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A digital piano is a modern electronic musical instrument designed to serve primarily as an alternative to a traditional piano, both in the way it feels to play and in the sound produced. Some digital pianos are also designed to look like an acoustic piano. While digital pianos may fall short of the genuine article in feel and sound, they nevertheless have many advantages over normal pianos:
- They are relatively inexpensive.
- They are smaller and considerably lighter.
- They do not require tuning.
- They usually produce several different piano timbres.
- They incorporate MIDI implementation.
- They may have additional features to assist in learning and composition.
- They usually include headphone output.
- They often have a transposition feature.
- They do not require the use of microphones, eliminating the problem of audio feedback in sound reinforcement, as well as simplifying the recording process.
In most implementations, a digital piano produces a variety of piano timbres and usually other sounds as well. For example, a digital piano may have settings for a concert grand piano, an upright piano, a tack piano, and various electric pianos such as the Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer, for example. Some digital pianos incorporate other basic "synthesizer" sounds such as string ensemble, for example, and offer settings to combine them with piano.
The sounds produced by a digital piano are sometimes PCM samples stored in ROM. Despite the fact that a digital piano plays samples, it is not a sampler because it lacks the ability to record samples. It does, however, qualify as a rompler. Other, more advanced brands (such as Yamaha & Kawai) use other sound sampling systems such as AWM (advanced wave memory) or Harmonic Imaging. (More information can be found on Yamaha's Website.)
The samples stored in digital pianos are usually of very high quality and made using world class pianos, expensive microphones, and high-quality preamps in a professional recording studio.
Digital pianos do have limitations on the faithfulness with which they reproduce the sound of an acoustic piano. These include the lack of implementation of harmonic tones that result when certain combinations of notes are sounded, limited polyphony, and a lack of natural reverberation when the instrument is played percussively. They also lack the incidental acoustic noises associated with piano playing, such as the sounds of pedals being depressed and the associated machinery shifting within the piano. These limitations apply to most acoustic instruments and their sampled counterparts, the difference often being described as "visceral".
For the vast majority of listeners, however, professional recordings made with a digital piano are difficult or impossible to distinguish from a recording made with a real piano.
Many digital pianos include an amplifier and loudspeakers so that no additional equipment is required to play the instrument. Some do not. Most digital pianos incorporate headphone output.
Shape and form
The physical form of a digital piano can vary considerably. Most vaguely resemble a low upright piano (but usually lacking a fully enclosed lower section). Others, notably Yamaha's "GranTouch" range are based on the casework of traditional upright or grand instruments. An opposite and recent trend is to produce an instrument which has a unique and distinctive appearance, unobtainable with a conventional instrument. Yamaha makes a model which is designed to stand against a wall and is far shallower from keyboard to back than any possible upright design.
Yet another form is the "stage piano", designed for use with a live band. This type of digital piano normally makes no attempt to imitate the physical appearance of an acoustic piano, rather resembling a modern synthesizer or music workstation. A distinguishing feature of most stage pianos is a lack of internal loudspeakers and amplification - it is normally assumed that a powerful keyboard amplifier or PA system will be used.
There are also digital piano modules, which are simply keyboardless sound modules chiefly containing piano samples. One early example of a digital piano module is the Roland MKS-20 Digital Piano.
Keyboard and pedals
Just like a real piano, a digital piano features a keyboard. A digital piano's keyboard is weighted to simulate the action of a real piano and is velocity sensitive so that the volume of the sounds depends on how hard the keys are pressed. Many instruments now have a complex action incorporating actual hammers in order to better simulate the touch of a grand piano; these hammers do not actually hit strings, but since a real piano's hammer is in free flight when it contacts the string it could be argued that this difference would not affect the instrument's touch anyway.
Many digital pianos, especially those which physically resemble a piano, have built-in pedals which modify the instrument's behavior in the same way pedals on a regular piano do. As with real pianos, some digital pianos omit the sostenuto and/or the una corda pedals. Some digital pianos have jacks for pedals to be attached at the user's option.
Most digital pianos implement a variety of features not found on a traditional piano.
Digital pianos are implemented for MIDI, so they can control or be controlled by other electronic instruments and sequencers. They may also have a disk drive or other external media slot to load MIDI data, which the piano can play automatically. In this way, a digital piano can function as a player piano.
Some digital pianos have a built-in sequencer to aid in composition. They usually let you record a minimum of 2 tracks. This is useful for beginners and piano enthusiasts.
A digital piano may have lights associated with keys so that a beginning piano player can learn a piece by playing lit keys.
Some digital pianos can transpose music as it is played. This allows the pianist to play a piece using the fingering of a familiar key while the piece is actually heard in another.
A standard piano creates natural reverberation inside its soundboard and in the room where it is played. Digital pianos often have a feature to electronically simulate reverb as well. Other digital pianos may have additional reverberation options such as a "stage simulation."
In addition to reverberation, some (as seen on Yamaha's & Kawai's websites) have additional effects to add to the sound such as a "chorus" effect.
Other typical high-quality voices that go along with piano are strings, harpsichords, organs, etc.
Since the 1980s, computers and digital pianos have connected via MIDI to perform various functions such as software synthesis (computer-generated sound), musical notation (printing of music), Musical sequencer (recording of MIDI and digital audio) and interactive music lessons (from lesson supplements to complete courses of study). Since 2000, a generation of CEMI (Computer Enhanced Musical Instruments) has emerged that incorporates software and internet technologies into musical instruments.
The ePiano () is one example of how CEMI technology is incorporated into digital pianos.
A digital piano is essentially nothing more than a keyboard controller married to a sample playback device which specializes in piano sounds. Other electronic instruments are capable of playing piano samples. These include sample-based synthesizers, hardware and software samplers, sound modules, and music workstations. These instruments may contain piano samples as good as or perhaps even better than a digital piano. Keyboard controllers (keyboards which make no sounds on their own) are also available from many manufacturers and vary greatly in feel and feature set. Thus, one can combine a favorite controller and instrument and effectively have everything that a digital piano delivers.
Acoustic pianos can be made to compensate for some of the advantages which digital pianos ordinarily hold over them. Pianos may be retrofitted with or designed to include a MIDI interface, allowing them to control or, with the addition of electromechanical actuators under each key, be controlled by other MIDI hardware. (See player piano for more information.)
Manufacturers continue to develop technology of both sound and feel. Quality and cost are highly correlated. Well-known manufacturers of digital pianos include Yamaha, Roland, Kurzweil, Casio, Korg, and Kawai.
- Electronic piano