Synthesizer vs. MIDI Keyboard Controllers – What to Get?

Author: Tomas Morton | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

Selecting the best keyboard for your studio or live setup can be difficult because there are so many options to choose from. It can be hard to justify paying more for a synthesizer when a keyboard controller costs only a fraction of the price.

So why is it a constant struggle for musicians when faced with this decision? The answer lies in the differences in many creators’ workflows, as both options have their pros and cons.

What is Workflow?

Your workflow is your comfort zone when it comes to creating ideas. It’s what “works for you” when you focus on making the best music instead of dealing with the technical aspects of modern computer setups.

For me, writing songs on the piano is where I started. Being able to turn on an instrument and immediately hear a sound. Doing this without having to start up the computer and choose a program really appeals to me. It’s part of my workflow.

This is where synthesizers have an advantage over MIDI controllers that don’t have internal sounds.

On the other hand, MIDI controllers have the flexibility of sounding like anything you have in your sound library, which is also very inspiring and something the synthesizer cannot do.

So let’s dive into what each choice has to offer.

Choosing a Synthesizer

The biggest strength of a synth is that it’s a real instrument. As a result, almost all synthesizers have a signature and sought-after sound.

For instance, the Behringer Poly D is a budget remake of the Moog Minimoog Model D but with many enhancements at an amazing price.

Analog synthesizers like the Poly D are known for their warmth and low-end, ideal for synthesizer bass recording. They are extensively used in EDM, Hip Hop, and Pop music.

Digital synthesizers such as the Korg Minilogue XD have the added advantage of digital effects like reverb, delay, and modulation. They also come with a powerful step sequencer to create sequences and arpeggios.

These types of sounds are extensively used in modern Pop and EDM styles.

Choosing a MIDI Controller

At first glance, the MIDI controller may seem dull compared to the all-in-one nature of a synthesizer, but it offers a crucial advantage: flexibility.

The value of a synthesizer mostly comes from its included sounds. A MIDI controller connected to a laptop provides limitless possibilities.

The Akai MPK Mini Play MK3 is a lightweight controller that can easily fit in a backpack. It features iconic Akai MPC pads for drum programming. With a program like Ableton Live and a laptop, you can have the power of a recording studio in your handbag.

The MPK even has built-in speakers, so headphones are optional. This is a great feature when you want to get your musical ideas down fast without the need for extra equipment. You could be sitting on a park bench working on your track.

Wait, But There’s MIDI in Both

The classic pushback I always get from musicians while having this debate is “but they both have MIDI, so isn’t the Synth also a controller?

While it is true that all the synths I’ve mentioned can be turned into a MIDI controller with just a USB cable, they lack the crucial elements that make most MIDI controllers so appealing: affordability and portability.

None of the synthesizers currently available, especially the analog ones, are truly portable enough to fit snugly in a backpack. They also tend to be much heavier due to differences in build quality.

Additionally, many of the knobs that control the different functions on synthesizers are very fragile and can easily break without proper protection, such as in the Gator series of cases.

In reality, you are paying four to five times more money for the convenience of having keys and a USB connection.

Size Does Matter

Returning to the discussion on workflow, one of the strengths of a MIDI controller is that it covers all possible key sizes. With a company like M-Audio, you can choose from a 25-key Oxygen 25 to a full-sized Hammer 88 Pro Piano-style controller with weighted action.

This means that if you have fantastic piano libraries like Komplete from Native Instruments, you can experience the feeling of playing a $100,000 Steinway in one of the best studios in the world, right from your bedroom.

What’s even more enticing is the Komplete Kontrol controller from Native Instruments that maps out their libraries with lights over the keys.

So, if you’re a composer or producer recording some orchestral strings, every section of the orchestra will have its own designated light color in front of your fingers!

No synth can come close to that type of experience.

Live Performance vs. Studio Recording

When it comes to artists playing live, is one option better than the other?

Traditionally, most bands have used synthesizers when taking their records on the road. However, with new programs such as Ableton Live, bands can now take mastered stems from their actual record and build their set using a MIDI controller, such as the Novation Launchpad Pro controller.

It’s worth noting that a MIDI controller doesn’t necessarily have to be a keyboard. If your workflow is already quite dependent on VSTs and the near-unlimited tonal possibilities offered by them, then MIDI controllers might be better, even for a band setting and live performances.

Especially for bands that are just starting out, spending a fraction of the cost of a hardware synth on a MIDI keyboard makes a lot of sense, because modern-day VSTs greatly closed the gap between them and hardware synths.

Bedroom Producers

This color-coded library technology isn’t just for professional producers and film composers.

Even if you’re a novice producer or songwriter looking to create demos in the comfort of your room, you can find libraries for every rock band instrument within NI’s Komplete sampler.

This means you can play drums, bass, or guitar with lights showcasing the kicks, snares, cymbals, and real bass sounds in the style of famous musicians like Dave Grohl.

It’s pretty amazing.

Personal Thoughts

After evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of both options, the decision ultimately depends on your specific needs as a creator and the value you place on sound quality.

As a producer, I’ve always preferred synthesizers because I can record them through other pieces of gear that add unique character. I can route the output through a nice preamp from Warm Audio for tube distortion or other physical pedals.

Although many of the legendary synths are also available in software form, such as the Arturia V-Collection, going completely digital does not quite achieve the same effect.

Adding external gear will depend on the quality of your audio interface, which is a whole different discussion.

Ideally, having both options would be the best choice: one for playing and one for programming. If your budget allows it, go for it!

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About Tomas Morton

Tomas is a record producer, engineer, and synthesizer enthusiast based in Pasadena, CA. He received training at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA. When not in his studio, he can often be found scouring garage sales or Craigslist ads for vintage gear treasures.

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