Ever wonder why some keyboards are harder to play than others, or why your hands hurt after a gig on certain keyboards? In this article, we are going to look at certain design elements that make some keyboards hard to play. I tested a selection of keyboards available to me as a cross-section.
Many musicians focus on the amount of force it takes to press the keys, called touch weight. While this is important, here we will examine some other design features that can really mess up our ability to perform:
Keys are an example of a lever, where, like a see-saw, there is a pivot point attached to a long key, which naturally has its greatest throw at the end. The main measurement I took reflecting this was the distance the key travels in front, called key dip, compared to the travel at the back of the keys. The greater the difference between these, the more force it takes to press the keys farther back, and the more unpleasant the action. In the best cases, reflected by the grands, the front moved 10mm, while the back came out to nearly 5mm. This is because the pivot point of these keys is several inches behind the back of the keys, allowing more leverage. In the worst case, oddly enough, the Yamaha EZ-200 keyboard, the measurements were 10mm in front and >1mm at the back edge. This reflects the pivot point being directly behind the keys.
In grand pianos, the fulcrum is farther back for the black keys, which compensates for the lack of leverage in these shorter keys; this also makes an improvement.
While a we often play at the front or middle of the keys, there are many cases where our thumb is used to play a black key; in this case our fingers are now towards the back. Look at any old piano, and you will see scratches in the finish behind the keys to indicate that this has happened a lot. This makes the case for the keys being longer as an advantage, especially for those with large hands. In this case, the Pearl River grand was the winner at 153mm. M-Audio was at the bottom at 136mm. Short keys can aggravate the leverage issues above, since the back of the keys is closer.
It might seem crazy, but the width of an octave on the keyboards also varied.(!) This may be the most egregious design flaw, since this changes the size of all the intervals our hands are expected to find by touch. This would be like having a gymnast practice on one set of parallel bars and then having them spaced differently during competition. Needless to say the athletes would not feel comfortable and would make more errors.
This particular problem seems to be primarily in Yamaha’s unweighted digital keyboards. I first noticed this in the 80s when I got the famous DX-7 keyboard, and stacked it on other instruments; I tried to line up the “C” keys at the bottom, only to find they were misaligned at the top. Ironically, the Yamaha CP-70 Electric Grand was the other keyboard, and had the correct octave size. Years went by and for some reason Yamaha continued to make these smaller keys, and it continues to this day.
Spring is Here
There are three basic types of keyboards: Actual mechanical piano actions, “Weighted” hammer-action simulated piano actions, and unweighted spring-loaded keys. In general, the piano’s highly-evolved action is going to respond best, especially to velocity variation. Because it relies on momentum rather than spring tension, it doesn’t “push back” on your fingers harder as you press down. Combined with the fulcrum issues above, this makes the spring keyboards the least playable. We will explore the ballistics of these actions in another article.
1. Yamaha EZ-200 portable keyboard: A consumer-grade portable keyboard from the lab at AIM where I teach. The keys light up to show you what to play (don’t get me started about this.) Spring-loaded keys, unweighted.
Key dip: Front 10mm Rear <1mm Key length: 140mm Octave: 160mm
2. M-Audio Keystation 61es: This one belongs to me, used as an “extra” keyboard or portable. Plastic spring-loaded.
Key dip: Front 12mm Rear 1mm Key length: 136mm Octave: 165mm
3. M-Audio Keystudio 49i: Very small portable keyboards with piano sounds formerly used at AIM until they began to break a lot. Plastic spring-loaded.
Key dip: Front 10mm Rear 1mm Key length: 136mm Octave: 165mm
4. M-Audio Axiom 61: MIDI controllers used in AIM studios. Slightly weighted plastic spring-loaded.
Key dip: Front 12mm Rear 1mm Key length: 136mm Octave: 165mm
5. Yamaha SY-99 synth: Again this one is mine. I used it for years on one-nighter gigs etc. It was more than $3000 new. Semi-weighted keys, spring action. Same keys as DX-7, many Korg models.
Key dip: Front 10mm Rear 3mm Key length: 140mm Octave: 160mm
6. Roland RD-700 digital piano: This is my main gig keyboard. 88-key weighted hammer-action.
Key dip: Front 10mm Rear 4mm Key length: 150mm Octave: 165mm
7. Casio Privia digital piano: belongs to AIM, used for concerts and rehearsals. 88-key weighted hammer-action.
Key dip: Front 10mm Rear 2mm Key length: 150mm Octave: 165mm
8. Pearl River GP142 baby grand: Inherited from my father-in-law, this Chinese-made budget grand is in our living room.
Key dip: Front 10mm Rear 5mm Key length: 153mm Octave: 165mm
9. Baldwin Model L 6′ Grand: Belongs to the head of AIM, and is in one of our studios there.
Key dip: Front 11mm Rear 5mm Key length: 140mm Octave: 164mm
10. Steinway Model B 7′ grand: Belongs to the church where I am staff pianist. From 1973, has been refurbished.
Key dip: Front 10mm Rear 5mm Key length: 144mm Octave: 165mm
11. Rhodes 73 stage piano: Belongs to me. It has a primitive hammer system with fewer parts than a grand.
Key dip: Front 10mm Rear 3mm Key length: 144mm Octave: 165mm
12. Yamaha C6 7′ grand: This is my own instrument, lovingly maintained. Built in 1996. I use this for all my recordings.
Key dip: Front 10mm Rear 5mm Key length: 150mm Octave: 165mm
Generally, all these keyboards agree on 165mm for the octave, except the two Yamaha digitals. The front key dip was usually 10mm, except the Axiom 61, which actually went down 12mm, plus the after-touch sensor allowed another 3mm, bringing it up to 15mm (!) this excessive dip would be a problem, but was probably done to allow for some throw at the back. Key length varies, but the Pearl River had the longest keys at 153mm. Surprisingly, the Baldwin and Steinway had short keys at 140-144mm. The shortest keys were M-Audio at 136. 150mm seems like the standard.
At the bottom of the list, the Yamaha EZ-200 has both the shallowest dip at the back, short keys, and worst yet, a non-standard 160mm octave. Combined with a very high spring tension, this keyboard would probably cause injury on a long gig.
All the M-audio keyboards had very short throws at the back and high spring tension, plus short key lengths. The octave measurement was correct. probably quite fatiguing to play.
The Yamaha SY-99 has a venerable semi-weighted action, found in many models, and would be fine if it weren’t for that pesky small octave. Decent key dip and tension.
Casio Privia has the full-sized keys, but the pivot is clearly close to the keyboard, resulting in a short throw at the back.
The Rhodes had decent key length, with a bit of a short throw at 3mm at the back. Typical sloppy action, due to simple design.
Roland RD-700 has a nice action, long keys and decent throw; best of the digital keyboards.
Baldwin played well, though its age shows in the variations from key to key and loose bushings. The short keys feel a bit cramped.
Pearl River had nice long keys and throw, but gummy action due to sticky action parts. probably could be regulated to play well.
The winner, in my opinion: Yamaha C6 grand, with the Steinway a close second. In fairness, the Steinway is 23 years older, and gets beat-up a lot. Yamaha action is a bit more balanced.
Clearly some of the engineers designing these products are not keyboard players, since some of these verge on painful to play. When playing in keys other than “C” the pivot points on some of these models makes it nearly impossible to push the keys. Special complaints to Yamaha for the non-standard octave; This should have been fixed years ago, especially in light of the fine action on their grand pianos.
In a future article, we will explore touch weight, ballistics and spring tension as factors in keyboard playability.
What are your experiences with keyboard actions? Are some keyboards painful for you?