Pianos come in a broad variety of shapes, sizes, and prices. Each instrument is unique and has its own particular timbre and touch. This is what makes buying the right instrument such a major challenge, especially at the higher end of the piano market where the subtle nuance of every instrument can mean a substantially different piano each time. These differences have meant that there has been a significant move in the direction of piano keyboards, or electronic versions of the acoustic piano. One of the major drawbacks of these instruments used to be that they were made with keyboards that were not ‘weighted’.
What is a Weighted Piano Keyboard?
The idea of weighting is an element of design on acoustic pianos that is common. It is part of the way the instruments are made and would be strange if for some reason or another meant it was not present on a piano. Early electronic keyboards, even though some had excellent timbres lacked the ‘feel’ of the traditional acoustic piano. This meant that they needed to be played in a different way that was considered by many pianists as un-pianistic.
What happens on an acoustic piano is that the key we play to produce the note is attached to a lever system that is weighted and balanced to create the best sound and also to make the instrument properly playable. If playing the piano took an excessive amount for the force to make the tones or contrary too little, then the piano becomes unpleasant to perform on and simply difficult to play.
The electronic pianos made today often incorporate the idea of a weighted set of keys that very closely emulates the mechanism used on the acoustic piano. The result is that you can then have a really good quality piano sound with a realistic piano ‘feel’ in a portable instrument. Not all electronic pianos are indeed portable but a great many are, that brings all manner of options for the pianist needing to fit into a smaller space at a performance of play where no piano is available.
There is also the fact that working with a digital keyboard means that you can plug directly into a mixing desk if you are playing in a band situation and be sure every time that the instrument will not go out of tune. Many of these digital keyboards come with a broad selection of alternative piano sounds that you can select according to your venue, music type or mood.
Such is the level of technology in the digital piano that the weighted key effect is not needed to produce the sound the pianist intends when they play. The reason for this is that many digital/electric pianos have a computer inside that senses the speed that the key is depressed when the pianist plays it. This makes it possible for the tone to be produced with astonishing accuracy. When this is coupled with the high-quality sampling used in current digital pianos, it is very hard to hear the difference between the ‘real’ thing and an electronic copy. The feel of the instrument does remain quite a dividing factor even if the sound quality is credible.
Not all weighted digital keyboards are the same. As you might expect as the technology has developed since the advent of the first electronic keyboard decades ago, the options for different types or kinds of the weighted keyboard have grown too. Still very popular are the MIDI keyboards that can come from a couple of octaves in span to a full 88 note keyboard, have no weighting at all. They more closely resemble the early synthesizers that were not made with the need for the weighted keyboard. At the less sophisticated end of the digital market is the ‘semi-weighted’ keyboard. This is one step removed from their non-weighted cousin and offers a sprung key that gives a degree of resistance when played. It is not a contender for a player who wishes to have that true piano feel.
Another interesting development is the ‘hammer-action’ digital keyboard. This version of the weighted keyboard is a close match to the acoustic piano. Essentially the hammer-action mimics that of a ‘real’ piano to the extent that you can feel the mechanism when you play the keyboard. It makes the transition from an acoustic instrument to an electronic one far easier and enjoyable.
Even more impressive is the idea of ‘graded weighting’. On the best acoustic pianos, you will find that each key has a different weighting from the low to the high end of the instrument. A low note on a Bösendorfer piano can require more pressure from the performer to produce a good tone than a note from higher up on the piano. To simulate the full working feel of an expensive grand piano then the manufacturers of some digital pianos have adopted this idea of a weighted set of keys that are graded according to register. It is a detail in the manufacturing that many players may not wish to have. If you are transferring from a high-quality piano to a digital piano it may be a consideration.
There are many hundreds of options available when it comes to choosing a digital keyboard. If what you want is the closest thing to a high-end piano then you are probably looking at spending several thousand pounds or dollars to acquire the quality of keyboard you are hoping for. Yamaha now makes what is perhaps best described as a hybrid piano that is both an acoustic and a digital piano in one instrument.
Technology is advancing incredibly quickly and it will be interesting to discover whether over the next decade the concept of a weighted digital keyboard becomes even closer to its acoustic equivalent. In some ways with the arrival of the Roli Keyboard on the market, the nature of keyboards is radically changing. The Roli keyboard has what is called a ‘responsive playing surface’ that completely re-invents the idea of a traditional piano keyboard. It is made of silicone and allows for playing techniques including pitch bends and slides that would not be possible on even a weighted keyboard. The future looks exciting and weighted keys or not there is an option out there to suit everybody.