What’s that feel? Choosing the right action for your digital piano or synth

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What’s that feel? Choosing the right action for your digital piano or synth

(Image: Christian Spies)
Words by Mixdown Staff

The comprehensive guide to choosing the right keybed for you

There are so many things to consider when choosing your next digital piano or synthesiser. Of course, brand name can be a big driving force, as can size, weight, and often even colour. But then, it comes to the sound, and there are all sorts of things to consider then, depending on what you want the keyboard for.

That leads us to the final piece of the discussion in choosing your new keyboard: the key action that it offers. There are a range of keybed manufacturers supplying actions for synthesiser and digital piano brands around the world, so which one is right for you?

Read all the latest features, columns and more here.

This article was originally published December 2, 2015.

There are a number of manufacturers that have developed their own keybed actions, like Roland, Kawai, and Yamaha. All three have put extensive research and development into obtaining realistic piano hammer actions in their digital pianos. For those of you wanting a keyboard that feels like a real piano, both in how the notes respond to velocity changes and how the keys respond under variations to touch, then a hammer action is going to be what you are looking for.

This is different to a simple weighted action, which adds weight and spring tension to each key for increased resistance. A proper hammer action actually feels like you’re driving a hammer within a piano. It starts off with little resistance, and builds as the key is depressed. There are many grades of hammer action, so don’t just buy a keyboard on the inclusion of this feature alone.

You really need to get into your local store and feel how each keybed responds. You will find that some may be more realistic than others, but this may not suit your needs. It all depends on your playing style, and each keybed is going to feel different to each person.

There is no right or wrong as to how a hammer action should feel, unless you are looking for an emulation of a specific acoustic piano. No, it is more about how it feels to you. As you are the one playing the instrument, it needs to work with your playing style, which will vary depending on what pianos or keyboards you have played upon in the past.

At the same time, it will vary depending on your needs for a keyboard. If you are looking for a digital piano as a compact replacement for an actual piano, then you will certainly be looking for a realistic hammer action. But, if you are using the keyboard for a range of uses, like synthesiser and organ work, you will probably want a different feel under your fingertips.

Enter Fatar. Fatar is an Italian company that specialise in building keybed actions for a number of keyboard and synthesisers. Their keybeds can be found in Korg, Native Instruments, and Nord synthesisers and controllers to name a few. They offer a full range from lightweight synthesiser keyboards right up to full hammer actions and everything in between.

What Fatar keybeds offer is a select action to suit the player’s style, based on the instrument in question. Let’s use the Nord range of synths and digital pianos as an example here. This features a velocity-sensitive keybed that has a very light action indeed. The gentle springy action allows for very fast playing of arpeggios and gentle touches with after touch as well. This will be quite foreign to a piano player, but will have a synth nerd feeling right at home.

Getting heavier on the touch department, the Nord Electro offers two different styles of weighted keys. The first being a Semi-Weighted Waterfall action that offers more resistance to that of the Lead, and feels more like a traditional electric organ to the touch. This is a graded action, so the higher octaves are lighter to the touch than the lower octaves, and has what seems like a slower recovery motion that the standard unweighted velocity sensitive keys. They feel a little more cumbersome, although not with a great deal of added weight to them.

For the player who wants a more piano-styled action, but without the weight, there is the Hammer Action Portable grade that sits below the fully-weighted Hammer Action. What this tries to achieve is the look and feel of the full hammer action but without the weight in the keys themselves to allow for greater portability in the keyboard. Obviously, this is never going to feel exactly the same, otherwise no manufacturer would ever bother with heavier keys. But, it is a necessary evil to get the feeling right, so a full hammer action requires a heavy keyboard.

Where this leaves you is needing to figure out what keybed is going to best suit your playing style. Get into your local store and try a few out. Where you are looking for a Nord, Yamaha, Kawai, Roland, Novation or any other brand of keyboard, there is going to be the right action for you out there.

Go have a play, find what works for you and stick with it.

For more key action reading, check out Roland’s guide.