When choosing a piano, you will certainly not be alone in wondering whether a digital one will be a more practical option. Over the last twenty years, the technology and sophistication of these instruments have improved enormously and with the arrival of apps and other smart technology, they have become more interactive than ever before. Digital pianos are generally more portable, can be played through headphones and don’t have the tuning and other maintenance requirements of acoustic pianos. To anyone not used to the feel and resonance of a decent acoustic instrument, they may well sound sufficiently enough like the real thing to not worry about any compromise in music-making. HOWEVER. There are two very important (and often overlooked) musical and practical considerations when purchasing a piano and they are the reason why the majority of buyers still opt for an acoustic instrument.
As I mentioned in a previous chapter, as well as consistency, the two most important elements of a piano are tone and touch. I tried to avoid boring you to death with the sheer complexity and variance of all the component parts in an acoustic but the simple fact is that it is impossible for a digital piano to fully replicate the true resonance of an instrument with a solid spruce soundboard and reverberating strings. What you will hear is an interpretation by means of a sample which, again not to patronise, is defined as a ‘digital representation of an analogue signal’. In layman’s terms, what a digital piano will do is try to best interpret the velocity of your finger striking the key and the resulting resonance pinging around the instrument and soundboard, by allocating it to the nearest available ‘mapped’ sample. The more expensive models have very sophisticated means of doing this, but none as yet truly feel and sound like ‘the real thing’ and consequently, do what you exactly ask them musically to do. Many people comment that digital pianos feel different and the touch is lighter and less responsive. Again, this is understandable as the acoustic piano action houses over one hundred parts per key whilst even the most sophisticated digital has a fraction of this number.
The other very important consideration is that digital pianos house highly complex technology that, like anything electrical, degrade over a period of time and far sooner than an acoustic equivalent. You may feel that you are saving yourself the cost of a few visits a year from your friendly piano tuner but in reality, a digital piano will last perhaps around 10 – 12 years if played consistently, whereas an acoustic will go on for decades if properly maintained. It is for this reason that acoustic pianos (although as mentioned before are not necessarily appreciable assets) will hold their value for far longer.
By saying all this, I certainly don’t want to put you off buying a digital piano or come across as some sort of Luddite purist! One thing that is certainly in a digital pianos favour (if in good working order) is consistency and for this reason, I would always recommend a digital over an old or ‘problematic’ acoustic piano, particularly if it is for a young child or if you have a small budget.
There are several variances to both digital and acoustic such as silent, hybrid and transacoustic pianos. I won’t go into too much detail in this guide but the ‘silent piano’ option is particularly worth mentioning as a wonderful compromise. It is a fully working 100% acoustic piano but, at the flick of a switch, will cut off the acoustic resonance and instead use an optical sensor rail underneath the keys to transmit your ‘real action’ touch to a digital sample through headphones. In silent mode, you, therefore, have the best of both worlds as it has all the positives of a digital whilst retaining the feel of an acoustic.