Major Differences Between Keyboard And Synthesizer

The keyboard and the synthesizer are iconic instruments that have shaped popular music for decades. On the surface, they may seem quite similar – after all, they both have black and white keys that you press to produce different sounds. However, there are some fundamental differences between traditional keyboards and synthesizers regarding how they generate sound, their capabilities, and their musical applications. 

Understanding these differences is key to determining which instrument is best suited for your creative needs.

What is A Keyboard?

A keyboard is an electronic musical instrument with keys similar to a piano. When pressed, the keys trigger sounds produced electronically within the keyboard. The most common type of keyboard is the digital piano, designed to emulate the feel and sound of an acoustic piano. Keyboards encompass a broad range of instruments with varying features. Lower-end keyboards may only contain 25 mini keys and a handful of basic sounds like piano, organ, and strings. More advanced keyboards offer 61 or 88 full-size, touch-sensitive keys with weighted action that feels like a real piano. 

While keyboard instruments take on many forms, they all have a set of keys arranged in the familiar, piano-style layout that players press with their fingers to produce different notes. Even alternative keyboards like the Seaboard conform to this basic function while introducing new dimensions of musical expression through touch.

What is A Synthesizer

A synthesizer (often shortened to “synth”) works fundamentally differently than keyboard instruments. Rather than playing back pre-recorded sounds when keys are pressed, a synthesizer actively generates or “synthesizes” sounds using electronic circuitry and components. The most recognizable form is a keyboard synthesizer, which uses keys similar to a keyboard.

The earliest synths were designed to create strange, “unearthly” tones through electrical manipulation – quite different from the familiar instruments orchestra musicians played. Groundbreaking instruments like the Moog synthesizer (released in 1964) offered keyboard players new sonic possibilities with its ability to produce swooping, continuous pitches.

For those exploring the vast potential of synthesizers, incorporating various sound packs can significantly enhance creativity. Using top Free Packs available online can provide a wide range of sounds, from classic analog-inspired tones to futuristic digital textures, offering endless possibilities for sound design and musical exploration.

Today’s software and hardware synths integrate digital sound design features like wavetable, FM, and granular synthesis for crafting unique tones. Synthesizers create sounds “from scratch” rather than play sampled instrument sounds like many keyboards do. This distinction gives synthesizers their distinctly versatile and customizable quality. 

How They Produce Sound

The essential distinction between a keyboard and a synthesizer is how they produce sounds. A conventional keyboard playback recorded or sampled sounds. Like a hi-fi system playing an album, the keyboard reads sound data and outputs it through speakers or an amplifier/PA system. The playback process is linear.

In contrast, synthesizers actively generate sounds, usually combining analog oscillator circuits and digital sound manipulation techniques. For example, classic analog synths like Moog’s iconic models mix and filter fundamental waveforms to produce rich tones. Digital methods like frequency modulation (FM), wavetable, and granular synthesis offer new radical sound design possibilities.

Rather than playing audio samples like a keyboard, synthesizers give players direct control over sound parameters like pitch, timbre, modulation, and more. This makes them inherently more versatile instruments. Synths empower musicians to digitally “sculpt” sounds rather than be limited to what already exists on a keyboard model’s sample library.

Types of Sounds They Produce

The type of sounds keyboards and synthesizers can generate differs considerably. As keyboard instruments rely on playing back prerecorded audio samples, they effectively sound like “recordings” of real instruments and sounds. With large onboard sample libraries, modern keyboards can realistically recreate detailed articulations for instruments like pianos, strings, horns, drums, and more.

Musicians who want to replicate acoustic instruments will gravitate towards keyboard instruments packed with gigabyte-sized sample banks. Top-tier models from companies like Nord and Roland incorporate meticulously multi-sampled sounds that capture characteristics like resonance, room tone, and playing techniques.

Synthesizers trade raw realism for radically diverse tones. The versatility of analog and digital sound synthesis methods gives synths an incredibly wide sonic range. Synthesizers can produce exacting replicas of acoustic instruments and hugely imaginative electronic tones.

For keyboardists looking to push sonic boundaries, add new colors, or craft their signature sound, synthesizers present exciting opportunities not possible with sample-based instruments. The sky’s the limit regarding the alien sounds and weird modulation effects you can achieve.

Touch Sensitivity Differences

Touch dynamics significantly impact the playing experience on both instrument types. Acoustic piano keyboards incorporate intricate mechanical systems, enabling nuanced dynamic expression depending on key strike velocity. So, piano technique directly translates to dynamic tonal control. Electronic keyboards emulate this mechanical velocity and aftertouch response digitally.

On synths, however, touch sensitivity has traditionally had less impact on sound. Vintage analog synths tended to produce consistent output levels regardless of playing force. This suited keyboardists emphasizing repetitive parts in genres from disco to synth-pop. Most contemporary performance synths integrate velocity and aftertouch control over volume, tone, and effects in response to playing dynamics.

Polyphony Comparison

Polyphony denotes the number of simultaneous notes an instrument can effectively reproduce. This specification directly impacts what you can play. It also determines whether complex chords and arrangements overwhelm the instrument’s capability.

Acoustic pianos have no inherent limitations to polyphony – each string and hammer mechanism essentially accounts for a separate voice. High-end digital keyboards boast a staggering 256 or even 512-note polyphony for incredibly dense arrangements. Such abundant polyphony ensures complex classical pieces won’t drop notes when you reach CPU limits.

Many vintage analog synthesizers originally had far lower polyphony specs in 4 to 16 simultaneous voices. This inherently makes them poor fits for dense piano arrangements. Thankfully, contemporary digital synthesizers lift polyphony restrictions to new heights – easily rivaling dedicated keyboards.

Advanced synthesizers leverage efficient digital sound engines to achieve high polyphony counts of over 256 notes.

Final Thoughts

While keyboards and synthesizers adopt similar interfaces, how they generate raw sounds differs tremendously. Sample-based keyboards play back recordings for realistic instrument emulations. Synthesizers actively generate sounds, enabling far wider sonic flexibility, continuous parameters, and radical effects.

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