There are digital pianos, and then there are Grand Hybrid premium pianos.
Dr Chris Stanbury explains what sets the flagship range of Casio instruments apart from other makes.
As a teenage music student in the 1990s, I grew up playing digital pianos. Soon after my parents realised that I was fairly serious about the music thing, they replaced an ageing acoustic upright piano with what was then a reasonably expensive digital piano. Even back then, I remember that the new digital piano had some great advantages: it didn’t go out of tune, it sounded good and I could practise with headphones to avoid driving my family crazy whilst I played those few bars of Mozart over and over again.
There was just one problem: my digital piano didn’t feel exactly like my teacher’s acoustic grand piano to play. At first, this wasn’t a problem. But, when I progressed to advanced pieces, I remember leaving my lesson each week feeling frustrated that what I'd worked on at home just didn’t seem to translate when I played ‘the real thing’. When it came to higher level exams, I was quite anxious that my hours of digital piano practice would be wasted.
Today, it’s true to say that the sound quality of digital pianos has moved on immensely. With better computer processors and large amounts of memory space, all makes of piano offer a vastly improved sound over their predecessors.
The trouble is, the way they feel to play hasn’t changed as much. When I play some models, there still seems to be a frustrating problem with the connection between the sound and the feel of the keys. Unsurprising really, given that some manufacturers still use keyboard designs developed years ago.
When Casio first showed me the Grand Hybrid range, describing it as ‘revolutionary’, I was hoping to be impressed. They didn’t disappoint - these instruments feel absolutely incredible to play. After playing just a few keys, I could tell the Grand Hybrids were in a different league. The frustrated teenage musician in me celebrated: for the first time in twenty years, the fine nuances that I could only achieve on an acoustic piano were possible on a digital instrument.
What makes the Grand Hybrids feel so different to play than other digital pianos? The answer is in the name. These instruments are ‘hybrid’ pianos, which means they have all the benefits of a digital instrument but they take an entirely different approach to the way the keyboard mechanism is designed.
One of the main benefits of Casio’s collaboration with acoustic piano manufacturer, C.Bechstein, is a brand new key design which uses the same fundamental principle as traditional instruments: real, moving hammers.
All acoustic pianos have hammers (they’re the tiny parts inside that are moved by pressing a key and hit the piano strings to make sound), but it’s very rare to find digital instruments with them (usually, they have weights at the end of the key to fake the feel of moving hammers).
However, these moving hammers form a crucial element of the ‘feel’ and feedback of a piano key: it’s this very movement that a pianist learns to understand and control as part of their finger technique.
If you are looking for a digital instrument that comes as close as possible to the feel of an acoustic instrument, you really should look at the Grand Hybrid.
As well as moving hammers, the Casio / Bechstein collaboration has also produced another great idea: using full-length, wooden keys.
For years, digital piano keys were made of plastic and were much shorter than an acoustic piano key. Not only did this mean that they felt different, but the shorter key length made the keys move differently to a real piano.
It’s all to do with physics - the longer the key, the more fine control you have over the pivot movement. With Grand Hybrid pianos, the measurements of the keys and the position of the pivot points is exactly the same as a Bechstein grand piano. They’re also are made of exactly the same materials as Bechstein’s finest instruments.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see why Grand Hybrid pianos feel so different to other digital pianos. However, to really appreciate just how good they are you have to try them. I did, and I ended up buying one!