What Is The Difference Between A Midi Keyboard And A Synthesizer

MIDI Keyboard vs Synthesizer

When we hear the words "MIDI Keyboard" and "Synthesizer" we often think they are one and the same thing. Only when we need one for our home studio, do we find out it's very far from that simple.

To make things more complicated, what if I tell you sometimes it can mean the same thing and sometimes not. Surely enough, when you have quick look at the two, a midi keyboard and synthesizer look almost identical. They both have a basic piano key layout with additional controls on top of the instrument. But that is where most of the similarities end though.

A MIDI keyboard is essentially keyboard with black & white keys which act as a controller to send the signals of which note is played to an external device through the MIDI cable. It is unable to produce sound on its own. A synthesizer is also a keyboard with black & white keys, but it's a complete standalone musical instrument. It is able to mimic and produce piano and a variety of other instrumental sounds, as well as applying a wide range of effects to the sounds you produce.

This is a very basic and simplistic explanation of the difference between these two instruments. If you start looking at them in more detail, the differences, similarities and even overlaps can be quite confusing. To best understand all of this, we need to take a closer look at how similar, but yet fundamentally different they really are.

What Is The Difference Between A Midi Keyboard And Synthesizer

A MIDI Keyboard (also commonly referred to as a controller) is only capable of sending the data the key being hit to the synthesizer or sequencer. In most cases modern day synthesizers (or sequencers) come in the form the DAW software on your computer, so this should not be a drawback. This is normally achieved by connecting your keyboard to the MIDI port of your computer's sound card or the more popular audio interface. 

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, a protocol designed to allow electronic musical instruments and devices to communicate with each other. It was established in 1983 with the added advantage of allowing instruments and devices from different manufacturers to effortlessly communicate with one another.

(New MIDI Controllers / Keyboards are increasingly moving away from the MIDI protocol and making more use of the USB interface, mostly because the USB protocol is now supported across the board by almost every single device, making connecting different components easy and relatively painless. 

An added advantage of USB is that it is able to transfer multiple streams of data simultaneously, compared to the single bit of data a MIDI connection is capable of.  This becomes fairly important as more expensive Midi Keyboards have more data to transfer than a MIDI interface are able to cope with. I will explain this in detail in the next section.

Fortunately for any of you still owning an older device with only a MIDI interface, almost all modern keyboards still support MIDI, as well as the vast majority of audio interfaces. This means you will be safe on the output and input side for the foreseeable future with your MIDI connection. Just be aware of this shift towards USB that is gradually taking place.)

As with synthesizers, MIDI Keyboards come with a variety of key sizes and have models with a different number of keys present on each instrument. (Normally they come in combinations of 25, 32, 49, 61 and 88 keys.)

A Synthesizer (also sometimes referred to as electronic keyboards) as we know it, has all the functions and features of the Midi Keyboard I just mentioned. The biggest difference is that a synthesizer has all the electronics and functions needed to produce and output sound build into the instrument itself. This turns it into a fully functioning standalone instrument, capable of producing sound by itself.

Not only can they produce their own sound, the build-in synthesizer functions allow them to mimic almost any possible instrument available, They can also add special effects and a multiple of other features to the sound they produce and output.

In this sense the Keyboard Synthesizer has already many of the functions, normally only available in DAW Software in many cases, available on the keyboard itself. The importance and relevance of these build-in functions will become clear when specifically looking at the use of synthesizers later on in this article.

When Will You Use A MIDI Keyboard

Before you start wondering what all this MIDI Controller and Synthesizer talk has to do with your home recording studio, this is what I am getting at. At some point on your home studio journey, chances are very good that you will not only have to deal with some kind of piano style keyboard, you may just end up finding the need to start using one for your own personal needs. The information in this article will suddenly become very helpful.

(Guess, what I am in that process of purchasing right now?  And a year ago I would have laughed at anyone telling me I will be looking for a keyboard for my own home studio.)

MIDI Keyboard

And this is exactly where the MIDI keyboard comes in. The main reason most of you may purchase a MIDI keyboard is for recording & mixing purposes. Whether you are using your home studio for vocal work or adding some instruments like an acoustic guitar - at some point you will want to start to start adding a melody. A simple tune at first that may develop into a complex composition over time.

The beauty about your keyboard is that you can make it sound like any instrument you want using your DAW software. And even if you don't know how to play a keyboard, you can slowly learn the right notes and sequence you want for your melody.

You can start out by hitting one key at a time until you have your basic melody. Then just use your DAW to organize and space your notes together until you are happy with the basic tune. (You will be surprised how quickly you learn the keys on a MIDI Keyboard and before long you will be hitting the right ones to create the melody you have in your head without even thinking about it.)

This just the very basic basic capabilities of the MIDI keyboard, but you will be amazed how quickly you start depending on it as you realize the speed and convenience with which you can input a tune to insert into your composition. You will actually start wondering how you ever managed without one!

There is another big advantage I haven't mentioned yet and that is price. For fraction of the price of a fully featured standalone synthesizer, you can purchase a keyboard that will do all you require of it with the help of your DAW software that can turn these simple notes into almost anything imaginable, very often producing results a standalone synthesizer can only dream of. 

When Will You Use A Keyboard Synthesizer

But what if you are and actual keyboard player or an accomplished pianist and you want a keyboard to play during live performances, but also need to use it to record the music played on your keyboard. Enters the Keyboard Synthesizer...

As a standalone musical instrument, you can use your synthesizer during live performances and simply run it through the amplifier all other instruments are connected to. You also have the freedom to practice anywhere you want without being restricted to the confines of a recording studio.

The amount of features you have available on your synthesizer will depend from model to model, as well as how much as you are willing to spend. I will go into more detail on some of these more advanced features shortly, but just realize that some of today's  high-end synthesizers are capable of producing almost any sound imaginable and you are only limited by your imagination.


When it come to recording, almost every Keyboard Synthesizers support multiple output ports. Output support range from the traditional MIDI, to RCA stereo outputs, or a USB interface. Many support all 3 in one instrument. As a result, recording can be done in exactly the same way as with a standard MIDI Keyboard / Controller.

There is an important difference that should be considered when recording from a synthesizer though. Remember when MIDI is used, only data of the note being played can be transferred, not the actual sound produced by the synthesizer.

Fortunately, almost every synthesizer has RCA stereo output ports or an USB interface. This will allow you to connect through any of these connection to your audio interface or DAW computer. This way the exact sound produced by the synthesizer is fully captured by your recording software.  

Before moving onto deciding which is best for you, I feel a special section should be set aside for a surprisingly large portion of you who don't want to, but are "forced to use a keyboard". What one earth am I talking about...

For The Accomplished And Aspiring Pianist

Many of you reading this, are already accomplished or aspiring piano players, and the chances are pretty good that part of your current or future plans involve recording your piano performances on your home recording setup.

Some of you may be lucky enough to own a piano at home. If you are very lucky, the room your piano is standing in has good acoustics. This means you can position your condenser microphone at the right position next to the piano to record every detail of every key being hit and record it through your audio interface.

Unfortunately, I know for most us, the reality is actually far removed from the scenario I just described. In fact, most of us don't even have access to a piano at home, nevermind in an acoustically optimized space.

Luckily this is where your more dedicated and higher-end synthesizers come to the rescue. Positioned in a higher price range than the standard synthesizer, these "electronic pianos" are still a fraction of the cost of a real full-size piano, while still being able to mimic most characteristics of a piano.

The synthesizers that fall within this category are well within the means of a serious pianist unable to afford or have the space to accommodate an actual piano, and are willing to spend that little extra. But what do these synthesizers look like and how do they bridge the gap between a normal synthesizer and real piano?

Piano style synthesizers address these differences on four levels:

1) Duplicating The Feel Of A Piano Key

Lets first look at the feel of the actual keys. If you haven't experienced hitting a key on a piano and budget synthesizer respectively yet, do yourself a favor and pop into the nearest music shop when you're in town again and try it. This will make the following explanation much easier to understand.

When you hit a key on a "normal" keyboard, it gives way without any resistance until it reaches the bottom and pops back with the same amount of ease. The experience when hitting a piano key is quite different. You feel like you are hitting something with some weight to it, which necessitates some effort to be pushed down. This is called a "hammer action".

These differences in feel between the two instruments can be very disruptive for a pianist who develop a rhythm and use the keys' natural weight to develop their style and play. Trying to play on a synthesizer with no feel or feedback can make it almost impossible for a pianist to perform optimally.

"Digital pianos" compensate for this lack of feel by creating "semi-weighted" keys that provide almost the same weighted feel of a real piano. Higher up in the price range some manufacturers make use of fully-weighted keys to simulate the "hammer action" of a real piano. This makes it much easier for pianists to perform more naturally on a these keyboards.

2) Key Stroke And Volume

Secondly, the issue of velocity sensitive keys has been addressed. (Theses features are already available on much more affordable "synthesizer keyboards.)

"Velocity sensitive" keys simply mean that the harder you hit a key, the louder the sound it produces. This is just a natural function of any piano key. Luckily this is not a very complex function to duplicate on a synthesizer, which means most higher-end keyboards have this function already build in.  

3) Key Size

In general, most synthesizers have much smaller keys that are also more closely spaced than the standard full-size keys of a piano. This place absolute havoc on a pianist's ability to hit the correct key on a normal synthesizer. They are used to the spacing between the keys on a piano, where they instinctively can place their hands on the right keys without even looking down. This ability was developed through years of training and experience.

To address this problem, most high-end keyboards with the other piano style functions already build-in, has scaled up their keys to full size as well. Pianist can now feel at home on these keyboards, knowing the rights note will be hit using the same hand and finger positioning that they use while playing the piano.

4) The All Important Sustain Pedal.

No need to explain this very important function to a pianist. For the rest of us, the sustain pedal, when suppressed, keeps the note being played to be sustained and fade away slowly without being cut off abruptly once the keys are released.

This is a an essential part of a piano that helps to create the notes and music that are so unique to pianos. A normal MIDI Keyboard will simply cut off this sound being played as soon as the keys are released, loosing the whole effect of a sustained note.

Luckily, producers of synthesizers or "digital pianos" are very aware of this important function and include a foot (sustain) pedal with the keyboard which perform exactly the same function as on a piano. (This pedal comes standard or at the very least as an option on all higher-end "digital pianos.)

So what is the whole experience like? Most piano players will quickly tell you that nothing can replace the feeling of sitting in front of an actual piano and experiencing the sound and feel of the real thing.

In the same breath, the majority of users will admit that on a good enough high-quality "digital piano", they will be able to perform just as well as they would on a piano.

Sound will always be a debatable issue, but with modern advanced synthesizers, amplifiers and high-quality speakers/studio monitors, the quality has achieved such a high standard that it will be almost impossible to tell the difference between a synthesizer and real piano on a recording (or even during a live performance to all but the most highly trained ear).

A final word on "piano emulating" synthesizers: Just remember that all the sound these digital pianos provide, needs to be recorded in its totality to capture the tone, volume and every other nuance produced by the synthesizer.

As a result, you need outputs like RCA ports or a USB interface to transfer the entire sound signal to the recording device. (A MIDI connection will only be able to transfer the basic data of the note being played.) Luckily all synthesizers at this level supports at least one or both of these connections.  

Which One Is Right For You

From everything you just read, and while probably still busy processing all the information, you should have been able to form some kind of idea of which type of keyboard you will need for your own unique personal requirements.

Lets just sum everything up again to get a comprehensive overview of what you will be using for each different circumstance.

MIDI Keyboard and Synthesizer

The MIDI Keyboard (or controller) in its simplest form, is a keyboard with a piano style layout, which main function is to simply transfer data to the sequencer/synthesizer. If you are using a keyboard to just input data of what note is being played to your DAW software to be interpreted and modified anyway you see fit, a very simple entry level MIDI Keyboard is all you need.

Just make sure the output ports on your MIDI Keyboard and the input port on your recording device (computer or audio interface) have the same adapter type. This might be MIDI, RCA ports or a USB interface.

If you are a keyboard player and use your device to produce sound as a standalone instrument during live performances (for example on stage) or away from the studio, you need a completely independent keyboard synthesizer.

As already mentioned, a synthesizer is a standalone keyboard with all the electronics and additional components to produce sound, build into one unit. The price and features (including the amount of instruments it can emulate, as well as special effects) will be determined by your own personal requirements.

At the most advanced tip of the scale, you get the pianist who need all the capabilities that a piano can provide, but which also can recorded on a home recording setup. What you are looking for is a full digital piano.

In the previous section we already went into extensive detail about a synthesizer that can fulfill the requirements of a piano, so there is no need to repeat everything again.

Obviously a synthesizer with these capabilities come at a premium price, but is also aimed at a select group of users who need all this functionality. Yet, this price is still a fraction of the cost of a real full-size piano.  


This is a lot of information to process, I know. (You may have to read through this article a couple of times to make sense of all the similarities and differences.) Just remember the basic difference: 

The MIDI Keyboard is unable to produce sound by itself and only supply data of which note is being played to a synthesizer or recording software.

The synthesizer is a standalone musical instrument with build-in electronics and components able to produce a variety of sounds on its own.

Both these devices look almost identical and come in a variety of sizes. Both also have models available with a different amount of keys, keys with a different type of feel and touch (non-weighted, semi-weighted and fully-weighted) Both also have models available with key sizes varying from compact to full-size,  Finally, both also provide some models with velocity sensitive keys.

No, the goal here is not to make your head spin and confuse you. It is simply to let you know that there are so many options available in every category, not matter which type of keyboard you choose.

So, do your homework when choosing your keyboard and make sure you are aware of each one's capabilities and limitations before making a purchase!

I hope this post helped to provide you with some more insight and guidance when you start looking at keyboards in more detail and feel confused by the similar looking, yet vastly different models available to you.       

As always, feel free to leave me any comments or suggestions you may have, and I will respond and try and get to them as soon as I can.

Remember to join my  Mailing List  to be informed whenever a new article is released, and share new developments and helpful hints & tips.

Catch you in the next article and happy recording!


Wessel Wessels

Home recording studio owner, music and audio enthusiast and researcher for 30 years. Always trying to stay on top of new development and news in the industry.

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