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The Ultimate GarageBand Keyboard

Many users (or future users) of GarageBand are former or current piano players who were taught and have only used upright or grand pianos. These people, and many others, thus wonder what the best MIDI kebyoard is for someone who is used to the touch and feel of an actual piano. In this article, we examine this question and discuss the characteristics that you should look for in a keyboard that will play and feel as close to a real piano as possible. Finally, we recommend some of the best keyboards out there for those interested in a real piano feel. Click "read more" for the full article.

The touch and feel of a real piano comes from the unique construction of a the piano. In essence, a key on a piano is a trigger to a hammer that strikes a longer or shorter wire, which resonates to make the piano's sound. This "hammer action" is a large part of what makes playing a real piano so different than your average synthesizer keyboard. Of course, electronic keyboards don't really need hammers to strike their electronic sensors, so high-end kebyoards emulate the hammer feeling solely for the touch it brings to the user. The best keyboards feature "graded" hammer action, which means that the higher toned keys actually feel like they are striking the shorter, tighter wires of the piano, as they would in real life. If you contrast the feel of hitting the lowest note on a real piano with the highest note, you'll notice a substantially different feel between the two -- graded hammer action keyboards emulate this difference.

Another important element of the feel of a real piano is the weighting of the keys. Real piano keys are made from wood, with a dense lacquer finish (no, pianos are no longer made with ivory keys) -- all this adds up to considerable weight, which you can truly feel in playing the piano. Older or cheaper synthesizer keyboards have keys made of light plastics that feel very "snappy" and resiliantly bounce back to their original position after being pressed. Many keyboards today have "weighted" keys, though only higher end boards have fully weighted keys. The best quality keyboards have keys weighted as closely as possible with an actual piano, in combination with "graded hammer action" as described above.

One final element to the touch and feel of a real piano is the concept of "aftertouch." Aftertouch describes the characteristic of the keyboard to modify sound depending on how quickly or slowly the player removes his or her fingers from the key. If you release a piano key very quickly, it has a short, abrupt end to the tone. If you release a piano key gently, the sound at the end of the note is softer and more mellow. Aftertouch is something that's easy to take for granted if you're a real piano player, but it's typically a very high-end feature in electronic keyboards. Only recently has this feature found its way into sub $1000 electronic keyboards.

A truly piano-like playing experience requires a keyboard that emulates well all of the above features or a real piano. Depending on what other features you want in your keyboard, the price range for such a unit can vary greatly. For example, if you are buying a keyboard to use only with GarageBand, then you probably don't need anything more than a bare "controller" which works only when connected to MIDI hardware or software and has no ability to play sounds all by itself. More likely, however, you will want the ability to play your keyboard without GarageBand and therefore will want a "digital piano" or "synthesizer" that includes built-in sounds. Finally, if you want to play your keyboard without headphones or external speakers, you'll need to select one with built-in speakers. Each of these additional features adds up to a greater cost, so you'll have to determine for yourself which the best selection is. Below, we recommend our top choices in a number of different feature sets:

Yamaha S90. The S90 continues a tradition of excellence in electronic keyboards from Yamaha. As with all of our recommended "ultimate" keyboards, the S90 has 88 full-size, fully weighted, graded hammer-action keys with aftertouch. In addition, the S90 features a very high quality sound synthesizer based on the popular MOTIF line of synthesizers. As high-end synthesizers go, this model has a minimal feature set beyond the wow-inspiring keyboard itself. It has a basic sequencer for composing without a computer, is expendable to include more sounds, and has a USB port to connect directly with your mac. Best pricing on the S90 is 1,899.95 w/ free shipping.

Fatar SL880Pro Studiologic. The first thing you may notice about this full-featured keyboard controller is that at $599.95, it's over $1,000 cheaper than the Yamaha mentioned above. You might also notice that it features the same graded hammer-action, weighted keys with aftertouch. The difference between these two keyboards is that the Fatar is merely a controller. It has no ability to produce any sounds on its own, nor can it sequence or record your playing. Thus, you may realize the fairly expensive nature of such features. If you are looking for a competitively priced solution for having a very near-piano experience and are willing to either always hook your keyboard up to your computer or can invest in an external sound module, then the Fatar SL880Pro may be for you. Though some people not familiar with music equipment may not have heard of the Fatar name, rest assured that they are one of the most highly respected names in manufacturing keyboard controllers and have earned a positive reputation among musicians that play them. As stated above, the SL880Pro can be found for only $599.95 at ZZounds.com.

Yamaha P250 Digital Piano. The last keyboard we'll look at is a digital piano -- it features built-in speakers and a sound module featuring several piano and piano-related (organs, vibraphones, etc.) sounds. The P250 is a very well-liked stage piano that has been used on-stage by many famous keyboard players, including Eric Clapton's keyboardist, Michael McDonald, James Taylor's keyboardist, etc. With folks like these relying on the P250, you can bet it will meet the demands of even the most demanding amateur users. The amplifier in the keyboard provides 30 watts per channel and is loud enough to do quite well in a small or medium sized room of people, if needed. In addition, the P250 provides some of the most advanced "touch" features available, including three levels of sampling (or recording of sounds from an actual piano) that sound depending on the velocity of the key strike you play, and extremely accurate aftertouch. The Yamaha professional keyboards are generally known to have the best stereo Grand Piano samples, so you can be sure that your sound will be as close to the real thing as possible with the P250. This kebyoard can be found at the discounted price of 1,899.95 w/ free shipping at ZZounds.com

And there you have it. That wraps up our look at three of the most piano-like, high-end keyboards available for use with your MIDI software such as GarageBand. We hope one of the above solutions will be of interest to you. One note, if you decide to order one, is that each comes with a 30-day guarantee that you'll love it or you can return it. This is not the standard return policy that you may be used to from buying computer equipment. In this case, there is no re-stocking fee and no requirement that anything be wrong with the unit. If you don't like, you don't buy it. Period.

Good luck!

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