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.
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!