Whether you’re putting out some beats on your laptop computer or working in a professional recording studio with an array of synths and computers, you are eventually going to need a MIDI controller, if you don’t already have one. MIDI controllers look like piano keyboards for the most part. They usually sport a row of piano keys with several knobs and sliders at the top to control reverb, echo, treble, bass, and other effects. Looking for a MIDI controller can be a bit of a hassle sometimes, but as long as you know what to look for you can eliminate a lot of the headache involved. Here are some tips to keep you pointed in the right direction.
The MIDI Controller Standard
For a long time, MIDI controllers were primarily shaped like piano keyboards. In fact, for a long time they were known as simply electronic keyboards. Eventually, as synthesizer technology progressed, the addition of extra control functions like volume knobs, effects sliders, and bass and treble control became more common. Another standard form of MIDI controller used by professionals outside the electronic industry is the electronic drum kit, or trigger pad. They’re much more versatile than standard drum sets and can produce a wider range of sounds. Even the Apple iPhone contains MIDI controller apps, really reinventing the phrase mobile music production.
USB MIDI Controllers
There’s a good chance that anyone working with a MIDI controller will be hooking it up directly to a computer, and for that reason nearly every controller that’s currently manufactured allows for a USB connection to the PC / Mac. This makes it easy to simply “plug and play,” with the digital audio workstation picking up on the MIDI data. If the connection is not USB-based, it will typically use a MIDI cable, which is not directly compatible with a computer. In this instance, you would need to purchase a separate box known as a MIDI Interface that will convert the feed into USB from the 5 pronged MIDI standard connection. USB is the standard external connection for computers.
Weighted Keys Vs. Non-weighted
There are a lot of options when it comes to the keys on a MIDI controller. There are variations of 25-key keyboards all the way up to larger models with 88 keys. Some don’t even have a keyboard, simply an array of input knobs to manually change the sound. In the models with keys, you have the option of choosing weighted, non-weighted, and semi-weighted keys – weighted will simulate the feel of an actual piano keyboard, and are usually featured on models with 88 keys. This is all up to personal preference, and people with piano experience will prefer the weighted keyboards while artists who might only want to key in a melody now and then will probably be fine with semi- or non-weighted models.
Are you ready to get into digital music production?
Not so fast.
Do you have the right beginner gear?
When you go into digital music production ecosystem, there are a few things you need in your studio:
- Computer/Notebook: The device to run your DAW, the spec is determined by your budget, get the powerful computer or notebook.
- DAW: The music software allows you to make music, Ableton Live, Garageband, Logic, Cubase…
Actually, this is what you need at first, other things are optional, like the speaker, headphone, audio interface, and DJ Mixers. It’s ok to get all this stuff in your bedroom or studio. But if you don’t have that much money, just save it at first and buy the things you really need.
This is what I did when I first entered into digital music production.
At first, I had an IBM x60 and run Ableton live on it. Everything goes fine. One day I find that I want to play a chord like the piano player, but I can’t, It’s awkward to play a chord on my notebook keyboard, It’s hard to play, you can’t octave up or octave down easily and there is no velocity when you press the key.
Now, I know that I need a Midi keyboard controller!
Factors to Consider When Buying a Midi Keyboard Controller
When you want to buy a Midi keyboard controller, there are some things you need to take into consideration.
- What you want to do with your Midi Keyboard Controller: Do you want to use your Midi controller in your studio or you want to take out to do live performance? Do you want to play a chord or do some MPC-style sample triggering? Do you want to control the parameter with your DAW on-the-fly not using the keyboard or mouse?
- Budget: there are tons of Midi controller out there, from $30 to $500. So you really need to take your money seriously.
- Other Considerations: size, portability or other factors. If you just make music in your studio or bedroom, how much space you have? Do you have other equipment? Or do you want to take your Midi controller on your live performance? Do you want to make music on the go?
So, let’s take a look at the basic element on the modern Midi controller.
How many keys do you need? 25-keys or 49-keys?
25-keys have more portability and has the advantage on size but 49-keys allows you play a full chord. If you want to play on your live performance, 49-keys maybe a good choice than 25-keys. But if you just use it in your bedroom or studio, I think 25-keys is ok, especially for beginner.
The other factor when you choose the keyboard is the touch/feel. There are different type of keyboard like weighted, semi-weighted and unweighted keyboard.
What’s the meaning of all this?
The weighted key is more like the real piano, it’s more expressive for piano player. Unweighted is more soft and cheaper, so it’s more ideal for beginners.
Most MIDI keyboard brands provide different size of the keyboard, from 25 to 32, or more, 49 keys. For example, Akai Pro has different size MIDI keyboard, included 25-keys, 49-keys, 61-keys and more 88-keys. And different type of keyboard, included semi-weighted and unweighted key.
Pad or trigger enables you to do finger drumming or trigger the sample.
The most important factor when you want to buy the controller with pads is it touch-sensitive or not?
Touch-sensitive pad enable you play like real drummer, not just triggering sounds. Some MIDI keyboard has build-in pad, like Akai Pro MPK mini. It has 8 pads and 2 banks, so you get total 16 pads.
Knobs and faders let you control some parameter like the effect or volume, it is always nice to come with your controller so you can easily adjust the sound you want.
Some keyboard has build-in knobs, like Akai Pro MPK mini. It has 8 knobs for you to adjust the parameters. Or you just want some knobs or faders, you still can find the products to fit your setup. It’s very small, portable and affordable.
Some Midi controller has the transport function, so you can easily record your sound, pause and playback. It’s nice to have but not the most important for beginner.
For example, Novation Impulse 25 has play, record, stop button so you can easily work with your DAW.
The interface decides how you connect your keyboard with your PC or other device. The most common interface is USB to MIDI interface. Some controller only has USB to MIDI interface, but some controller has more interface allows you to do some complex setup.
Some MIDI controller ships with Software for the user to do more detail setting, like change what MIDI note will be sent when you press a key or hit a pad.
For example, Novation’s MIDI Controller is ship with mapping software Automap to control the DAW.