The difference between a MIDI keyboard, MIDI controller, and a Synthesizer can be confusing because they all have piano-style keys. It’s easy to think they all do the same thing since they look roughly similar, but we’re going to explain why each one is a unique studio tool.
Not everybody realizes that a MIDI controller can’t make a sound on its own, and synthesizers can be played without a computer or DAW. No one device is better than the other, but by the end of this article, you will know exactly which one you need to make music.
Let’s start with one of the most common devices.
You can recognize a MIDI keyboard by its piano-like keys, nowadays, they also feature knobs, faders, and pads too. Most MIDI keyboards don’t have in-built speakers, so to use one it needs to be connected to a computer via USB.
MIDI keyboards come in compact sizes that can slot into your desktop setup, and extend large enough to play a full song on. This comes down to the number of keys on a device, which can start at 25 and go all the way up to 91. Working out how many keys you need is one of the important things to know before buying your first MIDI keyboard.
MIDI Keyboards Need a DAW
On their own, MIDI keyboards don’t make any sound at all. Their main purpose is to connect to a DAW program in order to translate key presses into notes on a computer.
You can think of it as a vessel for sound. Load any sound sample or virtual instrument in your DAW, and then you can play it using the keyboard. The same goes for the extra pads and faders, so there’s plenty you can do even with the smallest MIDI keyboard.
Our list of the best free VST plugins shows you just how many software options there are that work with your MIDI keyboard.
The No.1 Studio Tool
It’s safe to say that the MIDI Keyboard is one of the most important tools for music production. Having a MIDI keyboard means you don’t have to own expensive physical instruments, or even know how to play them.
Use it to add lush strings under a chorus or play drum beats. It’s fantastic for mocking up a demo and experimenting with different ideas.
All of the above is of course doable using just a mouse pointer in a DAW. But no doubt having a MIDI keyboard speeds up your workflow and lets you focus on being creative.
The clue to what a MIDI controller does is in the name; it controls different things in a DAW like software instruments. However, one key difference is that they don’t always come with a keyboard by default.
There are a lot more MIDI controller designs out there, purpose-built for different needs. The fun part of MIDI controllers is that they open up new ways to make and play music.
MIDI Controllers Go Beyond Keys
One example is the Novation Launchpad, it’s a MIDI controller that has an 8×8 grid of RGB pads. Each pad can be loaded with an audio clip or sample and played in real-time like any other instrument.
An electronic drum kit is another example of a MIDI controller that is purpose-built for drummers. They are sometimes used to trigger specific drum samples in a live performance. Alternatively, they are perfect for learning the drums without annoying the neighbors since you can listen to the sounds with headphones.
One thing to look out for is designs that are made exclusively for a certain DAW. Always check the compatibility of a MIDI controller before buying one.
Synthesizers are quite different from the rest, but it’s easy to understand why they get confused. Once more, it’s the fact that they have piano-like keys, but that’s where the similarities end.
Unlike MIDI keyboards or controllers, they don’t require a computer or DAW to produce sound. Underneath the hood, a synthesizer has all the on-board electronics needed to create sound using basic waveforms. It’s important to note, however, that you can’t just plug a synth in with a USB. A Synthesizer requires a power source and a sound system to play back sound.
Far from being limited by its electronics, a synth has a near-endless number of ways to make unique sounds.
Synthesizers Produce a World of Sound
How a synthesizer makes sound can be quite complicated to understand. Without delving into it too much, a synth generates waveforms using electronic oscillators, these can then be shaped with filters. By changing the settings, you can control the articulation and duration of a sound too.
You can use the presets that come with a synth or program a sound entirely from scratch. Then, when you are happy with the results, simply play the sound using the keyboard.
Just like a guitar makes sound through the vibration of its strings, a synthesizer makes sound through the waveforms generated by the electronics.
A synthesizer can recreate the sound of brass, bass, and bell tones, among many other instruments. In other words, it can “synthesize” acoustic sounds using electronics. But while it may have started as a way to replicate real-life sounds, the synthesizer is now a unique instrument of its own.
The Popularity of Digital Synthesizers
If you’re just starting out with music production, you’ve likely played a synth already—the digital kind, at least.
The original synthesizer was a physical instrument with plenty of knobs and cables. Nowadays, however, you will find plenty of synths in digital form as a software instrument.
Digital synths are inserted on a track in your DAW and played with a MIDI keyboard. Since free digital synths are abundant, either arriving bundled with your DAW or available to download for free online, this setup is a lot more practical and affordable.
Analog synths can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars and are incredible pieces of technology to own. But due to the cost, many people use a digital synth instead; just plug in a MIDI keyboard and away you go.
If you take a look at our breakdown of Ableton’s synth components, you can see just how much there is to dig into.
Which One Should You Get?
If you’re a beginner in music production, then a MIDI keyboard is the most flexible tool you can get. It opens up the option of playing different software instruments, but also samples and digital synthesizers too. Their various sizes and options, including pads, faders, and knobs, means you can choose something small to fit on your desktop or aim for something larger for performing.
On the other hand, MIDI controllers can solve more specific problems. Beatmakers in particular deal mainly with sound clips rather than creating melodies, so a MIDI controller with a large grid is a better option.
Finally, you have synths, which are a category of their own. While they also have piano-like keys, they don’t need a DAW to make sounds. Thanks to electronic hardware in the synthesizer, they can produce a world of unique sounds all on their own.
Dedicated electronic artists will sing praises for this modern instrument, but with a high price tag, most people are happy to stick with digital synthesizers—which you can use with a MIDI keyboard or MIDI controller, anyway.
MIDI Keyboards, MIDI Controllers, and Synthesizers Explained
The main thing that all of these instruments have in common is that they often have a piano-like keyboard.
More specifically, MIDI keyboards and MIDI controllers are used to play software sounds, and to do this you will need a computer and DAW software. Synthesizers on the other hand can produce interesting sounds on their own, you just need a sound system to play them through.
As a beginner, we recommend getting a MIDI keyboard, its multipurpose use is why every studio has one and yours should too. But for those more adventurous, there are plenty of other options to choose from.
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