Over the past several years, the use of virtual instruments has increased, both in a studio and on stage. Due to this growth, MIDI keyboard controllers have become an important part of the music-making process. In this article, we’ll discuss some factors to consider when purchasing a MIDI keyboard controller.
What is a MIDI Keyboard Controller?
A keyboard controller has piano or synth-style keys as well as knobs, buttons, and sliders. Its purpose is to transmit MIDI data to external synthesizers, computer software synthesizers, or sequencers. Most keyboard controllers cannot make sound themselves, but almost any keyboard synthesizer can be used to control other devices.
In the 1980s, the synth was king. During that time, the MIDI specification was created. One of its functions was to allow live musicians to control multiple synthesizers with one keyboard. It was highly successful, and today many musicians use MIDI controllers. From studio musicians to sound designers, from songwriters to live performers, many people can benefit from the MIDI keyboard controller’s flexibility. This versatility as well the MIDI keyboard controller’s portability are substantial advantages. They allow the user to access a huge range of modern music hardware and software, while often being small enough to fit in a bag.
Knobs, Buttons, and Sliders
Many MIDI keyboard controllers have a range of buttons, sliders, and knobs in addition to traditional keys and performance pads. They can be a major factor in increasing the user’s control over their software or any other module the user may be working with, as well as providing a more “analog” feel and creating a more tactile experience. Automapping technology is also a factor to consider, as this technology allows you to set up your sliders and buttons to correspond to specific software applications.
Action and Aftertouch
Action refers to the way that they keyboard response when being played. This is an important factor to consider, as the tactile response can have an enormous impact on one’s playing! There are three types of action: Synth, semi-weighted and weighted. Synth-action keys are light and can be moved quickly. Semi-weighted keys have a little more responsive but are a bit springier than weighted-hammer action keys, which are designed to mimic the feel of playing the piano. If your primary instrument is piano, this third option may be ideal. Aftertouch is a way of lending, even more, expressiveness to one’s playing, by allowing the user to press down a bit more on the key for effects such as vibrato. This feature is typically found on higher-end instruments.
Modern MIDI keyboard controllers transmit data via USB, but for more complicated setups other types of jacks can make things easier. Conventional MIDI outputs allow you to control external MIDI instruments, and if you want to control vintage or non-MIDI hardware, a CV or gate output will be helpful.
While almost all keyboard controllers have a sustain pedal jack, basic models do not have a jack for a continuous controller pedal. A pedal such as this can help to make one’s playing more expressive, allowing you to modulate any parameter in real time while leaving your hands free. This can be extremely useful and is something to consider.
Key Count and Performance Pads: Some Things To Consider
There are a few questions to ask when considering key number for your potential MIDI keyboard controller. Do you play one- or two-handed? How much studio space do you have? Is range mapping (keyboard splits) something you want to be able to do? Will you be traveling with your MIDI keyboard controller– how important is it for it to be portable? The answers you have to these questions will determine which MIDI keyboard controller is right for you. For instance, if you are a DJ or perform music live, a smaller model would be ideal.
In general, MIDI keyboard controllers come with 25, 49, 61, or 88 keys, and can range in length from 20 to over 50 inches. Models with 32, 37, 73, and 76 keys are available, but much less common. As far as performance pads go, while they can be helpful for someone who prefers the tactile experience of velocity-sensing pads for playing percussion and triggering loops (some can even sense aftertouch), they take up space on the keyboard. In addition to key count, you may also want to consider this when choosing and measure your space in order to choose accordingly.
Alternatives to the Traditional Keyboard
The one that probably comes to mind is that 80’s standby, the “keytar.” This device allows a pianist or synth player to step away from their usual static setup and lends itself to a more dynamic performance. Other options include pad devices. These pad devices are popular with hip-hop artists and allow MIDI samples to be accessed by the touch of a pad, making them excellent for programming the drumbeats that are crucial to the genre. Wind musicians have not been left out either: a wind controller is a device that gives wind musicians access to MIDI sound modules and software and is an excellent option for wind musicians who want a more tactile experience.
In conclusion, here are the major factors to consider when purchasing a MIDI keyboard controller:
-Key count: Do you need 25 keys? 49? 88 keys? Your playing needs will determine this.
-Keyboard Action and Aftertouch: Synth, semi-weighted, or weighted hammer action? Do you need aftertouch?
-Sliders, buttons, and knobs: How many do you need and what is your ideal layout?
-I/O: CC pedal jack, conventional 5-pin MIDI jacks, CV/Gate outputs
Performance pads: How many do you need?
Now that you know what to consider, you’ll know what questions to ask the sales associate or sound engineer helping you make your purchase. Happy shopping!