Why You Need a MIDI Controller
MIDI controllers are integral to many musical setups, from studios to stages. Let's understand their significance and how they can elevate your music-making experience.
In today's digital music realm, there's a huge number of virtual instruments tailored for digital audio workstations (DAWs). Most hardware synthesizers and samplers are also now MIDI-compatible. MIDI controllers offer a solution to efficiently navigate this landscape. Instead of tediously clicking on individual notes in a DAW's MIDI track or an online MIDI editor using a mouse, MIDI controllers provide a familiar interfaces like a piano’s keyboard, drum machine and even wind instruments. This allows for a more intuitive and fluid music-making experience.
What does a MIDI controller do?
A MIDI controller, in its simplest form, is a device that controls sound modules. These modules could be synthesizers, samplers, or even software. They usually connect via MIDI through a DIN or USB connection. Notable standalone controllers include the M-Audio Keystation and the Arturia Keystep series. Some synths, like the Yamaha DX7 or Arturia Brute, can also function as controllers when connected to other modules or computers.
Most MIDI controllers resemble piano keyboards, ranging from compact versions to full-sized 88-key setups. They often feature controls like pitch bends and modulation wheels. Some MIDI controllers offer sliders, rotary dials, and pads, useful for triggering drum samples and one-shots.
In a studio setting, MIDI controllers record MIDI data into digital audio workstations (DAWs) like Logic Pro or Reaper. This data encompasses notes, velocity, and mod/pitch wheel movements. This is usually done in conjunction with an instrument (either hardware or virtual), though the recorded data can be sent to other instruments as well. The data can also be further edited once in the DAW.
However, it's worth noting that while MIDI controllers make the process smoother, they aren't essential. You can manually input this data into a DAW if you feel like clicking around.
What is the difference between a MIDI controller and a MIDI keyboard?
A MIDI controller and a MIDI keyboard both send MIDI data to other devices, but they have some differences:
MIDI Controller: This is a broader category of devices that can include pads, knobs, faders, wheels, and more. These are designed to send MIDI messages to control various aspects of software or other hardware. It can be anything from a drum pad controller, a device with rotary knobs and faders for mixing, or a wind controller.
MIDI Keyboard: This is specifically a keyboard layout (like a traditional piano) that sends MIDI note data. It might have some additional features like pitch bend, modulation wheels, and maybe a few knobs or faders, but its primary function is to play notes.
MIDI Controller: Ideal for electronic music producers who might want to trigger samples, adjust filter cut-offs, mix tracks, or manipulate effects parameters without using a mouse.
MIDI Keyboard: Used by those who want to input melodic content, like playing piano parts, basslines, or melodies.
MIDI Controller: Can come in many shapes and sizes, not limited to a keyboard format. Drum pads, touch strips, wind controllers, and foot pedals can all be types of MIDI controllers.
MIDI Keyboard: Is, by definition, a keyboard. However, many MIDI keyboards also have features you'd find on other MIDI controllers, like pads or knobs.
In essence, all MIDI keyboards are MIDI controllers, but not all MIDI controllers are MIDI keyboards. If you have a MIDI keyboard, you may still want to purchase other MIDI controllers as you expand your gear collection, but for many hobbyist musicians it’s not necessary. For example, it can be more intuitive to buy a drum-centric MIDI controller for producing your drum beats instead of using a MIDI keyboard.
Why Opt for a MIDI Controller?
Familiar Interface: The piano keyboard setup is recognizable and less intimidating than manually entering notes using your computer mouse. It allows for immediate play, whether you're striking chords or creating melodies. Regardless of your skill level, pressing a key on a piano produces a note, provided the controller is linked to an instrument. Pressing multiple keys yields chords and melodies. Even beginners can effortlessly craft music by engaging with a MIDI keyboard and trusting their ears to generate pleasing sounds. When combined with a DAW and software instruments, the potential for capturing something remarkable exists.
Speed and Efficiency: Playing a tune on a controller is quicker than manually clicking notes on software. It's about hitting record, playing, and then stopping. Your performance instantly translates into your DAW. You can then tweak your notes further or send the notes to a different digital instrument.
Refined Real-time Performance: Imagine wanting a specific sound effect during a note. With a mouse, achieving the desired effect might require multiple tweaks. But with a MIDI controller, it's as simple as moving the mod wheel in real-time.
Universal Compatibility: MIDI is a standard format, which means a single controller can interact with multiple devices. Whether it's an expensive hardware synthesizer or the default virtual instruments in your DAW, compatibility isn't an issue. With the eventual integration of MIDI 2.0, controllers and devices will also be able to share information between one other. Controllers will have the added advantage of auto-configuring themselves to whatever instrument they are controlling (assuming that both the controller and instrument are MIDI 2.0 compliant).
Equally Effective On-stage and In-studio: High-quality virtual instruments are now available on computers, making MIDI controllers essential for live performances. Many controllers also have the convenience of USB-powered connections, eliminating the need for an external power source.
Variety of Options: MIDI controllers cater to all needs and budgets. From simple keyboards to advanced setups with weighted keys or finger drum pads, there's something for everyone.
Compatibility with Staccato’s AI Instrument: Beyond the regular advantages, MIDI controllers also sync with Staccato’s AI Instrument. This web-based instrument, although MIDI-compatible, offers a host of virtual instruments and editing capabilities. It even captures mod wheel movements, sustain pedal presses, and other MIDI commands. Plus, its AI-driven features suggest chords and melodies based on your input.
A MIDI controller, while not mandatory, undoubtedly enhances the music-making process. It replaces tedious manual tasks with a more hands-on, intuitive approach. When you have such a tool at your disposal, you can focus on what truly matters: creating beautiful music.
Kevin Daoust - Guitarist, Guitar Educator, Writer
Kevin Daoust is a guitarist, guitar educator, and writer based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada.
When not tracking guitars for artists around the world, or writing music-related articles around the internet, he can be seen on stage with Accordion-Funk legends Hey, Wow, the acoustic duo Chanté et Kev, the funky Sh-Boom, as well as a hired gun guitarist around Quebec and Ontario. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.