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Everything You Need to Know About Buying Your First MIDI Controller

Nov 15, 2018 | 0 comments

The following was written by Jarrett Moses. Jarrett is a 2018 graduate from the University of Valley Forge. He majored in Music Production: Studio Engineer. He’s spent 3 years editing and recording music as well as interviews and video audio; including working in live environments at the University of Valley Forge and 2 years for Epic Church in Philadelphia. He also has the Operator Certification in Pro Tools and level 2 Dante software certification. In February 2018, He filmed and edited a short film which won 1st place in a short film festival.

Every musician at some point has messed around with a piano hoping they’d be the next Mozart level prodigy. But eventually we either quit, or settle on starting from the basics. That being said piano in general is one of the best instruments to know since some form of piano or keys is used in almost every genre of music. Knowing that, being able to use at least block chords for pads or lead synth sounds is very helpful when producing music because it adds a diversity to your own ability. However, you cannot carry a baby grand piano around in your backpack or even fit it into most rooms in a house. That’s why MIDI keyboards and controllers are so genius. They best part, MIDI controllers are more than just another type of piano controller. They can be beat pads or even a type of wind instrument. Through this article we will take a look at the options out there as well as what would be best in different circumstances.

What Is a MIDI?

Now to understand what to do with MIDI, you need to know what it actually stands for. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. This means it is used to control sounds that are computer generated. MIDI transmits electronic signals from the controller to the computer it is connected to. That connection can be made either with a usb cable, or with the 5 pin MIDI cables. To use the 5 pin MIDI cables, you will need to run through an interface, most interfaces will have MIDI inputs on the back, but always check to make sure.

There is no real perk to using one over the other; they both send the signal clearly with no interruptions unless the cable itself has a break in it.

MIDI controllers will work similar to pianos in that the harder you hit the key or button, the louder it will cue the sample to be. To help fight against hitting the keys too hard or them feeling different than a normal piano, you can get controllers with weighted keys that play the same as a keyboard or piano.

USB used for MIDI controllers

5 pin MIDI cable

Choosing the Right MIDI Controller

If you already have a keyboard, check and see if it is compatible as a MIDI controller so that you don’t waste your money. When choosing a MIDI keyboard you have different options you want to consider, such as key count, weighted keys, size, programmable pads, and what built in controls it has. When it comes to key count, it can range anywhere from 25 keys all the way to a full 88 keys. Just remember that with more keys comes less mobility. Also, with controllers with fewer keys, you will not find them weighted very often. The programmable pads can be programmed to trigger samples of drums or any sound really.

Now that you know what options you can be looking for in your MIDI controller, you can start shopping for different controllers to get for yourself. If you are just starting out wanting to learn piano and not looking to travel anywhere, you can go one of two ways. You could either buy a full size MIDI keyboard such as the M-Audio Keystation 88 II.

The Keystation 88 II has semi weighted keys so it has the feel of a normal keyboard as well as having a plug for a sustain expression pedal on the back. The second option you have when getting a keyboard would be the choice of getting a smaller number of keys which still covers multiple octaves but has only 49 keys. A great choice would be the Novation Launchkey 49.

This keyboard is a great option since it comes fully equipped to do more than simply work with piano and keys. It has programmable pads and knobs that can be set to change settings within the software you are working with. If you are worried about it not having the octave you want to play in, you don’t need to worry, since it has octave controls so you can modulate it up or down. This is a great choice for people working in a small home studio as well since it gives them a very diverse tool to work with. But not everyone has a home base to work from to create their content or even to just practice. For people who travel and are looking for something small they can do little arrangements on, the Akai Mini MKII is a great choice.

This small controller is great for creating beats, loops, or even normal pads. The keys are smaller than normal to help with the compact size but still large enough to hit the notes individually. Beyond this, there are other inventive types of midi controllers that allow for more musical skill to be used. For the advanced players and composers who are looking to invest quite a bit into their equipment, the ROLI Seaboard RISE 49 provides cutting edge MIDI technology with an inventive approach to MIDI controllers.

The RISE allows the player to add expression and vibratos to their playing. It really is hard to explain what sets this controller apart from the rest so please watch this video to get a better understanding of how truly amazing this piece of equipment really is.

Other Types of MIDI

Now we focussed on MIDI for keyboards and such which is the most common way MIDI is used. But there are other  ways it can be approached such as through the use for guitar emulators. Guitar emulators like the Eleven Rack or AXE FX which will emulate the sound of other rigs and amps that are known for their tone. The foot controller works as a controller for that by switching around through the presets or the settings you have made yourself. There is a lot more you can do with these controllers, a great example is the Nektar Pacer. It can work with both guitar fx as well as working with DAW’s such as Pro Tools or Studio One. To get a better Idea check out this video.

Another way MIDI can be used is through the programmable pads that we mentioned a bit earlier. These are used a lot for sampling for beats and DJ’s. Now working with the keyboard and pad in combination is great because then you can do so much with just one instrument. An example of such comes from the Youtube artist Peter Petrowski. In his video he uses the same MIDI controller we showed earlier, the Akai Mini MKII. To see the video, click here.

If you have experience with saxophone, clarinet, or other similar instruments but want to be included in the electronic music too, check out the Akai Professional EWI.

This electronic wind instrument has the ability to roll through octaves and even has a pitch bend feature built in on the back. Overall, really cool way to change up your beats and songs and add a unique flair.

The Future of MIDI

MIDI does not seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. There are going to be new ideas coming out that you wouldn’t think would be possible or applicable, but they are the ones that will be the game changers. The Seaboard Rise is one of the most unique game changers that has come out in MIDI in the past couple years. No one would have thought it possible to sound anything similar to a guitar, much less Jimi Hendrix, on a MIDI keyboard. But someone did it. It’s a great video I would suggest watching here.

Final Thoughts

MIDI does not seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. There are going to be new ideas coming out that you wouldn’t think would be possible or applicable, but they are the ones that will be the game changers. The Seaboard Rise is one of the most unique game changers that has come out in MIDI in the past couple years. No one would have thought it possible to sound anything similar to a guitar, much less Jimi Hendrix, on a MIDI keyboard. But someone did it. It’s a great video I would suggest watching here.

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