Having to toil mightily for lo these many years to earn my daily beans has taken a toll on my creativity, to the point that I am feeling desiccated. I love my work, and it has its creative elements, but it’s not enough. And so I decided it was time to re-learn playing the piano. I played several instruments as a wee youth, and even played in my high school marching band (heavy uniform in the summer on pavement, yeah baby! With hat!) but that was then. Way back then.
It’s not as simple as sitting down and banging on the keys because I don’t have a piano, and am nowhere near a music store. Being first and foremost a total nerd, my first task was to pummel the Googles for information. This occupied many pleasant hours of learning about synthesizers, workstation and arranger keyboards, MIDI controllers, and digital pianos. They come in many configurations, from 25-key MIDI controllers to full 88-key digital pianos. I adore a good acoustic piano because you feel it in your body, and no electronic instrument can replicate all the overtones and harmonics. But I wanted something portable, and with some extra voices like a good bass and horns.
Speaking of horns, have you noticed how popular music has shriveled down to electric guitars and synths? When was the last time you grooved to a great saxophone or trumpet solo? Or clarinet, flute, accordion? Real strings and not syrupy synths? Good luck even hearing a real singer, as so many of them have been Borged by Auto-Tune and sound like robots. Sure, it was cool how Cher did it in “Believe”. It was novel and original. Everything since then is boring manufactured song product. Why even bother with human singers? Just program it all on a computer, draw up some Anime faces and call it done.
Getting back to the fun of shopping for a new awesome toy, and calculating the perfect balance of price, features, and quality, I had it narrowed down to the Casio PX350 and the Yamaha P-105 88-key digital pianos. These are very nice electronic pianos with graded hammer action, which means they are similar to an acoustic piano: you need a stronger touch on the lower keys, a lighter touch on the higher keys, and the harder you strike them the louder they are. They’re nicely portable at around 27 pounds each.
I live a long way from a music store, so YouTube was invaluable for hearing what the various keyboards sound like. Obviously some videos are better-produced and more enhanced. But when you have a large enough sample that includes both vendor and user videos you get a good idea of how they really sound.
I chose the Yamaha P-115, which is the brand-new update of the P-105. It’s a minor upgrade: it has a basic set of just 14 voices, which includes grand piano (sampled from Yamaha’s CFIIIS 9′ grand piano, which is an amazing piano that everyone should hear in person), electric piano, organ, electric bass, acoustic bass, harpsichord, and strings. There is no touchscreen because it doesn’t need one, just nice buttons for everything, and the major new feature is an iPod port. I don’t have any i-Devices. I don’t want one. I could have gotten a nice buy on a P-105. But someday, when I doubtless will want to sell the P-115 and get something a little more advanced, having the newer model with an i-Stuff port will make it easier to sell.
The Casio PX350 is a gorgeous instrument with hundreds of voices and special effects. If you go on YouTube and search for PianoManChuck, you can hear previews of every single voice. PianoManChuck is a wonderful man who is a professional musician and electronic musical instrument reviewer. By the time he was rolling up the 250th demo I was more than done with the Casio. Most of them sound alike, and strings and guitars and horns don’t sound like strings and guitars and horns, but the same old generic synths. If you’re into that sort of thing then you will love the Casio. It sounds nice, it looks nice, and it has a good assortment of connectivity ports including a proper 1/4″ line out, USB, and a built-in 17-track recorder.
After weeding out all the stuff I don’t care for I’m down to about a dozen voices, and all 14 voices sound great on the Yamaha. I’d rather have a few that I really like than a skillion that don’t sound good. So that leaves the other burning issue of digital pianos, and that is keyboard action and touch. There are endless online debates over which one has the better, more realistic touch. Let me tell you something about realistic touch: anyone who has ever laid hands on more than one acoustic piano knows that every one is a little different, and age and use make them behave differently over time. So there is no one magic keyboard with the perfect acoustic-style touch, because nothing like that exists. Ideally you can go to a store and try them out. If you live out at the tail end of nowhere like I do and can’t do that, a good return policy is the next best thing, and return shipping charges are cheaper than gas.
At any rate it’s not worth stressing out over, unless you like engaging in nitpicky online debates, or have devoted your life to honing your skills on a single piano and can’t bear to touch anything else.
Remember the olden days of mail order, when they warned you it would take 6-8 weeks? My stuff is supposed to be here in a couple of days, and I am in a fever of impatience. Fortunately, my awesome neighbor loaned me her Casio WK110, which is an older basic digital piano, which sounds nice and plays nice, and I can practice my lessons. You know how you see piano players using both hands, and playing different notes with each hand? It’s harder than it looks 🙂