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These days many of us are finding ourselves more and more restricted in terms of space. A small corner of a one bedroom apartment may be all you have as your home ‘music studio’ when you are first starting out. So when you want to learn to play the piano. Buying a full-sized piano (as cool as it would look in your apartment) is often a luxury we can’t afford. But is it possible to learn piano with a MIDI keyboard?
Midi keyboards provide a space-saving, more portable and often more affordable option for someone who wants to learn how to play the piano. There are some trade-offs, for example, the standard unweighted, lipped keys do not provide the same feel as a traditional piano. But for a beginner, you can definitely learn the basics.
But what are the trade-offs when going down this route? And what features should we look for in a MIDI keyboard if it’s main intended purpose is to play the piano. Well let’s look a little closer:
Why not just get a piano?
If you can get yourself a piano, then I’ll be honest, there is no real substitute for learning on the real thing….But there are reasons why it might not be practical to have one. These include:
If you live in a tiny studio apartment, having a full piano, even an upright, can take up space that you simply don’t have. Although it is worth bearing in mind it could potentially double as a sideboard or mantelpiece ;).
Likewise, if you want to add the piano to a home music studio area of a house. Then you may also be restricted to a smaller room, or may not want to use up too much space to allow for various other amps, synthesizers etc.
Weight and Portability
The fact is, that even the lightest of pianos still weighs a silly amount!
I remember when a friend of mine picked up an old piano for free a few years ago. The only catch was you had to retrieve the piano yourself, they wouldn’t deliver. “No problem,” he said foolishly.
He roped me and another friend in to help out and we hired ourselves a large van. We got to the old ladies’ house and she lead us to the piano. It was located in a room at the very rear of the house. It took us about 2 hours to maneuver it onto the van and a further 1 hour to get it into my friend’s house at the other end!
Not to mention our backs never really recovered from the ordeal. What I am trying to say here is be careful when you buy a traditional piano if it doesn’t come delivered!
I personally have opted not to have a piano in my home studio for a couple of reasons. Primarily because my home studio is built into my attic and a full-sized piano would almost certainly come crashing through the ceiling. Landing then probably the floor below, and then probably landing on my cat/ girlfriend…..not ideal! For me, a large midi keyboard (or digital piano…see below) is much lighter and more portable. So when I want to take it somewhere (which happens from time to time) I don’t have to hire a removal crew.
A slightly more minor thing, but worth bearing in mind is that a piano can go out of tune. This doesn’t happen too often, but if you are buying a second-hand dusty piano that has been sat in someone’s garage perhaps, or moving it from one place to another, this is likely to put it out of tune. This is never a worry with a MIDI keyboard, you will always be in tune.
Can it really compare to the real thing?
In truth, not really…As I’ll explain below in the ‘key-weightings’ section many MIDI keyboards using weighting or spring action in the keys to try and emulate the feel and weight of a traditional piano key. In a real piano, the sound is created by a hammer striking strings causing them to vibrate and create the required sound. This hammer is connected to the key that the player presses via a lever system. Operating this lever system takes quite a bit of force and therefore it gives a certain resistance or ‘weight’ when pressing the key down.
So as much as weighted digital keys try their best to re-create the same feel. I am yet to find one that truly feels like the real thing. You would probably not notice this too much as a beginner.
So if you are learning for the first time this might not bother you. But the subtleties of very gently touching a key on a traditional piano, are something that really can’t be replicated on a MIDI.
There are also other subtle sound differences such as the resonance produced when using a dampener pedal etc.
So in quick summary, no, it can’t fully replicate a real piano. But does it matter?
If you are new to the piano and just starting out then you will probably not miss these things. As you won’t be used to them in the first place! You will be able to get close enough to the feel of a real piano with many MIDI keyboards. So if space and portability are important to you then a MIDI keyboard definitely makes sense! And I reckon you will still get pretty damn good at the piano!
How to chose a MIDI keyboard to learn piano
If you do opt for a MIDI keyboard to learn piano. There a few things you should look for, these are:
I previously wrote an article looking at the advantages and disadvantages of different sized MIDI keyboards. In it I discussed that if you are to use the keyboard primarily for piano, then you should not really be getting anything with less than 61 keys.
Some smaller MIDI keyboards are available ranging from as few as 25 keys to 49 keys. These keyboards are aimed more at the composer who is going to be mainly using the keyboard for writing basslines or lead parts, mimicking other instruments that aren’t designed to play across several octaves like a piano.
A standard piano keyboard has 88 keys and so if you want to replicate the real thing as closely as possible, then an 88 key MIDI keyboard should be what you look for. That said, you can still learn pretty well on a 61 key keyboard and you will save yourself a little space and a little money too.
Again, as with size, the amount of additional features on a MIDI keyboard varies considerably depending on what you primarily want to use it for.
Some of the MIDI keyboards that are aimed more towards dance music production have all manner of nobs and buttons. For anything from filters to modulation wheels to drum pads. If you are planning on using the MIDI keyboard for piano and never have any intention of broadening into other areas. Then there is no point in buying a MIDI keyboard that has hundreds of nobs and buttons that will just confuse you. These features will also add to the cost of the keyboard, so if you aren’t going to need them, there is no need to pay for them.
When you are looking at product descriptions for MIDI keyboards you will often see phrases describing the ‘weightings’ of the keys. You may see words such as ‘semi-weighted’ or ‘waterfall’. Which all sound very confusing. So here is a brief glossary of those terms followed by what I think is most useful for a pianist.
As I mentioned before, in a real piano, the sound is created by a hammer striking strings causing them to vibrate and create the required sound. This hammer is connected to the key that the player presses via a lever system. Operating this lever system takes quite a bit of force and therefore it gives a certain resistance or ‘weight’ when pressing the key down.
In order to try and replicate the feel of this on a MIDI keyboard. Fully-weighted keys aim to give a much more dynamic feel and a response more akin to that of an actual piano.
In modern MIDI keyboards, fully-weighted and hammer action are now used almost interchangeably. In older electric pianos, hammer-action was meant to be even more accurate than fully weighted and would vary in feel from model to model. As the manufacturers tried to emulate real pianos as closely as possible.
A semi-weighted keyboard provides some resistance when pressing down the keys, but not as much as a fully-weighted. This will, therefore, give less of a realistic feel to the playing and will make any eventual transition to a real piano that little bit harder. They will however often be cheaper.
Synth-action MIDI keyboards use springs, as opposed to weights, to give a little resistance when playing. They are good for playing quicker and faster solo pieces. This lends itself well to a synth or bassline but not so well to a piano part.
‘Waterfall’ is a term used to describe the front edge of each key. Many traditional pianos simply have a sharp ‘lipped’ front edge and some synthesizers and MIDI keyboards have a ‘diving board’ style front edge. A waterfall key has a rounded front edge (see below) and hence looks a little bit like a cascading waterfall (ahaaa). It is particularly useful when performing techniques such as ‘palm smearing’, a technique used a lot by organ players. So if it is something you might like to do then maybe this is something you should look for.
Difference between a MIDI keyboard and a Digital Piano
Another option which serves as a sort of ‘half-way house’ between a real piano and a MIDI keyboard is a digital piano, and this may be another option for you to consider.
A digital piano has a few pros and cons over a MIDI keyboard:
- A faster ‘plug in and play’ setup and therefore faster workflow – with a digital piano you don’t need a computer to plug into (which you do with a MIDI keyboard). This means you can plug it in and use the built-in piano sounds to start playing straight away. When your main aim is learning and you only have limited time each day, this may be more for you.
- Built-in speakers – similar to above you don’t need to plug into external speakers as many digital pianos have built-in speakers, saving you time and space.
- Weighted keys – they pretty much always have weighted keys, whereas many MIDI keyboards don’t.
- More expensive – digital pianos are more expensive than many MIDI keyboards, however, if you are looking at 88 key weighted MIDI keyboards the difference isn’t that huge.
- Less portable – as mentioned above, most digital pianos have features such as built-in speakers which add to the size and weight of them and thus make them less portable.
- No buttons and faders – If you do ever fancy using the keyboard for other MIDI functions, then you will not have all the buttons and features that most MIDI keyboards have.
My top choices
The Roland A-88 is one of the best fully weighted MIDI keyboards available. With it being fully weighted you will pay quite a high price though, so that is worth bearing in mind.
If you are more worried about price and not as bothered about having fully weighted keys. Then you can get much more for your money with semi-weighted keys. Which won’t give you an exact piano feel but should be fine if you are just starting to learn.
The best quality semi-weighted keyboards tend to be in the 61 key category. This isn’t ideal, but will be fine for a beginner, my current favorite is the Novation Launchkey 61 (which I personally own and love!), there are some 88 key semi-weighted keyboards out there, but they just don’t have as many features.
In terms of the amount of digital piano for your buck, you can’t go far wrong with the Korg B1. It has 88 keys which are hammer action and emulates the feel of a piano quite nicely. It also allows you to adjust the key sensitivity or even turn it off completely. So you can adjust to what feels most comfortable for you.
If you are simply looking to learn the piano from scratch. Then there is nothing wrong with starting out with a MIDI keyboard. It will save space and give you convenience and portability. Ok, there are some subtle differences but if you can get an 88 key weighted keyboard you are pretty damn close.
On the other hand, if you want to save space but want to be able to set up and play quickly, without the need to connect to a computer. Then maybe a digital piano is a good ‘middle-ground’ compromise.
But! If you do have the space to accommodate a real piano, go for it! You can easily pick one up for very cheap indeed on eBay or through other second-hand marketplaces. There is no substitute for learning on the real thing and they look pretty damn cool in your living room!