Recommendation for kids

ryanroth

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Sep 27, 2019
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I have a 6 year daughter who is interesting in playing piano. For christmas I have been considering getting her a keyboard to learn and see if she stays interested. I have zero musical talent and know nothing of the subject but want to encourage her. I am however into retro computing and my kids love playing old retro games with me. I figure there is some old keyboard that is way better than anything new I could pick up cheap. Any suggestions on what to look for?
 

Dale Mahalko

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Jul 25, 2019
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I personally am not much of a real musician, so I don't have any direct recommendations, but here are the general dividing lines between cheap and expensive digital synthesizers.
  • Polyphony - How many keys will make sound when held down at the same time? The cheaper the design, the fewer keys work at the same time.
  • Pressure sensitive keys - A light touch is quiet, but pressing harder is louder.
  • Foot pedals, progressive action - optionally plug into the synth for sustaining notes. better pedals can be partially depressed rather than straight on/off
  • Simulated string resonance - In a real piano, the strings that are not actively being played will still sympathetically vibrate with the playing strings, which provides character or color to sound from the real device.
  • Keyboard Action, Weighted Action, Hammer Action, force feedback - Rather than merely feeling like a spring-loaded lightweight plastic key, there is a subtle delayed motion to the keys, that to your fingers feel like the way a real piano's internal mechanism and inertial mass would move when playing it. It can involve actual mechanisms inside, or electromagnet motors on each key. (This kind may be expensive yet, even if the digital tech in it is old.)
  • External simulated string resonance - If you play a different musical instrument in a room next to a real piano, the piano strings will also resonate with the external sounds, which can be heard quietly coming from the piano. So an even more high-end over-the-top digital synth can actually include microphones in its frame, so that it will also be able to make these resonance noises to external instrument sounds near it. (I am not sure what the industry name is for this.)
I believe all of this is old news at this point. Probably all of this has been available in some form since at least 2000, so even old digital synths can include these realism simulation features.

A partial benefit is that an old digital piano synth will not go out of tune like real piano, though I suppose the ones with complex internal keyboard action may need taking apart and lubrication by a professional after a while.

In the 1990's, MIDI (record/play your own music) and sound sample wave banks on floppy disk drives built into the synth, were a huge deal in only the most professional synthesizers, but now... it would actually be easier to have MIDI, wave banks, and a flash-media storage device, before nearly anything else listed here.

A true analog synthesizer with a hundred little knobs and controls and cables.... is actually sort of annoying for a beginner that doesn't know what to do with all the controls. Programmed sound banks selected with the touch of a button is so much simpler for a novice to use.

,

A console style digital piano synthesizer from 1990-2000, may have lots of these fancy high end features and not really be all that expensive now.

But I would avoid the really old living room console-style Wurlitzer or Kimball digital synthesizer organs from before about 1980, as the sound is very fake and cheesy from them.
 
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Dale Mahalko

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Jul 25, 2019
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I decided to poke around on eBay a bit, and what do ya know various keywords I mentioned above, turn up hilarious old-tech results.

Roland G-800 synthesizer .... $200

Looking for information on this beast:
  1. This keyboard was released in 1995
  2. It was a top professional arranger keyboard 2300 €
  3. 64 voice polyphony
  4. Weakness today 3.5 inch floppy diskettes.
Keyboard 88 keys dynamic touch.
This arranger uses digitized sounds of 800.
The 128 basic styles have 2 levels "basic and advanced" that are each four types of support (coming complementary instruments).
There are also dynamic arranger, piano style, left hand, right hand, start and ending, transition from basic to advanced and reverse, fade, change tempo
A 16-track MIDI sequencer.
The control is via a backlit LCD screen and control buttons that manage all the sound effects: reverb, delay, phasing, etc etc.
We find most of the styles and sounds of the roland g800 more current which means the quality of the keyboard.

Here is 2 minute video showing the basics of how to select the built-in instruments, and what they sound like:


So yeah, if you want an old RICKDICULOUS ULTRA high-end synthesizer keyboard.... for a 6-year old to bang on..... and for not much money for what you are getting....... yeah, um, this will probably do it.

Though about 50-75% of the buttons on it will work like this: "You just did something, but you are not sure what. Turn it off and on again to make it go back to its default settings."



Ohhhhhhhhh..... the blinkenlitzen!

 
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Dale Mahalko

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Jul 25, 2019
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Or how about a Yamaha SY85 from 1992 ? This originally cost around $1300 back then, but you can get it for $190 on eBay..


The Yamaha SY85 is a digital music workstation introduced in 1992. Unlike other Yamaha synthesizers of the time (SY77 and the SY99) the SY85 does not use FM synthesis. Instead, its sounds are based on samples, which can be layered and modified to create new sounds.

The workstation features a 61-note velocity-sensitive keyboard with aftertouch, a double density 3.5" floppy drive, a two line, 40 character LCD display, and a nine-track MIDI sequencer. It is a multitimbral synthesizer with 30-note polyphony and full MIDI capabilities. In addition to pitch and modulation wheels, the SY85 features eight continuous sliders that can be used to adjust various settings in real time. These sliders also function as faders when using the built-in sequencer. The SY85 features two independent effects units, which can be run in series or in parallel, each in turn providing either a single effect or two effects in parallel or cascade mode.



Here is a 26 minute demonstration of the sounds it can make:

(Jump to 3:35 for something familiar...)

 
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Dale Mahalko

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Jul 25, 2019
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Continuing on with this thread, even though you're not replying to any of it...

There is a certain amount of benefit you will get from providing such an awesome old but professional tool to a child. It is easy enough for a 6 year old to learn to pick the built-in digitized sounds and drum effects, so these will serve as a gentle platform to guide them into the world of synthesizers.

But as your child gets older, they are going to start to explore this thing. They may occasionally manage to really screw it up, so try to learn how to do a factory reset to default settings if that were to happen. No harm done. They should not be afraid to explore what it has to offer... which for this device, is very deep and wide in scope.

This could become the foundation for your child to develop a deep love of music and the power that this old professional tool provides to them.



The main limitation of these old professional instruments is the floppy drive, to load in new sound effects, and to record and play MIDI songs.

For now, get yourself an old USB floppy drive, and a stack of New Old Stock (NOS) 3.5 floppy disks. Note that some of these require 800k / 720k floppies, so you will need to find an older and less common type called a double-density disk. High density disks will not work.

In the future, you will want to replace the internal floppy drive with a USB flash drive to floppy converter. These can currently be found for about $30 on Amazon, but the user interface is weird, to say the least. This will probably not be a major concern until the old floppy disks or the USB floppy drive starts failing in 5-10 years, maybe longer.



At some point there may be a problem with keys sticking, due to lubricant drying out, or possibly keys not working, due to switches no longer working. These problems most likely can be repaired inexpensively and/or wiped clean and relubricated to work like new again. But when this point is reached, it will likely need to be fully disassembled to access the underside of the key mechanisms.