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MIDI Controller vs Digital Piano | Everything you Need to Know

MIDI Controller or Digital Keyboard
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Are you wondering the whether to buy a MIDI controller or digital keyboard?

They can be easy to confuse if you are new to music production.

While a MIDI controller can come in the form of a keyboard, they’re not the same.

Here’s a complete comparison to help you decide which is best for you as a music producer.

Overview

If you’re just starting out, we recommend a MIDI keyboard. They are typically more affordable and can be more versatile since you can use them with computers.

If you’re a more experienced player, you might prefer a digital piano. They often have weighted keys, which can make them feel more like an acoustic piano and give you better control over your performance.

Ultimately, the decision comes down to personal preference.

The difference between a MIDI device and electronic keyboard is the former doesn’t have built-in sounds. Instead, it sends and receives data.

MIDI is a digital language that lets MIDI devices and instruments communicate to generate sound.

On the other hand, digital keyboards produce sound on their own and have built-in speakers.

Key Differences Between a MIDI Controller vs a Keyboard

  • A digital piano keyboard has a variety of built-in samples. These samples let you generate sound from a keyboard without an external sound source.
  • You can use a MIDI controller manipulate external sound device. Via USB, it sends information to virtual instruments (VSTs), telling them how to play notes and in what order.

MIDI Controller

MIDI controller vs keyboard

With a MIDI controller, you can produce music with a computer by playing notes and manipulating control messages. They make producing music a breeze by giving you hands-on control over VSTs and sometimes different parameter in your music production software.

A controller can come in the form of a MIDI guitar, keyboard drum pads. There’s even MIDI flutes!

MIDI controllers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from simple ones to advanced models with dozens of buttons and sliders to enhance your production experience.

A MIDI controller doesn’t generate sound on its own.

Instead, it lets you produce sounds through external sources by sending MIDI data.

What is MIDI?

You’re probably familiar with Musical Instrument Digital Interface if you’ve ever used a piano roll in any DAW.

It’s a digital language.

Both MIDI devices and virtual instruments (VSTs) understand this language, which allows them to communicate.

Because of this common language, your DAW can capture any action you perform on your controller. 

What Does a MIDI Controller Do?

Your MIDI controller sends instructions to your DAW based on which notes you play – with how much pressure and for how long.

These instructions are commonly known as MIDI signals.

Luckily, the VSTs in your DAW can process MIDI information.

From there, they can produce sound based on this data.

MIDI Controller vs MIDI Keyboard

The most common MIDI controllers comes in keyboard form.

They come with 25 to 88-keys, ranging from non-weighted to fully weighted.

You’ll also find some keyboards with velocity and pressure sensitive key beds.

The only difference between a MIDI controller and keyboard is controller is a broad term producers use for different MIDI devices.

MIDI keyboards imitate the look of digital keyboard but don’t produce sound.

[Here are the seven best MIDI controllers with aftertouch]

Most MIDI controllers come with pitch and modulation wheel. Higher-end units tend come with pads for making drum loops, triggering one shot sounds, etc., giving you more options in your home studio and during live performances.

These features that give you hands-on control over different parameters in your DAW.

Lastly, you’ll also find some models that come with drum pads.

To use a MIDI controller with your computer, open your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) of choice.

Once inside your DAW. In the “Preferences” or “Options” menu of your DAW, locate the “MIDI” tab and ensure that your controller is selected as both the input and output device.

This process will vary slightly depending on your DAW and your controllers features.

What is a Digital Piano Keyboard?

MIDI controller vs keyboard

A digital piano keyboard is a standalone instrument.

Since it has multiple sounds built-in – from piano sounds, flutes, guitars, choir samples, etc. – it can produce sound without an external source.

In general, an electronic keyboard imitates the feeling of playing an actual acoustic piano.

However, the fact that it’s digital gives you much more flexibility.

You can change sounds, adjust volume, play music and more.

Similarities Between MIDI Controllers vs Keyboards

You can use a digital piano with USB port and MIDI ports to capture MIDI signals.

Similarly, a controller can function as a keyboard. But only if it’s connected to a sound-producing instrument – either physical (i.e., synthesizer) or virtual.

MIDI Controller vs Keyboard: Which is Better for Music Production?

MIDI keyboards and piano keyboards both play an essential role in music production.

Deciding which one to buy depends on your production style.

Are you a piano player?

Or do you need an alternative to clicking in notes?

If you’re deciding between the two, in my opinion, a digital keyboard is better.

Why a Digital Keyboard is Better than a MIDI Keyboard

A digital keyboard is a standalone instrument that you can also use to record MIDI.

Many modern digital keyboards can connect to your computer via USB.

USB compatibility allows them to simultaneously function as a controller and a sound source.

Ultimately, this versatility makes a digital keyboard suitable for any producer – whether you’re an experienced keyboardist or a beginner practicing piano and recording basic MIDI patterns.

When is a MIDI Controller Better than a Digital Keyboard

MIDI keyboards are better if you have no interest in playing or learning piano.

Specifically, 25 – 49-key MIDI keyboards are ideal for non-fluent piano players.

You can record basic chord progressions, basslines, and melodies without taking up a lot of space in your studio.

Is a MIDI Controller or Keyboard Necessary for Music Production?

MIDI controller

A MIDI controller isn’t necessary for music production.

However, having one can potentially make your workflow more efficient.

We also find that using a MIDI controller helps improve creativity during production.

In general, we find MIDI controllers to be the most useful for producers with basic music theory knowledge.

Otherwise, you’ll likely have a hard time creating sonically pleasing patterns.

An alternative to using a midi controller is “clicking in” notes into your piano roll – a strategy used by many producers.

You can also use your computer keyboard as a MIDI keyboard if you can afford one.

How to Give Clicked-in Notes a More Human Feel

Some producers prefer MIDI controllers over clicking in notes.

Naturally, playing notes by hand gives your patterns a more “human feel.”

However, there are multiple techniques you can use to make your clicked-in notes sound less robotic.

Randomize Velocities

One method is by randomizing velocities, which changes how much pressure you apply to each note.

Naturally, you hit each note with different pressure when playing the piano.

Ultimately, randomizing velocities will make your MIDI sound more realistic.

Offset MIDI

During a piano performance, each note is triggered off beat due to human error.

To imitate this natural sound, you can also offset your MIDI so different notes are played slightly off beat.

Should you Buy a MIDI or Digital Keyboard if you Can’t Play Piano?

A MIDI keyboard isn’t necessary- and can make producing more difficult- if you don’t have some experience playing music.

You don’t have to be an expert. But it’s most helpful if you can at least create basic progressions and piece together melodies.

On the other hand, the same goes for digital keyboards.

You’re better off avoiding them unless you’re a keyboardist or learning how to play.

Things to Consider when Buying a Keyboard or MIDI controller

Piano keys

Type of Keys

There are three types of keys: synth-action, hammer action, and and semi-weighted.

Synth-Action

Synth-action keys are more sensitive to touch and require less pressure to trigger.

Hammer Action

Hammer action keyboards simulate the feeling of playing an acoustic piano.

They’re fully weighted, meaning you’ll have to press harder to trigger a note.

Generally, a keyboard with these keys will be more expensive than the other two options.

Semi-Weighted

Semi-weighted keys are a middle ground between synth-action and fully-weighted.

Number of Keys

MIDI keyboards range from 25 to88-keys.

Many producers use 25 and 49-key MIDI keyboards to record chord progressions, basslines, and melodies separately.

From there, they’ll piece these patterns together to create complex patterns.

On the other hand, 61 and 88-key MIDI keyboards are ideal for producers who play the piano.

For digital keyboards, you’ll find models ranging from 61 to 88 keys.

Key MIDI Controller Features

Knobs, Faders, and Pads

MIDI controllers typically come with wheels, knobs, faders, and pads that give you control over different settings in your music production software.

  • Knobs and faders are great for adjusting levels effects.
  • Pads are useful for recording drum patterns without having to buy a separate drum pad.
  • Modulation wheel add modulation to notes (change tonal properties; make them sound “more interesting” while they’re being played).
  • Pitch wheel adds pitch bends to notes.

You likely won’t have these additional features if you buy a digital keyboard.

However, there are some high-end digital keyboards that will.

How to use a Digital keyboard to Record MIDI

These days, it’s common for digital keyboards to support USB connection.

As a result, you’ll be able to connect it directly into your computer and record MIDI.

There are also keyboards with MIDI connection.

In this case, you’ll need a MIDI interface to connect to your computer.

How to use Digital Keyboard to Record Audio

Since digital keyboards have built-in sounds, you can use them to record audio.

To do so, you’ll need an audio interface with a 1/4 inch audio jack cable.

Just use the 1/4 inch cable to connect the audio outputs of your keyboard to the line input of your audio interface.

Takeaway

You can use both a MIDI controller and a keyboard to create and record music.

The main difference is that digital keyboards generate sound on their own while MIDI controllers don’t.

Instead, MIDI controllers send and receive data to and from external sound sources.

Overall, a digital keyboard is the better choice if you’re deciding between the two. It functions as a piano keyboard and can also be used to record MIDI.

However, we recommend a MIDI controllers if you’re not an experienced keyboardist due to all the features and controls it can offer – especially a higher-end model.

Jeremy See on Youtube provides a great comparison between keyboards and MIDI controllers in the video below.

Summary: Digital Keyboard vs MIDI Controller Pros and Cons

Digital Keyboard

Pros

  • Versatile – some come with MIDI connection (MIDI output and input)
  • Has built in sounds; can record audio
  • Doesn’t need an external sound source

Cons

  • Usually doesn’t have knobs, faders, pads, and wheels
  • Takes up a lot of space
  • High quality digital pianos are expensive

MIDI Controller

Pros

  • MIDI controllers come with a variety of knobs, faders, pads, and wheels; gives you hands-on control over parameters in your DAW
  • Comes in different sizes
  • 25-key units are compact – ideal for limited studio space

Cons

  • Needs an external sound source

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