Plug 'N' Play Pianos

There's a digital keyboard to tickle everyone's fancy

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Like many people, i used to play -- a piano here, a church organ there, a couple of brass instruments in my high school and college marching bands. Then my adult life intruded, leaving me with neither the space nor budget for a piano, nor the time to do anything with music except listen to it.

Now I want to play piano again. But, man, has the landscape changed. The familiar acoustic piano, with hammers that hit strings, seems almost quaint. As a piece of furniture, it's still impressive. But unless you spend big, it won't sound half as good as even a low-end portable keyboard that stores digital samples of actual notes played on a grand piano.

Consider the portable keyboard's other advantages. You can bring it home from the store in a car. You can easily move it from room to room, to a vacation home, or into a closet. You never have to tune it. You can plug in headphones and play it without disturbing your family or neighbors. With most keyboards, you can press a button and it won't sound like a piano anymore: It can mimic a violin or guitar or any other instrument you want to hear.

Prepare to be overwhelmed by the choices. Besides your budget, you need to think about your level of musicianship and what you want a keyboard for before you head out to the store. Do you want to learn to play the piano? Or do you just intend to pick out the melody while a band-in-a-box follows along as you play? Do you plan to hook up the keyboard to a computer to compose and record your own accompaniments or songs?

Let's say that you or your child is serious about wanting to learn to play the piano or, like me, were trained on an acoustic piano. You're interested in piano music instead of, say, sounding like a rock group or a string ensemble. Then, most likely, you want a digital piano; the portable varieties are usually called stage pianos. It will look like a traditional piano keyboard, with 88 beefy, block-shaped keys (most portables have 61). The keys will have a weighted or hammer action that simulates the touch or feel of the mechanism of an acoustic piano key.

Just a few years ago, you couldn't get that kind of digital piano for less than $1,000. Now, Casio's 18-month-old Privia PX-110 goes for $400 to $500. Yamaha's new P-70 electronic piano is not much more. Each has about a dozen sounds, usually a half-dozen different pianos (perhaps two grand pianos, the Wurlitzer and Fender Rhodes pianos from the '60s and '70s era of classic rock, and a honky-tonk piano), an organ or two, and a harpsichord. There aren't many nonpiano sounds; these keyboards are designed mostly for playing a piano repertoire.

If you're a beginner, you're probably better off starting with a cheaper, entry-level portable keyboard that has a lot more sounds and without the heavy touch of a digital piano. Later, if you find that piano's your gig, you can invest in a keyboard with a more lifelike feel and tones. Or maybe you'll find you prefer other sounds, such as the artificial sounds of a synthesizer, and decide you'd rather spend your money there.

The most inexpensive portables have more than a hundred sounds, from a basic piano to strings and woodwinds, guitars, brass instruments, synthesizers, and even sound effects. And they come with about a hundred built-in songs to listen to and learn to play. Their touch is lighter, more like a synthesizer or organ. Even the most basic ones come with on-board software that teach you to play by showing you which keys to press. On some of them, the appropriate keys light up.

Yamaha and Casio pretty much dominate the electronic keyboard market, and both sell keyboards in the $100 range. Two picks for beginners: Casio's $100 CTK-700, or Yamaha's $200 PSR-293. The biggest difference? The more expensive one can record your songs, and it has a USB port that makes it easy to save your recordings on a computer, or download prerecorded songs from the Internet.

The more you're willing to spend, the more you'll get: More songs and styles, which are rhythmic backgrounds such as rock, jazz, hip-hop, salsa, or even polka; a slot for a memory card so you can save your performances; a liquid-crystal display that shows the sheet music or lyrics.

Next up is the so-called arranger keyboard. By automatically playing backing tracks -- such as drums, bass, piano, guitar, and strings -- as your right hand plays the melody, it can turn you into a one-person band. Yamaha's DGX-505, which sells from $500 to $600, looks and plays more like an 88-key piano, but with nearly 500 sounds. For about the same price, Roland's 61-key E-09, with close to 900 tones, is more like a synthesizer.

If you decide you don't like the idea of canned accompaniments, the cheapest way to write your own is to use your computer. Hook up a keyboard controller, such as E-MU's Xboard 49 or M-Audio's Oxygen 8. They don't have speakers; instead, they send data, such as which key was pressed and for how long, to the computer, which uses its sound card to play the music. (Even the cheapest portable keyboard, outfitted with a pair of MIDI cables, can do the same thing.)

Or you can buy a keyboard workstation to compose, arrange, and mix complex songs without a computer. This all-in-one machine has a keyboard, synthesizer, and sampler for creating sounds, and a sequencer that can record, edit, and play back music data. Adventurous amateurs like Korg's 61-key Triton Extreme for its touch screen, which makes navigation quick and easy.

When you're shopping, take headphones so you can hear the sound quality over the din of the store. Play several models to pin down what kind of touch you like best. If you're a beginner, consider taking along a friend who plays. Don't be intimidated: Today's portable is a breeze to play, and you'll be amazed at the incredible sounds you'll hear within five minutes of taking it out of the box.

By Larry Armstrong

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