Mar 9, 2015

Digital Pianos and "POLYPHONY" - What is "polyphony" & why is it important? 32, 64, 96, 128 notes & more.

UPDATED REPORT: October 1, 2016 - Explanation of Digital Piano Polyphony - The topic of "polyphony" in a digital piano and what it means, is actually a pretty boring subject but one that is good to understand, especially if you're looking to purchase a digital piano. 

I have been playing digital pianos, organs, keyboards, and guitar for many years (over 40) since I was quite young because my parents got me into music lessons early, and I thank them for that. My first instrument was guitar (I played in bands), my second instrument I learned was piano but I dropped out early because I was young and I didn't enjoy it, my next instrument was organ, and then finally I played piano again and this time I loved it because I was playing fun things on a digital piano and could practice in privacy with with headphones. I learned about piano polyphony memory in digital pianos & keyboards a long time ago because it became important as I progressed in my playing skills. Polyphony (pol-y-pho-ny') with the "y" sounding like a short "i" with the emphasis on the "i" and the accent on the ny' (knee) is the ability of the instrument sounds and notes you are (at any moment) playing on the piano to be heard all at the same time without interruption or note "dropout" including any drum patterns, chord arrangements, and sustain pedal being used.

In other words, if I am playing 2 or 3 sounds layered together in the right hand along with 4 instrument sounds & drum patterns (which includes auto chord arrangements) in the left hand on a digital piano, and I am playing about 6 or 7 notes minimum at a time on the keyboard using both hands with sustain pedal being depressed by my foot at the proper times along with recording it on separate tracks, I would need enough polyphony (digital note memory) to keep it all going. Most people don't play that way so polyphony needs are relative to how well you play, the type of music you'll be playing, the way the acoustic piano sound was sampled on that piano, and how many sounds and features you would use at one time along with how you record them.

Yamaha - 256 note polyphony
So the general formula is: the complexity of the (stereo) piano sound sample in the piano, the amount of stereo instrument sounds & effects (reverb, chorus, etc) plus the amount of notes (keys) you're playing at one time, plus the amount of pedal sustain time, and the amount of recorded parts (tracks) that you'll be doing equals the need to have enough digital processing power to keep that all going properly. If the sounds are all in stereo as opposed to mono (some pianos have stereo instruments and some do not), the digital piano needs even more polyphony. Digital note and sound processing power in many cases is referred to as "polyphony." Confused yet? I used to be:) In the "beginning," man made only 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, & 6 notes of polyphony. Then there was 8, then there was 12, 16, 24, 32, 48, 64, 96, 128, 256, and so on. As technology progresses it's typical that manufacturers give you way more than you'll ever use and this is true of many electronic devices, appliances, TV's, etc, where people just don't use even 50% of what that device is capable of doing with regard to its technology power

Yamaha YPG535 - 32 note polyphony
Long ago when there was only 8 notes of polyphony (I had a few of those pianos & keyboards) and you had two instrument sounds on (in a layer like piano & strings) at one time and were playing about 6-8 keys at one time in both hands (no drums or extra stuff on), you could only hear a maximum of 4 notes played on the keyboard at one time because usually each sound took up a note of polyphony when you played the keys! In other words, you couldn't hear everything you were playing because the piano ran out of memory! Notes would drop out as well as sounds and it made the music sound bad. And if you tried to record that on a digital recorder, it would only play back a few notes and sounds at a time and the song would continually be interrupted by the loss of polyphony or memory. It was a very sad time for me and others in the digital piano & keyboard world:( But it was all we had and I suppose it was better than nothing.

Kawai - 192 note polyphony
Then over the years, little by little, digital keyboard manufacturers developed better technology and with that, more polyphony memory. Pretty soon I was able to play more complex songs with more sounds without too much note dropout or sound interruption. But then came more sophisticated tones like stereo acoustic piano sounds with natural acoustic quality harmonics, overtones and string samples and more complex left hand accompaniments which all sucked up digital memory like a sponge.  I remember playing not only professional music jobs, but also in church for many years (I still do today) when people had little knowledge of polyphony and its importance. I was using a very cool Roland digital piano (at the time) with 32 notes of polyphony and a sophisticated Kurzweil sound model with 24 notes of polyphony as well as another sound module (all the modules were rack mounts) with 16-notes of polyphony all connected (MIDI'd) together. That gave me a huge 72 notes of total polyphony combining everything and at the time, that was pretty much unheard of. I had two sounds coming from the Roland, one sound coming from the Kurzweil, and one sound coming from the other sound module all layered together for a really full sound with little note dropout most of the time (depending on how I played). People couldn't believe how good it all sounded. But that was many years ago and you had to know how to put all that together properly and make it sound good.

Roland - 128 note polyphony
Now manufacturers have started to figure out how to put more polyphony memory and other ingredients (including more cool sounds) at a lower cost (cost is always an issue) into one keyboard or digital piano so you don't need to have (own) more than one instrument. So basically, more polyphony "frees up" your music so you can use all the functions on the digital piano to their maximum. However, I will say that many cases, 64-notes of polyphony will be adequate for a lot of people people depending on how they play, especially if they are playing mostly piano music at beginner to intermediate levels. But if you are more advanced or will be laying two stereo instrument sounds together, then 128 notes of polyphony would be more desirable.

Kawai CP3 - 256 note polyphony
If you want to progress as a player and eventually learn how to use more of the functions in your digital piano, especially if you are recording your music up to 16-tracks and many notes, then be sure to get as much "polyphony" as you can for your budget. It's like buying a computer these days...you may not use all the memory and speed it has right away, but you may want to know it's in there in case you do:). I will say that having 128-note polyphony is way more than enough note processing power even if you are at a very advanced playing skill level as long as you will not be recording multiple tracks of music with simultaneous playback of many stereo sounds and notes. Larger polyphony is really ultimately important with this kind of playing and recording in mind. Layering 2 to 3 sounds together and playing them live in a complex music score will not use up the polyphony unless the instrument cannot electronically allocate the polyphony correctly. Roland digital pianos are great examples of 128-note polyphony that can play without any loss of notes even at very complex music be played by a professional pianist. It just depends how good the overall technology is inside the piano. The polyphony number (128, 256, etc) is not always a good indicator of what you'll actually be getting and the piano price is also not an indicator of the amount of polyphony you may get in that instrument.

Casio PX860 - 256 note polyphony
With regard to the 256-note polyphony instruments of the new top name brand digital pianos in a furniture cabinet for under under $2000 being made today, Casio is the only one that has 256-notes of polyphony (the largest there is in this price range), and their new PX860 digital piano has this technology for just $1099 internet price, and you definitely can't go wrong with that. Check out the new 2015 model Casio PX860 by reading my blog review at the following link: Casio PX860 Review



If you want to know more about digital pianos or want to find out how to get one for LESS Money than internet, Amazon, & store sale prices, please contact me at tim@azpianowholesale.com or call direct at 602-571-1864

10 comments:

  1. pretty interesting, best description i found on web, thanks.

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  2. good info! it is exactly what I was looking for. thanks!

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  3. About the YAMAHA P35... It has only 32 polyphony... So, would that be an issue? I plan on buying a digital piano and I was thinking about the YAMAHA P35, but I am very concerned about the 32 polyphony only... (I am more into classical piano music). For classical music, how would you classify it? Is it good enough?

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  4. 32 note polyphony is not nearly enough for more complex classical music and the P35 has a limited pedal decay time which is also a deficiency for classical music. I would suggest something else if you can afford it. You may contact me by email for more help and details

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  5. I am looking at the Roland hp 505 which has 128 I believe. Is this good enough for an advanced player?

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  6. Hi there,

    The answer to your question is not a simple one. Please contact me by email or phone if you're in the US, or just email if you are outside the US. If you are in the US please let me know where you live...your zip code would help as I like to know where people are contacting me from:. Thx

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  7. Hi Tim

    I am looking at getting a digital piano for my son who is working towards his Grade 1 exams. We have an old Yamaha PSR 292 keyboard at home, which does not offer weighted keys for his practice. I found a used Roland F100 for around £300. However as it is a rather old model, it only has 64 note polyphony. Would you recommend this piano?

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  8. 64 note polyphony would be OK but the F100 key action is not very realistic as compared to other digital pianos. However the F100 is certainly much better than PSR292 so it would be fine as long as the price is low. There is normally no warranty on used digital pianos so there is always a risk in buying used.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, would Kawai CN24 or Yamaha Ydp162 be a better investment? Which of the two?

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  9. Hi Tim,

    I am looking at a persistent solution for a stage/recording piano, for years to come. I was looking at PX 350 (~ USD 670) that has 128 notes polyphony. So I was like wondering, will it be seriously wiser to pay an extra ~ USD 400 to get, say a PX 5S that has 256 notes polyphony (disregard all other factors).

    What do you recommend?

    P.S. PX 850 is not really an option for me as it doesn't have on board speakers.

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