What’s the Difference Between A Keyboard & MIDI Keyboard?

When I initially started producing music, the difference between a keyboard and a MIDI keyboard was often explained in technological terms, which confused me. If you are confused as a beginner, reading this post can help you see which one is for you.

Frankly, there isn’t just one difference between the two, but several more. Although, one can often be used as a replacement for the other if you know what you’re doing. Once you understand the most crucial difference, other functional differences already make sense. So what is then?

The main difference between a keyboard and a MIDI keyboard is that a MIDI keyboard is designed to control, send, and receive MIDI data. Unlike a MIDI keyboard, a regular keyboard is a standalone instrument that doesn’t need a DAW, software, or computer to create sound.

A MIDI keyboard is more of a device that controls MIDI data inside a DAW than a musical instrument. To be more specific, what MIDI stands for – Musical Instrument Digital Interface – tells you everything you need to know. However, a keyboard can also be more than just a musical instrument in some cases. It can even be used as a MIDI controller.

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What’s the Primary Difference Between A MIDI Keyboard and Regular Keyboard?

1) A MIDI Keyboard Is Primarily Designed to Control A DAW – An Electric Keyboard Is Not

MIDI-Keyboard-and-a-DAW-Why-You-Dont-Need-A-Piano-to-Learn-Music-Theory-1-1
You can use a big MIDI keyboard like the M-Audio Hammer-88 Pro to control both FL Studio and Logic/GarageBand.

This is really getting to the core of the matter in terms of what is the main difference between a MIDI keyboard and an electric keyboard. The MIDI controller or MIDI keyboard is designed primarily with controlling a DAW in mind. The name is right in the title.

You’re trying to control a device or computer software with MIDI. As I pointed out in my guide all about explaining MIDI, it’s a technological standard that was developed in the 1980s by electronics manufacturers. It solved the problem of having multiple ways of connecting devices.

MIDI has been around now for almost 40 years exactly, and it’s really quite impressive how it’s still used in the same way that it used to be – to essentially command another device or computer to do something. An electric keyboard is not designed with this in mind.

Keyboardists use them for playing the piano, synths, imitating other instruments, and for live performances like Mr. Rudess is doing down in the image below. Let’s talk a bit more about that.

2) A Regular Keyboard Is A Stand-Alone Instrument Unlike A MIDI Keyboard

Jordan Rudess - The Difference Between a Keyboard and a MIDI Keyboard
While nowadays, it’s certainly possible to use a MIDI controller to control a computer or some other device on stage, most keyboards will play an actual electric piano, like Dream Theater’s keyboardist, Jordan Rudess, is doing here (taken from Wikimedia Commons).

A MIDI keyboard doesn’t have audio outputs or speakers. As a result, a MIDI keyboard produces no sound unless connected to a computer or tablet via USB. Therefore, you cannot use MIDI keyboards unless you link them to a sound source of some kind.

On the contrary, a regular keyboard is a standalone musical instrument. You can produce sound without needing another device, although, not all of them have speakers built-in. It’s enough to plug it simply into the socket along with the power adapter that it probably came with and then connect it to a PA system or amplifier to make it super loud.

While one can be standalone to produce sound, the fact that the other needs to be connected to a computer shows us the primary difference: MIDI controllers are meant for a studio setting. That said, you can actually take it to the next level with what are called keyboard workstations, which are kind of like an all-in-one device.

The Korg Kronos keyboard (on Amazon), for instance, not only has MIDI capability and the ability to play sound without a computer (you need headphones or a speaker though), but it also acts as a synthesizer as well. It’s a really high-tech piece of gear.

3) MIDI Keyboards Are Used To Produce More Diverse Sounds

Instruments-Bass-Boost-vs-Treble-Boost-Whats-the-Difference
With a DAW, you can download VSTs that sound almost as good as the real instruments on which they’re based. Electric keyboards aren’t designed to imitate instruments this way inside of a computer.

Whenever you press a key, you send MIDI information to the computer which then turns it into a sound via a VST or sample library. Even though this is the primary difference between a MIDI keyboard and a regular keyboard, some electric pianos have the capability to control MIDI data. 

The fact of the matter is that a controller is used to literally control information inside of a digital audio workstation, the tool we use to make music. Many electric keyboards can do the same thing, but they totally designed with this in mind. They’re usually meant more for performances, which brings me to my next point.

4) Electric Keyboards Are Better for Performances – MIDI Keyboards Are For the Studio

Live Performance vs Studio - What's the Difference Between a MIDI keyboard and an electric keyboard

Because electric keyboards are stand-alone devices, you can take them anywhere and start playing music. If you’re a touring musician, you’ll probably have to connect to the in-house audio system of the concert venue, and that’s about it.

It’s not like you need to connect to a DAW to get it to run. This is why most keyboardists will have an actual keyboard on stage with them, and not a MIDI controller. Although, as I said earlier, because of the increasingly portable and powerful devices we now have today, I imagine the difference between keyboards and MIDI controllers won’t be as pronounced.

For instance, many MIDI controllers can, in fact, be used for performances if you have the software and other tools to operate them, but I digress. The fact of the matter is that electric keyboards come with tools that specifically make them a better option for live performances.

Other Differences Between Keyboards and MIDI Keyboards

1) MIDI Keyboards Usually Have More Controls – But You Need A DAW

M-Audio-Oxygen-Pro-61-How-to-Make-Piano-Beats-
Here’s an M-Audio Oxygen Pro 61, for instance. It has quite a few controls and is a real beast of a controller.

A regular MIDI keyboard features more options and controls compared to a keyboard. A MIDI controller will commonly have drum pads on it, velocity-sensitive keys, panning knobs, a volume fader, an octave shifter, a modulator, and maybe a few other bells and whistles.

But an electric keyboard will usually have all kinds of sounds built right into it that make it better served for live performances. It’s a bit of a paradox though because when connected to a DAW in a studio setting, a MIDI controller is actually the one with more capabilities. The distinction is this: it’s the DAW with the power, not the controller.

2) Electric Keyboards Are More Portable (Unless You Have A Very Small MIDI Keyboard)

MKII vs MKIII - Featured Image (1000 x 550 px)
The AKAI Mini MKII and MKIII (on Amazon), for instance, are super portable and perfect for someone who just needs a small keyboard on the road. Personally, I like to have 49 to 61 keys minimum, but a lot of people love these.

A regular keyboard is much larger and heavier than a MIDI keyboard, although, because you don’t need to bring everything else with you like computers and speakers, it winds up being more convenient for touring and traveling.

I should say though, that a 25 or 49-key MIDI keyboard, on the other hand, is smaller and easier to carry everywhere unless you also need to have other required devices (which you will). In any case, you better consider that you’ll have to take everything most of the time if you’re going to bring a MIDI controller.

3) Keyboards Often Have Better Keys (Although Some MIDI Keyboards Do Have Weighted Keys)

M-Audio-Hammer-88-Pro-Can-You-Play-Fur-Elise-on-a-61-Key-Keyboard
The M-Audio Hammer 88-Pro (on Thomann) is a good example of a MIDI keyboard that actually does have weighted keys.

Basically, a MIDI keyboard has much lighter keys that usually aren’t meant to be as velocity-sensitive as an actual piano’s keys. If you are a beginner and have never played the piano, the keys of a MIDI keyboard may be softer for your fingers.

That said, a real piano or premium digital piano just hits differently. The keys feel so good to press compared to a MIDI Controller which can often feel like a toy. I talked about this a little bit when I discussed AKAI’s improvement to their line of MPK Minis over the years.

If you play the piano and you need to put on performances, you’ll probably like a regular keyboard instead. However, if you intend to produce music in a studio situation, a MIDI keyboard is a better bet.

What it all comes down to is this: digital pianos are made with the piano player in mind who probably has high expectations for their keys. A MIDI keyboard manufacturer isn’t thinking about the piano player – they’re thinking about the average producer or beatmaker’s needs. This fact is reflected in how they’re designed.

4) Premium Keyboards Are Usually More Expensive Than MIDI Keyboards

You can find budget-friendly options for both MIDI keyboards and regular keyboards. On the other hand, if you are looking for an advanced instrument or device, regular keyboards usually are more expensive.

The Korg Kronos one I linked earlier, for instance, is quite a bit more than a premium MIDI keyboard. Take a look at the Korg Kronos price on Amazon and compare that to the M-Audio Hammer 88 Pro on Thomann. When it comes to price, the top model MIDI keyboard is almost always cheaper than the top model electric keyboard.

Is A MIDI Keyboard Better Than A Normal Keyboard?

Generally speaking, a MIDI keyboard is not better than a normal keyboard because they’re designed for different purposes. A MIDI keyboard is a device used to control MIDI information in a studio setting, whereas a keyboard is a stand-alone instrument that’s better served for live performances.

Explained another way, it’s like comparing apples to oranges. They’re both designed with completely different purposes in mind. It depends on what you need and they both have pros and cons (which I show in the chart at the end, by the way).

For example, a MIDI keyboard may be better to record your music spontaneously. However, a normal keyboard may be better to produce an orchestral sound.

Can You Use A MIDI Keyboard As A Regular Keyboard?

You can operate a MIDI keyboard as a regular keyboard. However, a computer, DAW, or a similar sound source will still be essential. You’ll need to have some kind of stand-alone plugin, a website like MIDIEditor, Soundtrap, or Soundation, in order for you to use it.

There are a few other things you need to consider about using a MIDI keyboard as a regular keyboard including what I’ve discussed down below.

1) While A MIDI Keyboard is Multipurpose – The Way It Functions Does Not Change

By sending commands to devices that can handle MIDI, a MIDI keyboard triggers another device to play music, unlike a regular keyboard, which is the source of the music itself.

You send a MIDI message to the computer by pressing a key. As mentioned before, this feature indicates that the device cannot operate and generate sounds on its own. While using it as a regular keyboard, you still get the sound in the same way through a DAW program installed on the computer.

You’re going to need all the equipment in order to get it to work, including the computer, DAW, a USB Cable, and possibly MIDI cables if you’re using a super old one and an audio interface. Let’s talk about this now in a bit more detail.

2) Connecting A MIDI Keyboard To A DAW Requires a USB or MIDI Cable

Connecting-A-MIDI-Keyboard-to-a-Computer-How-to-Make-MIDI-
Here’s how I used to connect my keyboard to my laptop back in the day in my old apartment. A very rudimentary system, indeed.

Connecting the USB or MIDI cable to the MIDI keyboard is usually the main step (and thankfully it’s the most straightforward).

My guide on how to connect a MIDI keyboard here will certainly cover the first part, but I’ve yet to make a guide on how to connect a digital piano to a computer. It’s for GarageBand but the same principles apply regardless of the DAW you’re using.

Three-Step USB Connection Guide

It seems like all you need to do is plug in the USB cable. But, it is better to consider the following points to avoid the unexpected complications:

A) The driver software for your MIDI keyboard may need to be downloaded and installed if you’ve bought one that needs it. Install the driver software for your MIDI keyboard if it isn’t already installed. You can quickly find out your controller’s requirements in the user manual. 

I would recommend just getting an M-Audio Oxygen Pro 61 (on Amazon) because they work for pretty much every DAW and without a problem. You won’t need to download drivers or anything like that to get them to work, which is a godsend, in my opinion. Drivers can be annoying.

B) A USB connection can be made either by plugging it directly into the computer or through a USB hub.

C) Step three is to make sure your MIDI keyboard is set up correctly in the DAW.

Three-Step MIDI Connection Guide

Compared to USB, MIDI is a pretty old style of connector, although, as I wrote about here, it’s still modern and is used everywhere for all kinds of things. It may be a challenging thing to understand at first but it’s ultimately not that hard to comprehend once you look into it a bit.

Simply put, MIDI is a one-way communication system. Therefore, if you want MIDI data to be sent, make sure that each output port is connected to the correct input port. Otherwise, there will be no data transfer. Getting it right is essential if you want the keyboard to work properly.

A) Plug the 5-pin MIDI cable into the keyboard’s MIDI IN port.

B) The MIDI OUT port of the last external device should be connected to a MIDI IN port of an audio interface or MIDI interface.

I recommend using an audio interface because they do a lot for you. I would suggest getting the Focusrite Saffire 6USB but Focusrite discontinued them, so get something that has a MIDI IN/OUT port on it like this one on Amazon instead.

MIDI In/OUT On Old Devices - Pros and Cons of MIDI [What You Need to Know]
The Focusrite Saffire on the bottom has MIDI IN/OUT on it, so you can use it to connect older keyboards and use them as a MIDI controller.

In this video by Creative Sauce, you can find the demonstration of the MIDI cables and MIDI ports. 

A MIDI device has one MIDI IN, one MIDI OUT, and one MIDI THRU port. You enable these connections via a MIDI cable, which is a specialized cable. In reality, each cable has three wires: two for data transmission and one for shielding purposes.

C) Use the MIDI keyboard to set up the DAW and ensure the MIDI ports on your MIDI or audio interface within the DAW are enabled. After completing the USB or MIDI connection, it’s time to do the MIDI keyboard DAW setup.

3) MIDI Keyboard DAW Setup Depends On The DAW You Use

You can configure your DAW after installing the driver and the necessary software. By following the tutorials shared in this section, users can set up MIDI keyboards in their DAW. Here you will find tutorials on the two most commonly used DAWs:

How to Set Up a MIDI Keyboard in Ableton Live

Ableton Live - What's the Difference Between A Keyboard & MIDI Keyboard

The MIDI settings menu in Live lets you configure MIDI connections. You can use this menu to enable or disable MIDI channels and ports in your gear. Follow these instructions to ensure that all of your MIDI devices work.

A) Choose Preferences from the Options menu and then Link/MIDI in the left panel.

B) In the Input section, find your MIDI device and switch the Track button to ON to enable it. Then, carry out the identical steps for each of the MIDI keyboard outputs indicated.

C) Confirm that you’re getting a MIDI signal by pressing a key/pad.

How to Set Up a MIDI Keyboard in Logic Pro

Garageband-and-Logic-Pro-X-How-to-Make-Background-Music-in-Garageband-
MIDI keyboards can be used interchangeably between this two software – GarageBand and Logic Pro X

According to Richard Lainhart, it’s relatively simple to use Logic Pro’s built-in software instruments and control them using an external USB controller. Many users do so exclusively. Here are some notes from his tutorial on setting up a multi-timbral MIDI keyboard with traditional MIDI ports to work with Logic.

1) Go to Audio MIDI Setup
2) Configure Audio MIDI Setup to Include Your MIDI Keyboard
3) Give Your MIDI Keyboard a Name
4) Connect the MIDI Inputs and Output
5) Open Logic and an Empty Project
6) Disable Local Control
7) Select A Sound
8) Play the Keyboard or Make a Few Recordings

What Is The Point of A MIDI Keyboard?

AKAI-MPD-226-MIDI-Keyboards-for-Beginners-Why-You-Definitely-Need-One-
An AKAI MPD 226 (on Amazon) is also a MIDI controller, although, not a keyboard. It’s designed to do the same thing as a MIDI keyboard albeit in a different way.

The point of a MIDI keyboard is to control, send, and return MIDI data. In other words, it acts as a conduit between the computer’s CPU, the person using it, and the software they want to control. This is why it’s called a Musical Instrument Digital Interface.

MIDI information or MIDI data refers to VSTs and virtual software instruments inside DAWs. You can come across many people who call MIDI keyboards MIDI controllers because of their similar purpose. What separates them is that a MIDI keyboard imitates a piano.

You can find other MIDI controllers like the drum pad I just showed a moment ago or even MIDI guitars like the one I talked about in my article on Traveling Guitarist, as well as the Jamstik which you can get on Thomann.

Do I Need A MIDI Keyboard If I Have A Keyboard?

MIDI In/OUT - How to Assign Samples To A MIDI Keyboard in FL Studio
If you have an old keyboard like the one I have in this image with MIDI IN/OUT – you don’t necessarily need a MIDI controller.

As a matter of fact, you may not need a MIDI keyboard if you already have an electric keyboard. Besides live performances, you can also use your keyboard as a MIDI keyboard to produce music via the MIDI IN/OUT ports on the back of the device. Most electric keyboards come stock with MIDI ports.

1) You’ll Need A MIDI OUT Port On A Regular Keyboard To Use It As A MIDI Keyboard

So, firstly, you better check out if your keyboard has MIDI IN and OUT ports or not. MIDI has been around forever, so many devices, even extremely old keyboards, will have MIDI capability. It’s really impressive that the technology has managed to persist for this long.

2) A MIDI Software Or A DAW Is Required 

You need to download MIDI software or a DAW. If you don’t have an audio interface with a MIDI IN/OUT like I showed you earlier, you’ll need a USB to MIDI adaptor cable instead, although, I don’t recommend these. Stick to the audio interface.

A) Plug Your Audio Interface Into the Computer With A USB Cable. 

B) Connect A MIDI Cable to the “MIDI OUT” on the Back Of Your Keyboard.

C) Connect That MIDI Cable To The “MIDI IN” On Your Audio Interface.

D) Ensure Your Audio Interface Is Configured With Your DAW

At this point, you should be able to start controlling your DAW with your electric keyboard. It’s truly magical. It’s worth mentioning that you can do the opposite as well, ie, you can send MIDI information FROM your DAW into the keyboard instead.

Pros and Cons of Keyboards and MIDI Keyboards

Pros of a Keyboard Cons of a Keyboard Pros of a MIDI Keyboard Cons of a MIDI Keyboard
Great for live performances and concerts Not as good in the studio Much better in a studio Not as good for live performances
Can also be used as a MIDI controller, but you need an audio interface or MIDI-to-USB cable Premium models are very expensive. Has way more cool controls, ie, drum pads, velocity, panning, volume dials, sequencers, and note repeat. They are useless without a computer, DAW, or some type of external software.
Often have a built-in speaker Small 25-key MIDI keyboards are very portable. Cheaper MIDI keyboards feel like a toy.
The keys are usually higher quality and weighted Far less expensive on average – even for premium models They usually do not have a built-in speaker
They can be connected to a PA system or amplifier They’re often made to look extremely stylish and colorful. They can have weighted keys but they’re usually not as good.
Better keyboards have synthesizers and the ability to control many sounds and effects You can play any instrument you want with it in a DAW.
The built-in instruments in a premium model are usually very high quality
They can play backing tracks for you to jam over

Gear Mentioned

1) Korg Kronos keyboard (on Amazon)

2) M-Audio Oxygen Pro 61 (on Amazon)

3) Yamaha P125 (on Amazon)

4) M-Audio Hammer-88 Pro (on Thomann)

5) AKAI Mini MKIII (on Amazon)

6) AKAI MPD 226 (on Amazon)

7) Jamstik (on Thomann)

8) PreSonus Audio Interface With MIDI IN/OUT (on Amazon)