The idea to build a compact and transportable key instrument for the mobile musician isn’t new. In the 1600’s for example there was the clavichord, a small and rather quiet type of harpsichord ideal for those living in cramped conditions.
So called ‘’silent pianos’’, which fold up for the traveling virtuoso and ‘’practice’’ pianos have been around for a long time as well.
The first electric pianos only came into existence about fifty years ago, at the end of the 60’s. At the time both Fender, with their Rhodes model, and Wurlitzer brought the first stage pianos of electromechanical basis to the market. They didn’t sound like a real piano, but the typical bell sound they produced is now an indispensable part of pop music.
In the following years companies like Yamaha began experimenting with portable electronics, some of which functioned similar to a guitar, using pickups and string vibration to produce sound. A well-known example is the Yamaha CP70, which still required a truck to move but didn’t sound quite like a real piano.
The real breakthrough came at the end of 1985 with the Kurzweil 250, which for the first time used sampling techniques to reproduce piano sounds, and thus the digital stage piano was born.
Many stage pianos now offer extensive sound ranges – 128 or more sound profiles isn’t uncommon. But the needs of the live musician come first in this case so you’re more likely to encounter a range of standard sounds as opposed to sophisticated synthesizer functions. Still, some models offer considerable options in this area as well.
A stage piano can also serve as the control center for your entire keyboard set up, taking on the role of a master keyboard. To do this properly it will need certain features e.g. keyboard splitting, which isn’t included on all models. In addition it will need more standard controls such as modulation or pitch-wheel, and a freely assignable MIDI command control of some sort is useful.
- What is meant by polyphony or polyphonics?
- What is MIDI?
- What should I look for in the controls?
- What is arranger?
What is meant by polyphony or polyphonics?
The term polyphony refers to how many tones can be heard simultaneously. The technical capabilities of an electronic instrument is, as with a computer, limited by the capacity of its built in chip(s). The more tones an instrument should control, the more data the processor needs to be able to…well…process.
If you check the technical specifications of a digital piano you will see polyphonic specifications of 32, 64, 128 or even 258 notes. Your first reaction may be to think that you would never play more than 10 or so notes at once (unless you’re Jerry Lewis who also played with his feet). But you need to be conscious of the fact that you’re in the digital world now and that every note received, from a pedal for example, must be counted in terms of the polyphony. For digital pianos with stereo samples you’ll need to pay attention to the fact that the polyphonic value given is halved, as there are two ‘’voices’’ for each sound or sample. The higher the polyphonic value, the more closely the sound will resemble a real piano because multiple resonations and overtones can be played concurrently.
What is MIDI?
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a data transfer protocol that allows digital information about pitch, tone length, and sound type to be communicated, recorded, or played back between individual instruments or between instruments and computers. More information about this subject can be found in our online guide for keyboards.
Many digital pianos have a MIDI-interface, generally an input and output, designated as MIDI-IN and MIDI-OUT. This allows you to access another keyboard or connect to a computer with a sequencing program. Notation programs also usually support MIDI protocols. Another option is to download songs with MIDI ports, especially onto devices which don’t have an USB port.
What should I look for in the controls?
When selecting a digital piano you should make sure that the knobs, sliders, panels and other controls are easy to reach while playing. Is it, for example, possible to switch easily between sound settings? Is it possible to select built-in effects and other functions with the press of a single button? Is there a touchscreen? Or are all parameters only selectable through a tiny LCD screen with cumbersome controls? An e-piano is essentially a computer developed by hardware and software specialists, and sometimes they just forget that a musician isn’t interested in reprogramming the entire system. So make sure the instrument will do what you want it to, and that you can ask it to do that on the fly!
What is arranger?
Arranger is a function which allows the player to be accompanied by (play along with) different styles from several instruments. This function can be found on most keyboards as well as digital pianos. At the push of a button an entire band or orchestra can be imitated according to the rhythms and styles of the player. For example, the player can make a cymbal rhythm in C major with an orchestra sound.
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