Difference Between USB and MIDI Controllers

Make the right connection…

Difference Between USB and MIDI Controllers

If you’re creating electronic music of any kind, chances are you’ll come across a USB and a MIDI keyboard or controller. However, when you want to get a little more serious about creating your perfect sound, you’ll notice that the differences between USB and MIDI controllers becomes quite apparent, especially when it comes to compatibility. So what are the major differences between USB and MIDI, I hear you ask? Well, let me break it down for you and provide some examples of controllers and keyboards and highlight what you might be using them for to give you a better understanding.

The differences between USB and MIDI controllers

  • The major difference between the two types of controller is the way they connect. MIDI connects via a 5 pin connection, whereas a USB connects via, well, a USB!
  • Another huge difference is that MIDI cannot transfer power, where a USB can. If you have a MIDI keyboard you will need a power supply, but a USB can draw power from the PC that you’ve hooked it up to.
  • MIDI can only send and receive very small packets of data (note on/off – prog change – etc) basically just a set of instructions about what note to play and how i.e. velocity/timing etc.
  • USB can send large packets of information, such as real time audio and very detailed controller information. This could include samples that you have created via an in-built microphone.

Why would I choose MIDI over USB and vice versa?

If you’re wondering whether a MIDI controller or keyboard is better to get a hold of rather than a USB keyboard, you need to consider a few things like what you’re going to be using it for, how you want to connect your device and whether you want to be able to use older machinery alongside it. Although most keyboards and controllers nowadays have both connections allowing you to create the music you want without limitation, some may have one or the other – so be aware.

difference between usb and midi

Why choose MIDI?

  • If you have vintage equipment that you want to control through a modern keyboard or controller, you’ll need a MIDI connection (MIDI in, MIDI out).
  • That’s about it!

Why choose USB?

  • It’s quicker
  • It’s almost universally accepted with controllers and keyboards post 2010
  • You can do everything you need to do on MIDI that you can with USB, when selecting the right channel

There are a variety of different options for you to choose from, but in an ideal world you’ll want a piece of equipment that can handle both aspects, MIDI and USB. With that said, you might not need something that can facilitate both styles of connectivity. Here’s 6 options for you to choose from.

USB only

Novation LaunchKey Mini MK2 Keyboard Controller

When you want to plug directly into your MAC or PC via USB, chances are you won’t need MIDI capability. In terms of keyboards and controllers, Novation are one of the industry’s leaders supplying some of the biggest names in music with instruments that are easy to use and full of useful stuff like lightening compatibility for iPhones and iPads and backlit trigger pads ideal for live shows. The Novation LaunchKey Mini MK2 Keyboard Controller is USB only, which for the modern musician is totally fine. It’s an extremely popular keyboard controller that is very easy to carry, making it the perfect grab-n-go option for the touring musician, bedroom producer or professional looking for an easy to use controller that doesn’t skimp on quality. 25 velocity sensitive mini keys, control over any DAW, 16 RGB backlit velocity-sensitive pads and instant connectivity – no drivers needed. If you haven’t already got a DAW the Novation LaunchKey Mini MK2 includes Ableton live 9, Novation bass station and v-station virtual instruments to get you started.

MIDI only

Korg Volca FM Synthesizer

If you’re a MIDI purist and want to be able to connect your favourite MIDI controllers together, look no further that the Korg Volca FM Synthesizer. It’s super small, can be powered by battery or via an adapter and allows you to create music anywhere at any time regardless of whether you have a DAW or not. Enjoy 3 voice polyphony, step sequencing as well as a plethora of effects on top of six operators and 32 algorithms to create your perfect sound. The built in speaker is a great addition allowing you to create music on the fly, uninhibited. Thanks to the MIDI connectivity you can connect 2 Volca FM units together opening up a world of sequences.

MIDI and USB compatibility

If you want the best of both worlds, and we don’t blame you, need equipment that allows you to create music uninhibited and provide superior control over your vintage and modern gear. Thankfully there’s a plethora of world class gear readily accessible.

Korg Minilogue Polyphonic Synthesizer

Perhaps the most important item on this list comes in the form of the Korg Minilogue. If you use synthesisers, love analogue sounds yet want the convenience that the digital age has led us to, this is the synthesiser you’ve been looking for. The Korg Minilogue offers unprecedented compatibility, expression and connectivity. It contains all analogue circuitry providing the purist with the sounds and feel they love, but best of all the USB and MIDI connectivity ensures you can integrate it into any modern or vintage workflow. The 37 slim-key velocity sensitive keys provide the range you need on stage or ion the studio and a 3.5″ jack sync in/out means it can be used alongside any other csv capable synths, regardless of age and era.

Novation Circuit Groove Box

If you want to be able to trigger MIDI instruments quickly, yet want the added connectivity of USB, the Novation Circuit Groove Box contains pretty much everything you need to create electronic music whenever, wherever. Create beats, bass lines and synth tracks easily and control and trigger other MIDI or USB enabled equipment, modern or vintage. The included 1 Gigabyte of Loopmasters sounds and samples will provide enough sounds for your velocity sensitive pads and the ready packed USB cable, set of breakout MIDI cables, set of batteries and patch sheet packed nicely in the box make sure you’re ready to go quickly. Count on Novation to make everything easy for you!

Yamaha are another brand that have helped bridge the gap between USB and MIDI connectivity whilst simultaneously providing musicians of all kinds the instruments they need to get the job done. Two such examples of this ingenuity and compatibility are the Yamaha Reface range of keyboards and synthesisers and the Yamaha Montage Synth.

Yamaha Reface YC Electric Combo Organ

The Yamaha Reface series includes the CS Analogue Synthesiser, DX FM Synthesiser, CP Electric Piano and the YC Electric Combo Organ (pictured), all of which are USB and MIDI compatible. The smaller sized keyboards are easy to carry and perfect for the modern musician who has a penchant for vintage sounds. Customise your sounds and create the music you want to make via iPhone, iPad or your DAW of choice. The possibilities are pretty much endless with this range.

Yamaha Montage

If you’re looking for a full sized keyboard option, the Yamaha Montage range might be better suited to your needs. You have MIDI and USB connectivity, the benefit of the new motion control synth engine which allows you to completely customise control sequences, as well as connectivity that allows seamless integration into any workflow and compatibility with musical equipment of any era. This is possibly the most powerful synth available today, especially due to the 1900 performance ready voices and powerful effects engine. What this synth doesn’t have, you probably don’t need!

Make the right choice between MIDI and USB capability when it comes to your keyboard controllers at the Dawsons website.

Lee Glynn is a guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who lives in Liverpool, England. After moving to the UK from Perth, Australia, Lee enjoyed a successful career as guitarist in Liverpool based rock band Sound of Guns. After releasing two albums, a myriad of EPs / singles and touring extensively around the world for 6 years including stops at Glastonbury, Latitude Festival, as well as the coveted Reading & Leeds Festivals, Lee decided it was a time for a change of scenery. Utilising his experience in music journalism, Lee now works within the web team at Dawsons Music, where he can still relay his passion for music by producing great content for the Dawsons blog and social media. Lee is still an avid guitar player and writer.

Lee Glynn is a guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who lives in Liverpool, England. After moving to the UK from Perth, Australia, Lee enjoyed a successful career as guitarist in Liverpool based rock band Sound of Guns. After releasing two albums, a myriad of EPs / singles and touring extensively around the world for 6 years including stops at Glastonbury, Latitude Festival, as well as the coveted Reading & Leeds Festivals, Lee decided it was a time for a change of scenery. Utilising his experience in music journalism, Lee now works within the web team at Dawsons Music, where he can still relay his passion for music by producing great content for the Dawsons blog and social media. Lee is still an avid guitar player and writer.