How to Buy a Keyboard!
The sound complement of a keyboard is going to form your most important buying consideration. The good news is that these days you get an incredible amount of sounds for your money. All keyboards should offer at least (GM) - General Midi sound set - an industry-standard selection of 128 acoustic and electronic instruments and 47 percussion sounds covering the basic spectrum required for most types of music. Not all GM sets have identical sounds, but the basic selection is the same, and there are other elements of General MIDI that ensure consistent playback across instruments. This is particulary important if you plan on buying or downloading pre-fab song arrangements called Standard MIDI Files -Tunes from the popular to the obscure that you can load right into your keyboard.
Most Mid- To High-End keyboards go well beyond (GM), offering not only the basics but specialty sounds, funky riffs, vocal effects, and even sound sets designed just for Greek and Arabic music. For a keyboard to learn to play on or to accompany singers, for example, be certain it offers the sounds you're likely to use the most - acoustic and electric piano, and maybe organ. But if you're looking for an instrument to write songs on or create multi-part sequences (explained below), pay more attention to the breadth of sounds and built-in drums and percussion.
The number of sounds on a keyboard can seem overwhelming to the beginner - some have over 3,000 patches - but thinking about what you need should help you pick the right gear for your needs.
The vast majority of keyboards these days use sampled sounds. Samples are digital recordings that allow you to play anything from drum grooves to entire string sections with a keyboard or computer (or even special guitars, wind instruments, and drum kits). You can look at them as digital "snapshots" of an instrument to be stored and played later.
By and large, the more memory you have for samples the better, as it allows for longer recordings of higher resolution, allowing you to better capture the essence of the source material. Be careful when manufacturers talk about how big their sample Rom is. ROM is a low-cost way to store large amounts of data, and many manufacturers use compression to scrunch as many samples into a ROM chip as possible. Therefore, bigger isn't always better.
An increasing number of personal keyboards offer surprisingly sophisticated sampling capability - in other words, the ability to put your recordings into the instrument. Features range from quick sampling from the output of your CD, DVD, or VHS player (you can even record yourself singing into a microphone) to pro-level waveform editing such as you'd get on a high-end sampler. Basic keyboards that offer sampling will have a limited amount of sample storage, but more advanced models let you expand the memory and access a huge assortment of third-party sounds.
Many keyboards let you customize or edit sounds to your liking, and sometimes let you store your new creation in a user location (also user patch or user program).
Editing can be as simple as adjusting (EQ) knobs on the front panel up or as sophisticated as full-blown professional synthesis. If you're the type of person who likes to play around with sounds, pay particular attention to the ease with which an instrument allows you to do this.
If you're an aspiring DJ or electronic/dance performers, you'll need plenty of "on the fly" editing flexibility. The less you have to scroll through menus on the screen and the more dedicated buttons or knobs you have, the better. Some of the editing terms you may see thrown around include filters (for adjusting a sound's timbre), envelopes (for adjusting a sound's volume over time), and modulation (for adding motion effects to a sound).
When it comes to voices and parts, the more the better. The number of voices a keyboard has is also referred to as its polyphonyor how many notes it can play at the same time. It's uncommon to find a keyboard that offers anything less than 24 voices these days.
If you plan to play serious piano parts - especially if you plan to heavily utilize the sustain pedal or play dense chords on top of backing tracks - you should opt for 32, 64, or even 128 voices.
When your see a spec for parts, or multitimbral capability, it's exactly what it sounds like. How many different instruments can the keyboard play simultaneously? Multi (how many) + timbral (timbres) = multitimbral. Most keyboards offer 16 parts, which is plenty for all but power users.
Effects are a great way to enhance sounds with stunning results. Almost every personal keyboard these days comes with common effects such as reverb, chorus, and delay, for enlarging (reverb), thickening and repeating (chorus), or echoing (delay) the sound. The more you're willing to pay, the more effects you'll get.
There are a ton of cool additional effects to look out for, ranging from rotary speaker (wonderful for organ sounds) and distortion/overdrive(essential for rock guitar) to supercharged effects like harmonizers and vocoders that can add extra parts or transform your voice.
The vast majority of personal keyboards include a built-in amplification system and onboard speakers. Though quality and power (i.e., loudness) of the speakers is usually governed by price, don't assume that just because one keyboard has more speakers or watts that it sounds better than another model - different electronic and acoustic designs make a big difference. Even a seemingly low-powered pair of speakers can provide excellent sound quality and adequate volume. Plus, many instruments have audio inputs that allow you to listen to other instruments (or even a CD player) through the keyboard's speakers.
If you like a little extra "oomph" in sound power, look for a keyboard that includes an output to connect to your home stereo or professional audio monitors. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how much difference a great sound system can make with your $200 keyboard.
All personal keyboards also include a headphone jack so you can practice with the speakers off, and some even have two so you can jam with a friend or teacher.
The quality of the physical keyboard is an aspect that's highly dependent on your personal taste. Although most keyboards are 61 notes in length (a handful have 76 notes) and lightweight in action (more like an organ keyboard than a piano keyboard), there's still a lot of variation in feel.
One thing that affects a keyboard's feel is it's velocity sensitive-how it responds to the speed and softness/hardness with which you hit the keys. If you're testing a keyboard for the first time, try choosing an acoustic instrument patch such as piano or trumpet and hitting a single key softly then progressively harder. If the volume and attack of the sound alter progressively with your touch, you know it's a good match for you. Some keyboards also give you the option of turning off touch sensitivity entirely, which is really useful for authentic harpsichord or organ playing, as those two instruments don't respond to key velocity. In some high-end personal keyboards, the keyboard bed may respond to after touch (how much pressure you apply to the key while it's held down), a convenient way of adding additional effects to the sound or adding a swell.
Many keyboards allow you to program your own splits and layers, both really nifty functions. Splits are good if, say, you want to play a bass part in the left hand and a piano or melody sound in the right. Layering lets you play two or more sounds simultaneously across the entire length of the keyboard; piano and strings, for example, is a popular combination.
Finally, you may want to consider light-up keyboards, with guide lamps either underneath or above the keys. Beside looking cool, lighted keys are a great help when used in conjunction with a keyboard's educational features.
Well there it is, in a nutshell. If you have more questions just call one of our sales staff and they will be more than happy to help you out. Remember you always have 30 days to return the keyboard for a full refund. We even pay the shipping costs back to us! You can't beat that! Checkout our top ten list here at Instrumentpro.com!
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