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If you are in the market for any type of digital piano or portable keyboard, you have probably found that there are a lot of different instruments out there and knowing which one is best for your situation can be difficult.

Many players particularly beginning players can get overwhelmed by the information in the terms out there which is why when trying to decide between a digital piano vs synthesizer, we’ve put together this guide to take a closer look at the differences between the two, what their unique features are, and how to best decide which instrument is best for you and your situation.

How do they work?

Early electric pianos used electromagnetic pickups in order to capture the vibrations of what would have been the strings behind the piano and convert them to electrical signals.

This is somewhat similar to how the digital piano works today but the biggest difference is that today digital electronics rely on computers instead of analog electronics so they get digital signals which are much easier to control.

In fact when you go to play a digital piano or synthesizer, you will hear different settings or sounds sometimes called samples.

This is because every note you play has been recorded from another instrument and saved into the computer of the digital piano or the synthesizer.

Larger varieties have the recorded notes for all 88 keys whereas smaller more portable varieties might only have 72 or 66.

Then there are different instruments from which these sounds can be recorded and saved which is how you can have a digital piano or a synthesizer that has the same sounds as a baby grand piano or drums or a violin or other instruments.

Different types of digital pianos

There are a lot of types of digital pianos and almost just as many synthesizers.

Under the category of a digital pianos you will find things like:

  • Portable Digital Pianos
  • Console Digital Pianos
  • Digital Grand Pianos
  • Hybrid Digital Pianos
  • Arranger Digital Pianos
  • Stage Pianos

Digital pianos replicate the sound and feel of acoustic pianos.

Technically any electronic keyboard instrument can be categorized as a digital piano including a synthesizer but not every keyboard can be called a digital piano.

Digital pianos have the full 88 keys all of which are fully weighted with a hammer action keyboard so they feel exactly the same as playing an acoustic piano.

There are rare exceptions to this where you get a compact design with 73 keys or 76 keys but in most cases all digital pianos have 88 keys.

Digital pianos typically have between 10 and 20 built-in tones which focuses on quality over quantity.

Portable digital pianos

Portable digital pianos have a board like shape which is why they are sometimes called slab pianos.

They give a good value because you get the fully weighted keys with a high-quality acoustic piano sample set and speakers but more importantly you can move them around.

With a portable digital piano you can take it from one place to another without being confined to your living room.

One issue with a portable design is that the speaker quality is usually less powerful because there is limited space on the models but usually there are headphone jacks so that you can wear headphones while practicing.

Portable digital pianos are highly regarded for being lightweight with complex hammer action mechanisms and smaller in space so they don’t take up nearly as much space as any of the other designs.

These are better for beginners and intermediate players who just want somewhere to start, for any level of experience for those looking for something portable as well.

Console digital pianos

Console digital pianos sometimes referred to as upright digital pianos look and feel the same as an upright acoustic piano.

These have the foot pedals as well as the built-in stand, sometimes the bench, and of course the back music stand.

These are larger than the portable varieties but they have a much better speaker system with better frequency outward and the triple pedal setup so that you have more control over the features while you play.

The upright digital pianos are better for people who want the proper feeling of sitting down in front of a solid instrument and playing, and those people who have the space to put an instrument up against a wall or in a music room.

Many upright designs feature wooden key actions with high-quality multi-speaker sound systems.

Digital grand pianos

Digital grand pianos are exactly what you think they are, digital pianos that look and feel like a grand piano.

These are available in baby grand and grand size so you don’t necessarily need an entire Ballroom in which to store it.

These are uncompromising in their design and quality with very good construction and they have well-engineered speaker systems with a lid on top and these are best for experienced musicians who want a digital grand piano over an acoustic grand piano because of the lower maintenance requirements of a digital model.

What is a synthesizer?

There are a lot of terms that seem to be interchangeable but actually aren’t.

For example, under the category of keyboards you will find a range of items including:

  • Performance workstations
  • Portable arranger keyboards
  • MIDI controllers, and 
  • Synthesizers

A synthesizer looks like a digital keyboard but then has a whole range of knobs and control features above the keys.

So what is it exactly?

A synthesizer is also known as a synthesizer keyboard and it’s an electronic musical instrument that you can use to generate your audio signals through different methods like:

  • adding synthesis, 
  • subtractive synthesis, or 
  • frequency modulation synthesis

A synthesizer is a very simple concept with a rich sound and a lot of frequencies that you can control.

The controls might include things like frequency modulation or phase modulation.

Since 2010 there have been a wider range of available synthesizer keyboards.

Given that a synthesizer is technically a keyboard instrument, the keys will usually be semi weighted or unweighted for the key action which means they’re very light and they don’t feel the same as an acoustic piano.

They also, as mentioned, are much smaller and don’t have the full set of 88 keys.

Synthesizers can have hundreds of built-in tones on the keyboard because these rhythms and tones are there for sound editing functionality rather than pure acoustic quality.

What are the unique features of a synthesizer?

The engine for a synthesizer known as the synthesis engine can be digital or analog and it is the main feature of a synthesizer.

In almost all situations this means that you have things like an oscillator section, envelope shapers, and even effects chains.

If your focus is on sound design or editing your music after you play, that can be found as a key feature.

Most synthesizers have 49 keys or fewer which is more than enough to create the sound patterns and Designs because the majority of the work is done with the editing features or enhancing features.

Many top producers like Roland or Korg use sample-based synthesis which is meant for group performances.

Sample synthesis is very similar to a digital piano or keyboard in that it has samples pre-recorded from other instruments that you can use to edit and mix.

Who should use a synthesizer?

Synthesizers are meant for sound producers or sound designers.

You can add a lot of key features and fun electronic sounds with the help of a synthesizer or really spice up the music you produce so they are better used for those people who are looking to produce music and add creative effects to it.

If you are just learning to play the piano or you just want to take traditional lessons and play music without any type of editing, you should avoid a synthesizer.

It will not help you do what you want to do.

Top synthesizer models

There are many top models of synthesizers, and if you are looking for an analog polyphonic synthesizer, Roland produces the JD-ZA and Korg manufactures the Prologue.

Dave Smith instruments are good for sequential Electronics animorph futuristic approach can be found with the Nord Lead A1.

Digital Piano vs. Synthesizer: Which is right for you?

In the end there are plenty of situations where you have to consider a digital piano vs. synthesizer and when it comes down to it, a digital piano is the better option for anyone looking to play the piano or learn to play the piano while the synthesizer is the better option for anyone who is looking to produce music by adding features and changing the sound samples.

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