Digital vs Acoustic Pianos
There can be no denying that some of today’s digital pianos are very good, but just how close do they come to an acoustic, and will they ever succeed in replacing an instrument that has been around for almost three hundred years? These are the questions I hope to answer in this article.
As things stand at the moment digital pianos already surpass acoustic pianos in a number of areas. Consider, for example:
- Maintenance – for the most part digital pianos don’t need any;
- Tuning – digital pianos never need tuning;
- Touch and Feel – the touch and feel of the latest pianos are very realistic, and for those who are still not satisfied with ‘very realistic’ there are digital pianos that employ a real acoustic piano action;
- Size – digital pianos can be quite small and compact; I’ve even seen one that doubles as a desk, with a long drawer that pulls out to reveal the actual keyboard;
- Price – digital pianos vary in price depending on the quality and features, but even the very best costs only a fraction of the price of a concert grand;
- Aesthetic Appeal – a wide range of finishes are available, ranging from simple plastic to the high-gloss wood finishes found on many acoustic pianos.
Versatility is also something digital pianos have going in their favour. They have a volume control and headphone outputs, allowing practice at any time without the risk of annoying anyone. Many have MIDI and/or USB sockets, which enables them to be linked to other keyboards or computers. Many also have some form of built-in recorder, and most have a variety of sounds.
Just about the only thing left to consider is the actual quality of the piano sound itself. Until well into the ’90s the sound of an acoustic was still vastly superior to any digital, but things have gradually been changing. Digital pianos ride on the wave of computer technology and innovation, so with each update they get better, and move closer to the real thing. Now the sound of some digital pianos is truly remarkable, and even relatively inexpensive digital pianos have piano sounds that are quite convincing.
Acoustic pianos cost more to buy, need tuning – at the very least once a year – shouldn’t be subjected to wide fluctuations in temperature and humidity, and shouldn’t be positioned in certain areas such as against outside walls. And regardless of how much you pay for an acoustic piano you only get one sound. So it would seem that digital pianos are now way ahead of acoustics. But there is something about the sound you get when playing an acoustic piano that is hard to describe. It just feels real and alive as opposed to synthesized or sampled.
No matter how good the (piano) sound of a digital piano is, when you compare it to the sound from an acoustic piano you are in effect comparing a sound coming from speakers to a sound emanating from the vibration of strings amplified by a soundboard. The two are very different.
As far as learning on a digital piano goes, not that long ago I wouldn't have recommended it. But now, provided that the piano has a full-size weighted keyboard, is touch sensitive, and has a good piano sound that sustains well (some pianos don't), I can't see any significant drawbacks.
Learning on a digital piano also offers inroads into multi-track recording, composition, and a whole new musical experience that an acoustic piano can’t. Being smaller and lighter, digital pianos are also easier to move from room to room or transport to gigs. In addition, they are easier to record, as they don’t require expensive microphones and a high-quality recording environment.
If you are going to buy a digital piano I strongly recommend buying a reputable make, and getting the very best you can afford. However, it's not necessary to buy a top-of-the-range model as often you are simply paying for more features and extra sounds, which you will probably never use.
So, returning to the question posed at the start of this article about how close a digital piano comes to an acoustic, the answer must be very close indeed (assuming we are comparing good examples of both). But will digital pianos ever replace acoustics? Well, in a sense they already have, as many people have them in their homes, for whatever reason, in preference to an acoustic. Also, some of the best music colleges in the world now make use of digital pianos. However, it’s hard to imagine digital pianos completely replacing acoustics no matter how good they get. As a pianist I think that there is just something about the feel and auditory experience of playing an acoustic that can’t be replicated. We can get close, and with further improvements in technology closer still, but unless a digital has real strings and a soundboard it’s never going to sound exactly the same, or offer the same playing experience.