Inspiration / 13 September 2018

Know your Keyboards: Synths, MIDI, and Digital Pianos.

Think of modern music and the guitar might first spring to mind. But in fact, while guitars have been crucial to rock and roll – the wider landscape of modern music has in fact been defined and dominated by the keyboard. From the sounds of the Hammond organ in the 60s to the synthesizers of the 80s, no instrument has been able to adapt to the shifting music landscape like the keyboard. Its versatility, relative ease of playing and broad appeal have guaranteed its place in every modern genre.

But what exactly is a keyboard? Definitions get muddled as time goes by – do you know what it really means when someone says they’re a pianist, keyboard player or a synth player? With the advent of new keyboard technologies, the lines have become well and truly blurred.

Learning to play the keyboard is hard enough – and shopping for one can be confusing. Join us on a black and white journey to get to know the range of keyboards out there.


Originally, ‘keyboard’ referred only to part of a traditional acoustic piano. Today, its definition is incredibly broad. From a cheap 25-key MIDI keyboard to an 88-key stage keyboard with endless sounds – it’s not wrong to call either of these keyboards.

Sometimes called arranger keyboards, or stage keyboards, these are what most musicians refer to when they say they play the keyboard. These keyboards come jam-packed with features like auto-accompaniment, sequencers, and a huge array of sounds from their built-in synthesizers.

A Nord Stage 3 Compact Stage Keyboard.

Then you have keyboards without synthesizers. These are called MIDI keyboards which are controllers that send note data via MIDI. They have keys, buttons and knobs which all for controlling sounds generated by other devices, like your laptop, synthesizer or DAW.

An iRig 37 Mini-Key MIDI Keyboard Controller.

Unlike a traditional piano, a common calling card of the keyboard is its portability. Smaller 61-key models aren’t uncommon, with musicians favouring lighter, more compact options to travel with. Being able to walk onto any stage and have the exact sounds you know and love is a massive plus.


The freedom of being able to create any sound – from musical choral voices to whacky oscillating noises – enabled synthesizers to be the driving force behind many iconic songs. Think the culture-defining sounds of the intro to Baba O’Riley, or Van Halen’s Jump. These are all created with synthesizers.

A Novation Peak Eight-voice Polyphonic Desktop Synthesiser. These synths are designed to have a controller connected to it.

Fancy having a go at something like this?

A synthesizer generates sound using various electronic methods, by creating certain kinds of musical timbres or sampling. Early analog synths looked more like the console of a space shuttle cockpit than a musical instrument. They did nothing but create strange noises, and the only way to play one was to have a keyboard controller to go with it. Today, most synthesizers have keyboards built-in – workstations are a good example of this.

Roland JUNO-DS88 Synthesizer

Digital Pianos

Acoustic pianos aren’t cheap – but they won’t be disappearing any time soon thanks to their unparalleled sound, dynamics and responsiveness. However, the technological leaps and bounds made in recent years has made the digital piano a great option for those seeking an authentic piano experience.

Digital pianos are designed to replicate the sound, feel, and sometimes even the look of an acoustic piano – while being lighter, more affordable and offering more features. For a start, the keys are weighted. This means the keys are sensitive to the speed and pressure that they are struck, giving the range of dynamics you find on acoustic pianos. Some come with their own cabinet and speakers, and with a range of different sounds to boot.

These are not just great alternatives to acoustic pianos for players who want to learn the piano, but a legitimate choice for those who are serious about becoming a piano player.


The world of keyboards can be overwhelming, but when you decide and understand what you want to sound like, you’ll have a fair idea of the features you need. So take your time and immerse yourself in the world of keyboards, synths and pianos and you’ll find the one that suits you best. Each has their own purpose and role.

You’ll find a wide range of our keyboards – from brands like Nord to Roland – at the Swee Lee Bras Basah showroom. Head down to give these instruments an audition, and as always, we’re happy to answer any questions and give you a tailored recommendation.

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