Some manufacturers call them portable keyboards, others prefer the term home keyboards, and still others refer to them as workstations. All three terms describe the same thing: versatile, self-contained, performance- and composition-oriented keyboards, perfect for the adventurous beginner or amateur musician. Semiprofessional and professional entertainers alike have adopted many portable keyboards, lured by their convenient instant-accompaniment tracks and easy-to-navigate front panels, not to mention their incredibly realistic sounds and styles. This traditionally housebound instrument has moved out of the home and into the performing arena.
Portable home keyboards, which are best known for being easy to use, can open up a lot of doors to creativity. Whether you use them at home for family sing-alongs or on stage for a concert, these keyboards are proving versatile enough to grow with any performing musician's needs. The only limits may be those of your imagination.
IS IT FOR ME?
Apart from portability, two of the most common defining features of the home keyboard are its lightweight (synth) key action and its 61-note, 5-octave keyboard. (Traditional pianos and most digital pianos have keyboards with 88 notes, or 7½ octaves.) Beginners tend to find a lighter keyboard touch easier to play, and fewer notes, of course, mean less to worry about. If you're a beginner, you'll take to a portable home keyboard as a duck takes to water. Players brought up on an acoustic piano, however, may find the shorter, lightweight keyboard hard to adapt to. It's a good idea to compare the keyboard to an ensemble-style digital piano before you buy to see which action you prefer. But if you're a relative newcomer looking for a compact and portable keyboard to perform songs on — maybe playing a melody line over a built-in backup band or creating your own backing tracks using the styles or the sequencer — a digital home keyboard is absolutely ideal for the job.
WHAT A CHOICE!
As you'll see from the comparison chart (on pages 14 and 15), most manufacturers of home keyboards offer a range of models, with more sophisticated features and more plentiful sounds included on the higher-end models. (“The World of Digital Pianos,” which starts on page 18, also discusses many of these features.)
Don't think the entry-level models must have a low-quality sound just because they're inexpensive. These days sampling technology is so good that even a budget-priced keyboard can sound incredibly realistic. Lower-priced home keyboards probably have more limited features, such as smaller memory capacity, fewer sounds or accompaniments, and a smaller display; and these models may not have a floppy-disk drive or the full complement of MIDI connections. But even if you are on a limited budget, you can get a portable home keyboard with high-quality sounds, versatile accompaniments, and enough fun and educational features to more than satisfy you as you progress with your musical education.
When you're buying a new keyboard, you'll have to consider your budget, but you should also match your intended purchase with your own level of musicianship and factor in how you might improve over time. Some of the instrument's more complicated features may intimidate you initially, but a keyboard that is too basic might quickly bore you. Remember that what may seem complicated at first will become less so as you learn your way around the keyboard. A good approach is to find a manufacturer who makes a keyboard with a look, sound, and feel pleasing to you; then opt for the best model you can afford in that manufacturer's line. Don't worry if your budget won't stretch far enough for you to buy to the flashiest model. You can always upgrade later.
These days, most portable home keyboards come with at least 128 preset sounds — the General MIDI sound set — but many have hundreds more. (For more on General MIDI, see the article “MIDI 101” on page 47.) You'll find a good range of piano and electric-piano sounds, but given this type of keyboard's band-in-a-box nature, you'll also find plenty of other instrument sounds, such as organs, strings, woodwinds, guitars, basses, brass, choirs, synths, drums, and percussion — as well as some sound effects. Quantity is always good, of course, but it's the quality of the sounds that really counts. Often a home keyboard with a limited set of high-quality sounds comes across as more realistic and better suits your personal performing needs than one bursting with second-rate sound variations.
Onboard effects offer an excellent way of tailoring sounds, and these days just about every portable home keyboard comes with common effects such as reverb and chorus, both of which will enlarge or thicken the sound. Many keyboards include a greater selection of effects, such as tremolo (which is wonderful for organ sounds), equalization, delay, and echo. You may also find that the keyboards you experiment with have other signal-processing effects, such as distortion and harmonization, or even that they give you the ability to tweak a sound's effects parameters.
Portable home keyboards have come a long way in the last ten years. In the past, keyboards had a limited number of preset sounds, but most keyboards available today have the capability to edit or tweak their built-in sounds. Some of the higher-end keyboards offer extremely sophisticated editing capabilities on a par with those of some synthesizers and professional workstations; and the large graphic displays and well-explained functions you'll find on the home-oriented instruments make editing surprisingly straightforward.
Adding effects to a sound is always a good way of customizing it to your liking, as are mixing and matching different layers of sounds. Some keyboards let you apply filters to suppress or boost certain frequencies of a sound, and they may also allow you to adjust resonance and other parameters that can dramatically affect tonal quality. Even altering the start and end times of a sample can have a significant effect — imagine a cymbal without its initial dynamic attack or a vibraphone that cuts off immediately after you strike it. There are few limits to what you can create by editing sounds, and the more you delve into your keyboard's capabilities, the more you can expand its sound palette.
The auto-accompaniments section of a portable home keyboard is where its one-person-band capabilities really come into play. Most keyboards come with a good selection of musical styles, including swing, jazz, country, pop, polka, hip-hop, waltz, Latin, and every style in between. Backing parts consist of a rhythm, a bass line, and up to five other instruments that beef up the chord section. While your right hand jams over the top with the melody instrument that you've selected, the backing parts play along using the notes of the chord you choose with your left hand.
You can learn this technique fairly quickly, and once you've mastered it, you'll be transformed into a hotshot soloist with a virtuoso backing band, thanks to the amazing quality and sophistication of the keyboard's preprogrammed styles. (You will find more tips and techniques in the sidebar “Using Your Keyboard's Auto-Accompaniments,” on page 12.)
Sequencing takes the concept of auto-accompaniment one step further. Here you have the opportunity to produce your own multitrack recordings completely from scratch by playing one line at a time until you've built up a complete song. You can store your sequences in your keyboard for instant recall, or you can save them to a disk and load them into your keyboard as needed. A format called SMF (Standard MIDI File) ensures that other electronic instruments can read and understand your sequences, so you can even distribute them among your musician friends — which is great for collaborating or getting your songs out to a wider audience. You can also buy commercial SMFs that, once loaded into your keyboard, map to the correct sounds and reproduce well-known tunes for your enjoyment. You can play or sing along karaoke-style with SMFs, some of which include song lyrics that appear highlighted on your keyboard's display.
The sequencers that are found on some lower-end portable keyboards are fairly basic: they might only let you record a couple of tracks or limit you to storing two relatively short songs at any one time. But the sequencers in the mid- and high-end instruments are more sophisticated, with as many as 16 tracks and myriad editing capabilities. And with the larger graphic displays found on the latest high-end keyboards, you can easily create professional-sounding sequences and backing tracks.
With the innumerable sounds, effects, styles, and functions on your keyboard — many of which you can assign to buttons, sliders, pads, and performance wheels — you'd find it frustrating if each time you wanted to play a particular song, you first had to remember all the changes you made the last time you played it. Registration memories (sometimes called one-touch settings) let you store multiple settings so the keyboard can recall a particular song's setup with the press of a button. Some keyboards let you name the memory locations; for example, you might name a registration memory “Livin' la Vida Loca” to remind you that the stored setup corresponds to that song.
If you want to switch settings during a song (for example, say you want the third verse to have a completely different texture, melody instrument, and samples), you could have two or three variations of overall settings and switch between them during your performance. Some keyboards allow you to store these memories onto a floppy disk and create a whole library of setups.
Sampling is the process by which an electronic musical instrument digitizes, stores, and reproduces external sounds. Although expensive and sophisticated dedicated samplers do this task best, some portable home keyboards offer a basic sampling facility you can use to record your own sounds and expand the available sound palette. There's no end to the type of sounds you can sample, and with a bit of experimentation you'll come up with some interesting and quirky ideas.
On some keyboards, the user can only assign a new sample to a dedicated button or pad on the instrument's front panel, so each time you press the pad you hear that sound played once in its entirety. But many of the new higher-end keyboards offer greater sophistication in this area, along with expandable storage capability for in-creasing the length and number of samples you can load at any one time. (Audio samples take up a lot of memory.)
In years gone by, the main culprit in tinny-sounding portable keyboards was an inferior set of speakers. Not anymore! The quality of speakers and the sheer power output on today's home keyboards are quite astounding. Some of the higher-end models even include two sets of stereo speakers for extra bass boost, and their power output is typically between 10 and 30 watts per side. If that doesn't sound like much, plug them in and test them out — they'll surprise you.
YOU'VE GOT THE LOOK
An instrument's look, feel, and response are important aesthetic considerations when you're choosing between keyboards. Many manufacturers are leaning toward a sleek monochrome look. The proliferation of deep-blue, information-packed LCDs and pinpoint LEDs for indicating various keyboard functions has made these keyboards easier to use. Portable home keyboards, with their button-laden, generously labeled front panels, look quite different from portable digital pianos. Solid, responsive keys and neat casings ensure that today's portable home keyboards look and feel better than ever.
So get those creative juices flowing and give voice to the music that lives inside you. With such exciting and affordable technology available, it's a great time to invest in a portable home keyboard.
Sam Molineaux is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and musician whose ideal portable keyboard weighs just two pounds, plays MP3s, and is instantly upgradable via the Internet.
Using Your Keyboard's Auto-Accompaniments
Ed Alstrom was a product manager at Casio. He has programmed many of the auto-accompaniments found on Casio keyboards, and he is also a live musician of high repute. Here he offers his tips on using auto-accompaniments.
Approaching auto-accompaniments creatively can lead you in directions you didn't anticipate. It's good to be broadminded when choosing your accompaniment. If you're playing a rock tune, for example, try it with an ethnic-style accompaniment rather than one of the more obvious rock styles. Experimenting with textures is good, too. You don't always need to use all the chord parts. Try cutting some parts out or even playing along with just bass and drums.
Melody lines are great with natural instrument sounds such as piano or electric piano; flutes and saxophones also work well. I tend to gravitate toward soprano-sax sounds because I find they're very realistic and a little bit more supple for taking the solos. There's usually a good assortment of synth lead sounds modeled after old Minimoog or ARP sounds. You'll probably find ten or so sounds you like to use on a regular basis.
Experiment with the different sections. For example, you don't have to use the Intro only for the introduction. Say you've played your two verses, you add a couple of choruses and solos, and you need to take a breather. Press the Intro button. As long as this doesn't stop the momentum of the song, it'll give you a little rest and introduce some different musical material to break things up.
Fills are good for variations, too. They're usually only one bar long, but if you repeatedly press the Fill button on every downbeat, you'll create a loop that often makes a good pattern.
At some point in a song, the whole band may cut out and leave a measured break for a solo vocal or whatever. What you can do here is actually stop the pattern for half a bar, do your little vocal fill, and then hit the Synchro button to land the pattern back where it should be. This technique takes some practice, but it's very effective and goes hand-in-hand with playing along with auto-accompaniments.
A good tip for playing live is to increase the tempo slightly during the course of a song. Say the song begins at 120 beats per minute (bpm). After you play, say, two verses of the song, inch it up to 121 bpm for the solo section and 122 bpm for the second chorus. You don't want to go flying up 10 metronome markings, but as a song builds and the intensity grows, almost any live band will speed up incrementally by a couple of beats per minute.
BREAKDOWN OF TOTAL SOUNDS Model Keys Action* Polyphony (No. of Notes) Total Sounds Piano Organ Strings Guitar Bass Woodwinds Brass Choir Synthesizer Other Percussion (Sounds/Rhythms) Effects & No. of Simultaneous Effects* Sequencer* (Tracks/Notes) Data Storage* MIDI Ports (In/Out/Thru) Headphone Jacks/Microphone Jacks Other Jacks Display* Speakers Power (Watts × Channel) Dimensions (H × W × D, in Inches) Weight (in Pounds) Stand Included Colors* Price Range*
Casio CTK-49161NW1210010101010101010—20102/100NoneNoneNone1/1/01/1(1) pedalLCD22 × 25 × 37 × 139NoBL¢Casio CTK-59361NW2424627231319163414—40459/120None2/3,000None1/1/01/0(1) pedalLCD22 × 26 × 38 × 1512NoSL¢Casio CTK-69161NW32790561901744404745—11618216/140C, D, E, R, T, O (—)6/5,000None1/1/01/0(1) pedalLCD22.5 × 26 × 38 × 1512NoSL¢¢Casio LK-4361NW1210010101010101010—20106/100NoneNoneNone1/1/01/0NoneLCD22 × 25 × 38 × 1512NoSL¢¢Casio LK-5561NW2424627231319163414—40456/120None2/3,000None1/1/01/0(1) pedalLCD22.5 × 28 × 41 × 1818NoSL¢¢Casio WK-300076NW32790561901744404745—11618220/140C, R, T, O (—)6/4,900SMC1/1/01/0(1) pedalLCD46 × 27 × 49 × 1721NoSL¢¢Casio WK-350076NW3279056190174440474511618220/140C, R, T, O (—)6/8,000SMC, SMF-DD1/1/01/0(2) out, (1) pedalLCD46 × 27 × 49 × 1722No—¢¢¢Generalmusic GENESYS61NW641,300+———————————C, D, E, R, T, O (4)32/250,000CD, HD, SMF-DD2/2/22/2(3) pedal, audio/video interfaceLCD520 × 2, 40 × 19 × 45 × 1659YesSL$Generalmusic GENESYS PRO61NW641,300+———————————C, D, E, R, T, O (4)32/250,000CD, HD, SMF-DD2/2/22/2(3) pedal, audio/video InterfaceLCD0N/A4 × 47 × 1641YesSL$Generalmusic GK34061NW64147———————————C, R (—)4/8,000N/A1/1/11/0(2) out, sustain pedalC-LCD45 × 26 × 38 × 1416YesSL¢¢Generalmusic WK161NW32460——————————16 kitsC, D, R, T, O (2)16/60,000SMF-DD1/1/11/0(2) out, sustain pedalLCD46 × 2——YesSL¢¢¢¢Generalmusic WK2000HD61NW32444——————————17 kitsC, D, R, T, O (2)16/60,000HD, SMF-DD1/1/12/2(2) out, sustain pedal, audio/video interfaceC-LCD415 × 26 × 44 × 1632YesO$Korg PA6061NW626625846378051429033112113413/304C, D, E, R, T, O (—)16/50,000—1/1/11/2(2) outLCD215 × 26 × 44 × 1530YesGR$Korg PA8061NW626625846378051429033112113413/304C, D, E, R, T, O (—)16/50,000—1/1/11/2(2) in, (4) outLCD422 × 26 × 44 × 1531YesGR$Panasonic SX-KC21161NW24150151015151515123163412/100R (2)4/4,500None1/1/01/0(1) in, (1) out, (1) footswitchBW-LCD22.5 × 26 × 38 × 1511NoBL/SL¢¢Panasonic SX-KC61161NW32250231726211623165327112/200C, R (2)4/4,500SMF-DD1/1/01/0(1) in, (1) out, (1) footswitchBW-LCD25 × 26 × 38 × 1513NoBL/SL¢¢Roland EM-1561NW242262112151712161523383165/64C, R (2)2/ —None1/1/02/0(1) out, sustain pedalLCD25 × 25 × 38 × 1615NoSL¢¢Roland EM-2561NW242262112151712161523383165/64C, R (2)2/ —SMF-DD1/1/02/0(1) out, sustain pedalLCD25 × 25 × 38 × 1615NoSL¢¢¢Roland EM-5561NW643,559178226284318295313270112836727— /128C, R, O (3)16/ —SMF-DD1/1/02/0(2) out, sustain/expression pedalLCD27 × 26 × 40 × 1621NoSL$Roland VA-761NW1283,64917822628431829531327011283681710,025/128C, D, E, R, T, O16/30,000SMF-DD1/1/12/1(2) in, (2) out, (3) pedalTOUCH225 × 28 × 47 × 1636NoGR—Roland VA-7676NW1283,649178226284318295313270112836817— /128C, D, E, R, T, O (5)16/ —HD, SMF-DD1/1/11/1(4) out, (4) pedalTOUCH0N/A6 × 50 × 1644NoGR$Suzuki SP-3761NW32128888888883232108/100R (—)N/AN/A1/1/01/0(1) out, (1) pedalLED24 × 24 × 38 × 1514NoGRN/ASuzuki SP-4761NW32128888888883232108/100C, D, R (—)N/AN/A1/1/01/1(1) out, (1) pedalLCD24 × 24 × 38 × 1415NoBLN/ASuzuki SP-6761W32138888888883232108/100C, D, E, R (—)N/AN/A1/1/01/1(1) out, (1) pedalLCD25 × 24 × 39 × 1321NoGRN/ATechnics SX-KN240061NW64958514832513347603620040034/680C, D, E, R, T, O (3)16/40,000F-ROM, SMF-DD1/1/01/1(1) in, (2) out, footswitch, volume pedal, USBBW-LCD218 × 27 × 42 × 1621NoSL$Technics SX-KN260061NW64980515034553751663620040034/680C, D, E, R, T, O (3)16/40,000F-ROM1/1/01/1(1) in, (2) out, (1) pedal, footswitch, USB, SD cardBW-LCD220 × 27 × 42 × 1621NoSL$Technics SX-KN700061NW1281,0206160345544586636200406130/880C, D, E, R, T, O (16)16/40,000F-ROM, SMF-DD1/1/11/1(1) in, (2) out, (3) footswitch, volume pedal, USB, video out, SD cardC-LCD533 × 2——NoSL$Yamaha 9000 Pro76NW126848292734422031515233529662/245C, D, E, R, T, O (12)16/38,000F-ROM, SMF-DD2/2/01/1(1) in, (6) out, (2) aux in/loop send, (2) aux/loop return, (2) footswitch, (1) pedal, computer interface, PC keyboard, video, SCSI, (2) voice card expansion slot, (2) lampBW-LCD0N/A6 × 51 × 1645NoSL$Yamaha EZ-15061NW16100131059577163726/100NoneNoneNone1/1/01/0(1) pedalLED22 × 25 × 37 × 1410NoBL¢¢Yamaha EZ-250i61NW32480354951333632291474127244/100C, D, R, T, O (3)NoneF-ROM—1/0(1) pedal, USBBW-LCD23 × 25 × 36 × 1512NoSL¢¢¢Yamaha DGX20276NW32605544858385035444133141244/135C, D, R, T, O (3)6/10,000F-ROM1/1/01/0(1) pedalBW-LCD46 × 26 × 47 × 1719NoGR¢¢¢Yamaha DGX30076NW32619544858385035444133155244/135C, D, R, T, O (3)6/DTDSMF-DD1/1/01/0(1) pedalBW-LCD46 × 27 × 46 × 1622NoGR¢¢¢Yamaha DGX50088NW32619544858385035444133155244/135C, D, R, T, O (3)6/DTDSMF-DD1/1/01/0(1) pedalBW-LCD46 × 27 × 56 × 1731YesGR$Yamaha PSR17261NW16100131059577163726/100NoneNoneNone1/1/01/0(1) pedalBW-LCD22 × 24 × 37 × 1310NoBL¢Yamaha PSR27361NW3248035495133363229147412726/100C, D, R, T, O (3)NoneNone1/1/01/0(1) pedalBW-LCD23 × 25 × 36 × 1512NoSL¢¢Yamaha PSR29261NW32605544858385035444133141244/135C, D, R, T, O (3)6/10,000F-ROM1/1/01/0(1) pedalBW-LCD43 × 26 × 38 × 1615NoGR¢¢Yamaha PSR55061NW32699676072646155665144105305/112C, D, R, T, O (3)16/DTDSMF-DD1/1/01/0sustain/assignable pedal, computer interfaceC-LCD46 × 27 × 38 × 1619NoBU¢¢¢¢Yamaha PSR110061NW327836774776761527026147142351/181C, D, R, T, O (3)16/DTDF-ROM, SMF-DD1/1/01/0(4) out, volume pedal, (1) footswitch, USBBW-LCD412 × 26 × 39 × 1622NoGR$Yamaha PSR210061NW648347085817461538034154142369/197C, D, E, R, T, O (9)16/DTDF-ROM, SMF-DD1/1/01/1(1) in, (4) out, volume pedal, (1) footswitch, USBBW-LCD412 × 26 × 39 × 1623NoSL$Yamaha PSRK161NW32486355051333636301474127244/135C, D, R, T, O (3)6/10,000SMC—1/1(1) pedal, USBBW-LCD46 × 27 × 40 × 1615NoGR¢¢¢Yamaha Tyros61NW1281,18596112108115877310516241232880/245C, D, E, R, T, O (12)16/38,000F-ROM, SMF-DD2/2/01/1(1) in, (4) out, (2) aux in/loop send, (2) aux/loop return, (2) footswitch, volume pedal, USB, L/R speaker, to subwoofer, videoC-LCD0N/A5 × 47 × 1727NoSL$* Key
Information not provided by the manufacturer is indicated by a double hyphen (—); N/A means not applicable
Action NW = nonweighted; W = weighted; WH = weighted-hammer
Effects C = chorus; D = delay; E = equalization; R = reverb; T = tremolo; O = other
Sequencer DTD = direct to disk
Data Storage F-ROM = Flash ROM; HD = hard drive; SMC = SmartMedia card; SMF-DD = SMF-compatible disk drive
Display BW-LCD = black-and-white liquid crystal display; C-LCD = color liquid crystal display; LED = light-emitting diode; TOUCH = touch screen
Colors BL = black; BU = blue; GR = gray; SL = silverO = other
Price Range ¢ = $100-$200; ¢¢ = $200-$400; ¢¢¢ = $400-$600; ¢¢¢¢ = $600-$800; $ = more than $800