B&H 2009 Portable Keyboard Buyer's Guide
Portable electronic keyboards as a class represent some of the most versatile and cost-effective musical instruments on the market. The technology involved in their design has become cheaper and more sophisticated, the sound of the keyboards is cleaner and more realistic, and the educational component is more accessible and advanced than ever before.
Whether you're a first-time buyer, or a seasoned professional musician, think of this article as guide for the perplexed. If you're considering purchasing a portable keyboard as a gift for a loved one or for family fun, for a child's first music lessons or for personal use, we'll quickly get you acquainted with the features and attributes common to most portable keyboards. And we promise to keep the tech-talk to a minimum.
B&H carries a comprehensive range of portable keyboards, and we'll be taking a look at a cross-section of models we stock, selected with an eye toward size, performance, and the all-important bottom line. Let's get started.
Coming to Terms
Portability in a keyboard is generally defined by battery operation and a (comparatively) lightweight construction, as is true of other portable digital electronic devices such as cell phones, MP3 players, radios, and laptop computers. Portable keyboards are most commonly available in 61-, 76-, and 88-key versions.
| 61-key Portable Keyboard with Light-up Keys
They include built-in stereo speakers and amplification for self-contained monitoring, rhythm accompaniment to play along with and sharpen timing skills, and effects processors such as reverb and echo that enhance and "enlarge" the various sounds.
They usually offer on-board music lessons and tutorials, metronomes, and internal recording capability expressed as single- or multi-track sequencers. The sequencer allows the player to record performances or original compositions, layering a selection of sounds from the instrument's often large and varied internal sound library.
| 76-key Portable Keyboard
Speaking of recording, some portable keyboard models include a sampling section with a limited memory, allowing for a real-time digital recording of virtually any sound from a flute to a jackhammer, which can then be played back in a musical fashion on the keyboard.
|Figure 3 - 88-key Portable Keyboard
Other preferred features often available in a portable keyboard include lighted key guides (very helpful for the young novice), backlighting for the display, and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) or USB connectors for use with additional keyboards or computer programs.
Below we include a brief list defining terms and features you'll commonly encounter as you compare portable keyboards:
- Touch Response or Velocity Sensitivity The loudness and softness (dynamics) of the notes the keyboard produces as it is responds to the touch of the player's fingers. For very young children we recommend portable keyboards that do not offer touch response; the consistent playing dynamic will be more satisfying and less frustrating for smaller, weaker fingers with less-developed fine motor skills.
- Keyboard Action The weight, resistance, and speed of the keys in response to playing pressure. Un-weighted or Semi-weighted keys feel lighter and more like the action of an organ or synthesizer, while Weighted Hammer-Action and Graded Progressive-Action keys, offering real hammers under the hood, respond more like the keys of an acoustic piano.
- Polyphony The total number of notes a keyboard is capable of playing back simultaneously, whether in real-time performance or by the layered tracks of an internal or external sequencer.
- Multi-timbral The number of separate parts (or sounds) a keyboard is capable of playing back simultaneously, whether through its own internal sequencer or over MIDI via an external one. Not to be confused with polyphony.
- MIDI An acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, MIDI is a serial protocol devised by several music keyboard manufacturers in the early 1980's. By connecting the 5-pin DIN ports on a keyboard with a special MIDI cable, multiple electronic keyboards and synthesizers may be played simultaneously by a single keyboard or an internal/external sequencer, creating some serious arrangements and orchestrations.
- Splits and Layers Splitting a keyboard into dual or multiple user-defined or preset zones allows for assigning separate sounds to different areas of the keyboard (a bass sound for the left hand and a piano sound for the right hand, for example.) Layering allows for simultaneous real-time or sequenced performance and playback of different sounds (piano and strings, trumpet and saxophone, etc.)
- Controllers Pedals, pitch bend and modulation wheels (for increased vibrato), joysticks, and ribbons (for smooth glissandos or glides and leaps across a wide range of notes) are all examples of performance controllers, used to enhance the realism, expressiveness and excitement of playing a particular instrument sound. Pedals, pitch bend, and modulation wheels are most commonly found on portable keyboards.
- Storage Cards and Drives Just like cameras, computers, and other things digital, many portable keyboards offer slots for Compact Flash or Smart Cards, Micro drives, and USB drives for backing up programs, sequences and other keyboard-related data.
Let's go shopping
Here's a list of portable keyboards available at B&H for your perusal and delectation. We've divided them into groups according to their size as 61-, 76-, and 88-key models.
The Yamaha PSR E223 is a great starter keyboard for novices of all ages, particularly young children. It features 61 non-velocity-sensitive standard size keys, a versatile sound library with over 300 instruments, 12 drum kits, stereo amplification with ported speakers and very good bass response, and a 100-song library to play along with. Priced around $90.
The Casio CTK 2100 is another good starter keyboard, featuring 61 unweighted piano- style, touch-sensitive keys, a built-in sampler with 10 sec. of sampling time, a comprehensive beginner's lesson plan with a metronome, and a highly playable sound library with over 400 tones. There's a collection of 110 songs to play along with, and some of the 150 internal rhythm accompaniments are downright cool. Fun and education mix well here for approximately $100.
The Casio LK 100 offers a guide light for each of its 61 full-sized keys kids love this feature. It comes with a graduated lesson system, 100 sounds, 100 built-in songs, and a relatively large LCD display big enough to show fingerings and chords. Its 12-voice polyphony is a bit limited, but it does offer 5-part multi-timbral functionality when used with an external sequencer (MIDI included). Kids and grownups can enjoy this unit for around $130.
The Yamaha EZ 200 also features a guide light for each of its 61 keys, touch response, 32-voice polyphony, MIDI, and an ambitious sound library with 375 sounds featuring a stereo grand piano. The keyboard also includes 100 built-in songs and Yamaha's highly-regarded lesson function, which offers a fingering guide, a chord dictionary, and grade performance evaluation. It comes with a dust cover and headphones included in the free Survival Kit 88, and runs in the ballpark of $150.
The Casio CTK 4000 offers 61 keys with 2 user-selectable levels of touch-sensitivity (very cool) and 48-voice polyphony in support of its 5-song, 12000-note internal sequencer. It uses Casio's proprietary AHL synthesis technology to produce 570 of the most realistic instrument recreations you're gonna hear from a keyboard in this price range. It offers a full-featured lesson plan, a USB port for USB/MIDI data connectivity, and 16-part multi-timbral capability. A worthy choice for both novices and pros. Approximately $150.
The Yamaha PSR E323 is equipped with 61 touch-sensitive keys, a backlit LCD, and a 2-track sequencer with enough internal flash memory to store up to 5 original songs. This keyboard breaks ground with separate 100+ collections of songs and accompaniments. The 480+ voices include a stereo sampled grand piano and a realistic collection of organs, strings and brass. This model offers dual layer and split keyboard modes, MIDI input and output connectors, and 5-watt stereo amplification with a pair of 4.7" speakers. In the ballpark of $160.
The Yamaha PSR E413 offers 61 standard-sized, touch-sensitive keys, well over 500 high-quality sounds reproduced through ported 2-way speakers with excellent bass response, and a pitch bend wheel for expressive control of the various instruments available in the sound palette. The unit offers a 6-track sequencer and 16-part multi-timbral capability, along with a USB port for downloading additional songs from the Internet. The comprehensive educational component includes a graded lesson plan and a chord dictionary. Around $230.
With 76 keys you essentially lose an octave's worth of playable real estate at both the top and the bottom end of the keyboard, though still retaining a reasonable degree of portability and greater flexibility in split and multi-timbral modes than a 61-key model will offer.
The Casio WK 200 is equipped with 76 very playable unweighted piano-style keys with good touch sensitivity. The unit offers keyboard split and layer functionality, a 6-track 12000-note sequencer, 48-voice polyphony, and a large internal library with 570 sounds. The unit offers an excellent graded music lesson plan with a built-in metronome, a large backlit display, and some of the best-sounding internal reverb effects out there in the portable market. A 10-second sampler is included, along with inputs for a microphone and an MP3 player you can play and sing along with your personal favorites. A bargain at approximately $200.
The Casio WK 500 includes all of the features of the WK 200 we discussed above, with the addition of 100 more sounds, nearly 50 additional rhythm accompaniments, an SD card slot for backup memory storage, a USB/MIDI port, and a pitch bend performance wheel. The large backlit display glows in a nice bright blue, and the unit also offers an arpeggiator and harmonizing functionality for those interested in creating music in the trance, techno, and electronica vein. Around $260 and worth every penny.
The Yamaha YPG 235 is equipped with 76 touch-response keys and a 12-watt stereo amplifier with a pair of 2-way ported speakers that serve as one of the best sound systems we've heard in any portable keyboard in its class. The Yamaha Educational Suite is useful for both beginners and intermediate players, and the expansive sound library features a striking stereo-sampled piano you'll want to play forever. There's a pitch wheel, a 6-track sequencer, on-board equalization and effects processing, 16-part multi-timbral functionality, and a USB/MIDI port for file transfer and external storage. A very complete package in the neighborhood of $340.
The Yamaha YPG 635 is our sole entry in the 88-key portable category. Think of it as a big brother with all of the features of the YPG 235 listed above, but with a handsome partial wood grain finish and matching keyboard stand that impart a classy furniture-like appearance to the unit. The keyboard features a Graded Hammer Standard action design, which convincingly mimics the low- and top-end resistance characteristics of an acoustic piano. This imparts incredible realism to the performance of the high-quality piano sounds included in the huge 500+ sound library, and the 64-voice polyphonic capability of the instrument offers the opportunity for some pretty convincing sequenced orchestrations. Separate USB ports are available for both MIDI and external storage applications. Professional sound and performance for around $900.
We're going to briefly discuss some useful and essential accessories that you should consider to complement your keyboard purchase. A case or carrying bag is essential for safe, proper transportation and storage of your new keyboard. Blankets and old boxes are not a reliable substitute, so consider this purchase non-optional unless it is included with the keyboard.
An adjustable keyboard stand also falls into the essential category for proper performance and positioning of the keyboard.
An adjustable stool or bench (for a larger keyboard) will go a long way toward ensuring a pleasurable and comfortable playing experience.
A keyboard dust cover is recommended to protect a stationary keyboard from dust, liquid spills, curious family pets, and so on.
A keyboard pedal (or several if the keyboard offers additional pedal inputs) is absolutely essential to expressive keyboard performance of acoustic and electric piano sounds, and a good one is not very expensive.
A decent set of headphones ensures privacy and often provides a more intimate and magical musical experience while practicing or performing. Headphones also ensure that you won't disturb others who may be in the same room, or sleeping if you're up late practicing or composing.
We hope this article has been useful and helps you acquire a keyboard you can truly enjoy and learn from.