What is a MIDI Keyboard Controller and Do I Need One?

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midi keyboard controller

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.

(Also, remember to check out my other tutorial articles as well, such as “How To Make Electronic Music With Computer” and “Trance Song Structure“).

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

M-Audio Oxygen 61

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

M-Audio Hammer88 MIDI Keyboard

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.

The Verdict.

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!

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HowToMakeElectronicMusic.com (HTMEM) - A music production website with plenty FL Studio tutorials, interviews, news, free music production tips, and free downloads.

44 Comments

  1. hi, thanks for sharing your knowledge, the structure of your article is very sweet and easy to understand: really thank you so much.

  2. Your website is awesome! found you in Image Line Forums. I just wanted to say I didn’t have a true midi controller for until about a month ago, and I started writing emusic about 6 years ago. Wrote alot of songs, but now that I got one, I would never go back!

  3. Justin Rowsell on

    Great article! Found it after reading your DAW article. I agree with everything you say, especially the “human touch’ aspect of a MIDI keyboard. Personally I have an Axiom 25 and I love it! Regards.

  4. Hi Petri,

    Thanks for sharing this article. I am about to buy a keyboard but don’t have any idea of which one I must buy…. so what do you think about the Axiom 61 key (2nd Gen) ? http://www.m-audio.com/products/en_us/Axiom61New.html
    Is it good for Fl Studio? I read something about the *directlink but have no idea of how it works…

    I really hope you can help me here… thx

    P.S I don’t speak english well xd … so I apologize for that .

    GreaT Website!

    Greetings from Peru. 😀

    • Hey Javier and hello to Peru! I’m sorry to say, but I really dont have any experience on Axiom 61 so cant say much about it 🙁 I would suggest to try and search on youtube for some review videos about it. Hope you’ll find something that helps!

      • Thanks Petri I will take a look on youtube… I liked it very much the axiom 61 … so i think i am gonna try m-audio product and see how it works..

        😀

        • Cool! I’ve been using Oxygen 61 (that’s M-Audio product) and I’ve been very happy with it and Axiom should be ‘superior’ to Oxygen 61 so I think I can say you can’t go wrong with it 🙂

        • GratuiTous on

          Heyy Javier,

          I’ve been using the Axiom 49 2nd Generation for quite awhile now. I would recommend it, it is a high quality product, but it all depends on your price point.

          As Petri mention he uses the Oxygen 61.. and that might be the better route. A lot of MIDI Keyboards are loaded with a lot of features, which you probably won’t use all of them.. but you’ll be paying for them 😉

          Feel free to ask me more questions about the Axiom if you’d like!

  5. This is likely the most helpful article on keyboard controllers i have found yet. I have a simple question that was not covered in this post. I operate with a mac (with snow leopard) and my programs are garageband and ableton. Are most midi keyboard controllers able to be used on macs and with this software?

    • Hey there and thanks for checking the article!

      To your question: afaik most MIDI keyboards will work in mac and Ableton live as well (and most likely in Garageband too). At least M-Audio products will work. Just check before you purhcase it says it supports mac. 🙂

  6. last_name_left on

    Primo Lux Turnpoint – hey, not bad for a beginner! hehe. It’s very good. I’m not familiar with it, but I like it. I like the very basic early mid 90s trance stuff most – like the age of love(stella), but this is good.

    Is there much you would change on it if you did it now? Is there anything you really wish you could change about it?

    On keyboards, my own experience is that getting one makes a great deal of difference. It’s not an absolute necessity, but it’s a big deal. They can be “cheap” – below $100. The whole music thing then becomes a whole lot more fun and engaging. [Dance hits are still some way off for me though! A MIDI keyboard is no panacea for simply not being very good. Shame. Definitely helps though. ;)]

    • Thanks! Ya, Turnpoint is so far my most succesful song 🙂 I wouldn’t change it much; maybe using a punchier kick, and master the song a bit differently (not so much limiting).

      And yep, playing things with MIDI keyb is a lot more interesting than with mouse! Personally, I’ve noticed that I’ve actually learned to play something with keyboards so it’s a benefical equipment as well 🙂

  7. I have a question as a newbie. In regards to a midi-controller and the weighted key issue, does having weighted keys impact your ability to make good electronic music? I ask because weighted keys are really for those use to a piano who wants to play the keyboard much how you would play a piano. I can imagine with electronic music you are striking keys faster and I was wondering if this has any impact. Thanks and great article!

    • Hey there!

      Personally, I don’t have much experience playing with weighted MIDI keyboards – the Oxygen 61 I’m currently using has spring-loaded keys and that is working GREAT for playing fast sequences, staccato chords, etc. so I cant say much how the weighted keys would work for faster playing.

  8. Hello, nice blog on making electronic music, I’ve been writing since 1999 but officially 2000 I had a keyboard but with 2 knobs and FULL MIDI, still use it to this day, it’s a Yamaha DJX. For a while since I started the whole purely digital sound with soft synths I had this idea to make your PC keyboard your parameter control by pressing two keys left to right to move each knob in a soft synth and assign all the keys to different params and keys. I have looked the web over for it and found nothing even close, Abelton live does this but very clicky or something. Anyone ever heard of such a type of software that is like a pure virtual midi knob device?

  9. Evan Cooper on

    Hey Petri I have so many questions I’d like to ask. First, if i get the oxygen 61 would I need the drum pads? Like I was looking at midi pads like the trigger finger. Would having both be okay?

  10. Petri please can you help me, i have Oxygen 49 3rd but i don’t know how to get ” DirectLink ” for Fl studio. Do you have any idea please? I was searching everywhere but i can’t find it even on http://www.m-audio.com!

  11. Nichlas Hendriksen on

    Hi There!

    I really like your webpage, it’s a big help! I took your advise and bought myself a M-Audio Oxygen49 MIDI-keyboard and it’s really great! But now i have looked after tons of tutorials on the net, and i can’t figure out how to enable/attach all the sliders/knobs/controllers into FL Studio 10 and all of the plugins/VST’s .. Any idea how to easy set them up? I tried to right click a function and then choose “Link to controller” and select a port number. But nothing helps? 🙁

    Greetings from Denmark!

  12. Hey man just found your site, great info! I agree that you don’t NEED a midi keyboard to make music, but at the price you can get one I don’t really see why not. A midi keyboard makes music production a lot more fun, and also easier since you can test out melodies a lot faster that by making them in the piano roll. I myself have been very satisfied with the M-Audio Oxygen 49, you can find my review of it at http://midi-controller-reviews.com/m-audio-oxygen-49-review/

    Thanks again, will be checking your site regularily.

  13. hey.. im an upcoming dj from Mumbai, India.. thank you so much for imparting your knowledge.. i have been looking for guidance regarding poduction from other djs here and i must say none of them seem to want to help out budding dj’s.. hence your article is a godsend ! thanks again.. btw checking out ur track.. classic trance tune 😉

  14. Hey man, relly love your work..Juss dropped by your youtube channel recently and a whole night passed off as i learned from a couple of your video’s. so i was just wondering if i could use my Yamaha psr-295 as a midi keyboard, As it says General Midi on the keyboard.

    would be really grate full if you could help me out on this one, as it may save me the burden of buying a midi keyboard.

    will await your reply.

  15. Hi Petri, your website is awesome. your tutorial videos are incredible. i am new to this field, learning FL studio for last 2 months and found your website quite helpful..
    thanx a lot.

  16. Pranit Khedekar on

    Hi Petri Suhonen
    I want To buy a midi controller…and my budget is 80$ to 100$…please suggest me…can i get it in available money…and also ive a yamaha e223 keyboard..but for conecting keyboard to computer we need usb to midi cable and its too costly,…L(

  17. daniel garcia on

    Hi Petri,
    I actually wanted a midi piano but since they are way too expensive and even more on my country (third world country problems) I decided to build my own midi piano and mi midi controller just like the ableton live launchpad using a micro-controller called arduino uno r3 and by simple buttons and potentiometers, it actually works (both of them) and I am going to make a video on YouTube explaining step by step the entire process of building it and installing/programming it for musicians so when I finish it I will post it around here and hopefully you can show it on your page to help future producers with budget deficits just like me. thanks and greetings from Guatemala!

  18. hello Petri
    i’ve been visiting ur website vei often since last 6 mnths
    n thnx for evry info n tutorials, jus coz of dat i was able to make my own track
    which was nearly immpossible for me unless i saw ur vids

    so nw the time to ask u for one more help or suggestion for midi KEYBOARD

    – r the knobs n faders so very usefull for fl studio or the simple unit with keybed is jus fine

    – plz recommend, shld i purchase alesis qx49 (http://www.alesis.com/qx49) or any other brand
    coz i have a limited budget n i want a gud piece n m crazy about advanced controls i dunno if they r so usefull or not

    so plz help me to choose wise

    THNX in adv 🙂

  19. Hi peri! I want 2 learn key knowlegde and I dnt know? Anything about it! And hw 2 know a key of a acapella and hw 2 match acapella by key!! Hoping that u will sort out me?

  20. Bloodugar on

    Heyho.
    I just wanted to thank you for all the articles / tutorials and all the knowledge you share.
    You’re helping me a lot with my music 🙂
    Keep up this awesome work!

  21. Can I use 2 midi controllers at the same time? I am going to buy a novation launchkey 49 and it has 8 knobs and 8 faders, are these enough? because in soft synths i see a lot more than 8 knobs so should i buy another midi (korg nanokontrol 2) for extra knobs and faders? (if we can use 2 midi controllers together) or a single midi is more than enough to make music?

  22. Hi. this blog has been really helpful . I try recording from my computer’s keyboard to piano roll but it gives me an entirely different melody when I playback. The notes also must fit to a particular space when I write directly to the piano roll, it doesn’t leave the spaces, making it impossible to achieve a desired sound. I need help please.

    • Hey John!

      By “entirely different melody”, do you mean it doesn’t stay in tempo? If that’s the case, try recording your melodies with the metronome.

      Also, there’s a quantization tool in FL. Try that too.

  23. Gery Revandra on

    hi Petri, i’m new to music production … my current DAW is FL Studio & Ableton Live 9 , i planned to buy Novation SL MK II & Ableton Push to connect into my MacBook Pro …

    as far as i know, both Novation SL Mk II & Ableton is USB powered, if i need to connect both Novation & Push together into MacBook / PC at once , did i need USB Audio Interface like Focusrite Scarlett or not ??! …

    if yes, what specific type of Focusrite Scarlett do i need ??! …

    i hope i can get clear answer regarding my question …

    have a good day…

    regards.

    Gery

  24. Hey.. thank you so much for our information… cause of this, i bought a graphite 49 n i love it!!

  25. so I have a casio keyboard with just quarter inch jacks and a usb outlet. is there any way to connect it to pc and use it with a DAW? thanks

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