MIDI Controllers Topics:
» What Is a Keyboard Controller?
» Faders and Buttons and Knobs, Oh My!
» Using a Keyboard Controller in Live Performance
» Keyboard Action Types
» Keyboard Controllers with Audio Interfaces: Do I Need One?
» Alternatives to the Standard Keyboard
» What to Look For in a Keyboard Controller
MIDI keyboard controllers have become an important part of the music-making process for contemporary desktop musicians and producers due to the increasing awareness and use of virtual instruments. The following Sweetwater Buying Guide includes just a few things to help you get started down the path of choosing the right keyboard controller for your specific use. As always, we welcome your questions at (800) 222-4700.
What is a Keyboard Controller?
Way back in the 1980s, one of the original purposes of developing the MIDI specification was to allow live performers the ability to control the sounds of multiple synthesizers from a single keyboard. That concept has been a smashing success! Now, live performers, songwriters with laptops, studio musicians, sound designers, and others can all benefit from the flexibility a keyboard controller offers them.
Technically, a keyboard controller is a device with piano, organ, or synth-style keys, and usually a selection of knobs, buttons, and sliders. All of these transmit MIDI data to external sound modules (synthesizers), computer software synthesizers, or a hardware or software sequencer. Most keyboard controllers themselves have no internal sound-generating capability, but almost any keyboard synthesizer/workstation can act to control the sounds and parameters of other devices.
The real advantages of a keyboard controller are versatility and portability. They give you control over virtually the entire range of modern music hardware and software while sometimes even being compact enough to fit in your laptop computer bag.
Faders and Buttons and Knobs, Oh My!
In addition to the piano-style keys found on keyboard controllers, most also include a range of knobs, sliders, and buttons on their top panels. These are capable of transmitting MIDI data and can dramatically increase the hands-on control you have over any module you have connected to your controller. Here's a specific example: you have your M-Audio Oxygen 49 plugged into Reason with a Malstrom Graintable Synthesizer loaded for your sound. The controller's knobs, sliders, and pitch and modulation wheels give you hands-on real-time control over modifying the sounds. This provides a much more "authentic analog" feel over using a mouse. A new breed of controllers like the Novation Impulse 25 include an Automap feature that sets up the knobs and faders to specifically correspond to your hardware or software applications. This means, for example, that you can control your computer sequencer without having to move from your music keyboard to the computer and mouse!
Using a Keyboard Controller in Live Performance
This was one of the original concepts of MIDI: control of other modules from one keyboard! A live keyboardist could connect his or her full-sized controller (for example, the M-Audio Keystation 88 ES) to a rack full of synth modules and effects processors and use presets to combine or split devices using simple button pushes. A club DJ would appreciate the compactness of a 25-key controller (like the remarkable E-MU Xboard 25) while using its knobs to modulate the filters of a loop sequencer that lives on a laptop computer.
Keyboard Action Types
A vital quality of any keyboard controller is the keyboard action - the manner in which the key responds to playing. You, the player, need to feel comfortable using the controller, whether live on stage or in your songwriting or recording studio. Don't underestimate the impact of having a less-than-ideal keyboard on your creativity and productivity! The type of action you prefer is usually determined mostly by what you are accustomed to, and also by the particular style of music that you play, which may call for one type of action over another. You can choose from three basic keyboard action types:
Weighted Hammer Action
Many controllers have 88-note keyboards that replicate the mechanical action of a conventional piano keyboard. This is difficult to do because a controller has no strings or hammers. Manufacturers use different methods of applying weights and springs to mimic a piano's action. Others add a hammer action to more closely replicate a true piano "feel." If your primary instrument is piano, or if you compose a lot of piano-oriented music, the realism of a weighted hammer-action keyboard might be ideal for you.
Similar to a weighted action, but with less key resistance and a slightly springier release, semi-weighted actions are popular with some players. If you don't need realistic piano response but don't care for spring-loaded synth actions (see below), try a semi-weighted keyboard. The M-Audio Axiom 61 is a controller with a semi-weighted action and MIDI trigger pads, rotary encoders, and sliders.
A synth-action keyboard, on the other hand, feels more like an electronic organ. The spring-loaded keys are light and capable of being moved very quickly. They also tend to return to their resting position much more quickly. This can be an important advantage when trying to play very fast parts such as lead lines or fast arpeggios. Many keyboard controllers come with synth-action keys. Synth-action keys are perfect for musicians who aren't pianists by nature, such as guitarists wanting to add MIDI functionality to their setup.
Keyboard Controllers with Audio Interfaces: Do I Need One?
Some of the controllers we've mentioned so far offer an additional capability: besides MIDI control, they also include audio interfaces with built-in analog-to-digital converters (ADCs). What's the advantage? If you are doing home recording with DAW software on your computer, you won't need an additional audio interface box. In fact, you can just plug a microphone into a controller that includes a built-in mic preamp.
Combination MIDI controller/audio interfaces are compatible with modern audio recording software and hardware, too: most support 24-bit/96kHz audio transfer for high-resolution recording. Onstage, the digital and analog outputs give you the opportunity to have a "stand-alone" performance station with audio and MIDI all in one box, routable to synths, vocoders, and other processors.
Alternatives to the Standard Keyboard
Some controllers go beyond the standard definition of "keyboard." An excellent example is the Roland AX-Synth, a strap-on device that allows live keyboardists the chance to step out from behind their rigs and claim some of the glory that normally gets lavished on guitar players. This unique 45-note controller includes Roland's light-sensing D-Beam feature for real-time modulation of sounds made, literally, with a wave of your hand.
Popular with hip-hop producers and remixers, pad devices allow MIDI samples to be triggered at the tap of a pad. They're great for programming drumbeats. Two other devices that abandon the "keyboard" concept entirely are the Yamaha WX5 and the AKAI EWI4000S wind controllers, which give wind players access to MIDI sound modules.
The wide range of available keyboard controllers pretty much ensures you'll be able to find one that meets your needs. You just need to take a little time to ask the following questions, which will help define what you want or need:
What's your application?
• If live performance is your focus, you'll want to consider sturdiness and reliability (many controllers are almost entirely made of plastic), along with your preferred action and key count.
• For a club DJ, who often must work in cramped quarters, a compact unit will work best. Remember, the controller still needs plenty of knobs and sliders to control your software parameters!
• If you do a lot of recording in bed (or on a plane, in a car, etc.) portability counts. Also consider whether your controller can run on bus power (usually USB), which can be convenient - you won't need another power adapter.
How many keys?
Limited space on your desktop or in your live rig? You need a compact controller, with 25 or 37 keys. If you want a piano-style experience go for an 88-key controller. Other options include 61 keys (that's five octaves) and 76 keys.
What type of action?
Action should be appropriate to your application. If you need piano-style realism, get a weighted action. Semi-weighted keyboards appeal to many players, offering a nice balance between resistance and springiness. Synth-action keyboards are often perceived as easier to play for non-keyboardists, and can also be more economical.
How many/what type of knobs, sliders, and buttons?
What will you control? Synths? Effects? Software? Do you prefer sliders, knobs, or both?
What computer and sound module connectivity do you need?
Do you need USB connection to a computer? Almost all of today's controllers have a USB MIDI connector. Many include a 5-pin MIDI connector as well, so you can connect an external sound module to your controller.
Do you need a built-in audio interface?
If you want an all-in-one MIDI and audio solution, then select one of the controllers that include an audio interface.