Getting In Tune: Digital Pianos, Electronic Keyboards, Electronic Drum Sets & Karaoke Machines

Advances in technology made digital pianos and electronic drum sets sound and feel more realistic than previous models did. What’s even better is that these advancements are available at lower prices than ever before.

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If you want to pick up an instrument in 2014—whether it’s to foster a child’s musical development or learn new skills yourself—you have an array of choices. Digital pianos and electronic keyboards make it possible to wrap your head around anything from “Hot Cross Buns” to a Mozart sonata, while electronic drums make it easier than ever before to do your best Ringo Starr.

Today’s digital pianos replicate more accurately both the sound and the feel of an acoustic piano. Electronic drums forged a similar path—not only sounding more like their acoustic counterparts but also coming loaded with more sounds than ever before. As for those who have a song in their heart that’s bursting to get out, karaoke machines followed the record industry’s evolution to streaming and downloadable content on the Internet.

Moreover, Joe Lamond, who is the president of National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), says the instruments are more affordable than ever before. “It’s so much more accessible for not just the professionals and the hobbyists, but I think for anyone who wants to try and make music,” he says.

NAMM’s sales data back that up. According to the organization, overall electronic-music-product sales (including digital pianos, electronic keyboards and electronic drums) increased 5.6 percent between 2012 and 2013 (most recent data available).

KEYED UP. “The biggest development we’ve seen in the last few years is in the variety of digital pianos,” says Ben Kraft of Kraft Music, which is a music retailer. Echoing Lamond’s comment, Kraft says that in 2014, you can get a digital piano that has both a sound and a feel that’s comparable with that of an acoustic piano for $500. A few years ago, he says, such a model would’ve cost you at least $1,200.

Still, the comparison is relative: A $500 digital piano gets you 88 keys, an imitation of an acoustic piano’s sound and weighted keys that are sensitive to the force with which you touch them. In other words, how loud or soft the note is depends on how hard or gently you strike the key. Of course, unlike an acoustic piano, a digital piano comes with an array of other sounds from organs to drums, strings to brass.

However, for more money, you can buy digital pianos that take the replication to the next level. In addition to having finishes that resemble an acoustic piano’s wood finish, higher end digital pianos that start around $1,500 replicate the sound of an acoustic piano to the point where even old-school piano teachers are beginning to embrace them, according to Steve Lacefield of Lacefield Music, which sells pianos and provides lessons.

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The key to the audio improvement is in the storage memory that digital pianos have. It became less expensive, like with all other products that have memory, which is why prices dropped, but the capacity also increased among digital pianos. Nate Tschetter of Yamaha tells us that just 4 years ago, the standard amount of memory that was in a digital piano was 375MB. Today, he says, it’s up to 750MB, and Yamaha, for one, typically provides consumers with the ability to add up to 2GB of memory on a flash drive. That means that manufacturers of digital pianos can include more acoustic-piano samples and more dynamics.

The result is that on high-end models, instead of getting, say, just three tones depending on how much pressure that you use to strike a piano key, you get seven, which more closely replicates the range that you get on an acoustic piano. The increase in memory also makes it so you can have lessons preprogrammed into the keyboard.

It’s no surprise to us that in both digital pianos and electronic keyboards, virtually all models now have a USB port that can connect the device to a computer or to a thumb drive for increased memory, the capability to import sound files or instant recording capability. Tom Love of Kawai, which makes both acoustic and digital pianos, says that in 2011 only half of Kawai’s models had such an option. Now, he says, it’s universal and available at all price levels.

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