MIDI Keyboards and Synths are incredibly popular in both live and studio environments, though they each have significant differences that separate them.
Let’s answer: Should you buy a MIDI Keyboard or Synth?
If you want a piece of equipment to generate MIDI data so that you can play different sound modules that are built in to your DAW, we recommend getting a MIDI Keyboard. On the other hand, if you have the money and want to learn a little bit about synthesis, or you are searching for an ultra-specific sound, get yourself an analog synth. Plus, synths don’t require any external devices to create music so you can get started right away!
What is the Difference Between a Synthesizer and a MIDI Keyboard?
Synthesizers are far more expensive than their MIDI keyboard counterparts. On average, an analog synthesizer will cost around $1,000.
MIDI Keyboards are much cheaper than analog synthesizers. On the low end, you could find a MIDI keyboard for about $25. Of course, you can spend a lot more if you want a MIDI keyboard with more features.
Analog synthesizers have sounds built-in. They do not require any external devices to work.
MIDI Keyboards require external devices to create sound, as they do not have any sounds built-in.
Some synthesizers transmit MIDI data while some do not. If you want the best of both worlds, you do have the option of buying a synthesizer that utilizes a MIDI or USB out.
MIDI keyboards transmit MIDI data via USB (especially in newer models) or five-pin MIDI.
Synthesizers come with a variety of controls to manipulate built-in sound. These controls include envelope controls, LFO, oscillators, and more. Many have effects built-in, such as reverb, delay, chorus, and distortion.
Some MIDI Keyboards come without any controls except for keys, while others come with a variety of parameter controls, including knobs, sliders, pads, and more. These controls can be linked to parameters within a DAW to control software synths.
The immediacy of sound, ergonomic parameter experience, high resale value, durability, unique flavor, tactile interface.
Extreme versatility, low cost, easy to use, great for producing all types of music.
Very expensive, can be unreliable, no versatility beyond what they are programmed to do.
Require external instruments, no unique characteristics.
The most basic explanation as to the difference between synthesizers and MIDI keyboards is that synthesizers have built-in sounds while MIDI keyboards do not have built-in sounds.
MIDI keyboards are pieces of hardware that are often used by producers to compose music within a DAW. They look very similar to standard digital keyboards. Some MIDI keyboards come with additional controls, including buttons, knobs, pads, and sliders. These features can be assigned to various parameters within your DAW.
Instead of producing sound, they generate and transmit MIDI data, which can be used to trigger other instruments such as synths, software synths, and more. The MIDI data that they generate includes pitch, note duration, velocity, and more.
Most modern MIDI keyboards are bus-powered, meaning you can plug them straight into your computer without the need for a separate wall outlet. USB cables are what MIDI keyboards use to transmit MIDI data as well. USB is an upgrade from the five-pin MIDI cable, which what many MIDI keyboards used back in the day.
Analog synthesizers, on the other hand, can produce their own sound. They do not need to rely on additional software or external interfaces. Synthesizers come in all shapes and sizes like MIDI keyboards, some as small as a laptop and some as large as a full-size piano.
Although analog synths can create sound without any external devices, they are limited in the sounds that they can create, as they cannot go beyond what they were programmed to do.
While the knobs, pads, buttons, and sliders on MIDI keyboards control external parameters, the knobs, pads, buttons, and sliders on analog synthesizers are used to control various internal parameters, including envelope controls (attack, release, decay, and sustain), LFO, oscillators, pitch, and more.
Many analog synthesizers come with effects built-in, including filters, reverb, delay, chorus, and more.
It is worth noting that analog synths are much more expensive than MIDI controllers as well.
Can You Use A Synthesizer as a MIDI Controller?
All devices that are capable of creating and transmitting MIDI data can be used as MIDI controllers. If the analog synthesizer that you are looking at has a USB ‘MIDI Out’ port, you can easily connect it to your computer to send MIDI data.
Of course, if you are looking at buying a traditional analog synth, it may only have a five-pin cable. In that case, you will need to get a MIDI to USB converter.
Are Synths Worth It Anymore?
There are a few things that you need to take into consideration:
- Are you looking for a specific sound that only one kind of analog synthesizer can reproduce?
- Do you like the idea of having pure, physical interaction with your instrument?
- Do you want to be able to plug in and play without any external devices?
If your answer to any of these was “yes,” then you have answered your question!
Of course, it is also important to note that virtual synths and instruments have come a long way. Some of our favorite software synth manufacturers include Arturia, Omnisphere, and Native Instruments.
Downloading even one bundle from these companies gives you near endless possibilities, all of which lie far out of reach from your typical analog synthesizer.
With that said, some people simply can’t deal with using software instruments, and that’s okay. If having an analog synth makes you happy, go for it! Just know that you will have to spend a pretty penny to get your hands on one, which brings us to our next point.
What Makes Synths So Expensive?
Analog synths can be pretty costly since they contain long chains of expensive or rare analog components. Digital algorithms simply replicate these components, which sits at a fraction of the cost of physically making them.
Once companies begin adding on other components, such as filters, envelops, distortion, ambiance, modulation, and more, the cost skyrockets.
Beyond that, there is quite a bit of love and attention to detail that goes into manufacturing synthesizers. If you want a top-quality synth from a top-quality company, such as Korg, Yamaha, Roland, or Moog, you will need to spend some money.
Why Are Musicians So Obsessed With Synthesizers?
For starters, the unique thing about analog synthesizers is that due to the electronic design, they are built with flaws, including distortion, tuning drift, noise, and other subtle variations in frequency, amplitude, and waveshape generation.
Now you might be asking yourself,
Why would someone want an instrument with flaws?
The thing is, these subtle flaws and variations create natural harmonic complexity that only exists in the acoustical world, meaning they are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce in the digital world. This is why so many people feel that the sound of analog synthesizers is so pleasing to the ear.
Secondly, there is something quite physically attractive about a synth. Synthesizers present parameters and functions on physical interfaces, which make abstract synthesis concepts far more accessible. Having a solid piece of gear allows for more expression in real-time.
MIDI Keyboard VS Synth: Final Decision
If you are on a budget and looking for versatility, reliability, and ease of use, we recommend getting a MIDI Keyboard. However, if you have the money to spend and you want an ultra-specific sound, a tactile instrument, or those beautiful flaws that we talked about earlier, get yourself an analog synth.
We hope that you now have a better understanding of the differences between MIDI Keyboards and synthesizers. Synths are pretty unique in that they create sound from nothing while MIDI keyboards act as controllers to produce sound from another device.
With that said, you could opt for a newer synthesizer that has the capabilities of a MIDI controller too! The choice is yours!
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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.