The terminology reference below is neatly divided into four sections:
– Those that are akin to the touch or response you get when you play the keys on the digital piano
– Those that relate to the tone or sound you get when playing
– Those that are instrument functions
– Those that relate to things you can change externally to the piano
The ‘touch’ or ‘touchweight’ of a digital piano is really important to pianists particularly as you play more and more. In essence, it’s the amount of pressure you require to depress the key on a piano and in days gone by gram weights were placed on the keys until they depressed to understand how much pressure was required on that particular piano.
It’s important because if the touch is too light you won’t build up finger strength properly and when you go to play on other pianos you’ll more than likely find it a real struggle. If the touch is too heavy, it can lead to rapid fatigue and over time (for some) serious muscle injuries. Inconsistency across the keyboard from note-to-note is probably more frustrating than anything else: it makes it difficult to learn dynamics or to play evenly and harder to play on any pianos beside your own.
For further information on this, Kendall Ross Bean has written a wonderful article at http://www.pianofinders.com/educational/touchweight.htm
On a digital piano, there are several factors (and associated bits of terminology) that influence touch:
Different manufacturers use different terminology to explain the weighting of their digital pianos. Quite often terms like these are used:
In reality, the difference between each of these weights is slight and the most piano-like digital pianos (and hence the most rewarding to play on) tend to be fully-weighted or heavy-weighted. Medium-weighted keys is the next-best option and it tends to be that entry-level digital piano models have weighted, semi-weighted or light-weighted key weighting.
Touch sensitivity or touch response
On all pianos where the keys are weighted, if you depress a note gently you’ll end up with a soft sound; push it down more fiercely and you’ll hear a louder sound.
Touch sensitivity is simply the amount you need to depress the keys to elicit the decided volume from the note: on pianos with heavy- or fully-weighted keys you can apply a greater range of pressures to the notes and hence generate a greater range of dynamic response, from the very quiet right through to the very loud.
Graded (or progressive) hammer action
In real pianos, the strings that produce the bass notes (those played by your left hand) are thicker than those that produce the higher notes (played by your right hand). Hence, on real pianos you need larger hammers to hit the bass strings and smaller ones to hit the treble strings to achieve a consistent sound.
In the digital piano world, the key weight on digital pianos that have a ‘graded’ (sometimes called ‘progressive’ or ‘scaled’) hammer action is heavier in the left hand than it is in the right to try and mimic this.
For more information on this topic, go to: http://www.chicagopianos.com/weighted_action.htm
On Yamaha digital pianos, they name their different key mechanisms:
– GHS (graded hammer standard) is their entry-level mechanism
– GH or GHE is the next level up and is slightly heavier than the entry-level mechanism
– GH3 is the mechanism available on their premium models
Other touch features
You may come across other terms when reviewing digital pianos. The first is key-weight control which simply allows you to change the amount of pressure you need to use to depress the keys to your preference.
The second is key escarpment which on digital pianos is the replication of the small bit of resistance you get when a key is pressed on upright or grand pianos.
In all honesty, neither features are particularly beneficial to the player and certainly not a deal-clincher when it comes to purchase of a new instrument.
The tone or sound of a digital piano is clearly important to both the player and audience as it refers to the audible characteristics of the output of the instrument. It is predominantly affected by the keyboard’s computer (and how it produces the sound), amplifiers, effects and speakers
There is no one-size-fits-all to describing tone as different people prefer different qualities when listening to music. With such an array of subjective terms used to describe the tone of a digital piano, it’s hard to know too that the tone that one person is describing is exactly the same way someone else is interpreting the description.
However, there are some terms that are widely used, particularly:
– A rich or thick tone
– A bright or sharp tone
– A thin or tinny tone
On a digital piano, there are several factors (and associated bits of terminology) that can influence the tone that is produced:
Brilliance on some digital pianos can be altered: it describes how sharp or bright you would like the tone to be.
In music more generally, the term polyphony is used to describe how two or more melodies move together in the same piece of music. With regards to a digital piano it’s commonly used to describe how many different sounds can be played at the same time.
If you’re only playing one sound through the outputs on your keyboard (say the Grand Piano sound), then 64-note polyphony is absolutely fine. If you’re looking to combine sounds (say the Grand Piano sound with percussion or effects) then the sound produced is essentially more notes for the outputs to cope with.
Usually, digital pianos come with 32, 64, 96 or 128-note polyphony: 64-note polyphony is almost certainly more than you’ll ever need.
With reference to digital pianos, layering is the term used to describe when you select multiple instruments to play together. On entry-level models, this can make the sound output really tinny because there isn’t a high enough note-polyphony (as described above) to cope with the multiple instruments. On some digital pianos this is described as dual voice, i.e. playing two voices or sounds together.
Reverb, short for reverberation, is used to describe the echo that can often be changed on digital pianos. Quite often, there’s the option to set the reverb to mimic the echo you might get in a large room or concert hall.
On real pianos, when you play multiple notes together in chords, you get an incredibly rich sound. This is because the “harmonics” (subtle secondary notes that resonate when the string is hit) that make up each note sound together. With no strings, you don’t get this on a digital piano and sometimes people accuse digital pianos of sounding “lifeless”.
In all honesty, unless you’re a really advanced player (in which case, you’d probably want to practice on a real piano anyway), string resonance is definitely more a “nice to have” rather than a mandatory.
Speakers and amplifier wattage
One member of the pianoworld.com forum neatly described the relationship between speaker size and wattage: with a small amount of paraphrasing, we’re not sure we can describe it any better!
Click here for more information: http://www.pianoworld.com/forum/ubbthreads.php/topics/1623200/Re:%20Speaker%20size%20and%20watts.html
In terms of what you might need on a digital piano you’re choosing:
– Room in your home: 20W to 24W overall (2 x 12W speakers or 4 x 5W speakers)
– Large room: 30W or 40W (2 x 15W or 2 x 20W speakers)
– Small hall: 80W (2 x 40W speakers)
– Large hall: this is the point at which you probably want to buy a separate amp and run your digital piano through a PA system
This is simply the ability to “split” the digital piano keyboard at a certain point so that one instrument sound plays on one side of the split and a different sound plays on the other.
A metronome is a steady sound that beeps or taps at a certain speed. This is particularly useful if you’re practicing a piece or passage and want to ensure you’re playing it at the right speed. You can set the tempo to the exact number of beats per minute you want.
Transposition is the process of moving a collection of notes up or down in pitch by a consistent interval. From a digital piano perspective it means you can depress the keys and they play at their defined pitch then at the touch of the transpose button you can depress the keys and they play at a different, user-defined pitch. It’s particularly useful if you’re accompanying instruments like the trumpet or saxophone where the same set of notes come out at a different pitch compared to when you play them on a piano.
This usually refers to the pitch at which each of the notes are tuned to – there are in fact different ways to do this. However, it’s unlikely that you’d ever need to use this function.
Key off samples
Once you press a key on a normal piano, a hammer hits some strings. Once you lift your finger from that key, a damper is applied to the string to stop it resonating and making a noise. However, it actually takes a small amount of time for the damper to stop the string making a noise (a small fraction of a second).
Digital pianos instantly stop the note when you release your finger so on some pianos there is a function whereby you can influence this and make it more like a normal piano.
In all honesty, it doesn’t really make much difference and certainly shouldn’t influence your decision for a particular digital piano.
This allows you to connect your digital piano with an instrument (so you can record yourself) although increasingly this can be done through a USB cable.
This allows you to connect your digital piano to external amps or speakers and plug in external devices to your digital piano (to amplify them through it).
This allows you to record a certain amount actually on to the hard-drive of your keyboard.