What is a MIDI Controller?
What is a MIDI keyboard exactly? First off, we need to understand what the MIDI controller part means. MIDI keyboards and controllers in general are used to control your digital audio workstation (DAW) in a more streamlined fashion. Most MIDI keyboards have a slew of handy features that radically improve workflow, creativity, and functionality in your studio. These types of keyboards are obviously more lightweight than a traditional piano. This means that you can emulate any sound you want with no limitations.
History of MIDI
MIDI controller keyboards have been around since the dawn of modern electronic music-making, but you might be asking yourself, “what is MIDI input?” In the 80’s, Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi and Sequential Circuits president Dave Smith we’re brainstorming the idea of creating an alternative to the already established Oberheim System. This alternative would be cheaper, more straightforward, and less cumbersome. This eventually led to the invention of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), coined by Kakehashi himself.
Moog Music founder Robert Moog introduced MIDI to keyboards in 1982 as a way to accomplish two things at once. This ultimately improved musicians’ workflow and inspired a generation of unique creators. From there, the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA) was formed in 1984 at the Summer NAMM show which has since overseen the improvements and multiple iterations of MIDI.
We all know the impact these folks have had on music. The 80’s spawned a new age of music that no one had experienced before. On to today, electronic music has progressed far beyond our wildest dreams. Freedom of creativity is endless nowadays due to this simple invention, and we are all certainly better off because of it.
The 8 Main Factors to Consider
When it comes to MIDI controller keyboards, it can be a challenge trying to decide which one is best for your specific needs. Each brand and model will have their own unique features, so things can quickly become convoluted. Luckily, I have created this ultimate guide that gives you the 8 main things to consider when researching this topic.
1. Number of Keys
This issue really boils down to how much room you have in your studio, but there are other highlights worth considering here as well. The number of keys on a MIDI controller keyboard can range anywhere from a single octave to a full-size, 88 key keybed.
Therefore, you should consider how you want to play. Do you need to play with two hands? Do you want keyboard splits of range mapping? Or would you be happy with a single octave keyboard with a few control options? It’s all dependent on your individual requirement.
2. Key Weight and Action Types
Key weight and action is amongst the most important factors of a MIDI Controller keyboard. The keys need to feel right to play according to your taste, period. This is true whether you’re producing in the studio or performing live. This is a factor that only you can determine because it all boils down to what you’re already accustomed to. If you’re a beginner, then I have a specific recommendation for you below. Speaking of which, there are three basic keyboard action types to choose from
Weighted Hammer Action
It’s hard to find a digital or MIDI keyboard with weighted hammer action keys. This is due to the fact that this action is usually only found on mechanical pianos that have strings and hammers. This is about as “real feel” as you can get. That being the case, if you’re a dedicated piano player it might feel quite strange playing on a MIDI keyboard.
This is probably the most popular option among electronic producers and performers. It’s a close comparison to weighted action, but semi-weighted action will have less resistance with a springier release. It’s a solid option for those looking for an emulation of a true piano “feel.”
Beginners will most likely feel most comfortable with a synth action keybed. This option features spring-loaded keys that are very light. The keys will return to rest quickly which can be an advantage for those of you that like playing fast parts. You’ll find synth action is mostly found on compact keyboards meant for musicians that aren’t necessarily pianists by default. All in all, synth action is a universal option that can suit most people’s needs. Keep in mind that this option is not for those looking for a true feeling keybed.
Aftertouch is a smart feature that detects the pressure applied to each key and transfers that data to MIDI. It comes in two main forms, monophonic and polyphonic. Monophonic affects the signal with an average MIDI value for all held keys. Conversely, Polyphonic affects the signal with the value of each independent key note that is struck.
Through this process you gain the ability to add expressiveness to your playing. You can control all sorts of parameters that affect the natural sound of the keyboard. The types of parameters you can mess around with are tremolo, vibrato, and volume just to name a few. It’s a neat little feature that’s predominantly found in more expensive devices. I wouldn’t say it’s a deal-breaker if a keyboard doesn’t have Aftertouch though.
Auto-Mapping is a feature that you should definitely be looking out for. Auto-mapping gives the keyboard the ability to auto-configure itself to your DAW, essentially enabling plug and play functionality. This feature prevents you from having to manually set your assignable controls which can save a lot of time. It’s impossible to find a device that has auto-mapping for every single DAW in existence, so you’ll want to make sure it works for whatever specific software you use.
5. Control Options (Pads, Mod Wheels, etc.)
Pads, Mod Wheels, and any other motorized control functions are essential. These controls really give you free reign over your sound design. That being said, it’s easy to think that you need a whole bunch of these control options, but that’s not necessarily true. Most of the best devices have all of the fundamental controls that you’d realistically use on a regular basis.
You don’t need to go crazy here with a slew of additional knobs and faders. I say this because the price really begins to ramp up as more controls are built-in to the keyboard. Not to mention the amount of distraction that’s introduced with a sea of motorized controls at your fingertips. I recommend keeping it simple, and only focusing on what you think will be the most practical for your needs.
6. Transport Controls
Transport control is simply the ability the keyboard has to control your DAW with play, stop, pause, and record functions. Most MIDI controllers and keyboards offer this feature naturally. With dedicated transport controls at your disposal, you’re saving yourself from all of the potential headaches of switching back and forth from your computer to perform basic functions. After all, anything that helps your workflow is beneficial to your ability to keep your inspirations flowing without interruptions.
7. I/O Options and Connectivity
Most commonly, MIDI keyboards transmit via USB. If you have more of a complex setup, you might want to look for other connectivity options like a conventional 5-pin MIDI DIN jack. This will let you connect to and control external hardware MIDI instruments. CV and Gate outputs are cool as well, giving you the ability to modulate vintage gear if you own some already.
Let’s talk about pedal connectivity now. Most MIDI keyboards will offer a sustain or switch-type pedal jack. However, basic models won’t include a jack for a continuous controller (CC) pedal. If you want an expression pedal, you’ll need to make sure a jack for it is present in the rig you’re looking at. Higher-end keyboards generally give you the ability to assign a MIDI CC number to the pedal jack. “MIDI learn” mode is a feature that will help this process for you and worth looking for as well.
8. How its powered
In most cases, a MIDI keyboard will be powered by USB BUS through your computer. This is great for most general uses, but you might want more flexibility. If that sounds like you then it might be worth it to have multiple options like battery power or the ability to plug it into an outlet. Fortunately, most keyboards on the market will have a number of different power supply options.
Now that we’ve broken down all of these factors, you can see just how subjective this decision is. Depending on your style, it might be worth having a few devices that do different things for you. My only goal here is to help you decipher what features are most important, and give you some perspective on these devices as a whole. Luckily, MIDI is diverse and intuitive, so those founders had all of us musicians in mind when creating it. With that, you can feel confident that any device you choose will fit like a puzzle-piece in your home studio.
I have reviews for each of the most popular key count MIDI controller keyboards listed below if you’re interested:
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Related: Weighted MIDI Keyboards Guide