What are the sharp points on a piano

Digital piano keyboard

Digital piano keyboard
Hammer mechanics & Co. explained

As the interface between the piano player and the sound generator, the digital piano keyboard is one of the most important components for a natural feel. It transmits the musician's touch and playing style in audible tones. There are significant differences in the quality and design of current models of the instrument - find out what really matters here.

The digital piano keyboard: What do Ivory Touch, satined keys and hammer mechanism actually mean? Here you can find out everything about the keys of your electric piano | In the picture: The Kawai Novus NV5 with Millennium III Hybrid mechanics

By Carsten Helfrich

Digital piano keyboard - content

Digital piano & hammer mechanism

Almost all digital pianos and electric pianos for home use offer a simulated hammer mechanism (graded hammer keyboard) with 88 weighted keys. What still sounds the same on paper turns out to be different in reality when playing.

The model is the acoustic piano: the manufacturer tries to achieve this natural feel with its keyboard. But what is actually being copied?

Among the acoustic instruments we find pianos and grand pianos. These differ not only in shape and appearance, but above all in the construction of the keyboard mechanism, also known as the play mechanism.

Model of a piano mechanism for the upright piano

Differences between piano and grand piano keyboards

In the case of a piano, the vertical key movement is converted into a horizontal movement of the hammer by a special mechanism. This creates a certain difficulty in playing, which is compensated for by weights at the front end of the key.

Model of a grand piano mechanism

With the grand piano mechanism, the button and hammer head work in the same direction. In addition, the hammer falls back faster than with a piano action due to the force of gravity acting vertically downwards. However, an additional "swing" is necessary in order to accelerate the hammer from bottom to top on the string. This release mechanism is felt as a pressure point in the key travel.

Digital piano keyboard: The best mechanics based on the example of a grand piano

A grand piano mechanism gives you a more direct and smooth playing feeling. Consequently, this is most often used as a comparison for digital piano keyboards.

If you want to evaluate the playing feel, you have to use a grand piano and not a piano for comparison. Long-time piano players often find a digital piano keyboard too easy to play, which is mistakenly perceived as negative.

The example of the RH3 mechanism from Kawai shows very well how a digital piano keyboard works.

Hammer mechanics only imitated in digital pianos

Manufacturers do not build real hammer mechanics into a digital piano (with the exception of hybrid pianos). The reasons for this are:

  • Requires less space
  • Less weight
  • Less sensitive, maintenance-free keyboard

The real hammer mechanics are only imitated. There are different approaches with a similar principle of action. A weight below or above the button inside the housing is lifted when the button is pressed and falls back into its starting position when the button is released, which brings the button up again.

There are noticeable differences depending on the manufacturer - but it should already be said that the inclined player can achieve equally good learning success on all keyboards. The reason is obvious, because acoustic instruments also differ significantly in their feel.

Also with the digital piano: Weighted keys generate mechanical noises

The noise development speaks for or against the quality of a digital piano mechanism. It is not uncommon for the playing volume to be a reason why an acoustic piano is out of the question when choosing a piano. Overall, an electric piano should be as quiet as possible.

But even in a digital piano, a certain centrifugal mass is moved and that generates - that's right: noises.

You can test it: Simply press a few keys firmly while the device is switched off and hear whether the usual knocking or clicking noises are too loud. The better the keyboard is attenuated and the higher the quality of the keyboard felt used, the less mechanical noise there will be. To the delight of the neighbors or roommates.

How do I find out if a keyboard is good?

Check the hammer mechanism

You can easily check whether a hammer mechanism is well simulated: Press a key all the way down and then suddenly release it.

If the button rocks a maximum of 2 times before it returns to its rest position, it is a good construction.

If the key wobbles more often or comes up too slowly and sluggishly, better put your fingers away and move on to the next instrument.

Ultimately, your personal feeling is crucial. If the keyboard feels good while playing, you will likely enjoy practicing on it too.

Key surface: differences between white and black keys

The surface quality of the piano keyboard is not insignificant and not given enough attention. A good feel and a pleasant material feel are crucial.

Do I get stuck on the keys while playing or do I slip off with sweaty hands? Does it feel good to play or does it look unnatural?

Manufacturers go different ways. The textures of the surfaces range from a smooth plastic surface to imitations of ivory for the white keys (usually referred to as Ivory Feel or Ivory Touch) or an ebony look for the black keys. These somewhat roughened surfaces are intended to improve the grip of the keyboard and ensure a higher quality look.

Pressure point simulation (escapement)

Higher-quality keyboards also simulate the pressure point described above. This is the characteristic feature of a grand piano mechanism. You can find out whether the piano of your choice has a pressure point simulation in the technical data.

If that is not possible at the moment, you can try it out yourself by pressing a key downwards very slowly and evenly.

If you feel a slight hook or a small resistance halfway, a pressure point simulation is available. This is not absolutely necessary in order to learn to play the piano well. It is a nice addition for advanced players, as passages practiced on it can be transferred more easily to an acoustic grand piano.

Digital piano: velocity - what's behind it?

The mechanical aspects of a piano are digitally simulated in the electric piano. There are no strings here that could produce a sound depending on the attack. To simulate this, sensors are used that measure the keystroke and transfer this value to the tone generator.

But wait, the pressure? No - the sensors do not measure the strength but the speed of the keystroke.

Note: The faster a key is pressed down, the louder the sound.

If a note is played slowly, it sounds quieter. It doesn't take a lot of strength, but good playing technique to be able to exploit the dynamic range from pianissimo to fortissimo - just like with a real piano.

In order to determine the speed and thus the impact value (Velocity), a time measurement is carried out by means of two sensors - one at the upper and one at the lower end of the key travel. The measured time is converted into the velocity, which then generates an audible tone.

You can find out how the sound is created here: Digital piano sound »

For the ambitious - 3rd sensor for repetition

Higher-quality electric pianos and some entry-level pianos have a third sensor. This is located approximately in the middle of the two outer sensors and enables the key to be struck again (repetition), although it has not yet returned to the rest position.

In the acoustic area, this property can be found in grand piano mechanics. Therefore, fast passages with repeated notes on the grand piano are easier to master. The third sensor is therefore worthwhile for everyone who wants to take an ambitious approach to playing the piano.

Digital piano controller

There are also MIDI controllers with a weighted hammer mechanism that come without sound generation. You can find more information about MIDI keyboards in the compact MIDI controller guide ».

Digital piano with wooden keyboard - does that go together?

What material should the keys of a digital piano be made of - wood or plastic? Opinions differ here. A digital piano with a wooden keyboard is generally recommended. From a purely objective point of view, wood does not offer any advantage over plastic for the digital piano keyboard.

It is understandable that wood is still used today as a material for acoustic pianos and grand pianos. The entire construction of the piano has been based on this material for over 200 years. Some manufacturers are now deviating from this tradition. KAWAI, for example, produces some mechanical parts of the keyboard construction for its acoustic pianos and grand pianos from high-strength plastic (ABS) and carbon.

With a digital electric piano, there is no need to use wood. Nevertheless, many manufacturers are starting to offer wooden keyboards - or at least keyboards with a wooden look (in this case, wooden strips are glued to the side parts of the plastic key) in digital pianos in the middle price segment. It is up to personal taste which type of material you choose.

Kawai ES 920

Thanks to its light and compact dimensions, the new Kawai ES 920 is equally suitable for the stage and living room. The contemporary, modern design with clear lines and slim shapes is striking. In terms of feel, a responsive Hammer III keyboard with graduated weighted keys, counterweights, triple sensors and pressure point simulation (= escapement) is offered. More is not possible!

The high-quality sampled sounds are reproduced via a high-end loudspeaker system that was developed in collaboration with Onkyo. 40 watts of power go into the slim compact digital piano. The extensive connection section should also be emphasized.With Bluetooth audio & MIDI, USB to host / device, audio in / out and standard MIDI, there are no limits to use in the studio and on stage.

A coherent and modern overall concept for everyone who does not want to forego comfort and feel for performance.

Main features

  • Compact digital piano with 88 graduated, weighted keys
  • 38 tones
  • Maximum polyphony: 256 voices
  • Harmonic Imaging ™ XL sound system with 88 key sampling
  • 100 auto accompaniment styles
  • PianoRemote App for iOS and Android
  • Speaker system with 40 watts of power

Checklist: Testing the digital piano keyboard

  • Always compare a digital piano keyboard with a grand piano keyboard
  • Press the button down and release it abruptly
  • Play the digital piano switched off and listen for rattling noises
  • Test pressure point simulation: press the button down very slowly
  • Played test: do I stick to the keys?
  • Played test: do I slide off with sweaty hands?

Judge the digital piano keyboard yourself

There are some simple tests on how you can check the digital piano keyboard without specialist knowledge and on your own:

1. Press some keys quickly and firmly

Nothing should rattle or click loudly. The key shouldn't hit too hard.

2. Press a key down slowly and steadily

The weighting must be noticeable, you need strength in the finger for it.

3. Check for sharp edges or irregularities on the keyboard

Irregularities can, for example, be larger gaps between the white keys. Also check out the keyboard escape. All white keys must be on the same level.

4. Briefly but firmly tap a key

The button must neither come back too slowly nor bounce back more than twice.

5. Take hold of one of the buttons at the front (ideally with your thumb) and move it sideways

Does the button have more than 1-2 mm of lateral play?