The digital piano versus acoustic piano debate has raged ever since the first digital piano was released onto the market in the 1980s. To start with, and well into the 1990s, there was no question of the winner: the feel, sound, and look of acoustic pianos was far more sophisticated than the electronic-sounding, plastic-feeling digital pianos of the time. However, in the last decade, digital pianos started holding their own against acoustic pianos and we reckon that, in the last couple of years, they’ve actually overtaken at least the cheaper acoustic pianos out there in terms of sound quality, and pretty much any acoustic piano in terms of versatility.
It pains me to say this; I grew up with a piano in the family home and I am a keen piano player. Indeed, until recently, I’ve been adamant that there is no way some digital circuitry and a set of speakers can improve on a massive reverberating piece of wood and metal. I have a Blüthner upright acoustic piano at home that, based on the serial number, hails from the late 19th century and sounds wonderful (at least, when it’s in tune…). I have played Steinway Grands and Bosendorfer Imperials, and I know how amazing they feel and sound. But, but…
In our shop in Edinburgh, we have several models of digital piano, with an especially huge range of Roland digital pianos. The reason we major on Roland pianos is that Roland have in recent years developed a technology called “SuperNATURAL” that fundamentally changed the way digital pianos worked. Basically old models of digital piano were just sound playback devices: the manufacturers would painstakingly record every note of a “real” piano, and when you played a note on the keyboard, the speakers would just play back the recording, louder or quieter dependent on how hard you hit the note. It of course became more sophisticated than that, with more recordings and better feeling keyboards etc. but fundamentally they were still just sound playback devices.
With SuperNATURAL technology, this whole method was thrown out of the window. Rather than recording individual notes, Roland have re-created the internal workings of the piano, so it really responds to your touch like a piano should, and all the fullness of sound you get with an acoustic piano is meticulously recreated in better-than-real-life quality. The pinnacle of this technology is exemplified in the Roland V-Piano Grand, a beast of an instrument that won’t give you much change from £13k. However, as always, the technology has trickled down to even their cheaper digital pianos, with the Roland F20 only costing £459 at time of writing. They couple this with ivory-feel hammer-action keyboards that are simply indistinguishable from the keyboards found on acoustic pianos.
So I’ve explained why digital pianos can sound and feel as good as acoustic pianos, but what makes them better?
As I see it, there are four reasons:
1. They are more versatile
The Roland V-Piano Grand can not only sound exactly like a Steinway, but also exactly like a Bosendorfer, or even like my lil’ old Bluthner upright. Once you’ve bought an acoustic piano, it can only ever sound like one thing, but digital pianos can sound like any piano you can imagine. They also often come with other sounds – strings, choirs, and more – that offer all sorts of creative playing possibilities.
2. You never need to tune them
This is a massive plus point. Acoustic pianos are the instruments that just keep on taking: if you don’t spend around £150 a year on tuning, they’ll basically be unplayable. Digital pianos never need tuning, and can even be transposed to play in a different key at the touch of a button (makes playing in C# a whole lot easier!).
This is an important one for me – with two small children, I can’t practice the piano at night, unless I want them to wake up and come and join me (which generally I don’t). With a digital piano, you can just plug in a set of good quality headphones and play into the small hours with nary a care in the world.
4. They don’t take up so much room
Although there is something magnificent about a huge grand piano, most of us simply don’t have the room. Digital pianos have the capability to offer the same big sound out of a surprisingly compact unit that’ll slip into your front room without dominating it.
So that’s it: finally digital pianos have overcome acoustic pianos. Don’t believe us? Come and check out our digital piano selection in Edinburgh and you may be surprised. That said, if you were to offer me a Steinway Grand as a Christmas present, I might find it hard to resist…
***Update, July 2015***
OK, so I donated my Blüthner to a community centre (the Red School Youth Centre, if you’re interested). I then took the rather huge step of buying a Roland LX15E, and I have to say it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
It’s more compact than the Blüthner and looks a lot better in my living room, but it has also meant that I’ve discovered two more reasons why digital pianos are better than acoustic pianos:
5. They can act as a home entertainment system
One of the key features of the LX15 is that it has an extremely high quality array of speakers built in. This means that, not only does the piano itself sound amazing, but that it can act as a very high quality (and LOUD!) speaker system (there’s an audio input for plugging an iPod / phone etc. in). Rumour has it that the new range of digital pianos from a certain well-known manufacturer will incorporate Bluetooth technology, meaning you can play music from your phone through the piano’s speakers on the other side of the room. Try doing that with a Steinway grand.
6. They can be controlled by MIDI and used as a MIDI controller
My laptop and audio interface sit neatly on top of the LX15 with a single MIDI cable joining the piano and the computer. What does this mean? It means 1. I can record myself playing the piano and correct any mistakes, and 2. I can use the piano to play the 50 gazillion other sounds that my laptop can make. Amazing!
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