Guide: how to choose the best musical keyboard
As the title probably already hinted you, this guide will help you choosing the right keyboard. And, also, give you some examples of good keyboards for different situations.
For a recording studio, there is no reason to get conventional keyboards: virtual instruments (VSTi) are the only reasonable solution for maximum quality, economy and workflow quality.
Modern VSTi are hilariously better than every keyboard ever made, outside Hammond organs with full generator (C3/A100/B3) and original good quality 2 rotor Leslie speaker (122/147 etc…).
So, your best solution is a master keyboard who controls a computer.
- Construction quality
Don’t worry too much about constructive quality: your studio is a safe place
Don’t worry too much about sliders and potentiometers: you’ll be mostly using mouse and keyboard, unless you’re a hardcore fan of Hammond organs. Which, if you’re not, you should really thinking about becoming one.
If you want to actually play it with both hands, give a look at this section for further information: serious keyboard guide
Click here to jump to our suggestion for some good master keyboard models.
You’ll have 3 main choices, depending on your goals:
- Maximum quality and lowest price: a single powerful master keyboard that controls a PC with virtual instruments
- Medium quality and medium price: a single powerful workstation, with optional MIDI expanders (Jordan Rudess style)
- Worst quality and maximum expense: multiple keyboards of different kinds (Keith Emerson style)
1- Building a VST powered liveset
Modern computers and virtual instruments destroys conventional keyboards on every front but one: compactness.
If you’re not afraid of bringing a computer together with your master keyboard, this is your weapon of choice.
- Master keyboard
A rugged, 88 keys master keyboard will be your best choice.
Be sure to get one with enough potentiometers and sliders: using a mouse for VST tweakings during a live performance is extremely cumbersome. Otherwise, you can get an external control module like an Evolution UC33 or Bistream X3.
Click here for some more advice on good master keyboards.
Suggested models Yamaha S90, Oberheim MC series, FATAR VMK series. They are all beautifully crafted keyboards, ready for the harsh conditions of a live performance.
DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation: it’s your computer for music making! Modern computers are extremely powerful: no need to worry too much for performance.
Suggested models Everything better than a i5 with more than 4GB RAM will do a decent job.
- Audio card
Modern audio cards of extremely high quality: you don’t have to worry anymore of latency or whatever.
Just be sure that its chassis isn’t too fragile: any sound card would do the job.
Suggested models We advise some very simple professional models like Focusrite Scarlett, Saffire or Steinberg UR series. They sound great and their build quality is suitable for a live performance.
Too many i/o won’t be useful: you’re just playing!
You’ll need your VSTi for sound generation, plus a host to use them in a live performance. The second part is the trickier one, since there are no modern solutions for that kind of software: you’ll have to rely on an old but extremely reliable software called Kore, by Native Instruments. It’s been discontinued, but that’s not a huge problem: the software has been extensively tested during its former years, and it’s perfectly usable even without its proprietary audio interface.
2- Building a single workstation liveset
(Jordan Rudess style)
Conventional keyboards, specifically workstations, sound worse than a computer and are way less ductile. But they’re extremely easy to deploy: you put the keyboard on your x-stand, and you’re good to go.
If you’re looking for the handiest solution, a single workstation is your best choice.
A rugged, 88 keys workstation will be your best choice.
Suggested models Korg workstations are the best keyboards for this kind of set: they sound decently and they’re extremely easy to program. The latter is the main reason: during a live set, programmability is vital.
Triton Studio and Triton Extreme are perfect for a low budget gig.
Otherwise, you can just browse Korg’s workstations catalog and get the best one you can afford: they’re all good models. Avoid the low end proposals, like X50 or Kross, or in general workstations with small LCD display: they don’t have enough programmability for a live performance.
3- Building a multiple keyboard liveset
(Keith Emerson style)
The multiple keyboard setup is the worst possible solution: expensive, heavy, lots of stuff to carry on… But that’s the easiest to understand: there’s little to none programming, since you’ll have everything under your eyes.
If you don’t want to think about programming, this is your best choice.
Being single keyboards, there is no real advice about it: you can get all the keyboards you might need. Synthesizers, real pianos, samplers…
The only advice is to avoid analog gear: it’s expensive and fragile, and its sound can’t be appreciated in a extremely noisy and messed up audio environment like a live exhibition.
Watchout for build quality
A live performance will stress a lot your keyboard: humidity, falls, any kind of knocking…
Try going for rugged models with wood/thick aluminium chassis.
- If you plan to use a single powerful keyboard, 88 keys is your choice. This is the best choice for a live performance: you’ll have everything always under your hands, and you’ll carry on less weight.
- If you plan to use multiple keyboards, two 61 keys keyboards or 61 + 76 keyboards can be a good choice.
It’s up to your performance style.
If you plan a Jordan Rudess style performance, with fixed sequential sounds lists, you’ll need very little controls.
If you want a more ’80s performance, with tweaking on your sounds, then you should go for potentiometers and sliders.
Mod Wheel or bend stick? I’d go for mod wheel: it offers much more freedom at the cost of a little bit more complexity of use (2 fingers that control 2 different controllers). The bend stick is easier, but you can’t control it without handling it: the mod wheel could just be left in his position, and that’s very good for many situations. Leslie control, for example.
If you want to play with one hand
Every keyboard model is a good fit for you: choose freely. I’d suggest aim for budget models, since your use will be satisfied even by the more modest ones: no reason to go for complex tools.
If you want to play with both hands
- Avoid non weighted models: it’s way harder to give dynamics to your performance and you’ll easily end up in a series of 127 velocity, which could lead you to waste a lot of hours in post production velocity editing or a messed up live performance. Take a look at this guide to take more info about getting a good weighted keyboard.
- Better getting a full sized 88 keyboard: 61 keys are just too fews for a 2 hands performance, and with 71 you will still find yourself thinking about avoiding to fall off your keys.
Controls and chassis?
It depends on what performance environment you’re looking for: choose here to jump to find the right data for you!
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