Midi Keyboard vs Drum Pad (Controller,Machine,Digital Piano)


I believe the world of the modern musician is an exciting one which offers an unlimited amount of choices. Not only he has a wide range of musical instruments to choose from); now he has even more options when we include all the digital instruments that are out there such as midi keyboards, digital pianos and drum machines (pads). But wich one is better, a midi keyboard or a drum pad? let find out!

A midi keyboard is better since it offers greater functionality. Midi keyboard controllers have 25,48,61 or 88 keys, it’s easier to form chords & melodies, and they don’t have onboard sounds. Drum pads feature velocity or non-velocity sensitive pads; they are more suitable for crafting beats.

Lets now explore the main differences between a midi keyboard, a digital stage piano, and a drum machine!

Main Differences Between a Midi Controller and a Digital Stage Piano

Difference Number 1: A MIDI controller is a control surface that may look like a synthesizer or a drum machine, and you may connect this device to your computer through a USB cable. 

But a Digital Stage Piano looks exactly as a synthesizer.

Difference Number 2: The most significant difference between a MIDI controller and a Digital Stage Piano is that a MIDI controller does not have its own onboard sounds. 

A Digital Stage Piano, on the other hand, will come with its own sound library and does not require an external computer for it to function.

Difference Number 3:  The way a MIDI controller works is it sends MIDI data to an external device (usually a computer) which then transforms the data signals into sounds. This process often happens inside a DAW ( digital audio workstation) or some other type of software. 

Digital Stage pianos function the same as your QWERTY keyboard. When a key is pressed, a signal is sent to the computer inside the digital piano. This triggers a recording of an instrument which is played back through a set of speakers.

Some digital pianos come with weighted keys to replicate the feeling and playing style of traditional pianos. Again a digital stage piano does not need an external computer for it to function.

I made an in-depth midi controller vs keyboard video!

You can watch it here 👆

Main Differences Between a Midi Keyboard Controller and a Drum Machine (Drum Pad)

Above we talked about the main differences between MIDI controllers and Digital Stage Pianos, we also saw that MIDI controllers come in two popular forms:  

a) In the form of synthesizers and,

b) In the form of drum machines sometimes referred to as drum pads. 

What we are going to do now is to niche down and explore the differences between MIDI keyboard controllers and drum machines.

Difference Number 1: As the name suggests, MIDI keyboard controllers use piano keys look-alike keys. When a key is pressed midi signals are created which are transmitted to an external source.

In contrast, a drum machine uses little square rubber pads that you can “hit” with your fingers. Again midi signals travel to an external source in most cases a computer which then translates the signals into sounds.

Difference Number 2: Both midi keyboard controllers or drum machines can be used in a variety of ways. Generally, a MIDI keyboard is used for the creation of chords and melodic lines.

A drum machine, however, is often used for the creation of beats and individual sounds.

What Are Drum Practice Pads & Electronic Drum Pads?

I have to bring your attention to the fact that a drum pad (or drum machine) is not to be confused with a drum practice pad or an electronic drum pad.

Drum practice pads are used by drummers to practice their instrument quietly. This may happen before a performance, at home or at other locations where loud noises can become an issue.

Electronic drum pads (which are also known as electric drums or electronic percussions) are a modern alternative to an acoustic drum kit.

By hitting the rubber pads (which have sensors located) midi signals are sent to a sound module, (think a square typish box). This box translates the media values into sounds. Of course you can hear these sounds through a speaker or a headphone set.

Should I Try out Different Controllers Before I Buy Them?

If you have a physical store located somewhere near you, you could go over there and try a few controllers out. However, I rarely visit a physical store anymore. What I usually do is I read a bunce of reviews online, then I go to Amazon and seek the best deal. This gives me the advantage of shopping with the lowest price compared to a shop. Let alone that I can order everything I need through the convenience of my home!

How Many Keys Should My Midi Keyboard Controller Have?

This totally depends on how you plan to use your keyboard. Are you going to play live and perform full-featured songs in front of an audience? Then you should go for a large keyboard, something in the range of 48, 61, or 88 keys.

 Do you plan to craft melody Lines and create chord progressions inside your home studio environment? Then a 25 or 48 keys midi keyboard controller should be enough for you.

 What I always try to do before purchasing a piece of hardware is to know exactly what my current needs are and at the same time, I also try to predict my future needs. For me personally 25 keys are more than enough, I have explored larger keyboards, but they only took up extra space. However, your needs may be different than mine.

If you’re not sure how many keys you want and space is not an issue I’d suggest opting for 48 keys since 25 keys are a bit on the small side.

How Many Pads Should My Drum Machine Have?

You have a lot of options when it comes to drum machines, you can choose velocity-sensitive pads, Build-in effects, and programming or editing features.

Let’s focus on the pads for a minute,  most drum machines come with 16 same sized pads. However, there are some smaller models which only feature a less number of pads. In some cases, you will encounter MIDI keyboard controllers that have an additional or 4 or 8 pads on their surface, these combinations may come in handy when space is an issue,

Some people find that an eight pad drum machine will suffice their needs; however, I personally wouldn’t go lower than 16. I can tell you from my own experience that sixteen pads will most definitely give you more control compared to four or eight.

If you’re not sure  I would suggest purchasing a controller with sixteen velocity-sensitive pads right from the start, you can always thank me later 🙂 .

Is It Possible to Play Chords with a Drum Machine?

Yes, it’s possible to play chords using a drum machine (drum pad ). Generally, you’ve got two options.

 Option number one: assign full played chords on each and every pad. In other words, you can assign a C major chord to pad No1, then maybe an E minor chord to pad No2 and an F major chord to pad No3, you get the picture.

You can assign full-featured chords through:

a) Song-sampling,

b) Creating your own chord progressions using your DAW or

c) Simply downloading sample packs that already have pre-recorded chord combinations available for you to use.

Option number two:  If you assign a VST instrument on your drum machine such as a piano you will be able to play individual notes using the pads.

I’m sure you know that chords are created from notes. By hitting the right pads simultaneously you will be able to create the desired chords.

Is It Possible to Program Beats with a Midi Keyboard?

Yes, it’s possible to program beats with a MIDI keyboard. Many producers, especially hip-hop producers, still program their beats with a keyboard controller. Keyboards have worked well since samples were first invented; however, purchasing a dedicated drum machine opens up a whole new world of possibilities. 

Most drum machines come with extra features such as knobs, faders, and sliders, have build-in displays. Having a display allows you to take a break from your computer screen and turn your focus on the instrument itself.

 This gives the drum machine a “traditional” feeling. At first glance, this might seem rather insignificant, but my personal experience tells me it can elevate your workflow big time!

Keep in mind that Drum Machines have their own learning curve, while not necessary you can learn finger drumming which requires a combination of different motions and techniques. Some people are great finger drummers right of the bat and for others, it takes a bit more effort.

The hardest part is keeping an even rhythm and performing the right amount of pressure on the pads, in any case, don’t be fooled since finger drumming is easier than you may initially think, if you are an able “table drummer” then I reckon it will be easy for you to learn how to use a drum machine 🙂

Do I Need Dedicated Software for My Drum Machine?

Most drum machines are not in need of dedicated software, of course, there are a few exceptions present such as the Native Instruments Maschine which performs best when used with it’s bundled software!

 However, the majority of drum machines (drum pads) will work with almost any drum plug-in that’s out there.  The following depends on your DAW but some digital audio workstations offer the ability to assign different samples to your drum pad directly through the DAW’s workspace, An example would be Ableton Live 10 which is also the DAW that I use.

That said, having a dedicated Drum VST will allow you to create your own sounds from scratch or use its extensive library, below I list a few popular options for you to consider. 

(Note by clicking on the following links and a new window will appear that will direct you to the product sales page) 

Native Instruments Battery 4

Xfer Nerve

Arturia spark 2

Vengeance Phalanx

Ableton Lives Drum Pad (comes bundled with Either Ableton live 9 or 10)

Conclusion: Should I Buy a Midi Keyboard or a Drum Machine?

 If after reading this extensive guide about MIDI keyboard controllers vs drum machines you still don’t know no which want to purchase, I would suggest starting with a MIDI keyboard.

However,  if you have the budget I would advise you to also buy a drum machine together with your keyboard. I am almost certain that once you experience the added functionality these two worlds have to offer you’ll never go back being keyboardless or drum machine-less, The choice is up to you 🙂

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