A weighted keyboard can give you the feeling of an actual piano, while still being portable. Semi-weighted keyboards are those that use two main mechanisms to offer that feeling, one based on springs and one on weights. If you want to eventually play the piano, you have to learn to play a semi-weighted keyboard or synthesizer.
What are weighted keys?
Starting musicians may ask themselves why someone would want extra weight added to the keyboard. These instruments should be designed to be portable and light enough to be carried around. Pianos, on the other hand, can be heavy, because they only need to sit in one place.
However, while weighted keys increase the overall weight of your keyboard, they do have a purpose. First, you need to know how a piano works.
When you press the keys of a piano, if you do it too slowly, they offer some resistance, but there is no sound that comes out, and that is because of the way pianos produce sounds. When you press a key, that key acts as a seesaw, with the front part going down and the part at the back of it, that you can’t see, going up.
As the part that you can’t see moves up, it acts upon a hammer, which in turn strikes a string. This is what produces the sound. The piano is thus an instrument with keys that plays a very large number of strings.
When playing the piano, the intensity that you use when you hit the keys is translated into the volume of the sounds. So the harder and quicker you press a key, the louder the sound will be. This gives a lot of room for flamboyant interpretations from experienced players. But it can also complicate things too much for beginners.
There is a lot to take into consideration when playing the piano, and although keyboards don’t work exactly the same, they still have to produce the same sounds and offer the same feeling. In the case of a classic, acoustic piano, the heavier feeling in the keys is given by weights in the piano itself.
Keyboards that are weighted work on a similar principle, meaning that their keys are altered, made heavier, or helped by springs so that they offer a similar feeling to piano keys. Cheap keyboards that are made for absolute beginners, however, don’t focus on providing a piano-like feeling and their keys are designed to spring right back up. That’s not what you want from a professional keyboard.
The semi-weighted keys are something that synthesizer manufacturers sometimes use to offer light to moderate resistance when you play the instrument. They work by employing a system that uses two different mechanisms. The first of them is a spring-loaded one, used in almost all keyboards, no matter whom they are made for.
The second mechanism uses light weights attached to each key, and that is similar to the system found in pianos, where the action relies on the hammers inside the instrument to make the piano work. Due to these 2 systems, the result is somewhere in between a piano and a keyboard for beginners.
In the case of purely synth-action synthesizers and keyboards, the keys are made of plastic and they only use springs to return the keys to their initial positions. That is why they have a lighter and quicker feel, and they can be easier to play, for a person that has never played the piano before. They are also great for playing sounds and effects that can’t be reproduced on a piano.
There are many synthesizer musicians that prefer the light feeling of a simple keyboard with no weights. Simple keyboards also cost less, so that’s an advantage as well. However, those that want to play the piano too, need to play on a semi-weighted keyboard at least, if they want to have the same feeling on the two instruments.
Semi-weighted keyboards are a good choice for those who don’t want the actual resistance of a fully-weighted keyboard. Some organs have a similar feeling to semi-weighted keyboards, so if you want to get used to playing the big instrument, you can start with the keyboard.
One disadvantage of semi-weighted keyboards is that they have a lip on top of the keys, similar to pianos, and that makes it difficult to execute some complicated organ techniques.
Other types of weighted keys
There are keyboards that have their keys fully-weighted, and that makes them a bit different. They offer more resistance than semi-weighted keys and these keyboards generally provide the same weight across all the keys. In essence, they are a stronger version of the semi-weighted keyboards.
Then, there is the next step, in the form of hammer-action keyboards. These are built with a mechanism that closely resembles the one used in the action of an actual piano. Manufacturers use different systems to provide this feeling.
The most complicated keyboards are those using a graded hammer action. As the name suggests, these are similar to hammer-action keyboards. However, because they have graded weights, the keys that produce the lower sounds are actually heavier than the ones on the higher spectrum.
This will mimic the feel of the piano very well, with the lower keys being harder to operate than the higher. So if you’re looking for the most professional type of keyboard, this is what you want.
Weighted keys vs touch-sensitive keys
There are some similarities and some differences between weighted keys and touch-sensitive ones, with the latter being probably the more popular ones. You can find many different types of touch-sensitive keyboards or synthesizers that offer digital touch-response, and they are generally better than plain simple keyboards.
They offer a basic function, and that is the following – when you press a key, depending on the force you use when pressing, the sound will be louder or softer, much like the sound that a piano makes when pressing its keys. This enables more creative and experienced players to express themselves better, creating more dynamic pieces of music, with high and low moments.
Songs that are more difficult to play often require such a dynamic style of play and they are impossible to execute flawlessly without the help of a touch-sensitive keyboard.
But if a keyboard is touch-sensitive it doesn’t mean it’s also weighted. There are synthesizers that use sensors to detect the difference in pressure and based on that they produce a louder or softer sound. But that is something that only impacts the sound, and not the feeling. And that is what makes a touch-sensitive keyboard different from a weighted or semi-weighted one.
While offering the dynamic sounds expected from a quality keyboard, a touch-sensitive instrument won’t offer you the resistance to help you strengthen your fingers for a more complicated instrument like the piano.
If you want the true feeling of an acoustic piano, you need weighted keys. Students playing such instruments will be able to better gauge the force that they need to apply to reach the desired volume.
Why are weighted keys good?
So, the best reason to get a weighted keyboard is if you want to properly emulate the piano and the weighted response that its keys give you when you play them. While simple keyboards that spring their keys right back into their initial position are decent for beginners, they don’t represent a good investment in the long run, for advanced players especially.
At first, you might not afford a grand piano, but if you want yourself or your child to really progress, you will need to get a piano at some point. And for that, you will need something that ensures that the full potential can be reached.