Yamaha Keyboard Buyer's Guide

By: Hiram LeCedre—March 04, 2008 10:46PM
"We've arranged this guide into 3 easy steps for you to follow to ensure that you'll find the perfect Yamaha keyboard/digital piano..."


If you have been doing your research on finding the right keyboard/digital piano for your needs, you'll probably agree that Yamaha makes a quality instrument but maybe you aren't sure how to go about selecting the right one for your needs, skill level, budget, etc...

For example, do you want a 61-key, 76-key, or an 88-key weighted keyboard? How much polyphony do you need? How about an on-board sequencer? Can you afford to spend $120 or $3,500? Are you a pianist or a keyboardist? Is the Graded Hammer Action something you might like? Would you like the option of creating your own sounds from scratch or would you be happy with a preset keyboard? Should you purchase from an online Yamaha dealer or from your local Yamaha dealer?

We've arranged this guide into 3 easy steps for you to follow to ensure that you'll purchase the perfect Yamaha keyboard/digital piano at the best possible price with the least amount of hassle. First, let's begin with some terminology. Ready? Let's begin.


MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface): MIDI is a communication protocol used in virtually every keyboard (except toy keyboards) by every keyboard manufacturer. Every Yamaha keyboard and digital piano comes with MIDI.

The benefit of MIDI is you can daisy chain many different keyboards and sound modules together and access all the sounds off of anyone of them creating one massive sound bank. Even different brands of keyboards (ex. Yamaha and Roland) can communicate with each other. This is very useful for those who love their existing keyboard and use it to control software synthesizers or use rack mount devices. You can also connect your MIDI keyboard to your computer to record or even to print out your musical scores.

These days, MIDI connections on some keyboards are conveniently being interfaced with USB connections and even IEEE1394 (FireWire, mLAN). However, depending on the Yamaha keyboard, you might need to get a MIDI to USB cable to connect to your computer. mLAN is a new technology from Yamaha that routes all your audio and MIDI data through one cable eliminating the need for dozens of cables. mLAN comes standard on the Motif XS8 and optional for the Motif XS6, XS7, and, S90 ES.

Polyphony: this is the maximum number of simultaneous notes (voices) that a keyboard can generate. For example, if you played a C major chord, C-E-G, the three notes C, E, and, G are simultaneously sounding, and thus, three notes of polyphony are in use.

Yamaha keyboards and digital pianos vary in polyphony from 32 (entry-level) to 128 voices (professional). If you're a pianist and/or do lots of sequencing and multi tracking, we recommend you get a keyboard that has at least 64 voices of polyphony to avoid exceeding the limit. Exceeding the maximum polyphony results in voices cutting out abruptly while performing—not good for live performances!

Keys: keyboards come in three different sizes: 61, 76, and, 88 keys. Your 61-key keyboards will always have the light, skinny "synth" keys and will be the most portable to take with you.

76-key keyboards will sometimes come in the light "synth" touch and in the "box" type keys. The "box" keys have the look of a solid piano key except they aren't as heavy but are slightly heavier than the "synth" keys.

88-key keyboards will be the biggest and heaviest keyboards you'll find. The touch of these big boys is fully weighted just like an acoustic piano. If you are a serious musician and especially a pianist, you will want to get this type of keyboard/digital piano.

Several Yamaha keyboard/digital pianos incorporate the Graded Hammer Technology. GHT makes the keyboard feel the heaviest in the low notes but gradually becomes lighter towards the high notes—just like in a real piano. GHT is really a personal preference...you may like it or hate it just try it out before buying.

Half-Damper Pedal: This is a Yamaha damper pedal (FC-3) that several keyboards and digital pianos in their line up are compatible with. This is a must have for pianists. We will now explain to you what the difference and advantage is for having a half-damper pedal versus a footswitch.

A typical footswitch is only capable of transmitting two different messages to your keyboard: ON and OFF. (For those of you who care, the MIDI values are 0 and 127. These values are transmitted as 8-bit words giving you 128 different values). However, the Yamaha FC-3 half-damper pedal is capable of sensing how hard you press the pedal. So, if you press the pedal only half way then your sound won't sustain as long versus pressing the pedal fully—just like in a real piano (the FC-3 can sense and transmit 128 different pedal positions).

You can still connect a regular footswitch into a Yamaha keyboard/digital piano that's made for the half-damper pedal if you wanted to.

Sequencer: a sequencer is nothing more than a multi-track recorder. These days, it's not as important as it used to be to have a synth with an on-board sequencer due to the emergence of software sequencers, such as, Pro Tools and Cubase. As long as your keyboard has a MIDI connection, you can interface your keyboard to your software sequencer to do multi-track recording. However, professional keyboards and even some entry-level keyboards will still include an onboard sequencer. A professional Yamaha keyboard, such as the Motif XS, will have a 16-track sequencer while lower end Yamahas will come with 8-tracks or less.

On-board sequencers are great for recording your song ideas quickly. Full-featured sequencers like those found on the Motif XS, have functions for quantizing, copying, editing, deleting, and modifying control changes and data allowing you to fully edit your sequences and ideas from start to finish.

Voices: This is Yamaha's term for an instrument on your keyboard. So if they say there are 300 voices included in a keyboard, they are saying there are 300 different instruments on that keyboard.

This isn't a complete list; however, these are essential features you should understand before buying a keyboard. It's time for step 1.

Step 1: Do Your Homework!

If you are reading this guide right now then you've probably already done some of your own research and might even know what you want. However, would it surprise you to know that most people who purchase a keyboard walk into their local music store unaware of what's best for them putting their trust in the hands of a salesman? Don't give up that kind of control—inform yourself, know what you want, and, get the best price for it!

YamahaMusician.com will be your best friend in your research. Why? Because, we won't B.S. you telling you that these keyboards and digital pianos are perfect (however, we will say that Yamaha generally does make a better keyboard/digital piano then any other manufacturer). We will point out their strong points and flaws—our Pros and Cons column at the beginning of every review will quickly give you this information. In addition to this, we rate every keyboard/digital piano with a five-star rating system for performance and value along with its MSRP (or the going street price). So, step 1: Do Your Homework!

Step 2: Play it!

Would you buy a car without test driving it? Or, would you consider laying down half a million dollars for a home without doing a walk through? That wouldn't be very smart and neither would be buying a keyboard that you've never played before too. Whether you are planning to buy your Yamaha keyboard/digital piano from a reputable online Yamaha dealer or from your local dealer, play it first. Your best bet is to go down to your local Guitar Center to test it out. They are in over 40 states and there should be one near you. If there isn't one, there will probably be a music shop that carries them. Guitar Center will have most of the Yamaha keyboards and digital pianos we review available for you to play.

Your main objective at this point is to only play the instrument—do not buy anything (step 3 will show you how and where to get the best deal). At this point, a salesman might come up to you and ask you if you need help or might start showing you the features of the instrument (remember, don't buy yet). However, most salesmen will leave you alone to play if you tell them you are just looking. By the way, most of them are terrible keyboard players, have no clue about the keyboard's features, and, have no business selling them (you will know more about your future keyboard than they will—print a copy of our review and bring it with you if you need it!)

Play with the keyboard/digital piano you came to see for a bit. How does it feel to you? Do you like how it sounds? Are there any sounds you came across that you absolutely loved? Hated? Make notes of what you liked and disliked if you need to.

At this point, if you're still in love or even more in love with the Yamaha keyboard/digital piano you've played, it's time to get the best deal for it.

Step 3: Get the Best Deal!

If you've gone through all the effort of researching and demoing keyboards/digital pianos, your efforts would be wasted if you don't get the absolute best deal you can.

Generally, you will find the best deal on a Yamaha keyboard/digital piano whenever you buy from an online music retailer because they almost always have less overhead expenses, and, don't have to spend as much on advertising and marketing as their brick-and-mortar counterparts do. Not to mention, you won't have to pay sales tax either—an additional savings of 4-9% depending on where you live (this applies only if the online dealer is outside of your state).

We hope this keyboard guide has been helpful and wish you all the best with your new Yamaha keyboard or digital piano!