Friday, November 18, 2011

Comparing Pianos

We bought our used piano 23 years ago, and at that point it was about 30 years old. Our tuner told us that it can't be tuned anymore. He can't quite get it tuned all the way, and the pins are loose. We either live with the piano we've got, or we buy something else.

Having no clue whatsoever as to the cost of pianos, Maggie and I hit a couple of music stores today. I was shocked that the first one sells only digital pianos; they haven't sold real pianos for 15 years. After a sales pitch on why digital is far-&-away superior, the salesman did direct me to a store which still sells acoustic pianos.

Here's what I gathered from the salesmen:

Digital has certain benefits:
~ No tuning is necessary. That saves an annual fee.
~ It stays in perfect pitch.
~ Settings for "strings" or "trumpet," etc.
~ Adjustable volume, including headsets for private listening.
~ Lighter weight and thus easier to move.

Acoustic has certain benefits:
~ You don't lose the piano in an electrical outage.
~ You don't have to pay WE Energies to operate it.
~ Easier on Gary's tinnitus. Any electrically-powered instrument bothers his ears.

A good, refurbished, used piano from the piano store is in the same price range as a nice beginner-level digital (in other words, lower quality but not el cheapo). For new instruments, a real piano goes for at least twice what the digital sells for. I was amazed at the wonderful sound and feel of the digital instruments; it was more like a real piano than I imagined it could be.

Any comments on pros and cons I haven't considered? Do we know what the life span is on a digital, and what the repair costs would be when/if the computer inside goes wonky? Should a person with carpal tunnel problems be admitting that it's time to give up on the piano, and let go [gasp!], and just buy the cheapest keyboard available? What have y'all decided about electrical versus "real"?


  1. We bought my daughter, who is planning to study music in college in 2 years, a digital piano two years ago. She has been very, very happy with her keyboard. She's only 16, but she's been playing piano since she was 4 and can tell the difference between playing a cheap piano and a Steinway - and she loves the Steinway, of course! The Yamaha keyboard has a great feel to it, is nicely portable, and can be played with headphones or the speaker that is part of the instrument.

    Happy shopping!

  2. I would say that there is a difference between a "digital piano" and a "keyboard" (even if they are synonyms) - the honest to goodness digital pianos have (in my mind) few if any downsides. They can potentially have nicer sounds than any piano you could afford, no tuning costs, the energy bill to run them is so minuscule as to be meaningless, they save on space, etc. I mean, a *nice* acoustic will outstrip all but the best digitals, but... I, personally, think the digitals are the way to go on a budget.

    But I also say this as someone who REALLY, REALLY, REALLY wants a piano and has very little room available. :)

    I've played on both, btw, and found little overall difference. There are both acoustics and digitals I've liked and didn't like. I'd say play on a variety of them and see what you like best that's within your price range!

  3. BTW: My "keyboard" comment wasn't intended for Catherine - just that I think of keyboards as the el cheapos that are sold at Wal-Mart, versus the nice digital pianos sold in the music stores. Even though they probably are, largely, the same thing...

  4. Unless a digital has carefully weighted keys, it is my understanding that it can mess up a student who is learning to play. Maybe Cheryl can weigh in on this, since she's a piano teacher.

    Since the piano you have is "done for" as it is, ask your technician if he can "dope" the holes where the tuning pins sit. There is a chemical that can be applied to swell the wood. It's a permanent solution and it "wrecks" the pinboard, so if the piano is particularly valuable you would NOT want to do this. However, if the piano is an ordinary sort of thing, it may be an option.

    I would suggest watching Craigslist. There are so many pianos out there and for little enough money that even if you hire a piano mover and have to have your piano tech tune it twice and do some minor repairs you'll save hundreds and hundreds over buying from a shop. And hundreds over a *good* digital piano, too.

  5. Catherine, good to hear of your experience with the digital. It fits with what the salesman was telling me, but you're an unbiased source. :-)

    EC, the digitals we saw today have keys that are just like piano keys. I know what you mean about the feel of the keys, though, and I think that's more related to what Nathan was talking about. There's a small keyboard at church in the Gerhardt room, and it is nothing like a piano. That's not what we were seeing today at the music store.

    I'm a little nervous of Craigslist when it comes to a piano. After talking to our tuner, I realize that buying a used piano will very likely find us with another piano that hasn't been regularly tuned ... and thus will not hold their pitch well and are likely to have a warped soundboard. But I'm still trying to talk myself into doing the work to shop for a used one.

  6. Susan, I'm going to ask Phillip to take a look at this when he gets back into town. He knows a lot more about digital pianos than I do and can maybe speak to the reliability question there. There are some very good digital pianos. The main things I would ask if you go that route are whether the piano has a full 88-key keyboard, weighted keys, whether it is touch sensitive (if it has weighted keys I would imagine it is), and whether it has a pedal attachment, preferably not just one that plugs in but one that is attached and fixed to the piano so that you aren't constantly having to chase it across the floor with your leg while trying to play as I have had to do on too many occasions. Also, does it have a substantial "desk"(the place where you put the music) or a flimsy thing that's not going to support the music, and is it sturdy enough to not feel like it's going to collapse or fall off the stand if a serious musician starts jamming on it. All of these things will help mimic the acoustic piano. As a piano teacher I prefer if people have a real piano to play but I will take students who have a piano with all of these features. For someone who's not pursuing advanced piano study a digital piano can be a reasonable, cost-effective option.

    Having said all that, and taking into account the advantages you have given of an electric piano, I still prefer the real thing. There is something in the physics of hammers hitting strings and strings vibrating across a sound board and into a room, that simply cannot be reproduced electronically. In musical acoustics in college we learned about the physics of sound and things like primary and partial frequencies and harmonics and so forth. When a string vibrates it doesn't just vibrate at one frequency but at multiple frequencies and that is what gives it the richness of tone. You can approximate that with a digitally produced sound, but you can't replicate it. There is also a limit to the touch sensitivity you are going to get from a digital as opposed to a real piano. Perhaps it's a level of sensitivity you don't need. But there is an inherent difference between playing a mechanical key that is connected to a physical system of sound-production and playing one that is connected to a computer and that has a volume control.

    So you can probably see that I am partial to having a real piano. Surprise, surprise. :-) For people who love pianos, every one is an individual with its own personality and quirks and look, whereas digital pianos are cookie cutters. But yes, some of those cookie cutter pianos will be preferable to some of the troubled individual acoustic instruments you could buy.

    Also, check out the Larry Fine Piano Buyer. Larry Fine also writes The Piano Book, which is THE industry bible. Here's a link to the Piano Buyer, which you can read free online:
    He considers both acoustic and digital and there is an article about how to choose between the two.

    Good luck. Keep us posted on your search!

  7. There is not much more to add than what Cheryl has said. And the Larry Fine book is THE book to get for piano shopping. But I have a couple of things to add.

    One, pedaling. The upper-end Roland digitals half-pedal, but even they do not shade well. One pretty much does "on-off" pedaling with digitals, with some fluttering available on the high-end Rolands. The digital pianos do a convincing job with the attacks of notes, and stay perfectly (almost too perfectly) in tune. But they don't sustain as evenly or as well. Basically you get a good approximation of the hammers and the strings, but not the dampers.

    Which leads to my second observation: it depends on your playing level. If pedal effects aren't part of your performance technique, then I would lean towards the digital piano - provided you get 88 weighted, full-sized keys, a decent bench & music rack, and good speakers. (Gary's tinnitus will do better with speakers that don't need to be played at the high end of their capacity.) However, if your piano playing includes playing the dampers as well as the hammers on the strings, then you really need to get an acoustic instrument.

    Your acoustic instrument lasted over 20 years. There are many good used pianos out there - and you can get a great deal if you buy directly from someone rather than go through a music store.

    If you decide to try shopping for a used piano before settling on a digital, feel free to call me and I'll walk you through what to look for in shopping for a used piano.

    If you go electronic, I recommend the Roland home pianos.

    Blessings on your search. Glad you plan on continuing to play! :)

  8. Thank you for the links, Cheryl. I did a lot of online reading. I need to get Larry Fine's book from the library; our tuner also recommended it last time he was here.

    Phil, my playing level is not much. Seriously. We use it nearly exclusively for playing hymns or for picking out our parts for choir. Since I tend to run flat in my singing voice, that's one of the attractions of the digital -- to help my voice stay up where it should be. Gary also realized that it might be helpful to him to be able to record the tenor line so that he might listen to it over and over to learn his part.

    Phil, I don't understand what you mean about Gary's tinnitus doing better if the speakers don't have to "be played at the high end of their capacity." Are you talking about pitch or volume or something else of which I know not? We have an electric organ at church, and Gary can tell if Kathy turns it back on after the sermon, even though she's not playing yet. There's something about the "sound" of the electronics that his ears detect even though he can't consciously hear it. That's a point in favor of acoustic pianos in our house. But we've also considered how little it's played when he's around, so that might be a non-issue anyway. Oops ... all that digression was intended to give more information in hopes that you can explain what "high end of their capacity" means.

  9. Hi Susan,

    I sounds to me like an electronic piano would be best for you. Regarding the tinnitus, It is certainly possible that I am ignorant of certain frequencies that may be emitted by all speakers, but I am pretty sure that the sounds that Gary is perceiving as "electronic noise" are being emitted because the speakers are powered to 50%+ of their capacity. Look at it this way: I can turn up my radio or my TV all the way, but not hear much if there is not much being broadcast through them. Conversely, if I have a lot going into the speaker, but it is not turned up, there is little to be heard - even if the radio is receiving raucus "heavy metal". Make sense? Now take it to the third level: we have a signal source (keyboard, broadcast, TV), we have speakers...but we also have an amplifier or 'pre-amp'. All of these come into play in terms of the "noise" that accompanies the desired sound.

    Does Gary suffer from your television? The car stereo? The computer? If there are no electronics that do not trouble him, and they all trouble him equally, then this is all moot. But I suspect that the organ at church has a problem with either the speakers, the amplifier, or both. If there are speakers in his life that do not bother him, you should have no trouble finding an electronic period that would have amplification and speakers of the same quality.

    I'm not an expert on this, but these are the key variables that account for the differences in background noise. To be sure, though, I'd have him come listen to your final choices. The particular frequencies that set him off may be coming more from generic 'speaker noise', from overpowering amplifiers, or from the sound source(s) to begin with. (Though I doubt the latter, given your report).

    Hope this helps!

  10. So what you're saying is that it shouldn't be too much of a problem if the sound going into the speakers corresponds appropriately to the sound coming out of the speakers. That helps. Thanks!

  11. Aaron and I bought a digital piano soon after our marriage. It is a Yamaha. I was happily surprised at the quality of *all* the sound effects available in it. No cheap-keyboard sound there! It is fun to mix-and-match for a new version of a much-played song. We also appreciate how portable it is, and the fact that we do not have to bother our apartment neighbors with it. However, as a serious pianist it has certain drawbacks. As Phillip said, the sustain pedal does not have the same effect as on a real piano. I end up keeping my foot down on it most of the time instead of pedaling. And as Cheryl said, you cannot get all the rich sounds of a real piano. Real pianos have a subtle variety of sounds depending on how you touch the keys. It sounds like an electric would be good for your piano needs, and Maggie would have fun playing with the different sound effects. I am glad to have my digital piano, but look forward to having a house so I can go back to acoustic.