What is the difference between a MIDI controller, keyboard & synthesizer?

wjhat is the difference between a MIDI controller and a keyboard?

Are you thinking of adding some keys to your arsenal of musical instruments and equipment? Not sure whether to buy a MIDI controller, a keyboard, or a synthesizer? Or something else?

In this article, we will discuss the differences between various keyboards, MIDI controllers, synthesizers, and more. We’ll explain the benefits and applications of each so you can decide which one is best for you.

A collection of synthesizers and MIDI controllers

Should I buy a MIDI controller or a keyboard?

A keyboard has built-in instrument sounds and samples and can be played as a standalone instrument without the need to connect it to any external device or a computer. 

Many low-end to mid-range keyboards also contain speakers so you perform in a small room and hear yourself playing. Higher-end keyboards and synthesizers do not contain built-in speakers and you will need to use headphones or plug the output into external speakers such as studio monitors or a PA system.

If you plan on playing the instrument on its own and for someone getting started learning an instrument, a keyboard will be your best bet.

What is a MIDI controller?

MIDI controllers take the form of a ‘piano-style’ keyboard but are often more compact and lighter. They make use of the MIDI standard for sending note information to another MIDI-compatible device or a computer for playback. Common key configurations are 25 keys, 49 keys, 61 keys and 88 keys (the same as a full-size piano).

A MIDI controller does not have any built-in sounds and will always need to be connected to another device such as a sound module or a computer with instrument samples. 

MIDI controllers are great for composers or producers creating and recording digital music on a computer with a DAW (digital audio workstation software).

Some MIDI controllers also have assignable faders and knobs which can be used to adjust parameters on instrument patches on an external MIDI device or computer. In addition, some contain ‘trigger’ pads which can be used to activate loops or samples.

Because they are lightweight and easy to handle, many performing artists use a MIDI controller on stage connected to a laptop, rather than carrying a bulkier keyboard or stage piano to a gig.

A MIDI controller with assignable knobs and faders

Can a Keyboard be used as a MIDI controller?

Yes. Many modern keyboards can be used as a MIDI controller, as long as they have a USB port for connecting them to a computer, or MIDI ports for connecting them to another MIDI device.

Can a MIDI controller be used as a keyboard?

No, a MIDI controller cannot be used as a keyboard on its own as it does not have any built-in sounds. It always needs to be used in conjunction with a computer or another MIDI-capable device such as a sound module.

What is the difference between a MIDI keyboard and a synthesizer?

A synthesizer is an electronic instrument that generates its own sounds which can be tweaked and edited. The waveform produced by a synthesizer can be altered by cutting or boosting frequencies and adjusting the envelope, pitch, and various other parameters.

By contrast, a keyboard contains instrument samples (recordings of acoustic instruments such as piano, strings, organ, brass, guitar, and more). These samples usually cannot be modified to the same extent as synthesizer sounds. 

Some keyboards contain both sampled sounds and synthesized sounds with editable parameters.

Synthesizers are generally much more expensive than keyboards and can range up to $3,000 or higher. Some vintage synthesizers such as the Roland Jupiter-8, The MOOG Memorymoog, and some of the old Prophet synths have become very collectible and can fetch over $30,000.

Vintage synthesizers can fetch high prices!

Can I use a synthesizer as a MIDI controller?

Most modern synthesizers and keyboards have at least a USB port so you can connect them to a computer and use them as a MIDI controller. Some also feature the older 5-pin DIN MIDI ports so you can connect them to other legacy MIDI equipment.

What is the difference between a digital piano and a keyboard?

Just to keep it interesting, lets add another type of instrument into the discussion – a digital piano. A digital piano is intended as a replacement for an acoustic upright or grand piano and is designed to replicate the experience of playing an acoustic piano. A digital piano usually has the same full-size 88-note keyboard as a ‘real’ piano. 

The keys on a digital piano are usually ‘weighted’ or ‘semi-weighted’ – this means the key has an action that feels like playing an acoustic piano. A digital piano is a great option for someone who wants the feel of playing a real piano but who may not have the space in their home or may have noise restrictions with neighbours or young kids. You can turn the volume down or use headphones on a digital piano, unlike an acoustic piano!

A digital piano will have built-in speakers, usually with a better sound quality output than most ‘keyboards’ to enable the sound output to capture accurately the full range of frequencies that a ‘real’ piano creates.

A digital piano offers realistic piano sounds and many contain a selection of other instruments also such as Rhodes, electric piano, organ, strings, and more.

By contrast, most keyboards only have 61 keys, the keys are ‘un-weighted’ and the quality of the built-in speakers is often lower.

For advanced players or those who want a higher-end playing experience, a digital piano is a great option.

A digital piano with 88 full-size weighted keys

Can a digital piano be used as a MIDI controller?

Almost all modern digital pianos also contain MIDI functionality, so you can use a digital piano as a MIDI controller.

What is the difference between a stage piano and a digital piano?

The main difference between a stage piano and a digital piano is that a stage piano is designed to be used for live performances and is generally lighter and more compact than a digital piano. A stage piano does not contain integrated speakers, or an integrated stand, making it easy to carry and maneuver on and off stage for live gigs. 

Like a digital piano, a stage piano has a full 88-note keyboard – that is seven full octaves and 3 extra keys. A stage piano will have ‘weighted’ piano-style keys so it feels like an acoustic piano to play.

A stage piano will contain a library of sounds – with a particular focus on high quality piano samples, but it will likely contain other instrument sounds and samples also such as Rhodes, organ, strings, synth pads, synth leads, and more.

Almost all modern stage pianos will have a USB interface and MIDI ports to enable you to connect them to a computer or another MIDI device.

Roland Stage Piano

In Summary: MIDI controller vs keyboard vs synth vs digital piano. Which one do I need?

If you’re just starting out learning the instrument, then a keyboard is an excellent and affordable option. It has sounds and speakers built in so it is ready to go with no external equipment needed.

For more experienced and serious pianists, a digital piano will provide a much nicer and more realistic ‘piano’ feel than a keyboard. Digital pianos generally sound better and ship with better-quality instrument samples and speakers.

If you want to compose and produce music on your computer, then a MIDI controller is a great way to go, they are compact, affordable, and work with almost all modern computers. If you want to control external MIDI equipment, ensure you choose one with a 5-pin DIN MIDI output as well as a USB port.

If you want to get serious and dive into the world of synthesizers, then a dedicated synth with editable parameters can be hours of fun creating soundscapes and ethereal noises. Plus you can perform live with a synth and most of them can be used as a MIDI controller.

For live performers who want the feel of a real acoustic piano without the bulkiness, then a stage piano is a great choice.

We hope this article has been useful and helped you understand the differences between these instruments. 

Keep creating!

Man playing MIDI keyboard or MIDI controller

Tim Wells

Hi I’m Tim Wells – an experienced session and live drummer, mixing engineer and all-around lover of music! I’ve been passionate about music from a young age and I’ve had the great privilege of creating and performing music all around the world. I've had the incredible experience of touring as a live drummer through over 10 countries, performing in festivals, clubs, street corners, churches and cafes in front of audiences anywhere between 8 and 8,000! I've also spent time in the recording studio as a session drummer, but also as a recording and mixing engineer.

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