Digital pianos are packed to the hilt with functionality these days, but what do the features on a digital piano do?
The level of performance you can expect from even inexpensive digital pianos these days is, frankly, staggering. Aside from providing authentic reproductions of pianos and other instruments, they feel like acoustic pianos to play, and often have innumerable other features to make them a valuable partner in your playing life.
If you’re only familiar with acoustic pianos, reading the features list for typical digital pianos can be a bit baffling, however.
To help to make things a lot clearer, here’s a guide to some of the terms used to describe digital piano features.
Fully weighted keyboard/ Progressive Hammer Action Keyboard/ Graded Hammer Action Keyboard
One of the defining features of an acoustic piano that sets it a part from a home keyboard or synthesizer is the weight of its keys. These require a certain amount of effort to press, so if you’re used to playing an acoustic instrument, a non-weighted, home keyboard can feel very odd and be difficult to play.
A fully weighted keyboard replicates the weight you would expect from an acoustic piano.
A hammer action keyboard not only imitates the weight of a piano keyboard, but the feel of it moving the hammers.
Other features can include ivory-feel keys (the surfaces of which feel like ivory, and prevents finger slippage as a result), and escapement (which recreates the defined ‘click’ when a key lands on an acoustic piano)
Progressive Damper Action
On early digital piano models, the damper (or sustain) function was basically just either on or off. As an acoustic piano is entirely mechanical, the damper rail can be partially engaged, for different levels of damped sustain.
The progressive damper action feature on digital pianos recreates this by offering different levels of damping according to how far the pedal is depressed.
Sound Engine/ Sound Generator
The Sound engine, or sound generator, is the means by which digital pianos produce their sound.
These days, just about every digital piano creates its sounds by use of PCM samples. Put simply, each note of a real acoustic piano will be digitally recorded in meticulous detail, and then mapped across the keys of a digital piano, so that the correct note plays according to the key that is pressed.
Most modern instruments take this a step further by recording each note of a piano at different dynamic levels (volumes). This is because the sonic character of a piano changes according to how hard the keys are pressed. Notes are much softer in tone when played quietly, and much brighter and harder when played with more force.
If a digital piano refers to X number of velocity layers, when referring to its piano sound, this is what it means.
Some pianos have technology that makes the implementation of these techniques even smoother and more authentic (Roland’s SuperNATURAL technology, for instance).
The number of voices refers to the number of different sounds available on a digital piano. This number can range from a handful, to hundreds and hundreds, depending on the piano model.
Many digital pianos feature auto accompaniment features. These generate a drum pattern, and appropriate backing track according to the chords played.
There are different ways of implementing this. Some modes assign a portion of the lower part of the keyboard entirely to this function, on which the chords are played. Some modes ‘read’ chord information from the notes played, and generate backing tracks intelligently.
Often, pianos that have this feature offer a selection of different modes, such that the player can choose.
Accompaniment style refers to the different musical styles that these accompaniments are available in. Like voices, these digital pianos can have anything from a handful to a huge catalogue, and can range from everything from bossanovas, foxtrots, country, rock and pop, through to very contemporary modern styles, and world music.
One of the most common features of digital pianos is key split. Very simply, this allows the player to assign one sound to the lower half of the keyboard, and another to the upper.
For example, a player could assign an upright piano to the lower half of the keyboard, and a piano or electric piano sound to the upper half, to create the impression of a jazz duet.
Dual Mode/ Layer
Whereas a key split divides the keyboard into two sounds, dual mode, or layer, will put one sound over the top of another- piano over the top of strings, for example.
Most pianos with this feature will allow the user to adjust the level of each sound according to taste.
This is a term that can seem baffling to those not from a synthesizer or music technology background. Like many things, it’s a lot simpler than it sounds…
Basically, polyphony is the number of notes that the instrument can play at any one time. If a digital piano exceeds this limit, usually, the note that was pressed earliest will switch off to accommodate the newer notes. This is known as note stealing.
As a result of this, the higher the polyphony, the better, as it means that is less likely that note stealing will occur. It should be noted that layering sounds would halve polyphony, as the piano will be playing two notes for every key pressed.
A full range of digital pianos can be found in our online store, here.
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.