Yamaha recently added two new models, the YC88 and YC73 to its YC Series of instruments. This range of stage keyboards is targeted at the gigging musician. The YC88, with a wooden graded hammer action keyboard (NW-GH3), is primarily for pianists, whilst the YC73, with balanced hammer action, is for general keyboardists.
These two models complement the inaugural Yamaha YC61 (primarily for organists). But what, you may ask, has this all to do with the title of this article?
Well, the YC61 has what is known as a waterfall keyboard, whilst the YC88 has a lipped keyboard. What is the difference and more importantly, why is there a difference?
Virtually all pianos have lipped natural keys, as do most harpsichords (their forerunners). Keys were made of wood with the surface covered with thin strips of ivory, bone, porcelain, or exotic hardwoods. These extended slightly over the front of the keys (the distal end) forming a lip.
With early harpsichords and pianos, the front vertical face of each key was often engraved or decorated by carving out an “arch” (as illustrated by the Cristofori keyboard above). But by the 18th century, these faces were also clad.
Today’s piano keys are made of wood with special acrylic coverings designed to provide the best possible playing surface. Yet the overhang/lip is still there.
What is the purpose of the lip? There is no definitive answer, however historic theories exist.
- The overhang gives a neat uniform appearance, especially when the front face of the key is also covered. In the days before modern machining, manufacturing each key to an exact size was difficult, however identical key top strips were easier to produce.
- Humidity would often cause keys to stick, trapped against the key slip (the part of the case in front of the keys). The lip made it easier to lift free the stuck key.
- The lip increases the “real estate” of the key giving the pianist a slightly larger surface area on which to play. It also helps with those wider spans – try it and you’ll see why.
A waterfall key has no lip. Instead, the top front edge is very slightly rounded. The concept originated in the 20th century and was primarily for contemporary electric organists.
Hammond was one of the first manufacturers to adopt this style of keyboard and used it for its A100, B3, C3, and M3 models (amongst others). Many manufacturers have since used a waterfall keyboard for their instruments (ref. the aforementioned Yamaha YC61, and the Nord Stage 3 Compact).
Why have a waterfall keyboard? Primarily to facilitate palm smears. A palm smear is a mass-glissando of a block of notes played by sliding one’s palm up or down the keyboard. This is a powerful effect for organists. Notes don’t sustain, so the glissando is clean and can be used percussively or expressively. The rounded edge of the key makes the sliding action easier, and much less painful!
Waterfall keys also tend to dip lower—to just above the key slip. And this can serve as a rest for the palm when performing a smear.
By contrast, pianists tend to use a thumb or finger nail for glissando effects, but this is somewhat different to the palm smear as only one note at a time is normally played.
Diving Board Keys
The designation “diving board” is a new term to describe a long-existing key profile. Diving board keys have a wedge-like shape (see diagram), and come from the world of the pipe organ.
Pipe/church organs often comprise several manuals that have a fairly standard vertical spacing—often with one manual almost overhanging the one beneath. This enables the organist to span two keyboards with one hand. Some organ music actually notates this. The waterfall keyboard is the best solution for this physical arrangement.
Most 20th-century electric and electronic organ manufacturers continued with this type of keyboard. And when synthesizers came along there seemed little reason to change as a cheap supply line already existed. And modern electronic keyboard designs, including a few early electronic/digital pianos, tended to feature them.
Waterfall keys use less plastic in their construction. This results in a lower key inertia which generally gives a lighter touch.
Diving board keyboards also allow manufacturers to build instruments where the ends of the keys are either flush with, or overhang the key slip as shown above. This makes for a more attractive design, albeit with the keys somewhat exposed.
A controversial conclusion?
So to sum up in absolutely the most simplistic terms… “lipped” is for pianists, “waterfall” for stage organists, and “diving board” for keyboardists and multi-manual organists. That should rattle a few cages!
If you have any thoughts on the above please do contribute below. All additional knowledge on this subject is more than welcome.