What’s the Difference Between a Digital Piano and a MIDI Keyboard?


Whether you know it or not, a digital piano and a MIDI keyboard have differences. They have many of the same user areas, but what separates them? I challenged my curiosity, did some research, and put together a helpful post for you.

There are several differences between a digital piano and a MIDI keyboard, ranging from the weight, size, controller options, speakers, and longevity. A digital piano aims to emulate the sound and feel of a real acoustic piano while the MIDI keyboard is designed for music production, often featuring controllers like faders and knobs used for different MIDI commands.

What is a Digital Piano?

Digital pianos are designed and built to emulate the feel and sound of a real acoustic piano. That is why they are mostly available with 88 keys, which is the full size of an acoustic piano.

They commonly feature some extra sounds like strings/orchestra, flutes, harpsichord, and a couple of piano sounds, but they are nowhere near the sound selection that a keyboard offers.

A digital piano is basically a hybrid between an acoustic piano and a MIDI keyboard. So, if you are looking to mostly play the piano and are after an authentic way without having the hassle of tuning and moving a large acoustic piano around, a digital piano is for you.

What is a MIDI Keyboard?

A MIDI keyboard, on the other hand, is not trying to emulate a real, acoustic piano, and is not trying to hide it either. It typically comes in a broad range of sizes (most commonly 61 keys) and is much more portable than both the acoustic piano and digital piano.

The MIDI keyboard is perfect for you who want something portable with a huge library of integrated sounds and MIDI controllers.

Let’s have an in-depth look at the differences between the digital piano and the MIDI keyboard.

Portability: Weight and Size

MIDI Controller Keyboard Native Instruments

Firstly, one of the easiest ways to differentiate a digital piano and a MIDI keyboard is the weight and size of the body.

Although a keyboard can also be quite large and heavy, digital pianos are generally bigger and heavier.

The Body: The body of a digital piano is larger, which makes it much more static and ‘furniture-esque‘ (is that even a word?) than the MIDI keyboard.

The Keys: The keys of a digital piano aim to emulate the keys of a real piano, and depending on how much you are willing to spend, it ranges from pretty decent to highly realistic.

It is common with fully-weighted keys, and some digital pianos use the exact same material as real pianos. You should check out the luxurious Yamaha Grand Piano series if you want the best of the best.

The keys of a MIDI keyboard is often semi-weighted (or not weighted at all). It is not important to be as authentic as possible, but rather to provide a light-weight, portable keyboard that is easy to play.

That’s why I recommend, that if you plan to build a portable music studio, a small and light-weight MIDI keyboard might be the better option.

Possibilities: Connections

Typically, a digital piano has these connections:

  • Sustain Pedal
  • USB
  • Headphones
  • MIDI
  • Power input

A MIDI Keyboard commonly has these connections:

  • Sustain Pedal
  • USB
  • Headphones
  • MIDI
  • Power Input (some only needs to be powered by USB)

As you can see, there is not much difference between the connection options here.

The fact that the digital piano has a USB connection means that you can actually use a digital piano as a MIDI keyboard in your music studio.

If you are interested in reading more about how to use a digital piano as a MIDI Keyboard Controller, you should read this article, where I also outline some potential risks of using it as a keyboard, that I think you should be aware of.

MIDI Controller options

This is where you really have to think twice before you decide what to get for your own music studio. Most MIDI Keyboards have a broad range of faders and knobs which all have a specific, delegated task: to control various MIDI commands.

(if you want to read more about the different commands, you should read this article)

In addition, when you buy a keyboard, most of the time you will get a decent sound library to install as well. It could be anything from orchestra, pianos, guitars, bass and synths.

Digital pianos, however, are quite limited in comparison. Even though they offer a couple of built-in sounds, a digital piano never comes close to a MIDI keyboard when considering the sound libraries.

You must also get a separate MIDI controller if you want to get the most of your digital piano and music production.

Live Performance: Speakers

Digital pianos do come with built-in speakers. This means that the only thing you need in order to get sound out of a digital piano is a power cable.

A MIDI keyboard is not able to produce sound on its own.

“But wait!”, you might say. “I have a keyboard at home, and it actually has speakers!”

Well, that is the difference between the MIDI keyboard and an electronic keyboard. An electronic keyboard is a standalone instrument with built-in speakers, perfectly capable of producing sound (I might write an article on that topic as well, in the near future).

The MIDI Keyboard, which this article is about, does not come with speakers. It is dependant on a connection to a computer/monitors in order to produce sound.

Longevity

You should expect most digital pianos to last you around 10-15 years. Based on my experience, MIDI keyboards are much, much more fragile, ranging from 2-5 years.

Pro tip: don’t buy the cheapest ones.
I have owned two different (and cheap) MIDI keyboards over the past 5 years. Actually the exact same model. Twice.

These were the M-audio Keystation 88es, which in all fairness was a great MIDI keyboard. It was quite cheap though, and the keys were of poor quality. They quickly turned yellow and started getting unresponsive after a maximum of 2 years.

And that is why I eventually moved on to a digital piano.

I reveal which digital piano I bought in the next paragraph.

Best Digital Pianos for Beginners

My recommendations here must all fulfill a certain set of criteria:

  • The digital piano needs to feel like a real piano when playing the keys
  • It must be of solid and durable quality
  • It has the possibility of being used as a MIDI Keyboard as well
  • It needs to sound good at its own, without the need of connecting them to an amplifier or computer.

My top recommendationYamaha P45

I own this myself and I could not be more pleased with how it performs. Actually, I am quite amazed. It easily competes with other pianos in the $1000+ range.

It feels wonderfully authentic to play, it comes with a decent, soft built-in piano sound (and a few other instruments as well).

The overall quality is so good that I expect this to last me at least 10-15 more years of consistent use.

The prices fluctuate all the time, so check out the price on Amazon to see if you are in for a good deal.

If you are looking for something very similar, I recommend taking a closer look at the Yamaha P71. This is basically the same model as P45, except that it is usually a little more affordable and specially made as an Amazon exclusive.

My Yamaha P45. One of the greatest investments I ever made.

Best MIDI Keyboards for Beginners

  1. M-Audio Hammer 88: If you want a MIDI keyboard, with 88 fully weighted keys. I finally got to test it, and I was very impressed by it. I think it is easily the best MIDI keyboard in its respective price class.

    (Do not mistake the Hammer 88 for the previously mentioned 88es. The Hammer 88 has fully-weighted keys and is of much higher build-quality than the 88es)

    Last time I checked, it was very nicely priced. It is actually the most affordable MIDI keyboard with these specs, so be sure to check out the current deal on Amazon right now.
  2. Komplete Kontrol M32: If you want a very affordable, portable, medium-sized, and light-weight MIDI keyboard with a lot of controllers as well.

    This is a very affordable MIDI keyboard made by the very reputable Native Instruments, so you will definitely be happy with the M32. Click here to check it out on Amazon.

Recommended Further Reading:

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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