Pianos cost too much? Get a synth!

by Torley Wong on 7 June 2009 18 comments

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.

(I'm not getting into alternative controllers like keytars and the Tenori-On in this article, but yes, they're options once you know the basics!)

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.

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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!

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Guest's picture

My ten-year-old son is taking piano lessons and doing very well. Sometimes he gets distracted just trying things out on our piano--the pedals and so on. If he had hundreds of new sounds to try he'd never get the technical skills down that he needs to know first.

On the other hand, right about the time that interest in piano seems to inevitably wane (puberty, perhaps), this sounds like a great idea to rejuvenate interest.

Another thing--from an interior design perspective, it's hard to beat a piano--no cords, nice colors, and you can set a vase of flowers on it.

Guest's picture
Guest

I disagree with this post so passionately that I just may never visit this site again, and discourage anyone else from doing so.

Guest's picture
Jedidja

For a child who's studying music (even through early adolesecent) and especially if you are taking Royal Conservatory, then buying a synth (even with weighted keys) is a horrible idea. There _is_ a different feel between real pianos you have to take your practical exams on and a synth, and as someone who grew up before weighted keys existed, I know how difficult it can be to adjust. Feeling a hammer strike the strings vs. what synths do will always be different.

Having said that, experimenting with sounds, and all the benefits a synth provide also open up a whole new world of possibilities. For some early musicians, this may be just what they need to keep their interest and give them tons of room to grow vs just having a "Regular" piano.

You make some very solid points; I think it's important for people to consider what their goals are at any time before deciding.

Guest's picture
martha in mobile

I have a very basic digital piano -- weighted keys, several voices, recording ability, metronome. I love it! I never need to have it tuned and I can practice w/o impinging on anyone. The same cannot be said by the clarinetist in the house. The only downside is that I cannot play during hurricane-related power outages, which is when I MOST NEED to play.

Guest's picture
Chris

Thanks for posting this, it has inspired me to go buy an M-audio Keystation 88es instead of a "personal" keyboard. So many cool options! :D

Guest's picture

I've been using electronics and MIDI for musicmaking for nearly 20 years. This is a very positive and forward thinking article.
I'm very fortunate to have grown up in a time when the price of these sort of items and availibility have made it possible for millions that never had access to music now do.

It is true that the look and feel of a piano are extremely desirable, and in fact I had a friend that for many years sold pianos primarily as high end furniture to complete living rooms, not a very music appropriate activity.

The people that read this article should also be aware that if their child learns on an electronic device, two things will happen.

Their technical accumen will improve so that if they were to play a "real" piano, they would be able to play the notes accordingly, as most keyboards offer varying degrees of velocity sensitivity.

Also, speaking from experience, the opportunity to create original music and your own arrangements far outweighs the nuts and bolts of gaining technical prowess as a "player."

Kudos. Nice article.

Robbie Ryan
Digital Musician
I Love Analogue Blog.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Torley, I'm impressed with the amount of info you decided to share on this post.  And while I can identify with those who are horrified by the suggestion that a synth is a substitute for a piano, it's not for the same reasons.  Before people get all upset that synths are somehow the bastard children of the almighty piano, consider these issues that have forced us to consider adding a synth to our home instrument ensemble:

1.  Because we live so far from a reputable and capable tuner, my son has been without his lessons for far too long (I teach him.)  We have had our piano tuned twice in a year, for a cost of almost $200 in total, and a few hammers are going to need to be replaced here again shortly. When a hammer acts up or a key gets stuck, who suffers?  Just my son.  Nothing is more frustrating than to have middle C die on you when you're most "feeling" your music.

2.  Because we live in a such a damp climate, and we cannot keep our house at the desired temperature that would be most beneficial to keeping a piano in good shape, we have seen a reduction in sound quality and an increase in tuning and maintenance costs.  Again, what's to love about an off-key piano?  Not much.

3.  The noise.  Yes, I understand it is an instrument to be enjoyed (in all its volume.)  With 4 kids in the home, all passionately exploring and learning piano, and my office located just feet away, I find myself "limiting" the time they would like to be on it.  True music exploration and appreciation would be best supported by not imposing curfews on the practicing, but sadly, that's where we are at.  The headphone option would not only give me some peace and quiet (thus keeping me from "stifling" their learning), but it helps to keep my antsy boys focused on the task at hand.  Remember, it also blocks out distracting noises for them, too.

We have had both traditional uprights and console pianos in our home, and have experienced huge setbacks as a result.  While I've personally struggled with the issue of electronic substitutes, I find that holding to these "pure" preferences has done nothing but hold my kids back.  If you move alot, find yourself in a situation where a piano takes up too much space or resource, or you've needed an extra "lure" to get your kids into music, I would no doubt encourage you to go for the synth.  Because what's worse?  "Diluting" the stigma that is the piano or causing your children to miss out on the beautiful world of music and creation?

Thanks, Torley.. your skill is breathtaking :)

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

I have a semi-heavy digital piano that looks mostly like a regular piano and sounds exactly like one. It could be better, but it was far cheaper than a regular piano and frankly, comparing the touch & feel of it to the regular pianos that my family has, it's far easier to play.

Digital pianos are cheaper, sound better, can do more (teach, record, etc.), are portable, and are private (headphones). Why anyone would want a regular piano outside an orchestra (and sometimes even within one) is beyond me.

Guest's picture
Guest

They most definitely do not sound better than a real piano.

Guest's picture
FrugalNYC

We shopped for a Piano for several days. I spent over a week just reading about Pianos and what is required to maintain and to choose the right ones.

We saw several piano dealers and ended up buying a Yamaha Digital Piano. We did so thanks to a recommendation from a piano teacher. The piano's primary purpose, for us, is to help our young daughter learn. We did not get a personal keyboard (I didn't like them much as a child) since they "felt" different from a Piano.

I think this article bring home some great points.
If you are thinking of buying, definitely try the different choices out yourself.

Linsey Knerl's picture

I wonder if the harpsichord enthusiasts were just as upset by the invention of the piano?

:)

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
Seth

Really good article, saying possibly unpopular things. Glad I found it. In fact, some of the naysaying comments here inspired me to write a rebuttal. I was only intending to post a reply here, but it got so long I put it on my blog.

http://boxoftextures.blogspot.com/2009/06/piano-vs-synthesizer.html

Executive summary: Carnegie Hall, maybe not. Your 10-year-old in your living room, definitely.

Torley Wong's picture

@Michelle I'm glad to hear of your son's experiences. But having different sounds, while distracting to some (this is HIGHLY individual), encourages a broader palette of technical skills than can be learned on an acoustic piano alone. I'm aware of "gearheads" that get lost trying sounds and never output a finished work — and have been guilty of that on occasion.

But, of course, there are digital pianos that are both (1) cheaper and come in the (2) exact same exterior form factor as an acoustic piano. And these will continue to get better.

@Guest Please articulate so I may understand.

@Jedidja As I mentioned, "feel" is relative from piano to piano, synth to synth. Have you tried some of the new hammer-strike models, particularly Yamaha and Roland ones? (Also remember some senses are colored by what you *see*, not just what you feel.)

@martha Oh, yes, electricity is the big factor. An important one to consider if turbulence is typical weather where you are. When that gets solved for computers (not realistically soon), it by extension will benefit electronic instruments.

@Chris I hope you'll buy from a place with a good return policy! That's like, the OMNI-rule. :)

@I Love Analogue I like the name of your blog! Your two observations are absolutely true in my experience. I felt myself outgrowing the "basics" of a piano and needing more, especially as it came to original creation.

@Linsey Thanks for explaining so well, as you often do. Music generates much passion, so hot emotions are sure to follow. I'm really glad to hear of your experiences, and a capable synth is a "superset" of a piano, so if you learn that, you can always play the usual ivories.

@Winkyboy And many Hollywood "orchestras" are infact synthesized renditions, sampled from acoustic sources and combined in fresh ways! Again, this is not to say orchestras are obsolete — they have a grand charm — but cost and portability, like the piano on a smaller scale, are very much a factor.

I just don't want anyone to feel limited because of someone else's prejudices.

@Guest #2 Oh, explain.

@FrugalNYC Thanks for chiming in! I found it hard to write parts of this article, for I didn't want to generalize too much, yet it's true, there are many sizes & shapes of synths, including those that resemble and feel more like their acoustic counterparts.

@Linsey again, I seem to recall such tales when I was younger! I'd quote a source if I had one. But it also makes me think of people in the 80s (in particular, Malaysia) saying kids would get bored of the video game fad and return to their spinning tops. Also, how we refer to things says a lot about our mindset: "cars" were once "horseless carriages".

@Seth Thanks for taking your time to think more about and share! I disclaim I'm a former classical snob, and know that by far most of the replies I see on this matter are predictable and without extensive experience in both "camps", so I'm glad you're more familiar than that — given such a collection.

And, I shall reply directly on your blog!

Thanks all.

Guest's picture
Guest

Synths are perfectly acceptable if you need something portable, have limited space, need to plug in headphones so you don't annoy the neighbors, or are just plain on a budget. But I wouldn't go so far as to say they're as good as the real deal (especially if you have a quality piano). No matter how good the synth or how well the manufacturer programs in deliberate "imperfections" to mimic the real deal, it just isn't the same.

If coughing up $200 every year (or more) to maintain your piano is getting you down, there's an excellent book "Piano Servicing, Tuning, and Rebuilding" which will guide you through the steps to do routine tunings and make simple repairs on your piano (or even completely rebuild it ... if you have the patience). You can get the book plus a cheap tuning kit for around $230 to keep professional maintenance to a minimum (especially as most so-called "piano restoration experts" will just laugh at you when you want a real repair).

If you want a keyboard that you can program to layer bagpipes and violins in the background, a synth is great. But if you want to feel the music as Mozart intended, borrow the book from your library and tinker with grandmas old piano before you spend any money.

Guest's picture
Della

Torley,
Your posting has done a couple of things for me personally --

1. got me excited and interested about learning to play (if only I could HOLD that interest);
2. helped me to realize that I am not alone. There are other COMPLETE goobers out there too. :)

Thx for the read and, even more, thanks for the entertaining videos. You've put a lot of time and thought into this posting and FWIW, it hasn't gone unnoticed.

Best to you,
D.

Guest's picture
Slinky

First I have to answer the original question: Whichever one you can find for free. I've gotten half a dozen pianos for free and passed them all on again for the same price. One was nearly new because the kid it was purchased for didn't stick with it. In my experience music teachers and church pianist/organists often know where to find these deals.

Then I have to say that there's absolutely nothing wrong with going electric or synth for a kid learning to play for all the reasons that have been discussed here. After that, it really depends on where your kid is going with music. Most kids that are taught piano either go a route where the electric/synth works just as well or better than a "real piano" or they never outgrow what the electric can do.

And yes, I do think you can outgrow what an electric can do. I learned on an electric, played seriously on acoustics, and now can no longer stand to play on the same electric I loved as a kid.

Acoustics just have more subtlety. Most pedals on electrics are either off or on, no in between. Not so on acoustic. Many electrics also don't have a middle pedal, which yes, I actually do use. Likewise there is a larger range of volume than you can produce on an electric...at least without adjusting the volume knob. That's why they have volume knobs, isn't it? That sometimes makes it difficult to balance the upper and lower registers, or emphasize a melody or phrase. It's very difficult to not bury a delicate treble melody with a busy bass line.

I also agree that electrics have not quite captured the feel of an acoustic. The weighted keys are better, but still have a ways to go. As you say, there are many different feels to a piano. And yet, I've never played any electric that played like any acoustic. There's a smoothness to the way the keys go down in an acoustic that always seems to be missing on an electric.

Don't get me wrong, I'd also love a synth or electric to play around with for all the reasons you listed. They're great for creating and playing around with and composing, but for sitting down and really, truly playing with everything I've got, I'll take the real deal any day.

Guest's picture
LJ

Having learned piano as an adult, I have to say weighted keys on any synth are a must while you are learning. Otherwise it is too difficult to transition to a regular piano. Your synth should also have a plug-in damper pedal as well.

One of my daughter's fellow students uses a synth to rehearse on and struggles terribly with the finger pressure and pedaling when she has to use a real piano for recitals or competitions.

Also, if you are totally committed to a real piano, check out local universities, who will cycle their pianos every two to three years. You can get a good piano for much less money than new.

Guest's picture

A synth sounds much more fun to practice on. I agree with the above commenter that weighted keys are a must otherwise it would be difficult to transition to a regular piano.