What Is a MIDI Keyboard and How Do You Use It?

The Musical Instrument Digital Interface or MIDI has been around since the early 1980s. Over the last few decades, this technology has irrevocably changed the world of music production and live performances.

So, what is a MIDI keyboard? In a nutshell, this is a controller keyboard used for sending MIDI signals to computers or other musical devices. It’s an essential ingredient of the music-making process, which is why most artists have at least one MIDI keyboard controller in their home studio. In the following guide, we’ll tell you more about how the controller works and which one to get if you’re a beginner.

What Is MIDI?

MIDI is a protocol that facilitates communications between musical instruments, computers, and other types of hardware. So what does MIDI mean for the workflow of an average musician?

Rather than generating sound, MIDI enables users to control hardware as well as virtual instruments and tools by sending a series of messages or “triggers”. The MIDI device can interpret the “note on” or “note off” signals and subsequently trigger the desired sound. Notes, for example, can be edited and triggered from one device to another, making the process of recording and arranging music much easier and more enjoyable.

To use MIDI controllers, you’ll also need digital audio workstations or DAWs. The most popular DAWs include Ableton, FL Studio, Logic Pro, Cubase, and GarageBand.

What Is a MIDI Keyboard Controller?

A MIDI keyboard is a musical controller that can send commands to a MIDI device or software. They exist in various shapes and sizes, ranging from smaller 25-key MIDI keyboards to full-size 88-key keyboards. It’s important to note that MIDI controllers don’t necessarily have to be keyboards and vice versa.

MIDI Keyboard Types

The following are some of the most prevalent types of MIDI keyboards on the market, each characterized by its own set of advantages and disadvantages:

  • 25-key MIDI keyboard: This is the simplest and most affordable MIDI keyboard on the market. It’s light and compact, making it easy to transport. It also has a two-octave range.
  • 49-key MIDI keyboard: This keyboard contains four octaves. It’s comfortable for two-handed use, even though the controller is considered to be on the smaller side.
  • 61-key MIDI keyboard: This five-octave keyboard offers essential functionality and is an ideal option for two-handed playing. It’s also recommended for those who use zones on the keyboard.
  • 88-key MIDI keyboard: This keyboard has a key range containing seven octaves, just like a classic acoustic piano. This heavy MIDI keyboard often comes with a hefty price tag.

There are a few other less popular MIDI keyboards, such as the 32 and 37-key controllers, 64-key controllers, 73 and 76-key controllers, and collapsible keyboards.

If you want to add modulations while playing, trigger different instruments, or add sound effects to your track, a MIDI keyboard is a must.

How to Use a MIDI Keyboard

When keys or pads on a MIDI keyboard are pressed, MIDI messages are created. Those messages are sent to the device the keyboard is connected through a USB or MIDI 5-pin cable. The devices on the other side of that connection can be:

  • A computer or laptop using a DAW or a standalone VST (virtual audio technology)/AU instrument
  • An analogue hardware instrument that supports MIDI or a digital hardware instrument
  • A sound module

Although most MIDI keyboards contain the same set of functions, your experiences may vary depending on the size and type of MIDI keyboard you have. Higher-end MIDI controllers can have more encoders, programmable pads, buttons, and faders that can give you greater versatility in the studio or in front of an audience. If you’re a newbie, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Just remember that the primary objective is to enhance the music production process.

These are some typical control devices present on most MIDI keyboards that are used to operate DAW controls.

Controls

    • Knobs: These are composed of either infinite rotary encoders or potentiometers, and they can usually be assigned to a function.
    • Buttons: Settings, menus, MIDI Control Change information, octave up/down, or splits are some of the options that may be assignable or modified on the keyboard controller.
    • Sliders/faders: Some of the more commonly found features include equalizer control and channel fader control.
    • Drum pads: Pads are velocity-sensitive and can be assigned to trigger events from drum kits to program changes, although they’re not limited to that.
    • Modulation and pitch bend: Enables modulation and pitch bending through various control setups.
    • Touch-sensitive strips: Touch strips aren’t that common, but several functions can be assigned to them, such as vibrato control and pitch modulation.
    • MIDI controller software/DAW: MIDI keyboards usually come equipped with a DAW, and they’re automatically mapped and integrated once plugged in.
    • Touch screens: Most MIDI keyboards, especially lower-end ones, lack touch screens. Those with screens have an interface that integrates well with the preferred DAW.
    • Foot pedals: Expression and piano pedals, as well as stomp boxes and organ foot pedal keyboards are the main types of foot pedals that can be used with a MIDI controller.

What’s the Best MIDI Keyboard for Beginners?

Picking the right keyboard can be a bit tricky, especially if you’re a beginner and there’s a ton of new information that you need to process. Whether you’re just getting started as a producer and looking to set up a home studio with additional gear like various types of microphones, or you’re a seasoned pro looking for a portable keyboard, we’ve got you covered.

When choosing an entry-level keyboard, there are a few things to consider:

  • Included software: It’s best to settle on a favourite DAW and stick with it. Most MIDI-controlled keyboards come with free software and VSTs, and you can transfer your skills from one DAW to the next because MIDI keyboards are compatible with most programs.

If Ableton is the primary DAW included with your keyboard, the controller is automatically mapped with that software. If you connect it to FL Studio or GarageBand, it will likely require some additional mapping and setting up.

  • Controller price: An affordable keyboard controller doesn’t necessarily sacrifice quality. If you’re looking to buy a cheap MIDI controller, there are a few great options available for about $130. Keep in mind that you will also need to invest in VSTs, samples, and plugins.
  • Keys, pads, and knobs: If you’re starting out and want to make beats with your MIDI keyboard, you won’t necessarily need a lot of keys. Most drum pads and keys are velocity-sensitive, and combining the two while learning and performing is more enjoyable. The more knobs you have, the more ways you can experiment with your sound.

Each controller keyboard has its own set of features, and any of these 25-key controllers is a good place to start:

  • Novation Launchkey Mini MK3: Includes Ableton Live Lite software bundle.
  • Arturia Minilab MKII: Includes Arturia’s Free MIDI Control Software and can be used with any DAW.
  • Akai Professional MPK225: Includes Ableton Live Lite software as well as MPC beats.

Final Thoughts

The introduction of the MIDI protocol revolutionized the way we understand and create music. Now, we’re anticipating the release of MIDI 2.0. and looking forward to the impact it will have on the modern music industry.

We started this guide by asking a simple question: what is a MIDI keyboard? By now you probably realize that you don’t need a MIDI keyboard to produce music on your computer, but this is a highly useful, enjoyable, and easy-to-use tool that is guaranteed to enhance the process. Instead of just programming your melodies and basslines with a computer keyboard, you can use a MIDI controller for a more creative touch.

FAQ

What is the difference between a MIDI keyboard and a keyboard?

The main difference is that a MIDI keyboard cannot be used independently. It requires DAW software to transmit MIDI data. To produce sounds, MIDI devices usually need to be connected to an external source. A keyboard is a stand-alone instrument that can be used without any additional hardware or software.

Can you use a MIDI keyboard as a regular keyboard?

A MIDI keyboard requires software and a computer to produce sounds, which isn’t the case with an actual keyboard. A keyboard can function independently.

What can a MIDI keyboard do?

You can assign different instruments and sounds to your MIDI keyboard in any way you choose. Even a small MIDI keyboard can be used to generate drum beats with a drum pad. It can also be used for assigning sample loops to buttons, changing the tone with built-in knobs, and modulating the pitch with the pitch wheel.

Do you need a MIDI to make beats?

Although a MIDI device can make the writing and production process faster and easier, you don’t necessarily need a controller to make great beats.

Why do I need a MIDI keyboard?

Although this technology has been around for a while, many people still ask: what is a MIDI keyboard? In layman’s terms, this device is designed to enhance the music-making process, especially when the alternative involves using a computer keyboard and mouse. You can use it to add drums, basslines, and many other elements.

An eye for aesthetics and a passion for writing and technology are both parts of Dusan’s essence. He is a curious spirit with an appreciation for a well-written story and pop and indie-folk music, undying love for cats and deep knowledge of Taylor Swift’s lyrics. He discovered his passion for writing at a young age. Dusan’s creativity has been unlimited ever since, prompting him to compose various pieces one word at a time.

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