The perfect affordable digital piano

What is the best affordable digital piano you can get from a pianists perspective? And how real can it get?

A few words to my background. I started making music when I was about 5 years old on a bontempi hit organ. Some years later I got a real piano, a Rud IBach & Sohn. Even if there were some missing keys and that muffled honkeytonk sound, I fell in loved with it. Later this piano was replaced by a Yamaha piano that came with a crystal clear sound.

The first keyboard I played (in a school band) was the Kawai K1. But even though this Keyboard was really state of the art, the piano sound was quite unconvincing. How ever I still like the keyboard as controller. Touch sensitive keys with aftertouch and two wheels makes it a fantastic controller. Also if you like the sounds of 80’s you could still use some of the really nice sounds.

My first digital piano experience was in the mid 90’s. I did an internship in a german music store and started burning for two devices. It was the Roland FP-8, a stage piano with emulated hammer mechanics and the KORG 01/W as sound generator.

I am still using the Roland FP-8 for my piano recordings, but since the sound of that device is a bit out dated I am now using software sound generators instead.

But what is really the best of the best you can get, and further more, how real can it get?

Research

If I learned one thing during my research, there is really a huge pricing range for digital pianos and virtual piano software. You might starting from $99 for a virtual piano software and going up to six digit numbers for a digital grand piano that looks like a real grand piano. I will focus a price range that is affordable, which means it should be less than $2000.

You should spend the most of your budget for a great keyboard action controller. If your budget is quite small, you should consider buying used ones.

Here is a list of different controllers, that I could recommend

Roland FP-8

  • Used price: $500
  • 88 weighted hammer keys
  • digital sustain pedal
  • jack to connect an expression pedal
  • Sound: it is ok for pop music, but I would recommend another sound generator

The keyboard is ok for that price. And if you are starting with playing you would be totally fine with this one. How ever the keyboard is quite loud when playing. The keys are not made of wood and no ivory feeling, so it is not quite the same as playing on a real piano. But the emulated hammer mechanics is nod too bad, and this piano is better as most of the weighted keys keyboards out there.

I have tried and failed to use the expression jack with a half-pedal capable pedal. However, you could use a MIDI Expression Controller (see below) to get all pedal data you need.

Roland RD-800

  • Price: $2000
  • 88 weighed hammer keys (PHA-4)
  • Pedals
    • Damper (half-pedal recognition)
    • Soft (half-pedal recognition, function assignable)
    • Sostenuto (function assignable)

I never played this one, but I have read some articles and saw some youtube videos where they recommend this thing as the cheapest really like piano feeling keyboard. How ever, if considering the factory price, I would definitely prefer the KAWAI-VPC1

Roland V-Piano

  • Price: $6000
  • 88 wooden keys (PHA III Ivory Feel with Escapement)
  • Pedals
    • Damper (half-pedal recognition)
    • Soft (half-pedal recognition, function assignable)
    • Sostenuto (function assignable)
  • using no samples, the sound is calculated with 4 DSP processors (2 actually used for effects)

This piano is definitely a dream. It is out of the price range, so keep on dreaming. How ever. The keyboard should be absolute freaking cool, and I love the idea of not using sample data at all. This should lead to a really high expression control. How ever, in my humble opinion even the best examples still sound a bit “digital”.

KAWAI MP-7

  • Price: $1700
  • RH2 wooden keys
  • Tripple Sensor
  • Pedals
    • Damper (half-pedal recognition)
    • Soft (half-pedal recognition, function assignable)
    • Sostenuto (function assignable)

The Kawai MP Series is really great.

KAWAI MP-11

  • Price: $2500
  • Grand Feel (GF) Tastatur
  • Tripple Sensor
  • Pedals
    • Damper (half-pedal recognition)
    • Soft (half-pedal recognition, function assignable)
    • Sostenuto (function assignable)

The KAWAI MP-11 has the longest and most realistic keyboard in this list. The wooden keys have the same pivot distance like a real grand piano. Check out the video from PianoManChuck

KAWAI VPC-1

  • Price: $1500
  • Link
  • RM3 GRAND II Keyboard, full wooden keys
  • Tripple Sensor
  • Pedals
    • Damper (half-pedal recognition)
    • Soft (half-pedal recognition, function assignable)
    • Sostenuto (function assignable)

If you cannot afford a KAWAI MP-11 I would recommend a KAWAI VPC-1 as a controller. The keys are slightly shorter than those from the MP-11, but it is still really really great. And the price is just amazingly low!

Yamaha and KAWAI actually build real pianos, too. I don’t know if this is more a psychologic thing, but I think this matters when buying a keyboard that should have a convincing feel of a real grand piano.

Software Pianos

Once you own a great keyboard action, the second important thing is a great sound generator. If you are not happy with the installed sound of your keyboard you could get a better one generated via software on your PC. So called virtual pianos or software pianos are not as expensive as the keyboards above, but some of those need a relatively strong PC hardware, lots of memory. And some of them need other Software to run with (like Kontakt, which is quite expensive).

So I have collected a small list of some virtual pianos including depended software and hardware restrictions.

Synthogy Ivory II Grand Pianos

  • Demo
  • Price: $330
  • Recommended Hardware
    • 2.5 GHz Dual Core PowerPC G5 or 2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU
    • 2 GB RAM
    • 77 GB free hard drive space

Synthogy Ivory II American Concert D

  • Demo
  • Price: $190
  • Recommended Hardware
    • 2.0 GHz Intel Core Duo CPU
    • 2 GB RAM
    • 49 GB (46 GiB) free hard drive space (Ivory II American Concert D)
    • Hard drive speed of at least 7200 RPM
    • DVD ROM drive for installation
    • iLok key (not included)

Steinberg The Grand 3

  • Demo
  • Price: $250
  • 3 grand pianos
  • 1 upright piano
  • 1 Wurlitzer
  • Key locker needed (+$35)

Personally I like the upright piano from “The Grand 3”. The Bösendorfer Imperial is also a great piano, but there is a broken “key release” sample that produces a crack in the sound. I reported that bug already, but unfortunately Steinberg seems not to read their bug reports.

VI Labs Ravenscroft 275

  • Demo
  • Price: $199
  • Recommended Hardware
    • 6Gb  installed in lossless flac format (35Gb uncompressed).
    • Minimum system requirements: Intel Core 2 Duo System
    • 7200rpm drive (SSD is preferred for best performance)
    • 4GB of RAM Suggested
  • Supports RTAS, VST, AAX and AU Plug-in formats
  • UVI Workstation 2.5.8 or greater (Download Free) or MachFive 3.2.1
  • Tone Control & Convolution Reverb built-in
  • Standalone or plug-in operation modes
  • Full mix control of 4 stereo microphone positions.
  • Full samples, no loops

Imperfect Samples Steinway Walnut Grand

  • Demo
  • Price: $200 (extreme edition for $300)
  • 3 mic perspectives
  • 16 layers
  • 30GB samples
  • Additional Noise samples
  • Requires the the non free Kontakt 4/5 (Kontakt Player will not work)

I really like this piano and its natural and intimate sound. How ever, the downside of this library is that some samples are not quite balanced. When hitting a key with random intensity, you can hear when different samples get used.

Native instruments Alicia’s Keys

  • Demo
  • Price: $110
  • 17 GB Samples
  • 12 layers

PianoTeq 5 Standard

Galaxy Instruments Galaxy II

  • Demo
  • Price: $290
  • Three world class grand pianos
  • More than 6,000 samples in 24 bit (30GB/18GB with sample compression)
  • 13 modeled velocity zones for a wide and smooth dynamic range
  • Additional resonance, release and noise samples
  • Chromatic and multiple velocity resonance and release samples
  • Multi velocity pedal, damper, hammer and string noises
  • Real una corda samples
  • Real overtones Powered by the Kontakt Player 4 engine
  • True half pedaling when using a continuous sustain pedal
  • True repedaling and sostenuto
  • Noises dynamically playable with a continuous sustain pedal
  • Sympathetic string resonance with real overtones
  • Convolution reverb with many different types of rooms, concert halls and ambience

A list of basic software

Apple Logic Pro X

Steinberg Cubase

Native-Instruments

  • Kontakt 5 Player
  • Kontakt 5
  • Komplete 10 (Bundle with 39 instruments, including Kontakt 5)

Cakewalk Sonar

  • Artist
  • Professional
  • Platinum

A list of additional hardware

Resumé

As controller I would definitely recommend the KAWAI VPC1, which is probably the best keyboard action you can get for under $2000.  As sound generator I would recommend the Ravenscroft 275. If you already owned Kontakt 5 and  still have another $200 to spend, the Imperfect Samples Steinberg Walnut Grand is really a nice thing.

When using sound generators you need a low latency audio hardware. The built-in devices of modern PCs will not be suitable. I would recommend external audio hardware, these can be also used for laptops,too. A relatively low latency audio hardware is the Focusrite Saffire 6.

If using a software piano, you should consider having a four core computer with at least 8 GB RAM and 256GB SDD. If you want to have several piano libraries installed you should consider buying a 512GB SSD instead)

On a MAC you probably want to use Apple Logic Pro X to record / arrange / compose your music. On a PC I would recommend using Steinberg Cubase.

If your piano does not support half-pedaling, you could buy an Audiofront Midi Expression USB to midi converter, and connect a Roland-DP10 to it. If you need sustenuto and soft pedals as well than buying a Midi Expression USB converter with four inputs would be useful.

Scenario 1 : You already have a PC

If you already have a fast PC, or you wanted to buy a new pc anyway, than this scenario could be just the right one for you. You will get a nearly perfect solution for under $2000.

Scenario 2 : You don’t have a PC

If you don’t have a PC, you could considering buying one for $500 – $1000 or you depending on how much money you can spend you could buy the KAWAI MP7 or MP11. The sound is maybe not perfect, but still very good.  Also if you will have more money to spend in the future, you could buy an additional sound generator some when later.

  • KAWAI MP7 $1700
  • KAWAI MP11 $2500

Scenario 3 : You don’t have a PC but you want everything and you want to spend < $5000

If you do want some more virtual piano sounds, e.g. the Imperfect samples you have to buy additional software such as Kontakt 5. I would recommend to buy Komplete 10, it is just an additional $110 for 38 more instruments! Also you might want to have a software for recording, editing and composing, such as Logic or Cubase. You should prepare for a lot of money to spend. But you don’t have to spend it all at once.

Final words

Reading an article about keyboard action is like tasting the pan cakes some one else is talking about. If you got hungry, my work is done. You should really go to stores and play those keyboards to get an idea of what you want to buy. There is also a german web site where you can try some of the above mentioned virtual instruments for free: Best Service Try Sound.

Please feel free to write comments below. I am also interested in formation about digital pianos from Yamaha. Is there a special one that should be mentioned here?

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