Getting a new set of keys? Welcome aboard!

Whether you are a pro or a starter, you will eventually come to the ultimate question - which keyboard should I buy? The answer to that question might be obvious, or just plain difficult since today you can find tons of keyboards out there ranging from only 100-200€ up to even 7000€. So... which one is THE one for you?

Before we even consider keyboard brands and models, you really need to know the types of keyboards you can actually run into. Basically there are:
  • Arrangers
  • Workstations
  • Stage pianos
  • Home pianos
  • Synths
  • MIDI controllers
Each type has it's specific use and lack a really big amount of something the other type has plenty so you might actually end up with several keyboards.

People often buy keyboards because someone else told them to buy a specific keyboard, or because the store manager told them to buy a specific model. What people often forget is that each keyboard has a specific purpose, and that 2 different keyboards won't do the same job the same way.

After such a purchase people end up disappointed and start claiming a specific keyboard is not good, and that couldn't be more further from the truth – it's just you got a wrong keyboard for what you need. So this mini guide is here to make your life a bit easier, and your purchase a little less painful. In the end, I hope you find a perfect keyboard for your needs and you make tons of cool music with it.


Also, I'd like to stress out two things:
  1. Everything written here is just my humble opinion and it may differ from yours – so please respect that.
  2. Almost all of this guide is concentrated on "The big 3" (Yamaha, Korg, Roland)
    since those are the keyboards I had a chance to work with.
Arrangers

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Arranger keyboards are easily recognized by styles on board. That means there are hundreds of accompaniment rhythms you can play along to. These keyboards usually start at a very cheap price and offer no sound customization (or almost none). On the other hand... there are professional arranger keyboards that cost a small fortune that offer a wider range of styles, sound customization, sampling etc., but most of them go into the cheap section.

When I say "cheap" I'm comparing the price to the rest of the keyboard world... and you have to know – this whole game is not cheap at all. If you want even a decent keyboard – you will have to reach fairly deep into your pockets.

So... what do arrangers offer and what do they lack? As mentioned, obviously, they have styles you can play along with (one man band)... Cheaper models (like the entry level Yamaha PSR series) have only 2 style variations, 1 intro and 1 outro variations (professional arrangers have 4 variations, 3 intros/outros... or even more). When it comes to sounds, you're stuck to what you get out of the box. You can't load new samples, and you can't modify the ones in the keyboard. There are some arrangers from the mid-entry level that offer changing basic effects like reverb, chorus, filters etc... but those are really basic sound editing.

You can't use multiple sounds at once apart from 2 sounds layering and splitting. If you want piano and strings – you'll be just fine. But if you want some E.Piano on the left and piano+strings on the right part – you won't be able to do so.

You may have noticed I said how you can't load new sounds, and yet – I mentioned sampling. There are arranger keyboards that offer that option – but they cost a lot (2500-3000€). So the majority really doesn't offer that since the initial purpose of an arranger keyboard is playing along preset styles – not sound editing and sampling.
Basically, if you want sound customization, and splitting/layering option – you do NOT want an arranger since you won't be able to do any of those stuff.

Examples:
Yamaha: PSR e223/e323/e412/s550/s710/s910/1500/2000/3000, Tyros1/2/3...
Korg: Pa50/Pa80/Pa500/Pa800/Pa2x...
Roland: E09/E50, EXR series/ Va series/Prelude...

Workstations

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As the name itself says – you get a lot of "work" done by this type of keyboard. Do not get fooled by some manufacturers claiming the keyboard is a workstation (Like Roland GW series). Real workstations DO NOT have styles on board. So what do you get? Well, there's really tons of workstations as well. From entry level up to flagships – they offer the same thing - Lots and lots of sound customization and sound manipulation.

You wanna split/layer 3-4-5-6 sounds across the keyboard? No problem! High-end models offer sampling as well, and so do some mid-range workstations (but it's optional). The major difference between workstations come from their Combi/Performance section. That's the part where you get to mix/layer/split several sounds at once.

Korg keyboards use up to 8 programs in a combi, while their newest workstations (M50, M3, OASYS) can use up to 16 programs at once. Yamaha uses only 4 but offer more parts per voice (I'll talk about those a bit later), and Roland has a bit chaotic offer with 2/4/16 parts depending on the keyboard.

Sounds on workstation keyboards sound much better then the ones on arrangers (except the high-end model arrangers such as Tyros, Pa2x or AUDYA which sound equally good – but even those don't have sound customization as workstations do).
If you play in a full band this is the type of keyboard you want.

Examples:
Yamaha: Motif/ES/XS/XF, MO, EX5...
Korg: Trinity, Triton, TR, M3, M50, n364, X50...
Roland: Juno series*, Fantom/X/G...

* Not all Junos have full workstation features

Stage Pianos / Home Pianos

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With the "piano" word in it's name – a stage piano boasts with 88 piano style (graded) hammer action keys and beautiful piano sounds. The best thing you can get if you're a pianist and if you're looking for the "Piano feel" to your keyboard.

These keyboards don't have many sounds... most of them have only a few – but those few are first class sounds. You get pianos, a couple of Rhodes, some strings, clavis, and maybe some organs... but playing organs on a weighted keybed is a big no-no.
There are stage pianos that have a bit "workstation" feel to them like the Roland RD series, or the new Yamaha CP series. So if you want a great piano feel, brilliant piano sounds and still an option to get some other sounds as well – this is the way to go. But don't expect to have all the features as the real workstation would.

Home pianos are basically the same thing, except they have built in speakers and vary from portable pianos (like the Yamaha P series or Kawai ES) up to real piano imitations like the Clavinovas. Those are a beautiful addition to your interior design, but it would be a bit of an overkill to drag a 70kg keyboard onto the stage every time.

Examples:
Yamaha: CP33, CP300, CP50, CP5, CP1, P140, P155, Clavinova series...
Korg: SP series
Roland: RD series, FP series

Synths

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Synths tend to be "old school" keyboards – offering real synth sounds like leads, saws, and pads. They usually have tons of real time control knobs to control the synth waves inside and don't have any (or very few) of the standard sounds (like pianos, organs, guitars etc). If you're into MOOG sounds, heavy leads... maybe get one – or a RADIAS expansion card for your M3. These keyboards rely on raw waves and analog synthesis.

Examples:
Roland V-synth, Roland GAIA, Roland SH201, Korg RADIAS, Korg Poly, Minimoog...

Variations

It's not a very accurate term but I don't know how to call it. These are the type of keyboards that have specifications of other two types. For example Yamaha's S series of workstations. What you get is actually a stage piano oriented workstation. Yamaha S90ES is basically identical to the MotifES8 but it has more piano sounds, a bit different controls, but no graded hammer action keys.

There's the Yamaha MM6 which is a hybrid Workstation/Arranger. It has most of its internal sounds taken from the original Motif, some basic sound editing options, and yet – it has accompaniment styles you can play along with.

Roland also has a similar cross-breed in a form of the GW series. Sounds taken from the Fantom workstation line combined with styles you can play along with.
Even though this might seem like a good thing (having 2 different things in the same keyboard) it actually means the keyboard lacks lots of features from both worlds – very good for beginners though.

Examples:
Yamaha MM6/8, Yamaha S90ES (high-end gear), Yamaha S90XS (high-end gear), Roland
GW7, Roland GW8....

MIDI Controllers

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No sounds – only keys. That's about it. You use them to control other sources of sound – being that your keyboard, a module or software in your PC.

Examples:
M-audio Axiom/Keystation, Yamaha KX series, Korg Kontrol49, Roland PCR series...
 
Last edited by a moderator: Jan 11, 2014
Skipp, Aug 27, 2010
#1