Pianos cost too much? Get a synth!
I'm thankful for a delicious cornucopia of experience with music: I grew up on classical piano before moving into electronics, a galaxy — wait, universe of sound at my fingertips! With all that learned, and not just because of the recessed economy but practical factors, if a parent were to ask me:
"What piano would you recommend I buy for my kid to get into music?"
I'd shake my head, and not suggest a piano at all!
Blasphemy? Absolutely not. I've played dozens of epic grand pianos and oodles of uprights with character. But pound-for-pound, buck-for-buck, synthesizers — synths for short — beat them almost every time. An initial hurdle to getting into synths is the dizzying array of choices, including "digital pianos" (not strictly synths since they're not focused on sound creation, but performance with a limited array of sounds). But on the whole, synths beat pianos in both the quantity and quality departments.
Wait, how can I say that?
Throw away your 80s stereotypes of bleeps and beeps — technology has advanced to where electronically-amplified piano sounds are in many cases indistinguishable from "the real deal". From multilayered samples to physical modeling, there's a rich sea of options. Yes, a few purists will cry foul, but they're the same people who can't tell the difference in a double-blind test; and if you happen to be that picky, by all means, get a real piano. Like diamonds, they have overpriced charm. But plenty of people who'd be better off with a cheaper, more expansive solution would be wise to try synths first, then understand firsthand.
(That's me playing — sorry, the video is flipped.)
If you're looking to get yourself, your child, or a friend started on piano, here are 6 solid reasons to consider a synth (or other digital instrument) over an acoustic beast:
1. Playing a synth is the same as a piano… plus bonuses
Synths have same black-and-white keyboard layout, and up to the same number of keys. There are synths with "hammer action" keyboards for the hammer-strike feel of a real piano with robust durability. Good to try these out in-store, words won't do.
On top of that, synths usually have additional controls like a pitch-bend wheel (to emulate other instruments) and a modulation wheel (to add expressivity), plus knobs and sliders. These can make a sound duller or sharper, add reverb to make a piano sound like it's in the Grand Canyon, and much, much more.
2. Synths are cheaper… by far
To really drive this point home, a low-end-yet-decent upright piano can set you back US$2,500. Guess what you could buy with the same money? A high-end synth workstation like the Yamaha MOTIF XS6, which is one of the top performers across the whole synth pantheon. Yes, it's the same parent company that makes Yamaha acoustic pianos and the XS6 only has 61 semi-weighted keys, but the 88 weighted-key version, the XS8, can be had for $3,600. What's more, you're not limited to one sound: you get thousands of sounds out of the box, can make your own, and can record yourself on the built-in sequencer, creating song arrangements on the same tool Grammy-winning pros use. It'll teach you a lot more about the sonic universe than a single, limited piano will. (More on that later.)
By the way — I'm not referring here to sub-$300 starter keyboards that are sometimes labeled "personal". They're fun and can be a worthwhile trial to test if you want to commit further to music, but while they've gotten more powerful over the years, they're easy to outgrow. It's worth paying a few hundred bucks more for something that lasts much longer. And if your wallet still screams for mercy, look local for a rental shop that'll let you try out top synths for a stretch of weeks.
But, if that still makes your bank account cringe, do you have a decent computer? You can look into a keyboard controller (like M-Audio's or Novation's), which may contain no sounds of its own, but instead plugs into your computer via USB (like your mouse) or MIDI and uses your computer's existing processing power to play — it's called "software synthesis". There's a wealth of "software studio" options, and they tend to cost a few hundred dollars at most.
Computer Music is one of the best online-and-offline magazines to learn about this from. There are hundreds of plugins for some of these soft studios, many free ones, and many under $100. To discover these tools in addition to mainstays like Harmony Central, a couple of my favorite sites are Synthtopia and Rekkerd, both of which are superb at highlighting all things related to "synth culture". Learn day-by-day, strange names will soon become familiar.
(Synths make it easy to play along to music you love, facilitating the process of practice or simply jamming!)
For a controller, I have an M-Audio Keystation 88es, which cost less than $200 (I got it after cashback on eBay) and has 88 semi-weighted keys. I prefer these because it's easier to do quick runs up and down the keybed. I've paired it with the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) called Ableton Live, which is such an elegant way to put together tracks. Even if you don't need those options now, a computer is far more expandable because as long as software can run on it, you can adapt your configuration. If you had a max. of $2,500 to spend on music gear, including a computer, you can easily include a quality audio interface + mic (to record vocals if you chose) and speakers. But you could just use headphones, which brings me to…
3. Synths let you practice without bothering other people
Guess what's impossible on a traditional piano? Making music without having it invade the room around you. This is good if you're putting on a show, sucks if you have tight living space or your walls are weak — I often ran into the issue of my performance leaking into the kitchen, where sometimes it was welcome, other times my Mom would scream at me to stop.
Just about every single digital keyboard/synth can have its output confined to headphones. Even those which simulate the conventional piano form factor, like Yamaha's Silent Pianos, have this advantage. There are numerous capable digital pianos which can be found for under $1000 and they all have a headphone jack. Price of a quality pair of "cans"? Easily $150 or less. I've had my Sony MDR-V900s for years now, cups over my ears and has big bass; others swear by Sennheiser or Grado. There's something to be said for focus when you can enclose yourself when playing, too.
4. Synths don't go out of tune (unless you want them to) and are easier to carry
There's no need to call a piano tuner. While early analog synths like some Moogs had pitch instabilities, current generations don't suffer that frailty. However, some noted sound designers have deliberately introduced drift and detune into their sounds for that wow-and-flutter-sorta retro sound. (Funny how much we treasure imperfections when we've gained control of how to fix them.)
Real pianos, however, are weak against the weather and being moved. Oh yeah, they're also a lot less portable, which is a problem if you want to take your instrument gigging. All worthwhile things to think about as you make a checklist of what's right for you.
5. Synths encourage explorations through sound
I had some mighty piano teachers, but for the most part, they didn't "get" the outer realms I wanted to venture to on my own. And ultimately, that's what counts: if you have goals, your mentors may not appreciate all of it, but they should help you get there. Unfortunately, there are still too many classical music snobs out there who're killing their music by being limited and stuffy. If they balk at you learning music on a synth for no pragmatic reason, I'd caution to stay away — their mindset isn't progressive enough to help you prosper.
Fingering techniques and other virtuoso fortes can be learned on a 88-key, weighted synth just as well as a "normal piano", and don't let anyone deceive you otherwise. (To those who say "It's not the same as a real piano", there are many different pianos with varying feels; they need to substantiate what they mean.)
After all, music demands your creativity to make the most of it. No one wants to have memories of lessons they were forced to take, because the best learning comes when you're enjoying yourself. I've long been supportive of exploring tonal textures through electronic music. As this video with me playing shows, you can easily emulate guitar and other sounds. (And to extend on that idea, yes, there are synthy equivalents for other instrument families; guitars have the Line 6 Variax to thank.)
(I heart the Native Instruments Kore 2 sound libraries — as you can hear, amazing!)
6. Learn skills not possible with a "real piano" on a synth
An electronic setup is harder to outgrow than a single real piano, since it can be vastly more flexible. In addition to chords and scales, you can learn all about synthesis: how more complex sounds are formed from simple waveforms, oscillators, filtering, and soforth. And if you intend to take music from a hobby into a career, some of these skills are commonplace must-knows.
(Many surprises await you when browsing sounds!)
What's relevant now: the distinction between sound engineer and performer has blurred, and if you want to squeeze the most potential out of the time and energy you put in, electronics make this accessible. For example, Propellerheads Reason, a "studio-in-a-box", lets you simulate rackloads of expensive gear and shows how they're routed to and from each other to generate the final sound. While still in their early years, programs like this are being taken increasingly seriously to result in certification programs and courses at distinguished schools like Berklee.
Still… don't scrimp on a teacher
The above in mind and synth in hand will hopefully save you money you can put forth towards a good teacher. You can pay for lessons, but there's no clear monetary value for the joy of music. This human element can't be replaced by a machine, and while there's a wide variance of teaching styles (and online courses beyond the scope of this article), past the obvious "You should get along and grow together," if you subscribe to what I've shared above, you should go with a teacher who understands the connections between styles of music — the most exciting, potent stuff is cross-disciplinary, and stodgy dinosaurs are dying out.
It's time to awake the new breed and destroy old misconceptions. Learning music needs to be useful and fun… and oh, preferably affordable!
Have questions about the similarities & differences between pianos & synths? Are you like my parents and think pianos have more "dignity"? Let me know in the comments below!