Controllers vs. Synths: The Difference

What is Their Distinction?

A common question that most individuals entering the music production scene always ask is the difference between a controller and a synthesizer. Obviously, both are musical instruments but with significant differences in the way they operate.

About Controllers

midi keyboards
MIDI Controllers

A controller, or MIDI controller as they are popularly known, can be a keyboard or any other method that you can use to produce a MIDI event, such as a tap pad. The MIDI controller cannot play its own sound. It comes with several programmable sliders and nobs that you use to generate sound. Some of them have USB connections that you can use to plug the controller into your laptop or Mac. They are also more compact than synthesizers since they don’t require tone generators or large internal speakers.

About Synths


A synthesizer, on the other hand, is an electronic instrument that you can use to create unique sounds, known as timbres, using different electronic methods. It is an integral part of any music performance or recording activity. A synthesizer can generate its own sounds, unlike a controller or keyboard. Its tone generating components and internal speakers make the synthesizer larger or bulkier than a MIDI controller.

The key difference between the two musical instruments is the fact that a synthesizer is a sound source while the controller is a keyboard without a sound source. The keyboard plays sounds while the synthesizer creates the sound. Most keyboards, such as the common Casio models, come with onboard sounds but are not actually synthesizers as they cannot create new sounds besides the pre-programmed ones.

The Differences of Two Instruments

Controllers vs. Synthesizers

There are many synthesizers that come with a keyboard while others don’t, just like there are many keyboards that have synthesizers and others that don’t. A controller keyboard without a synthesizer is known as a MIDI keyboard and does not produce sound unless it is plugged into a synthesizer, which could be any sound generating device including your Mac. A synthesizer without a keyboard, which is known as a sound or synthesizer module will also not generate sound unless it is plugged to a keyboard where you can play the sounds or a computer where you can download music or manually enter notes.

A controller acts as a remote since it does not produce sound by itself. However, a synth with MIDI can be used as a controller if you can find a way to transfer the MIDI signal to your computer. A simple $30 MIDI USB cable easily does the trick if your synth does not come with a USB port. Most modern synths have a USB port.

Which One Costs More? A Controller or A Synthesizer?

which one cost more - controllers versus synthesizers
Controllers vs. Synthesizers: Which one cost more?

With the rapid advancements in music technology and products today, it’s hard to pinpoint the difference in price between the two types of musical instruments. There are large older synthesizers that have MIDI controlling abilities that are less expensive than a new MIDI controller keyboard.

You can even get a used but still decent entry level synth with 61 full sized keys for around $50 and a second-hand controller with 25 micro keys for as low as $60. When it comes to the question of cost, it largely depends on the make, version, and capability of the musical instrument.

Leave a Comment