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Image by Victor Barrios

Digital vs Keyboard

What's the key difference?

The Differences are Key

In recent years, there's been an explosion in the number of high quality, digital instruments offering a full key bed of piano keys. Some are called "digital pianos" and others "keyboards". This isn't just marketing, there are indeed distinct qualities that differentiate the two. It is worth noting that these terms are not ironclad, but for the most part, there are certain things you are mainly looking for with these instruments.

So what are the main differences? The short answer is that a digital piano aims to recreate the experience of a grand piano digitally, while a keyboard's focus is to serve a large variety of production or live related uses. We'll dig into this a little more below.

Home or Studio?

With most digital pianos, there's an emphasis on how it fits in a home environment. Many piano players, be they students, performers, hobbyists, or recording professionals, desire to have the piano in a living room environment. This comes with its own set of needs. For example, a good built-in speaker system is a key feature, allowing a digital piano to function perfectly without needing a computer or external speakers. Additionally, the interface should be easy to navigate without the need for a computer. Digital pianos, like keyboards, are often equipped with many "under the hood" features, and a great digital piano will make these accessible without needing a "rig".

Keyboards, on the other hand, are generally designed to fit production or live applications. The ability to seamlessly interface with a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), load in sounds, and make it easy to record are key features. Many keyboards come with drum pads, knobs, filters, and other interactive elements that make it easy to record, tweak, and mix non-piano sounds. Other keyboards will focus on the live aspect, making it easy to set up and trigger sounds on stage. Many keyboards offer smaller key beds or lighter weights with portability in mind.

Accuracy or Creativity?

The best digital pianos and keyboards offer the best of both worlds, but generally, digital pianos tend to focus on accurately emulating the experience of playing a grand or upright piano. A lot of detail is placed on the quality of the keys, which includes carefully considering weight. Many digital pianos are able to emulate the subtle tactile feel of the hammer action inside a grand piano, going so far as to trigger the "imperfect" sounds that come out of the mechanical functions of classic pianos. The technology has advanced so far that it the differences between sitting down and playing a digital piano versus a grand can almost be hard to notice. Not only do you get a similar overall experience, but you get the added benefit of saving space and money. As well, most digital pianos offer modeling of a variety of different pianos, be it grand pianos, upright, or organs.

The focus of keyboards, on the other hand, is to provide access to a wide variety of creative sounds in a production environment. Accurate piano sounds may or may not be built in, but these sounds can be triggered via software, and customized. Many keyboards will interface or come bundled with software to introduce players to a huge variety of sounds, be it acoustic or electronic. Onboard controls may make it easy to tweak certain sounds on-the-fly. In terms of the hardware, keyboards can offer both weighted and non-weighted models. Some players may want to emulate the feel of a grand piano key bed, while others want light keys for portability or easy sample triggering.

What's Your Look?

We'll say it - it's not vain to care about looks when it comes to digital pianos and keyboards. For digital pianos, as mentioned, fitting in a living room or main area of a home is the focus, and that means that many of these pianos emulate the stylings of high end grand pianos. Be it gloss black, matte black, white, or natural wood treatment, digital pianos mostly aim for a handsome, clean, presentable look.

Keyboards, on the other hand, want to fit the vibe of the studio or the stage. Minimalism can be desired or a bold, stand out look. An abundance of knobs, pads, and sliders on a keyboard are not considered aesthetic aberrations, but fit the studio look while being functional. Some keyboards take unconventional or experimental design cues, as it's all fair game in the keyboard world.

A Hybrid Approach

So far, we've highlighted the lines between digital pianos and keyboards, but the reality is that these are not distinct lines. In fact, many digital pianos are incredible studio workhorses and many keyboards offer the same functionalities as digital pianos. Many manufacturers are even distinctly going for a "hybrid" approach, as the lines between recording artist, hobbyist, producer, and student are blurring. After all, music is creative and in the music industry, we're looking to break boundaries, not create them. So explore the world of digital pianos and keyboards and find out what's best for you, despite the label.