So you are looking to set up your new music studio and find yourself scrolling through the large lists of midi keyboards out there and come across some that have weighted keys and others that don’t. What’s the difference? Or perhaps you are a pianist who is looking to take your skills on the road and so you are looking for a portable piano that feels real. What should you be looking for?
Today we are going to dive in and give you some insight into the world of midi keyboard weighted keys, and guidance to find the right keyboard for you.
What are weighted keys?
To start us off with answering the question `What are weighted keys?` (for those who don’t know) I think it best to understand why weighted keys are a thing in the first place. This part is quite simple actually, it is because manufacturers try to simulate the same feel you get from playing a real piano. They are try to reproduce the feeling of `weight` behind the key as you press it.
But where does this `weight` come from? Well, to answer this we will quickly dive into the mechanics of how a piano works. Put as simply as possible, when you push down on a key this lifts off the dampener from the string, and actuates a hammer that taps the string. When you let go of the string, the dampener is placed back on the string. Take a look at the video below (skip to 2:18) for an animated walk through of the hammer action inside a piano. Full credit to Jared Owen for the video.
Are all weighted keys the same?
There are plenty of piano manufacturers out there that have their own piano hammer system technologies and this is even more so for digital midi keyboards! What you will want to do is try out as many pianos and keyboards as possible to find what is right for you. To shed some light on the different types of key actions when it comes to midi keyboards, lets run through the most common types.
Feel free to click on the images to be taken to the manufacturers page for more information on the particular keyboard.
Non Weighted/Synth Action
Think of these as you standard cheap-feeling digital keyboard piano. The feel is spring-loaded which is by no means an issue, you can still get velocity sensitive keys that allow you to play quiet and loud. The benefit of this style is that the keys can be played very quickly since the unweighted key returns to its resting position quickly. These are your most common type of keyboard especially for music production since they are cheap to make and lightweight. You can even find full size digital pianos with spring-loaded keys that work perfectly fine. So if you are looking for something cheap and light this might be a good option for you.
This is not far from the `Non Weighted/Synth Action` style keyboards however you will find that the keys have weights in them in an attempt to simulate some kind of piano like feel. The real benefit is a less spring-y feel to the key that doesn’t snap back at you when you release it. The key will also feel like it has a little more resistance when you play it as well, here the manufacturer it try to simulate the lifting/moving of the hammer and dampener as you press the key. These are generally priced a little higher than the `Non Weighted/Synth Action` keyboards, and it is likely that this model will give you everything you need especially in a music production studio.
Here we start to see some real differences in the design of the key mechanism inside the keyboard. With Hammer Action keys, the manufacture has built a mechanism inside the key that replicate some type of arm or hammer being lifted. Going through the same actions as in a real piano. So you end up with a very realistic feeling keyboard which makes sense since the underlying mechanics of the key are very similar to an acoustic piano. These keyboards are priced significantly higher and are often much heavier too.
Graded keys are reserved for the most upmarket digital piano models and many acoustic pianos. However, I think it is worth mentioning here so that you know what you are dealing with should you come across a piano with graded keys. A graded piano involves each key’s resistance being tuned to give the piano greater play-ability and feel. You will generally see the keys at the lower end having slightly more resistance, and the keys at the higher end having less resistance. This is definitely a pro feature and something you will likely not need unless you are a seasoned pianist.
With this new-found information you can now search around the internet and go into your nearest music store to try out some different keyboards. I would suggest trying different manufacturers as well since they will have their own signature or feel when you play them. This is due to the different technologies they use in there digital pianos. This can also differ within the same manufacturer and between different models they offer.
Before we move on there is one last point I would like to touch on. Since we are talking about midi keyboards, I wanted to briefly bring up the midi side of things. Now it is highly unlikely you will find a midi keyboard that does not have velocity sensitive keys, however I guess its not impossible. But there are new technologies being built into keyboards now that might interest you.
Midi After Touch
Now we all know that if you hold a key down on a keyboard a sound will play and most likely continue until you let go. When you do let go, the sound usually abruptly stops. With After Touch, if you hold the key and then slowly bring the key up half-way, this will send extra midi data basically saying `OK the key is moving up and is at halfway now`. This opens up new possibilities of control over you virtual instruments in your DAW and is commonly used with the expression element of these instruments.
What are my options?
In addition to the keyboards I have displayed above lets add a few more options into the mix to help narrow your search and hopefully offer a few options that might be good for you.
M-Audio Hammer 88
- key type: hammer action
- keys: 88
- manufacturer: M-Audio
A very cheap option for a weighted hammer action keyboard with minimalistic styling which would look great setup in your studio. With all the connectivity you could need including inputs for three pedals and USB out to connect the piano directly to your computer (and power it). Note this is just a controller and does not generate an audio signal of its own.
Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol A61
- key type: weighted action
- keys: 61
- manufacturer: Native Instruments
With industry leading build quality and full integration into the NI ecosystem of virtual instruments. The Komplete Kontrol series of keyboards are hard to dismiss. The A61 features a quality weighted key system, knobs to control your software, buttons and encoders to navigate around and also the pitch and expression wheels are packed in. The A61 is purely a midi controller and so it is not limited to the NI ecosystem meaning it can be mapped to any other software and used however you like.
SPD-2 Stage Piano
- key type: Non weighted/Lightly Weighted
- keys: 88
- manufacturer: Gear for Music
This is a little different to the other options because first and foremost, this is a digital piano that has the functionality to act as a midi keyboard when connected through USB. This gives the added benefit of not needing your computer plugged in every time you want to play. It has a few different options for playback instruments like Grand Piano, Organ etc along with a metronome and simple effects. The piano can be plugged in via USB to your computer and you can instantly take control of your DAW. The keys are what some would consider lightly weighted, so definitely a spring-loaded feel to them. Note with this you will need to plug in the included power adapter to use as a midi keyboard, or it can be battery operated.
Arturia Keylab 88
- key type: hammer action
- keys: 88
- manufacturer: Arturia
Possibly my favorite combination of quality keys and controller functionality. You have every thing, from a hammer action key, to faders, knobs and even pressure sensitive pads. This is the only control surface you will need at your desk to make some great productions. It is pre configured to work seamlessly with in the Artuira Analog Lab ecosystem of virtual instruments. The controller can even be connected to and iPad (with external power supply) for mobile gigs. This is a beast of a keyboard and doesn’t come cheap, however I think it would be worth the investment.
What to watch out for?
Apart from the obvious things like build quality, when you are looking for a weighted keyboard there is one thing I would suggest you look out for. There seems to be a Grey area between the Non Weighted and Semi Weighted keyboard segments. Manufacturers might state that there keyboard is Semi weighted but in reality when you play it, the feel is no different to a Non Weighted one. There does not seem to be a standard that manufacturers follow so if weighted keys is important to you I would suggest looking at Hammer Action keyboards only. At least then you know you will be getting something that should represent a piano.
In this quick discussion we have covered what weighted keys are, the different types available and looked at some options. At the end of the day it comes down to what you prefer under your fingers. Which manufacturer or which model of keyboard do you like the key action of the most. Keep in mind that in the world of midi keyboards and digital pianos, a higher price does not necessarily mean a better feeling key. My advice as mentioned, is to go out and try different keyboards to get a good picture of what type of key you like. Then look around, read some reviews and think about what other features you might like from a keyboard. What is your work flow and how will the keyboard need to fit, to make it all work.
I hope this has been helpful to you. If you have any comments or recommendations of great weighted keyboards then let us know down in the comments. It is great working together as a community to help each other out.
Thanks for reading.
- Feature Image – By Puikstekend – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65634329