Before we get into How to Choose a MIDI Keyboard, grab a snack, sit back and relax because..
You’ve come to the right place!!
What I will bring you in this guide
What is MIDI?
How to Choose
Connecting Other Devices
A Couple of Great Options
Now without further ado, let’s get rolling shall we?!
Way back in 2006 when I was first getting into music production, I had no idea what MIDI was. I took an electronic music course in college of that year and made some cool music, but didn’t really understand sequencers, DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations), Audio Interfaces, or anything related to any of that stuff. What does an Audio Interface Do?
I was simply interested in making music!
The course I took was heavily on the Apple/Mac side of things, which I wasn’t too familiar with. I ended up putting the tracks I made onto Myspace, that old social network that reached it’s peak in popularity in December 2008 with around 76 million users.
It’s weird to think about that now. That a website accounting for over 80% of all social networking traffic could fall so hard and so fast. Here’s a great article from Lifewire:Is Myspace Dead?
But I digress..
It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I really learned about what MIDI actually is. When I got serious about making music in 2007, I moseyed on over to my local Sam Ashe, marched up to the salesman and told him I wanted to make beats. Here is my article on What is MIDI? I describe the meeting a lot more comically than I do here.
But what is it?
What is MIDI?
MIDI is an acronym that stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface.
Simply put, it’s just data, or a representation of sound, without actually being sound. That data gets transferred to your computer (and more specifically your sequencer) as a message. Then you can edit and quantize it yourself in the form of what looks like small bars of information. So every action you take when you’re pressing keys and turning knobs is encoded, but not actually recorded as with something like an actual wave form. So you hear what you’re playing, but it’s not being recorded on it’s own. You have to do that part through the sequencer after you’ve hooked everything up.
After recording what you played, the computer sends a message back to the synthesizer and the synth creates audio by interpreting the message.
Kind of mind blowing when you think about it, and also a bit complex.
Because of this, it is possible to change a MIDI message like a piano sound into a guitar sound. This isn’t possible if you were recording a sound from something like an actual synthesizer. So MIDI is also very flexible. Check out this great article from Indiana University called The MIDI Standard!
A MIDI controller simply plays back sounds from a library that are pre-programmed into the device. Sometimes there are no actual sounds inside of the unit; you have to program them yourself.
This is the case with my KORG padKONTROL. When I’m making beats, I assign the samples into to the pad and then bang away! Related:The KORG padKONTROL!
Other MIDI keyboards have sounds ready for you, so in a sense it is as if you’re playing an actual instrument.
So in a nutshell, there’s:
MIDI Controllers. These come as a blank slate. You have to program the sounds yourself. The padKONTROL is an example of this.
MIDI Musical Instruments. So Synthesizers, Keyboards, etc. These do actually generate sound, in addition to generating MIDI data. They come with different presets and instrument sounds built in depending on the model that you go with.
By now you may be wondering how you would go about choosing one..
How to Choose a MIDI Keyboard
Going off of the above criteria, we can more easily narrow down our options.
Are you looking for a MIDI Device that does NOT come with any sounds? This option would be ideal if you were a sample based producer such as myself. I do enjoy making original beats from time to time, but my true passion lies in chopping and sampling. If you are, then a MIDI controlleris what you’re after.
For instance, I went to the thrift store the other day and picked up a lot of 5 really cool records from Teddy Pendergrass, Grover Washington Jr., Jerry Butler, and Johnny Mathis. It’s been over 20 years since DMX’s “Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood” but I accidentally stumbled across the sample used in the song “Slippin” without ever actually searching for it. It’s from this very record that I bought for 99 cents from Grover entitled “Feels So Good”!! What are the odds?! With these records, I would just record what I wanted to sample through something like Audacity, chop the samples up using FL Studio’s Edison, and then assign them to the padKONTROL and bang out a cool loop.
What if you like to play the keyboard, and would prefer some sounds already programmed in? If this is the case, then a MIDI Instrument is what you’re looking for. “Is Mayonnaise an Instrument?” Lol.
Also let’s consider some other criteria involved.
Back in the day, if you wanted to use a MIDI keyboard, you had to have actual cables for it. Because MIDI Cables are unidirectional, they only transmit data one way. This is why you always needed two.
Nowadays those things aren’t required anymore, but certain devices still have MIDI slots on the back. It just depends. Often times, all you’re going to need is a USB slot on your PC.
If the device does come with MIDI inputs but not a USB slot, you would just use a MIDI cable to USB.
Some devices carry USB and a pair of MIDI slots depending on the unit in question.
Years back, you might’ve needed a MIDI Hub, which basically acted as the middle man between the USB side (Your PC), and the MIDI Keyboard. This also isn’t really required anymore.
Connecting Other Devices
You also have the luxury of perhaps daisy chaining more than one piece of gear, using the THRU ports that come with various other synths and drum machines. The problem there is that they all have to share the same 16 MIDI Channels of your original device. This becomes more trouble then it’s worth when you consider that you’ll be limited in how many instruments can be used and recorded with in a single track.
The work around for this is to get a multi-port Interface, which has 8 sets of In/Outs all carrying a total of 16 channels. In essence you’d have 128 which, is more than enough.
Dimensions and Weight
Another important consideration is size. Do you need something that you can take with you on the go? If so, you’ll want to invest in something smaller and more portable. A great option for travel would be the Novation Launch Key.
If you decide on something for the studio, pay attention to how much desk space you’ll be working with. For me, it’s not a lot. Most every spot on mine is taken up. I have the padKONTROL, dual monitors, a turntable, a bevy of headphone amps, studio monitors, and headphones to consider. Take note of what you have on your desk and plan accordingly!
Build Quality. You’ll want something that’s going to stand the test of time and not break down. It’s important to remember that you get what you pay for. So with anything $100 and under, build isn’t really guaranteed for the long haul though there are some quality units out there.
How many keys do you want? Generally, most come with either 25, 49, 61, or 88. Which you go with depends on your budget and how much flexibility you’re after. Even though something like a 25 key unit only covers 2 octaves, with some keyboards you’re provided a way to expand upon that and utilize other various octaves via some sort of control.
Sensitivity. It’s also nice to have a keyboard with good trigger response time. My padKONTROL is excellent in this regard. The old AKAI MPD18 that I sold was not. The pads were extremely hard and not all that fun to use, which is a common downside to their products in general. A keyboard is similar in this way; most of the budget models won’t afford you the great sensitivity of something like an actual piano, but they are pretty decent nonetheless.
Faders, pads, and other knobs. My padKONTROL has a cool feature that I used a lot when I was into making originals. The X-Y pad allowed me to change the pitch and create some cool effects. A lot of keyboards work in a similar way, and may feature this a bit different. It just depends on the unit. The Akai MPK Mini MK II is an example of a keyboard that utilizes pitch in the form of a joystick. Other features to consider: An Arpeggiator, Modulation wheel (controls tone, vibrato, etc.), Rotary Knob, etc.
Software & Mapping. You’ll also want to consider a keyboard with bundled software and some virtual instrument sounds built in. I use FL Studio and Reason. A lot of the entry level models come bundled with something like Ableton Live Lite. It’s important to try and choose a MIDI keyboard that’s compatible with your Sequencer. This way you won’t have to manually assign the sounds to the pad; it will be done automatically for you.
Here’s a great video that goes into a lot more depth. Be sure to subscribe to his channel!
A Couple of Great Options
For Beginners Just Starting Out
With any DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
The AkaiMPK Mini MKII or Novation Launch Key are my recommendations for units that work seamlessly with most of your sequencing programs including FL Studio.
Here’s a great comparison of the two. Make sure youSubscribe to Taetro’s channel!
Here is another video of Adriel Rivera discussing the Launch Key features and doing a little live demo. A great and informative video.
Also make sure to sub his channel as well!
To put it simply, I’ve had my padKONTROL for a long time. I had a white one from 2007-2016. One of the knobs broke but it still worked. I ended up selling it and buying a black one, but:
If I were to sell my padKONTROL, these are the two options I would consider first in conjunction with FL Studio. They will also work with pretty much any other DAW, so you’re covered there as well.
Stu is determined to provide the truth about all things audio, and strives to deliver excellent content to you the reader! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, attend church, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His attention to detail and perfectionist attitude are what allow him to excel, but it can be both a blessing and a hindrance at times.