Can a Digital Piano be Used as a MIDI Controller?

Have you ever been considering using a digital piano as a MIDI controller? Well, I have. I was recently on a hunt for a new midi controller for my music studio. This time I really wanted fully weighted keys. At the same time, I really wanted a reasonably weighted wallet.

Then it dawned on me: can I use a digital piano as a MIDI controller?Yes, you can use a digital piano as a MIDI controller as long as it has a USB connection. But does that mean you should use a digital piano regardless? Its larger size and limited controllers could make it difficult, but it all depends on what you need.

Let’s take a look at the differences between a Digital Piano and a MIDI controller as well as revealing potential problems you need to know about when using a digital piano as a MIDI controller.


Digital Piano VS MIDI Controller

The differences between a digital piano and a MIDI controller have been harder to pinpoint the last few years. They can both give you a wonderful performing – as well as producing experience.

There are, however, some key traits that differentiate them:

Digital piano

  • Emulates the sound and feel of a real piano. They are much lighter than real, acoustic pianos, but in general heavier than a MIDI Keyboard and controller.
  • Because their primary goal is to emulate a real piano, the keys are fully weighted and spring-loaded.
  • Has built-in speakers which often aims to create a similar resonance feel that real pianos have.
  • Therefore, they often feel more accurate to play for pianists.
  • Price ranges from really cheap to really expensive.
  • Based on my own experience, they tend to last you longer than a MIDI controller.

MIDI keyboard/controller

  • In general, they have lighter and smaller keys. Most of them do not try to emulate the sound and feel of an acoustic piano.
  • They come with all sorts of controllers. Faders, knobs, wheels, and display. Resulting in an “all-in-one” solution which goes really well with your VST libraries.
  • Often comes with additional software of synths, sampled instruments, etc.
  • MIDI keyboards have built-in speakers. MIDI controllers do not. They are intended to use with your computer.
  • Their entry-level price is much cheaper than a digital piano, but it quickly starts to get more expensive when adding fully weighted, fullsized keys to the mix.
  • Don’t expect the cheaper ones to last you a lifetime.  

The Positives When Used as a MIDI Controller

1. Fully weighted 88 keys is the best way to learn and record piano music

If you are a pianist or are looking to learn to play piano as well as for music production, you need truthful, fully weighted 88 keys in your setup.

Why, you ask?

Because learning how to play on fully weighted keys right from the get-go, makes the transition into playing on a real piano much, much easier. I also find fully weighted keys to give a much more truthful performance and greater control of my playing.

Personally, I started learning the piano on an old keyboard that my father got me. And while it kick-started my interest in learning, it did not do me any favors when I wanted to impress a girl I was into at the time. Up until that moment, I thought I was a good piano player. But the upright piano in the corner of the school cantina proved me wrong. The keys were sooo heavy!

And I was like; “oh, I am just not used to play on such old pianos..”

She was not impressed.

So please, for your own sake, learn how to play on fully weighted keys!

88 FULLY WEIGHTED KEYS – FOR THE PIANIST!

Okay, let´s move on.


2. If you are on a budget and really want 88 fully weighted keys

Fully weighted, full-sized MIDI controllers (88 keys) tend to be really expensive. Most 88 keys MIDI controllers are in the range of $500 and upwards. You can, however, get a fully weighted, full-sized digital piano for under $500.

Just make sure that it has a USB connection, so you can use it with your computer!


3.Family entertainment, mini concerts and social gatherings

A digital piano is perfect if you and your family like to sing songs together at Christmas or if you are going to play at your best friend´s wedding reception/party and so on. I think you get my drift!

Digital pianos have built-in speakers (most also have a headphone input) so you don’t need any additional software or connection to a computer to get sound out of it.

So when you are not using it as a MIDI controller, you can just bring your digital piano to the living room and entertain the heck out of your dinner guests.


4. If you need the piano to be a part of the furniture

Some digital pianos are just amazingly aesthetic and would look fantastic in your house if you create music from home.


The Negatives When Used as a MIDI Controller

Using a digital piano is not always beneficial. Depending on what kind of musician you are, sometimes a MIDI Keyboard/controller would be the better option. Below you can read a list which explains why:

1. Portability

Digital pianos are in general much heavier than a MIDI controller. You won’t feel especially tempted to move them around a lot compared to the much more portable MIDI controllers.

And if you are the traveling type, you probably have a portable studio. Then it is better to go with a lightweight MIDI controller.


2. If you don’t really need fully weighted keys

If you consider yourself more of a producer or are creating hip hop beats, electronic music, etc, you might not need 88 fully weighted keys to do your job. But if you still want 88 keys, you can go for the M- Audio Keystation 88, which I personally have owned 2 of. Despite just having semi-weighted keys, it feels very good for a very affordable price.

MY SECOND M-AUDIO KEYSTATION 88 ES.

3. No faders, knobs or drumpads = no control

If you are planning to use a lot of drum pads or VST midi effects like attack, vibrato, legato, etc., you absolutely MUST have a midi controller.

So, if you buy a Digital Piano, you need to look at an additional purchase of an actual MIDI controller, so you can actually use the midi effects. Then you might rethink some things because it might end up costing you the same as if you just bought a little more expensive MIDI controller with all the features.

…Maybe even more.


4. A digital piano takes up more space

As I ́ve already mentioned, Digital piano is generally heavier compared to a MIDI keyboard and controller. They are bigger in size too. If you have limited space in your studio/bedroom, a digital piano might just not be the ideal solution.


Are There any Risks of Using it as a MIDI Controller?

Well, there aren’t many major dangers or risks involved by using a digital piano as a MIDI controller. It won’t explode or anything. But there are some frustrating problems you might face:


Latency

The signal from your digital piano into your DAW might be delayed. It actually happened to me when I used it with Logic Pro and the Grandeur piano VST from Native Instruments.

I can’t stress enough how FRUSTRATING it is to press down the keys and the sound arrives a couple of milliseconds later! It makes it unbearable to live record anything.

The solution? Lower your buffer settings in your DAW until the latency i not noticeable anymore.


Less control

With no faders, buttons or other features that seamlessly lets your keyboard use VST MIDI Effects like “attack”, “legato” and “vibrato” you WILL need an additional MIDI controller. Luckily there are a variety of options out there, so you don’t need to completely empty your wallet.

However, not all external MIDI controllers are worth your money (I have some dreadful experience here) so you should expect to pay a decent fee for a solid one. Personally, I bought Palette Gear, which I am overjoyed with. Why? Because of 3 simple reasons:

  1. It is easy to install and connect with your digital piano. It even gives you the opportunity to color-code different MIDI effects, which look really cool!
  2. The faders are quite long, which gives me more control than shorter ones.
  3. It comes in a small, lightweight package, which makes it an essential part of my portable studio when I am on the road!
PALETTE GEAR – A MIDI CONTROLLER WITHOUT KEYS.

If you have been considering Palette Gear, I can recommend it with all my heart. It goes wonderful with a digital piano. The price on Amazon fluctuates all the time, so be sure to check it out to see if you are in for a good deal.


Your DAW might not find it

From time to time, your DAW (Logic Pro, Cubase, etc.) or Kontakt plugin might not recognize your digital piano. It has happened to me, so I needed to access the MIDI settings on my computer to see what was going on.


What is the Best Solution?

For me to say what you should have is impossible. it depends on what you rate as the most important factors.

To me, the feel and weight of the keys are extremely important. And it needed to be a fair-prized fully weighted 88 keys with speakers. The latter because I wanted to have an option to also use this in the festive times of the year!

If you are not limited by budget and want 88 fully weighted keys, I would recommend you get a fully weighted MIDI controller. Even though they tend to be more expensive, you will get some really good sampled instruments with them, as well as the faders, knobs, and buttons.

In addition, they will also save you from those looong nights of troubleshooting the potential problem areas mentioned above.

The Komplete Kontrol S88 is my personal favorite when it comes to fully weighted MIDI controllers. I have tried this several times and I came really close to buying it. The only thing that stopped me was my budget. It is beloved by many. It is even an integral part of the studio setup of film composer Junkie XL. Do I need to say more?

So, if you have been saving up for this, you can’t go wrong with this wonderful MIDI controller from Native Instruments. See the current price on Amazon if you are interested.

A more affordable MIDI controller you can also take a closer look at is the M-Audio Hammer 88. But since I have not tested it in person, I don’t feel qualified to recommend it.


What I Ended up With

Because of my budget, I ended up buying a digital piano – The Yamaha P-45. I quickly fell in love when I tested it. I actually think it feels almost as good to play as some of the top fully weighted MIDI controllers, such as the Komplete Kontrol S88.

MY YAMAHA P-45

Well, it fulfills my needs at least! My piano playing actually got much better after I required this. I am now considering making a solo piano album! That is how motivating it is to have fully weighted keys. I can recommend this digital piano without any hesitation.

This digital piano will last you for at least 10 years and probably even more.

You should get the P-45 because:

Of course, the Yamaha does not have any faders or knobs, so I did need to get an additional MIDI controller to use with my string VSTs.

Personally, I used the AKAI MidiMix for a while, until I discovered the awesome Palette Gear.

What is your experience with using a digital piano as a midi controller?

Thomas Leypoldt

Hey there! My name is Thomas and I have been a film composer for over 10 years, delivering music to feature films, documentaries, video games, and commercials. I share everything I have learned on this website, to hopefully be of help to your own development as a musician.

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