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Digital Piano Guide & F.A.Q | What is a digital piano anyway?

Digital Pianos - What is a digital piano anyway
Chris Hammond

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Digital Piano is a term you’ve likely encountered, but what exactly does it mean?

Digital Piano
A modern digital piano from the Yamaha Arius YDP Series

Firstly, the expression ‘digital piano’ is often conflated with ‘electric piano’, although this is something of a misnomer, as an electric piano is its own entity altogether.

I’ll seek to qualify that particularly salient point from the get-go, as it will make the rest of this article significantly more intelligible…

An electric piano is a phrase associated with a particular style of digital piano or keyboard, which was (and is still) famous for its inclusion in a broad selection of beloved genres, ranging from rhythm and blues, through to soul, Motown, and rock (to name just a few).

Think Ray Charles playing a Fender Rhodes whilst performing ‘Georgia On My Mind, and you get the idea.

So…what is a Digital Piano?

Digital pianos emerged in the late 1980’s/early 1990s, in the midst of the electric organ craze.

They were, by today’s standards, fairly simplistic, with Yamaha and Roland as some of the earliest manufacturers of the digital piano. In the same vein as mobile phones, computers, and televisions, the technology of the digital piano has progressed exponentially and continues to improve with each generation.

In its simplest terms, a digital piano is a piano instrument that relies on digital sampling to produce its sound, as opposed to using strings the way an acoustic piano does.

There is no limit to what can be sampled for use with a digital piano, although typically you’ll find (intuitively) a variety of piano sounds at your disposal, alongside orchestral stringed instrument sounds, brass and woodwind instrument sounds and, somewhat ironically, even electric piano sounds too.

There is, as you might have imagined, a fair bit more to it than that, but let’s focus on that and the myriad surrounding terminology a bit later on.

Benefits & Features

Maintenance

Digital-Piano-maintenance

As opposed to an acoustic piano, a digital piano (for the most part) requires almost no maintenance during its lifespan. It requires no tuning and can be kept (within reason) in almost any climate without issue.

Technology & practicality

Digital-Piano-technology

A digital piano is, for the most part, easier to move and transport than an acoustic piano, and even the most basic of modern digital pianos will offer a selection of different sounds and features, such as recording, to assist with both practice and engagement with the instrument.

Digital pianos will offer a headphone connection, so you can practice at any time without upsetting the neighbours. You’ll usually find you’re able to connect your digital piano to your computer too, in order to use it with any recording software you might have.

The quality of the modern digital piano is such that even the most established of examining bodies, such as the ABRSM and Trinity Guildhall, will permit the performance of gradings on digital pianos.

Pricing

Pricing

Whilst prices for digital pianos range fairly widely, in the same way as all technology, a basic digital piano will cost you a great deal less than its acoustic analog.

“A traditional-style ‘furniture’ digital piano (dependent on brand and series) will start out at around £750. A new acoustic piano will cost, on average, more than four times as much.”

There is an argument that purchasing a used acoustic piano mitigates this price hurdle to some degree, but this argument rarely factors in the longer-term costs of upkeep such as tuning, which can be as much as £200 a session.

If you consider that tuning is typically required anually, or whenever the instrument is moved, and very soon you’re forking out a lot more than you might have intended, just to maintain the instrument as it is.

It’s nearly time to explore the options available in the digital piano market, but before we get there I’m going to introduce…the Jargon Buster.

Jargon Buster

Jargon

Like all areas of commerce, the world of musical instrument retail is littered – festooned, even – with jargon; a meaningless vernacular to those of you who don’t studiously read product manuals, but nevertheless one that is essential to understanding the market itself.

Luckily, ePianos is here to rescue you from terminology purgatory, with the help of our Jargon Buster – a veritable index of explanation and illumination, designed to give you a head start in your search for the perfect instrument:

TerminologyDefinition (for normal people)
Digital PianoA digital piano uses samples, as opposed to traditional acoustics, to produce sound. These samples are generated by a computer inside the instrument, hence the ‘digital’ nomenclature. An example of a digital piano would be a Yamaha CLP785. More help and information about digital pianos can be found here.
Electric PianoOften confused with ‘digital’ piano, and electric piano is in fact a slightly different animal. An example of an electric piano would be a Fender Rhodes, which uses more of a guitar-style ‘pickup’ for tone generation. More recently, the term has become conflated with ‘digital piano’, though these are really two separate things.
PolyphonyPolyphony refers to the number of sounds (samples) that are able to be generated in any one instance. A greater polyphony is desirable (generally speaking 256 is optimal), as a lower polyphony count or ‘sample rate’ can result in some notes being curtailed or omitted, the closer you get to the ‘limit’. A polyphony of 256 is in fact comprised of a maximum of 128 separate stereo tones, as each sound must be sent to both speakers on the instrument.
GradingKey grading refers to the representation of the weight of the keyboard itself as it progresses from bass to treble. On an acoustic piano, the bass notes use longer strings, and accordingly a longer hammer mechanism to strike them, with the inverse true of the shorter treble strings. Verisimilitude is achieved digitally using clever mechanics, with linear grading – where each note is individually weighted – being preferable.
VoicesThese are instruments represented by the instrument, be it a piano, strings, harpsichord, etc.
StylesStyles are a combination of rhythms and voices, designed to give you a headstart in a particular genre. For example, a jazz style might consist of a series of drum patterns with a piano, upright bass, and trumpet voice prepared.
SynthesizerOften used interchangeably with ‘keyboard’, the term synthesizer or ‘synth’ is in fact contextualised by the use of ‘oscillators’ – essentially sound waveforms – as opposed to sample-based sounds. An example would be the Yamaha MODX series.
RhythmOften used synonymously with Styles, rhythms are in fact more specifically inferred to mean drum patterns.
Key ActionThe physical mechanism designed to reproduce an acoustic piano’s hammer and key system. This improves with an increase in spend until you arrive at the Yamaha AvantGrand series, which in fact uses a fully-featured acoustic mechanism to trigger its samples.
USB to HostThis refers to an instrument’s ability to communicate with your computer’s recording software – often known as a DAW – using a USB cable. Depending on your computer’s operating system, sometimes an additional file known as a ‘driver’ is required, but these are usually very simple to install.
MIDINow more and more deprecated in favour of more modern USB to Host (see above), MIDI or ‘Musical Instrument Digital Interface’ is a method of sending (and sometimes receiving) notation and control information – i.e. key presses and dial turns – to and from an instrument. A MIDI connection is usually a 5 pin circular connection, sometimes with corresponding MIDI in, MIDI out and MIDI Thru ports on the instrument itself.
WAVAn audio format, understood by most playback devices. WAV files are usually quite large, operating at 10MB (megabytes) per 1 minute of recording.
MP3An audio format, also understood by most modern playback devices. MP3 files are ‘compressed’ sound files of a ‘lossy’ (lesser) quality than the original sound file the MP3 was produced from.
ClavinovaAn umbrella term for a flagship series of Yamaha digital pianos. This term has become synonymous with the phrase ‘digital piano’, in the way that ‘Hoover’ has replaced ‘vacuum cleaner’. More info about the various sub-ranges within the Clavinova range here.
FirmwareIn the same you (very) occasionally find yourself updating your computer’s operating system, be it Windows or Mac OS, operating system inside digital instruments can also be upgraded, improving reliability, fixing bugs, and even offering new features. You can join up to our newsletter to stay up to date with the latest firmware developments here.

Yamaha P Series

Yamaha Portable Series

These are Yamaha’s ‘portable’ range of pianos, sometimes referred to as ‘stage pianos’, designed to accommodate smaller locations or to be easier to transport for the performing musician. They appear ostensibly as the ‘top-section’ of a digital piano, with stands and pedals available as separate accessories.

Yamaha YDP Arius

Yamaha Arius Digital Piano

The basic elements of the perfect digital piano, featuring 88 keys, a small selection of voices (sounds) and three foot-pedals like a traditional acoustic piano – this range is very similar in concept to the more advanced CLP series pianos, and they are designed as full ‘furniture’ pianos, complete with base unit and stand. These are the best pianos for those with a higher premium on price.

Yamaha CLP Clavinova

Yamaha CLP Digital Piano

The Clavinova CLP range is the flagship Yamaha series of pianos who’s primary service is to look, feel and sound like the world’s finest acoustic pianos. They are able to accurately model the sound and physical nuances of a number of classic pianos, and offer a number of controls for you to shape the sound as you like. These instruments are ideal for those looking to focus on traditional piano practice and performance.

Yamaha CSP Clavinova

Yamaha CSP Digital Piano

Designed to work primarily with the outstanding (free) ‘Smart Pianist’ Android and iOS app from Yamaha, the CSP offer a similar look and feel to the CLP series, but can be completely transformed using the app, which provides a vast array of additional voices, backings, learning material (such as a ‘follow-the-lights’-style tuition aid) and the ability to transform your iTunes library into a score of chords for you to play along with!

Yamaha CVP Clavinova

Yamaha CVP Digital Piano

Clavinova CVP – The Clavinova CVP range is the flagship ‘performance’ range of pianos, representing a combination of CLP series technology and a huge variety of backing rhythms and songs. This series’ primary service is performance, with a number of controls for creating and storing your own songs and settings. These are the best digital pianos for those looking for a combination of a superbly realistic piano touch, with an outstanding array of backings and accompaniments to play along with.

Other ranges available at ePianos.co.uk

Korg Pianos

We also stock an excellent choice of Korg digital pianos, another strong brand with a number of great-value alternatives to Yamaha pianos, and don’t forget to explore our ever-evolving range of used instruments:

Korg Digital Piano

Korg digital pianos are a great alternative to Yamaha’s product range, offering excellent playability, unique design, and great sound.

Used Digital Pianos

Used Digital Piano Category Banner

We stock a wide array of brands in our used piano range, and each of them is sold with FREE UK Mainland delivery, as well as a 12-month warranty, so you can buy with total confidence.

In summary – why buy a digital piano?

Each range of digital piano will offer varying key mechanisms and other innovations which will impact your playing experience greatly. 

Budget also plays a role too, and each of these digital or electric piano ranges will offer a more inexpensive ‘base’ model, featuring the core features of the range, all the way up to the premium flagship model featuring the very best technologies and design elements available.

Our advice is always to buy the best digital piano you can afford, as this gives you the best possible start and ensures you aren’t missing out on the best technology available to you.

Yamaha digital pianos are more popular than ever before, because using modern technology they so closely replicate the sound and feel of ‘traditional’ pianos that most people cannot tell the difference anymore.

Frequently asked questions

Piano-F.A.Q-1

How does a digital piano work?

Most Yamaha digital pianos work by taking a recorded sample from a traditional piano and amplifying it through built-in speakers.

But it’s not as simple as you might imagine. In order to accurately simulate the true sound of piano hundreds of samples must be taken, not just of the desired note being played but also the variations in strength and sympathetic vibrations of surrounding strings and the cabinet of the piano too.

Yamaha have a rich heritage in making world class grand pianos so they are experts at capturing the required sounds.

Are they as good as “real” pianos?

Most people cannot tell the difference between traditional pianos and Yamaha digital pianos today. This is because modern technology is so advanced that digital pianos can replicate the touch and feel of ‘real’ pianos so accurately.

Do the keys feel real?

Yes. The keys on digital pianos are ‘weighted’ so the way they feel to play and react to your input is just like the real thing. Don’t think that the digital versions feel and sound like that old Casio keyboard you got for Christmas in 1986!

Do they need tuning?

No. Yamaha digital pianos never go out tune, so never need tuning.

Do they have the right amount of keys?

Yes. Most digital pianos have the standard 88 keys.

Can I wear headphones to practice?

Yes. When you plug headphones into a digital piano the speakers are disabled so only you can hear the sound. This is ideal for practicing late at night or when you don’t want to disturb anyone. Note: The standard jack socket for headphones is 6.35mm. iPhone headphone plugs are 3.5mm so you would need an adaptor.

Why do digital piano prices vary so much?

The price of a piano depends on a number of factors, for example whether the keys are plastic or wooden, whether the speakers are big or small, the amount of extra features it has like rhythms and backings or multi track recordings. The cabinet design and finish is a factor too. Small portable pianos tend to be cheaper than the more traditional looking non-portable ones. This digital piano guide is designed to help you spend as much as you need on the right instrument.

Can I connect my iPhone/iPad?

Many of the Yamaha digital pianos and keyboards allow connection to an iPad/tablet now for various purposes. Yamaha have developed a lot of apps for their instruments, you can read more about them on the App Store.

What about other manufacturers of digital piano?

We are an independent shop but choose Yamaha and Korg digital pianos exclusively because they are regarded as the best in the world. You will find Yamaha and Korg digital pianos in most music schools, colleges, and universities, and teachers nearly always recommend Yamaha because of how authentic the touch and sound are.

Will a digital piano help me pass exams?

Yes, Yamaha also manufactures some of the world’s finest concert grand pianos and have a rich heritage over 100 years making pianos. The technology they have developed is shared into the design of their digital pianos to make them the most authentic digital pianos in the world. Therefore when you practice on a Yamaha digital piano it will prepare your technique for passing exams.

Yamaha digital pianos are also endorsed by some of the most-established grading associations, such as Trinity Guildhall and the ABRSM.

Why not have a look at ourPiano Chooserto help you decide what’s the best piano for you? Also, check out the various guides and reviews in our blog section for more help and advice.

Chris Hammond Manager
Chris is the manager of ePianos.co.uk and the driving force behind the demonstration, comparison and review videos that we feature on our website. He is responsible for overseeing all areas of the sales and marketing team, with extensive product knowledge and many years of experience as a musician and composer.
chrisonpiano
  • Really thorough post – would be good to know more about some other ranges and makes too

    F.A.Q was particularly handy!

    1. Thanks Don! We deal with a lot of other brands in our used piano stock, but we specialise in new Yamaha and Korg pianos and keyboards.

      – David Brandon

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