Modern music software is built largely around two things – the recording of live audio, and the triggering of sounds via MIDI. For the first of those you need an audio interface and for the second, a MIDI input device. But it’s not always a MIDI keyboard you need – dedicated MIDI controllers play an equally important role in modern studio setups.
MIDI is a well established protocol that sends small bits of information between hardware and software - or between software and software - in virtually any combination and can be flexibly altered and routed along the way. It’s also possible to send lots of MIDI channels down a single cable, which makes it more lightweight to work with than audio. A MIDI controller is a device that doesn’t generate sound and does not necessarily have a keyboard attached either, but has knobs, dials, faders, pads and other controls that link up with parameters on your hardware or more usually these days, software.
The idea behind using a dedicated MIDI controller is that it can do anything from letting you play beats to taking you away from the keyboard and mouse altogether. One of the most common things found on a MIDI controller is drum pads, as these provide a more naturalistic way of playing beats than using piano keys for many people. Another widely-used MIDI control technique is assigning knobs on your controller to the many dials found on virtual synths and other plug-ins. Thanks to the adoption of certain standard practices across the music technology industry, you will often find transport controls integrated into MIDI controllers as well, which help you to control your DAW remotely.
Types of MIDI controllers
There are different types of MIDI controllers, ranging from the very small and highly portable, to vast and complex models – and everything between. Some are designed primarily for use with a particular application; others are more general purpose. The most common types of controls you’ll find are drum pads, buttons, dials and faders and sometimes even turntables, scratchpads and infra red controllers. How many of what kind of control you get is dependent on your model, of course.
There are a lot of controllers available that aren’t linked to a specific software application, and some that are. These tend to enable you to take your use of that application to the next level of sophistication. Some controllers are actually required to use the specific software in question and nothing else. Novation’s LaunchPad, for example, provides a specialised grid of buttons that tie in directly with Ableton Live’s matrix and enable you to play your loop-based projects much more intuitively than if you were standing in front of a laptop.
Similarly, AKAI makes the APC20 and APC40 which are larger models but with similar aims, that include some faders and extra controls. Novation also makes the Nocturn, an intelligent plug-in controller that can map its hardware controls to any plug-in you load.
The beauty of using a MIDI controller that is designed to work specifically with a certain piece of software is that there’s usually hardly any setting up to do. The developer knows exactly what needs to point at what, and this is all set up before the unit gets to you.
That said, they can all have their controls reassigned and it’s almost always possible to create your own maps for any MIDI controller. MIDI maps are simply customised templates that link hardware controls with software parameters. So typically you might find that faders link to the mixer faders in your DAW, and dials to pan pots or synth filter controls. Always think of matching like controllers with like.
Setting up MIDI maps from scratch can be time consuming, though plug-ins and DAWs increasingly support MIDI Learn Modes, where you specify a software parameter to link, move the hardware control you want to connect to it and the two become linked. Better still, a lot of MIDI controllers now come with pre-made maps for the leading DAWs and even some virtual instruments. So Cubase, Ableton,Pro Tools, Reason and others are generally catered for. It can be worth checking the website prior to buying to see if your particular software is directly supported.
A few MIDI controllers are a little more intelligent in their setup, such as those from Novation, which support the Automap protocol. This enables you to control almost any plug-in regardless of who made it thanks to some nifty behind-the-scenes analysis. Also in Propellerhead Reason, the software uses the Remote system to automatically map the controls of connected MIDI units to whatever rack module you point them at.
Unlock the power of MIDI control with automation
MIDI controllers are a great way to automate things in your DAW projects, regardless of whether it’s mixer fades, effect levels, synth cutoff or more or less anything else. All DAWs support advanced automation – connecting a MIDI device and playing with faders and knobs in real time by hand is a much better and more intuitive way of performing automation. As we have mentioned, using pads is also a much more natural way to play beats and other rhythmic parts than using the mouse or a piano keyboard, so if you make a lot of beats, a controller can be a great investment.
As with most music technology devices, what you choose to buy will be dictated by what you are trying to achieve.