If you’re just getting started setting up your home studio, or even if you’ve been home recording for a while, you might be confused about this.
What is the difference between a MIDI controller keyboard and a synthesiser, and which should you get for your home studio?
What’s the difference between a MIDI controller keyboard and a synthesizer? The short answer…
A synthesiser can produce and audio signal that is processed in various ways to produce musical sounds. These sounds can be amplified for playing through speakers or to be recorded. A MIDI keyboard only generates digital messages that need to be sent to an electronic instrument, either hardware or software, for musical sounds to be generated.
Which you buy really depends on the type of music you want to make and how you want to make it. We’re going to have a look at what each one does (and doesn’t do) to help you decide.
What Is a Synthesizer?
We’re going to look at this in more detail in another article, so this is just an introduction to help us to see the difference between a synthesizer and a midi keyboard.
A synthesizer is an electronic device that generates audio signals. That’s about the simplest way to describe it.
The thing that all synthesizers seem to have in common is one or more oscillators that generate the basic audio signal. This basic audio signal can then be processed in various ways to produce the sounds that you hear coming out of the synthesizer.
The way that the basic audio signals are processed to produce the final sound depends on the type of synthesizer.
The type of synthesizer that you see most often uses a filter to remove parts of the basic audio signal. The name for this process is subtractive synthesis. There are also various settings that control how quickly the sound starts and stops and waves that can be applied to the controls to produce the final sound.
Another type of synthesizer, that was very big in the 1980s, is called an FM synthesizer. This type of synthesizer combines basic signals from a number of oscillators to produce the final sound.
The third main type of synthesizer uses what is called “west-coast synthesis”. (The type of sound synthesis used by the first type of synthesizer outlined above is called “east-coast synthesis”).
A feature of west-coast-type synthesizers is that they shouldn’t have a traditional keyboard. This is because the west-coast synthesizer people thought that if they have a keyboard it will just be used to produce “normal” music. They wanted to produce something new.
You don’t really see the west-coast type of synthesizer very often. Korg have just brought out a very small and affordable version called the Korg Volca Modular, so maybe this type of synthesis will become more popular.
Regardless of the specific type of synthesizer, they all produce sounds. You can plug a synthesizer into an amplifier (or use headphones) and you will hear the sound that has been created.
What Is Midi?
Before we look at what a MIDI keyboard is, we should first talk about what MIDI means.
MIDI stands for musical instrument digital interface. It provides a way for electronic instruments to communicate with each other.
MIDI involves signals being sent, but they aren’t audio signals. MIDI signals, or messages, just send information about the sounds rather than the sounds themselves.
MIDI messages use numbers (between 0 and 127) that represent things like the note being played and how loud it is. This is combines with signals that say when note starts and stops.
These digital messages provide the information needed for an instrument, either hardware or software, to play the notes.
What Does a Midi Controller Keyboard Do?
MIDI controller keyboards (sometimes just called MIDI keyboards) generate MIDI messages. The MIDI keyboard can be connected to a hardware instrument or other sound generator, or to a computer running a software instrument program.
The MIDI keyboard sends the MIDI messages to these instruments and tells them what to play.
The thing that MIDI keyboards don’t usually produce is any sound of their own. Occasionally you will see one that produces basic piano sounds, but its main purpose is to generate MIDI signals that are used to control an instrument to produce more sophisticated sounds of various kinds.
MIDI keyboards come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The keyboards come with either full-sized keys or miniature keys. The keyboard can have a number of keys between 25 and 88.
Although the keyboard does control the MIDI sound-producing instrument, these keyboard can control a number of other things too. This is why they are often referred to as MIDI controller keyboards, or just MIDI controllers.
These additional features of MIDI controllers are usually used to adjust various settings in software instruments or the software that lets you record the music that’s produced.
Some MIDI controllers have a number of pads that you can used to play and record drum or other percussive sounds from software instruments.
Some Synthesizers Can Act as Midi Keyboards
Synthesizers have been around since before MIDI was invented. This means that older synthesizers didn’t have any MIDI connections and were just used to produce sounds that were amplified for playing live, or for recording.
Since the mid-1980s synthesizers have been equipped with MIDI connections. This made it much easier for synthesizers to be connected to sequencers and other synthesizers.
This means that even though a synthesizer can produce synthesized sounds of its own, it can also be used as a MIDI controller keyboard by connecting it to other electronic instruments.
As with the MIDI keyboards that don’t produce any sounds of their own, the synthesizer keyboard you are playing could be generating sounds in another instrument rather than producing its own sounds.
The ability to control other instruments uses MIDI signals sent through the MIDI Out connection on the keyboard.
Modern synthesizers often have a USB connection that lets them communicate with a computer or hardware sequencer. This means you may have a choice about which type of connection to make – traditional MIDI or USB.
Synthesizers Can Receive Midi Signals
Synthesizers also have a MIDI In connection that lets the synthesizer receive MIDI signals.
These signals could come from a hardware sequencer or a computer where MIDI sequences have been recorded. These incoming signals take control of the synthesizer so that it plays a sequence of notes.
Some Synthesizers Don’t Have Keyboards
So far we have mostly been thinking about synthesizers that have their own keyboard. This lets you play the synthesizer like any other keyboard instrument.
Some synthesizers aren’t equipped with a keyboard, so you have to send the information about what to play by some other means.
Often these keyboard-less synthesizers play sequences of notes sent to them from a sequencer. The most common way to send the information about how to play the sequence is by MIDI.
MIDI Keyboards Need Power
MIDI keyboards can be connected to a computer by USB connection. This is the most common type of connection used by the very small keyboards mentioned above. A USB connection lets the keyboard controller control software instruments running on the computer.
Other types of MIDI keyboard connect using a standard MIDI connection cable. You find this type of connection on some of the larger MIDI keyboards.
One thing to bear in mind with MIDI keyboards is that they need a source of power.
If you are using a USB cable to connect to a computer then the computer will supply the power for the MIDI keyboard through the USB cable.
If you are connecting using a standard MIDI cable, especially to a hardware synthesizer, then you will need to supply the keyboard with power by some other means.
If you are using a synthesizer as a MIDI keyboard it will have its own power supply. If you are using a dedicated MIDI keyboard controller then you will have to find a way to supply it with the power it needs.
There’s Usually a Big Difference in Price
Something that really confused me at first when I was looking at keyboards to buy was the huge variety in price. Keyboards that looked very similar cost widely different amounts.
What I didn’t realise was that the inexpensive ones were usually MIDI controller keyboards, and the expensive (sometimes very expensive) ones were synthesizers.
Now that I understand a little more about keyboards it is pretty obvious which is which from the controls they include. A while back though, I could easily have bought a keyboard that didn’t make any sounds by mistake