Difference Between MIDI Controllers & Digital Synthesizers

Jack Dunwell

July 2022

Lost as to what differentiates a MIDI controller from a digital keyboard synth? It can be quite confusing at first, but this simple breakdown should help you get to grips with the basics!

When entering the wonderful yet complex world of music production, it’s easy to get a little overwhelmed at all the different audio gear available. Before investing in any new equipment or hardware, it is best to understand how it works and the benefits it can bring to your setup first.

One of the common questions we receive from aspiring producers is: what is the difference between a MIDI controller and a synthesizer?

Well, obviously both are classed as a musical instrument, however, there are some big differences between the two which we will explain in more detail below.

MIDI Controllers

A MIDI controller is a piece of hardware which is commonly used by musicians in composing electronic music and sound design. It looks practically the same as a standard digital keyboard, only it usually features a range of controls such as knobs, buttons, sliders, pads and other effects which can be assigned to different parameters within your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).

Unlike a traditional keyboard, MIDI controllers are not capable of producing their own sound. Instead, they work with an interface; generating and transmitting MIDI data to other MIDI compatible devices. This data can include anything from how hard a note was pressed on the keyboard, to the duration of that note, and its pitch. 

Most MIDI controllers are used in conjunction with other MIDI-enabled devices, including guitar pedals, mixing desks, stage lights, and other external effects units. However, the most common use for a MIDI controller is the keyboard. In today’s modern age, MIDI controllers can feature anything from 25 keys to a standard piano’s 88 keys. Due to the high demand of mobile producers and performers who like to mix and compose music on the go – manufacturers began to make MIDI controllers more portable, compact and easier to set up.

Now, most MIDI controllers are bus-powered as opposed to requiring the old school 5-pin cable. Though it still exists on many models, generally most MIDI controllers rely on a simply USB connection or Smart device in order to operate it.

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3​

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3​

AKAI Professional MPD218

AKAI Professional MPK Mini Play MK3 ​

AKAI Professional MPK Mini Play MK3

Digital Synthesizers

Unlike a MIDI controller, synthesizers are able to produce their own unique sounds and do not rely on an external interface or software in order to create music. Synthesizers are the closest replica to a full-sized piano. They usually include their own internal speakers and are much larger than MIDI keyboards, with less performance features.

Although synths create their own sound, they are not able to create anything new than the ones they already have programmed. This is why many new age producers and musicians tend to choose MIDI controllers over synthesizers these days. They also tend to be cheaper than keyboard synthesizers, despite the much wider scope of features you have with controllers.

MIDI controllers also feature adjustable controls such as velocity sensitivity and weight action of the keys. As we mentioned about the data transmitted by MIDI earlier, this data can also dictate how hard a note is pressed, how loud it is and how long it lasts for. This is why you’ll often discover controllers come with different keyboard actions; weighted hammer action, semi-weighted action and synth action. Some high-end also come with an “after touch” feature, which is the equivalent of using pitch and modulation wheels when pressing a key.

A lot of synthesizers still come with envelope controls, allowing you to adjust the attack, release, decay, sustain, and even use oscillators or LFO for altering various parameters of a note. Many synths also come with built-in effects like reverb, chorus, filters and others. 

Korg Synthesizer, 25 Key (MONOLOGUEBK)​

Korg Synthesizer, 25 Key (MONOLOGUEBK)

Korg, 16-Key Synthesizer (VOLCABEATS)​

Korg, 16-Key Synthesizer (VOLCABEATS)

Korg Wavestate Wave Sequencing Synthesizer​

Korg Wavestate Wave Sequencing Synthesizer

The Take Away

That’s the basic difference between MIDI controllers and synthesizers. In a nutshell, synths create sound, whereas controllers manipulate sound and act as a remote for sound – since they do not produce anything of their own.

Saying that, a synthesizer with MIDI capabilities can also be used as a controller if the user is able to send the MIDI signal to their computer. These are called hardware synthesizers. So you essentially get the best of both worlds with these units, though they do tend be a bit more expensive.

There are quite a few other styles of keyboards and synths used in music production. All of them pack a variety of different features with capabilities that can truly enhance your sound.

But… that’s a long-ass topic we’ll go into another time! 😉

If after reading this article you realize a keyboard synth sounds like the most suitable addition to your set up – here’s 5 Digital Synthesizers from our own personal recommendation. And of course, if a MIDI controller sounds more up your street – check out our Top 10 best MIDI Controllers of 2022 to help you compare and decide.

If you’re still a bit confused about MIDI and want to know more, here’s some commonly asked questions!

MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), is one of the world’s biggest digital breakthroughs when it comes to production and composing music. However, it is essentially just data which is transmitted through various hardware components and software to generate sounds. It reads the information of notes and other symbols on a keyboard, then carries it back to other MIDI-enabled devices and instruments. This then allows the user to fully adjust these sounds and control them within their DAW to use as completely unique elements in their tracks.

In both the U.S. and Japan in the early 1980s, audio gear companies like Yamaha, Korg and Roland wanted to make it so their instruments could talk to one another. They soon came up with a new kind of electronic circuitry which enabled their equipment to synchronize with other instruments from different manufacturers.

The first prototypes were released a few years later, and many recognized the radical success and benefits these units could bring, particularly where saving space was concerned. By the end of the 90s, the industry was transformed even more with the introduction of MIDI sequencers, drum machines, and the first MIDI-supported computers. Soon the MIDI revolution was born, and now MIDI is used in everything from home recording, preproduction performances, and in musical education as a whole. 

A virtual instrument (also known as a VST plug-in), is a piece of software which emulates the sound of a variety of orchestral instruments, as well as classic analogue synthesizers, samplers, compressors and effects units. These can then be loaded into your DAW and used to build elements in your tracks. In contrast to MIDI controllers, virtual instruments do not run on hardware and are purely digital-based.

This is where MIDI and virtual instruments make the perfect partnership. You can convert MIDI to audio, but it can only be done by routing a MIDI signal to an audio track in your DAW. This triggers the output of the sound module i.e. a VST or keyboard, and then allows the audio to playback through your audio interface so you can hear it through your monitors. From this point, you can record the audio just like you would any other instrument or sound, and save it as an independent audio file. Many musicians and producers convert MIDI to audio files so they can collaborate on tracks with others who might use different software or equipment.

MIDI really does open up a lot of doors when it comes to music production, and allows you to take your musical ideas and concepts to new heights. From setting up mics, recording audio, remixing, editing, to general composition – MIDI takes away the need to go out and spend thousands of dollars on individual pieces of gear. You could program it to work with a virtual instrument or VST, then simulate an entire one-man band if you really wanted to!

The other reason why MIDI is such a powerful asset for producers these days, is the fact that if you’ve recorded a sequence or loop for a tune and messed something up – you can simply drop it into your DAW and fix it instantly. This doesn’t just eliminate the need to start all over again, but also means you can improve the sound further; adding stuff to it which simply wouldn’t be possible through a conventional keyboard or live instrument.

Different types of DJ equipment

DJ Headphoes

You can’t DJ properly if you can’t hear what you’re doing or gauge what the audience is hearing. This is why a top-class pair of headphones is essential in any DJ setup. There are hundreds of great headphones on the market, but what you need to factor in when buying is whether they will be in-ear or over-ear, the cup size, orientation, comfort, and durability, among other things.

Different types of DJ equipment

speakers

 If you haven’t got some already and need to add speakers to your shopping list, you’ll want to avoid cheap brands and opt for some which are powerful but suitable for your DJing environment. You wouldn’t go out and buy a huge PA system if you live in a cupboard under the stairs, and you wouldn’t invest in some tiny desk speakers if you are mixing in a large room with thick walls and high ceilings. A set of speakers that fit somewhere in the middle is best.

Different types of DJ equipment

DJ Software

If you’re looking to play solely digital, you’re going to want to invest in some good software. Some DJs who play from USB still do not use software, but the truth is, it can seriously help you stay organized. Software not only allows you to prepare your tracks into neat and tidy playlists, but it also detects the BPM and key of all your tunes, lets you set hot cues, make loops, mashups, and other really cool stuff that wouldn’t be possible if you simply stuck all your tunes on a USB stick or burned them to CD. If you’re just starting out as a DJ, there’s no question that using a high-quality software program will make mixing easier and your sets sound better.

Different types of DJ equipment

Controllers

 DJ controllers are highly convenient because they are an all-in-one setup that you can carry around with you, then plug in and play right off the bat. They also eliminate the need to spend thousands on individual pieces of gear. There are many different types of DJ controllers that are ideal for beginners, each with different functions, personalities, and more. Some are fantastic for multi-deck mixing, changing the volume, tempo, track settings, looping, panning, playing drum pads, and even scratching.

Different types of DJ equipment

mixers

For any analog DJ setup, a mixer is an essential bit of kit. Besides being used to make seamless transitions from one song to another, they also have a wide range of other functions. The crossfader can be used to make epic scratch performances, while the vertical sliders control the volume levels, panning, and can be used in conjunction with effects. They also act as a soundcard to process the music signal you’re sending out to your audience, and let you cue up your next track in your headphones while the current song is playing.

Different types of DJ equipment

Turntables

As mentioned, mixing on turntables is the classic way of DJing, and even some digital DJs still have a vinyl player or two in their repertoire. Turntables are ideal for those who want to get into scratching. They also allow you to switch between songs and albums, slow down tempos, alter the pitch, and do other creative tricks. While laptops and digital DJ setups are the most popular in this day in age, we still recommend learning how to mix on vinyl, even if you don’t plan to buy turntables or use them in your setup. The saying is true – if you can play on wax, you can play on anything.