What’s The Difference Between Digital Piano & A Portable Keyboard?

To the untrained eye, a digital piano and a portable keyboard may seem like two sides of the same coin, but when you get down to the details, you can see where the differences lie.

Two different names, two different instruments. But where do they differ? Why do they need two separate names?

It might be helpful to first see an overview of each product on its own before trying to directly compare the two. Understanding the nuance of each instrument is the key in understanding their uniqueness and significance.

While there is a fair amount of overlap between the two in terms of functionality, to the more discerning player, it’s the small things that speak volumes.

The main differences are portability and size, sound quality, and technological capability. Without further ado, let’s get into it:

Portability and Size

While there isn’t a massive difference in length between the two, even a few extra inches can be the deciding factor on which option to choose. Portable keyboards typically have a maximum of 76 keys with some having as few as 61, whereas a digital piano has 88 keys, the same number as a traditional acoustic piano.

If you have limited space in which to fit your new piano, a portable keyboard with a stand might be the more convenient choice. Alternatively, if you’ve got a nice big room or have set aside space specifically to accommodate a piano, then a digital piano might come out on top as a more “authentic” music experience.

Portable keyboards offer exactly what it says on the tin – a keyboard that is portable. If you’re a musician that travels around a lot or has to bring your own keyboard to gigs or shows, then you’ll need something you can carry yourself with relative ease, namely, a portable keyboard.

Digital pianos on the other hand are a bit bulkier and tend to have more weight and heft to them as well as being more awkward to move around. While they may be more convenient than an acoustic piano, they still present portability challenges.

Another thing to consider is aesthetic. If you’re wanting to buy a piano for home use or to have in a small venue on a more permanent basis, you need to think about what kind of style and design will fit most with your vision.

Size is a large contributing factor to what we feel looks good.

If you have the space and would like something that looks more like an acoustic piano, then a digital piano will likely be a more stylish fit. Digital pianos come in various designs including stage, grand, and upright, and each will have their benefits.

Sound Quality

Keyboards and digital pianos are both instruments that set out to mimic acoustic pianos. However, there are some stark contrasts between their sounds and having an understanding of these differences is paramount before you make a decision.

For starters, whilst keyboards can play a large range of notes, digital pianos have a larger octave range of 6 octaves to the keyboard’s 4 or 5. While this might not seem like too big a discrepancy, to a musician it is leaps and bounds.

This could be a factor that limits what types of music and songs you’re able to play correctly.

Both digital pianos and portable keyboards work using pre-recorded piano sounds rather than creating vibrations like a traditional piano. For this reason, you might assume that there wouldn’t be a major difference between the two in terms of sound quality but unfortunately this is not the case.

The richness and authenticity of the piano sounds each makes is not a level playing field and here’s why:

Whereas digital pianos are most closely modelled on acoustic pianos and therefore have excellent sound quality, keyboards are typically cheaper and more basic which can lead to inferior sound quality and even tinniness.

Technological Capability

Perhaps the most important difference between digital pianos and portable keyboards is the technological complexity of each instrument. While we’ve already seen how both are designed to play similar kinds of sounds, there are definitely some areas where sound is concerned in which the digital piano excels.

For example, digital pianos are engineered to play more like an acoustic piano. This means that although pressing a key won’t strike a string and cause a vibration, the feeling you get whilst pressing digital piano keys is very similar to the experience of playing an acoustic piano.

This result is due to digital piano keys being weighted to be more sensitive to touch and pressure, which subsequently creates a more authentic playing experience and therefore better sounding music.

Keyboards on the other hand are much more basic in their structure and generally have very soft keys. This in turn creates a playing experience that is a bit clunkier and less streamlined which can affect the quality of the music.

With that said though, it is possible to buy higher-end portable keyboards with weighted keys which will give you a more authentic piano playing experience. It just depends on how far your wallet is willing to stretch!

Music Production

Another way in which digital pianos and portable keyboards differ is in how many features they offer for music production purposes. If you’re looking to produce and record your own songs, there are a few things to consider.

Portable keyboards often come with settings that allow players to modify the sounds to mimic different instruments, which enables the player to experiment with a large range of different sounds that can be layered and combined.

Digital pianos are more dedicated to sounding like an acoustic piano which means there is less opportunity to play around with the sounds of different instruments.

Both digital pianos and keyboards generally come with MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) output so both can be connected to computers. This means that both options will enable you to record and edit your music using your chosen editing software.

Both products are typically come with headphone jacks which means you can practice or play in privacy and without driving those around you mad!

Pedals

Another key consideration when it comes to production capabilities is the use of pedals. There are three main kinds of pedal used in digital pianos and each provides a different effect for changing the way the music sounds.

Volume Pedal

  • Commonly included with digital pianos as standard.
  • Helps to control the volume of music being played.

Una Corda (or Soft) Pedal

  • Used to make a played sound seem softer or more distant.
  • Useful for controlling effects such as pitch, speed, and vibrato.

Sustain (or Forte) Pedal

  • A loud pedal that brings further richness and soul to piano playing.
  • In an acoustic piano, this pedal releases the dampers from the strings, resulting in a louder and more sustained sound. A similar effect is achieved with digital pianos although artificially due to a digital piano’s lack of strings.

Although these pedals may not necessarily come in-built in all digital pianos out there, they are commonly found and easy to add to digital pianos. Keyboards don’t generally benefit from the addition of pedals and it is a less common practice.

In Conclusion

Once you have explored the different facets and features of digital pianos and portable keyboards, it is easy to see how the compare to one another.

On a balance, keyboards are cheaper and more basic than digital pianos, although this will fluctuate as you move from one end of the quality spectrum to the other, and each has its time to shine.

Beginners, children, or traveling musicians might find portable keyboards more appropriate as they offer the necessary playing experience with the added benefit of being lightweight. More seasoned piano players and those with more money to spend might prefer a digital piano, as they offer a more authentic sound and feel.

There are of course, many overlaps and cross-overs but as long as you choose a quality model of either product, you’re bound to be happy with your investment. Music is for everyone so find what works for you and roll with it!

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