When you see someone using a MIDI controller, it looks like the unit is producing the sound that is triggered, and it is also easy to assume that it is coming from inbuilt speakers. Are MIDI controllers sophisticated to include all of this? Are they truly all-in-one solutions or do you need to connect other equipment?
In the majority of cases, a MIDI controller is exactly what it says it is; a controller. The MIDI controller is not actually generating the sound, it is triggering it from a computer or another piece of hardware. Very few MIDI controllers come with any speakers or sounds built in.
How MIDI Controllers Work
It helps to understand how a MIDI controller and MIDI signal works, to get to grips with the process.
MIDI is a digital language, designed originally to help different instruments communicate with one another.
An example of this use is using an 88-key keyboard with MIDI enabled, which could then control another hardware synth or synth module which has fewer keys, or even no keys. This means you can control more range of the piano, but with the same sounds available.
In the 1980s, a specific MIDI cable was required. Now, USB can be used to send MIDI signals. A USB-MIDI cable from controller to laptop is pretty standard for modern musicians.
USB technology makes the setup incredibly simple. Software such as a DAW can communicate with a controller within seconds of being connected.
The MIDI controller sends signal to the software using the MIDI language. This tells the software which notes to trigger, and other details such as how long to trigger the note, or other adjustable parameters.
The note is triggered, and sent to the audio interface or speaker output of your computer. The audio comes from the software, and can be set up to go through a mixing desk or your computer’s audio output. It is up to you what you do with the audio signal once it has been generated, but the MIDI controller won’t have speakers to generate the sound.
Some MIDI controllers, such as the Akai Professional MPK Mini Play, include a speaker that can be used to play the audio, proving that some MIDI controllers do come with speakers.
But the Akai is the exception here and not the rule. Most MIDI controllers do not come with speakers.
If you are not very tech-savvy but you want to generate audio using a MIDI controller, you can use simple software such as Synthesia, other virtual instruments (VSTs) and even the inbuilt speakers on a laptop. This is one of the simplest MIDI setups imaginable.
Check out this article for some of the best free MIDI apps available on Windows, Apple and Android so you can quickly get started making sounds for free.
Using a MIDI Controller Without a Computer or Laptop
Although MIDI controllers work best when connected to a computer or laptop, you may wish to play sounds without having to do this. There are luckily a few solutions you can try.
A sound module is another way to twin some sounds with your MIDI device. Sound modules have a number of sounds built in, and can be connected to your MIDI controller in order to provide the actual sound waves that will be triggered by pressing the keys, pads or other buttons and knobs within the controller.
A sound module can be thought of as a MIDI controller’s “other half”. Pairing the two together makes something that is closer to an all-in-one system. The sound module can be changed to provide an array of sounds, but you don’t have to keep adding new keyboards or controllers to your collection. Modules can be relatively compact.
While your laptop can do a perfectly good job of triggering audio, a sound module is another option to consider.
I wrote an article which goes into more detail on this topic here.
Most MIDI Controllers Come With Software For Creating Sounds
There is a way that MIDI controllers can come with sounds, but they are not usually inbuilt.
Technically many MIDI keyboards you can buy do come with sounds, but these are in the form of some free software which needs to be installed on a computer to run alongside your hardware (the keyboard).
Using the example of the Akai Professional MPK once more, this is bundled with software. Assuming you have a computer or a laptop that you can use as the hub of your setup, a “software suite” is included. This includes ProTools First, a “lite” version of the ProTools DAW. It also comes with Akai Pro MPC Beats which acts as a sampler for drums and other sounds, and VSTs including AIR Music Tech Hybrid 3 and SONiVOX Wobble.
Most of the hardware options will come with some sort of software which includes sounds to play. If not, you can use free software solutions. The Native Instruments “Komplete Start” software provides you with this option, and you can use your MIDI controller to trigger the sounds.
Can I Use a Digital Piano or Synth As a MIDI Controller?
Most modern digital pianos come with the capacity to be used as MIDI controllers, but they tend to only have keys, so there are no additional assignable knobs or sliders.
Check if the digital piano in question has a USB-MIDI connection, if so, you can use it with your computer in order to control a virtual instrument, or even assign the notes of the keyboard to a sampler, to play virtually limitless sounds.
Most modern synths also allow you to connect by USB and use them as a MIDI controller too, potentially saving you space and money.
Using a MIDI Controller as a Piano
A MIDI Controller can come in a vast array of different forms. A pad-style controller is usually better in conjunction with drum sounds, and can be used to create drum patterns on the fly or trigger effects.
If you wish to use a MIDI controller as a keyboard, then naturally, you should go for something with a keyboard included. You can buy MIDI controllers with up to 88-keys, which give you the full range of a piano. When you tie these with a piano sound, triggered by your software, or through a sound module, the MIDI controller will function like a keyboard or digital piano.
Summary – Do MIDI Controllers Come With Speakers and Sounds?
So, do MIDI controllers have sounds inbuilt? Do they come with sounds? Can these sounds be played with inbuilt speakers?
You shouldn’t assume that a MIDI controller will come with sounds or speakers. Some have inbuilt speakers to play the sounds, others will rely on you attaching to a sound module or computer, and generating the audio from there.
Many MIDI controllers are becoming more sophisticated. Some have speakers inbuilt, but always check before purchasing.
In one sense, many “come with” sounds, but these sounds are wrapped up inside software. The process is not like using a keyboard with sounds, where you might just be able to choose a preset and start playing. The MIDI controller must communicate with a computer to control the instrument or DAW.