Synthesizer vs keyboard. Two devices that musicians and music producers alike will encounter. To the beginner musician or producer, it might not be entirely clear what the difference is between a synthesizer and a keyboard. In this article, I’ll be going over the basics between synthesizers vs keyboards. I’ll be answering questions such as ‘what is a synthesizer’ and ‘what is a midi controller keyboard’.
Synthesizer Vs Keyboard, What’s the difference?
There’s a massive crossover between a synthesizer and an electronic keyboard, so it’s no wonder that some people get confused.
As you can see from the awesome diagram above, while each exist separately, they can share features.
Everyone knows what a keyboard looks like. The keyboard is a musical instrument that looks like a piano but smaller. Think of it as an electric piano that will produce piano sounds. A synthesizer is a digital piece of equipment or software that creates sound. You can have hardware synthesizers that have keys and buttons, and you can have software synths that exist in applications like Ableton Live or Logic Pro. Then in the middle sits those devices that have a keyboard layout that can produce sounds, but also change the sound and can plug into a workstation and record sound.
In its most basic concept, a keyboard is a digital piano with those iconic black and white piano keys and piano sound. Some have their own set of speakers built in, others will require a speaker to plug in to. Basic models (basic doesn’t mean cheap) might only come with 1 sound to emulate just a grand piano for example. Other models might come with a built in range of sounds and instruments. They come in all shapes and sizes and varieties, sometimes with weighted keys. However the types mentioned so far are really only used by musicians such as a keyboardist and pianist. For those into music production, you’ll want to look at a midi controller keyboard!
What is a Midi Controller Keyboard
Midi controller keyboards, also known as a midi controller, midi keyboard, keyboard controller, and controller keyboard, are instruments which need to be plugged into a synth or computer to function. A midi controller essentially gives you a keyboard and a USB midi interface. Many models also include extra controls such as pads and dials in order to control the synthesizer it is plugged into. More advanced models will also come with built in XLR I/O and amplifier. This allows you to record instruments and vocals straight to your workstation.
In my home recording studio setup guide I recommended starting with an midi usb controller keyboard, specifically the M Audio Ozone.
What is a Synthesizer
I’ve already touched above on what a synthesizer is. A synthesizer is a device that is able to create and manipulate sound. To begin with, most beginner music producers won’t be buying a full on hardware synth. Most will instead use software synths on their workstations. Most DAW’s come with a range of software synths, which is a great place to start out. However, there are standalone VST plugins that will work with your DAW that can give you amazing sounding synths and are almost infinitely customizable. These plugins however do often come at a premium.
A great free synth plugin is Helm. Great plugin for beginners to get used to.
A great premium synth plugin is NI’s Massive. Comes with a great range of built in sounds and easy to customize and make your own.
Some of the different features of a digital synthesizer include an oscillator, sequencer, arranger, sampling, and modulation of tones and waves. Sampling is a really useful tool to music producers. Once you have a sound sampled, you can manipulate it and use it however you want. One of the most common ways to use a sampler involves sampling different drums and making a drum machine.
Keyboard synths are great for both home workstation use, mobile use, and performing use. One of the advantages of keyboard synthesizers is their use of midi. The keys of a usb midi keyboard synthesizer can map sustain and velocity into your DAW to produce a more natural playing style. Many also have different knobs and sliders which can have midi parameters mapped to them, such as pitch shift or fade. Most digital keyboards will prefer great portability, so will often lack a full sized keyboard; for a lot of people a portable keyboard is best.
A great example of a hardware synth is the iconic microKORG by Korg. The microKORG is pitched as an analog synthesizer, but it actually uses a digital DSP to recreate those analog instrument sounds. It has a 37 key keyboard layout, 2 midi controller dials and 5 knobs, 128 preset sounds, and an arpeggiator. It also can be used as a vocoder and has a built in microphone for this purpose. The microKORG can also manipulate the sound of instruments that are connected to its input.
If you’re trying to decide whether to for a keyboard vs synthesizer, the microKORG is a great middle ground without compromises. Check it out here!