MIDI Keyboards are excellent for practicing and performing. They are very easy to connect up, and they typically come with headphones outputs if you want to practice your music silently.
MIDI controllers, on the other hand, are great for making drum loops or beats and triggering one-shot sounds.
More space and portable.
Comes with pads, knobs or faders, For instance, Novation Launchpad Pro MK3, Ableton Push 2, Akai MPD 232. Best if you are looking to adjust your sound, make beats, and modify your sound in real time. Check this post to see the list.
Comes with keys, though can also have pads, knobs, and faders. For instance, Arturia KeyLab Essential 61 or Novation Launchkey 49 MkII.
Best if you are looking to adjust your sound, make beats, and modify your sound in real time. Check this post to see the list.
Great if you want to make melodies, and learn how to play on the keyboard, also MIDI Keyboards often including the same functions as MIDI controllers. Here is the list of the 14 Best MIDI Keyboards.
Generally less expensive.
Generally more expensive.
Now, let’s explain it further!
What Is The Difference Between MIDI Keyboard And MIDI Controller?
MIDI Controllers are also made to create MIDI data for your computer to read or trigger sounds from hardware synths and samplers. Like MIDI Keyboards, they do not produce any sounds by themselves, nor do they come with audio outputs or speakers. MIDI Controllers are not useful unless you have them connected to another device to trigger sound.
MIDI Keyboards are often considered their own instruments. If you want the feel of a piano, then a MIDI keyboard will probably be a bit more attractive.
MIDI Keyboards come with pressure-sensitive keys that are used to play software instruments on your computer. They are great for new keyboardists who are looking to learn how to play the piano. When beginners start learning to play piano, MIDI keyboards act as a far more affordable option than real pianos.
Of course, for players who are a bit more experienced, MIDI keyboards can be used in live performances, whether that is a small event such as a backyard BBQ or church ceremony, or a significant event, such as a music festival.
Unlike MIDI Keyboards, I like to think of MIDI Controllers as computer mouses. Both can control your music production software, though MIDI controllers take it a step further in allowing you to express yourself while creating music. This is thanks to the variety of parameter-changing features on board. The best MIDI Controllers typically come with USB ports, allowing you to connect them directly to your computer.
The majority of modern MIDI controllers utilize this USB feature, which eliminates the need for a third-party MIDI interface.
Are MIDI Keyboards Worth It Or Overrated?
If you don’t have a physical MIDI keyboard in front of you, trying out ideas can be a huge pain, not to mention time-consuming. You’ll have to draw in all of the notes with your mouse before hitting the play button, simply to see what your idea sounds like.
Having a keyboard with you when you are producing music allows you to hear your ideas immediately after coming up with them. You can play the music that you hear in your head and experiment with different ideas quickly before ever committing to anything.
MIDI Keyboards are exceptional in that they add a human feel to any music that you create. While you might be using your computer to play real instruments samples or sounds, you still have to remember that your computer is the one playing them, not a real musician.
As a producer, your job is to make those sounds coming out of your computer feel a bit more human. With MIDI keyboards you’ll be playing your sounds instead of simply clicking them onto a grid. You’ll automatically change velocity with each note that you play, creating a more dynamic performance. Notes won’t be perfect on the grid, which will add a bit more groove to your performance. This is especially important with drums.
MIDI keyboards can also bring a bit of inspiration into your studio as well. Walking into your home studio or production room and seeing a beautiful, sleek MIDI keyboard next to your laptop or desktop can inspire you to make music. In our opinion, it is far more inspiring than walking in the room and only seeing your computer and speakers.
For more information, check this in-depth discussion on Reddit if MIDI keyboards are worth it and helpful for music production.
What Can You Do With a MIDI Controller?
MIDI controllers are wonderful for automation. You can use a MIDI controller to assign the virtual knobs or faders in your software to the physical knobs on your MIDI controller. By doing so, you will easily control all of the different parameters found in your DAW or virtual instruments.
For those of you who don’t know, automation is the process of allowing software to change a specific parameter over a given length of time. Let’s say that you have a string section, for example. You might want to automate the volume of that string section so that it starts quietly, gets a bit louder after three seconds, and then reaches peak loudness at six seconds.
To create that automated change in volume, you will typically have to create an automation track. This automation track will give you a line that you can use to draw in your automation (which, in this case, is a change in volume) in your DAW.
Rather than simply drawing in that automation line with your mouse, you can use your knobs to change the volume and get the effect you are looking for, and using a MIDI controller to do this rather than your mouse is that you can give your production a more human feel.
Plus, for more musical automation, such as filters or delays, using your hands is far more helpful.
MIDI controllers come in the form of drum pads, consoles, knobs, MIDI guitar, MIDI flutes, etc. We often use MIDI Controllers in conjunction with audio software, such as Ableton, Pro Tools, Cubase, Reason, and FL Studio.
Secondly, we often find MIDI controllers in the live performance realm. DJs and other types of musicians often use MIDI controllers to triggers sounds or music tracks during performances. This is typically done with Ableton Live. We often use MIDI Controllers to sync up different sounds from synthesizers so that multiple things can be played at once.
Is a MIDI Controller Necessary?
MIDI controllers are not necessary by any means, though they can help to add an element of expression to the music-making process. Controllers can be used to control all fo the sounds, instruments, and effects within your DAW.
A controller hooks up to your DAW and allows you to control and manipulate several parameters in your DAW or your virtual instruments. These parameters include filters, effects, transport controls, wet and dry knobs, volume, etc. The ability to control a virtual synth like you would control a hardware synth is also pretty awesome.
Let’s say that you have a software synthesizer with multiple knobs on it to control different parameters, such as filters or delays. You can use the knobs on your MIDI controller to simultaneously control those parameters, unlike your mouse, which would only be able to control one parameter at a time.
The best modern MIDI controllers integrate with all types of DAWs, allowing you to control all parameters with ease. You can use these controls to map to parameters in your DAW in a user-friendly manner to give you better control.
MIDI controllers are often used in the live sphere too. They are hooked up to laptops during a live performance to trigger different samples, sounds, and tracks in real-time. This can bring a unique dimension of timbre to your sound, especially if there are things you produced in the studio that are difficult to bring to the live realm.
Let’s say that you are a drummer who wants to add some cool 808 samples atop your regular drum kit during a live performance. You could load up a software drum rack and use a MIDI controller to trigger 808 sounds while you are playing.
There are plenty of ways to integrate MIDI controllers on stage. It’s all about getting creative and looking at what you need to bring your live performance to the next level.
Is a MIDI Keyboard Necessary?
When you are playing out bass lines, chords, or melodies, a MIDI keyboard can provide you with more human expression compared to using your mouse and computer keyboard to write things out.
Beyond that, having a MIDI keyboard will inevitably teach you to play the piano. You’ll learn where notes lie and how to finger certain chords and melodies. This will help you in your progression to becoming a better musician.
Many modern producers start with nothing but their computers. Computers are pretty strong these days. You could produce an entire song without ever touching a physical piece of hardware.
Most DAWs have what are called piano rolls. You can use piano rolls to place notes in one by one with your mouse or computer keyboard. DAWs like Ableton, for example, allows you to use the keyboard on your laptop or desktop as a type of virtual piano keyboard.
Yes, the same keyboard you use to type out your Tweets or send out emails can write out MIDI information in your DAW.
Pretty awesome, right?
As an example, you could make the letter “T” on your computer keyboard and correlate it to the note “C.” The letter “Y” could correlate to the note “D,” and so on. You could then use these keys to play out different melodies.
When it comes down to it, you don’t need a MIDI keyboard to create music on your computer that inspires you, though there are some downsides to not having one. Having a MIDI keyboard gives you an entirely different feel.
It makes the process of creating music much more exciting and far more efficient, especially if you are already well-versed in where notes and chords sit. While it is possible to program a song with only your mouse and computer keyboard, it can be incredibly time-consuming. Having to sit and click out melodies and chords can take forever. Plus, it can kill the vibe or process of making great music.
However, if you are already a skilled piano player, learning to play might not be something you are concerned about. But having a MIDI keyboard as a keyboardist, in our opinion, is a must.
Should I Buy a MIDI Keyboard If I Can’t Play The Piano?
The answer is – It depends. It is important to understand that there are various types of weighted keys as well, including non-weighted, semi-weighted, hammer action, and graded weighting. For non-keyboardists, non-weighted keys are the best choice, as they are much easier to play.
Even if you are not a piano player, the advantages of having a MIDI keyboard make owning one worth it.
Having one allows you to tweak things in your DAW with ease while you are recording or producing.
Plus, the basics of playing the piano don’t take very long for people to pick up. Once you start using your MIDI keyboard, you’ll be able to pick things up much quicker, create more interesting melodies, and visualize theory.
Many people buy MIDI keyboards for the sole purpose of learning to play the piano.
For starters, if you live in a small dorm room or apartment, having a full piano is typically a pretty impractical decision. Of course, having the sound and feel of a real piano beats a MIDI keyboard by far, though you will have to consider that you are cutting into real estate for other instruments and gear.
Secondly, learning the piano can be quite an annoying process for others who aren’t playing. No neighbor wants to hear the same scale played over and over again. Having a MIDI keyboard gives you the ability to plug straight into your laptop and play with headphones or at really low volumes. Plus, you can explore different sounds or instruments while learning, including pianos, Rhodes keyboards, synthesizers, and more. This can make the learning process a lot more exciting!
Can MIDI Keyboard Be Used As a MIDI Controller?
Yes. Many mid-range to high-end MIDI keyboards come with the same components as MIDI controllers, such as knobs, faders, and pads. Of course, it depends on the model that you purchase, as not all MIDI keyboards have the same functions built-in.
One of the greatest things about MIDI Keyboards is that they can also be used as MIDI controllers since they come with a MIDI output.
Newer MIDI Keyboards typically come with USB connections, which plug straight into your computer so that you can use software instruments. Your music production software will then translate the MIDI connection from the keyboard into “notes.”
The one downside of using a MIDI keyboard in the music production realm is that many low-end MIDI keyboards don’t come with any knobs or drum pads. Pads can be very helpful when writing out drum patterns, and knobs can help change parameters or create automation in your sessions.
Can MIDI Controller Be Used As a MIDI Keyboard?
If your MIDI Controller comes with pads, you can map those pads to notes on your piano roll to play melodies and chords and make the beats as you would do on MIDI Keyboard.
MIDI Keyboards vs. MIDI Controllers: Cons & Pros
We would be hard-pressed to honestly say that a MIDI controller is better than a MIDI keyboard or vice versa. This is because both of these devices have pros and cons. Let’s briefly explore the pros and cons of each.
MIDI Keyboard Pros
- If you want to take advantage of composing with piano notation, as well as sequencing, a MIDI Keyboard is a great choice
- MIDI keyboards give keyboardists a more realistic feel
- MIDI keyboards give producers the option of performing keyboard-centric parts on stage
- Experimenting with different chords and melodies is much easier with a MIDI keyboard
MIDI Keyboard Cons
- Cheaper MIDI keyboards do not come with pads, knobs, faders, or other types of displays to aid in other forms of music production
- Cheaper MIDI keyboards do not come with great aftertouch features, meaning you won’t be able to play as expressively
- MIDI keyboards are typically less portable compared to MIDI controllers, limiting how easily you can travel with them
MIDI Controller Pros
- Controllers are great for sequencing and triggering sounds from other devices
- MIDI Controllers come with music production parameters, such as drum pads, faders, knobs, etc. The more you spend, the more options you will get
- MIDI controllers are typically portable
MIDI Controller Cons
- A MIDI Controller isn’t the best for tonal, chordal, or melodic forms of producing, as they don’t allow you to explore different chords and melodies that would be easier with a keyboard
- A MIDI Controller is useless without a computer to plug into.
- Compared to MIDI Keyboards, MIDI controllers have limitations.
Final Decision – MIDI Keyboard Or MIDI Controller?
MIDI Keyboards come in all shapes and sizes. You can purchase a small MIDI keyboard with 25 keys and no bells and whistles or a professional MIDI keyboard with 81 keys, pads, knobs, sliders, and more. It’s really up to you!
If you do end up going with a MIDI keyboard, we recommend going for one that has either fully-weighted or semi-weighted keys. These will provide you with a far more realistic playing experience.
It isn’t rare to find both of these devices in the live performance realm as well. Of course, it is important to understand that they each have limitations, so it depends on how much money you are willing to spend and where your interest in music lies.
As we said before, MIDI keyboards can also be used as MIDI controllers.
Of course, one of the best ways to figure out which one is right for you is to go play around with some and make your pros and cons list. Head out to your local music store and see if you can test out some devices.
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Tyler Connaghan is a producer, composer, and engineer based in Los Angeles, CA. He studied music for two years at the University of Southern California before landing a job at Killingsworth Recording Company, where he currently produces music for television and film.