A hardware synthesizer and a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controller are both musical instruments used for live shows and studio recordings. One difference between these two pieces of hardware is that a MIDI controller does not produce its own musical sounds and instead relies on an interface, whereas a hardware synth can create its own unique sounds. But does this automatically mean that a hardware synth is better than a MIDI controller?
A MIDI controller is the better choice if you need access to unlimited sound options at less cost. A hardware synth is great if you want to produce sound with a unique character, using buttons and knobs you can actually touch. Hardware synths also have an option to receive and send MIDI signals.
In this article, we will talk about how MIDI controllers and hardware synthesizers work, including what makes them different. We will also talk about the benefits of using each one, and which one is better for your needs.
What You Need to Know about Hardware Synthesizers
Generally, a synthesizer is an electronic musical instrument that can generate audio signals through various methods like frequency modulation synthesis, additive synthesis, and subtractive synthesis.
Synthesizers are usually played with keyboards or controlled via MIDI using software, sequencers, or other instruments. Synthesizers can either be hardware or software.
Hardware synthesizers come in different forms: analog, monophonic, polyphonic, digital, and modular, to name a few. Software synthesizers, meanwhile, are something you will need to download and install on your computer.
Benefits of Using a Hardware Synthesizer
A hardware synth is able to produce its own unique sounds, so you don’t need to rely on software or external interface in order to create your music. It also includes its own internal speaker.
Many producers will attest that audio coming from a hardware synthesizer is always going to be superior compared to audio from software.
The sound produced by a hardware synth, especially an analog one, has different and distinct waveforms. And it is not just because of the vintage hardware compressors and equalizers.
There are also music producers who prefer hardware synths because of their tactile nature. There is nothing like having physical buttons, faders, knobs, and patch connections that you can tweak using both hands.
This kind of direct connection allows you to come up with new and different ways of creating sound, which is something that you cannot easily do using a computer mouse.
Moreover, with hardware synths, you need to think carefully about the sounds you want to use and the way you’ll be using them in your production. And because most synths have a single mono output, you will also need to record every part in order to make overdubs using the same unit.
While these two may sound like limitations, this is advantageous in a way. Creativity, after all, thrives in limitations.
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What You Need to Know about MIDI Controllers
MIDI is a technical standard describing a digital interface, communications protocol, and electrical connector that connect various computers, electronic musical instruments, and audio equipment in order to play, edit, and record music.
It also turns any musical action into a computer code that other systems can read. It can connect your keyboard to millions of different sounds in your library, thus putting an entire band or orchestra at the tip of your fingers.
A MIDI controller, meanwhile, transmits this MIDI data to MIDI-enabled devices to trigger sounds and electronically control the parameters of music performance. A MIDI controller usually looks like an acoustic musical instrument, like a piano or drums, but it cannot produce sound by itself.
Instead, it translates the sound you play on it into MIDI data, which is fed into a sequencer to produce the sound.
The sequencer can either be part of the MIDI controller’s system, also called an onboard sequencer, or it can be found on another computer that is connected by cable to your controller, also called an outboard sequencer.
A MIDI controller that can produce sound using its onboard sequencer is often called a MIDI synthesizer.
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Benefits of Using a MIDI Controller
Having a dedicated MIDI controller will help change how you compose and record music for the better because it is designed to make the use of any music program easier.
A MIDI controller simplifies the recording process as it gives you ultimate control over your program with the help of sliders, faders, and knobs.
The good thing about MIDI controllers is that you have a choice, depending on your skill level. Some MIDI keyboards have basic features, which are ideal for beginners. Such types are just not as versatile, though.
There are also MIDI keyboards that are loaded with features, which can be complicated for newbies but which offer more experienced producers a lot more options for creating high-quality beats.
With a MIDI, you are not limited to playing just one type of instrument. You can make any kind of sound from any instrument you want.
In fact, most MIDIs come with dozens, even hundreds, of different sounds for fully orchestrated music, like violins, pianos, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, drums, basses, trumpets, cymbals, and more.
MIDI controllers also boast adjustable controls like velocity sensitivity and key weight action. MIDI data can also dictate how loud a note is, how hard it is pressed, and how long it lasts.
This is why MIDI controllers come with various keyboard actions, synth actions, and weighted hammer actions.
Hardware Synth vs. MIDI Controller: Which One to Buy?
You should buy a MIDI controller plus a software synthesizer if you are mindful of costs and space, but want to enjoy a wide range of options for your music. If you want to produce sound by touching actual buttons, keys, knobs, and patch connections, then a hardware synth is for you.
A MIDI + software setup is cheaper than a hardware synth. As long as you already have a computer, all you really need to buy is a MIDI controller since there is a lot of good VST (virtual studio technology) software synths you can download for free.
You can also run your VST through a free host, or a cheap digital audio workstation.
The vast library of VSTs you can get online will allow your MIDI controller access to a whole world of sounds. And you can use them to write and produce your own songs or music. MIDI controllers also come in various sizes with different sets of options, so you can pick whatever fits your skill or comfort level.
Also, because a MIDI keyboard is much smaller than a hardware synth, it won’t occupy as much space in your home studio. This will matter a lot if you don’t have much room, to begin with.
Some modern synths are equipped with MIDI capabilities and can therefore function as controllers, too.
In other words, it’s also possible to send MIDI signals to your computer with them. While hardware synths are generally more expensive than MIDI controllers, there are also cheaper options available.
And, with internal or built-in sound, you can use a hardware synth for live performances.
Hardware synths produce their own sound but cannot create new ones outside of their original programming. Meanwhile, MIDI controllers manipulate and act as a remote for sound.
Knowing which one to choose between them depends largely on your focus as a music producer, your budget, and the other devices you already have.
A controller is a cheaper and more sensible choice in terms of unlimited sound options. A hardware synth is a practical choice if you want to play music without other devices and if you want something that functions as a controller, too.
- Wikipedia: Synthesizer
- Wikipedia: MIDI
- Anderton’s Music: Hardware Synths vs. Software Synths
- Opto Productions: The Benefits Of Hardware Synthesizers
- Digital Music Tech: Advantages of MIDI Controllers
- Reddit: Should I get a MIDI controller or a synth
- Keyboard Kraze: Hardware Synthesizer Vs. MIDI Controller For Bands
- Music Giants: MIDI vs. Synthesizers
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