One Keyboard Pro Essential review: Follow the lights for learning ease
Gifted musicians often make playing an instrument look deceptively easy. What looks like natural fluidity and precision though is the result of hours per day of grueling practice. Technology can help take the edge off of that long slog to success, and one of the most promising learning aids we've tried recently is following lighting prompts to get your fingers where they need to be and, most importantly, when they need to be there.
We've already got into the follow-me groove on the guitar and ukulele, and now we've taken a second dip in the piano playing pond with the brand new version of the bigger brother to the smart learning keyboard we tried in 2016 – the One Keyboard Pro Essential.
The One Music Group first entered the North American market in 2015 with a two-part learning package for piano. The first part being a mobile learning app for iOS or Android with video lessons, sheet music and games to get students playing their first song in minutes, or so it was claimed.
This app worked with a special digital piano. Well, actually two pianos – a portable and a full-sized upright. Beneath the keys were LEDs that the student would follow to learn music as the sheet music rolled through the notes onscreen, or as the video tutor introduced playing basics, or as blocks dropped from the top of the screen to the bottom.
We gave the battery-powered One Light system a bash in early 2016. Though we made progress and got to grips with beginner-level playing from scratch fairly quickly, progressing to more complicated classic compositions was hard going. In the end, even with learning systems like this one, you'll still have to put in the hours.
In the few years since, the One Smart Piano system has been tweaked and upgraded and the latest iteration was announced mid-September. The line-up now includes a 61-key Bluetooth portable named the One Keyboard Air, the 88-key Pro Essential that recently arrived on our review bench, and the top-of-the-range One Smart Piano and Smart Piano Pro.
Let's have a quick tour of the Pro Essential we have been spending the last few weeks pecking and chording. The 52.4 x 13.9 x 5.6 in (133 x 35 x 14 cm), 31.5 lb (14 kg) instrument is quite a looker. It's well made and feels very solid. It comes with 128 note polyphony, there are 88 weighted, hammer-action keys, and 88 timbre presets can be called upon out of the box, with nearly 700 more available via the companion app. There are built-in stereo speakers, and 88 color LED lights, one above every key – rather than inside the keys themselves, like the model we reviewed in 2016.
As before, the learning system works with the latest release of the One Smart Piano app for iOS or Android. This offers interactive video tutorials, Rock Band-like games where blocks drop down the screen to show when and where keys need to be hit, and access to library of over 4,500 LED-guided sheet music songs.
The smart piano is compatible with MIDI-based apps like Synthesia, Piano Maestro and Garageband, rocks MIDI output (over USB), and has two 3.5-mm headphone jacks to the front so you can plug in for quiet practice, and your teacher can join in the fun too. Finally, there are aux in/out jacks around back, an input for sustain pedals and the mains power port.
The host smart device running the companion app, in our case an Android tablet, is cabled to the Pro Essential's USB port around back (cables for USB Type A, Micro-USB, USB-C and Lightning connections are provided). Sadly this only provides a data connection, and doesn't charge the tablet's battery (which would be useful). Users will also need to be connected to the internet for many features to work.
The app interface is presented as four colored discs – one opens the Sheet Music section, another the Crash Course menu, there's one for the Video bank and the last one grants access to a Games archive. The overall look here seems aimed at the younger student, but that shouldn't prove too offputting to the older learner.
You can dive straight into the Sheet Music section, which loads up albums and singles to learn, while also allowing students to buy more music from the online store (for US$3.99 per song). When looking for a favorite to buy from the in-app store, the skill level required (from one to four) for each song is shown before you click to purchase. But if you're new to the piano, we'd advise heading for the videos first – which walk through playing essentials.
The idea of the Sheet Music component is to teach folks how to play songs while also showing music score. Learners can ease themselves in by choosing left or right hand only, then opt for both hands when ready. Usefully, playback speed can also be controlled for a slow start and gradual build up to normal tempo.
We found this section pretty easy to use, allowing us to learn songs at our own pace. Level 1 offerings are pretty basic, but as confidence and skills grow the other levels offer up better known, more modern compositions and more involved playing techniques.
As we mentioned above, beginners will benefit from heading to the videos first and then the crash course (perhaps the interface icons would have been best placed in skill requirement order). Once we'd worked through the basics, we had a good foundation for tackling more advanced lessons, and also had a few basic song successes under our belts. But first, let the games begin.
The Games section in our review access version of the app had skill level 1 and 2 games loaded in, with titles like Chanson de Matin, Swan Lake, and Greensleeves on offer. The aim of these games is to hit the key illuminated by the red (right hand) or blue (left hand) LED above it when the onscreen icon hits the bottom of the screen, a bit like the kind of thing you have to do with Guitar Hero or Rock Band console games. This proved a fun and engaging way to learn, but the available titles may not be to everyone's taste.
Users can also access settings via the cog icon, to load more voices and timbres into the piano, for example.
The bottom line
Did our brief time with the Pro Essential help us to kickstart our playing? Well, yes. Yes it did. But we would need to spend a lot more time with the piano and app combo to see how far we can go with this thing. And that's the key take-away here.
Learning an instrument can be really tough. And, as many dusty guitars, out of tune violins and neglected pianos will testify, a lot of people give up early in the learning process. Nothing is going to replace sheer hard work, determination and dedication, but this package kept us engaged, entertained and challenged. It gave us a positive start. And that could be just enough to keep learners learning and playing on.
Take a quick look at some of the reviews on the app download page and you'll see a few grumblings about having to pay for songs to learn. And shelling out $3.99 apiece can soon add up, but is no doubt a whole lot cheaper than hiring a piano tutor to come to your home and give you private lessons. The app is also ready to teach you when you're available, so learning can be scheduled around your busy life. Still, more free content included in the ticket price looks like it would be welcome by the One Music community.
If you're gifting the One Music learning system to friends or family, then we'd recommend opting for the cheaper Keyboard Air. For those who already own a piano, version two of the company's Hi-Lite LED strip – that's now foldable and comes with Bluetooth connectivity – will be presented at NAMM next month in Anaheim, California. But if you're looking for a tricked-out digital piano that can light the way while you go from beginner to party songsmith, then take a closer look at the Pro Essential. It's on sale now for $599.
Product page: One Keyboard Pro Essential