Shopping for a new digital piano can be daunting for even the most seasoned pianist. It’s not surprising that many first-time keyboard buyers feel intimidated by some of the terminology.
Polyphony is a term that you will come across often in your search for a digital piano. It’s an extremely important aspect of a keyboard that many people don’t fully understand and often overlook. In this article, we’ll explore what polyphony means as well as help you determine how much you’ll need when it comes to buying the best digital piano that most meets your needs.
To better help you, we encourage you to check out our interactive table featuring some of the best digital pianos on today’s market.
What is Polyphony?
Polyphony, in its most basic definition, is the ability of a digital piano to play more than one note at a time. Although it may seem like a very obvious function of a keyboard to have the ability to play a simple three note chord, many early synthesizers (as well as some modern ones) are monophonic, meaning that they are only capable of playing one note at a time.
If you were to hold down a “C” and then add a “G” on one of these monophonic synths, the “C” sound would drop out as the “G” note sounded. This same concept holds true for polyphonic keyboards as you reach their maximum polyphony. As you run out of polyphony, you will start to hear notes dropping out while you play.
Depending on how your particular digital piano is programmed, the way that the notes drop out will differ. The most common way that notes disappear is referred to as last note priority. Just like its name implies, the priority is given to the most recent note played, and the first notes played are the first to go.
First note priority is just the opposite: it lets you keep the first notes that you played. Once you reach maximum polyphony, it will not sound any additional notes that are played until older notes are released. Other methods of determining which notes stay are highest and lowest note polyphony, which eliminate notes based on pitch. These last three methods are not as common and generally used with synthesizers rather than digital pianos.
A common misconception is that a polyphony higher than 88 is unnecessary since a full-sized keyboard only has 88 keys. When would a player ever need to simultaneously use more notes than there are physical keys? The function of polyphony in modern digital pianos is a bit more complicated than that.
Below, please take a minute to view some the best-selling digital pianos currently online (and then compare them to the ones we recommend in this article).
|1) Casio PX-770|
|2) Yamaha YDP-145|
|3) Roland RP-701|
|4) Yamaha YDP-165|
|5) Casio PX-870|
What Uses Up Polyphony?
There are several different factors in a keyboard that take up polyphony besides just playing notes. The sustain pedal plays a big factor in how much polyphony is used. When playing with a sustain pedal, multiple notes are layered on top of each other until the pedal is released. That means that each note played since the pedal was depressed counts toward the polyphony number.
Similarly, many patches found on certain keyboards have a slow decay that lasts long after the key was released. These sounds build up on each other too, and are another reason that extra polyphony is needed. Often, people assume that these long-decay sounds are only found on specialized synth patches or string sounds with a long reverb, but any quality piano sound should have some extra decay time.
Just like an acoustic piano’s notes ring out after the hammer strikes the string, any reputable piano patch will have these same qualities with lasting reverbs and sympathetic string resonances. Although not easily recognizable, these minor nuances contribute to the polyphony used.
Certain keyboards that use stereo patches use twice the amount of polyphony per note. This doubling of polyphony quickly causes pianists to reach their maximum, and can lead to unseemly note dropouts.
This same doubling effect can happen if you decide to layer your sounds. The common example is layering strings underneath a piano. Even if you decide to use only one patch at a time, you may find that many pre-made patches actually use several layers of patches to create their sounds. Already, it is easy to see how quickly polyphony can be used up, even when playing relatively simple music with a single patch.
If you want to use the more advanced features of your digital piano, even more polyphony is necessary for it to function properly. Many pianos’ onboard metronomes use anywhere from one to two voices of polyphony to create their click tracks.
Playing along with a drum backing track will cost you more polyphony, and keyboards that allow you to play along with a pre recorded accompaniment do too. Some digital pianos have features that let players record a few tracks and play them back as a custom backing track. You can imagine that doing that uses a large amount of polyphony.
A digital keyboard that has MIDI capabilities would also use more polyphony. It’s possible to have very complex MIDI recordings, especially if several sounds are being layered.
As you can see, polyphony adds up quickly. A pianist playing a relatively simple classical piece using a stereo piano patch and the sustain pedal will start to quickly rack up plenty of polyphony. If they decide to record a layer of strings underneath, they will need to use even more.
How Much Polyphony Will I Use?
So how do you calculate how much polyphony you will need on your next digital piano? Some of the most common polyphony numbers that you will encounter are:
Many low priced, entry level pianos will only come with a polyphony of 64. Even for beginners, 64 is a very low number. Although people who are just learning to play the piano won’t necessarily be playing intricate chords and runs up and down the keyboard, they may be interested in some other features of the piano that take up a lot of polyphony. A lot of the fun of learning the piano is experimenting with the different features.
Many beginners find that using a metronome, a drum backing track, or the accompaniment feature can help them through the learning process. We’ve discussed how these extra features can significantly impact the polyphony, so it’s best for even beginners to steer clear of pianos with a polyphony of 64, unless they’re positive they’ll only be playing “Chopsticks” on a simple piano patch with no additional drums or features.
A polyphony of 128 is much more reasonable and gives players more flexibility in their piano. This would be a good minimum polyphony for the average player.
We’ll look at some digital pianos and their maximum polyphony.
Casio CDP 240
The CDP 130 is one of the lower end Casio digital pianos. It’s still an 88 key keyboard with ten different sounds, but it only has a polyphony of 48. Even though it’s a perfectly fine keyboard in almost every other instance, such a low polyphony could mean trouble and drop outs down the road. Even for a young beginner, the CDP 130’s low polyphony could become a problem since the keyboard supports layering, rhythm tracks, and preset songs.
- You can read our review of the Casio CDP-240 here.
Casio does make more robust keyboards with higher polyphonies. Take the Privia PX 780 for example. It comes with a polyphony of 128, which should definitely be enough to support its 2 track recorder, rhythms, user songs, and layering features. Even for a beginner, 128 would be a good starting place for polyphony.
The RD 2000, which boasts a lot more features than the Privia PX 780, also has a max polyphony of 128. You can certainly do a lot with the RD 2000, and the manufacturers at Roland felt that 128 was plenty to play without any lost notes.
You can read our Roalnd RD=2000 review here.
The Korg Kronos is a unique situation when it comes to polyphony because it’s tied to the engine that’s played. It’s a very impressive keyboard workstation that has nine separate sound engines. Each of these sound engine has their own maximum polyphony.
It was initially surprising to me that the Kawai CP1 had a higher maximum polyphony (256) than the RD 2000. It is not surprising that the CP1 needs all the polyphony it can get. The CP1 has over 1000 sounds, a color touch screen to navigate all of its settings and effects, and a sixteen track recorder.
Recording sixteen tracks of just one note in a stereo patch would already get us to a polyphony of thirty two. If you planned on using more than one finger, it’s easy to see why the 256 polyphony was a smart choice for the CP1.
Although it all comes down to personal use and preference, a good general rule is 64 may be cutting it close for a beginner player that only uses the basic features of their piano. 128 is a much safer bet. It can support more elaborate playing and some layering and effects.
Anything polyphony beyond that is personal preference. Some pianists could never dream of reaching a polyphony of 256, while others can reach it after a few layered chords.
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