In the modern era of digital music-making, MIDI is king. The software protocol has been at the heart of music for the better part of almost forty years now, and it’s kept many a studio setup tied together and working smoothly.
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and its name tells you most of what you need to know. Any software or instrument that has MIDI integration can either read note data or parameter changes from another MIDI-capable source, or push that kind of information to another device. Modern music software is built on this protocol, with every parameter being assignable and communicating by way of MIDI data. A lot of musical hardware, be it from vintage workstation keyboards to modern mini-synthesizers, also communicate using MIDI, allowing you to wire everything together however you need to in order to get the right sound.
This is where the humble MIDI controller steps in. Sure, you could program everything by mouse and keyboard, but that isn’t terribly intuitive, and is usually quite tedious. MIDI controllers give you tactile, hands-on control, making MIDI programming much easier and allowing for a much more intuitive workflow.
There’s just one downside: the market on MIDI controllers is so diverse, it can be overwhelming trying to find the right controller for your needs. Do you need a controller for a studio setup? Perhaps you need something to tie a synthesizer setup together during live jam sessions? What about portable controllers? There are so many options.
Today, we’ll break things down into three main categories, and talk about some of the options within those categories. Between the studio-minded controllers, the performance-minded controllers, or the on-the-go options, there’s going to be a good fit for what you need.
For The Studio
A very standard format for studio controllers is one that has three sections: a keyboard, a set of pads, and a set of knobs and faders. Each section helps with different things. The keyboard is designed for laying down melodies or chords, while the pads are designed to help trigger drums, individual samples, or the occasional MIDI-command without needing to touch the keyboard. And lastly, the faders and knobs are for controlling individual parameters in the software you’re using, be that volume or panning or effects.
In the top tier, you have Arturia’s Keylab MkII (pictured) with the most even distribution of features between their excellent keybed, large pads, and mappable bank of faders and encoders, making them the best jack-of-all-trades MIDI keyboard on the market. Akai tends to specialize a bit more with MPK series, which draws from the company’s MPC line and puts a set of large, oversized pads on the controller that are perfect for finger-drumming and old-school, keyboardless beatmaking. On the hardware-minded side of things, Novation makes the SL MkIII, which has the most in-depth MIDI routing and control section in any given MIDI controller in this format, allowing synthesists and producers using external hardware to route and control everything on one surface.
In the more budget- or beginner-friendly category, you have Alesis’s VI series of controllers, which sport Akai-like pads and a set of buttons and knobs for parameter controls, while Arturia’s Keylab Essential controllers streamline their more complicated sibling controllers into a more compact, simplified package. We also have the Samson Graphite 49 keyboard (pictured) which keeps the hardware fairly simple, but allows for completely separate mapping of each button, knob, or fader on the keyboard to entirely separate MIDI channels, allowing you to go further in-depth with your MIDI customization than the other models at this price point.
Lastly, if you’re doing any kind of musical scoring or soundtrack work, there’s the Roli Seaboard RISE, which is an entirely squishy keyboard layered with sensors that make it a uniquely expressive MIDI control surface when composing soundscapes and musical scores. On top of having the usual sensitivity to how hard you play the keyboard, it also allows you to apply more or less pressure as you hold down the keys, and even slide across the keyboard to change all sorts of parameters of unparalleled expression in your playing.
At its heart, music is still all about performance. MIDI controllers can also be used to great effect in live performance when combined with the right software or wired into a hardware synth setup, allowing for new methods of creative expression whether you’re just jamming out or playing a gig.
Novation’s Launchpad (pictured) series has become iconic as a live-performance controller when paired with Ableton Live, having been used at the hands of Madeon and Shawn Wasabi to pioneer the entire genre of the live mashup. While looking merely like a large square of pads, the Launchpad X and Launchpad Mini’s refreshed designs allow for an extreme level of customizability through Novation’s Components software, which can turn it into a melodic controller, a set of drum pads, or even a bank of faders in whatever layout you can fit onto the 8-by-8 grid. This, along with its native integration into Ableton Live, have continued to make them some of the most-used controllers for live musicians.
And for those that still want a keyboard, Novation also makes the Launchkey series, which takes a small section of the pads from the Launchpad, and then adds a keyboard to it, allowing for more a traditional playing style when it comes to chords, melodies, or solos.
But for those that are a bit more hardware-minded, Arturia’s “Step” controllers reign supreme. The Beatstep Pro can connect to almost any type of hardware, be it through USB, through the old-school 5-pin MIDI plugs, or even through CV/Gate outputs in case you’re messing with Eurorack modular synths. Most importantly, it gives you two melodic sequencers and a drum sequencer, each of which can be routed and operated separately, allowing it to become the central brain of your hardware setup. It’s cousin, the Keystep, has a built-in arpeggiator, built-in 64-step 8-voice polyphonic sequencer, and a chord mode, all in one compact keyboard controller that can connect in all the same ways the Beatstep Pro can. This makes it one of the best live-performance MIDI sequencers on the market, given how quickly you can craft complex sequences and movements with it on the fly.
For On The Go
A lot of modern musicians end up creating on the road, bringing their laptop or smartphone with them to capture and create new musical ideas as they happen while they’re traveling, and a lot of modern musical gear has been created over the past decade to fit into that travel-oriented mindset. MIDI controllers are no different.
When it comes to laptop controllers, a lot of companies have simply taken their best studio-style controllers and shrunken them down, each with their own pros and cons. Samson shrunk down their Graphite 49 into the Graphite M25, which boasts the smallest form factor of most of the popular “mini” controllers, and Arturia shrunk down the Keylab series into the Minilab, giving you a set of eight Launchpad-style pads and a whopping set of 16 rotary encoders for controlling software parameters on a controller that still manages to fit in your backpack. Similarly, Akai makes a miniature version of their MPK series with the MPK Mini MkII, which is a favorite amongst beatmakers due to the 8 oversized, MPK-style drum pads taking up much of the controller. Lastly, there’s the Novation Launchkey MkIII, which broke the mold for the Launchkey series and is one of Novation’s most versatile and standalone controllers to date. Aside from having support scripts for a lot of popular DAWs, meaning it is no longer completely locked to Ableton, it also has a built-in arpeggiator, custom modes and mappings through Novation’s Components software, and even a TRS MIDI jack on the back for controlling hardware on its own.
There are also the “smart” controllers, so named because they’re designed to play well with smartphones and other mobile devices. IK Multimedia reign supreme here, with their iRig line being built to run with most music apps on the market. Their iRig Pads and iRig Keys controllers (pictured) are built with mobile devices in mind, both connecting right through the Lightning or USB jack. and are class compliant, so you can simply plug them in and they’ll be ready to go. However, if you’re looking for something a tad more expressive, or even just something wireless, Roli has their Blocks ecosystem ready to go for iOS users as well. The Seaboard Block is a shrunken down, 2-octave version of the Seaboard RISE, and the Lightpad Block combines the squishable surface of the Seaboard with the mappable capability of a pad controller. Even better, the Blocks pieces all snap together, allowing you to expand or pare down your setup as you need to.
At the end of the day, MIDI can be whatever you need it to be. It can run a studio, help keep a live setup in sync, or serve as the lifeblood of a small mobile rig. And no matter what you’re using it for, there’s a MIDI controller out there that can give you more precision and a smooth workflow in whatever style you need. Talk to a professional at SamAsh.com today to see which controller best suits your needs.