MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a programming language that connects a wide variety of electronic musical instruments, computers, and related devices for playing, editing, and recording music. When we record with MIDI, we are capturing the performance of how an instrument was played, not the audio waveforms produced by the instrument. This has many benefits because we can add notes, edit velocities, correct the performance, or change the sound of the instrument altogether. MIDI controllers are the devices we use to create a performance, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Keyboards and drum pads are popular for musical recording and playback, but there are also dedicated devices used to control software, such as a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). Let’s investigate various types of MIDI controllers and what purposes they serve.
The standard piano-style keyboard layout is the most popular controller for most music-making applications. These keyboard controllers are available in a variety of sizes to fit any budget. Some are designed for live performance and emulate a true piano with full-sized, weighted keys, while others are available in the tiniest package for the ultimate in space-saving portability.
Hammer Action: These keyboard controllers are for the consummate pianist and provide 88 full-sized keys that are weighted to feel like a real piano. The StudioLogic SL88 Grand features ivory touch wood keys and a graded hammer-action keyboard. Each key offers three contacts with note on/off velocity and aftertouch for professional performance. Additionally, the keyboard offers a key-balance function, offering a balance between white and black keys or to fine-tune each key individually. This is a lovely entry-level controller that over the years has been proven to be reliable on stage or in the studio. For the ultimate “Piano” performance, the Kawai VPC1 controller provides a real grand piano keyboard experience with graded hammer weighting, ivory-like key surfaces, let-off simulation, and bass note counterweights. Additionally, the controller includes a three-pedal unit that delivers damper (with half damper support), soft, and sostenuto pedal control. Should you require a controller with piano action keys and a full complement of knobs and sliders that can be used to control virtual instruments and DAWs, check out the Arturia KEYLAB 88, a universal MIDI controller and software package that includes an 88-note keyboard with a premium Fatar hammer-action keybed, aftertouch, a clickable encoder, 9 additional encoders, 9 sliders, 16 RGB-backlit touch and pressure sensitive pads, 6 transport control switches, 4 command switches, a modulation wheel, and a pitchbend wheel. The system is designed to provide 1:1 control of the included Analog Lab software, as well as any MIDI controllable plug-ins and DAWs.
Semi-Weighted: These keyboard controllers are typically lighter and more affordable than fully weighted, hammer-action controllers. Some controllers will employ springs to recreate the “weighted” feel of a piano to reduce the size and weight. Many vintage synthesizers are semi-weighted and provide great action for performance in the studio or on stage. My personal favorite controller is the Nektar Panorama P6, a 61-key controller with semi-weighted action that has enough resistance for dynamic and nuanced performances. The controller is by far the best for DAW integration because it automatically maps nearly every major software DAW without issue and the parameters are automatically grouped in a logical way, allowing you to navigate complex instruments quickly with ease. The dynamic drum pads feel great, as well as the large 100mm, touch-sensitive ALPS motorized fader, which provides pro console-grade control for writing smooth automation.
Another well spec’d keyboard controller is the Novation SL MKIII, an advanced MIDI and CV keyboard controller with an integrated 8-track sequencer, designed to be the centerpiece in any creative software- or hardware-based studio. The professional-quality keyboard offers a synth-style semi-weighted key bed with a sprung action, which is tuned to the needs of the experienced player. Additionally, the keyboard offers aftertouch, which is freely assignable to anything. If you are a fan of Native Instruments software, then you’ll love the KOMPLETE KONTRL S61 MKII, a 61-key semi-weighted keyboard with aftertouch that’s designed for use with all software- and hardware-based MIDI instruments. It features expanded integration with the KOMPLETE-series software library and offers automatic parameter mapping and a unified browser from a single plug-in, allowing you to search sounds across all KOMPLETE and NKS instruments.
Synth/Unweighted: The unweighted or synth action controllers are the most affordable. Many musicians and producers prefer synth-action for its quick velocity and rapid-fire note input when recording. The Arturia KeyLab Essential mk3 is a fantastic universal MIDI controller and software package. The 61 synth-action keys are velocity sensitive, while the panel is adorned with knobs, faders, and pads, plus transport controls and pitch and mod wheels. Like the KEYLAB 88, the system is designed to provide 1:1 control of the included Analog Lab V synth software. For artists on the go, the Akai MPK Mini MK3 is an ultra-compact keyboard controller with 25 velocity-sensitive keys with a newly designed keybed for better expression and articulation. There are 8 MPC performance pads with note repeat and full level functions, 8 knobs, and a joystick for pitch and modulation control. The well-made Alesis V61 MKII is a lightweight keyboard controller with 61 full-sized keys and 8 velocity-sensitive backlit pads that can be used for drum programming as well as launching clips, while 4 assignable knobs and 4 assignable buttons can provide control over a wide variety of MIDI-controllable software parameters.
Pad controllers are great for triggering drum and percussion sounds, as well as one-shot samples and loops. They can also be used to trigger clips and scenes in programs like Ableton Live, Bitwig, and Reaper. The Akai MPD218 brings the feel of classic MPC beat-making, thanks to the 16 ultra-sensitive “Thick-Fat” backlit MPC pads that are pressure and velocity sensitive for a responsive feel and intuitive playing. You can switch between three banks of pads for a total of 48 samples. The 6 assignable endless encoders send continuous controller messages to your software or external MIDI device. The Arturia BeatStep Pro is an analog and MIDI controller / sequencer with 16 pads and a 3-track sequencer, which can be used to sequence two synthesizer lines and a dedicated drum module. It’s a fantastic tool for your studio because you can use it with hardware synthesizers and drum machines. It also functions as a great hardware controller for software with velocity-sensitive pads and 16 assignable encoders.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include the dedicated hardware/software controllers like the Akai MPC and the Native Instruments MASCHINE MK3. These units are complete hardware packages designed to control their own respective software. The controllers can also be used to control third-party DAWs and software instruments. The Akai MPC Studio features 16 full-sized velocity-sensitive RGB pads to ensure maximum expression and control for notes, chords, and percussion. Native Instruments offers the MASCHINE MK3, a professional production and performance system that combines the hardware controller with software that offers a classic groove-box workflow that’s fast and intuitive, to boost your productivity. This controller features 16 extra-large multi-colored, illuminated pads with velocity and aftertouch plus eight touch-sensitive endless encoders and a touch strip. As a bonus, the controller also features an integrated 24-bit/96 kHz USB audio interface with stereo line inputs and outputs.
Drums Trigger Controllers
If you are a drummer and wish to play with sticks, but don’t have the space or desire for a full electronic drum kit, a multi-pad drum module will certainly fill the bill. The Roland SPD-SX is a sampling drum pad that allows you to sample, capture, assign, and play drum sounds and audio phrases easily on 9 velocity-sensitive drum pads. Connect the module to your computer via USB and play and record with software instruments. Another similar instrument is the Yamaha DTX-Mult12, a 12-pad drum module that delivers the power of sample-based percussion and audio triggering to drummers, percussionists, or anyone in need of a powerful sample playback device. Simply hook it up to your computer and enjoy a highly playable drum pad with virtually endless sounds. For an even more affordable percussion trigger pad, check out the Alesis SamplePad Pro, which offers 8 dual-zone rubber pads and 200 built-in sounds. Add new sounds via SD card or connect to your computer for unlimited options.
A MIDI control surface provides hands-on control over digital audio workstations (DAW) like Logic Pro X, Reason, Ableton Live, Pro Tools, Cubase, Digital Performer, Bitwig, and more. They are available in various sizes for any budget. On the high end, the Solid State Logic UF8 Advanced DAW Controller is designed for the working mixing engineer who prizes workflow, efficiency, convenience. The UF8 provides an analog mixing-board feel that truly integrates with the DAW for the consummate best-of both-worlds experience. Eight motorized, touch-sensitive faders are on hand, complete with corresponding push-rotary controls, RGB rubber buttons, and TFT LCD hi-res displays, so you always know what you're monitoring at a moment's glance. A great mid-level controller is the Icon QCon Pro G2 that’s designed for tracking or mixing and provides intuitive tactile control over your session, which allows you to set levels, fine-tune your EQs and effects, record automation, punch in and punch out of recordings, all with your fingers.
If you are after a controller that offers the best DAW integration for plug-in control, you can’t beat the Nektar P1, which features the control section of the Panorama P-Series keyboard controller, minus the keyboard. For those on a modest budget, the Akai MIDImix provides 1 to 1 control of Ableton Live out of the box, but can also be used with any MIDI-controllable software. There are 8 individual line faders and a master fader, and 24 control knobs arranged 3 per channel. For an ultra-portable controller, check out the Korg nanoKONTROL2, a low-profile design that provides eight channels of control for numerous software titles, including major DAW programs. It fits perfectly in front of a laptop or desktop computer keyboard, and using a single USB cable offers impressive control while conserving valuable set-up space.
MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE)
A recent addition to the MIDI controller market is MPE controllers. These unique, cutting-edge controllers provide capabilities for creating more spontaneous and expressive performances. An MPE controller allows you to vary multiple parameters of individual notes simultaneously, such as timbre, pitch, pressure, and volume. The EXPRESSIVE E Osmose is a 24-voice polyphonic synthesizer offering an innovative way to control sound using gestures (press, bend, shake, and more). With these new physical gestures, Osmose allows musicians to interact with sounds and produce music like never before. Each note can be articulated independently with unique expressive possibilities. The instrument features a deep sound-design engine and hundreds of ready-to-use, innovative presets, but also functions as a powerful controller for hardware and software synthesizers.
Keith McMillen Instruments utilizes proprietary Smart Fabric technology that provides a traditional playing experience with an expanded range of expressive possibilities. The K-Board 4 combines this technology in a traditional keyboard format that allows musicians and producers to play expressively in real time with the nuances expected from an acoustic instrument. Keith McMillen also makes another cutting edge controller, the QuNeo, a multi-pad device that boasts 27 tactile pads, sliders, and rotary sensors, which are pressure-, velocity- and location-sensitive. The 17 switches respond to how hard they are pressed. Stunning illumination design joins variably diffusive elastomers and 251 multicolor LEDs to offer instantly responsive and informative visual feedback. Each of the 16 square pads gives you an impressive 127 velocity response levels, plus X-Y location and continuous pressure.
As you can see, there are a ton of MIDI controllers available for any budget. For more information about B&H’s latest MIDI controller selection, including additional features, specs, and highlights, be sure to check out the detailed product page for Keyboard, Surface, and Pad Controllers. Or drop us a line below, and we’ll do our best to answer all your comments and questions.