Most home musicians have a MIDI keyboard controller in their home studio.
But what exactly is a MIDI keyboard controller? Can you make music without one? If you decide to buy one, what kind should you get and how much will it cost?
In this article I’m going to answer all of those questions and much more.
So, What is a MIDI keyboard Controller and What Can it Do?
It’s a piano-style keyboard, which you attach to your computer – usually via a USB cable.
Most MIDI keyboards don’t make any sound on their own. They just send MIDI data to your music making software.
The actual sound is generated inside your computer by different types of software like plugins, virtual instruments (VSTi), Kontact libraries, etc.
So, if you have a virtual piano VSTi installed on your computer, you can use your MIDI keyboard controller to play it in real time like you would play a real piano.
The only difference is that software generates the sound and you control it via your MIDI keyboard controller, whereas a real piano is, well, played in the “real” world.
Most regular keyboards and hardware synthesizers can work as a MIDI keyboard controller as well.
I have a Casio CK-3800 keyboard which I use when I train with my band, and it has a midi-out which allows me to connect it to the computer so I can use it as a MIDI keyboard.
Many MIDI keyboards also come equipped with knobs and sliders, which can be programmed to control different parameters of your virtual instruments.
For example, if you have a volume slider in your virtual synth and you want to control it in real time (while you play), you can route it to one of the sliders or knobs on your midi keyboard and voila: you can tweak your synth it in real time.
Almost like a real hardware synth – very cool!
However, many beginners may wonder if it’s a must-have device in the home studio.
Can You Make Music Without a MIDI Keyboard Controller?
When I started making music, I didn’t have a MIDI keyboard. Just my computer, a standard computer keyboard, mouse, and software. With that setup, I created “Primo Lux – Turnpoint” which went to top positions on the Dutch dance charts, and many other songs as well.
Hear for yourself…
Most DAWs will have some note view (often called a piano roll) where you can place the notes one by one via a mouse.
Also, many DAWs – like FL Studio for example – have a built-in option to use your regular computer keyboard as a virtual piano keyboard. That’s right, the same keyboard you use to chat and send emails with can be used to send MIDI information to FL Studio. How cool is that?
For example, you could set the letter “Q” on your computer keyboard to equal note C, letter “W” to note D and so on and so forth. From there, you could play a melody via those mapped keys. I used to use this feature a lot before I got my first MIDI keyboard. And you can too!
So as you can see, a MIDI keyboard isn’t necessary to make some inspiring music on your computer. However, hitting a real keyboard gives a whole different feel. For this one reasons alone, I would recommend getting your first MIDI keyboard as you can afford it.
Let me explain…
Playing melodies and bass lines, live, with MIDI controller gives more of a “human touch” versus programming them with a mouse and computer keyboard. Also, in time, you’ll most likely learn how to play the piano a little bit so it’s a natural progression and the sooner the better.
Now, if you’re already skilled in playing the piano, congratulations, because you have a head start!
And In this case, I would say a MIDI keyboard is a must-have for you. It’ll make the process of creating music not only more fun but also more efficient. Even though programming is possible with your mouse and computer keyboard, it’s VERY time consuming and can sometimes ruin the process/vibe.
And if you’re used to the feel of the piano keys and the instant musical feedback you get from playing, you will have nothing but frustration when trying to creating melodies with your mouse.
What Kind of MIDI Keyboard Controller Should You Get and How Much do They Cost?
It all depends on what kind of options you want: how many keys? 25? 49? 61? 88? Do you want the keys to be weighted (like in real piano), semi-weighted or unweighted?
How many programmable knobs/buttons/sliders? Do you need aftertouch?
Another factor you’re going to have to consider is pricing. Midi Keyboards can cost anywhere from $80 to $700 and even more. It all depends on the quality and features. A Good rule of thumb is the fewer features, the less you pay.
As a beginner and first-time purchaser, I would recommend starting at the low end (price wise). It might not seem like it now, but you may lose interest in this hobby in a year or two, and you’ll be glad you didn’t spend a small fortune. Keep it simple!
On the flip side, if you are a piano savant and are a stickler for the touch and fell of the keys, you might want to consider get weighted keys to give you something that’s more like the “real thing”. Just know that the weighted keys usually come at a cost.
So with that said, let’s go over a few options that I would recommend for anyone to get started with, regardless of skill level or knowledge.
M-Audio Oxygen 61
My Personal Choice
The M-Audio Oxygen 61 is currently the MIDI keyboard that I use to make music. It has 61 unweighted keys, 8 knobs, 9 sliders, a handful buttons, as well a Drum Pad Controller. It’s perfectly suited for my electronic music making needs.
Not only is this keyboard very good in my opinion, but it’s also easy to set up (pretty much plug and play), and is powered via USB, which not only makes it universal but it also means you don’t have to fumble around with a bunch of cords to get it set up.
The only real problem I have with the features is that the drum pads can be a bit awkward to work with. I find you need a lot of pressure to get them to respond. But since I do most of my drum programming in the FL Studio step sequencer, the pads don’t get much use, meaning this minor issue isn’t really a deal breaker for me.
If you think the Oxygen might be something you want to add to your setup but still don’t want to make a huge commitment, I’d recommend checking our the 25-key version. Even though it’s a major step down from the 61, it’s also about half the price and much more portable, making it a great entry level Midi Keyboard.
Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII
Good for Beginners
If you’re new to production and haven’t heard about Akai before, they pretty much changed the music making game with their lineup of MPC drum machines. Continuing with their tradition of helping creators make music, they introduced the MPK Mini MKII, which I think is a great addition to the beginner music creator. It gets you in the door of a well-respected brand at a low price (Currently under $100).
But don’t let the cost fool you. For such a compact unit, the MKII comes packed with features that rival even the more expensive models. Some features include 25 velocity-sensitive keys, eight backlit velocity-sensitive MPC-style pads plus two banks, a brand new four-way thumbstick for dynamic pitch and modulation manipulation and eight assignable control knobs, which is ideal for electronic style music production.
Like the Oxygen, the MPK Mini MKII is also powered via USB and fits comfortably onto any desktop or work area. It’s a great buy for a beginner but would make a great companion for a traveling music creator. To be quite honest, this one might even contain more features than a beginner would need, but because the quality and price are on point, I had to include this.
M-Audio Hammer 88
For the Piano Savant
Those who are more experienced and want a midi keyboard that feels like the “real thing” will appreciate the M-Audio Hammer 88 as it contains 88 fully-weighted, hammer-action keys.
Regarding features, it’s very minimal and is true to what you might find on a real piano. The Hammer 88 has fully-assignable MIDI buttons, pitch-bend, and modulation wheels, sustain pedal, secondary pedal, and expression pedal inputs. Though all these features might sound impressive, it is designed more for the players who more are concerned with compositional accuracy rather than editing or tweaking.
Though this Midi Keyboard is a great price for the feel of a “real” piano (usually cost more), it’s also lacking simple things like portability as well as multiple assignable control knobs, which would be quite useful in producing music like electronica. But if your music plans are more geared towards realistic playing and less on envelopes and automation, this just might be the one for you.
As you can see, a lot of music software these days doesn’t require you to pick up a Midi Keyboard to make music, and if you’re an absolute newbie, that might be the way to go.
But once you get some experience and you want to inflict more of a human touch into your productions, a Midi Keyboard just might be what you need.
But not only can it humanize your music, it can also save you a lot of time. Speaking from experience, I find melodies a lot easier when I can just play them and get instant feedback. This is something that’s impossible to do with a mouse clicking note-by-note, and not much easier with a computer keyboard.
But don’t take my word for it, pick up a Midi Keyboard and try it yourself!