Boston — FOR Beth, Heather, and Marybeth, cruising a shopping mall is only the second-best diversion on a Saturday morning. For these Boston teens, nothing beats going to Daddy's Junky Music Store and checking out the latest electronic keyboards. ``Even if you don't know how to play, you come into a music store and press a button and it's like - wow!'' says 16-year-old Beth Moloney, sporting a jean jacket and headphones.
Beth hovers over a Yamaha DX7 - a favorite in rock-music land - and fingers a tune. She and her two companions want to start a band, but they'll need to update their equipment first, she says. Instruments by Yamaha, Korg, and Roland line the walls, and the girls try out all of them, listening to the kaleidoscopic sounds bouncing around the room.
The teens' enthusiasm confirms one thing: electronic instruments are not just for professionals, but for amateurs and beginning musicians, too.
With portable keyboards leading the way, modern electronic music is rapidly moving into the American home, changing the way people make music. Rather than pounding out Golden Oldies on the family spinet, imagine flipping a few switches and hearing a jazz trio or a full orchestra perform your favorites.
Many of the new instruments aren't just table-top toys. They are stylish pieces of furniture that rival traditional pianos in touch and tone, and outdistance the electric home organ in special features.
Piano dealers themselves are boosting such products. In Boston, the second-oldest Steinway dealer features Roland's line of electronic pianos. ``[Electronic keyboards] are selling well nationally, and we wanted to be a part of that,'' says Paul Murphy, president of M. Steinert & Sons Co. ``It's part of the music business.''
An underlying theme of the electronic instrument industry is the quest for ever-more authentic reproductions of ``real'' instrument sounds, as well as greater manipulation of synthesized sounds. It's a race for ``music without limits.''
In recent years, this technology has ``trickled down'' from professional instruments to average consumers, says David Mash, chairman of music synthesis at Berklee College of Music in Boston. People can control hundreds of sounds, in a form that's user-friendly and inexpensive.
``Technology is affecting everything in our lives,'' says Mr. Mash. ``It's only natural that music would be affected. It's possible for manufacturers to make the same type of things with less power, with the same quality sounds, for less and less money. Now you can walk into any department store and buy a portable keyboard that sounds pretty good.''
At Boston Music Company, Lee Walkowich displays electronic keyboards right along with trumpets, guitars, and saxophones. As instrument department manager, he admits that band instruments are currently not selling as well as keyboards. Part of the reason, he says, is because the traditional instruments take too long to learn. Electronic keyboards, however, provide almost instant satisfaction.
``If you take a person with average musical talent, and if they have a knowledge of reading music and a basic ability to play a keyboard, they can program a rather complex piece of music.''
Demand for these keyboards has been so high that from 1983 through 1987, 9.4 million keyboards (priced under $1,000) entered the United States market, according to the American Music Conference.
A leader in this area is Yamaha Corporation of America, a $600 million company that makes not only musical instruments from tubas to pianos, but sporting goods and computer chips. Of all Yamaha's instruments, electronic keyboards are growing the fastest, says Eric Johnson of Yamaha. In New York, Mr. Johnson manages the sparkling new showroom at the Yamaha Communication Center, where electronic keyboards catch the eye and peak the curiosity of passers-by.
For instance, a father might walk in with his four-year-old son and ask, ``What should I start him on?'' From the displays, a parent can get a sense of all the musical possibilities available, Mr. Johnson says.
The electronic keyboards on the showroom floor range in price from $150 to $1,600. Some people feel more comfortable paying for an instrument within this price range, than shelling out $2,500 for a brand-new, bottom-of-the-line regular piano. Besides costing much less than pianos, an electronic keyboard might produce 100 different voices and 100 rhythms.
Some players prefer a simple electronic piano, sometimes referred to as a ``piano substitute.'' These slick looking instruments often have a piano's standard 88 keys with a weighted touch, and small selection of piano sounds, such as grand piano, rock piano, or electric piano. Yamaha's models, called Clavinovas, cost between $1,458 and $7,000.
The granddaddy of Yamaha's electronic keyboards is the Electone (about $4,600 to $30,000), an instrument with two rows of keys and organlike foot pedals. A top-of-the-line Electone combines the features of smaller keyboards into one high-powered whole: A musician can play cosmic sounds and symphonies with the hands, and canon booms and kettle drums with the feet.
Despite the attractive price and variety of sounds, some die-hard pianists still refuse to hop on the electronic bandwagon. ``[These keyboards] would not be useful to someone who really wants to practice piano music at the highest artistic level,'' remarks Gabriel Chodos, chairman of the piano department at Boston's New England Conservatory. ``The range of volume is much greater on a traditional piano, and there's an immediacy of expression with an acoustic piano that I just can't find with these electronic pianos.''
Mr. Walkowich, seller of keyboards, agrees that the medium has limitations. ``There's still something missing - that human feeling and the ability to be more creative. I'm a trumpet player, and they still haven't perfected the sound of a trumpet yet.''
Mash hopes that, if anything, computers and electronic instruments will help people ``get into music'' and not just play for ``instant'' gratification.
Meanwhile, Mash doesn't believe that traditional instruments will fade away. ``I think they may wane in popularity for a while, but they're not going to disappear. The orchestra will never go away. It's a unique experience to be in a hall with 100 players on stage ... an experience that can't be replaced by a synthesizer.''
Heather Fairfield, 17, found browsing recently in Boston Music Company, plays the clarinet and a regular piano. She says that both electronic and traditional instruments are good. ``Anything that makes music is worth it,'' she says.