The digital world is pervasive in just about every aspect of our lives. It has even extended itself to one of our most time-honored musical instruments—the piano. Electronic keyboards have come a long way from your childhood Casio synthesizer or the imposing Synclavier. Today’s digital pianos are close facsimiles of real acoustic ones. When looking for a piano for your church or school auditorium, you’ll have to choose between acoustic versus digital pianos. Here’s what to look for.
Pianists know that the 88 keys on an acoustic piano have a certain feel. High-end digital pianos approximate the heft of acoustic keys, but more affordable models may lack that tactile weight. Then there are the pedals. The soft pedal on the left and the damper on the right physically alter the piano’s timbre by shifting hammers or dampers, respectively, to soften or sustain tones. Digital pianos include these, but because they don’t act in the same analog fashion, the effect lacks nuance.
A dreadful old pun reads thus: “You can tune a piano, but you can’t tuna fish.” Now that you’ve finished rolling your eyes, you can learn about tuning. Acoustic pianos require it; digital pianos don’t. An out-of-tune acoustic piano will sound worse than any digital counterpart, but the unshakably perfect tuning of a digital piano can lead to an uncanny-valley effect. This happens because the human ear notices when the tiny vacillations in pitch that attend true acoustic instruments are absent. Just as a digital piano is superior to an out-of-tune acoustic, when a high-quality acoustic piano is in tune and well maintained, there’s no substitute for it.
A digital piano is often more than just a piano. By pressing a few buttons, you can transform your piano into a Hammond organ, a pipe organ, a Rhodes piano, a harpsichord, or even a non-keyboard instrument, like a string ensemble or birdsong player. An acoustic piano, on the other hand, can only ever be a piano. While the additional voices of a digital piano may be alluring, remember that the piano setting is what matters most. A digital piano’s keys are really playing sound files. As such, if those files compare poorly to the authentic hammers and strings of an acoustic piano, the novelty of having 1,000 instruments at your fingertips will be an empty one.
One of the biggest struggles churches face in incorporating piano music into their services is making sure the congregation can hear it. It’s a challenge to put microphones on a piano and accurately capture its sound. Since it’s an electronic instrument, amplifying a digital piano is easy. You just need to run it into a mixing board. Acoustic pianos require more creativity. Some technicians like to play around with microphone arrangements that capture a full spectrum of the piano. Others opt for piano pickup systems that run across the strings and amplify them. This method is similar to that of electric guitars.
The Final Analysis
A lot of factors go into weighing acoustic versus digital pianos. Which to choose may still not be readily apparent to you. For practice rooms, homes, or progressive music ensembles, the digital piano offers affordability and versatility. But if you hope to wow a crowd with the music of a piano, you need the real thing.