Choosing a musical keyboard

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Every so often, the two worlds in which I inhabit collide. Take this question from reader Scott Masel:

I have started taking piano lessons with my daughter to encourage her and have some father-daughter shared experiences. The problem is I rarely can practice because the kids are asleep when I am free to do it. I am looking for a full-sized (88 keys?) electronic keyboard that I can practice on with headphones, that feels like a real piano, that makes it easy to record things my daughter plays so we can share with family around the world, and that won’t break the bank. Do you have any suggestions?

Kudos to you on two counts. The first is showing your daughter that even adults can struggle to learn new skills (I hate to break it to you, but she’ll likely pick it up more quickly than you as her fingers and hands will adapt more easily). And the second is that you’re considering a full-sized keyboard that feels like the real thing (or close to it). Mini-keys are difficult for adult-sized fingers and when you graduate to a “real” keyboard it will be harder to adapt. Plus you and your daughter need to develop some strength in your fingers and the unweighted keys that you find on all cheap keyboards don’t provide enough resistance.

At this point you can go in one of two directions. You can purchase a keyboard that has on-board sounds or one that’s simply a controller—a keyboard that doesn’t make sounds of its own but rather controls music applications and devices connected to it. In either case, you want your keyboard to have a USB port so that you can connect it to your Mac for recording in an application such as GarageBand.

By way of example, a controller keyboard would be something like M-Audio’s Oxygen 88, which runs around $600 at the major music stores. If you’re new to music and MIDI its many controls may be confusing. You can ignore them for the time being. To record your or your daughter’s playing string a USB cable between the keyboard and your Mac, fire up GarageBand, call up a piano sound, and then play that sound via your keyboard. For those times when you need to play without waking the kids, just jack in some headphones.

As for keyboards that have sounds built-in, take a gander at some of Yamaha’s weighted action keyboards—the DGX-640, for example. Priced at around $800 it has 88 keys and some solid piano sounds. It too has a USB port for either storing songs or making a connection to your computer. It also includes built-in speakers, though you’d likely get better sound via headphones.

Shopping for musical instruments is a bit like shopping for a car. You want to “test drive” a few models and resist the pressure of some of the sales people (some of whom work on commission and are more interested in making a sale than setting you up with the best instrument). Ideally, bring a laptop with you and have someone show you how to make the keyboard work with GarageBand. That way you’re certain that it works before taking an instrument home.

Best of luck and happy music making!

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