Birthday gift help: Keyboard and music writing software
September 14, 2021 7:19 AM   Subscribe

My soon-to-be 14 year old son has been taking piano lessons for the last couple years. We are upgrading from a very old borrowed keyboard. I would like to get him a decent keyboard and he has been interested in some type of music writing software. As for budget - I'm imagining about 500 bucks or so? I just don't know where to start - I never even played the recorder.
posted by beccaj to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If he is interested in piano playing, you'll want to do an 88-key weighted keyboard. I just went through the research/purchase process! I found the most common entry-level model is the Yamaha P45 (sells as the P71 on Amazon), which is about $400. You'll need to get a bench, stand, and pedal as well (if they're not included). You can also get everything you need at Guitar Center or a local music store.

Nicer pianos are $600-800, if you're willing to stretch - the reddit has a good guide, but they do err on the "buy nice" side. I ended up buying a nicer Casio used on CL for about $400, but I think for my level, it all is about the same. If he's interested in other functionality beyond "piano", you might want a different model.
posted by quadrilaterals at 7:24 AM on September 14 [5 favorites]

MuseScore is free, so that leaves you $500 for the keyboard. Other folks will have better advice on the keyboard, but one of the big questions will be "do you want action that feels like a mechanical piano ("piano-weighted"), or action that feels like a synth?"
posted by Alterscape at 7:25 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]

By “music writing software”, do you mean sheet music, or music production?

Many keyboards with MIDI output come with a free license for Ableton Lite, which is a great beginner music recording and production program. It doesn’t do sheet music, though.
posted by mekily at 8:38 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: mekily -- I don't really know and not sure if he does either. He likes to mess around and make up songs -- not by writing sheet music, but just playing.
posted by beccaj at 9:34 AM on September 14

I recently bought a used Casio Privia PX-160 (with stand) via Craigslist for $300. It's a decent basic piano-weighted keyboard and I think that specific model would suit your son.
posted by anadem at 10:09 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]

I've been impressed with the Casio Privia's when I've played them, and also recently purchased a Yamaha 45 for my parents house over the summer so I could practice there. 2nding both of those as good options for you. When I purchased the Yamaha this summer I was also purchasing a higher end keyboard on behalf of a venue and spent a lot of time watching reviews on this youtube channel, I think the host does great reviews, comparisons, much better than most review videos of keyboards which tend to just be a run down of specs which may or may not really mean anything.

It's really best to try and play whatever you are considering in person to see if it feels comfortable. Things may have changed since July but my experience this summer was that keyboards were surprisingly difficult to find in stock. . If you aren't in a big city you may need to hunt around a bit. As an example - the (very popular) keyboard I wanted for this venue wasn't available at any of the of the big online stores (expect with 'coming soon!'), but I was able to get it shipped by calling an independent store in a city with big music scene several states over. From what I could tell when I purchased the P45 for my parents it was one of just a couple in town, our local guitar center didn't have it, but a small independent store did.

My understanding is that it's a buyers market right now for used pianos, but for your price point, you are probably best off to get a keyboard, as most of what is under $500 isn't very good. That being said, you can find really good values if someone needs to sell (moving, estate sales, etc.). If a real piano interests you I'd call around to some piano technicians and let them know you were in the market as they might know of a good options.

I can't help you on the composing music production software (wish I could) but 2nding trying out muse score for music notation. I've been using it for the last year and am pretty impressed with it and the community surrounding it.

posted by snowymorninblues at 11:08 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]

I've used this in the past to make backing tracks for rehearsal, inexpensive and worked well. Noteworthy Composer
posted by Exercise Bike at 2:39 PM on September 14

Seconding the Yamaha P series or the Casio Privia series - they will feel & sound like an acoustic piano, if he decides that he wants to do traditional classical or jazz piano stuff. And they'll still connect to a computer if he wants to get into either music production software (GarageBand for Mac/IOS is a fine free beginner program if you've got a Mac or an iPad) and/or sheet music software like MuseScore.

Generally stay away from "portable keyboards", like the Yamaha PSR series, or the Casio versions (along with a hundred other manufacturers.) They look exciting, because they come with a lot of different sounds and pre-programmed drum beats and all sorts of other stuff, but they're kind of really just toys. They don't have weighted keys, so they won't feel like a piano and won't be very useful when it comes to practicing for piano lessons, and all those nifty bells and whistles are actually pretty limited when it comes to actually making up his own tunes.
posted by soundguy99 at 4:18 PM on September 14

You don't really need 88 weighted keys, unless you are deeply invested in the Traditional Western Classical Music performance-world (which is swell, but not for everyone). Most performance keyboards and synths today are 61 or 49 keys.

Which keyboard to get? Yamaha PSR series has some budget options from fairly cheap to somewhat better. They all have rhythm and simple arranging loops built in. But there's lots of similar options from various manufacturers.

Which music software to get? If you have a Mac computer, then Apple GarageBand is definitely the way to start out! If you have a PC system, Reaper is a popular free-trial music system to try. Ableton Live Lite (mentioned above) is the simpler version of Ableton Live that much of the music made today is recorded with, so it's recommended for learning about contemporary music creation, with the caveat that it's more expensive and harder to learn from the start.
posted by ovvl at 4:26 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]

On revisiting recent activity: If he wants music production software, then Live Lite is definitely the place to start, and it comes bundled with a lot of controllers/keyboards anyway. I think the people recommending this are closer to what you want than my MuseScore recommendation, based on your clarification. (I have a full seat of Live and it's awesome, albeit a lot to learn).
posted by Alterscape at 9:04 AM on September 15

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