Although as a classical pianist I play an acoustic piano, there are people and situations for whom a digital piano is a practical solution, and I get asked for recommendations. The excellent action of many Roland digital piano models impresses me, particularly in their upper-range models which simulate the resistance of a real piano.
Amazingly, digital piano technology has progressed sufficiently for them to be genuinely useful to classical pianists. Note that no digital piano, no matter how good, is an actual substitute for an acoustic one, but rather a supplement. Pianists in apartments with strict noise regulations are unable to practice during certain hours, and it’s possible to practice on a digital piano during this time and get good work done.
Among digital pianos lacking a real grand piano action made of wood and hammers (such as the top of the line Yamaha AvantGrand, higher-end Roland digital pianos are the most realistic in terms of feel. The reason for this is what they call their Progressive Hammer Action keyboard, which simulates the resistance of a genuine piano keyboard, in which the action gets slightly lighter as you go up.
In addition, in a real piano action, there is a point about two-thirds of the way down at which there’s sudden resistance. If you press a key silently (meaning slow enough so that not enough energy is transmitted to the hammer to strike the strings and hence make a sound), you’ll feel this point for every key.
This pressure point exists because of a grand piano’s escapement mechanism. Also called letoff, escapement essentially allow the string to vibrate without the hammer pressing against it (which would actually break the action) if the key is held down.
A piano hammer needs to strike a string the way a mallet strikes a bell: the strike itself should be as brief as possible and the hammer or mallet should rebound. If anything is held against the string, the string is unable to vibrate. The escapement action allows the hammer to act like a mallet striking a bell and bouncing off. A grand piano’s action is thus very complex, with thousands of little parts. Roland’s high-end models simulates this pressure point of the escapement without those thousands of mechanical parts, and I’m pleased to say it works remarkably well.
The model I almost like best is the F–110. It’s the simplest of Roland’s line both in design and features, and that’s why I like it. It looks great, too, in white. Its discounted price of $1500 US is also fairly reasonable, though I find the retail price tag of $2000 excessive. (I’ve seen it advertised in Europe for just under € 1000, which is quite good.)
However, this particular Roland digital piano is missing the escapement point, which for me as a classical pianist is essential. For me personally, that’s enough to eliminate it from consideration.
Unfortunately I need to eliminate other Roland digital piano models as well, simply because they’re overkill for my purpose. The only things I’d look for in a digital piano are a realistic keyboard and good sound. Three of the four pianos in Roland’s HP series do have the escapement keyboard, yet only the top model (HP–207) has the ivory feel that is so important for the pianist’s touch. The HP–207 costs several times the price of the F–110, though. My feeling is that for that kind of money, it’s best to find a quality used upright acoustic piano.
Of the two musts (touch and sound), it’s by far more important to me just to have a keyboard that feels like a real piano. This means both an escapement mechanism and something that feels like ivory. (After all, we don’t call it “tickling the plastics.”) It’s really a shame that Roland has reserved this combination for its top model only, which is loaded with other features that aren’t useful to me. Really, if I were in the market for a digital piano, I’d just want the best possible touch and sound, and nothing else, no buttons, no display, no nothing.
Recently I got to have dinner with a group of people that, coincidentally, included Roland’s chief product manager in Germany. I talked to him about my request to make the best possible keyboard with no other features, and such a Roland digital piano doesn’t appear to be in the cards in the near future, alas!
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