Can You Use a Synthesizer as a MIDI Controller? (Answered)

MIDI keyboards and synths hold a great popularity in music production. I often get asked if you can use a synthesizer as a MIDI controller. Read on to find out.

If you love making music, you probably have a synth at home. Synths are incredibly versatile instruments that offer a wide range of sounds and capabilities. But have you ever wondered if you could use your synthesizer as a MIDI controller? Let’s explore the world of synthesizers, what they are, what they can and cannot do, and whether you can use them as a MIDI controller.

Can synths be used as MIDI controllers? Yes. Any synthesizer with a MIDI out port, whether a USB port or a more traditional 5-pin MIDI out wire, may be used as a MIDI controller.

What is a synthesizer?

A synthesizer is an electronic musical instrument that generates audio signals and transforms them into sound. They are typically self-contained, able to operate, and produce a wide range of tones and timbres without the need for additional programs or plugins. Like MIDI keyboards, they may range in size from a laptop to a grand piano.

Image of a person using a synthesizer as a midi controller. Source: Cottonbro Studio, Pexels
Image of a person using a synthesizer as a midi controller. Source: Cottonbro Studio, Pexels
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My favorite Midi keyword controller (right now):

Arturia KeyLab 61 MkII

My favorite Midi keyword controller (right now):

Arturia KeyLab 61 MkII

It’s got dials, it’s got sliders, it’s got pads, it’s got 61 keys, and its got a digital display. Whats not to love? It’s not the cheapest MIDI keyboard, but If you got the cash to spare, this one is a no-brainer.

What’s a MIDI keyboard? 

A MIDI keyboard, or MIDI controller, is a device that sends MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) data to other devices capable of receiving it. This can be a software instrument in a digital audio workstation (like GarageBand, Logic Pro, Ableton Live, or Pro Tools), a hardware synthesizer, or any other device that can interpret MIDI data.

They don’t make any actual noise but instead, create and send MIDI data that may be used to control other instruments like synthesizers and software synthesizers. In addition, they produce various MIDI information, such as pitch, length, velocity, and more.

If you’re looking for a top-quality MIDI keyboard, check out this highly-rated MIDI keyboard from AKAI. It’s one of the best in the market.

  • Standalone Piano Style Keyboard – Portable mini keyboard and USB MIDI controller with 25 velocity-sensitive synthesizer action keys, pitch/mod joystick control, plus 128 sounds and 10 drum kits
  • Play Anywhere – Built in speaker, 1/8-inch headphone output and battery powered specification (3 x AA batteries – not included) for performing and producing on the go
  • Beat Maker Essential – Two banks of eight ultra-responsive backlit MIDI drum pads with Note Repeat and Full Level functions for drum machine style performance and music production
  • Tweak, Customize – Two banks of four knobs (eight total) to tweak internal sounds or software parameters; in standalone mode control chorus, reverb, filter, EQ and envelope controls
  • The MPC Production Experience - Includes MPC Beats Software complete with the finest features and essential production tools from the Akai Professional MPC Series
  • Pro Software Suite – Includes Akai Pro MPC Beats, AIR Music Tech Hybrid 3 and SONiVOX Wobble (downloads)

What’s the difference between a synthesizer and a MIDI keyboard?

The main difference between a MIDI keyboard and a synthesizer is that a MIDI keyboard is typically a full-length keyboard, usually with 81 keys, that can produce its sound with an onboard speaker. In essence, a MIDI keyboard is a tool for inputting musical information into a system, whereas a synthesizer is a tool for generating sound.

Often, synthesizers also have a keyboard built-in, and they may also be capable of receiving MIDI data…

Often, synthesizers also have a keyboard built-in, and they may also be capable of receiving MIDI data, so the line between these devices can sometimes seem blurred. In a typical music production setup, you might use a MIDI keyboard to play a software synthesizer hosted in a DAW or to control a hardware synthesizer module that doesn’t have its own keyboard.

Can you use a synthesizer as a MIDI controller?

The short answer is yes. A MIDI controller could be any device that is capable of transmitting MIDI signals. So if your synthesizer has either a MIDI output or a USB port that lets you connect it to your computer, you can use it as a MIDI controller.

For synths that don’t have a USB port but instead have the more commonplace 5-pin MIDI output, you can still hook it up to your computer. But you’re gonna need an audio interface or a MIDI to USB converter to make that happen. Now, here’s the deal with converters. Sometimes, there might be a bit of a lag.

Imagine you’re laying down a sick beat, but every time you hit a key, there’s a delay before your PC catches on. Because of this, I wouldn’t suggest using one. Instead, I recommend getting an audio interface that has MIDI inputs. It’s like having a dedicated translator for your synth and PC to have a smooth conversation, reducing those annoying lags.

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Is it better to have a dedicated MIDI controller?

Using a synthesizer as a MIDI controller is not always bad. But if you’re trying to reduce clutter and increase efficiency, a dedicated MIDI controller might be the way to go if you have the room and budget for it. You might want a bigger keyboard layout if you use your controller to make a piano-like sound.

The number of keys on many MIDI keyboard controllers is limited to only 25, especially on the cheaper current models. The keys may differ from the standard size if you’re using a device like a microKorg, which has tiny controls. It may be too little for the job if you plan to use the synth to create piano sounds.

Also, if you want to use a vintage analog synthesizer as a MIDI controller, you should know that there will probably not be any “aftertouch” from it. This advanced capability is often only seen on more expensive controllers.

Image of a midi controllers with a red vynil beside it. Source: Yaw Afari, Pexels
Image of a MIDI controller with red vinyl beside it. Source: Yaw Afari, Pexels

If you want to get better drum sounds, then a synthesizer’s keyboard, which isn’t made to make the sound of a bass drum, is probably not the best choice. Instead, a MIDI drum machine or MIDI controller with pads instead of keys might be a better choice.

Because of their dedicated design, MIDI controllers often outperform their generic counterparts. Some MIDI controllers, such as The AKAI APC40 and other similar controllers, are designed to be used in tandem with digital audio workstations.

If you want even more tips and insights, watch this video called “Synthesizer vs. MIDI Controller from the JAde Wii YouTube channel.

A video called “Synthesizer vs. MIDI Controller” from the JAde Wii YouTube channel.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Do you still have questions? Below are some of the most commonly asked questions about synthesizers and MIDI controllers.

Is a synthesizer a MIDI controller?

Some synthesizers provide MIDI outputs. However, this does not make them controllers in the traditional sense. In music and sound production, a “controller” is an electronic device that lets the user change different settings. Instruments like keyboards, drum machines, samplers, and mixers are examples of such electronic gadgets.

Most synthesizers fall short of these standards. If you buy them brand new or as part of a package, they may have some MIDI features, but they are mostly meant for making and recording music rather than playing it live.

Are all synthesizers also MIDI controllers?

Not all synthesizers are MIDI controllers, although many modern synthesizers do have MIDI capabilities. Traditional standalone synthesizers were designed primarily for generating sound and often lacked MIDI functionality.

However, in recent years, the integration of MIDI has become more common in synthesizers. This means that many modern synthesizers can function as both sound generators and MIDI controllers, allowing you to control external devices or software via MIDI.

Do you need a MIDI keyboard if you have a keyboard?

No, but it’s highly recommended. Even though there are still many ways to make music without MIDI keyboards and controllers, they are now seen as essential tools for making modern music because they encourage new ideas and make the process easier.

Conclusion

The answer is yes! You can use a synthesizer as a MIDI controller. But to do so, you will have to know how to properly work the knobs and sliders. But once you adjust your fingers and get the hang of it, you will make music in no time.

Key takeaway

This article covered the difference between a synthesizer and a MIDI keyboard, whether synthesizers can be used as MIDI controllers, and the advantages of having dedicated MIDI controllers. Here are some key takeaways:

  • The main difference between a MIDI keyboard and a synthesizer is that the synthesizer already has sounds built in, while the MIDI keyboard does not.
  • A MIDI controller may be any device that can transmit MIDI signals.
  • If you’re trying to reduce clutter and increase efficiency, a dedicated MIDI controller might be a better choice.

So, do you prefer to use a synthesizer as a MIDI controller? And did I cover everything you wanted to know? Let me know in the comments section below. I read and reply to every comment. If you found this article helpful, check out my full blog for more tips and tricks on music production. Thanks for reading, and never stop making music.

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Image Andrew Ash
Written by Andrew Ash, Staff Writer

Hey there! My name is Andrew, and I've been making music since I was a kid. I now run this blog all about home studios and music production. If you want to improve your home studio setup, this is the place for you!

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Edited by Luke May, Staff Editor

Luke is a seasoned editor with over seven years of experience. His passion for writing and storytelling started when he was a teenager, spending countless hours reading books and creating his own stories.

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