Many keyboards have weighted keys, although the lower-end models often don’t come with that feature. The best weighted keyboards are those that have a graded hammer action, as those resemble the feel of a piano the most. Let’s see what the different types of weighted keyboards are.
How do weighted keys work?
The origin of weighted keys comes from pianos. This instrument is made to offer a good response when playing it. When you press the keys of a piano, if you do it too slowly, there will be no sound coming out, and if you do it fast and powerful, the resulting sound will be a hard-hitting one.
That is due to how the piano works. The keys act like a seesaw – when you press the front of them, the back rises, although you can’t see it. Then, the part of the key that you can see moves up and in doing so it operates a hammer, and that hammer strikes a string inside the piano. That is essentially how pianos work.
When you’re playing the piano you will use this mechanism to produce the notes, but you can also adjust the intensity at which you’re playing those notes. Thus, the more force you put in the keys, the louder the sound, and vice-versa. This is great for those advanced players looking to spice up their style, but it makes things a lot more difficult for beginners.
Pianos are acoustic instruments and thus need to rely on some well-tested mechanic solutions to work well. One of the methods of making sure the piano plays as smooth as possible is by placing weights in the keys themselves. That offers the feeling needed, and the low notes are heavier than the higher ones.
But what about keyboards? They should be as light as possible, so you can transport them with ease, and also store them, but they still need to provide a sound that’s similar to a piano, or as similar as possible. Although weights added to your keyboard will obviously make it heavier, they will also provide a better feel and sound.
Not all keyboards have weighted keys, but those that have, certainly sound a lot closer to a piano. But they don’t always necessarily need to do that, as sometimes musicians use keyboards to produce sounds that aren’t made by the piano.
Types of weighted keyboards
All the digital pianos, keyboards, and organs can be weighted or not, depending on the intention of the manufacturer to create a feeling of realism or not when playing the instrument.
First of all, you have the keyboards that aren’t weighted at all. Most of those organs that are made for home use, but also organs used in churches aren’t weighted. Entry-level keyboards and accordions also have no added weights to their keys. Usually created for beginners, they don’t require that.
Although synthesizers and electric keyboards weren’t weighted in the past, they tend to be now. And that brings us to the following point, the semi-weighted keyboards. This system is usually used in budget-friendly models, or in those keyboards that put a lot of emphasis on portability. The main way of making a semi-weighted keyboard act similar to a piano is using a spring system that applies pressure on the keys.
Next on the list are keyboards that use hammer-action keys. As the name suggests, these ones use a mechanism that closely replicates the action that is usually produced in pianos. The resistance in this type of keyboards is produced by small hammers attached to the keys via a lever system. No springs are used in this mechanism.
There are different types of systems made to mimic the action of hammers, and each manufacturer claims theirs is the best. Higher-end models are the ones that add realism and can really sound like a piano. There are keyboards that have special effects and systems that will replicate things like the feel of a key when played at pianissimo.
If you’ve ever played the piano, however, you noticed that the keys in the lower range offer more resistance compared to those in the upper range. This means the action is a graded one, and to reproduce that in keyboards, they need to be actioned using something called “graded hammer weighting”. A mechanism like this will show a heavier touch on lower notes while giving less resistance on the higher notes.
To enhance that natural feeling, some manufacturers prefer to use wood for the keys, as to make the keyboard resemble the piano as much as possible. Ultimately, wooden keys and a graded hammer action is what brings the keyboard closest to the piano.
Is graded hammer action the best?
Now that we know all the different types of action, let’s see if graded hammer action is really the best. Investing in a quality keyboard is a must if you want to constantly progress and eventually get a piano, and many people say that graded hammer keyboards are the most suitable for that.
Keyboards like that can help you improve and will aid in your muscle development. Because the hammer action resembles a real piano so much, a keyboard that implements this mechanism will give the real feel of an acoustic piano.
Because studying piano is like practicing a sport, you need to make sure you have the best equipment, if you want to progress and be successful. Hammer action keyboards let you develop a unique style, they help you reproduce the accurate dynamics of complicated songs, and they will let you execute complex articulations like accents, legatos, and staccatos.
If you get a semi-weighted keyboard, or one without hammer actions, or the graded aspect, you won’t be able to perform those, or at least not with ease. The technology that modern keyboards have will be able to calculate the amount of force you put in your play and will offer the resistance and rebound needed, simulating an original piano.
Some important keyboard functions
The type of action a keyboard uses is not the only important factor to consider. Generally speaking, the better the model, the more functions you will get into the keyboard.
Nevertheless, any keyboard has a certain number of keys, with the lower-end models having less and better keyboards more. Small MIDI controllers have 25 and big keyboards up to 88, like a traditional piano. When considering the number of keys you want for your instrument you should think about the type of music you want to play and the space you have.
Touch sensitivity is something that can be mistaken for action. Keyboards that come with such a feature will sense the force and speed you use when pressing the keys and will create a sound relative to that force, louder, faster, or not, depending on how you press.
Then, there are many effects that can make your keyboard sound like more than it is. One of these is polyphony. This will impact the number of sounds that the keyboard can generate at a time. There are instruments that can provide so many sounds that they mimic an orchestra playing.
A similar thing is multitimbrality, and this can be found in most keyboards. Not to be confused with polyphony, this feature allows the player to bring different instrument sounds from the keyboard. So you can play the drums, brass instruments, or stringed instruments, all on the keyboard.
Nowadays you need to have a keyboard that can connect to a computer, and most keyboards do that by using different methods and interfaces, either external or built within the instrument. You will see that most digital keyboards have a USB or a MIDI port allowing for easy linking. Connections to iOS devices are becoming more prevalent, and they help music producers in expressing their creativity more.