Back to Basics – A MIDI Controller Buyer’s Guide

George Hess • August 2021Tech 4 Teachers • August 13, 2021

One positive thing to come out of the past year is that many of you have started using music technology as a part of your curriculum for the first time. I know you may be tempted to abandon it all, but don’t give up on it just yet. Music tech helped keep your music program viable last year, and it can help you grow it in the future. You’d be surprised at how many students in your school are making music on computers in their bedrooms.  

Cloud-based software (see SBO April 2021) is still fine for all but the most advanced classes, and it has the added advantage of being somewhat familiar to you now. Most of your students probably used the computer keyboard and mouse to enter music, but that’s slow, awkward, and not very musical. In the classroom, there are better options that will let you go beyond loops and notes. 

Crash Course in MIDI
Much like a notated part provides instructions to a musician, MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) provides instructions to virtual instruments. To do that, MIDI uses numeric messages, and there are two types that you need to be concerned with, note on/off and continuous controllers. 

When you depress a key on a MIDI keyboard, it sends a Note On message with the pitch and volume (MIDI calls this velocity). When you release the key, it sends a note off message (or a note on message with a velocity of 0). 

Continuous controllers (CC) are a set of programmable messages that add expressiveness to the music and can also operate the software. There are 128 CCs—MIDI’s magic number is 128 (27)—some like volume (#7), pan (#10), and sustain (#64) are commonly defined–but even those can be overridden. Each CC sends out a data value from 0-127. 

You’ll also run into two other types of messages, pitch bend and aftertouch. Pitch bend differs in that its 128 values are represented as +/- 64, so it can raise or lower pitches. Aftertouch is similar to CCs as it generates a data value and can be assigned to anything you like. 

You might notice that there is no mention of timing, and that’s because MIDI doesn’t deal with it directly. Instead, your software keeps track of when MIDI messages are received and then uses that information to display it on the screen in a way that makes sense. 

Of course, there’s a lot more to MIDI than that, and MIDI 2.0 will add even more, but when working with a DAW or notation program, that’s all you need to know.  

MIDI Controller Devices
The best way to enter notes into a DAW or notation program is with a MIDI controller keyboard. Unlike synthesizers, controller keyboards produce no sound; they only send MIDI messages, making them much less expensive. Keyboards range from two octaves (+1 key for some reason) to a full 88 keys and can have full-size or mini keys. Most are meaning they are spring-loaded (“synth action”) to provide some resistance and can respond to dynamic playing (“velocity-sensitive”). More expensive keyboards might have weighted or hammer action that provides a more realistic piano feel. All modern MIDI keyboards connect to the computer using USB, and some use Bluetooth. Most are USB bus-powered, but some will require external power. 

There are three basic types of MIDI controller keyboards: general-purpose keyboards, DAW controller keyboards, and piano-action keyboards. 

General-purpose keyboards are used to enter notes or teach basic theory concepts such as scales and chords. They come with few frills and are the least expensive, generally under $100. They’ll have synth-action and 25 to 61 mini or full-size keys. Larger keyboards will have a pitch bend wheel and a mod wheel that sends CC#1 messages. 

Mini keyboards are the most affordable option. They have 25 or 32 mini-keys and buttons to change octaves quickly. The small size and simple USB connection mean they are very portable and easily stored. With only two octaves, you’ll only use one hand to play. Mini keyboards are great for note entry in notation programs and work pretty well with DAWs, too, though occasionally the two-octave limit can get in the way. Let’s look at some options.

  • The Korg Nanokey 2 ($65 street price) doesn’t look like a keyboard and is the most compact of the minis. It has 25 keys with a surprisingly good feel. They’re laid out like a keyboard but with more space, making it easier to play drum beats. The new version has added a sustain button and can send CC messages using the keys. The USB-micro B port is a little large but more durable than the USB mini port. Korg also makes standard keyboards with mini and full size keys, including the Microkey Bluetooth series
  • Akai’s LPK25 ($59) also has 25 keys and looks like a standard keyboard. It has a sustain button and a few extra bells and whistles like an arpeggiator. You will want to be careful with the USB mini-port as they can be a little delicate. 
  • The M-Audio Keystation 32 ($59) is the only one in this class with 32 mini-keys. The extra keys are just enough to play in all keys without having to change octaves. It has a sustain button and also one for modulation and pitch bend. AIR’s Hybrid virtual instrument software is included.
  • The Keystation also has models with 49, 61, and 88 full-size keys, pitch bend and mod wheels, and a volume control. You need to add a sustain pedal, and you can also connect MIDI expression (volume) pedals. 
  • The Alesis Q series is also an affordable option with a 32 mini-key ($59) and full size model with 49 and 88 keys ($109-229).

DAW Controllers
DAW controller keyboards have banks of sliders and rotary knobs that can be programmed to control an on-screen mixer or other functions and a set of pads for drum programming and launching loops. They range in size from 25 to 88 keys, and there are mini and full-size key options. Keyboards are velocity-sensitive and have synth action. The pads are also velocity-sensitive but can be programmed to send note or CC messages. 

The compact size and multiple functions make these types of keyboards a good option for labs. All models include a software bundle including Ableton Live Lite and virtual instruments, so you have everything you need for an entry-level music production class. 

One thing to be aware of is that they only send MIDI messages, so they don’t respond to movements you make on the screen with the mouse or automation. Sliders and knobs send fixed values that can cause controls on the screen to jump if they aren’t in sync. 

  • The Novation Launchkey ($109 – $259) series comes with 37, 49, 61 full-size keys or 25 mini-keys. Designed specifically to work with Ableton Live out of the box, you can also download program maps for Logic and Reason or create custom maps for other DAWs. MIDI performance functions include an arpeggiator, scale, and chord modes that make it easier for students to play melodies, patterns, and progressions. The Mini and 37 key models have ribbons for mod wheel and pitch bend and do not include sliders.
  • The KeyLab series from Arturia ($229-279) features two models with 49 or 61 full-size keys with synth-action and the standard assortment of programmable faders, knobs, pads, and buttons to control functions on the DAW. Unlike the others, the basic Keylab doesn’t include MIDI performance functions. The mapping uses standard MCU and HUI protocols which makes it easy to connect with most major DAWs. A unique addition to the software bundle is Analog Lab, a collection of Arturia’s highly regarded virtual analog instruments. 
  • The M-Audio Oxygen ($119-299) series comes with 25, 49, or 61 full-sized keys and sliders, rotaries, pads, wheels, and buttons. The Automap function ensures quick mapping to all major DAWs. MIDI performance functions are included, as is the usual bundle of software.
  • Inspired by Akai’s legendary MPC, the MPK series ($119 – 499) is a full line of mini and full-size keyboards that include 8 or 16 pads and many sounds and functions such as Swing and Note Repeat that made the MPC so famous. You can build beats with up to 16 layers and trigger them directly from the pads. The full-size keyboard versions also include aftertouch.

Piano Action Keyboards
If your keyboards are going to do double-duty in piano classes, you may want to consider hammer-action keyboards. Some models are just controllers, which will require a connection to a computer as the sound source, while most have a bank of piano and orchestral sounds. 

Pianists will initially be drawn to these, but they aren’t necessarily the best solution. With 88-keys and hammer action, they take up more space and are heavy. Portable versions will require a heavy-duty stand and a platform to hold the computer. Console versions are not very mobile but are compact enough that you will still find a solution for the computer. In either case, it’s challenging to create a setup that works ergonomically for both piano and computer. You’ll need to consider your priorities, and unless you are training budding Rachmaninov’s, 61-key models may suffice.

The Studiologic SL 88 and 73 ($499) and M-Audio Hammer 88 ($499) are portable hammer action keyboard controllers. Both include pitch bend and modulation controls —SL uses programmable X/Y sticks, while M-Audio uses the standard wheels. Pedals can be connected but are not included with either model.

Many companies make affordable hammer-action digital pianos with onboard sounds. Korg, Roland, Yamaha, Alexis, Casio, and Kawai all have models well under $1000 in either console or portable models. 

What to Choose?
The most important decision is the type of keyboard. Make it based on your situation and goals. More features are not necessarily better. If you share a lab, a mini keyboard can be the best choice as they are easily stored and set up. For DAW keyboards, choose the one that works best with your software. 

Over the years, I’ve use products from all of these companies and have had a similar experience, both good and bad, with them all. There is little difference in the build quality, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. 

Dr. George Hess is professor of music and director of the recording studios at Sunway University in Kuala Lumpur. 

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