What is a Keyboard Synthesizer? (with pictures)

What is a Keyboard Synthesizer?

Amy Hunter

A keyboard synthesizer is a piano alternative that creates sound through electrical currents. There are different types of synthesizers. The synthesizer produces sound when electric signals are pressed. Some synthesizers use a stringed instrument, which resembles a guitar, others use a wind controller, which resembles a saxophone, and others use drum pads. The most common, however, are synthesizers that use a keyboard that resembles a piano. The instrument that signals the sound from the synthesizer is known as the controller.

A keyboard synthesizer is an electronic component based on a piano.
A keyboard synthesizer is an electronic component based on a piano.

There are three types of keyboard synthesizers: analog, digital and software. There are also hybrid synthesizers, which use a combination of two or more of these technologies. While there are many different types of synthesizers, keyboard synthesizers are the most common type of controller, and are relatively simple to use. The sound of the synthesizer simulates the sound of real musical instruments. There is an electrical switch under each key. When the key is pressed, the switch generates a tone.

With traditional music cables, electric keyboards can be plugged into amplifiers and other musical equipment fitted with quarter-inch jacks.
With traditional music cables, electric keyboards can be plugged into amplifiers and other musical equipment fitted with quarter-inch jacks.

For the noise to progress from electric frequency to traditional music, it must travel through a loudspeaker or set of headphones. The noise that is produced by the electrical frequencies can mimic the sound of various instruments. Sound is adjusted up and down the scale by speeding up or slowing down the music. Speeding up the playback speed gives the effect of moving up an octave, while slowing down the sound gives the effect of lowering the music an octave.

Electrical synthesizers have been around for a long time, but it was not until recently that technology allowed their widespread use. The first electric synthesizer was developed in 1876, an accidental discovery while the inventor Elisha Gray was working on a prototype of the telephone. In the 1960s, technology had advanced so that keyboard synthesizers could be played in real time. Their size, however, meant that they were primarily used in recording studios.

In 1968, the band The Monkees made history by scoring the first number one album that had music generated from a synthesizer. The album was Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. After the success of The Monkees album, the keyboard synthesizer was used more regularly in various recordings. In 1969, the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service earned the distinction of being the first film to use synthesized music.

The 1970s brought widespread success for the keyboard synthesizer. Some musicians made an art of developing different sounds and mixes on their synthesizers. Hobbyist magazines provided detailed plans that amateurs could use to build their own synthesizers.

Synthesizers typically require amplifiers when played in front of audiences.
Synthesizers typically require amplifiers when played in front of audiences.

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Discussion Comments


When I first got interested in music, especially keyboards, synthesizers were incredibly expensive. I put a 1980s Korg synthesizer on layaway, but I never could get it paid off. I think the asking price was around $1500 at the time. A few year later, Yamaha came out with a DX-100 keyboard that had over 100 decent voices for around $200.

The other day I found a Radio Shack keyboard with over 200 voices, drum tracks and a digital recording system for only $175. If I run it through a professional mixer and amplifier, it sounds almost as good as the Kurzweil I play in concert.


I've owned a few synthesizers over the years, and I'd say the technology right now is about as good as it can get. When I first started playing keyboards, there were only a few voices that sounded real to me, and those were mostly strings and piano. The high-end synthesizers today have voices that are virtually indistinguishable from the real instruments. I can play a synthesized saxophone voice that includes breath sounds and fades.

One thing I've noticed about people first starting to play keyboard synthesizers is that many of them approach them like they would an organ or piano. They'll activate a voice like "breathy flute", but still play the notes in a percussive style, like a piano. I tell my students to think like the instrument they want to synthesize, not like the keyboard they're playing.


@lightning88: A MIDI keyboard is an instrument designed to work with external sound sources or computer software. It would typically have generic controls (knobs, buttons, sliders) that can be assigned to different aspects of the software, such as track volume, sound effects, and even editor/sequencer transport controls (play, stop, record, etc.).

A MIDI keyboard usually doesn't have any on-board sounds, so it isn't a synthesizer. However, there are many keyboard synths can that serve nicely as a MIDI keyboard. A musician would typically have a master MIDI keyboard in a setup where he/she uses many different types of software (and hardware rack-based) synthesizers in their studio, or performing live, when most of their synths are running on a laptop computer, or in a rack.

I'm not clear on the term "virtual keyboard synth," but it may refer to "virtual analog," a marketing buzzword for a keyboard synthesizer that uses a modern digital architecture to produce sound, but functions as if it was based on an analog architecture. It may also mean a "softsynth," a synthesizer that runs on a computer, and acts like a hardware synth, but you need a MIDI keyboard (or MIDI information) to play it.


What is the difference between a MIDI keyboard and a synthesizer? Or are those two the same thing?

And what is a virtual keyboard synthesizer? I recently heard that term and wasn't sure what it was.

Thanks for the info.


Could anybody recommend some good computer keyboard synthesizer software? I recently got a Roland synthesizer, and I'd like to be able to work with the recordings I make in my computer.

Of course, free keyboard synthesizer software would be ideal, but I'm interested in any suggestions.

So can anybody recommend me some good online or computer keyboard synthesizer software?


I really liked the way this article was written. You explained what a keyboard synthesizer is in terms that everybody could understand, but that isn't just obnoxiously obvious so the musicians wouldn't be annoyed by reading it.

I also really liked how you included some of the history of the electronic keyboard synthesizer -- it definitely made the article more interesting.

Thanks for an interesting and informative article.

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