Digital Pianos vs MIDI Keyboards – Which One Is Better?

Choosing Between Digital Pianos vs MIDI Keyboards, Which One Is Best for You?

Some people consider digital pianos and MIDI controller keyboards to be completely interchangeable.  But that’s not the case, as both target different audiences have have different use cases.  So what’s really the difference between digital pianos vs MIDI keyboards?  Is one better than the other for your needs?  Find out today.

Casio PX-S1100
Alesis Prestige Artist
Casio CDP-S360
Yamaha P-515
Casio PX-870
Korg LP-180
Casio PX-770

Digital Pianos vs MIDI Controllers (TLDR)

Should you buy a digital piano or MIDI controller keyboard?  Let's discuss today!

If you’re trying to decide whether to buy a digital piano or MIDI controllers, here are some of the notable differences that are worth keeping in mind:

1) Digital pianos are meant to replicate the touch, feel and tone of an acoustic piano.  With that said, a digital piano’s goal is to provide you with convenience and longevity.  Not only are they far more portable than acoustic pianos, but they can play multiples sounds or voices (strings, organs, harpsichord, etc).  A digital piano also requires far less maintenance than an acoustic piano.  A digital piano will never get out of tune, or need its internal hammers or strings replaced.

2) Conversely, a MIDI keyboard (MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is designed for MIDI input and studio workflow.  MIDI keyboards often have less than 88 keys, often only feature semi-weighted keys, and have no built in internal sound production capabilities.  The reason for this is it’s assumed that the buyer will be using “software instruments” within their preferred recording software. 

So, ultimately, for the vast majority of piano enthusiasts, a digital piano will be the instrument of choice you will want.  And while MIDI keyboards are sometimes a fraction of the price that a digital piano is, it’s worth noting that a MIDI keyboard cannot be used as a standalone instrument.  Without that knowledge, you may accidentally make the wrong purchase for your needs.

1) Yamaha P-515
2) Casio PX-S3100
3) Casio PX-870
4) Roland FP-E50
5) Roland FP-30X

The Best Digital Pianos

Now that we have established the difference between digital pianos and MIDI keyboards, here are three of my favorite digital pianos on the market.

Yamaha Clavinova CLP-735

Being a household name, it’s no secret that Yamaha brings quality to every product they produce from boat motors to digital pianos.  The digital piano was invented with the birth of the Clavinova in 1983 and has been synonymous with pianos ever since.  

The CLP-735 features Yamaha’s “Grand Touch S” action mechanism which has a weighty grand piano-like depth of touch.  You’ll hear two amazing concert grands built into the CLP-735 from both Yamaha themselves and Bosendorfer. 

Making it nearly $2,000 cheaper than even an entry level acoustic piano from Yamaha.  At the same time, the Clavinova CLP-735 is definitely more expensive than Yamaha’s Arius like (like the Yamaha Arius YDP-145 or Yamaha Arius YDP-165).

Kawai KDP120

The Kawai KDP120

Now let’s look into a more budget friendly digital piano: the Kawai KDP120.  This particular piano retails for about $1,499. 

Kawai is a Japanese piano manufacturer that has long been the direct competitor with Yamaha.  The KDP120 is a fantastic entry level digital piano that is sure to meet the needs of beginner to intermediate piano students.  

All of the standard features you’d expect are within the KDP120, including 88 weighted keys, 3 pedals (soft, sostenuto, and sustain), and a powerful 20 watt stereo amplifier and speaker system.  This piano is a great choice for the budding piano student who needs an instrument that they can grow into before potentially upgrading beyond the intermediate level.

Roland RP30

Finally we will look at a distinctly entry level option from Roland called the RP30.  Naturally one of the most important considerations when making large purchases is price.  Purchasing a digital piano is as much an emotional decision as it is a logical financial one.  

This is where the Roland RP30 comes in, as its a powerhouse digital piano at a very reasonable retail price of $899.99.  Now a disclaimer: a digital piano of this price point simply does not have the same touch and tone that an instrument like the Yamaha Clavinova does.  But it’s also a fraction of the price.  The value for the money is certainly in favor of the RP30. 

One very important distinction to note is that each of the above manufacturer’s attempts to market and distinguish themselves by changing the definition of what a digital piano is.  This is most obvious with Roland, who attempts to market their digital pianos as “Grand Pianos” and “Upright Pianos” when in fact they are simply digital pianos with cases that appear as if they are acoustic pianos (ultimately becoming digital console pianos, for all intents and purposes). 

Yamaha YDP-145

Yamaha YDP-165
Casio PX-870
Casio AP-460Casio AP-470
Yamaha YDP-184

The Best MIDI Controller Keyboards

Arturia KeyLab 49 MKII

Now onto MIDI keyboards.  As previously mentioned, MIDI keyboards are used for MIDI Input, typically in music studios and other recording applications.  The Arturia KeyLab 49 MKII is a great example of a MIDI keyboard, as it features a smaller 49 key layout, assignable buttons/faders, beat pad, and transport controls to easily control your recording software (DAW).  The KeyLab 49 MKII retails for about $449. 

The transport controls make it very easy to start, stop, and record with the push of a button.  Unlike a digital piano, most MIDI keyboards don’t have fully weighted keys.  Instead, a MIDI keyboard often has semi-weighted keys, which for a lot of people is a great middle ground compromise.  

This is partially a cost saving measure, but also because the real world analogue of the software instrument you are using the MIDI keyboard to play doesn’t have weighted keys.  Think of organs, synths, horns, strings, and how there would be no need for weighted keys for these instruments.

M-Audio Hammer 88

Moving on to the M-Audio Hammer 88.  A MIDI keyboard that I used to own when I had a small iPad Pro based recording setup (this keyboard retails for about $499).  

Firstly the M-Audio features a full 88-key keyboard which is fantastic for playing complete two handed pieces.  Other than a volume fader, pitch wheel, and modulation wheel, the Hammer 88 has no other physical buttons.  Where the Arturia shines in music production workflow, the M-Audio is actually quite good when it comes to actually playing the piano.  Go figure.

Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 MK2

Finally, let’s take a peek at a very interesting, albeit more expensive, MIDI keyboard made by Native Instruments.  Here we have the the Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 MK2, and it may very well be the ultimate MIDI keyboard.  It retails for about $899.  

Native Instruments are the Berlin, Germany based creators of the most sought after plug in samples around.  Their plugin compilation pack called “Komplete 14” features every single software instrument you can imagine including pianos, synths, organs, guitars, sound effects, drums, bells, strings, and much much more.  

The S88 MK2 is a MIDI keyboard that has deep integration with their Komplete package of instrument samples.  So much so that you are able to directly control the Komplete from the interface on the front of the S88 MK2.  To be clear, the S88 MK2 is an advanced MIDI keyboard that also necessitates the use of a laptop.

Akai MPK249Akai MPK249
arturia-keylab-49Arturia KeyLab 49 MKII
roland-a88Roland A-88
Novation Launchkey 61 MK3
Roland A49

Can a Digital Piano Work as a MIDI keyboard?

You may find that your use case falls between the capabilities of both digital pianos and MIDI keyboards.  If this is you, you’re in luck because most digital pianos can act at MIDI keyboards.  

In fact, nearly all digital pianos have USB To Host ports on the back of the instrument that can be used as a simple MIDI interface to your recording software.  

So, for example, if you were to buy the Casio PX-160, you would be able to use the USB port on the back of this digital piano to connect the PX-160 to your computer and use it as a MIDI controller.  Pretty cool! 

There is no drawback to using a digital piano in this way except that your initial purchase price will likely be higher and you may be missing a few assignable buttons.  

This begs the question—is the reverse true?  Can I use a MIDI keyboard as a digital piano?  The simple answer is no—at least not without the inclusion of a laptop. 

Wrapping It Up

So what have we learned about digital pianos vs MIDI keyboards? Well, we’ve learned that digital pianos are an all in one package that aim at realism and strive to be as piano-like as possible.  They are perfect for the piano focused music lover that only wants to play the piano and have the most authentic experience as possible without breaking the bank or having the maintenance hassle of an acoustic piano.  

On the other hand, MIDI keyboards require an additional level of technical knowledge and focus much more on being an essential part of a recording studio work-flow.  Their versatility can be a swiss army knife in the correct use case.  

Whichever instrument you decide to purchase, consider your use case and how you imagine yourself using your instrument into the future.  

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