Choosing A MIDI Controller That Works For You
Our main objective in choosing a MIDI controller is one that you can rely and make great music on. Most MIDI controllers connects to your computer/laptop via a USB cable. There are some MIDI controllers that connects to your computer wirelessly with Bluetooth or the Internet, but my advice is to stay away from those types. Although they look cool and seem to have nice features, sometimes you want everything to work. In the past with wireless MIDI controllers, I find myself troubleshooting the connections more than putting down musical ideas. Not to mention the latency issue wireless MIDI controllers might have.
This seemed to have changed a little though through the years. A company that makes mobile MIDI controllers, the CME Xkey is said to have been able to create a wireless MIDI controller that connects with Bluetooth with no latency.
There are many types of MIDI controllers in the market. Let’s start off with my favorite.
1 – MIDI Controller Keyboard
The most popular type of MIDI controller is the keyboard MIDI controller. They look like an electronic keyboard but they are really just controllers. They only work when you plug them to a computer and load an instrument sample to play on.
Some MIDI controllers come with extra features like the extra pads usually used for triggering drum samples. You might even find MIDI controller keyboards that has faders and knobs on it, which are usually used to control the volume and panning knobs in your DAW. They offer an ‘analog’ touch when you’re producing music on your computer, without having you to reach for the mouse all the time. The more expensive controllers usually also comes with pressure sensitive keys, giving you the ability to play more expressively; you could use the pressure sensitive keys to control volume of your instrument patches.
When buying the MIDI controller keyboard, try to find one that has great touch. Some MIDI controllers can feel a little stiff and plasticy, which can be annoying for particular musicians.
This form of MIDI controller is the most versatile and value for money. Even with just a MIDI controller that comes with only keys, you could still program lots of music lines such as bass, strings, synths and even drums. Just hammer away on the keys!
How Many Keys Do I Need?
This really depends on two factors. First, what is your playing style? If you mainly play lead, bass and drum lines, you can do off with a 25-key MIDI controller without much problem. If you’re a pianist and think you’ll be programming piano riffs and lush string patterns, you’ll want to look at longer MIDI controllers.
Secondly, will you be traveling with your MIDI controller? Having an 88-key MIDI controller is nice but if you won’t be able to travel with it. So the number of keys really depends on your usage and activity. Whether 25, 32, 49, 61, 76 or 88 keys depends on where and what you’ll be mainly using your MIDI controller for.
Type Of Keyboard Action
As mentioned earlier, I explained that the touch of a keyboard controller is crucial. You’re going to be using the controller for sometime in the studio and also live. Logically, you have to feel comfortable playing on the keyboard.
When buying a keyboard controller, always look out for the type of action they have. There are few types of keyboard actions you can expect to find on a MIDI controller.
Hammer Action Keyboards
Hammer action keyboards are designed to feel like an acoustic piano. Most hammer action keyboards are 76-key or 88-key, just like the acoustic piano. If you’re a pianist there is mistaking to go for the hammer action keyboards. You’ll be able to play a piano more expressively on this of keyboards. Playing and programming drums with the hammer action keyboard however can be a little tougher and your fingers will definitely get tired faster.
Sem-weighted action are the type of touch you find in most keyboards. They are built with spring-loaded keys with a little weighted feeling to it. This type of keyboard action is most common and many musicians should feel at home with it. Expression and control with most instruments on this type of keyboard action is possible.
Synth Action Touch
Synth action is somewhat even more lighter than the semi-weighted action keyboards. You’ll typically find this on synths keyboards where they keys are very light. Synth action touch appeals to many electronic musicians or guitarists who do not play the piano and would love to play synth and drum patches.
Recommended MIDI Controller Keyboards
M-Audio Oxygen 49 – I’m a big fan of M-Audio keyboards because of its touch. As someone who plays the piano, I find M-Audio keyboards to have nice responsive keys that I can really put control on. I recommend the Oxygen 49 as it has really nice keys with some added features, the pads, knobs and transport buttons. Sometimes you’d like to press buttons and turn knobs for a refreshing change rather than clicking everything with the mouse.
Samson Carbon 49 – If you’re just starting out and want to go the lowest possible, I’d recommend you the Samson Carbon 49. They are of no doubt the cheapest MIDI controller keyboard you can find in the market. They also work with your iPad, so you can really go portable with one of this.
Akai Professional MPK261 – Another great MIDI controller, the pads on Akai MIDI controllers must be best there is in the market. While many MIDI controller keyboards has pads on them which I hardly find myself using at all due to it’s unresponsiveness, I find the pads on Akai controllers to be exceptionally responsive and very usable.
2 – Percussion/Drum Pad MIDI Controllers
Some producers prefer pressing and drumming on MIDI pads. Though pads are normally used for drum patches, through the years there have been many creative approaches where hitting a pad triggers a stab or sound sample. Drum pad MIDI controllers can be very useful for a live performance as well.
Personally I don’t see the drum pad as a big addition to the studio. Most producers are using percussion MIDI controllers as a secondary tool for programming drum lines or to give themselves more versatility to creativity.
When buying a percussion MIDI controller with pads, always look to see if they have large enough pads that enable your fingers to play on. It goes without saying that the pads needs to very responsive and playable. For instance, forget the pads made by Samson. The Samson Graphite 49 has some pads built in, but it’s quite stiff and I didn’t find myself using them at all.
It also helps to see if you are able to program the pads to different layouts or different sounds on your DAW. This is important as most of us has a different playing style when it comes to percussion MIDI controllers. Some prefer to use it play fast drums lines while others prefer to use it to trigger sound samples they sliced up in their DAW.
Recommended Percussion/Drum Pad MIDI Controllers
Maschine Studio – The top of the line percussion MIDI controller there is with a whole system built into it. If you’re into creative beat making and pads, this is the one you should get, provided you have the budget for it. It’s feature rich and works seamlessly with your DAW. Using the Maschine Studio, you’ll begin to look at your computer less and put your fingers to use. Go check it out. It’s really more than just a controller.
Ableton Push – The Ableton Push is a controller made for Ableton Live. It has plenty of pads that makes sense if you use Live a lot. It also makes sense for producers who are using Ableton Live to get this as a harware to accompany the DAW. If you work with lots of MIDI on Ableton, it goes without saying that this should be used.
Novation Launchpad – I’d call the Launchpad a canvas of creativity. With lots of pads which are programmable, you’ll be able to creatively map things and program patches to anyway you want on the Launchpad. Although this might seem an overkill for some DAW where you only need some drum patches, it’s still nice to have many pads to play with.
Korg Nanopad Slimline – This would be great if you’re on a budget or on the go. The Nanopad is inexpensive and attracts many new music producers who like to try adding a percussion controller as part of their setup. Quite a number of pads to play with. It also features a XY touchpad which you can use to generate and experiment with sounds like never before. I’d recommend this if you’re buying your first percussion MIDI controller.
3 – Mobile MIDI Controllers
You then have the mobile MIDI controllers which are like keyboard MIDI controllers, only with their keys smaller in size, smaller than the size of a key on a keyboard. These type of MIDI controllers are made to be mobile or as an addition to your MIDI setup.
I wouldn’t advise using mobile MIDI controllers as your main controller. They come in all sizes, usually with smaller keys or a smaller/thinner build. Great for laying down ideas but I would never imagine finishing a score with one of these controllers.
Recommended Mobile MIDI Controllers
I’d normally wouldn’t recommend people to buy these mini sized & mobile controllers. However if you have to own a unit for travelling or touring purposes, here goes my top recommendations.
Korg microKey – I recommend the Korg microKey as it has a very nice touch. The keys are semi-weighted and very responsive to touch. The microKey would be my top choice if I had to choose from the many mobile MIDI controllers to score music with. By the way, stay away from the nanoKey. That is a product that I wouldn’t recommend at all.
CME Xkey – My first impression upon unboxing the CME Xkey was bad. I thought I will never be able to play expressively on the CME Xkey. Surprisingly, I found the CME Xkey to be pretty playable. It’s one of my favorite because of the build. I currently carry the CME Xkey 25 in my backpack whenever I travel, so I can complete projects even when I’m out the studio and in other places!
4 – Guitar & Wind MIDI Controllers
Guitar & wind MIDI controllers would be rarest category of MIDI controllers mentioned in this post, if they are being used at all. There are companies such as ACPAD who are developing a wireless MIDI controller for the acoustic guitar and it seems quite promising.
As for wind MIDI controllers, they are normally built in the form of a saxophone shape. You can choose different modes of playing the wind controller and have your MIDI data sent into your DAW just like any MIDI controllers would. Wind controllers aren’t popular but they appeal to musicians & producers who have strong background playing wind or brass instruments.
Recommended Wind Controllers
Akai EWI USB Electronic Wind Controller – I’ve not used this before as I don’t play wind instruments. However if you must absolutely get a wind controller, I’d advise going for Akai above any other brands in this category.
As you can see, there are many different types of MIDI controllers that are available in the market. Some are even going through development as I write this. It’s safe to say however, that the next generation of MIDI controllers would be ones based on modular technology. If you like to read about that, check Livid Instruments out.
Other than that, we’ll head to the next section where we’ll talk about choosing your DAW for composing music with MIDI.