s an acoustic one! (Which Roland don’t actually sell)

Buying a digital piano, especially your first one, can be confusing due to the number of types and styles as well as the technical terms and jargon that tend to get included in product descriptions and by sales people. So below we explain the differences between the main types of pianos and provide a handy digital piano jargon buster.

What is the difference between a digital piano, an acoustic piano and an electronic keyboard?

Perhaps you’re thinking about getting a piano but you’re not sure whether you should be looking for digital pianos, acoustic pianos or getting an electronic keyboard, here are the main differences between the three…

Digital pianos are a mix between an acoustic piano and an electronic keyboard. Digital pianos allow for a greater variation in sounds because they allow for sound modification. They are larger than a keyboard and are usually the same length (88 keys) as an acoustic piano.

The sound quality of a digital piano is often better than a keyboard because they typically have built in speakers, but this also reduces the portability in comparison to the keyboard. Digital pianos also tend to have “weighted keys” which make them feel more like an acoustic piano when playing.

Most digital pianos have a MIDI output which allows you to connect them to a computer via an inexpensive interface, this enables you to record and edit your playing and add additional parts, as well as control other instruments.

Electronic keyboards are typically smaller than a full acoustic piano in that they tend to have approximately 61 keys (4 or 5 octaves) whereas a full acoustic has 88 keys (6 octaves). Keyboards are portable, able to provide a wider range of sounds and have the ability to interact easily with computers via MIDI or USB connections.

When playing an electronic keyboard you will notice that the keys are slightly smaller and easier to press than a traditional piano. This may take some getting used to for a pianist that has been playing on an acoustic piano. The reason that the acoustic is heavier is because they are triggering the hammer that hits the string and makes noise, whereas a keyboard does not require this action to occur. Since the keys are lighter and smaller, keyboards or digital pianos are sometimes better for younger children.

Acoustic pianos are the original form of piano playing. The piano, as we know it today, has been around since about 1700.

The term acoustic was added to the piano after the creation of digital pianos. As its name suggests an acoustic piano refers to a piano which makes sounds acoustically, which means through the vibrations caused by the hammer hitting a string. The vibrations are amplified by a board in the piano referred to as the “sound board”. The soundboard then evenly distributes the sound via the cabinet (if your piano is enclosed) or out the top lid, in the case of a grand piano.

So do you want a digital piano or an acoustic piano?

If your answer to any of the following questions is a YES, then it would indicate that your needs are more suited to digital piano rather than an acoustic.

  • Do you want to put your piano within a meter of a radiator? (Acoustic pianos have soundboards and other parts made from wood, these will crack if dried out.)
  • Do you want your piano upstairs? (Moving an acoustic upstairs is costly, difficult and there is a risk of damage to the piano and surroundings.)
  • Do you want to play at night or other times without disturbing family or neighbours? (Digital pianos have headphones for silent playing.)
  • Do you want to avoid tuning and maintenance costs? (Acoustic pianos can cost over £100 a year to tune)
  • Do you have less than £1500 but still want a good instrument? (Cheap pianos are sold more on their furniture value rather than their musical value.)

What kinds of digital piano are there?

So you’ve pretty much decided that you want a digital piano but there is a mind boggling array of different types, styles, brands and prices out there, in an attempt to simplify the choice start by deciding which of the following you require:

Upright digital pianos
An upright piano is designed to sit up against a wall, these pianos are more suited to home and practice use and they are built to be aesthetically pleasing and resemble the appearance of an upright acoustic piano.

Stage digital pianos
Also known as a ‘portable piano’, a stage piano is designed for use with a live band. While stage pianos share some of the same features as digital pianos designed for home use and electronic synthesizers, they have a number of features which set them apart. This type of digital piano normally makes no attempt to imitate the physical appearance of an acoustic piano, rather resembling a modern synth or music workstation. A distinguishing feature of most stage pianos is a lack of internal loudspeakers and amplification – it is normally assumed that a powerful keyboard amplifier or PA system will be used. Stage pianos usually provide a small number of sounds (acoustic piano, electric piano, and Hammond organ).

Stage pianos often have a heavier, more robust body, which is better able to withstand the stress of heavy touring. Unlike digital pianos designed for home use, they do not have a fixed stand or fixed sustain pedals. Instead, they are designed to be used with a separate portable stand and portable sustain pedals.

Grand digital pianos
A classic grand piano gives a room presence. However, the traditional acoustic beauty can come with high-maintenance issues. They need to be tuned, are susceptible to changes in climate, and moving them is cumbersome.

Top of the range digital grand piano manufacturers such as Roland offer the same silhouettes and sounds, yet are easy to move and never need tuning. Unlike traditional grand pianos, the volume can be controlled from soft background music all the way to concert volumes. Some models even offer virtual surround sound and digital “player-piano” capabilities, complete with moving keys. The action of the keyboard simulates the feel of a true acoustic grand with amazing accuracy.

Quick glossary of digital piano terms and phrases

There are a fair number of technical terms and jargon that are banded around in the world of digital pianos. Here are some important ones to get your head around so you aren’t baffled by the sales guy the next time you walk into a piano shop.

MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface): MIDI is a communication protocol used in virtually every digital piano and keyboard (except toy keyboards) by every keyboard manufacturer. Every Roland keyboard and digital piano comes with MIDI, the company invented the technology!

The benefit of MIDI is you can daisy chain many different keyboards and sound modules together and access all the sounds on each, therefore creating one massive sound bank. You can also connect your MIDI keyboard to your computer to record or even to print out your musical scores.

Polyphony: this is the maximum number of simultaneous notes (voices) that a keyboard can generate. For example, if you played a C major chord, C-E-G, the three notes C, E, and, G are simultaneously sounding, and thus, three notes of polyphony are in use.

Roland keyboards and digital pianos vary in polyphony from 32 (entry-level) to 128 voices (professional). If you’re a pianist and/or do lots of sequencing and multi tracking, we recommend you get a keyboard that has at least 64 voices of polyphony to avoid exceeding the limit. Exceeding the maximum polyphony results in voices cutting out abruptly while performing—not good for live performances!

Sequencer: a sequencer is nothing more than a multi-track recorder. These days, it’s not as important as it used to be to have an on-board sequencer due to the emergence of software sequencers. As long as your digital piano has a MIDI connection, you can interface your keyboard to your software sequencer to do multi-track recording. Full-featured sequencers have functions for quantizing, copying, editing, deleting, and modifying control changes and data allowing you to fully edit your sequences and ideas from start to finish.

Voice: This is Roland’s term for an instrument or sound on your keyboard. So if they say there are 300 voices included in a digital piano, they are saying there are 300 different instruments on that digital piano. Most digital pianos will come with at least 8 voices or choice of sound, e.g. Electric Piano 1, Strings, etc.

Auto Accompaniment: Is a feature that produces a rhythmic, albeit rather simple pattern, which can also produce a chordal/arpeggiated accompaniment.

AWM Technology: Short for Advanced Wave Memory. It’s the method developed by Yamaha for capturing the sound sample from an original acoustic instrument.

Dual Layer: Allows two (or more) voice to be played at the same time when keys are pressed. Sometimes, zone panels on stage pianos can allow you to manually edit voices without the need for going into the keyboard settings.

Flash Drive: A portable and/or removable memory device (e.g. pen drive) for storing compositions or performances for easy transferral to a computer or other device.

Hammer Effect Keyboard: A digital piano which uses hammers attached to the keys to replicate the feel of an acoustic piano. Check with the dealer for a precise expression of what he or she means by “weighted action”.

Touch Sensitivity: A term that is closely related to “weighted keyboard” in that it is not hammer action. The keyboard with “touch sensitivity” is becoming a less-used term in the digital piano world. A keyboard with touch sensitivity does not have to have any weighted action attached to its keys, but is mostly geared towards responding to the force of the player and not the counter-action we have come to appreciate in the hammer action keyboards.

Optical Velocity Sensor: A device converts light intensity and speed into a varying electrical signal that gives you your louds, softs, mp, fff, etc, depending on the force being applied to the keys.

Reverb: This feature replicates the “echo” that reduces the sound decay of the voice being used. Good concert halls take great pains to regulate and perfect the natural reverb so that the sound does not become too dead-sounding, but equally not too echoey or muddy to the ear.

Sampling: The technology used to record an acoustic instrument for storage onto the digital instrument.

Sound module: This is an external device that has a huge library of voices saved on it. This can be connected via MIDI to your keyboard, which allows you to access the voices on the sound module. This significantly expands the options available to you on your digital piano.

Split: This allows you to split the keyboard at any given point on the digital piano that allows you to play a different instrument within a particular zone. Mostly, digital pianos will allow you to split the keyboard into two zones that will allow you to play one instrument with the left hand and a different one with the right hand. It is becoming more popular for stage pianos to split into three or four zones.

Synthesizer: Closely related to the digital piano save for the fact that it does not necessarily have to specialise in simulating a piano. It will have a vast library of other sounds and can also have quite advanced recording and production software on board. In the case of the Roland Fantom-G, the synthesiser is designed with advanced computer interactive software and powerful sequencing software. This is also where “arranger keyboards” get their name.

Supernatural Technology: Enables your digital piano to combine all the benefits of both an acoustic and a digital piano in one like never before  In 2010 the Roland launched the SuperNATURAL digital piano series including the HP Series. SuperNATURAL Technology, brings together Roland V-Piano technology and 88-key stereo multi-sampling technology. This new sound engine is the product of research of the characteristics of acoustic pianos. SuperNATURAL technology has three parts: organic tonal change, multi-sampling and natural decay. SuperNatural Piano technology is only available in Roland Digital Pianos.

Free Digital Piano Guide | Roland UK