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zircon

What keyboard should I buy?

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This question gets asked repeatedly, so here it is, a (mostly) definitive guide on the subject. For the purposes of this thread, a "keyboard" can refer to any one of four things: a MIDI controller, a digital piano, a synthesizer, or a workstation. We will go into all of these. For a computer-based music production setup, a keyboard can be a very useful tool, though it is not required. So let's define these things first.

Definitions

MIDI Controller: A MIDI controller is a device that *only* transmits MIDI data, such as notes and note velocities. Not all MIDI controllers are keyboards - some only have knobs, sliders, or buttons - but for our purposes we will talk about the keyboard controllers. They can be anywhere from 1 or 2 octaves to 88 keys. They can also have additional knobs, buttons, sliders, or drum pads. MIDI Controllers do not generate or alter sound! Though previously connected using standard MIDI cables, which can connect to a computer using the joystick port, almost all modern controllers use USB which is far more efficient.

Digital Piano: A digital piano is designed to feel AND sound as close to a real piano as possible. The keyboard is designed in such a way as to mimic the action and feel of real piano keys. Other keyboards mentioned here can have realistic action as well, but typically, digital pianos are the absolute closest you can get. They do not usually come with other special features or gizmos like knobs, pitchbend/modwheel, or faders. They may or may not have MIDI In/Out or built-in speakers (if it does not have speakers, it will have a headphone and/or audio port). Digital pianos come with audio generating capabitilies (a piano sound, obviously) but may have a limited variety of other sounds like strings, choirs, organs, and electric pianos as well. Effects like reverb, chorus, or phasing may be included. They also usually have a metronome and some sort of song recording capability.

Synthesizer: A synthesizer generates and processes sound using analog or digital methods, or both. There are MANY types of synthesizers, from basic analog subtractive synthesizers, to advanced multi-synthesis devices. There are "desktop" and "rackmount" synths that do not have keyboards, but of course we are talking about the ones with a keyboard built in; they can be from 2 octaves to full range, with different feels and actions. Modern synthesizers receive MIDI data and may send it as well; they always produce some kind of audio. The exact capabilities of any given synth vary greatly.

Workstation: A workstation combines elements from the above three categories. They have a keyboard that usually feels fairly realistic, send/receive MIDI data, allow you to sequence and record music, and have a variety of sounds on them (and may have a built-in synthesizer as well). For the sake of discussion, I DO consider low-end models like the Yamaha PSR series and Casio keyboards to be workstations, since in design and basic function, they are the same.

Budget Considerations

MIDI Controllers are typically the cheapest keyboards you can buy. For a small controller with minimal bells & whistles, you may not even pay $200. The high end is about $600 or $700 for full-range, hammer-action (realistic) controllers with tons of extra features.

Digital pianos can get very expensive, and start in the $500-600 range. High end models can cost $2000 or more. However, most trained piano players believe this is a good investment.

Synthesizers with keyboards start around $500-600 and can exceed $3000, though this is mainly because of the synth's features, not the action of the keyboard (unlike the price scaling of digital pianos and MIDI controllers).

Workstations start in the $200-300 range, though these are more designed for educational tools rather than serious production. They extend all the way up to $7000-8000.

How many keys?

The amount of keys you want on your keyboard depends on what you are going to be using it for, and your level of ability.

* If you ONLY plan on using the keyboard to speed up note entry in a program like Finale or Sibelius, step sequencing, or simply for testing out brief passages, it is doubtful you will use more than 32 keys. 25 keys may even be sufficient.

* If you do plan on recording parts, but they are not complex (eg. synth basslines, simple leads, string pads) then 32 or 49 keys will likely be sufficient.

* If you are going to do more extensive recording of non-classical material, or want to use "performance" synth patches or keyboard splits, 61 keys is a safe number.

* If you know your way around a piano and are recording classical material then of course you will want the full 88 keys.

Note that just because you are WRITING music that has a full range, does not necessarily mean you will need a KEYBOARD with a full range. For example, you might think that doing realistic orchestral tracks necessitates an 88-key controller. Not true. You won't be playing in the full orchestra all at once. You'll write/record the violins, then the french horns, then the percussion, etc. Each of these instruments do not require more than a 32 to 49 key range - at most - and usually a lot less. Additionally, any decent keyboard has the ability to move octaves up and down. This way, even if you only have 25 keys, you can record a full range if necessary.

Audio - Yes or No?

An important question to ask is whether you only want a MIDI controller, or whether features beyond that involving audio are necessary. This is somewhat dependant on what your current setup is, and what you are looking to do.

* If you only have basic or free software for recording & MIDI editing, even an inexpensive workstation can add a LOT. Many remixes on this site were created with cheaper keyboard workstations, and to this day they are used regularly. The sounds included on these keyboards are usually very "musical" and usable, and require less tweaking to sound good.

* If you prefer to do as little post-editing as possible, or loathe the idea of using the mouse to edit what you've done, again, a workstation is a great idea. With a more expensive workstation in the $1000-$2000 range, you will get everything you need to create a great track - powerful synthesis, sampling, audio editing, recording, etc. You may not even need a computer at all.

* If you have several thousand dollars worth of software tools (or more), adding a synthesizer or workstation may be somewhat redundant. A MIDI controller is perhaps all you will need to control all your virtual toys.

* If you are interested in doing any live performance (eg. you will be up on stage), I recommend AGAINST using your computer with a MIDI controller. A synthesizer, digital piano, or workstation will all be far more stable. Of those, a workstation or synthesizer will give you more variety than a digital piano.

* If you are an experienced piano player, the combination of an expensive software piano library with a weighted MIDI controller can deliver great results. But it is easier, and comparable in price, to simply get a digital piano.

Feature Considerations

Modern keyboards can come with lots of cool extra features, but you may not need or even want some of them. Others could prove essential. Here's a rundown of what's out there.

* Synth action vs. semi-weighted vs. hammer action - These represent the 'feel' of the keyboard. Synth action means the keys will offer very little physical resistance. If you are used to playing a real piano, it will feel unnatural, though you can get used to it. If you need to input fast sequences of notes this may be what you want. Semi-weighted vs. fully weighted or hammer action are simply degrees of realism. More realistic feels mean the resistance of each key responds appropriate to pressure, and acts like a real piano would when the key is released. The different parts of the keyboard may even be scaled (eg. high notes = less resistance, low notes = more). Rule of thumb; you get what you pay for. An $800 digital piano will feel less realistic than a $2000 one.

* Modwheel, pitch bend - Most keyboards have this, but some don't. The modwheel is most often used to add vibrato to a sound, though it can do a lot of other stuff as well. When performing something, it is VERY useful in making a synth or sample sound more realistic. The pitch bend wheel is also important for 'humanizing' a performance. A guitar solo without pitch bending would not be very interesting. Many sample libraries today actually rely on the modwheel to alter the quality of the sound, so it is really something nice to have.

* X/Y Controller - This is a method of entering in MIDI data. You apply pressure on a pad and move your finger in any direction. You could assign the X axis to a filter cutoff, and the Y axis to resonance, for example. A useful method of control if you like doing a lot of automation, or if you are performing live.

* Assignable knobs, faders, sliders, buttons - Fairly self explanatory. A lot of keyboards come with an array of extra physical features that you can assign, using your computer, to various parameters. If you have 4 assignable buttons, you could use them to mute and unmute different instruments. Faders/sliders can be assigned to volume levels in your mixer. Sequencing software like FLStudio, Reason, Cubase, and Sonar all make it very easy to set up these assignable controllers, save a setup, and recall it later. Very useful if you like physical, tactile control.

(continued)

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* Aftertouch - This is a feature that detects how much pressure you are applying to a key once it's already down. It is somewhat less common than other features on this list, but is yet another way of humanizing a performance and controlling sounds. If you are really into soloing on your keyboard, this is a great feature. Some sample libraries now assign aspects of sounds to aftertouch by default, such as the Garritan Stradivarius violin library.

* LCD Display - It might sound like a no brainer, but consider the size and scope of the keyboard's visual display. Some keyboards have massive, full color displays with high resolution. Others may only show 3 alphanumeric characters at once. If you're going to be doing a lot of editing on your keyboard, think about a larger display. But keep in mind that some keyboards with small displays connect to your computer through USB and let you use software to change settings.

The Bottom Line

Ok, so now we get to the fun stuff - the exact models themselves. I'm going to list 7 keyboards total that I think are well-worth the money.

* Alesis QS6.2 - $500 - At this price, it is hard to find a combo workstation/synthesizer with more features (AND 61 keys). The QS8.2 model is full range. Alesis makes great products so if you're looking for a workhorse this is an excellent choice.

* Edirol PCRM-30 - $170 - This is a nice & compact 32-key MIDI controller with USB connectivity. The keys are sturdy, it's lightweight, and comes with an assortment of knobs + sliders. Great if you're doing electronic music.

* M-Audio Axiom 61 - $300 - A mighty MIDI controller indeed. djpretzel himself uses this; with a load of features and 61 keys, it is a great buy and looks sleek as well.

* Korg TR76 Synth Workstation - $1300 - Though not exactly a budget choice, the TR76 draws from the power of the famed Korg Triton workstation line, which is one of the most used in the world for all kinds of music production. The keyboard features are extensive (76 keys + aftertouch, among other things) and it has some great synthesis and effects capabilities.

* Yamaha P70 Digital Piano - $700 - A roughly midrange digital piano. Yamaha has always been a strong brand and their expertise shows. If you are a more discriminating pianist, this is a good choice.

* M-Audio Keystation 88 Pro - $400 - For a weighted, full-range keyboard with 30+ knobs, sliders, and buttons, this is a pretty unbelievable value. The keys pale in comparison to a real piano or a good digital piano, but they are much better than synth action... and considering how little more you pay to get it, this is one of the best choices for computer musicians that want a budget full-range controller. Note: it is large and HEAVY - almost 3x the weight of the Axiom 61!!!

* Clavia Nord Lead NL2X - $1000 - If you're a fan of electronic music, then you should be interested in this synthesizer. With 49 keys, it may seem like it's not a great value, but it sounds fantastic and is fairly intuitive to use. Very nice as an all-around VA (virtual analog) synth. Excellent for performance as well. And hey, The Crystal Method uses one...

Conclusion

Unless you have a bank account that is too large and you're dying to minimize it as quickly as possible, chances are, a keyboard will be a fairly big investment - so choose wisely! Use this thread to discuss the topic, ask questions, make comments, or suggest additions. Also feel free to leave reviews or thoughts on keyboards you own or have used.

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Ah yes, I believe those are basically workstations oriented towards more traditional (non-computer) arrangers who specialize in oriental music. Probably not what the average person here would want for a general purpose workstation.

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Ah, nice to see there are digital pianos for those with lower budgets. I was almost prepared to blow a few grand on a Clavinova...

One important consideration for me, though, is the means of getting the audio into my PC. Saving as MIDI onto floppy or USB would ideal for me in terms of convenience and flexibility, but if necessary I can deal with recording directly into the computer, in which case the sample quality will need to be fairly decent. In either case though, what sort of cables and other accessories would I need?

Also, any opinion on Roland digital pianos?

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A while back I had done a lot of research on the kind of midi controlling hardware (keyboard) that I wanted to use.

My situation was a little different though, I use a laptop to do a lot of my "doodles" and then use my main system for more professional mastering (and audio recording etc etc). So I wanted something that made it easy for me to travel, and still compose good music.

I ended up finding a great solution, and I got it for a great price off of ebay (practically new) with a lot of it's accessories (backpack and other parts).

On zzounds (as zircon used in his post) you can find the sources here:

Backpack

$69.95

M-Audio Oxygen 8 v2

$119.00

Now I got mine a while back, and it's the previous version of Oxygen 8 (whose setup I liked quite a bit, larger mod wheels and pitch bend wheel).

It has 25 keys, mod/pitch wheels, it has some nice knobs you can determine through your software what you want them to control, it has a midi channel selector, and buttons to change your octave set. The new version has quite a few more options, but the older model certainly do what I bought it for. It's great, you don't need to use a power cable or anything, just connect the usb cable and it's automatically powered. I use this on business trips, family trips, in the car if I'm not driving, on planes, and many times at home because it's easier to set up than getting all my gear connected (and then having to put it away when I'm done). It's space efficient and simple. I'm not saying it's a must have, but I would highly recommend it for software composition.

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Looking for some advice. I want a keyboard for two purposes - the first is just simply to be able to screw around and play with chords and noodle around until I can figure out new melodies, which is probably the most important use for me. The second, once I get good enough at practicing basic piano with it, is to possibly provide small live solos for my music. In addition, I want at least 61 keys (so I'd be able to still play piano if I liked). I own FL Studio, and I'm fine with having the keyboard just be a MIDI controller to be integrated with my current "setup". Remember that pretty much the primary reason I want it is just to play with sound and chords so I can come up with new melody ideas, but I don't want to be kept from learning basic piano on it as well. One other thing would be that I'd like to have it in the 100-250 dollar price range, which might be tough with that number of keys. Any recommendations?

EDIT: I'm looking at the M-Audio Keystation Pro 88 at the moment...it's decent, in my price range (used) and possibly what I'm looking for but I've heard mixed things. Anyone have any other ideas that beat out the keystation in value? Also one last question that I've been thinking about is latency - with these kind of controllers I don't want any delay at all between the press of the key and the sound from the speakers. Should I expect something like that, even with a fast computer?

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I'm looking into buying a keyboard, and I really liked the idea of the Edirol PCRM-30. It looked to be a pretty nice keyboard for under $200, the problem is, it's discontinued now. I'm sure it might be available somewhere, but I liked the concept of buying off zzounds through affiliation. Could someone suggest a good ~200 dollar keyboard? I'm not using it for anything huge, so 32 keys would be nice. By the way, does zzounds ship to Canada? Thanks.

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$200 USD or Canadian?

Anything in the Oxygen line will be pretty solid:

http://www.zzounds.com/item--MDOOXYGEN49

You get some synth action, USB connectivity, and extra controls should you need them. But pretty much anything on this list will be fine. Most synth-action MIDI controllers are quite similar.

http://www.zzounds.com/cat--Compact-Keyboard-Controllers--2687

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Thanks a ton for the quick reply, zircon. It will be $200 Canadian, although there's not much a of a difference in conversion these days. $140 is an outstandingly reasonable price for a decent 49-key keyboard. I appreciate the help!

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$200 CDN is pretty close to $200 US at the moment, so it probably doesn't matter either way.

ZZounds doesn't ship to Canada, but I highly recommend Kelly's Music and Computers (www.kellysmusic.ca) based in Manitoba. I've bought from them a number of times and have been impressed with their services and prices. Only catch is sometimes they don't have things in stock, particularly academic versions (which are always special orders for them) so there can sometimes be a delay on shipping. I imagine keyboards are fairly standard though; things like less-common software synths are more likely to be delayed. They also ship at least some of their items for free too, if you're willing to use standard shipping service instead of express; I've never bought anything as heavy as a keyboard, but I've never paid them shipping.

For an example of price: I ordered WayOutWare's TimewARP 2600 VST this morning. It cost $193 CDN at Kelly's, and would go for $250 US on WayOutWare's site, and that's as a download version. I've seen similar price differences on the entire Native Instruments product line as well. I've actually never seen Kelly's sell for the same or more as the software manufacturer.

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Thanks for the link to the website. I managed to find the Oxygen 49 on Kelly's Music for $134.99. It's a shame zzounds doesn't ship to Canada, I thought the association between here and zzounds was a very beneficial deal to both parties.

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Do most (or any) of these keyboards, or devices similar to them, allow you to record an electric guitar straight onto your computer? If not, what other equipment would you need?

EDIT: I may have just found some other ways to do it in a neighboring thread, but if it CAN be done through a keyboard or MIDI controller, that'd be good to know too.

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Do most (or any) of these keyboards, or devices similar to them, allow you to record an electric guitar straight onto your computer? If not, what other equipment would you need?

EDIT: I may have just found some other ways to do it in a neighboring thread, but if it CAN be done through a keyboard or MIDI controller, that'd be good to know too.

That'd be an interesting feature, but most people would probably prefer a Pod or micing their amps.

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