What keyboard/synth do I need?
June 1, 2017 8:59 AM   Subscribe

Probably the first of a few questions, but I'm thinking about getting some sort of keyboard/synth for me (home recording plonker), my kid (3yo, loves music, and I want her to have access to an actual instrument to start to kindle love of making music), and my wife (grew up taking piano lessons, and still pretty good). I don't know what ticks all of the boxes, and I'm not familiar with the options.

I don't know if I want one thing or two. I'm pretty confident that we'd have a devil of a time finding a place for a real piano in our house.

For me: I play guitar and bass mostly, but I studied piano a bit when I was younger and really enjoy reconnecting with it. I want an instrument that 1) I can record from easily, preferably via MIDI so I can edit on screen; 2) can be played live--not just a MIDI controller; 3) has a bunch of sampled voices, and 4) ideally can be used as a modeling synth. I currently amuse myself with an M-Audio 61 key MIDI controller (and a Maschine Mikro), but I want something more tactile. I want knobs to twist, not just menus or working with the computer. Filters, effects, arpeggiator, the whole nine yards. And the action has to be better than the M-Audio; playing that is a bear. It would be ideal if I'm not locked into an ecosystem like the Maschine (though it can just be a MIDI controller for other programs).

For kiddo: Kiddo obviously doesn't need all the bells and whistles I want. But I'd like her to have an experience like I did and my wife did growing up, where you could just sit down and play a piano for a few minutes whenever you wanted--fiddling with menus, or waiting for a keyboard amp to warm up or whatever is just annoying for a 3yo.

For wife: wife grew up with an upright, but hasn't played in 20 years. She'd like to get back to it at some point. She's suspicious of digital pianos. She'd be particularly sensitive to issues with the action.

As I write this out, it really does seem like I want two different things, though thoughts on what they would be much appreciated. Nord and Yamaha digital piano? I've played some Nords, and like the knobs, rather than just a lot of sample banks and menu screens, but I haven't had a whole lot to experience first hand.

Whatever we end up getting--one thing or two--I'd like to buy quality, both in terms of the design and the longevity. I'm not looking for another $100 midi controller like the M-Audio I have or a cheapo Casio electric piano. $1000 plus (each, if it's two things)? But I'm also not looking for a $3000 Nord Stage 2. Thanks!
posted by Admiral Haddock to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Speaking as a musician, people seem to really dig the feel and sound of the Nords. I do, too. I've recommended their electric piano models to my father who also owns a baby(?) grand Yamaha piano. The Nords give you a choice of hammer action or semi-weighted keys, have sample support, and great built-in sounds. The controls are definitely geared towards playing, and not scrolling through menus. That'd be my vote!
posted by destructive cactus at 9:20 AM on June 1, 2017

(I can't speak to the Stage models, but the Electro 4 HP (the hammer-weighted keys one) goes used for around $2000.)
posted by destructive cactus at 9:27 AM on June 1, 2017

Not for key-action snobs but the Korg Minilogue should very fun for any would-be knob turners. It's a four-voice polyphonic real analogue synthesizer for only $500. It's not "modeling", it's real analog circuitry. It has almost one-knob-per-function, so very little menu diving, you have complete control, and IMO it can sound very nice.

I'd say it would be really fun for you and the kiddo, and would sit nicely above a larger synth if you're in to that kind of thing. They flew off the shelves last year so fast that Korg could not produce fast enough to fill demand, but they should be easy to try/get now.

(NB, "recording" MIDI isn't really recording, not in the sense of recording audio. It's like capturing a player piano roll. That means you won't be able to play it back and have it sound the same, not unless you send MIDI out to the same synth. You may well know this but I thought I'd clarify just in case :)
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:08 AM on June 1, 2017

As it happens I've been idly researching the "better than a $75 Casio but not a $4000 professional gigging stage piano" space lately, and I keep coming back to the Yamaha P-45 which seems pretty much universally well-reviewed and well-recommended for this space.

Pros: 88 keys, weighted key action, clean/elegant look, MIDI capability via USB, on-board speakers and by all accounts excellent responsive piano sound.

Cons: It's only got 10 on-board voices (Variations of Grand piano, electric piano, harpsichord, pipe organ, strings, marimba) and limited on-board effects, "only" 64-note polyphony (I guess you might bump up against that limit if you were playing two-handed duets that make heavy use of the sustain pedal?), no native MIDI ports.

...but for the price, the cons seem fairly minimal given the basically infinite sounds and effects that become available if you connect it to a computer. There's also the P-115 for a little bit more, which I think has better polyphony and a few more on-board sounds. I was looking at a P-45 in person last night and it the key action is so nice compared to my old M-Audio MIDI controller... and overall it just looks and feels nice and solid, like a "real instrument" if that makes sense. Cheaper keyboards with silver plastic and bright colors and 200 individually labeled buttons always look so cheap and toylike, and remind me of the one I had as a kid never really got used for anything more than fooling around with the super cheesy built-in rhythm and preprogrammed songs.

Amazon has some kind of exclusive arrangement to sell the "P-71", which according to reviews is identical to the P-45 but sells for a bit less. Not sure what the deal is there.

Good luck! I'll be following this thread with interest.
posted by Funeral march of an old jawbone at 10:21 AM on June 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Definitely not a keyboard, but my friend's kid loves playing with his Korg kaossilator...
posted by czytm at 10:30 AM on June 1, 2017

(Sorry, on re-re-read it seems like the P-45 would solve the keyboard input half of the equation; the caveat being that any kind of synth you wanted to control with it would have to have to accept USB input.)
posted by Funeral march of an old jawbone at 10:34 AM on June 1, 2017

"better than a $75 Casio but not a $4000 professional gigging stage piano"

Right, my impression is that the digital pianos in the ~$500-700 price point are pretty good now - it's not like there is nothing in between cheesy "keyboards" and pro touring rigs
posted by thelonius at 10:42 AM on June 1, 2017

I love my P-115, and I think it'd be great for wife and kiddo, but maybe not what you want. It's got surprisingly good built-in speakers, you can hit a button and start playing in two seconds, and imo it feels very much like a real piano. But there are only a dozen or so voices and they're all completely locked in - no knobs, no menus, no customization at all. If you want to do anything else with it you'll have to MIDI it into Ableton or something.

I've played the P-45 a bit too and I'd say it's worth springing for the 115 - the default Grand Piano sounds much better and the polyphony difference is noticeable on fast trills or pedaled arpeggios. Plus, it's got a fun Rhodes voice ("VINTAGE EP") that the P-45 doesn't.
posted by theodolite at 10:42 AM on June 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

any kind of synth you wanted to control with it would have to have to accept USB input.

Yes, and the number of synths that can do that natively is approximately zero. USB is a client/host format, and synths generally expect to be clients, and the digital piano is a client, and thus they can't talk MIDI over USB without a computer between them. There's this thing that you can use to force P-45 to drive another synth over USB without using a computer, but it's another piece of gear and it costs $140.

OP: how integral do you see a computer being here? If you plan on having one there and on all the time you're playing, that's fine, but if not, you'll probably want to demand real 5 pin MIDI DIN out port, maybe even a THRU.

Also: there are many good knobby synth modules. Stack this Prophet 08 module on top of your controller (or digital piano with real 5pin midi out) and you have one of the best knobby analog synths out there.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:11 AM on June 1, 2017

"As I write this out, it really does seem like I want two different things"

Yeah, Yamaha and Casio and others have quality piano substitutes for well under $1000.

For $1000 and up there are workstations with 88 keys and hammer action that in theory can do all the synthy things you want (lots of filters and effects and envelopes, etc.), but most don't have a lot of dedicated controls.

So if I were you I'd first shop for something that satisfies the piano requirements, which are much clearer, and then spend some more time fooling around with synths to find something you like.
posted by floppyroofing at 12:28 PM on June 1, 2017

Korg Polysix (this was actually mine, I sold it to them)
Roland System 8
Yamaha CP25 (I owned one of these for years and years, they have an incredible keyboard)
posted by Annika Cicada at 12:29 PM on June 1, 2017

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