MIDI Controller VS Keyboard – A Complete Tutorial

midi controller vs keyboard

What’s the difference between MIDI controller and an electronic keyboard? Which of them is ideal for producing music? What are the pros and cons of the two of them? The above questions are common among beginners who want to know the right set of instrument to get start.

I see beginners asking those questions in forums and Q&A sites so I decide to clear the atmosphere and provide an extensive guide that have all the answers to those questions. I have taken all the pain to research, evaluate, and analyze the practical and impractical information on this topic. And I have condensed it into an easy to digest format for you.

If you really want to learn the difference between these two, read on.

So what’s the difference between the two?

It is important for you to understand the difference between these two instruments and be familiar with all of their features. Without this knowledge, it will be very difficult for you to come up with the perfect idea for your next production due to role they play in the music creation.

With the MIDI controller, you can create MIDI data and trigger the sound from a hardware sampler or synth. On the other hand, a keyboard is just an instrument on its own or part of an instrument and you don’t need additional equipment to make it work. In a simple term: an electronic keyboard works as a standalone device.

The best MIDI controller usually come with a USB Port, where you can connect the device directly to your computer. Most of the modern controllers have this feature and this often eliminate the need for a separate MIDI interface. In addition, when working with a MIDI controller, you also have to use a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), which allows you to produce MIDI data.

Examples of MIDI controllers are M-Audio Oxygen, Akai MPK 49, while the typical keyboard includes Korg, Roland, Kurzweil. A complete tutorial is available here on the MIDI and another one is here for the electronic keyboard.

Which of them is the best to produce music?

At this stage, it is not really important to know which of the two is best to produce music. What is important is to understand yourself, your skill level and experience, and what you intend to use the instrument for.

When you do this, selecting the right device becomes easy. It will also enable you to decide quickly and correctly on which of the two you should go for. The ability to bond with the tools you use is very important if you are into music creation. Therefore, the tone and feel of any instrument should be a top priority for you.

What are the Subtle Differences Between them?

One thing with MIDI controllers is that they allow you to change the tone to something you like. This makes it difficult to be stuck on any particular tone at any point in time. Another thing is the feel of the keys on a keyboard. And this is a different issue entirely. When you are looking at this, you should not just consider how the keys feel, but also how they respond to your touch.

If you are used to a piano, you may be more concerned about this, in which case, you may be attracted to an electronic keyboard. Fortunately, most modern keyboards are velocity and pressure sensitive. This means that the keys have the capability to respond to how fast you pressure on the keys as well as how much pressure you are using.

On these kinds of keyboards, the harder you press, the more varied the sound you will get. If you are looking at some old keyboards like Moog’s, the volume remains the same no matter how hard you press on the keys.

Finally, if you can control the volume and sound using software – in the case of a controller – the feel is not very important. However, if you are used to piano, a MIDI controller may not be able to serve you well. Choosing a MIDI controller in such case may be foreign to you.

Another important thing is the sound and the keys. Some devices are very good in these two aspects and they fall in the middle of the valley: some are MIDI controllers while others are simply keyboards. Some of the instruments that work well in this aspect are the Clavia Nord Piano, Kawai, and Roland, three of the popular brands with good instruments.

Do you want to play live with it? Do you want to travel with it?

If your concern is to play music on the go, then the electronic keyboard is your best choice. However, if you don’t have a need for this, the MIDI controller has a lot more option and is cheaper too.

Another thing you want to consider is the price tag. The only thing that can help here is to look inwards. If you are going to get bored with your equipment quickly, then you want to go for something cheaper so as to protect your cash and prevent buyers remorse.

However, if you see yourself getting addicted and learning things as you go, then you can spend as much as you want (i.e. buy something expensive). After deciding on which type to buy, the other thing to consider is space. If you don’t have enough space, you should not go for one that have full-sized keys as that might take up much space instead choose something that is of a smaller size.

Quality of Keys is also important

In addition to the above, you need to consider the quality of the keys. If they are nice, you go for them. If they are too rigid, you leave them. And the best way to know is to test in a musical store. You can get the M-Audio 88 for around $500 and it has hammer action and velocity sensitive keys. It’s quite cheap and offers a wide selection.

Another device you can choose is the Korg and Edirol products, which are in the same price range. Another line you should look at is the CME lines. Often times, the controller is best for those who do not need their instrument for travel and playing live.

Moreover, if you don’t need lots of keys on your midi controller then that is another option you should look at because they options then opens up.

And for those who don’t want the fancy controller faders and knobs, then the job becomes much easier. If you decide to stay with a MIDI keyboard, you can also purchase a virtual instrument voices and control them through the Midi keyboard.

The Features

Midi Controllers:

  • Midi controllers usually come with a keyboard that receives and sends out midi information.
  • You can’t directly use a MIDI controller on its own because it is just a controller and is meant to be used with an external source. You have to use it with your VSTi, computer, or sequencer.
  • MIDI controllers don’t come with inbuilt sound systems, so they cannot produce sound. When used with another source (e.g. your computer) they can now produce sound.
  • MIDI controllers have the capability to trigger sound from a synth or module or a sound card.

Electronic Keyboard:

  • On the other hand, only the people who already know how to operate the keys on the board can use the keyboard. Also, you can play it with a band.
  • If you are a beginner, you need to learn how to use the keys if you decide to choose the synth over the MIDI controller.
  • You don’t need to use the keyboard with a DAW since it is a standalone device.

The Pros

Keyboard:

  • The electronic keyboard is very portable. You can easily create new symphonies or play music just for the fun of it.
  • The keyboard also have the capability to enable you perform on stage and make new chords when you feel like it.
  • Synthetic/keyboards come with sound built in so you don’t need an external source for internal sound. They also have more options and controls than the typical MIDI controllers do.
  • You can see that in these situations, using a MIDI controller will be quite odd because you will want to connect it directly to your system. Without that, you can get the sound you need for the situation.

MIDI Controller: 

  • If you are in for composing (such as piano notation) or sequencing, a MIDI controller will perform adequately. It has more options on this side than the synth.
  • When you use a MIDI controller, you can still get the sound synthesizing outside of your computer, which is triggered by the keyboard on the controller.
  • If you need advanced features on a MIDI controller, you may have to buy the more expensive ones. This is because the expensive ones have have features like pan, aftertouch, faders etc., that is not often found on cheap versions.

The Cons

MIDI Controllers: 

  • Although a MIDI controller is a cheaper option, it is often limited in terms of what it can be used for.
  • A MIDI controller is certainly useless in situations where you cannot access your computer since without connection to your computer you can’t work with it.
  • A MIDI controller does not have the same feel as a regular piano keyboard. All the bounce and nice feel is gone.

Keyboard:

  • One of the greatest disadvantages of the keyboard is that you will lose the faders, pads, knobs, and displays you get with the MIDI controller.
  • When you are using a keyboard, you also lose the expression pedal input and aftertouch. Although, some keyboards have these features such as the Yamaha CP33, which has a MIDI, USB, and modulation wheel.

Which One Should You Buy?

If most of your work involves producing something new all the time, you may want to invest in learning the tools that will help you achieve your aim. If you want to perform on a pro level or outside your studio, I suggest you go for the keyboard.

Another option that many people have chosen is buying a portable keyboard with MIDI output. You will also have to buy a MIDI USB cable to make the appropriate connection. This option will allow you to learn new techniques, play music whenever you like, and use it as a MIDI input device. With this option, you can get the best of both worlds.

If you want to select the MIDI controller, you should try to go for the one that has the full-sized keys and semi-weight keys. It is also important to look for one that is affordable and has the keys you want. It does not matter whether it is a MIDI controller with 29 keys or 49 keys or 88 keys, all that matters is that it is affordable.

Ultimately, you will want to go into a shop and try your hands on both of them. The best and safest way to know which one of them feels better is to finger them physically and that can only happen with a good experience in a music shop. If you rely on only reviews on a 50% scale, the other 50% should be the experience you gain offline with the physical.

Wrapping Up

As the saying goes, “Every problem has a solution”. If you are a fan of the digital piano and don’t want to go for the MIDI controller because of some limitations, you can always have a workaround.

If you get the Yamaha CP33, you will be able to enjoy the best of two worlds. It has Sustain Pedal and Aux Jack (for Expression and soft), a USB, MIDI, and Pitch Bend. The Yamaha CP33 also features aftertouch with level sliders. This means you can use it as both a MIDI controller and a keyboard.

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