Guide to MIDI Keyboards


Jul 01, 2023

What are MIDI Keyboards:

If you are a working musician or producer in 2023, a MIDI keyboard is an essential tool to have for your recording projects if you want to incorporate any sound effects and modulations. A MIDI keyboard (also known as Musical Instrument Digital Interface) are electronic devices that are used to control MIDI software within a digital audio workstation (DAW). Usually with a MIDI keyboard, there are piano-like keys or pads that transmit the MIDI data to produce sounds and control parameters. Although MIDI keys look like a normal piano keyboard, they don’t actually produce their own sound right out of the box. These devices are typically USB connected to your computer and require a DAW to produce any sort of sound.

Faders, Buttons, Knobs:

In addition to the keys, there are many keyboard controllers that include knobs, faders, and buttons on their top panels. These controls are responsible for transmitting MIDI data and can have a huge impact over your software depending on how you adjust these controls. For instance, if there is a musical situation where you are planning to play a virtual synth on one of your projects, you can tweak with the knobs, faders, and buttons to adjust the resonance or filter in real time. This can give you a feel of playing a legitimate synthesizer without even buying one. Nowadays, you can find many MIDI keyboards that contain auto mapping technology that can set up your controls to best fit your software applications.

Using MIDI keyboards For a Live Context:

Typically in a live setting, you could connect your MIDI keyboard to your laptop or a rack full of synth modules and effects. In addition, you could also use presets to combine or separate the devices using simple buttons. One other way you could use your MIDI keyboard live is incorporating various expression techniques within your playing. By expression techniques, this includes the dynamics and intensity of your playing, which can be controlled by your MIDI keyboards velocity-sensitive keys. There are also some MIDI controllers that have built-in sequencers or arpeggiators which can be used to create rhythmic patterns, chord progressions, or melodic lines. You can utilize these features to create intricate and dynamic qualities to your live sound.

How Many Keys Do You Need:

Do you have much space in your studio? Are you a gigging musician or producer that is constantly traveling on the road? The number of keys on a MIDI keyboard is going to heavily depend on your personal preference, your musical tastes, and the style of music you create and perform. MIDI keyboards usually come in various sizes ranging from 25 key to 88 key keyboards. If you’re someone who is traveling, then owning a compact MIDI keyboard with a few keys (25 or 49-key keyboards) may be the right choice for you. These devices are easy to carry, especially if you’re a musician or producer that is flying regularly. If you’re looking for a keyboard where you can play melodies, bass lines, beats, or simple chord progressions, then a small keyboard might be sufficient. If you are trying to produce compositions that are more complicated and arranged, then a larger keyboard with more keys is preferable. With purchasing a MIDI keyboard, cost is also an important factor. If you are not trying to spend too much money then buying a smaller keyboard might best fit your musical needs. In a studio setting, having a smaller keyboard can be more efficient whereas a larger keyboard might be more suitable for a live environment because of its versatility. This doesn’t mean that you can’t perform with a small keyboard, as it solely depends on your requirements to fulfill your musical goals.

What Keyboard Action Type Is For You:

An essential quality you will find in any MIDI keyboard is the keyboard action, which is the actual responsiveness and feel of the keys when played. Feeling comfortable with your instrument is crucial if you want to express your ideas on stage or in the studio. The type of action you might prefer will depend on the genres of music you play as well as what you are already used to. There are three basic types of keyboard actions:

Weighted Hammer Action: This action is supposed to mimic the feel of an acoustic piano, which provides a more realistic and expressive playing experience. If the piano is your primary instrument then the realism of a weighted hammer action keyboard will be for you. Semi-Weighted Action: These keys provide a good gateway between the feel of weighted keys and the light touch of synth-action keys. If you’re not looking for a keyboard with a realistic feel and don’t mind the responsiveness of synth-action keys, then try this one out. Synth Action: This action is more springy and lighter like you would find in most analog/digital synthesizers. Usually this action is preferred with many electronic producers or DJs.

Is Aftertouch Necessary:

Whenever you see a keyboard player perform on a synthesizer, you might be able to hear some vibrato on their synth lead lines. With this, you may witness a finger leaning into a higher key which triggers an aftertouch event. Aftertouch is an additional feature that can be an expressive control over your MIDI keyboards’s modules. It detects the pressure of your finger to a key, allowing you to manipulate parameters such as vibrato, filter, and volume. While not all MIDI keyboards have aftertouch capabilities, it can be useful for enhancing the realism and expressiveness of your playing. There are many musicians and producers that don’t find aftertouch to be essential for their playing style or musical goals. If you’re into creating more complicated synthesizer parts, then aftertouch definitely should be a consideration. If you’re playing regular piano, then aftertouch might not be necessary.

Different Types of I/O Options:

With many MIDI keyboards, you will have a large variety of I/O options to connect with other devices. Some of the common I/O options include:

MIDI Out/Thru: Most MIDI keyboards usually have at least one MIDI Out port or MIDI Thru port, which sends MIDI data from the keyboard to other MIDI devices like synths or computer software. USB: Many MIDI Keyboards have a USB port for direct connection to a computer or devices that take USB. This allows for MIDI communication and power supply over a single USB cable. MIDI In: You will find that some MIDI keyboards will have a MIDI In port which provides the capability to receive MIDI data from external devices and to use the keyboard as a controller for other instruments within a software. Expression Pedal/Input: Usually, you will find an expression pedal input or assignable input for connecting expression controls. This function allows you to control parameters such as volume, modulation, or sustain for added expression with your playing. Control Voltage (CV) and Gate Outputs: With more advanced MIDI keyboards, there is a chance it will include CV or Gate outputs. These functions allow you to control analog synthesizers or modules that use CV rather than MIDI. Audio Outputs: Some MIDI keyboards come with audio interfaces and audio outputs already built in. This enables you to connect headphones or speakers to the keyboard for playing back the sound recorded from your DAW.

Some Recommendations:

If you are on a budget, then check out keyboards such as the Arturia MiniLab, the Novation Launchkey Mini Mk3, the Akai MPK Mini Mk3, and the Nektar Impact LX88+ MIDI keyboard for something larger. If money is of no concern, then check out keyboards such as the Arturia KeyLab 88 Mk2, the Native Instruments KOMPLETE KONTROL S49 Mk2, and the StudioLogic SL 88.