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MIDI Controllers for Your “Bedroom Studio” | Music-Making for Techies

Check the previous post in the “Music-Making for Developers and Other Techies” series

Photo by i aboud on Unsplash

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Things you may want…

We have covered the things you need to jump-start your music-making hobby. And that could be enough for a while. Whether it’s actually enough depends on the type of music you want to make — you would need things to record live instruments or vocals, for example.

But even if you don’t have any immediate needs, we are all geeks and would love to use our new hobby as an excuse to buy more gadgets. That is not to say that the things we discuss in this chapter are superficial toys. Actually, we won’t even discuss things that aren’t directly valuable in a home studio. But many of us won’t have an immediate need for most or any of them, and we can build up our arsenals gradually. Having said that, if you have the means and the space, go to town, and get everything I mention in this chapter — your experience will improve, and it won’t be a waste.

I’ll try to go through the list in order of importance, in my opinion. It’s worth remembering that we approach this primarily from the perspective of a computer-centric music producer.

Controllers

Often referred to as a MIDI controller or MIDI keyboard, these are hardware units that enable you to play virtual or connected hardware instruments, control their parameters, and overall DAW operations. They connect via USB to your computer (we won’t cover other types here) and core features usually just work out of the box. The level of integration with specific DAWs and instruments can vary heavily and is worth researching before investing into one.

Controllers can be divided into three main categories (not an official classification): keyboard controllers, pad controllers, and DAW controllers. Surprisingly, the most common type of controller is … an all-in-one. But let’s cover the main characteristics of each type and then discuss the all-in-ones and the pros and cons of going one route or the other.

Keyboard controllers

Alesis Q49 MK2

Keyboard controllers are basically piano-like keyboards that connect to your computer. The key difference from what people may call a “keyboard” or a “synthesizer” or an “electric piano” is that a keyboard controller doesn’t produce any sound on its own. The reverse is actually not true. Many standalone keyboards can also be connected to computers and used as keyboard controllers. So, if you have a cheap (or not so cheap) keyboard laying around, you may want to check whether it can be used as a controller before you go shopping.

The key characteristics of a keyboard controller are the number of keys, key size, and key type. Most keyboards would have a standard piano key size, but many compact ones have smaller keys. If you play or plan to learn to play piano, you want to stick with the piano-size keyboard controllers. On the other hand, if you plan to travel a lot the overall size may be a more important factor.

The most common numbers of keys are 25, 49, 61, and 88. Serious piano players would want to stick with the whole range 88-key controllers. Those who just need a tool to test sounds quickly and comfortably should be fine with 25 keys. The majority, though, go for the 49 and 61-key options. These let you create music comfortably without taking up too much space.

Pretty much any keyboard controller on the market would have velocity-sensitive keys. Meaning that it senses and transmits how hard you hit the keys. Cheaper controllers would have what’s commonly referred to as “synth keys”. These are simple plastic keys that do their job without trying to emulate a real-life piano in their feel. If you are not an experienced piano player, these are probably good-enough for you, and you shouldn’t overspend on the more expensive ones. At least for your first controller.

One step above the “synth keys” you have semi-weighted keys. Those are halfway between the unweighted synth keys and real piano keys. They have higher resistance than the synth keys and are better suited for those looking for a more piano-like feel and expressiveness.

And finally, we have “hammer action” or fully weighted keys. Those imitate a real acoustic piano keyboard and are most suitable for experienced piano players looking to get as close to playing a real piano as possible.

Other things to pay attention to when choosing a keyboard controller are pitch bend and mod wheels and basic DAW transport controls. Some, especially smaller, keyboard controllers may not have the pitch bend and/or mod wheels. Some may have touch panels in place of the physical wheels. Some may have joysticks combining the two. If you don’t know what those do (we will talk about this later) it probably won’t matter what “shape” these controls have on your controller, but I would still caution against getting a controller without them. As for basic transport controls, having play, stop, and record buttons next to your fingertips while playing is a matter of convenience that is really nice to have. But if a keyboard that appeals to you the most doesn’t have them, it’s probably not the end of the world.

Pad controllers

AKAI MPD218

If playing keys is neither your current strength nor something you want to pursue in the future, but you still want to have something tactile for making music (and especially beats), take a look at pad controllers.

These usually have a set of 8 or more pressure sensitive pads that are great for finger drumming, launching samples or predefined clips, or even playing chords (with the help of software). These can either be as simple and straightforward as Akai MPD218 (pictured above) or as comprehensive as Ableton Push (which is probably more of a DAW controller, just a pad-centric one):

Ableton Push 2

I assume that at this stage you are not 100% committed to the path you will take in your music-making hobby, so it’s probably best to stick to something simpler and universal (Ableton Push is Ableton Live centric) as your first pad controller.

Make sure that you like the feel of the pads (if you can get your hands on a few before buying) and that there’s adequate support in the DAW and/or instruments you are planning to use. Some controllers have tighter integration with particular DAWs (e.g., Push) but may also have good support for others (eg., PreSonus ATOM line). So do your homework before buying. But the pads themselves should work pretty much everywhere.

DAW controllers

While Ableton Push (mentioned above) is technically more of a DAW controller than a pad controller, I personally like to draw a line by whether the controller helps you make sounds directly or not. I’d say that DAW controllers are hardware interfaces to controlling aspects of your DAW operation but not triggering sounds themselves. Obviously, all these definitions are superficial and not that important. But it’s good to see what can be controlled by some kind of gadget by looking through the prism of these three categories.

PreSonus Faderport 8

As I mentioned above, I like to think about DAW controllers as something aimed at replacing your mouse while controlling and adjusting all kinds of parameters in your software. A DAW controller would typically control your transport functions (play/pause/stop, record, loop, etc.), let you adjust levels, mute or solo channels, etc.

Besides the basic transport functions, other options could be tightly coupled with a particular DAW (or a limited list of DAWs). So, it’s a good idea to research the hell out of your candidate before buying one. For this reason, I think you shouldn’t get a DAW controller early on your journey. Your DAW of choice may change, you don’t know your preferred way of working yet, etc. Working with mouse and keyboard can be slower for a professional but it is much easier for beginners and a good learning experience for those not exactly sure what they are doing.

What controller(s) do I buy?

As I mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, probably the most popular type of controller is somewhat of an all-in-one combining elements of all three types mentioned above.

Arturia KeyLab 61

While a desire to get one thing and cover all the basis is totally understandable it’s not necessarily the best. And not only because of the “Jack of all trades” rule. While getting an all-in-one is usually cheaper than getting three specialized devices, it is quite likely that you will only use one part of it. A DAW controller part of an all-in-one is more likely to be incompatible (or not 100% compatible) with your DAW of choice while other parts work perfectly. And, finally, an all-in-one takes more vertical/depth space and that could be an issue on your “bedroom studio” desk.

If I was just starting up today, I would get a simple (don’t confuse with super-cheap) keyboard controller, then add a pad controller with time, and, maybe, a DAW controller later.

Irrespective of whether you decide to go with an all-in-one or a narrower function controller(s), here are a few things to lookout for.

Quality and feel of keys and pads

For those of us who don’t play an instrument it may not be that important, but if you know your way around the piano, make sure that the keys feel right to you. If you plan to record longer passages live and can afford a hammer action keyboard — get one. There’s no objective classification for pad types (at least not to my knowledge) so either try some and decide which one you like the most or rely on reviews to form an opinion.

Endless encoders

Many controllers would have encoders (knobs) with hard min-max stops. This is great on a hardware synthesizer or even a controller that is meant to control just one thing. But in a computer environment you jump from instrument to instrument, and you want to use the same knob to adjust a different value on each. Having a fixed range encoder means that when you switch instruments there is likely a value mismatch between your virtual instrument parameter and the value of the encoder.

Endless encoders on PreSonus ATOM SQ
Fixed range encoders on M-Audio Oxygen 25 (MKV)

This is solved by endless encoders — knobs that can be rotated infinitely in each direction. Not all controllers have those. I would even say that only a minority of controllers have them, though I didn’t count. But in my experience, it makes the difference between a useful control and a useless knob. Depending on what you do it may not be the case for you. For example, if you play live, it may be more important for you to see what the current value is on the hardware surface than that value matching one in software at all times. A perfect “compromise” here is an endless encoder with a led meter around it. But those are even rarer.

Motorized faders

Very few all-in-ones have faders that move automatically in unison with the software faders they are controlling. But that’s an essential feature of many dedicated DAW/mixer controllers. In the same vein as with encoders, a fader that is out of sync with the value it is controlling is potentially more annoying than useful.

DAW and instrument compatibility

Any keyboards or pads would likely work with any DAW. Transport controls (play, stop, record, loop, etc.) may require some configuration but generally can be adapted to any DAW as well. But the more advanced you go the more compatibility issues you may hit.

Some controllers are either dedicated or fine-tuned for specific DAWs. Ableton Push is tightly coupled with Ableton Live, PreSonus ATOM SQ is primarily a controller for Studio One, etc. Other controllers are made by companies with extensive virtual instrument libraries. Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol keyboards are tightly integrated with their virtual instrument suite. Arturia’s controllers are tactile extensions for their Analog Lab and other plugins. While base functions of these controllers will work just fine in other DAWs and instruments the more advanced ones may require additional configuration and jumping through hoops or may just not work when used outside of their sweet spots.

When buying something more than a keyboard or pad controller, it’s always a good idea to do extensive research on the compatibility of your DAW and prospective controller pair. Or you can tackle it from a different direction — research the best controllers for your DAW/instrument of choice.

Bundled software

Pretty much all the controllers come with some software bundled. Usually, the package would include a lite version of some DAW (or two), some virtual instruments and effects, and, possibly, some education software or vouchers for some services. While bundled software shouldn’t be a starting point in your controller selection (unless on some crazy sale) it could very well be a deciding factor when you need to make a final choice.

After you’ve narrowed down to a few controllers that fit your bill, make sure to check out what software is bundled. Often the bundled lite DAW may get you a discount on the full version of the DAW which could make the controller almost free. Same goes for bundled instruments. Or, on the contrary, it could come with all the things you already have (or have no interest in) making the software bundle worthless to you. Other times it may include a DAW that you don’t plan to use as your main one, but it gives you an opportunity to have a different DAW installed for reference.

In the next part we cover one of the centerpieces of music studios — audio interface. But is it something you need to get right away?

This is a chapter from the book I’m writing. I will be posting a new chapter each week. But there’s a way to get new chapters early or even get everything I’ve written so far and support this endeavor. Click here for the details.

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Alan Mendelevich

Alan Mendelevich

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I run AdDuplex - a cross-promotion network for Windows apps. Blog at https://blog.ailon.org. Author of "Conferences for Introverts"