Digital piano and keyboard are often used interchangeably. Some of the features overlap, but they’re actually not the same. Before you buy one, you should take the time to learn the difference so you can avoid a costly mistake.
A digital piano is designed to reproduce an acoustic piano sound and feel. It uses a technology called Graded Hammer key action and a sound engine to do so. On the other hand, a keyboard comes with soft keys and a huge bank of sounds.
In short, if you want to learn the real piano you should get a digital piano, if you’re more interested in producing a wide variety of sounds, get a keyboard. Beginners usually get digital pianos while more advanced musicians or producers get keyboards.
An exception is low end keyboards, which are more for kids or if you have a really low budget.
If you’re still unsure, keep reading to figure out the best option for you.
Key Features of a Digital Piano
A digital piano is great if you can’t justify the price of an upright or grand piano. Or if you don’t have the space but still want a traditional piano sound.
Though the sound is generated in a different way using a “sound engine” with samples, digital pianos do a great job of recreating it.
For the feel, the main feature of digital pianos is the key action. This is what makes the sound louder the harder you press. They are either semi-weighted or have a “hammer action”. If you can, we recommend you get “hammer action” since it’s closer to the real feel of an acoustic piano.
Some even have “graded” hammer action which means that they are lighter in the high-end and feel heavier in the low keys, as this mimics the feel of pressing acoustic keys.
For the size, most digital pianos are full-size (88 keys), which we highly recommend if you want to be able to play songs that use the full range.
In terms of functionality, most digital pianos on the market today have good connectivity. This means you can use them as a MIDI controller and link to the limitless sounds a DAW and virtual instruments can create. For that, it’s best to have a USB-MIDI connection.
Brands like Roland, Yamaha and Casio all produce great quality digital pianos. There is a lot of choice and they all have different sound engines and some unique features.
For the price, Casio models tend to be a little more affordable, but digital pianos will set you back more than a keyboard, so this needs to play a part in your decision.
What is a Digital Piano Console?
A console digital piano is one of the types of digital pianos. It is sold as a full unit including a stand. On top of reproducing a real piano sound and feel, consoles are designed to look like an upright piano.
Some of the consoles allow the instrument to be removed from the stand for easier portability. But they are not as easily portable as slab style digital pianos.
If you care about the aesthetic and don’t mind paying a few extra dollars, a console is an impressive piece of furniture.
Key Features of a Keyboard
Keyboards are made to provide access to a huge bank of sounds that can be accessed through an electronic keyboard.
The main feature of keyboards is the sounds. They usually have a combination of tones, voices, synths, rhythms, and sounds effects to give players lots of customization options. Some of the common sounds include flute, brass instruments, drums, strings, organ and piano.
For the feel, most keyboards don’t have hammer action keys. Some have touch sensitivity, so you can get the approximate feel, and still experience louder notes if you press harder, but it isn’t as realistic as a digital piano. The common synth action a keyboard has is considered by many easier to play faster since the keys offer no resistance.
Size matters! Many keyboards are shorter in size, meaning they have a lower number of keys. 61-key and 49-key models are more common than full 88-key models. Great if you need something small and portable, but not for playing songs that require the full range of the piano.
The price: If you want great sounds for performing and producing you’ll need to invest in a good brand. There are some cheap options on the market which are good for beginners but have the feel of a toy, or a cheap imitation. Korg and Kawai are two examples of great brands.
Which is Best For Beginners?
There is not one option that is best for beginners. It really depends on what you’re interested in.
For beginners who wish to play popular and classical piano songs, we recommend a digital piano. If you wish to produce a variety of sounds and potentially use it for recording, we recommend a keyboard.
If you’re interested in both, there are high-end keyboards that offer both the advantages of a digital piano and a keyboard.
Most keyboards have less of a realistic feel, but they are much more affordable. If you choose a model with full-size keys, and some level of touch sensitivity, you can definitely use a keyboard to get through piano lessons. The pattern of keys and octaves is the same, just on a shorter scale. Most keyboards have a “transpose” function, letting you move the octaves higher or lower in pitch.
Digital pianos are bigger than most keyboards but still offer portability. These are usually marketed as “stage pianos” and are easy to carry in a case.
Other Features to Consider
As it is for most musical instruments, not all keyboards are the same, nor are all digital pianos. Here are important common features to take into account regardless of your choice.
- Pedals – A pedal is important for both instruments. But its versatility and quality is especially important with digital pianos as it allows full expression. With that said, it is still an important feature of keyboards.
- Sound Quality and Speakers – For both options, there is a range of sound quality that should be taken into account. A synthesizer sound is produced by amplifiers before going to speakers. On the other hand, a digital piano sound is created from sampled acoustic piano sound.
- MIDI Compatibility – These days, most electric pianos offer MIDI control. Whether you pick a digital piano or a keyboard, this means you can connect them to your computer and use the keys to control other samples and virtual instruments.
- Effects – Most digital pianos include effects such as reverb and often a delay. These aren’t essential, but they can add something extra to your playing and live performances. Keyboards are loaded with effects of varying quality depending on the price range.
- Recording and Playback – Being able to record your playing directly on the piano or keyboard is a neat feature. It can be useful for creating loops or being able to quickly listen to your performance.
We hope that this article helped you learn the major and more subtle differences between a keyboard vs.a digital piano and ultimately make a choice.
Despite the overlap in some of the features, they each have their specific applications.
For this reason, many versatile pianists actually own both.
Anna teaches piano and guitar and also has extensive experience recording music. She’s well read in music psychology and love to share the benefits of learning to play music.