Sound Choices

Top-Performing Digital Keyboards

The latest musical keyboards pack a symphony of versatility, and the advent of plug-in software means you can have a “new” model every year. And here’s more music to our ears: Today’s portable pianos and synthesizers allow you to really sound like a recording professional, too.

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You might never play keyboard as well as legendary musician Herbie Hancock, who won the 2008 Grammy for “Album of the Year,” but you won’t be able to put the blame on the equipment: The latest digital keyboards that you’ll find at retail come with features that were hard to come by even 4 years ago.

Whether you favor a digital piano (the best have 76 or 88 keys and replicate the feel and sound of an acoustic) or a synthesizer (which offers more sound effects, preset sound modes, and recording or sequencing capabilities), you can make beautiful music for a fraction of the cost of Hancock’s high-end Korg model.

NEW COMPOSITIONS. It’s sound that keyboardists chase, not just the touch and feel of an instrument, and new support applications, or plug-ins, allow you to do more without paying for a new instrument. Such add-on programs can include new sounds (e.g., an aircraft engine) and sound effects; the ability to manipulate sounds; and better means of maintaining your saved programs/recordings.

Instead of getting a keyboard that is operationally stuck in one mode, musicians can use plug-ins for their computer to generate any keyboard sounds they want, says Chris Gleason of Daddy’s Junky Music, a New Hampshire-based musical instrument retail chain.

Because your keyboard can now interface with and has access to computer programs—not only virtual sound and effects modules but recording software as well—you can make your purchase with compatibility in mind. And be aware that although some plug-ins can be downloaded for free, others, depending on their complexity, can cost as much as $200—rivaling, in some cases, the cost of the keyboard itself.

It’s clear that computers and software programs will continue to be increasingly relevant for keyboard buyers, and applying that technology wisely will keep your wallet from singin’ the blues.

Will Romano is a musician and has been a writer for 20 years. He is completing his third book on music, “Brain Salad Surgeries,” for Hal Leonard music publishers on the history of progressive rock. He has written for the New York Post, New York Daily News, Guitar Player and others.

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