Can You Use MIDI Controller As Keyboard?

Piano Keyboard Guide

MIDI controllers are a great tool for music creation. They often pack premium features such as aftertouch and a large number of faders and assignable controls at a very affordable price point especially in comparison to standalone keyboards. This can lead to the question of “can you use MIDI controller as a keyboard?” Let’s find out.

Technically It Is Possible To Use MIDI Controller As Keyboard

Using a MIDI controller as a keyboard is well within the realms of what is possible. The final interface in the form of the black and white keys is the same. The difference comes in how the sound is produced when a key is pressed. In a stand-alone keyboard, as the name suggests, everything needed to generate the sound is packed into a single device. 

While different brands can do this in slightly different ways, the basic principle is the same. Every standalone keyboard has a sound engine and some form of an audio interface. The sound engine stores the sound samples of different instruments and when you press a key, three steps take place to produce the sound. A signal is sent to the sound engine and the corresponding note in the instrument type that is selected is sent to the interface. The interface then converts it into an analog signal that can either be fed to an external speaker system or the onboard amp and speakers. This is an oversimplification of how a stand-alone keyboard works but for this discussion, understanding these three steps is sufficient as this is where a MIDI controller is different.

A MIDI controller can only take care of the first step. Every time you press a key, it can generate a digital signal. That is it. To convert this into an audio signal that can be fed into a speaker system, you will need a few extra equipment which leads us to our next point.

Why It Isn’t As Affordable As It Might Initially Appear?

Since a MIDI controller only takes care of one of the three steps executed by a standalone keyboard, you will need additional equipment to carry these operations out. For the sound engine part, you will need a computing device. Preferably, it has to be a computer but an iPad can work as well. You can get MIDI controllers to work with a phone as well but such a setup will be nowhere close to a stand-alone keyboard.

So, a computer is the way to go if you want to get the same functionality as a keyboard. Both Windows and Mac OS will work for this although the latter is preferred because it offers a slightly better experience. 

The computer alone won’t be enough. You will need software that can actually interpret the digital signal produced by the MIDI controller. This software is known as a Digital Audio Interface. It is the software that contains all the actual sounds. Free versions are available but then again, getting similar functionality as a keyboard will require a paid version as the free ones tend to be quite limited in scope. The computer and the DAW take care of the sound engine section which leaves the output interface.

Most computers will come with onboard audio outputs and you can use them as the sound output for your setup. However, they aren’t designed for this use case. As such, the sound quality you will get out of them will be subpar. They also introduce a noticeable delay between a keypress and the sound being produced. This is known as latency and it will render your setup useless. To mitigate all these issues, you will need an external audio interface. You can pick up a good one at an affordable price especially in the used market. Additionally, you will also need speakers but most keyboards also need external speakers to get the best sound out of them. So, we are not considering that here but it is something you should keep in mind.

As you can see, you need so much more stuff to get a MIDI controller to work like a keyboard. This can add so much cost to the setup that a high-end keyboard can actually be cheaper in comparison. So, should you still use a MIDI controller like a keyboard? It depends as we shall find out next.

Who Should Use MIDI Controller As Keyboard?

Anyone who is into digital music creation can use a MIDI controller as a keyboard. This is especially true if you already own a computer and all you need to invest in is a DAW and an audio interface. It also offers plenty of flexibility in terms of upgrades. This entire setup is modular. So, you can keep improving it bit by bit. With a keyboard, you will have to replace the whole thing and that can leave a big dent in your wallet. Trying out new sound samples from multiple sources including your own creations is also possible with this setup whereas with a keyboard, you are pretty much stuck with what the manufacturer gives you.

In essence, if you are more into music composition than live performances, and you already own a computer or you can justify investing in a computer then go for it. The creative possibilities are certainly endless.

Related Article 5 Best Midi Keyboards for Playing Piano

Who Should Not Use MIDI Controller As Keyboard?

If you do not own a computer or cannot justify investing in one, then go for a stand-alone keyboard. Another major shortcoming of MIDI controllers is portability. While the controller itself has a smaller footprint than a keyboard with the same number of keys, the entire setup with a computer, audio interface, and possibly speakers can take up so much more space. Add to that all the cables that connect everything and it can become really cumbersome in a live setting. 

Finally, the ease of use is also much worse with MIDI controllers. Learning how a DAW works and getting the most out of it can take years. Most keyboards on the other hand are very intuitive and easy to use. So, if you want something portable that you can just turn on and make music, a MIDI controller as a keyboard might not be the route to take.

Pros Of MIDI Controller As Keyboard

  • Modularity allows for more flexibility when it comes to upgrades
  • Creative possibilities are greater
  • Better sound quality
  • Perfect for experimenting with new sounds

Pros Of MIDI Controller As Keyboard

  • Not as portable
  • Steep learning curve
  • Cost can be substantially high when taking the price of all the extra bit needed into consideration

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