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How to choose a MIDI keyboardkeyboard

MIDI keyboards and controllers have become a huge part of both live performances and studio work for today's musicians and producers due to the increasing use of virtual instruments. You can control a myriad of parameters beyond playing. Therefore, there are many things to consider when choosing your MIDIkeyboard. Which keys do you want, should there be pads, faders, etc. Here we go through the things you need to be aware of.


What is a Keyboard Controller / a midi keyboard?

MIDI was invented back in the 1980s and back then, one of the original purposes of developing the MIDI standard was to allow performers to control the sound of multiple synthesizers from a single keyboard. That concept has been a brilliant success! Today, live musicians, laptop songwriters, studio musicians, sound designers and others can all benefit from the flexibility that a midi keyboard provides.

Technically, a MIDI keyboard is a device with piano or synth keys and usually a selection of knobs, push buttons and faders. All of these can be programmed to send MIDI data to external sound modules, computers or a hardware or software sequencer/synthesizer. Most midi keyboards have no internal sounds, but should instead be seen as a controller of another sound generator.

The main advantages of using a MIDI keyboard are versatility and flexibility. They give you control over virtually the entire range of music hardware and software, while sometimes even being compact enough to fit into your laptop bag.

Another benefit is that you can find the keys that perfectly match your playing style and fingers and then use those same keys to play most of the sounds you use. Of course, you won't usually use the same type of keys to play piano samples as you would if you were playing the organ - but with a few carefully selected midi keyboards, you're covered!

Faders, buttons and controls

In addition to piano keys, most midi keyboards have a variety of buttons, faders and pads. These can also transmit MIDI data and can increase the amount of hands-on control you have over your software or a module you have connected to your midi keyboard. Here's a specific example: you have your controller connected to your computer and in your DAW you've opened your favorite soft synth. If everything is set up correctly, various knobs, faders and modulation wheels will give you real-time control over filter cutoff, resonance, etc. This gives a much more "authentic analog" feel to operating the instrument than using a mouse. Some midi keyboards even come with automapping technology that can automatically set buttons etc. To match a range of popular soft synths.

Using a MIDIkeyboard live

This was one of the original goals of MIDI: controlling other modules from a keyboard. On stage, you can connect your controller to your laptop computer or a rack full of synth modules and effects processors - or a hybrid setup. Then you can use presets to combine or split devices using simple buttons. You can also use a midikeyboard together with a dedicated live program - such as Ableton Live or Mainstage - where you can control both software instruments such as synths, drums and samplers or hardware via the computer. It's almost only your imagination that sets the limit in a midi based setup.

Number of keys

Do you have a lot of space in your studio? Do you play with one or two hands? Do you want to be able to do custom splits on the keyboard? Where do you take your keyboard on the go? Your answers to these questions will determine how many keys you should choose. Midi keyboards generally come with 25, 49, 61 or 88 keys and can range from under 40cm to over a meter in length. V

Key weighting

A key difference between MIDI keyboards is the key weighting - or action - of the keys - there are different weightings to suit different playing styles and also different types of sounds. Don't underestimate the importance of having the right midi keyboard - creativity and productivity will suffer if you don't feel at home on the keys! The type of action you prefer is usually determined by what you're used to and also by the particular style of music you play. You can choose between three basic types:

Weighted Hammer Action

Many 88-key midi keyboards have an action that replicates the mechanical feel of an acoustic piano. This is difficult to do because a midi keyboard does not have strings or hammers. Manufacturers use different methods to get a similar effect - using weights in the keys and springs to mimic the acoustic action. Others add a physical 'hammer' on each key to more closely replicate the feel of a piano in the MIDI keyboard. If your primary instrument is piano or if you compose a lot of piano-oriented music, realism is important.

Semi-weighted action

Same principle as weighted keys, but with less key resistance. Semi-weighted is popular among MIDI keyboard players because it has the best of both worlds. If you don't need a super realistic piano response but still want resistance in the keys, semi-weighted is perfect. Many people have also 'grown up' with semi-weighted keys, as they are found on many keyboards and therefore feel natural to many.

Synth Action

A synth action MIDIkeyboard feels more like an electronic organ. The spring-loaded keys are lightweight and can be moved very quickly. They also tend to return to their rest position much faster. This can be an important advantage when trying to play very fast parts like lead lines or fast arpeggios. Synth-action keys are perfect for musicians who aren't pianists by nature, like guitarists who want to add MIDI functionality to their setup. If you need an ultra-compact midi keyboard that fits easily into a backpack, several manufacturers also make MIDI keyboards with synth-action mini keys.

Aftertouch - do I need it?

Aftertouch is a clever way to add expression to your playing. It works by allowing you to press the keys down a bit more after they've bottomed out - sending an additional midi signal that often controls a modulation parameter. This can provide a lot of extra expressive possibilities for manipulating the sound after it's played. It's a bit similar to using the modulation wheel, which often sits to the left of the keys, but you don't need a free hand to control it. Aftertouch is often described as the feature you didn't know you were missing - until you try it.

Aftertouch comes in two flavors, monophonic (channel aftertouch) and polyphonic. Channel aftertouch typically uses a "rail" that can be pressed down by any key and sends a MIDI value that affects the entire sound. Polyphonic aftertouch allows you to vary a parameter on each note independently based on the pressure on each key. Because it is expensive to design and manufacture, generates a lot of MIDI information - and requires some dexterity on the part of the musician to take full advantage of it, polyphonic aftertouch is only found on relatively few MIDI keyboards.

I/O settings

While all modern MIDI keyboards send MIDI via USB for more complex setups, there are two other types of connectors that can make your life with MIDI easier. With conventional 5-pin MIDI DIN connectors on your MIDI keyboard, you can connect and control external MIDI instruments like hardware synths, while the CV and Gate outputs allow you to control and modulate vintage (non-MIDI) synth gear.

Other connections

Almost all MIDI keyboards are equipped with an input for a sustain pedal so that notes can be sustained after the keys are released. Some midi keyboards also have an input for an expression pedal that can be used to modulate various parameters in real time - this requires that the audio source you have connected to the MIDI keyboard can receive modulation data. Where high-end midi keyboards typically allow you to assign a MIDI CC (continuous controller) number to the pedal jack, most inexpensive keyboards are set to send either CC7 (volume) or CC11 (expression) via the expression pedal.

Performance Pads

Some keyboard players have no problem using the keys to play percussion. Others detest it and prefer to use pads that provide greater speed and phonation for a beat. Many modern midi keyboards have eight or more pads that you can use to play drums and trigger loops. Some pads even have aftertouch.

Transport buttons

Many MIDI keyboards also have transport buttons that can control simple functions in your DAW - start, stop, record, forward/reverse, etc. Some also have one or more faders you can use to record automation on tracks in your DAW. This is a smart way to combine several types of gear in one and save money and not least desk space. A MIDIkeyboard is much more than a keyboard - it can control many things in your setup, both live and in the studio! There are so many different models of MIDI keyboards and there are many factors that come into play, as we have discussed here. Number of keys, div. Other control options, aftertouch and weighting - as well as how it can control computer programs and not least appearance. So take a good look at all the options before deciding which one keyboard to buy.

Read more about midi keyboard on Wikipedia: click here or take a look at our midi controllers