As far as composing goes nowadays, nobody is sitting at their piano with a pencil and some sheets of staff paper. Gone are the days of writing piano sonatas by candlelight; everybody now has either a laptop with Sibelius on it or an iPad for their composing software. But what about the piano you use?
When it comes to picking the best digital piano for composing, we’ve narrowed down the choices to four options on the market today. There’s something for all budgets and for all genres. These pianos will work in a home environment or a studio environment, and they can even be used for piano practice if you want them to. I’ve picked them mainly based on their ability to be hooked up to a laptop or computer and whether they are portable and light to allow them to be incorporated into a home PC setup. We’ve also looked at their price; there are options for all budgets.
Ultimately, music composition is not just about writing piano music. We haven’t been too worried about the action or the built-in sounds in this review. We've mainly looked at how suitable they are for composition. If you’re looking for a piano to start learning on, or you’re looking for a piano that feels most like an acoustic piano, you’re better off looking at these reviews: Which digital piano has the best sound? and The 5 Best Digital Pianos for Beginners.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
Our #1 Choice: The Best Digital Piano for Composing: Yamaha P-515
Our Rating: 4.5/5
This is the most expensive model on the list, but in our opinion, it’s also the best. It combines all the facets of a great digital piano for performing as well as being our pick for the best digital piano for composing. This piano allows you to do several things that make it extremely suitable for composing. You can connect it directly to an iOS device such as an iPad. This allows you to control the digital piano’s inbuilt sounds, as well as enabling you to directly control an app such as Symphony Pro or Garageband.
What’s more is that the YDP-515 features USB-to-host capability, meaning that you can connect it straight to a Windows PC, and with a special USB-C converter dongle, a MacOS device. This allows you to directly control an app such as Sibelius or Cubase from within your desktop environment, making this piano the perfect choice for recording studios or home composition workstations. It’s also got MIDI IN and OUT, which is a little unusual nowadays as most pianos tend only to include USB to HOST. This is a great feature for those running legacy workstations or for people who want to hook this up to a MIDI-only device.
The one thing that really stands out about this piano is that while it’s great for connecting up to your electronic devices, it is a fully fledged digital piano, with a great action, great inbuilt sounds and a fantastic speaker system. This means that if you are a piano composer, or you like to do your composition the old fashioned way, it’s very easy to simply place a laptop on top of the piano and connect them together, or use the optional music stand to put some staff paper on and write to your heart’s content.
Our #2 Choice; The Runner Up: M-AUDIO Hammer 88
Our Rating: 3.5/5
This is the cheapest piano on this list. However, we can’t really call it a piano, as it’s more of a MIDI controller. This is useful to composers, because sometimes that’s all they really need; the ability to send MIDI signals to a computer in order to make their music. The M-Audio Hammer 88 is again a very suitable piano for composition, geared much more towards electronic and non-classical music than the other pianos on this list.
It’s extremely lightweight and compact, and this means that it’s very easy to tuck underneath your desk on top of a sliding shelf or something. This means it’s very easy to hide away when it’s not in use, which is a plus if you’ve got a home studio but you also use your computer for other purposes. It contains 88 keys, a set of modulation wheels, as well as USB-to-HOST and MIDI connectivity, meaning you won’t be caught short whatever device you plan to plug this into.
However, one main drawback if you plan to use this the old-fashioned way; it’s just a MIDI controller and isn’t a digital piano. This means there are no built-in sounds, and if you try to play it without it being hooked up to a computer or iPad, you won’t hear anything. You’ll need a virtual instrument plugin, such as PianoTeq or ProTools, to actually get a sound out of this instrument. However, it’s not designed for the serious practicer, and more for the composer, so this isn’t really too much of an issue. Virtual instrument plugins also give a much greater choice of sounds than you could ever get built-in to any keyboard or piano, so in actuality this is not a big deal, and M-Audio gives you a good selection of computer apps and programs included with the Hammer 88 that you can use.
Our #3 Choice; The All-Rounder: Roland F-140R
Our Rating: 3/5
Now, this is a slightly unusual choice here, because the Roland F-140R is a fully-fledged digital piano. It’s not portable like any of the other options here. However, if you require an instrument that functions as a digital piano as well as a compositional instrument, but don’t want to spend too much money, this is probably the best instrument you’ll find on the market today. It isn’t the best piano for composing, and it isn’t the best piano for practice or performance, but it’s a great compromise between the two.
I’ve featured the F-140R in other reviews and articles, and will continue to do so for as long as I own this blog. I owned one (unfortunately had to give it away when I moved as there was no room for it plus a Yamaha U1 upright) but it’s an excellent piece of kit. The connectivity is excellent, providing a USB to HOST adapter to allow you to plug it into a computer. There is no MIDI IN-OUT port, however, which means that you’ll struggle to hook this up to legacy equipment. However, most PCs made in the last twenty years feature a USB socket, so I’m sure you’ll be fine to connect this up to your devices.
The F-140R features Bluetooth connectivity, so you can hook it up to an iPad. As far as I’m aware, however, there’s no way to directly plug an iPad into the piano, which means that you may not be able to use it alongside an iPad to compose with. This is a bit disappointing, and may limit you if you do most of your composing on an iPad. However, the tradeoff is that the Roland F-140R is a fantastic digital piano, including a great action, great speakers and a great sound. It’s the perfect compromise for someone looking to compose and practice on the same instrument. You may be able to use MIDI over Bluetooth; this is something I wasn’t able to test, but the manual mentions it, so it’s definitely worth a shot.
Our #4 Choice; The Budget Option: Casio CDP-240
Our Rating: 4/5
Now we come to the last option on the list, but by no means the least. Casio have been making excellent quality instruments for years. They’re not, sadly, as well made or as high quality as Roland or Yamaha, but they’re pretty close. This piano, I’m pleased to say, makes an excellent piano for composing, especially if you’re doing things the old fashioned way.
The Casio CDP-240 features hundreds of built-in voices. This is a great bonus, because if you’re writing for an orchestra or string quartet or something, you can actually pick the sound you want on the keyboard and play a line or a section from your music. This enables you to hear things much better than if you’re relying on your PC to play the score back to you, often with canned, unrealistic sounds. The sounds included in this Casio are excellent, and will suit anyone looking to buy a digital piano for composition.
The piano comes with the usual connectivity options, and I’m pleased to say that there’s MIDI IN and OUT as well as USB to HOST and an assortment of other connections, including headphone jacks and ports for a sustain pedal. One thing I will say about the Casio is that if you want to use it the old fashioned way, with a laptop or a pencil and paper, the piano sound isn’t great; like all Casio pianos, it’s exceptionally bright and harsh. However, for the type of music you’re writing, it may be suitable, and so you should try this one out before buying it just to make sure you like it.
Sadly I couldn’t find a way to hook this up to an iPad, so again, if you do your composing on an iPad, you may be out of luck. You can very easily connect it to any USB device, such as a PC or a Mac, so all hope is not lost! All in all, while the lack of obvious iPad connectivity is disappointing, the price point and the other features make this a very tempting buy.