When you hear the word piano, most people may still think of an acoustic upright or a big majestic grand piano. But for decades already, digital pianos have been on the rise and they’re only getting better. Also known as electric pianos, what are the main differences between digital and acoustic pianos, and which one would suit you best? In this blog, I hope to help you find out.

Acoustic or Digital Piano? Which One Should You Go For?

The Sound of an Acoustic Piano

Why do concert pianists always play an acoustic grand piano? Because they have a uniquely lush, warm, full and sparking sound that simply can’t be matched. This distinct sound is produced by the various parts that make up a grand piano. The vibration of the strings, the case, the pedals, and the way in which every component works together, helps to produce the sound. This quality of sound is just as noticeable in normal upright acoustic pianos. Even a really old, battered and uncared for acoustic piano will have a certain richness of sound that just can’t be matched by a digital piano. More on this later!

The Sound of a Digital Piano

Just like most digital instruments, the digital piano is an imitation of the original. Thanks to ever developing new technology, they only get better and better at imitating the real thing. Some models even offer adjustable string resonance; mimic the light click and clack of acoustic pedals, and treat the sound so that it feels like you’re playing in a specific space. But even with all of this, the sound is not quite the same – at least not the same as described above. However, digital pianos come with an imitation of a concert piano as standard, which you’d have to pay way more for if you wanted to get it from an acoustic piano. Also, acoustic pianos only come with one sound, while a digital piano (apart from the some budget models) usually come with a small mountain of different sounds. This isn’t just flexible, but gives you an example of many different kinds of grand pianos or uprights alongside things like organs and strings. Some are even able to combine sounds.

Acoustic or Digital Piano? Which One Should You Go For?

The Volume: Keep the Neighbours Sweet

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of a digital piano when compared to acoustic models, is that you van control the volume. Even better than that, you can plug a pair of headphones into them, so you can play the piano at any time of the day without bothering your neighbours. However, with an acoustic piano, your neighbours will be able to hear every note of every chord, scale and arpeggio you practice, so you’re tied into only playing at socially acceptable times of the day. Some upright pianos do have a practice function, so that, when you hold down the middle pedal, the sound is dampened. Playing using the practice pedal of an upright acoustic piano doesn’t sound all that beautiful, but it’s certainly useful. When a grand piano is fitted with a middle pedal, however, it has an entirely different function.

No Tuning Needed

Every acoustic piano on the planet will need tuning up at some point. This is because acoustic pianos are largely made out of wood, which expands and contracts in different temperatures and humidity levels, but also because the strings stretch over time, decreasing the tension. Tuning a piano is an extremely precise job and most of the time, will need to be done by a professional tuner. Usually, a piano will need tuning up at least once a year. It goes without saying that digital pianos never, ever need to be tuned.

The Keyboard: Real, Realer, Realist

Because the keys of an acoustic actually make contact with strings via a complex hammer mechanism, they have a very specific playing feel. For example, striking a low pitched note will have a different feel than striking a higher pitched note. To replicate this feel, digital pianos often have weighted keys, where many current models even go as far as imitating the acoustic mechanism via something referred to as ‘hammer action’, to bring the playing experience as close to that of an acoustic piano as possible. Some really expensive digital pianos take on even more of the mechanics of an acoustic piano, and some add a special coating to the keys so that they have the same feel beneath the fingertips as the keys of a real grand. Here, I have to be honest and say that, the higher the price of a digital piano, the better it’s likely to be at feeling like a genuine acoustic piano.

Price & Quality

Unless you’re lucky enough to pick one up for free via Freecycle, acoustic pianos are generally more expensive than digital pianos. However, as long as you take care of them, acoustic pianos can easily last for a hundred years and are often passed down through generations. They’re also very stable in terms of their value. Digital pianos on the other hand are electronic devices and as such, will only last as long as the electronic components hold out. Sure, the average digital piano is likely to last a long time and there are some people who happily play the same digital piano for a good twenty years without any problems. However, as soon as you pick up the latest digital piano, a new one will be released with an even better, even more realistic keyboard and sound, and it’s for this reason that they drop in value pretty quickly.

Connections & Options

Electronic equipment is easily connected up to a digital piano since it will come fitted with at least one or two headphone outputs, a pedal input, and maybe even a USB port, an audio input and audio outputs, so you can hook it up to everything from your computer to your recording gear or amplifier. Plenty of the newest generation of digital pianos link up to special apps so you can make adjustments, take lessons, play along with songs, or even record via your smartphone or tablet. If you’re looking for functions like this, always check the model write-up and specifications in detail so that you know what connections it has and what it can do, and if you want to connect your digital piano up to a computer, make sure that your gear matches any system requirements to avoid any disappointment.

Acoustic or Digital Piano? Which One Should You Go For?

So, What Should You Go For?

This is a tough question to answer quickly. As you’ve already read, acoustic pianos have a very unique character of sound which is really hard for any digital piano to copy perfectly. However, these days, the built-in concert piano of the average digital piano can actually sound better than that of an acoustic piano with the same price (even though that rich acoustic dispersion still has yet to be matched). Digital pianos are also lighter and offer more options. So, if you have the space, money, and a good relationship with your neighbours, then maybe an acoustic piano is a good option for you, but if you have none of these things, then a digital piano is more likely to be the better choice.

Which is better for piano lessons?

So, do you have to have an acoustic piano in order to take piano lessons? In short, no. While it is ideal, it’s definitely not essential. If you do go for a digital piano, the only thing you need to make sure of is that it has an 88-note piano with hammer-action keys, where the playing feel is set up to be as similar as possible to that of an acoustic model, so that you don’t mistakenly learn the wrong playing technique. This will make the transition much easier when you sit down to play an acoustic piano. Every digital piano also has at least one input for a pedal, which is all that’s needed for pretty much any piano pieces you might want to play, since the other pedals are very seldom used.

Silent System: The Perfect Balance

In this day and age, there is also a middle ground. While it’s a relatively expensive option, it is incredibly practical. Basically, if you’re able to go down this route, you’ll be able to set yourself up with an acoustic piano with a headphone output!

  • An acoustic piano with a silent system. This is a fully acoustic piano with built-in sensors and a sound module. Normally, you simply press down a pedal to dampen the acoustic strings and switch over to the digital system. Then you can plug in your headphones and play in silence. The downside of these kinds of models is that there are very few to choose from so you can’t exactly try out every piano in the shop until you find your ideal acoustic sound.
  • If your acoustic piano is compatible (and most are), you can turn an acoustic piano into a digital piano by installing a digital system. Once installed, you’ll have the same setup as you would with the silent system above, with sensors placed under each key and a sound module. This way you’re also free to try out every piano in the shop, find the perfect acoustic sound, and then convert it into a hybrid model.

More About Sound

Acoustic pianos have extremely unique sound characteristics that digital piano developers try their best to imitate.

The Sound of an Acoustic Piano

When you sit down to play an acoustic piano, there’s a lot happening that makes that ‘real’ sound possible. You can even adjust the volume of each by striking it just a little softer or harder – you can strike a note quickly or hold it down for a completely different effect on the sound. Since the sound of a piano is not just shaped by hammers hitting strings, but is the resonance through the case; the frame across which the strings are strung; and the entire wooden build. When you strike one note, you don’t just hear one note, you hear the other strings resonating and you hear the sound of the entire piano. There’s so much going on when you sit down to play a piano and the result will be subtly different every single time, depending on the note combination, the force with which the keys are struck, how the pedals are used and so on. And if you’re developing a digital piano and want to get as close as possible to that sound, then every single one of these details is as important as the next. While many manufacturers have only got better at mimicking the total sound of an acoustic piano, an exact copy still feels a long way off, if it ever happens at all. But for now, the better it’s done, the more natural the piano sound.

Acoustic or Digital Piano? Which One Should You Go For?

The Digital Emulation of That Acoustic Sound

The majority of digital pianos produce a sound using a set of samples. These are small snippets of sound recordings of a real acoustic piano. Each note is individually recorded at a massive array of different volumes which usually amounts to 128 increments (steps). This is so that, when you strike the key of a digital piano, the volume level of the note will depend on the power or velocity at which the key is struck. Of course, with an acoustic piano the volume is ‘stepless’ – you strike a key harder and harder and it gets louder and louder – but with a digital piano, it calculates the matching volume in miniscule increments. Also, a keystroke with a different velocity doesn’t just affect the volume, it affects the sound, and more advanced digital pianos will come loaded with a separate sample ready to react to these subtle changes. So, some models will not only mimic the sound of the vibrating strings, but also the sound of the hammer and all the rich resonance that happens inside the case of an acoustic piano whenever a note is played, all in the name of coming as close as possible to the complexities that produce the actual sound of an acoustic piano – as described above.

Sampling vs. Modelling

While most digital pianos will work on the basis of samples, another sound generating technique is modelling. Using a mathematical model based directly on the sound of acoustic pianos (otherwise known as sound synthesis), in theory, this system should be even better at creating a realistic acoustic sound. It also gives the musician total power over the sound via a set of adjustable parameters. For example, Roland uses their in-house developed SuperNatural system in all of their digital pianos. Of course, it’s not going to automatically be the case that one piano with a modelling system will be better than another piano with a sampling system, since this will always depend on the quality of the system itself. Ultimately, you have to let your ears decide which is best. If you’re a complete beginner, it’s not a bad idea to bring a more experienced pianist with you to help decide.

Acoustic or Digital Piano? Which One Should You Go For?

How Essential is Sound?

The sound is one of the most important features to consider when you’re thinking about investing in a digital piano, and it can be a very personal choice. In other words: sound is definitely a question of taste. What also comes into play is what you plan to do with your digital piano. If it’s going to be placed in your living room to play the role that an acoustic piano would, then you’re far more likely to want a model with a sound that you love, and that comes close to that of an actual acoustic. If you play gigs as part of band, then super-refined rich sound may not be quite as important, since all of that detail is likely to get lost in the mix with the rest of the band – depending on what kind of band it is, of course. Also, when playing with a band, you’re more likely to want various different piano sounds to choose from. While one song works with the round and rich sound of a grand piano, another song might demand a rock piano that’s able to compete with the guitars. Here’s another tip: don’t just try out models using a set of headphones. Headphones will give you a different picture of the sound than a set of speakers. Of course, you might don a set of headphones in the shop so you can go all out without bothering anyone, but if you seriously want a particular digital piano, then you’re going to need to hear what it really sounds like.

See Also…

» What is the Best Digital Piano for Me?
» What’s the Best Stage Piano for Me?
» Playing the Piano: Correct Posture & Hand Position
» The Three Piano Pedals: What Are They For?
» How to Record a Piano
» How to play basic piano chords

» Digital Pianos
» Stage Pianos

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