Not every home studio owner is a keyboard player. But almost every home studio owner will want to put keyboard parts into their recordings at some point. Hence the need for a MIDI controller, or MIDI keyboard.

The reason I call it a MIDI controller as opposed to just a keyboard is that not everyone needs a big expensive keyboard with lots of sounds. Most recording software you can get today comes with all sorts of free virtual instruments, like keyboards, strings, organs, drums, etc.

Obviously you’ll need some sort of keyboard to actually play these sounds that are living inside your software. That’s where a MIDI controller comes in.

What is MIDI?

MIDI is a communication language. It’s the way different devices (particularly keyboards and sound modules) talk to each other.

MIDI is used in all sorts of ways. It can allow one keyboard to play the sounds off of several keyboards. It can control lighting. It can change settings on an effects unit. It can do your laundry and make your bed, too.

For our purposes, we’ll look at how MIDI relates to recording. What I love about using MIDI in my home studio is that I have complete control over every aspect of the performance. I can record the MIDI information to a track, just like audio. But the beauty of MIDI is that I can change the performance after it’s recorded. If I hit a wrong note, I can simply click on that note and delete it. If I want to add or take away notes here and there, no problem.

Another aspect of MIDI that I love is that you can change what instrument your MIDI notes are playing. I could record a MIDI track with a really nice piano sound. Later on, I can change that sound to an orchestra, and I don’t have to re-record the part! I simply reassign those notes to a different instrument.

Getting Connected

There are three ways to connect a MIDI controller keyboard to your computer:

  • Connect a MIDI cable from the keyboard to a USB MIDI interface, which then runs the MIDI into your computer via USB.
  • Connect a MIDI cable from the keyboard to a MIDI input on your existing audio interface, which then carries the MIDI signal (along with all your audio signals) into your computer.
  • Connect the MIDI controller directly to the computer via USB.

That last option is becoming more and more common. These MIDI controllers usually have no internal sounds. They can be pretty inexpensive, and they’re made mainly for studio use.

But Joe, do I need it?

There are some home studio owners who will never need a MIDI controller. If you’re doing 100% recording and never need to sequence any keyboard parts or pads or synths or drum parts, then you’re off the hook.

However, I would bet that the majority of us need keyboards in our songs from time to time. I would also be willing to bet we don’t have a bunch of fancy keyboards and a Steinway grand piano lying around in the corner of our studio.

Since that’s the reality for most home studio owners, a MIDI interface and some virtual instrument plugins become a worthwhile investment.

What I Use

I’ve used several MIDI controllers over the years. My latest one is a beat up, used M-Audio Oxygen 61. It gets the job done.

There’s a lot more to MIDI than I can cover in one article. Hopefully this gives you a good starting point. If you have specific questions, leave a comment!

34 Responses to “12 Home Studio Necessities #9 – MIDI Controller”

  1. Charlice

    Good list. Sometimes you don’t need all kinds of toys to get things done. But some things just can’t be left out of your list. Keep pushing and you will get there…

  2. Ike

    This is the best explanation I have heard… I’ve been asking this question on every forum to no avail. Thanks a lot.

  3. dannyboy

    I dont know if im the right pkace but here I go.. I have a quesstion im wanting to make this instrument were I use an electric keyboard, but instead of the original tones(notes) on it I want to add a new tone to the jeys I want. The tones are a steam calliopes( steam organ) there are 3 octives on them.. I have no clue on how to do this can some one help! My email is thanks.

  4. kartikahuja

    Can i use 2 midi’s together? I am goin to buy Novation Launchkey 49 and I mainly Produce EDM so i need a lot of effects and are the knobs on this keyboard enough or should i buy another usb midi (i am thinking of korg nanokontrol 2) for extra knobs and faders?

  5. kartikahuja

    which is better? connecting a midi keyboard with usb directly in the computer or with a midi cable in an audio interface? can i connect a usb midi keyboard to an audio interface which has RCA inputs.?

  6. Neven

    Hey Joe there is a easy one.Finaly I decided to buy a audio interface and midi keyboard.So my question is:Can I use the audio interface for the audio signal only(Laptop-Audio Interface-monitor speakers) and plug the controller directly into Laptop or the MC must go into the AI?And what the pros and cons are?

    • Ben

      You can plug them into separate USB ports, you don’t have to daisy chain them or anything. Usually that’s how you have to do it, because most MIDI controllers are USB and unless your interface has a USB hub built in (a couple do) you’ve got to find a separate port.

      You can use a hub that the MIDI controller would share with your mouse, printer, etc. if you ran out of ports, but I would never plug an audio interface into a hub – that will create extra latency and as a result extra instability in your DAW. So one port dedicated to your interface, if you’re going USB anyway, and another port for other stuff, if that’s your scenario as with lots of laptops.

  7. Joe Gilder

    Hi Ari.

    I think CME makes a nice one. And maybe StudioLogic? What you’re looking for will be expensive, though. Just so you know…

  8. Tim

    I use a Focusrite USB audio interface that is connected to my laptop. Instead of connecting my MIDI keyboard to the computer via USB, I want to connect it to the audio interface with a MIDI cable. My question is, do I need to power the MIDI keyboard with an external power adapter, or will the MIDI cable provide power?

  9. Joe Gilder

    Latency isn’t really a controller issue. It has to do with your hardware buffer settings in Pro Tools. Lower your buffer, and your latency will decrease.

  10. Josh Gamble

    i too am using a yamaha psr as my midi controller, im looking to upgrade to an akai with drum pads and knobs. dragging faders and playing drums with the mouse can get tiring šŸ˜‰

  11. Jack

    I am a drummer I have a great Roland V-pro setup with a focusrite Pro40 interface. I have cubase studio 5 and I just bought a Oxygen 49. It does not seem to load into cubase and for all practical purposes it does not seem to work. Do you know why the oxygen is not cmpatable with Cubase Studio

    • Ben

      Unless you’re missing drivers for the Oxygen, it’s probably a configuration issue in Cubase. You’d be better off asking on a Cubase support forum.

  12. Angel

    Joe please pardon my ignorance but I’m fairly new to the whole recording environment. My question is, is there really a difference between using a regular keyboard that has midi versus a dedicated midi controller like the axiom? I have a cheap casio keyboard that has midi and Ive hooked it up to my computer via USB and used it to check out the VST instruments that Cubase 5 came with and it seemed to work fine. Should I invest in a midi controller?

    • Joe Gilder

      I wouldn’t bother with buying a new MIDI controller. I used an old Yamaha PSR keyboard as my “MIDI controller” for years. The only benefit of something like an Axiom is that you can use the extra knobs and sliders to control settings inside your software, but I bet there are FAR more important things for you to focus on.

  13. azamie

    I found your articles very informative, great job.I am totally new to midi and I have one questions here.
    1. Can I use a midi controller, e.g. from M-Audio Prokeys to tweak the sounds from another keyboard without connecting to a computer or sound modules?

  14. olivier

    M-audio makes affordable controllers such as axiom or oxygen if you are on the budget.
    Akai mpk series keyboards is another affordable gear.
    Novation is more expensive company , but they offer great automap software with their gear.

  15. ray

    If you are on the budge try M-Audio oxygen or axiom series midi keyboards. This company makes affordable stuff.

    Akai MPK 25 /49 key nice midi keyboards with added perks such as appegiator , full size drum pad also affordable.

    Novation SL MkII more expensive midi keyboard company. The great thing that they offer is it’s the automap software.
    The automap software allows for easy assign of buttons by touching in the software.

  16. Vincent Le Pes

    HA! I also started out on a PSR…the 270 model. I can say it has a decent grand piano sound, but beyond that, it’s only good as a controller. Nothing fancy, but it got the job done! I’ve recently acquired an SL-990 Pro (got it really cheap on Criagslist – there are so many gems on there btw) and I’m looking to get a Oxygen61 to have a soft synth controller (my Oxygen8 is too limiting with only 2 octaves, and my SL-990 Pro has hammer keys…not the best for synths).

    • alexander

      vincent i use a yamaha psr e 413, it worked onced and refused 2 work later on. i cnnect it directly via a usb i dont know if i am doing the right thing cus someone told me 2 get a fast track audio hared mare . alexander

  17. Saul

    Mine can’t do my bed or my laundry… Guess I should have looked for those features? lol
    I have an special edition axiom 25. Not many keys, but all I really need!


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