MIDI Controller: Various Types & Uses. Here’s an easy to follow guide on controllers, especially the keyboard ones, and how it helps you in your music production endeavors. You have a choice of 61 key, 88 key, compact keyboard, non keyboard, and pedal controllers. A midi controller is an important part of most studio setups. Learn all about MIDI and the various types of midi controllers (including midi controller Keyboards).
Table of Contents
- 1 MIDI Controller: Guide
- 2 Buying the Best MIDI Controllers
- 3 Final Thoughts
MIDI Controller: Guide
Introduction to MIDI Controller
Whether you’re a hobbyist music producer or have advanced skills in the studio, its very likely that you’re using a midi controller. A MIDI Controller is an important equipment in the music studio, along with your computer / laptop, DAW, audio interface, headphones and / or studio monitors.
A MIDI controller is anything (hardware equipment or software) that is capable of sending MIDI data to other MIDI devices, typically to trigger sounds and to control sound related parameters (MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface). Read more on midi here.
Here are some typical uses of a midi controller:
- You can use a MIDI controller with a sound module and treat it as your primary instrument or to provide effects.
- A MIDI controller can be used not only in a studio but also in a live sound system.
- Want to create music on your computer? If you are going to use a software sequencer for all your recordings, a midi controller will be just about fine.
Earlier, only the midi controller (keyboard) was a popular controller. Nowadays, various other musical instruments can also be used as a midi controller (keyboard, guitar, violin, etc). You even get pedal controllers that lets you control performance parameters with your foot, while your hands are busy playing the music instrument.
Besides the more common keyboard controller, you also get specialty controllers (such as pedal board controller) that give you more options to tailor your studio.
If you play woodwind, you’ll be more comfortable with a wind controller, which accurately models the subtleties of breath control. Same with a guitar controller.
Benefits of Using the Best MIDI Controllers
Here are some benefits of using a midi controller.
- Manipulate your notes with ease. Once you have recorded the notes as midi, it is easy to change the notes without having to record again and again.
- MIDI devices are compact. It won’t occupy a lot of space on your recording desk.
- MIDI controller keyboards are cheaper than synthesizers and arranger keyboards
- Since the sound is not produced by the keyboard, you can go in for a MIDI Controller Keyboard which is not only cheaper but also comes in smaller sizes.
- You can easily dump your laptop, soundcard and MIDI controller keyboard in a bag and carry your recording studio along with you.
- But if you already have a keyboard instrument, you need not buy a separate midi controller as almost any keyboard synthesizer/workstation can be used as a midi controller to control the sounds and parameters of other devices.
While recording on a software sequencer, you will not be recording the sounds from your electronic keyboard. The sound will be generated within the PC using softwares called soft synths and VST’s, placed inside the software sequencer. You will just trigger them using your keyboard to produce the sound. The quality of the sound in this case will be determined by the soft synths and VST’s that you have installed in your PC.
Controller Keyboards are Special
MIDI controller keyboards are special because they have really changed the way musicians approach music. It gives live performers & studio musicians a lot of flexibility to play and/or record virtually any synthesized musical instrument.
It also allows them to have a portable recording setup which can be carried around in their shoulder bag.
The sliders, knobs and buttons on the keyboard can be assigned to the various functions available in a recording software, which makes it much easier to apply effects or make changes to the sounds or to your recording. For instance, you can turn the knob to add more treble or bass to the sound. You get keyboard controllers with velocity sensitive or weighted keys as well, which suits piano and/or organ players.
There are lots of misconceptions about what a midi controller is or does. However, a midi controller is anything whose primary or secondary function is to send midi performance data to another hardware or software.
Here are various equipment that can act as midi controllers:
Features to Look for on the Best MIDI Controller
Modern controller keyboards are quite powerful and are capable of doing a lot of things. Here are some of the features that you can expect on these midi controllers. Things to keep in mind when looking for midi controllers:
- Keys need to be Velocity-sensitive (responds to how hard or how soft you’ve pressed the keys).
- After-touch. MIDI data sent after the key has been struck, while it is being held down or sustained. Aftertouch is often routed to control vibrato, volume, and other parameters.
- Key action. You can choose from a range of action – unweighted, semi-weighted and weighted hammer action (emulates keys of a real piano). Not only are these available in various number of keys, you also have the option to choose between the normal synth keys, semi-weighted, or weighted keys.
- In terms of keys, you usually have choices of 25, 49 and 61 key keyboards. You also have choices of weighted and semi-weighted keys with after-touch.
- More Control: These are designed to give you complete control over your music making software. Most leading brands have worked with some of the most popular DAWs to ensure that the knobs, faders and buttons can control all the things that you need to control in the software (such as your plug-in instruments and FX). You can map the various faders, knobs and buttons of the keyboard to the various functions within the sequencer software.
- Most are USB powered so they don’t need to be powered separately.
- You have provisions to connect expression and sustain pedal inputs
- MIDI in and out ports are provided for connecting external MIDI instruments
- Most MIDI controllers have a full control surface and some may also thrown in some freebie software that makes it fast and simple to assign knobs, faders and buttons to your music software.
- Big LCD screen: One you start working with several features, it can get a bit confusing as to what knob is controlling what feature. This is where a keyboard with a big LCD screen can really help. Controllers with big display screens show you instantly what each control is assigned to. The screen shows what knob is assigned to what part of the software so you don’t have to look at the software GUI for this.
Polyphony & MIDI
Do you own an old digital piano or keyboard, with midi capabilities but with lesser polyphony, and are wondering if that keyboard will be suitable for music production? Assuming if you connect it to another sound module or a software synth/sequencer, will it impact the sound coming from it?
Not at all! The polyphony is for the sound engine of the digital piano keyboard, and it doesn’t impact the MIDI messages that the keyboard will send out. Your digital piano will send the complete set of MIDI messages. So in that regard, your production setup should work fine.
Transferring MIDI Data
Nowadays, for most situations a USB cable is used to transfer MIDI data, but originally and even now in certain cases people still use a 5 pin Din connector.
The various controls, wheels, knobs and sliders available on most midi devices are used to send the midi messages.
Things like how hard you press the keys and how long you press the keys also result in various midi messages being passed, as those actions produce different sounds.
Best midi controller keyboard reviews…
Using a MIDI Controller Keyboard
A MIDI Controller keyboard (or any other midi controller) is a keyboard which does not have any sound of its own, but it can send MIDI messages. If you use a software sequencer for all your recordings, you really do not need an electronic keyboard with all its sounds, effects and accompaniments. You just need a midi keyboard which can send out MIDI messages and this is exactly what a controller keyboard does.
Though you may have got an idea of why you need these equipment in your setup, here are some more consideration.
The most common connection is between a MIDI instrument such as a keyboard controller (or the ones shown above), and a host machine (such as your computer) that runs the software to process MIDI into sound. When you press a note on the MIDI keyboard, the chip inside turns this data into a message that is communicated to the host computer. The computer then processes this MIDI message into sound via a MIDI sequencer (which usually is a software). A single port of MIDI has 16 channels, and each of those channels can be used for sending useful performance related values.
Video showing the various features of a midi controller keyboard:
Another video that provides more useful tips when buying a MIDI Keyboard Controller.
Most controllers are just plug-and-play but some may require you to download drivers, depending on what DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) you use. Some DAWs require you to select the controller within the DAW (check the user manuals for that). Some of you may be thinking what’s the best way to deal with latency, but most of the times its because of poorly-written drivers. So even if you use an external card and if it has latency problems, you should try updating the drivers.
Computer Based Sequencer vs Keyboard Based Sequencer
Using MIDI you can turn your computer into a recording studio. You need a software sequencer like Sonar, Cubase, Reason, etc. and you need to connect your musical keyboard to your computer. The MIDI IN/OUT of your keyboard will need to be connected to the MIDI OUT/IN of your computer’s soundcard.
A sequencer is something on which you record your performance track by track and play it back.
It can be either software or hardware. But why should you use a PC based sequencer?
Almost all the keyboards contain a built-in sequencer and you can use that to record your performance. However, the limitation of this approach is:
- It will actually record the sounds and styles of the keyboard. Now if you do not have a top of the line keyboard the sounds may not be very good and the recording will be of average quality.
- It will be a pain to do editing of your recording. It could be very cumbersome to do editing of the parts with mistakes. Of course, you will not find any of these problems with top of the line workstations.
But if you already have a keyboard and you want to make use of it, you can connect it to a PC through MIDI and use a software sequencer for your recording.
Buying the Best MIDI Controllers
Best MIDI Controller Keyboards
The most common type of MIDI controller is the keyboard, these are used by songwriters and performers alike. You get compact sized keyboard controllers as well, where space is limited. And if you’re a pianist, you can opt for a full size 88-key model with weighted keys.
You also have the option of going in for a controller keyboard that comes with a built-in audio interface; the advantage is that you have one less equipment to deal with in your setup and saves you desk-space. If you are not sure what recording software to use yet, you may try some free ones or use the trial version of popular DAWs to get a hang of it. You can even Google for “vst synth” or “vst organs” to find several freeware plugins, that you may try out.
MIDI Pad Controllers
MIDI pad controllers are commonly used by DJs, recording artists and studio engineers. Its easy to use and brings the feel of classic beat making into the world of computer music production.
Important things to look for in a MIDI pad controller are the pad count and layout, as well as the configuration options.
MIDI Wind Controllers
A wind controller (also referred to as a “wind synth”, or “wind synthesizer”) is a wind instrument that can generate MIDI messages and lets you control other midi-compatible devices, synthesizers.
Wind controllers are most commonly played and fingered like any other typical woodwind instrument (saxophone, flute, trumpet, etc).
You need to make a standard MIDI connection and these make no sound by themselves.
When it comes to breath-controlled instruments, Yamaha and Akai are the to major names out there. These look more like a saxophone but can be played by flute, oboe, and clarinet players as well.
The real advantages of a keyboard controller are versatility and portability. They give you control over virtually the entire range of modern music hardware and software while sometimes even being compact enough to fit in your laptop computer bag.
Most musicians find it easy to use a keyboard midi controller as feeding in the notes, to the DAW, is quite easy. Choose one that has lots of controls, knobs, sliders, so that you can use them to control the various sound parameters, rather than having to use the mouse and do it on the software of your computer.
What you need to understand is MIDI is a standard, and any MIDI controller will work with any other equipment that says it can takes MIDI input.
You may also want to read this article that explains what you need to setup your home studio to produce music. As you can see, you definitely need more than one piece of equipment.