A digital piano is a type of electronic keyboard designed to serve primarily as an alternative to the traditional acoustic piano, both in the way it feels to play and in the sound produced. Digital pianos use either synthesized emulation or recorded samples of an acoustic piano, which are then amplified through an internal loudspeaker. They also incorporate weighted keys, which recreate the feel of an acoustic piano. Some digital pianos are designed to also look like an upright or grand piano.
While digital pianos may sometimes fall short of acoustic ones in feel and sound, their advantages include being smaller, weighing much less, and costing less than an acoustic piano. In addition, digital pianos do not need to be tuned, and their tuning can be modified to match the tuning of another instrument (e.g., a pipe organ). Like other electronic musical instruments, they can be connected to an amplifier or a PA system to produce a sound loud enough for a large venue or, at the other extreme, may be heard through headphones only. Some digital pianos can emulate other sounds besides the piano, the most common ones being pipe organ, electric piano, Hammond organ, and harpsichord. Digital pianos are often used in music schools and music studios as a replacement for traditional instruments.
Just like a traditional acoustic piano, the defining feature of a digital piano is a musical keyboard with 88 keys. The keys are weighted to simulate the action of an acoustic piano and are velocity-sensitive so that the volume and timbre of a played note depends on how hard the key is pressed. Instruments that have fewer keys, have unweighted keys (similar to an electric organ), or are not velocity-sensitive tend to be called electronic or digital keyboards rather than digital pianos.
Instruments that less accurately simulate the feel of an acoustic piano may be described as semi-weighted, while those that are more accurate may be said to possess hammer action. Some digital pianos incorporate actual hammers in order to better simulate the touch of a grand piano. Digital pianos typically use analog sensors for their keyboard action, as opposed to digital sensors of a regular electronic keyboard and synthesizer. These sensors work in a similar way to those used in analog joysticks found on video game controllers, in which they the velocity input is converted from the key movement as well, not just the initial pressure of the key sensor.
Other common features include:
- Volume control; line-out audio connections; headphone output.
- May include many more instrument sounds beyond piano samples.
- May incorporate a MIDI implementation (some provide General MIDI).
- May have features to assist in learning (such as illuminated keys) and composition (such as a built-in sequencer).
- May have a transposition feature.
- Are often easily portable and low-maintenance (do not need to be tuned).
In general, the sounds produced by a digital piano are based on sampling, by which acoustic piano sound samples are stored in ROM. The samples stored in digital pianos are usually created using high-quality pianos, expensive microphones, and high-quality preamps in a professional recording studio. Usually multiple samples are available for the same keystroke, attempting to reproduce the diversity of sounds observed on an acoustic piano. However, sample-based digital pianos do have limitations on the faithfulness with which they reproduce the sound of an acoustic piano. Because samples are taken for only a limited number of intensity levels, digital pianos usually lack the continuous timbral changes that characterize acoustic pianos. They may also lack the harmonic tones that result when certain combinations of notes are sounded and the natural reverberation that is heard when an acoustic piano is played percussively. They often lack the incidental acoustic noises associated with piano playing, such as the sounds of pedals being depressed and the associated machinery shifting within the piano, which some consider a benefit. These limitations apply to most acoustic instruments and their sampled counterparts, the difference often being described as "visceral".
Many digital pianos, especially those that resemble an acoustic piano, have built-in pedals that function much as those on an acoustic piano. In addition, commercially available pedal switches, which are commonly used for regular electronic keyboards, can also be used, especially on portable models. On an acoustic piano the sustain pedal lifts the dampers for all strings, allowing them to resonate naturally with the notes played. Only high-end digital pianos can reproduce this sympathetic resonance effect.
Earlier digital pianos, such as those produced in the 1990s, often had polyphony limited to 32 or 64 notes.
Some digital piano implementations, like Roland V-Piano, Yamaha MODUS, Casio Celviano Grand Hybrid, and the software-based Pianoteq, use mathematical models based on acoustic pianos to generate sound, which brings the ability to generate sounds that vary more freely depending on how the keys have been struck, in addition to allow a more realistic implementation of the distinctive resonances and acoustical noises of acoustic pianos.
However, recent digital pianos are mostly capable of recreating string resonances, reverberations and other acoustical effects via digital signal processing (DSP) and modeling technology. One example is the Casio Privia, which is able to generate such acoustical effects by means of a simple DSP, which is far less complex than physical modeling. Some digital pianos have special reverberation options such as a "stage simulation." Some also have chorus, tremolo, and phaser effects, all of which are generated by DSP.
Most digital pianos can produce a variety of different piano timbres. For example, a digital piano may have settings for a concert grand piano, an upright piano, a tack piano, and various electric pianos such as the Fender Rhodes, the Wurlitzer, and the DX electric piano. It may also emulate other keyboard instruments, including harpsichord, organ, and clavichord. Some digital pianos also incorporate other basic "synthesizer" sounds such as string ensemble.
Some high-end digital pianos that offer a wide range of instrument sounds similar to electronic keyboards are known as ensemble digital pianos, or just ensemble pianos.
Digital pianos usually offer a MIDI connection, allowing them to control or be controlled by other electronic instruments and sequencers. They may also have an external storage slot to save and load MIDI data, which the piano can play automatically, allowing it to function as a player piano. Some have a built-in sequencer to aid in composition.
Most digital pianos can be connected to a computer. With appropriate software, the computer can handle sound generation, mixing of tracks, music notation, musical instruction, and other music composition tasks.
The physical form of a digital piano can vary considerably.
Traditional digital pianos vaguely resemble an electronic organ or a spinet harpsichord but usually lacking a fully enclosed lower section, while some models are based on the casework of traditional upright pianos with a fully enclosed bottom part and pedals that look like actual piano pedals. An opposite and recent trend is to produce an instrument which has a unique and distinctive appearance, unobtainable with a conventional instrument. Yamaha, Kawai and Casio makes a model which is designed to stand against a wall and is far shallower from keyboard to back than any possible upright design, as well as shorter height.
Traditional digital pianos, due to their form, offer less portability than the other types, and are mainly designed for use in a single place (e.g. home or studio), and are not intended for mobility such as on stage or for live performance.
These are a sub-type of traditional digital pianos that offers a more classical design which closely resembles an acoustic upright piano. Upright digital pianos are mainly intended for home use and is usually more expensive than the other types. Some models, especially the higher-end ones, often feature actual wooden keys as opposed to regular plastic keybed.
An uncommon form of digital piano that resemble a grand piano, usually with a more precision keyboard action and high-quality sound system built into the unit's cabinet in a similar manner as the strings on a grand piano. These pianos are mostly high-end novelty models offered by only small number of manufacturers, and often has higher prices than an average acoustic piano.
Another common form is the stage piano, designed for use with live performances, professional audio, or in a recording studio. This type of digital piano normally makes no attempt to imitate the physical appearance of an acoustic piano, rather resembling a generic synthesizer or music workstation. A distinguishing feature of most stage pianos is a lack of internal loudspeakers and amplification - it is normally assumed that a powerful keyboard amplifier or PA system will be used. However, some stage pianos are equipped with powered speakers.
Yet another form is the portable digital piano which is what appear to be combining the capabilities of stage pianos, but with additional features similar to a conventional digital keyboard. These digital pianos are mostly designed for various purposes such as home, studio, classroom, stage or personal use. It is similar in form to a stage piano, but much lighter in weight, and having a more compact size. Unlike stage pianos, portable digital pianos were commonly equipped with built-in amplification and loudspeakers, usually has lower cost than other types, and its sound quality was often comparable or similar to that of a regular digital keyboards due to a simpler sound synthesis system, though some models, still utilize a similar sound engine as the more advanced model lineups of the same manufacturer. Many of them also contain a wide assortment of tones, like one would expect from a keyboard, including novelty sounds.
Most portable digital pianos could be freely fitted in a regular keyboard stand like a stage piano, while some types also come equipped with a dedicated matching stand which, when assembled, will have a slight resemblance to a console digital piano.
Portable digital pianos, for the sake of lower production cost, were often equipped with a less complex system for the weighted keys. As a result, the feel of the keys is usually much less realistic than other digital pianos. However, it still retain the emulated weight mechanism (lower keys are heavier than higher ones), though not as precise as more expensive pianos, but far more true to life than a keyboard. However, certain models include synthetic ivory-like keys as opposed to standard plastic keys.
Hybrids are a type of high-performance digital pianos that incorporates actual piano action and high-quality modeled samples of an acoustic piano.
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