You’re in the market for a new MIDI Controller for your studio setup, and with so many choices available you really need to ask yourself, what do I actually want and need in a MIDI Controller? Let’s take a look at some questions you need to ask yourself before buying one.
If you’re looking at a MIDI Keyboard controller, you need to ask yourself how many keys do you need on the device. The options are 25-key, 49-key, 61-key and 88-Key. Do you really need a full sized stage piano controller, or can you get by with a smaller, more portable 25-key? Smaller MIDI keyboards allow you to be more mobile as you can just chuck the small keyboard controller in your backpack with you. Also make sure to check the sizes of the keys. I noticed for example that the Novation MIDI keyboard controllers have smaller, narrower keys. But if you’re used to the full standard piano key size, then check for one that feels similar.
Most MIDI Keyboards come with the basic Pitch and Modulation controls. Plus, some buttons to shift the octaves on the keyboard. But you may want to get a controller with extra rotary pots and faders as well. Or you may even want a dedicated MIDI controller separate from your keyboard with these pots and faders on. The benefit of these controls is that you can use them to automate parameters in your DAW, plus assist you with mixing your song instead of using a mouse. This way you have more ‘hands-on’ control. Some keyboards, you need to manually assign these in your DAW, and others have dedicated software that sets it up for you so that it automatically maps itself. Make sure check into these and see what software it’s compatible with.
Another thing to consider is what you’re going to be using the controller for. A MIDI Keyboard is fine for playing out piano parts and sketching out your chord progressions and melodies. But sometimes for beat programming a controller with Drum Pads is a better bet. These are designed to be able to hit out your beats more efficiently that a keyboard and the pads are a lot bigger than a keyboard note. Some producers even program in other instruments using these drum pad devices, like the Maschine and Push units. That shows that they can be multi-faceted. Or you might need both a MIDI keyboard and MIDI Drumpad controller. I’m just saying…
Some developers are creating controllers that integrate much better with their applications, like Ableton’s Push and Native Instruments' Machine and Komplete keyboards. Let’s say you’re using Ableton for example, you might prefer to use the Push in your music productions because of this tight integration as it might improve your workflow.
With the growth of the mobile/tablet market and apps, there’s some great apps available that you can use on your devices that you might not have known. Maybe you’ve got a MIDI controller with no extra controls. But you have an iPad. You know that you can use applications like TouchOSC and Lemur to extend the capabilities of your MIDI Controller? With apps like these you can create your own template with the necessary knobs and faders and have this device placed right next to your MIDI controller so the two feel like one device.
I hope this helps to assist you with your decision in buying your first or next controller. Make sure to ask yourself the question of what you need in your studio and what will be the best fit. Maybe you don’t need a huge 88-key model and can actually compose with a 25-key MIDI keyboard. Or maybe you prefer programming your MIDI with a drum-pad style controller. Plus, always try out the devices if possible in your local store before buying. Hands on control is the ultimate seller!