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MIDI Keyboard Buying Guide - What is a MIDI Keyboard Controller

MIDI Keyboard Topics

What is a MIDI keyboard and why do I need one?

MIDI is the protocol that is used to trigger electronic and virtual instrument using either note data inputted from a sequencer or played from a keyboard. A MIDI keyboard is by far the best way to ‘play’ instruments on your computer as it offers the most natural experience and is infinitely preferable in most cases to using the mouse to draw notes. Most people will use MIDI at some point, whether it’s to compose entire tracks or just to add some keyboard flourishes to an acoustic recording.

You don’t have to be a piano player to use a MIDI keyboard, they are suitable for everything from playing simple patterns to full virtuoso performance, depending on the size and number of keys. The trick is in choosing one that best suits your needs.

MIDI keyboard connections

The vast majority of MIDI keyboards now have a USB port that can be connected to your Mac or PC to send and receive the data. The technology is mature enough that many devices are ‘class compliant’, meaning they do not require special drivers to work, except where they have special functions. In most cases the USB cable also supplies power to the keyboard, so it’s not always necessary to use an external power supply.

It’s rare to find a modern MIDI keyboard without USB, but many do still also have older style MIDI ports which can be used to connect MIDI hardware such as synths, samplers and drum machines to your system. Of course, they will also need to have their audio outputs routed to your audio system because MIDI is just information, not sound. MIDI information is a very small amount of data compared to audio, so USB1 or USB2 is sufficient to carry as many channels as you will ever need.

If you are playing virtual instruments, a USB connection will be all you require. If you want to connect an older keyboard workstation via MIDI, you will need a model with MIDI port connectivity. Many keyboards include MIDI ports as standard, just in case you ever need them.

Extended MIDI keyboard functionality

Playing notes is the main function of a MIDI keyboard and all but the very simplest will include playing features, such as aftertouch and velocity sensing. Larger models may also include sustain and foot control pedal inputs, vital for piano-style playing. You’ll also commonly find sustain and modulation wheels, which are handy for performing, and some models will also include an XY controller for sound manipulation.

More advanced models also incorporate control surface functions, since these can be made to work using regular MIDI Controller signals. At their simplest these might include transport controls for your DAW such as Stop, Start and Record. The most advanced models might also feature drum pads, faders and dials that can be assigned to different parameters within your DAW. Some keyboards come with templates that enable you to instantly map their controls to a specific instrument plug-in or DAW and these can save you quite a lot of time and hassle during set-up. Novation’s Automap system is a good example of advanced MIDI control over any plug-in.

How many keys do I need?

The smaller MIDI keyboards (25 key, 32 key and 37 key) may have non-weighted or semi-weighted keys, in miniature or full size. These are fine for triggering drums or playing synths, where expression is not quite so important. It helps keep their weight and cost down.

Medium-sized MIDI keyboards(49 key and 61 key) will generally have semi-weighted keys and these will usually be full size. Full-size keys are important for expressive playing of keyboard or stringed instruments, for example. These models are big enough to mount on a keyboard stand and may have pedal inputs, which are also important for expressive playing. You can transpose smaller keyboards up and down easily, though you’ll not be able to access the full range of notes without 88 key.

Hybrid MIDI keyboard models

Increasingly, manufacturers are incorporating more functionality into keyboards so you find quite a few models that actually perform the functions of several devices. Novation is one example, producing MIDI keyboard controllers that also have onboard synthesis capabilities and work as audio and MIDI interfaces. These can be a good solution where space or budget is limited, or for recording on the move. However, if you already have synths and an audio interface and just need MIDI keyboard functionality, opt for something simpler.

Other factors to consider

There are a few more features to look out for, depending on how you want to use your device. Anyone who wants to play their MIDI keyboard in the way they’d play a real piano needs a sustain pedal input and possibly also a damper pedal input.

If you’re more interested in tweaking synths, you’ll enjoy having an XY controller pad or other unusual input devices, which can be used to manipulate virtual instruments in interesting ways. However many MIDI controls like dials and faders can generally be reassigned if you wish to create unique MIDI maps to control software.

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