Why are two keyboard players playing on the stage?

Stage piano as a master keyboard

Stage piano as a master keyboard
Live & in the studio

Stage piano as a master keyboard? What is possible on stage is also possible in the studio! We introduce you to the differences and advantages of stage piano and master keyboard. Here you can find out what development the master keyboard has taken and what stage pianos can do today.

The stage piano as a master keyboard? We highlight the differences and advantages of stage piano and MIDI keyboard. | Pictured: Clavia Nord Grand Stage Piano

From Markus Galla

Content: Stage piano as a master keyboard

What is a master keyboard?

A master keyboard is a keyboard with a keyboard and an integrated MIDI controller. These do not have their own sound generation, but send control data (MIDI). They are also called MIDI keyboards. They can be found in the setup with a computer in the studio or on stage.

Difference: what is a stage piano?

A stage piano is a compact digital piano that is specially designed for use on the stage and offers many connection options (e.g. for connecting to a computer). In contrast to the master keyboard, the stage piano has its own sound generator, so it can also be played without a computer.

In my youth, a master keyboard had different tasks on stage than it does today. It is therefore worthwhile to turn back the clock a little and see what development the master keyboard has gone through from the past to the present day.

Master keyboard on stage: the beginnings

My youth took place in the 1980s, the time when the transition from large and heavy analog synthesizers to slim digital synthesizers took place. It was the heyday of the Yamaha DX7 and the last analog synths with digital control surfaces. It was also the birth decade of MIDI, the protocol used to this day when it comes to connecting sound generators or other devices.

Expander: V3 Sound Grand Piano XXL

An expander served as a sound generator and communicated with the keyboard via MIDI. Expanders are still in use today and serve as a comprehensive extension of the sound palette. | Pictured: the V3 Sound Grand Piano XXL

As a sound module, the V3 Sound Grand Piano XXL primarily brings with it powerful concert grand piano and piano sounds. Thanks to its simple operation and setting options, the V3 Sound Grand Piano XXL is equally suitable for studio and stage.

If you want to find out more about the small expander with big sounds, you can read our review.
»To the V3 Sound Grand Piano XXL test

In 1982 MIDI saw the light of day and replaced the CV / Gate technology that had prevailed in the analog world up to that point. Suddenly it was possible to easily network and control devices with one another. The keyboard castle consisting of several synthesizers, which were necessary if you wanted to play several sounds within a song or even during a concert, gradually disappeared in favor of the new synthesizers with memory spaces for sounds and a completely new type of device: the expander. Expanders were sound generators without a keyboard that were controlled via MIDI.

Expanders were sound generators without a keyboard that were controlled via MIDI

The 19-inch format quickly caught on with the expanders, so that several expanders could easily be screwed into a rack. The keyboard player then needed a keyboard on stage to play the sounds of the expander: the master keyboard.

The classic: The Yamaha KX88 was very popular with pianists because of its keyboard. The programming and control of the connected MIDI expanders was very complex at the time.

More than just a MIDI keyboard

Back then, the master keyboard had to fulfill other tasks: The expanders connected via MIDI had to be addressed individually, sounds switched, distributed on the keyboard or layered, and controllers such as sustain or expression pedals as well as pitch and modulation wheels assigned. The following tasks were carried out by the master keyboard:

  • Create a keyboard layout with different zones
  • Send program change commands to the individual expander via MIDI on different MIDI channels
  • Manage controller assignments for each zone
  • Adjust the volume of the individual zones and sounds
  • Save everything together in a patch so that all settings of the connected expanders can be restored at the push of a button

Artists like Brett Williams (Lauryn Hill, Stevie Wonder) now rely on extensive stage keyboards: Here the Clavia Nord Grand and Nord Stage 3. | Picture: © Clavia DMI AB

At that time, a master keyboard was the control center for the entire stage or studio setup. In addition to specialized master keyboards such as the KX88 from Yamaha, many keyboard players also use a synthesizer or a workstation with MIDI.

FAQ: Expander - MIDI sound modules explained

Live setups with master keyboard today

Frequently used software for the stage is e.g. B. Apple Mainstage or Camelot Pro. What all tools have in common is that they can manage and control software instruments and hardware instruments. The redistribution of the tasks from the master keyboard to the computer is complete.

Many hardware sound generators from the last 30 years are available as plug-in versions and can be taken on tour in a lean setup without having to have the original hardware with you. All of this is conveniently controlled from a master keyboard.

Master keyboard in the studio

The master keyboard has a permanent place in the studio: DAW control, sound design & Co. are intuitive and easy with a good MIDI keyboard such as the iCon iKeyboard X6.
If you can't decide between a master keyboard and a stage piano, you should think about your application:

  • MIDI keyboards are perfect for beat producers
  • Sound design with VST instruments is more intuitive than with a mouse & keyboard
  • Keys & pads can be assigned individually
  • You can program your own presets
  • MIDI keyboards make it easier for you to work in the DAW

Test winner and top seller: The iCon iKeyboard 6X offers the most extensive functions in its price class and is a popular master keyboard.

The functions of the master keyboards now serve more as a keyboard and controller than as a control center. They integrate the DAW control and matching controls with a keyboard and USB interface to simplify music production as a central unit in the studio

Stage piano on stage and in the studio?

Piano and grand piano sounds are considered the standard for stage performance. This is followed by the sounds of Rhodes, Wurlitzer, DX7 Piano, Clavinet. These are then supplemented by Hammond B3 and various synth leads, synth basses or pads.

While the master keyboard is at home in the studio today, stage pianos can be found everywhere.

It is not for nothing that Nord Pianos combine exactly this sound material, e.g. in their Nord Electro series. A concept that Yamaha is also following with the new Yamaha YC61. The piano-like sounds can of course be played particularly well with a keyboard with 88 keys and hammer action.

As a rule, all stage pianos have this type of keyboard and at the same time exactly the above-mentioned sound supply. A good reason to make the stage piano the control center and the focus of the stage performance. This results in several options for you, which we will now go into in more detail.

The stage piano as a pure master keyboard

The hammer action keyboard of a stage piano offers many possibilities to use it to control software instruments on stage. Of course, piano & co. Can be played very expressively and the feel of playing suits pianists more than that of a slightly weighted keyboard.

In addition, the 88 keys offer space for split and layer setups. This makes it possible to play an entire stage show with an 88-key keyboard. More and more stage pianos have playing aids such as pitch and modulation wheels, so that nothing stands in the way of the synth solo.

Pedal connections for sustain and expression pedals are standard equipment on almost all stage pianos. A USB or MIDI connection to control the computer is integrated in stage pianos. Stage piano as a master keyboard? No problem on stage!

Clavia Nord Grand Performance by Brett Williams

Hybrid setup: stage piano and computer

Hybrid stage piano and computer setups are also popular on stage. Typically, the stage piano's internal sounds are used for piano sounds, while everything else comes from the computer.

This can be achieved particularly well if the stage piano has a MIDI Local Off function to separate the keyboard from the sound generation. The keyboard now sends the MIDI control commands to the computer, which in turn sends them back to the computer for all patches in which the stage piano sound generation is to be integrated.

With a connection via USB, only one cable is required. If, on the other hand, you use MIDI cables, a second cable must be laid from the MIDI out port of the MIDI interface on the computer to the MIDI IN of the stage piano.

The advantage is that in this way the computer still retains sovereignty over the control of all sounds and keyboard splits that include the piano sounds are also possible.

Thanks to extensive sounds and functions, a chameleon not only on stage: The Clavia Nord Grand.

Another possibility is to fade in and out the piano sounds with the volume control of the stage piano and to let the stage piano control its sounds. This is a bit more demanding to use because the patches in the software do not take into account the piano sounds and therefore you have to remember to show them at the right moment and to hide the computer sounds.

Stage piano in the studio

The stage piano is also a popular tool in the studio thanks to its connection options. In addition to the timbres and hammer mechanics, stage pianos offer a simple connection to the computer.
Stage pianos are particularly suitable in the studio for:

  • For songwriters & composers
  • For ambitious studio musicians
  • For recordings

Backup solution: stage piano clearly in front of the master keyboard

Wherever computers work, system crashes must be expected. This also applies on stage. Nothing is more embarrassing than a system crash during a song. Unlike the big stars who work with redundancy systems, i.e. two identical computer setups that are switched automatically or manually in the event of an accident, most keyboard players do not have this option.

The sounds of the stage piano also serve as a backup for the crashed computer in an emergency

Here comes the salvation thanks to stage pianos: Since the stage piano has its own sound generation, you always have a backup. In the event of a crash, all you have to do is turn up the volume of the stage piano.

Summary: advantages of the stage piano

  • Stage pianos offer a keyboard with 88 keys and hammer action
  • For splits, software instruments can be easily distributed over the 88 keys
  • Stage piano sounds can be shared with software instruments
  • The stage piano works and has its own sound generator
  • The stage piano can also be extensively integrated in the studio thanks to the connection options

Top stage pianos: 3 editorial recommendations

In principle, every stage piano that has a USB or MIDI interface can be used as a master keyboard. But there are some representatives who are particularly well suited for the various scenarios, and which I would like to briefly introduce:

Clavia Nord Grand

Demanding all-rounder: The Nord Grand convinces with sound at the highest level and meets the expectations of demanding performers - artists such as Brett Williams (Lauryn Hill) or Daniel Weatherspoon (Beyonce) use it. The stage piano is equipped with its own version of the Kawai RH-III keyboard and offers all the connection options that enable creative stage setups and demanding recording studios want.

The range of functions and price range make it clear: The Nord Grand Stage is made for professionals (and those who want to become one). A variety of effects, storage capacity for sound expansion and fine-tuning of all parameters put the crown on the flagship. The Clavia Nord Grand is a multiple test winner.


Kawai MP-7 SE

For first-class playing feeling: The Kawai MP-7 SE comes with a first-class grand piano keyboard and offers everything you need on stage: high-quality sounds, MIDI In / Out / Thru, USB MIDI, modulation and pitch wheel, panic button and multiple connections for controller pedals. The Kawai MP-7 SE also has all the commonly required sounds and can therefore be used well in hybrid setups or as a backup sound generator.


Steinmayer P-60

Extensive in terms of playing pleasure and performance: The Steinmeyer P-60 stage piano can be easily integrated into the studio setup thanks to the built-in USB audio / MIDI interface, and accordingly also in your sequencer. There are 14 tones and drum sets (61 drum sounds) to play with 128-fold polyphony. With reverb, chorus and delay effects and a 2-band EQ, your sounds can be refined and changed.

The 88 velocity-sensitive hammer keys are fun in the studio and on stage and give you enough grip. There are extra plus points for the price-performance ratio, because the Steinmayer P-60 is affordable for everyone at 370 euros.


Conclusion: stage piano as a master keyboard?

Stage pianos nowadays offer many advantages over a pure master keyboard. In addition to a good keyboard with hammer action, they have their own sound generator that covers many of the sounds that are frequently used.

It is thus possible to work with a hybrid setup consisting of the stage piano sound generation plus software instruments from the computer.

For keyboard players who prefer a piano keyboard and want to play with software instruments on stage and in the studio, stage pianos are a very good alternative to a master keyboard.