Are you looking for a MIDI keyboard and don’t know where to start? I remember when I bought my first MIDI keyboard almost two decades ago and I felt like I was grasping for straws. When they first came out, we had a select few. Nowadays in this decade however, everybody makes a MIDI keyboard, and all of them bring so many different shapes, sizes, colors, features, knobs, buttons and more. So where to start? We took the time to write this guide to help you out before you purchase either your first MIDI keyboard or in case you want to upgrade your current setup and become a bit more educated on the subject before you drop some cash.
What is a MIDI keyboard?
MIDI is short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface which is a protocol that allows computers, musical instruments and other external hardware to communicate data with each other.
Having said that, MIDI keyboards themselves are piano style electronic musical keyboards used for sending MIDI signals over a USB or 5 pin cable to other musical devices or computers. MIDI controllers don’t make sound by themselves, but instead send signals to receiving devices that are capable of creating sound.
As the use of virtual instruments are increasing, MIDI keyboards are becoming an important part of the life of producers and for the music making process. Think of them as the canvas to your painting setup, and the colors (sounds) come from your computer and can be never-ending. It gives us many possibility as we don’t have to rely on the keyboard itself to store and have a capacity for sounds (how synthesizers worked).
What are the different types of MIDI keyboards?
Shopping for the right MIDI keyboard can be an overwhelming task as there are a variety of options out there with exceedingly equipped features. We’re not sure about you but our first time shopping for one of these felt pretty overwhelming.
When buying a MIDI keyboard, there are important factors you should consider looking into, and we’ve organized the key components of that process for you below:
Number of keys
MIDI keyboards can come in different number of keys ranging from a single octave to a full range of 88 keys.
Choosing the number of keys on a MIDI keyboard is important as it affects its size, weight, length, width and the space it would occupy. It also depends on the individual’s piano skills, although most importantly for many is simply the price. The less amount of keys you purchase is more likely to decrease the price; however, we recommend you keep in mind what you actually need as opposed to the “most”.
For those of us who at times use a mobile studio on a laptop, a 25-key keyboard would be ideal. For those with a home recording studio, 49 or even 61 is often fine for many. For experienced piano players or really anybody who wants to get as close to emulating a real piano is possible, go for the full bang with a MIDI keyboard with 88 keys.
Even with MIDI keyboards with lesser keys, one can still play the full range of MIDI notes by adjusting the octave switches on the device. There are even tiny MIDI keyboards that fit in your pocket if that’s what you fancy.
Keyboard action type
The most important quality of a MIDI Keyboard key is the action type. A MIDI keyboard action is the mechanical assembly that translates the stroke of the keys into rapid motion of a hammer which creates sound. The design of the key action determines how heavy or light the keys of a keyboard feels.
In short, the keyboard action is associated with the feel of the key on a MIDI keyboard. It is the manner in which the key responds to playing. Deciding the type of action is determined by the style of music you play and how you’re accustomed to.
There are three basic keyboard action types: Weighted or Hammer action, Semi-Weighted and Synth action.
- Weighted or hammer action: This type of action keyboard is where you have to apply more pressure when striking a key. This type of action keyboard is suitable for those who are used to playing a piano. It also feels a lot more ‘real’ when compared to an actual piano.,
- Semi-weighted action: Relatively, the semi-weighted action type of keyboard is one with less key resistance and a bit springier release. These are popular with many players.
- Synth action: A synth action type of MIDI keyboard feels more like an electronic organ. In this case, the keys are light and easier to move. Moreover, the keys return to their resting position much more quickly. This is considered an important advantage when trying to play a fast part of music. Synth action type of MIDI keyboards are suitable for those who are not pianist by nature, but want to add a MIDI functionality to their setup.
MIDI keyboards come in a variety of key sizes. The most common sizes are: full size keys, slim keys and mini keys.
Most of the time, weighted action MIDI keyboards come in full size keys. Whereas semi-weighted or non-weighted action keyboards come in a variety of key sizes. Choosing a key size is subjective; it depends on hand size, finger size, the style of music, keyboard techniques and really just your personal preference. We highly recommend you go into an actual music equipment store and try them out first, as it can be difficult envisioning it based off of words or pictures online.
Aftertouch is a feature in a keyboard, usually in those that are a little more expensive, that send MIDI messages when you press and hold the keys. In other words, it is a convenient way to add expressiveness to your playing. There are two types of aftertouch:
- Monophonic: The monophonic aftertouch is also known as the channel aftertouch. It measures one pressure value for the entire keyboard.
- Polyphonic: The polyphonic aftertouch produces a signal for each individual key.
Velocity is the force with which a note is played and it is very important in making MIDI performances sound more human-like. Or if you’re using a fixed velocity, it will make them sound a bit more constant and mechanical. Look for a feature called “velocity-sensitive” on the keyboard you’re looking at. Most do provide this, but double check. We always recommend getting a velocity-sensitive keybed.
Ins and Outs (I/O)
I/O refers to Input/Output. The input and the output are means to transfer data from a program operation or device to a computer or vice versa. Every transfer is an output from one device and an input into another.
Knobs, faders and buttons
Besides the keys, MIDI keyboards also have Knobs, faders and buttons. These make your life easier by transmitting MIDI data aside from just keys. Some MIDI keyboards include auto mapping technology that set up the knobs and faders to correspond to your specific software applications. Some examples of other data you can send to your computer or DAW include volume, panning, FX filters, and more.
Typically MIDI keyboards, with the exception of mini keyboards, will have at least one pedal input for a sustain pedal and a second input for an expression pedal. A sustain pedal when pressed sustains all the damped strings on the piano by moving all the dampers away from the strings and allowing them to vibrate freely.
Dampers are the pieces of wood covered with felt that lie above the strings and are responsible for ending notes. On the other hand, an expression pedal controls different aspects of the sound, commonly volume, but can also control modulation, delay or level.
Pitch Bend and Mod-wheel
Not all keyboards come with a pitch bend and mod-wheel. A pitch bend in a MIDI keyboard is a control wheel or lever designed to produce a change in pitch. Pitch bend data can be recorded and edited. Modwheel is another type of control on a keyboard which is used to add expression or to change different elements of a synthesized sound.
These are very important controllers on a keyboard. ‘Continuous Controllers‘ can be in different shapes; they can be in the form of a knob, slider or any XY pads. The CC, or Continuous Controllers are parameters that send MIDI data to the sampler (key). There are different ways of mapping a CC; some include software that come with a specific instrument. But most DAWS (Digital Audio Workstation) have fast and simple ways of mapping a CC to any parameter in an application.
Many controllers have a built-in velocity sensitive pad for playing anything that accepts a note. Besides, knobs, there are also switches or buttons that can be programmed. Controllers like transport control, including the play, stop, pause, rewind and fast forward buttons, that auto map to a DAW are very convenient because you don’t have to continuously use the mouse or the traditional computer keyboard.
DAW stands for Digital Audio Work Station which is an electronic device or application software used for recording, editing and producing audio files; in other words, it is a music production software.
Some MIDI keyboards are designed for a specific DAW and others aren’t built for a specific one in mind (such as let’s say MIDI keyboards for Ableton). So, when choosing a MID keyboard, make sure you check for compatibility; whether you can use it with the DAW you have, or not.
For some people, budget is considered to be an important factor to consider when choosing a MIDI keyboard. Some have a pricey tag; others are more affordable. Expensive keyboards might have more features than the affordable ones, but even cheaper ones can do a good job of transferring digital data to a receiver.
We don’t recommend just grabbing a MIDI keyboard with the most features, keys and accessories. Try to focus on what you only need, or if you’re just starting, a MIDI keyboard that will have a curve for learning to act as an investment for your future as well.
So, how to choose a MIDI keyboard? Which one is the best for you?
Functionality, portability, play-ability, size, price and connectivity are some of the considerations, but at the end of the day, it’s a personal choice and decision
There are keyboards for beginners, pianists, producers, travelers and ground-breakers.
First decide how many keys you need; then decide what kind of Key action you need. This is an important factor to consider as it will affect the play-ability of the aftertouch. Then consider whether you need a MID keyboard that connects via USB, or 5-pin MIDI jack. Do you need faders, buttons and knobs? How many?
The right choice depends on the skills of the user, portability and space limitations.
Look for a MIDI controller that will make your work easier, not complicated.