A MIDI controller keyboard is becoming increasingly important for contemporary musicians. It gives hands on control over your music production and DJ software.
Keyboard controllers, as the name implies, include piano keys (most often covering 1 to 3 octaves, and sometimes even the full range of 88 keys) and have a multitude of knobs, faders and triggers. All types are able to transmit MIDI data to hardware or software sequencers, synthesizers, sound modules and other hardware.
In terms of design, keyboard controllers range from having a full 88 weighted key keyboard, with a minimum of other controls, to a single octave of un-weighted plastic keys intended primarily for DJs, but having a wide array of MIDI controls.
Points to think on
How the controller keys feel, range from those with a weighted hammer action that mimics the feel of a real piano, to having the feel of electronic organ keys.
The latter style are spring loaded, able to be pressed rapidly and also return quickly to the rest position.
They would suit musicians who may never have played piano - e.g. guitarists. Those who are used to the feel of piano keys might prefer the feel of the weighted key keyboard, even at the expense of the reduced portability of the controller. It may give your music the expressiveness of a real piano, but it isn’t small enough to be taken to a gig in a backpack.
A variety of MIDI faders, knobs and buttons, or press pads are also features of many keyboard controllers. These can be programmed to trigger continuous controllers, patch changes, note on events, and other abilities in the MIDI specs.
They give you more direct control of the software, or modules connected to the controller, as well as flexibility. This is particularly useful for DJs looking to integrate live performances with sample-based playback.
The number of trigger pads, knobs and faders you are likely to need will depend on your set up. You may need more or less than the common eight of each. Make sure that you determine the number you will need.
It is important to remember that MIDI controllers commonly have no internal sound generating capability. They require hardware or software synths to generate sound.
Many new controllers come with a basic DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) or soft synth suite.
Trusted brands for MIDI controllers include Akai, Roland and Novation.
What to know about buying new MIDI Controller Keyboards
MIDI controller keyboards come with a wide variety of capabilities, since they can be used for so many purposes.
DJs wanting to add some live leads to their music will need different features to a classical pianist looking to interface with high quality software samplers.
When looking for a MIDI controller to suit your needs, you will need to balance the feel, portability and features of each.
One consideration will be the number of octaves you are likely to need. You might be fine just having a keyboard with one or two octaves if you are only programming bass lines. However, you will need at least a 49 key controller if you wish to emulate a real piano.
What to know about buying pre-owned MIDI Controller Keyboards
A great way to get started is to buy a pre-owned model. However, you will need to check that the keyboard is compatible with your hardware and your DAW.
In the past three decades, standard MIDI implementation hasn’t greatly changed, apart from moving to USB. Some of the older keyboard controllers can have some eccentricities to their implementation, especially where faders and knobs are concerned.
If you are looking to buy a cheap MIDI controller, it is a good idea to get the electronics checked by a professional as well as getting all the contacts cleaned.