It’s a big debate, with reason. There is no denying that digital pianos have taken a firm grasp on the piano market offering flexibility, features, affordability and easy delivery with minimal space issues. The big question remains…
Is a digital piano actually a piano?
Yes, and… no. (apologies for the irritating double answer!).
The spectrum of digital pianos is very broad. So broad, there are terms now for varied standards of digital pianos such as stage, portable, ensemble, professional, high-end, hybrid. The key appeal to the better digital pianos is authenticity. The tone, touch and look are more valued than any other feature. In fact, the fewer bells and whistles seems to give a digital piano more credit – if it has fewer voices (instrument sounds), buttons, lights – the more it may be seen as a ‘piano’. Purity is always the attraction in something emulating the real deal.
Entry level models will usually have a lighter construction, often feeling a bit unstable. Lower power speakers and an inferior tone range. The keys will be hollow plastic and the sensistivity and mechanical feel of the key will seem more ‘sprung’ and ‘flexible’. The pedal board will have some flex to it. Stage/portable digital pianos are without any cabinet and rely on a table top or stand, with a separate pedal unit. The ‘sample’ is the piano sound heard through the speakers. It is a digital recording of a true concert grand piano on a chip, which is triggered and played when a key is depressed. Terms such as dynamic sampling, touch weighted key, graded hammer action, touch relate to how the keys trigger the sample, and what sample is heard.
Touch Sensitive / Weighted Keys
Early digital pianos may not have offered these within entry-level models, but now it is just assumed that all digital pianos are touch sensitive and have weighted keys. When the key is depressed, more than 2 sensors will read the key travel and calculate the velocity of the key. This will determine how quiet/loud the sample is played. Weighted keys refers to the resistance in the key being similar to the typical touch weight of an acoustic piano.
Hammer Action / Graded Touch
A rocking lever underneath or behind the key emulates the movement and inertia of a piano hammer, with similar touch weight being gradually heavier in the bass through to lighter in the treble. Each key is gradually lighter from the bottom note to the top.
When the key is travelling faster, this triggers a different sample of that note so there is a tone change relating to how a real piano produces a brighter tone as well as louder. This is in conjunction with the sample being played at a volume relative to the key speed. A quietly-played note will sound softer and evoke less harmonics from the strings and a louder-played note will be progressively brighter with more initial harmonics and attack.
On an acoustic piano, the component in the action known as the ‘jack’ pulls away from the hammer just before the hammer strikes the strings. This point is referred to as set off or escapement, and can be felt during just before the end of the keystroke and is regarded as a crucial element of a piano’s feel. The better digital pianos will emulate this.
Some high-end digital pianos boast a real spruce soundboard as a speaker. This uses a wooden board to serve as the speaker membrane. A soundboard cannot produce the same tone range through electronic stimulation (transducers) as actual strings resonating and conducting via a wooden bridge, however.
Wooden Keys and Shiny Black Cabinet
Moving up through digital pianos, you will notice the aesthetics take on a more convincing role. Provided you have prioritised the touch and tone (sampling and speaker quality) and feel beyond content with how the digital piano is – as a piano – there is an obvious attraction to the keys being wood (with acrylic keytop as per acoustic) and a classic gloss black finish, with a more sturdy cabinet and music desk.
String Resonance, Harmonic Sampling and Soundboard Sustain
Additionally to the samples of (usually) each note from an acoustic concert grand piano, there may be additional samples of harmonics from other strings. On an acoustic piano, when a chord or other keys are played and held, they will emit harmonics and resonate sympathetically when a stimulating note is played also. When the sustain pedal is depressed and a note is struck – additionally to the individual note sustaining, all the strings will resonate sympathetically, like a wash over the soundboard.
The keyboard layout must be the same as an acoustic piano. 88notes (7 1/4 octave A-C), keyblocks either end of the keyboard, and keyboard arms. There will be a control panel, music desk and the pedals need to be the same distance set back from the front of the keys, as an acoustic piano. Else, it would be awkward and disorientating to shift between digital and acoustic. Thing is, these parameters set out the footprint for a digital piano. The digital piano will usually be a little smaller in its footprint vs a modern upright. But the height is the main difference. Usually, we are not restricted in height, more the depth and width (footprint). Is the digital piano that much easier to accommodate?
Essentially a digital piano with a real acoustic piano keyboard and action. The tone is still sampled, but the touch is almost identical to a real piano. I say almost, because the action does not contain a damper action. An acoustic piano has, in addition to an action, a damper action. The dampers mute all strings (save for the very top notes) and these are held to the strings by springs (upright) or weights (grand). When a key is depressed, the damper levers are picked up by the action when the hammer is half way to the string to allow the strings to that note to resonate until the key is raised and the damper comes back onto the string. When the sustain pedal is depressed, the dampers are all lifted off the strings by the pedal mechanism. The resistance of the damper springs/weights is felt when the key is almost half way down – and without a damper action in a hybrid piano, it does not feel exactly the same. Also, when the sustain pedal is depressed, you will not feel any damper lever pickup resistance in the key as the dampers have been raised by the pedal. So, the touch changes when the pedal is depressed.
Volume Control and Headphones
The primary attraction to digital pianos is the affordability, volume control/headphones. However, using a digital piano at a volume level below that of an acoustic piano, may influence a bad habit of playing too hard and then finding it difficult to play quietly on an acoustic piano. Headphones are brilliant for practising discretely, but the experience is still very different to playing an acoustic piano. Volume control and headphones can mean you get much more playing and practise than if you were at an acoustic piano – especially if you are in a flat, shared house or work late and can only get ‘your time’ when others are sleeping!
Are you aware of ‘Silent’ pianos? These are real acoustic pianos with a very clever system which reads the key and pedal travel to trigger an integral digital sample unit for silent play via headphones. The acoustic piano sound is muted completely by a special hammer shank stopper rail. Upright and grands are available and may be a consideration if you are drawn to a digital piano purely for the need to play discretely. Cost can be similar to a hybrid digital but the benefit of owning a true acoustic is there too!
Maintenence Cost vs Depreciation
So the digital pianos usually cost less than a new acoustic piano. They require little/no maintenance. No tuning, regulating or voicing. That is certainly a saving. Digital pianos are always in tune. On the other hand, there is a ‘living’ element in an acoustic piano with a cycle of the piano very gradually going out of tune, the tuner coming to tune it and the sound being transformed and lovely – every 6 months. The lifespan of a quality acoustic piano is literally generations. The acoustic piano does have running costs but it will be maintainable, provide more than a lifetime of service and should hold its value (not in real terms) subject to adequate piano price inflation. The digital piano may have a much shorter lifespan and is only repairable if replacement parts are available. The depreciation is significant and rapid. The tone will always be the same – except for adjustments you may make via its settings (where featured).
The Cost of Affordability and Authenticity
A big attraction to digital pianos is affordability. But, with so many gradual refinements in near reach, it is very easy to progress through the range upwards and find yourself beyond your starting budget. Sure, this can be true with so many things and we need self control and steer clear from the slippery slope! But, the attraction shifts to authenticity. The appeal was affordability and now the appeal is authenticity. Each progression within the range offers a more authentic piano experience. When you find a digital piano you are happy with, compare its price with an acoustic or silent piano – just in case you find that the digital piano with wooden keys (like a real piano), shiny black case (like a real piano), graded hammer action with escapement (like a real piano) costs more than a real piano!