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To anyone new to the world of music production MIDI can be a confusing thing to get your head around. Particularly for anyone who, like me, already knew how to play the piano or another instrument.
But once you learn to understand MIDI you begin to unlock an extremely powerful (and arguably essential) tool in music production. But are MIDI keyboards and controllers necessary?
Although there are still many ways to create music without a MIDI keyboard or controller they now considered a necessary tool for modern music production due to their ability to enhance creativity and improve workflow in any music studio.
Ok so ‘necessary’ is a strong word, and someone could probably write an entire article on why they are not. But in this article at least I will outline 10 reasons why in my view they are a necessary piece of kit in your home music studio.
1) For Improving Creativity
Modern music production is moving more and more away from ‘real’ instruments and into the digital world via computers.
This is great in many ways as we can create music on the move on a laptop without needing a large studio full of complicated machinery and instruments.
However, this change can make creating music feel slightly less real. Drawing notes into a piano roll using your mouse or keyboard can be effective and allows you to get every note exactly in time, but is quite uninspiring.
This leaves many musicians craving the feel of a real instrument to light that creative spark once again. Jamming out on a MIDI controller or keyboard can help you regain that feeling quickly and start to feel like a musician once again!
2) For Improving Your Workflow
Anyone who has been working on a piece of creative art has probably experienced ‘flow state’ at one point or another. This is a state we enter when distractions fade away and we make great progress quickly and easily.
With so many distractions around these days, from the internet to our phones, we need to make sure we have a good ‘workflow’ in the studio.
Workflow describes the ease in which you can move from one activity to the next easily. Check out this podcast where we discussed this topic further.
MIDI controllers are fast to connect, they don’t require you to plug in hundreds of cables or setup microphones to be able to record like many other instruments. So when inspiration strikes it is as fast as opening your laptop plugging in your MIDI controller via USB and laying down the track.
And inspiration can strike at the most random times, so having a way to get your ideas down onto virtual paper in your DAW will be a massive help.
3) Designs Tailored to Your Needs
The beauty of MIDI being a digital way of creating music, rather than a traditional acoustic method, is that you can input MIDI notes into a computer using a vast array of methods.
MIDI keyboards are the most common type of controller on the market, due to their familiarity and ability to play a large range of notes. But there are many other types of MIDI controller out there now with even MIDI flutes now available!
So if you aren’t a natural pianist, don’t worry there are loads of other options to suit your needs.
If you are looking to create electronic music then there are now many specially designed controllers for music creation and also to help you out if you want to play live.
The Novation Launchpad is a great example of a MIDI controller that is designed for use with the DAW Ableton Live. The colored lights allow you to trigger certain sounds or loops to build up beats and create songs in an entirely different way to how you might on a MIDI keyboard.
How much size you want your MIDI controller to occupy will be key depending on how much space you have.
We don’t all have the luxury of space for a full-sized piano or even an electronic keyboard, with many of us living in small apartments. But luckily, MIDI controllers come in a huge range of sizes from full size 88 key to tiny 25 key microcontrollers.
If you don’t have much space and are simply using it to add a few riffs then a small keyboard may be all you need. But if you want to mimic a piano and use both hands to play more complicated stuff then you can go for a 49, 61 or even full 88 key.
I wrote an article going into more detail on how to know which is right for you. Check it out here if you are interested.
I enjoy the luxury of both, I have my larger 49 key controller in the studio which remains there. But I have a mini 32 key controller too which is tiny and lightweight and I can then carry on writing on the sofa or even on the train.
4) You Will Create a More Human Sound
As mentioned in point 1, entering music in the computer can feel very uninspiring and crush creativity. But on top of that it can also leave you with uninspiring music that sounds like it was created by a robot.
Unless you spend hours tweaking things, you will likely end up with notes that all end up ‘on-grid’ (i.e perfectly in time) and all at a constant volume.
If you listen to any music created acoustically, such as traditional piano music, you will notice not every note necessarily hits right on the beat every time, perhaps being a split second early or late. The volume and intensity of the notes will also increase and decrease adding to the emotion and feel of the song.
It is very hard to create that feeling when manually entering notes into a piano roll and so a MIDI controller will allow you to mimic playing a real instrument and therefore create a more realistic sounding track.
Most MIDI keyboards are very clever and can tell how hard or soft you press a key. This will register as a digital number between 1 and 127, with 1 being almost silent and 127 being the loudest possible.
Using a MIDI controller will have your listeners often completely unaware that you created the sounds digitally and not acoustically, and I think that is what people still crave in a lot of genres.
5) Some are Great for Making Beats
MIDI controllers can work very well for inputting percussive elements to your music. You can get controllers that are made specifically for this function with large pads or even for hitting with drum sticks to mimic a real drum kit such as the AKAI Professional MPD218 drum pad below.
Some midi controllers that are primarily keyboards come with a small number of pads too which can be very handy, and save you money and space too by only needing one piece of equipment.
As with the keyboard, they add a human feel to the drum sounds which you may crave, notes will inevitably fall slightly ‘off-grid’ and will vary in velocity.
6) For Playing Any Instrument, Without Having to Learn it!
Let’s be honest, not many of us have time to learn 100s of different musical instruments. But with a MIDI controller you can (sort of) play whichever instrument you like.
Ok so the sound might not be quite as authentic as if you learned the violin or the flute. But now you can now get amazing samples of pretty much any instrument you want from the internet.
A MIDI controller or keyboard will allow you to play the violin, flute, bagpipes or anything else you can find a sample for and providing you know you way around the controls, provide a nice way of playing them into your track.
7) Better Value For Beginners Than a Synth
There are some amazing new hardware synthesizers on the market these days, some of which I thoroughly recommend, but very few come at a lower price that a MIDI controller or keyboard. And if you want to get your hands on a vintage hardware synth then be prepared to part with a whole load more cash.
However, there are now some incredible software synths available, some for even for free (or very cheap). There are also some incredibly realistic replicas of retro synths available for just a fraction of the price. Recreations of famous brands such as Roland or Moog can be found for under $200 whereas the hardware versions would cost you $1000s!
Your MIDI controller or keyboard will allow you to play all these amazing software synths in a way that will almost feel like you have the actual thing right in front of you. It will certainly feel a lot more fun and real than clicking notes on the on-screen keyboard using your computer mouse.
8) They Are Often Customisable
MIDI controllers and keyboards have the beauty of being customisable. You can ‘map’ or assign keys to any functions within your DAW.
So not only can you enter MIDI notes on your controller but you can assign knows to control filters, to tweak volumes and everything in between.
This advantage is closely linked to workflow. Being able to adjust the sound as much as possible from the controller itself, rather than having to use both the controller and your mouse and keyboard improve your workflow and make the music creation experience more fun.
9) Some Have Mixers
Not all MIDI controllers or keyboards will have mixing dials but a large number of them do. As shown in the image below these are sliders that allow you to adjust the volume level of a certain channel in you DAW very easily.
You could buy a separate mixer for this, or simply do it in the DAW. But I personally use the dials on my MIDI keyboard all the time. It saves me the space of always having a mixer on my desk but I find adjusting the volumes of the channels this way a lot better and faster than using a mouse in the DAW
10) To Become Familiar With and Learn the piano
A final reason to consider getting a MIDI keyboard may not be an advantage to everyone, but it is something I found a bit of a bonus.
Before I bought one I had no idea how to navigate my way around a piano keyboard. But through wanting to add MIDI to my music I have been forced to learn. Almost subconsciously a lot of the time just from messing about and tinkering I now have a good idea of which notes are which and how to construct basic chords.
You could of course take this further and learn piano on the MIDI keyboard which certainly can be done as I explain in this other article.
Which Type of Midi Controller Should I Buy?
I hope this article has given you a clearer idea of some of the cool things a MIDI controller or keyboard can do. But now you are probably wondering how do I choose?
As you may have noticed in some of the points above, MIDI controllers come in a wide range of sizes and shapes. So before you start shopping it is worth deciding exactly what you will need it for and whether you may want to buy with the future in mind so you don’t have to upgrade later on.
For the piano player
If you mainly want to play the piano or input other more basic sounds you may simply want a MIDI keyboard without many other complicated knobs, buttons or dials.
You will probably also want a higher number of keys. I would recommend at least a 49 key version but ideally a 61 key version.
The M-Audio Keystation Range are great if you just want a simple keyboard without too many complicated extras.
For the electronic producer
Many MIDI controllers are available that look far removed from MIDI keyboards. These can be great for particular genres of music production where you might want to work with samples.
The Novation Launchpad is designed to work perfectly with Ableton Live. So if Ableton is a DAW a launchpad can be a perfect companion. If you use Logic or other DAWs then a launchpad can be used with them but it is not specifically designed to and so will take a bit more setting up.
For the drummer
The AKAI Professional MPD218 drum pad MIDI controller is available for just over $100 and is a great piece of kit if you primarily want to add drum sounds.
It has 18 assignable pads which are very sensitive helping you create very realistic, human-sounding beats.
For the all-rounder
Personally I like a MIDI controller that can do a bit of everything and there are plenty on the market that will do quite a lot.
Models such as the Akai Professional MPK261 not only have a sizeable keyboard (it is available in several sizes) but also have pads, mixer dials and a screen for selected samples without having to constantly refer to your screen.
Some pieces of kit are definitely a luxury to have, but as you can now tell, I really do think a MIDI controller is necessary in most home music studios.
They will open up a whole new experience and way of writing and producing music and when you connect them to the huge array of amazing sounding MIDI instruments you will have a lot of fun!
They come in all shapes and sizes and for all budgets. Even if you only start with a mini 32 key keyboard anything is better than nothing!