Sunday, 8 July 2012

Keys: Weighted vs Unweighted vs Semi-weighted

A few years ago when I was looking to buy my first proper performance keyboard I was almost completely focused on sonic capability and sound quality. I wanted something that had a decent range of synth sounds and editing capabilities as well as realistic piano, EP and organ sounds. Other things I considered were sample playback, sequencing capabilities and even MIDI implementation. In fact, just about the only thing I didn't give any thought to was the actual keys themselves.

I ended up buying a Roland Juno-G, after hearing how good the Juno-D sounded at a college band practice. I was so excited when I ordered it, and when I got it the sounds didn't disappoint. It had all the bells and whistles I wanted, and it looked absolutely stunning.


The Roland Juno-G (top) above the much more satisfying Roland F-100

The problems started when I began trying to play more expressive Piano parts live. I had practiced them on my Roland F-100 - a fabulous digital piano with the most realistic weighted keys I've ever played (read more about that here) - and had gotten the pieces sounding exactly how I wanted them to. I even spent a few lunch times at college using the pianos in the practice rooms, and I was happy with how my playing sounded there. Switching from gorgeous weighted hammer action keys to flimsy, springy, featherlight diving boards was absolute torture. The pieces came out note perfect, but all of my hard work adding expression went out of the window. I began to really hate my Juno because of the way it felt under my fingers, and for a long time the only things I used it for were organ and synth work, areas where lighter keys are preferable.

The moral of the story is that the weight of the keys should depend on the job you want the keyboard to do. Playing piano parts on unweighted keys is like driving a car with boxing gloves on. Similarly, playing organ glissandos on a weighted keyboard is like trying to swim in treacle. Bear this in mind when buying a board, because it'll save you a lot of problems (and even injury) in the long run. Take it from me, playing Hammond parts on weighted keys can cause some pretty serious friction burns on the palms of your hands!

Of course these days there are a plethora of semi-weighted keyboards out there that claim to cover all bases. M-Audio's Axiom and Novation's Impulse lines are two I have first hand experience with, and I must admit they do offer a decent compromise, but they're nowhere near as responsive as a weighted keyboard when it comes to Piano works. That said, if you're not playing many piano parts they are absolutely ideal for musicians of all skill levels. There's good news for organists too; you're much less likely to biforcate your hand while doing your best Billy Preston-style palm glissandos on one of these than you are on a fully weighted keyboard.

The M-Audio Axiom 49 is the semi-weighted board I've had the most experience with.
My verdict? For serious players, have one weighted and one semi-weighted board. It make sense to cover all bases if you're playing different styles, particularly piano and EP work. Not only that, most mid-to-high level semi-weighted boards include a USB to MIDI interface, so you can hook up your weighted board using a standard MIDI cable for extra convenience. If you're not doing much piano work, get yourself a nice solid semi-weighted keyboard and cover all of your bases. Unweighted keys are ideal for beginners, as they're cheap, and they give you a chance to get familiar with basic keyboard skills without spending too much money.

Take heed though Roland, lightweight flimsy keys have no place on a £700 workstation, no matter how many bells, whistles, knobs or sliders it has.
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