Piano vs Keyboard vs MIDI Controller — Which is Better? What's the Difference?
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
For those new to the world of keyboards and digital pianos, there is a whole lot of confusion out there as to which instrument is the right one for you. In this article, I will explain to you what the differences are between a keyboard and a digital piano, and also make it clear to you what is the difference between a synthesizer, an arranger keyboard, a music workstation and a keyboard MIDI controller.
Whenever people see black and white keys, they would just call it a keyboard. Strictly speaking, any instrument that you play with keys is technically a keyboard instrument and as such, digital pianos, synthesizers, music workstations, arrangers, and many MIDI controllers are generally classified as keyboards. However, beyond the black and white keys, there are a whole granular categorization of different types of keyboards and digital pianos based on its core intrinsic function.
Prices ranging from $300 to $20,000 USD
A digital piano is essentially a type of electronic keyboard that is designed to emulate a traditional acoustic piano, both in terms of the feel of the key, and the way the sound is produced. Digital pianos these days use recorded samples of an acoustic piano which are triggered by the keys of the keyboard, and it is then amplified through internal built-in speakers. Just like most other musical instruments, the sound of a digital piano can also be amplified with external speakers for larger venues, or be played silently using headphones.
There are two main characteristics of a digital piano — one being that it usually has 88 keys (you can also find 73 and 76 keys variants as well), and secondly, the keys are weighted. Also, very often, digital pianos are designed to look like an upright or a grand piano. However, this actually serves more as an aesthetic feature and doesn't contribute significantly to the actual sound of the digital pianos. Digital pianos also usually contain fewer sounds than a similarly priced keyboard because the manufacturers expect the buyers of digital pianos to be using predominantly the piano voices. The digital piano is hence a smaller, lighter and a more wallet-friendly alternative to an acoustic piano that doesn't need to be periodically turned.
Due to the more complex mechanism and a need to reproduce a realistic piano voice, digital pianos are almost always more expensive than keyboards in the same feature category.
Prices ranging from $100 to $10,000 USD
The majority of home music keyboards generally come with 61 keys. You can of course, find 76, 88, 49 or even 32 key variants, but these are the exception rather than the rule. Depending on the cost of the keyboard, the keys may or may not be touch-sensitive which affects the sound response according to how hard or how softly you play the keys. The keys on keyboards are also generally not weighted and will feel lighter to the touch.
Standard portable keyboards will usually come with a couple of hundred sounds containing Pianos, Guitars, Orchestral Instruments, Organs, Harmonicas and a variety of electronically synthesized sounds. Home keyboards also usually come with built-in speakers, whereas professional keyboards are meant to be connected to external PA systems and do not usually come with built-in speakers. The realism of the voice samples, the note polyphony, which is the number of notes you can sound at the same time, and the quality of the key bed are some of the things that determines how expensive a keyboard is. Generally, consumer home keyboards are significantly easier to operate as an all-in-one device. Professional keyboards are usually meant to be part of the equation for live performances, music production, or sound shaping, and will definitely require some degree of expertise to use.
If you are interested in getting a beginner keyboard yourself, you can check out this article for the best beginner keyboards under $199 USD.
Prices ranging from $100 to $5,000 USD
The term arranger came about because you can use variations in rhythmic complexity, different sound settings, adding factory program, instrumental fields, musical introductions and endings to build up a song arrangement. Arranger keyboards have a whole bunch of factory program rhythms and accompaniments covering wide genres such as Pop, Rock, Jazz, Country, to World Music. With as little effort as a single finger pressed on your left hand, you can have a lush multi-instrumental band accompanying you as you play a tune. A large majority of consumer-level keyboards tend to have arranger functions.
In my experience, arranger keyboards are often scorned upon by musical snobs due to its ease of use. However, in a one or two-man band life playing scenario where we often have to take song requests and for those who want to get very decent music without spending hundreds of hours laying hundred multitrack projects in a DAW, arrangers do still have a very strong value proposition.
However, this convenience and ease of arranger keyboards does come with a disadvantage — anyone who has just the same keyboard would just sound pretty much the same as you because you would predominantly be using the factory program sounds and rhythms. Any sound shaping capabilities are far less than a professional music workstation or a synthesizer. Of course, there are really expensive arranger keyboards that cost in excess of $5,000 and these arranger keyboards start to blur the lines between an arranger and a music workstation. You can check out this link for more details on beginner arranger keyboards and their prices.
Prices ranging from $70 to $150,000 USD
With lots of knobs, dials and switches on its fascia, a keyboard synthesizer wouldn't look out of place in an airplane’s cockpit. A conventional synthesizer doesn't trigger recorded sound samples when a key is pressed as a synthesizer's main role is to synthesize sounds. That is, to create and sample new sounds using primarily four different waves forms — the sine, sawtooth, square, and triangle waveforms. Combining multiple tones, altering the harmonics using oscillators and resonators, a synthesizer can produce sounds with different attack, decay, sustain and release rate, also known as ADSR envelope shapes.
If you want to get deeper into sound synthesis that is additive and subtractive synthesis, as well as analog and digital synthesizers to consider, you can also harness CVN gates and MIDI to build complex setups with arpeggiators and hardware sequences for the full works. However, this is way beyond the scope of this article so I won't go into that.
In a nutshell, if your aim is to create unique synthesize soundscapes in an electronic world then you should look at getting a synthesizer over an arranger or sample-based keyboard.
Prices ranging from $200 to $5,000 USD
Computers used to be extremely expensive, clunky and elusive devices that were not found in many places. Therefore, using computers as part of music-making wasn't a very common thing. Music stations strive to be the jack of all trades and can often be a master of many things. Packed into one single instrument, the music workstation, depending on how much you spend, contains sounds, rhythms, an arpeggiator, a sampler and a very advanced multitrack sequencer that allows for granular deep level editing of recorded materials. The fact that you can carry an entire music production studio in your gig back and bring anywhere with you is a very appealing proposition. However, cheap, powerful and portable computers have altered the music production landscape. These days, laptops have become more affordable, compact and yet so
powerful that they almost always surpass hardware music workstations in computing ability.
There are only two main reasons why I think music workstations are still in use. Firstly, it's an all-in-one package, especially for those who still enjoy the tactile feel of using hardware workstations. Secondly, everything just works out of the box. Using a computer requires musicians to have some computing knowledge, as well as to handle the headaches of hardware and software complex. You can find my recommended beginner music workstation in this link.
Prices ranging from $90 to $200 USD
If all you want to do is to make music digitally using your computer, you will need a MIDI keyboard controller. MIDI stands for Musical Instruments Digital Interface, and it allows different music devices to communicate with each other. A dedicated MIDI keyboard has no sounds loaded inside the keyboard. When you play on your keyboard connected to the computer via MIDI, the note information is transmitted to your computer. These days, most keyboards regardless if it is an arranger, a workstation, or a synthesizer, has MIDI capabilities. Even a very cheap $90 Yamaha PSS-A50 has MIDI functions. That being the case why do you need a dedicated MIDI keyboard?
A MIDI keyboard allows you to be more efficient and effective when interfacing with your DAW such as FL Studio, Cubase, Ableton Live, or Logic. The MIDI keyboard has buttons for transport controls such as play, pause, stop, record, as well as a whole bunch of faders, knobs and buttons that you can assign to control various functions in your software. Because most of the cost goes into building the keyboard rather than bundling in the sounds for the same price as the conventional keyboard, a $150 MIDI keyboard has a better key bed with features such as after-touch response than a $150 conventional keyboard. You can find check out this link to MIDI keyboards that I personally use and recommend.
I hope you guys found this information useful and that you have a better understanding of the various types of keyboards out there. Do check out my other articles to find the most suitable instrument that would suit your needs!