What is the Difference Between a Synthesizer & an Electronic Keyboard?

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Music, just like most hobbies or professions, has its own technical jargon. When it comes to types of musical instruments, this jargon is important from a monetary point of view so you know exactly what you're buying. The first step to understanding the differences between electronic keyboards and synthesizers is to understand what each is.

Electronic Keyboard

  • At its most basic definition, an electronic keyboard is a musical instrument that has a keyboard and whose sound originates electronically. While there were some earlier attempts, the earliest practical electronic keyboards attempted to directly simulate the sound of acoustic keyboard instruments. Electric pianos and organs were among those first electronic keyboards. Some synthesizers qualify as electronic keyboards.

The Synthesizer

  • A synthesizer creates music by generating a sound wave then manipulating and altering various attributes of that wave. These attributes consist of things like attack (how quickly the note rises up) and decay (how quickly it terminates) and the shape of the wave. Through the proper adjustment of these characteristics and others (like white noise) a musician can simulate natural sounds or create unique sounds.

The Earliest Synthesizers

  • The first synthesizers were developed in the 1960s. They were big devices that weren't equipped with keyboards. They were confined to recording studios because their size made them impractical to transport. The first portable synthesizer use was built by Bob Moog in 1964. While it gained acceptance and was widely used, it did not have a keyboard. Moog didn't built a synthesizer equipped with a keyboard until 1970.

Other Types of Synthesizers

  • Midi technology created a means for synthesizers to communicate with one another and interface with devices like computers. Digital technology and controller devices, which allowed things like drum pads or guitars to control the synthesizer, made them even more versatile over the 1980s and 1990s. Some keyboardists prefer the sound of analog synthesizers to digital (a similar debate to the one that surrounds vinyl records versus CD's) and might not consider digital synthesizers to be an advance.

The Bottom Line

  • Most electronic keyboards that allow multiple voices are probably synthesizers. Still, there are synthesizers out there that are essentially metal boxes with no keyboards of their own. These need some form of Midi controller to control the sound generation. Many Midi controllers are keyboards which means there are electronic keyboards that aren't synthesizers. A good rule of thumb (although, this isn't infallible, either) is the more expensive electronic keyboards are synthesizers, while the cheaper ones are not. Also, the more advanced synthesizers have a higher learning curve and might require a keyboard tech depending on a user's level of experience and knowledge.

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  • Photo Credit keyboard image by Vasiliy Koval from Fotolia.com
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