Electronically crafted audioscapes and music have been rising steadily in popularity over the years, and many artists consider the MIDI keyboard to be an instrumental tool in their kit. As a result, there are plenty of people who wish to utilize their MIDI keyboard without the hassle of booting up their computer.
So, do you need a computer to use a MIDI keyboard? No, a personal computer is not a necessity for playing and practising on a MIDI keyboard.
With that being said, a MIDI keyboard must be connected to something that is capable of processing and producing audio, as MIDI keyboards themselves do not produce sound, but instead purely creates MIDI signals that they then send to a connected device, which then translates those signals into sound.
If you’re feeling the need to practice or fiddle around with your MIDI keyboard, but aren’t willing or are unable to connect it to your PC, you’re in luck. There are a few options and alternatives at your disposal:
1) Using MIDI Sound Modules
Often small and portable, MIDI sound modules serve as a sound bank which receives the signals your MIDI keyboard send out and converts that input into digital signals. Many MIDI sound modules also serve as an output device, which is to say that they can then produce the digital signals as audible sound.
The Yamaha Motif Rack XS, for example, is one of the MIDI sound modules that possesses an audio output feature. Aside from the convenience that comes with this function, these devices have some of the most advanced features among competitive products that are near-professional grade.
These characteristics consist of high sound quality and various levels of depth, contrary to the more simple Midiplus miniEngine, which possesses a straight forward audio output. This small device is constructed with a USB port for direct connection to a MIDI keyboard, along with a headphone jack and USB output jack.
However, not all MIDI sound modules will offer the same automatic output. If you happen to purchase a device that does not already come with a built-in sound function, there is a relatively easy fix to the problem.
Although this solution will cost you more on top of your initial purchase, you can invest in a separate speaker that is compatible with the module device. Once this is done, your new speaker can be connected to your MIDI sound module in order to hear what you are producing on your keyboard.
To avoid any additional expenses before they are presented, it would be ideal to make an informed purchase of a MIDI sound module that already has an integrated output property. This way, it will not be necessary to splurge on a speaker and you will be able to start using it right away.
2) Using a MIDI Keyboard With Mobile Devices
Our cell phones and tablets already go everywhere with us. So it makes sense that artists are looking for the ability to hook up their MIDI keyboards to the mobile devices to either practice or compose music with the help of rudimentary mobile software and apps.
There are now a large number of MIDI synths and other MIDI instruments available on mobile devices and tablets as apps. Some of the most popular digital audio workspaces now have mobile apps for those musicians who are on the go or just not interested in using a full PC.
How to connect a MIDI keyboard to an iPad, tablet or phone
Because you have the touchscreen capability on tablets and mobile phones, the MIDI apps can be controlled using touch screen keyboards, knobs and buttons. This has its advantages in terms of portability and cost. But it doesn’t feel like the most satisfying and it is far better (in my opinion) to connect a USB MIDI keyboard to the device for improved usability.
But how do we do this, after all, most tablets and phones don’t have a USB input?
For the Ipad you will need to use a connection kit to convert the lightning connection to a USB.
Apple produce an official one (link to amazon)
Or you can get an unofficial version for about half the price, which will probably work just as well (link to amazon)
For most small MIDI controllers you can simply plug in the USB output cable into the converter and the iPad will power the MIDI keyboard. You should see lights come on or some sign of life on most models.
For most apps which mimic a synth the keyboard controller should work straight away and you shouldn’t even need to mess around with any settings.
If nothing happens, go into the settings on your MIDI application and ensure the input is set correctly.
If you’re using an older MIDI keyboard that uses an older 5 Pin MIDI connection (rather than USB) you will need to use something like the iConnect MIDI (link to buy).
The same process applies for android with a converter cable such as this one:
Again simply plug the USB MIDI device into this and you should be able to control a huge number of MIDI applications.
Android or Apple?
Android users have reported more latency issues when connecting their MIDI keyboards for use, whereas Apple granted higher prioritizing rank to its devices’ audio processing and benefits from the choice greatly.
While it is still possible to use an Android device, you can expect to experience some audio delays during use.
There are also better applications and copies of real synths on Apple and so it definitely comes out on top currently in this battle.
Some Recommended Apps
As far as the most commonly used MIDI Keyboard mobile apps, Caustic 3 for Android is a big contender. A clear favorite in terms of Android MIDI management apps, users can experiment for free with the initial download, with the option to purchase additional features for a fixed monthly price.
On the contrary, Animoog for iPhone has a slightly higher price point at the time of download but is ideal for those who are serious about making music with their mobile devices. There is a four-track recording option and an expansive preset library included with the purchase of this application.
Another popular Android app is called FL Studio Mobile. This is the mobile version of the desktop software that already exists of the same name. While it may lack all the bells and whistles that come with the PC version, FL Studio Mobile is still a good app to consider for MIDI keyboard users.
3) Get A Standalone Hardware Synthesizer Instead
Your next option if you’re still set on avoiding PCs for your MIDI experience is to get yourself a hardware synthesizer to receive, decipher, translate, and produce the audio from your keyboard’s signal output. This option tends to be far more expensive than the first two, but that hasn’t stopped artists from seeking it out.
Endorsers of the hardware synths vs the software counterparts found on PCs prefer the dedicated responsiveness of the physical instrument, not to mention the relative ease of playing an actual synth live versus the hassle of setting up a laptop and its various cords and applications.
Certainly, there is something to be said for the epic powerhouses that make up a quality synthesizer.
Should You Use a MIDI Keyboard Without a Computer?
We’ve established that it’s possible, but is it truly worth it to jump through the hoops of setting up your MIDI with devices other than the standard PC? Surely with all the information out there, there is bound to be a consensus.
Actually, the truth remains that that’s a question which ultimately is going to come down to your own personal preferences. There is definitely something to be said about the versatility and convenience that comes with the massive market of PC-based digital audio workstations with MIDI connectivity.
If you’re looking to produce fully fleshed out audio products and don’t have the money for a hardware synthesizer in your budget, it may be best to stick with PC software if possible. There are some quality mobile apps for playing on the go, but even the best of mobile apps tend to fall short from the full PC programs.
If, however, you’re just looking for some casual practice and are looking for an audio output device, picking up a MIDI sound module or investing in a decent mobile app makes perfect sense.
Once you have an idea of how invested you are and what you want to produce, you can make the informed decision of what path you’re looking to take on your MIDI journey.
In conclusion, one specific type of MIDI keyboard will not be ideal for everyone, along with the way in which it is used. Depending on how you will be using your keyboard, it is ultimately up to you whether you will use it with a computer or a mobile device.
What is the average price point for some of the popular MIDI Sound Modules that were mentioned above?
From lowest to highest, you can purchase a Midiplus miniEngine for around $60, whereas the Midiplus S-engine and PianoBox Mini models will cost you anywhere from $90 to $140. The Yamaha Motif Rack comes at a hefty starting price of $1299.
Where can I find and purchase a MIDI keyboard?
MIDI keyboard devices can be found online sold by various retailers, or at your local music store. The best way to find the keyboard you are looking for is to search it online and try to locate it in-store or from an online shop that you trust.