Q) What is polyphony and why is it important?
A) Polyphony refers to the maximum number of notes that a keyboard or sound module can produce at one time. For instance, if you were to play a 3-note chord with a 1-note melody, you'd need at a keyboard capable of at least 4-note polyphony. Many of today's keyboards and sound modules have 64-note or even 128-note polyphony, and while few keyboardists are going to play that many notes at once, many people want the capability to play complicated, multi-part sequences that demand much more polyphony than a single player would ever need.
Keep in mind that on some keyboards or sound modules, polyphony can be affected by how heavily a sound is layered. For example, if you are playing a rich, layered sound made up of 4 simpler sounds, you may only have 16 notes of polyphony on a keyboard with maximum polyphony of 64-notes (64 divided by 4 equals 16). Except for the most basic applications, you cannot have too much polyphony - but you can have too little.
Q) What is MIDI?
A) Honestly, there are entire books on the subject - but at the most basic level, MIDI is a way that musical instruments can exchange information, control other gear, even interface with a computer. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface - it's important if you want your instrument to work in conjunction with a computer or any other piece of gear. Fortunately, almost everything we carry has MIDI.
Q) What is touch sensitivity?
A) A keyboard that features touch sensitivity has the ability to control the volume of a note according to how hard a key is struck - just like a piano (press hard, it's louder, press softly, it's quieter). Without touch sensitivity, only the keyboard's volume setting affects the volume of the notes played. Touch sensitivity is critical to the level of expressiveness that a keyboard will allow. Touch sensitivity can also be very helpful to a beginning keyboard student, as it allows them to hear whether they're playing evenly and introduces them to the concept of dynamics early.
Q) What is layering?
A) Layering is the ability to "stack" more than one sound together on a keyboard to create a richer, denser sound.
Q) What does "weighted action" mean?
A) Weighted action specifically refers to what kind of keys and what kind of keyboard action a keyboard has. To closely resemble the feel of a piano keyboard, some keyboards keys are weighted, and may even have a mechanism that mechanically imitates the action of a piano key. Many see weighted action as an absolute necessity for someone who frequently uses piano sounds.
Q) What is a sequencer?
A) A sequencer records and plays back MIDI data. This may be as simple as recording a song that can be replayed at the touch of a button (just like a piano roll does for a player piano), or may be as complex as recording a complicated arrangement made up of multiple parts, complete with all of the subtle changes throughout, and saving it for playback later. Most sequencers also allow editing of the sequence, giving the user word processor-like editing capabilities for their music.
Q) What is an arpeggiator?
A) An arpeggiator repeatedly plays a preset pattern based on notes held on a keyboard or sound module (remember the keyboard part at the beginning of "Rio" by Duran Duran?) - and can do so over several octaves and at variable speeds. Today's arpeggiators are quite sophisticated and can contain numerous preset patterns, some even allow you to program your own.
Q) What does "multitimbral" mean?
A) A keyboard or sound module that is multitimbral has the ability to play two or more different sounds (timbres) at the same time. In order for a keyboard or sound module to play a multi-part sequence (and play all of those parts simultaneously), it must have this ability. While 16-part multitimbrality is common today, some keyboards or sound modules feature 32-part multitimbrality.
Q) What does "realtime" refer to?
A) Realtime or real-time refers to something being done live, in actual time.
Q) What's the difference between "velocity" and "pressure" sensitivity?
A) Velocity sensitivity refers to the speed that a note is initially struck. Pressure sensitivity refers to how hard a key is pressed after the initial strike. Many keyboards today have the ability to respond independently to both velocity and pressure, and can use them to control a variety of different aspects of the sound.
Q) What is a Patch Librarian? A) A Patch Librarian is a software program that allows you to catalog and group together your favorite sounds from within your MIDI modules. A "patch" is just another word for a "sound" or a "program" in a sound module. Using controller commands, you can change the tonal quality of your sounds in so many ways, that it's often hard to keep track of it all. When you find the perfect blend of customized sounds, you won't want to let them go. Save them with your Patch Librarian. Whenever you are ready to make similar type of song, you can then call up that group of sounds in an instant.
Q) How do I get my keyboard's sounds to stop playing when I'm using it as a controller to trigger the sounds from a sound module?
A) Turning "Local Off" on your MIDI controller detaches the keys from the internal sound engine, but still allows the keys to trigger MIDI data out of the OUT port. Likewise, MIDI data can be still be received in the IN port from when sent from another controller (like your sequencer). When you're using a sequencer, you'll usually want to set Local Off on your controller.
Q) What are the benefits and differences between a synthesizer workstation and a keyboard controller with a computer based sequencer?
A) The two main benefits of a stand-alone synth workstation are price and portability. At most, the only add-ons you would need would be headphones or powered speakers. Fewer components not only lead to easier setup and tear down for live musicians (and those just eager to get started quickly), but also less compatibility issues. Unlike dedicated hardware, computers occasionally exhibit conflicts within themselves because of third party cards, interfaces, or software. For someone who already owns a computer, though, or can invest in one, go for it! Software sequencers are much more powerful tools. Computers have more memory, a large monitor is easier to view than a small screen, and using a mouse allows much easier navigation throughout your sequence. With the right editing tools, your creativity will flow out like water. What else can a computer system do for you? Record a voice or live instrument along with the sequence. Print out score sheets. Download standard MIDI files from the internet. Create album artwork or flyers for your next show. With word processing software, print professional letters to club owners or labels. You can even use your computer to create spreadsheets to monitor your expenses or contact lists. With software upgrades and new cards and interfaces coming out all the time, a computer's usefulness and expandability potential is endless. . .Either way, as long as any new instrument that you choose is MIDI compatible, you will have more freedom to expand your studio down the line.