Acoustic or Digital?


One of the questions we are often asked, particularly by those just starting out on their musical adventure, is which is better, an acoustic or an electric piano? Well as a firm of piano tuners, you’d expect us to say acoustic every time, but it’s not quite as simple as that. We have both acoustic and electronic pianos at home, but they are used for different purposes. So let’s take a look at each and see if we can come up with an answer that is at least a bit helpful.


The acoustic piano is the old-fashioned wooden box, filled with keys,strings, hammers, sound boards and what have you. From the beaten up old wreck in the back room of the pub or church hall to the greatest grand ipiano n some enormous concert hall, they all work the same way. The player presses a key down, this causes a hammer to hit one or more strings, and the sound is magnified by the structure and is heard, for good or ill, by everyone in range. If the player hits the key gently, you get a quiet sound. If the player hits it hard, you get a loud sound. And with an infinite range of variations in between. There are also pedals (two or three usually) which also modify the sound both in terms of volume and how long the note lasts. And that last point is important, because since the sound is created by a hammer hitting a string, the volume starts relatively loud and then fades away. With all of these variables, the range of sounds that an acoustic piano can produce is vast, particularly in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing. That is, of course, if the sort of sound you want is that of a piano! We’ll come on to that a bit later. And finally, when you play an acoustic piano, you feel as if you are a part of the music itself. The whole shebang responds to whatever you do to the keys and the instrument returns to you not just the sound, but slso the feeling of vibrations flowing through and amplified the structure. It’s almost like working with a living being.


The drawbacks? Well first of all is cost. A new acoustic piano is going to be more than a new electronic one. You can strike lucky with second hand pianos but that is not guaranteed. Ask us if you want some advice on that one! An acoustic piano is also going to much bigger and heavier. No-one is going to say a piano is a portable instrument! But at the same time, a piano in a house is very visible and says “here lives a musician” in a way that no electronic one seems to. There is also the issue of the neighbours. They are going to hear everything you play, and that can be painful while you are learning. And finally of course, to keep it in top condition, it will need tuning every 6 months or so, so there are ongoing costs involved.


So what about an electronic? Well these are very varied. One thing they don’t have of course is strings that vibrate when hit. The sound they produce is based on samples (recordings) of ‘real’ piano notes, which are then modified by software, amplified and sent to either loudspeakers or headphones. The keys are basically switches which turn the sound  on when the key is pressed and stops it when the key is released. It makes no difference if the key is pressed hard or gently, you get the same volume. Volume is controlled separately by a slider control or foot pedal. Now of course this is a bit of a simplification. The higher you go up the price scale, the more attempt manufacturers make to get the electronic keyboard to have the same feel and action as as acoustic. But even at the very top of the range electronics are not quite there yet. The end result of this is that you will use a different keying technique on an electronic compared with an acoustic. 


An electronic piano will have many advantages, such as being able to sound like an organ, or a harpsichord, or a marimba at the flick of a switch or two. They usually incorporate a rhythm section so it can feel like playing in a band. And the volume can be more easily controlled, especially by using headphones! No more snarky neighbours here. They are generally portable so great for taking to a gig, church service or whatever. And they often have built-in recording facilities.


So we started out by saying we had both electronic and acoustic pianos at home, but that they were used for different things. The electronic is mostly used for communal music making where it’s portabililty and compatiobbiity with other electronic instruments make it the only choice. The acoustic though, is what we head to whenever we’re working out some new piece or just playing for ourselves. An acoustic, after all, has soul!

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