Choosing a MIDI Controller That Will Work for You

Sooner or later, any musical producer or composer comes to the need of buying a midi controller. It's certainly possible to create music using just the computer's capabilities, but it might not be really convenient. And yet, you can hardly expect decent results if you use just samples and a piano roll.
There is a huge amount of both classical and experimental techy controllers which also vary in type depending on the particular musical genre they are used in.

This article will outline the types of controllers and their features that you should pay attention to in the first place.


A MIDI controller is a device that controls software on your computer. In most cases, controllers are keyboards or pads, although since recently we've been seeing many other kinds of unconventional controllers appearing in the market.

As a rule, you use MIDI controllers to control your DAW and plugins. Instead of recording an acoustic instrument or an analog synth, you control software synths or sequencers installed on your computer. Thus, you play a MIDI keyboard the same way as you would play a real synthesizer or piano.

You can also use MIDI controllers to program and play drum lines. In fact, in such music genres like pop, electronic and hip-hop, you could hardly find anyone using the services of live drummers. Drum loops are programmed using just pads or MIDI keyboards.

MIDI controllers are also frequently used to control the DAW. Many MIDI controllers allow you to control various elements of the workstation, such as mixer faders, Play, Pause, Record buttons, etc. There are also fully integrated controllers enabling to compose and perform music where a computer doesn't get actively involved.

One important thing you need to know about MIDI controllers is that they don't have any built-in sounds on board. A MIDI controller must be hooked up to your computer connected to an audio interface and audio monitors or headphones.

Let's take a look at the types of MIDI controllers and their functionality.

1. MIDI Keyboards

MIDI keyboards look similar to pianos, but the keys aren't always full-sized and sometimes they are even not physical keys. You may find touch-sensitive keyboards, controllers with pads instead of keys, as well as portable keyboards with flat keys. The largest keyboards have 88 keys like in a fully-fledged piano, and the smallest ones have 25 keys and even less.

If you're a piano player, most likely you'll want a full-sized keyboard with weighted keys which some manufacturers call hammer-action keys.

If, when you play the instrument, an acoustic piano feel is not that important for you, you may go for simpler options. The most popular keyboards have 49 and 61 keys.

Sometimes portability of a keyboard may be a crucial factor. Keyboards with hammer-action mechanics weigh over 10 kg, so they aren't that easily portable, which means you won't be able to compose music sitting on a bench in a park or while you're traveling. For such purposes there are compact keyboards that can be carried in a backpack.

Many keyboards have additional controls which may be handy if you need a deeper control over your instrument or DAW.

These controls are:

1. Pads. There are hybrid keyboards, which, actually combine two types of controllers. We'll talk about pads in more details in the next section of this article.

2. Knobs and faders. These elements are assignable i.e. you can choose to assign and control various synth and DAW functions. For example, it could be volume, panning, filter, the amount of signal you send to an effect, etc.

3. Transport panel to control your DAW. The panel has Play, Pause, Stop and Record buttons and buttons allowing to switch between parts of your live set.

These days, there are experimental MIDI keyboards which don't look like classic piano keyboards, and yet they have something in common. Such devices provide you with a wider range of expression possibilities. For instance, you can play vibrato, change the tone in micro-increments, smoothly glide from one note to another, etc. We can only guess which else surprises the makers of MIDI devices will introduce next time.
2. Pad Controllers

Such controllers are usually used for programming and playing drum parts and launching samples, but they can also be used with synths and other virtual instruments.

Many producers, who have no piano playing experience, use pads as their tool for music creation.

If you choose this type of controllers, pay attention to the size of the very pads. If you want to learn finger drumming technique, then small pads are unlikely to be the right choice for you. Or if, for example, you have big fingers, you risk to accidentally hit a nearby pad which will ruin your live performance.

Pay attention to the stiffness and responsiveness of the pads. If you've never played such controllers, it will be a good idea to run a test drive before you buy.

Like MIDI keyboards, some pad controllers are also equipped with additional control knobs, faders and buttons. There are also MIDI mixers and DAW controllers manufactured as separate devices. In this article, we'll not go into detail about them because earlier we've already described all their functionality.

3. Mobile and experimental MIDI controllers

More and more performers add unusual instrumental solutions to their live sets. Some use iPads to control synths or DAWs, some use MIDI rings, MIDI guitars or experimental wind instruments.

MIDI guitars are different. It could be an acoustic guitar with MIDI pickups or it could be an electric guitar with additional built-in devices to control the instrument's sound.

Wind MIDI controllers are usually shaped like a saxophone. Such controllers, of course, are popular among musicians experienced with playing wind instruments.

MIDI rings convert the motion of a musician's hand into MIDI signals, thus you can assign specific parameters you want to control to each of the axes of the three-dimensional space. There are ring controllers simultaneously using 2 rings or 2 sides of the controller, which dramatically increases sound expression and modulation capabilities.

We described just a tiny fraction of what already exists in the field of experimental controllers. Electronic music has always been home for unconventional approaches, thus it stably drives regular replenishment of MIDI controllers market.

Let's summarize what you should consider when choosing a MIDI controller that will work for you the best.

1. Portability

Do you plan to use the controller in a studio or want to compose "on the go"? It might be the case that you need several controllers to support your creative process in all situations.

25- and 37-keys keyboards are highly portable. You can easily carry them in a bag, they won't take a lot of space on your table and you'll feel comfortable just keeping them on the lap. If your working space is tight, e.g. your bedroom is your studio, a smaller keyboard with 49 or 61 keys could be a better choice for you.

2. The Feel

If, when you play, you need to receive that important feel of a real piano, you should know you'll never get it from a semi-weighted action keys, not even mentioning portable keyboards with flat keys. As a compromise, you may choose a keyboard with medium-weighted keys, that are also available.

All decent-quality MIDI keyboards and pad controllers are velocity-sensitive. It means, the harder you hit the key or pad, the louder sound you get from your virtual instrument. In other words, such controllers can generate variable parameter called velocity.

3. Compatibility with a DAW

This matter is becoming less and less important, because both controller makers and software developers are interested in the maximum possible compatibility of their products. However, there are controllers specially created to work with particular workstations. That's why, first you need to set your priorities and decide whether you are ready to switch to a different DAW or go for a compromise when choosing a controller.

If you already have ready tracks, for which you want to receive a reward, then we are waiting for you on the ExpertMusic portal. We provide content for background music of different establishments, as well as for production: commercials, movies, YouTube-videos, games, etc.

We are wishing you to find your own ideal live set!
ExpertMusic team.

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