Choosing a Digital Keyboard Piano or Electric Keyboard

Discover the difference between digital pianos and electric keyboards. Learn what to look for when buying a digital or electronic piano.

Whether one is buying a digital piano for portability, recording, or jamming, it is important to have a basic knowledge of the types of keyboards available. Prospective buyers should also know what to look for when buying a digital or electric keyboard.

Digital Piano vs. Electric Keyboard

Prospective buyers may not know that a digital piano is not the same instrument as an electric keyboard. Both instruments are powered by electricity and use a tone generator to match the sound with the key that is played. How those tones were created differs between these two keyboard instruments.

Digital pianos use digitally sampled sounds. For example, a digital recording of an acoustic instrument, such as the piano or guitar, is made so that a digital piano can replicate the sound of an acoustic instrument. In addition to this, many digital pianos possess weighted keys (heavier key action in the lower register) and are touch sensitive (or “touch-velocity” sensitive).

In contrast, electric keyboards use computer-generated sounds. Many models lack weighted keys and touch-velocity sensitivity.

Types of Digital Pianos

There are three types of digital pianos: a digital piano, an ensemble digital piano and a stage piano:

A digital piano is built into a cabinet. It usually has the full 88 keys, just like an acoustic piano. A small selection of sampled sounds, speakers and a metronome are built into a digital piano. Some digital keyboards possess basic recording capabilities and alternative tunings.

An ensemble digital piano has either 76 or 88 keys. There is a built-in metronome as well as a wider variety of sounds and accompaniment patterns. Ensemble digital pianos can record, while newer models can be connected to the computer for greater recording, composing, and editing capabilities.

Unlike a regular digital piano, a stage piano lacks a cabinet. These generally require external speakers or amplifiers. Stage pianos are commonly used for gigs because of their portability.

Types of Electronic Keyboards

There are three types of electronic keyboards: the arranger keyboard, the keyboard synthesizer, and the music workstation:

An “arranger” is a standard electronic keyboard that contains a wide selection of rhythm and accompaniment patterns. Users can arrange these accompaniment patterns using the Fill-In and Intro/Ending buttons.

A keyboard synthesizer, also called a “synth,” enables users to create and combine various sound waveforms. Synthesizers are used primarily by musicians involved with music production and recording.

A music workstation is a combination of four electronic instruments in one. It is a musical keyboard, sampler, sequencer and synthesizer. Users can edit their recordings and burn them onto a CD.

Tips on Buying a Digital Piano or Electronic Keyboard

There are several considerations that prospective buyers should make when choosing a keyboard:

  • budget,
  • design,
  • touch-velocity sensitivity (the faster a key is played, the louder the sound),
  • dynamic range,
  • expandability and upgradeability,
  • key action (synth vs. weighted keys),
  • number of keys (classical musicians need more),
  • pedal levels (full pedal, half-pedal and quarter pedal vs. on/off),
  • playing level of the user(s),
  • polyphony (the higher the number, the more acoustic-sounding the instrument),
  • portability,
  • sequencing and sound mixing capabilities,
  • sound quality (realistic tones, sound decay, speaker quality), and
  • user friendliness.

When testing a digital piano or electronic keyboard, shoppers should listen to it through the speakers and through headphones. This way, one can hear the subtle differences in dynamic range, sound decay and sound quality.

Popular Brands of Digital Keyboards and Electronic Keyboards

There are numerous models and brands of digital and electronic musical keyboards. The leaders in digital pianos and electric keyboards are Alesis, Casio, Clavia (Nord), Korg, Roland, and Yamaha.

Prospective buyers should read product reviews of various models and brands to get a better sense of what type of keyboard would suit them. Three examples of keyboard review sites are Clever Joe’s Musician Resource, Dan Maynard’s Piano Reviews and Piano World.

There are numerous advantages to owning a digital piano or electric keyboard. However, beginner music students, music teachers, composers, and performing artists each have different musical needs. Prospective buyers should learn about the various types of digital and electric keyboards available, as well as the keyboard features in order to choose an instrument that best meets their needs.

For more information about buying a digital piano or electric keyboard, visit:

Originally published on Suite101.com on July 10, 2010. Updated March 27, 2013. All rights reserved by Rhona-Mae Arca.