We wouldn’t necessarily be exaggerating if we said that the MIDI controller is an essential tools for every musician and producer nowadays.
Despite being around since the 1980s, they’ve gained most of their popularity in recent years along with the rise in home producing capabilities, and they’ve evolved like crazy. The controllers out today are dynamic, flexible, innovative, and super responsive.
In fact, they’re also lighter, faster, and practically limitless. They can literally change the way you approach arranging, recording, and even performing music. Let’s talk a bit more about how they can help you, and why you should probably get yourself one if you haven’t already!
So, What Is a MIDI Controller?
Since you’re clearly searching for the benefits of MIDI controllers, you probably already know what they are. Nevertheless, here’s a short introduction.
MIDI is short for “musical instrument digital interface.” So a controller is simply a piece of hardware with the capability of communicating in that format; it actually doesn’t do anything on its own. But, like a Playstation controller for example, when connected to the right “digital interface,” it becomes super useful.
A controller is a great tool for producers who are just starting out, as well as experienced producers who know how to wield its vast powers. If you’re working in a DAW and want a more performative way to play and record music, change parameters and settings in real time, or trigger a variety of samples and sounds, MIDI controllers can do all of that and more.
If you search for a MIDI controller on Google, you’re likely to find 90% of the results showing keyboards. But there are so many other designs and constructions; you can also find MIDI guitars, wind instruments, drum pads, and even a straight-up cube. For other hardware comparisons and purchasing options, you can visit Noisylabs.
+ Learn production, composition, songwriting, theory, arranging, mixing, and more — whenever you want and wherever you are. Click here for unlimited access!
The Benefits of Using a MIDI Controller
Alright, now that we’ve established the basics, let’s talk about the perks of owning one.
It’s faster and more convenient than doing things with your mouse.
Technically speaking, you can control any DAW with a mouse. You can draft and adjust all sorts of instruments with a bunch of clicks here and there. So, if you’re imagining it as just a replacement for your mouse, it would seem that MIDI controllers are nothing but a waste of money.
…Until you actually try it.
A mouse is not a musical instrument, and you can’t play it like one. On the other hand, MIDI controllers can trigger multiple notes, sounds and samples, and alter your sounds in real time with all the same convenience of using just one of your hands. That’s certainly better than manually drawing in your MIDI notes, adjusting them, then only hearing them by hitting the playback button!
It’s a better interface for velocity and other parameters.
When you write MIDI notes into your DAW, they’re usually added in without any stylistic preferences or “performance.” It’s just the raw attack and delay of C, D, F, G, etc. Velocity is the parameter that transforms these robotic-sounding notes into delightful human music.
Velocity is how forceful or gentle you play a note, it’s a parameter designed to emulate your touch on an actual instrument. When you want to convey sadness, you might play your notes light and soft — when you want to communicate action and adventure, the notes would be crispier, shorter, and stronger.
So rather than having to add those velocity attributes in later, you can play them when you first record your MIDI parts with the controller, to match the intensity you hear in your head.
It’s much lighter than most synths and instruments.
If you’re a live performer, or even a synth collector of sorts, using a controller can be a lot more convenient than a regular keyboard or synth. They can’t produce sounds on their own, but they also aren’t $5,000; so travelling with one is easier and safer.
And they’re much lighter. One controller, produced by AKAI, weighs about 1.5 pounds, whereas a regular keyboard, like Alesis’ Melody MKII, is about 9 pounds! Plus, USB and other computer cables tend to be lighter and less cumbersome than audio cables as well. All in all, you’re lightening your load without sacrificing quality.
It’s practically limitless.
MIDI controllers capture the notes and velocities you play as virtual raw data. That means you can turn a MIDI signal into all kinds of audio in your DAW and software.
If you’re recording, and you like the notes you played but not the specific sounds, change them! You can easily fine-tune it without having to do the whole track all over again. Additionally, you can interpret this raw data into any instrument you like: piano, guitar, full orchestra, you name it!
A regular keyboard, on the contrary, is less flexible. If you change your mind about a particular segment in your track, you’ll be obliged to record it again.
Are There Any Downsides?
MIDI controllers do have some drawbacks that might make them unsuitable for some artists and producers. The most notable con is the fact that depending on which one you buy, it may not always support a plug-and-play system.
Also, you may need the technical knowledge to map the pads, knobs, and different buttons in your controller with samples, etc. If you fail to do that, you’ll end up with pretty useless hardware. You’ll press a button, expecting to hear a particular note, but the software will interpret an entirely different one.
MIDI controllers are arguably among the best musical innovations of the 21st century. They’ve successfully closed the wide, robotic gap between using automated software and live instruments. Nowadays, most controllers can simulate how soft you press a pad to convey emotions in a better way.
If you’re a live performer, you should definitely try this out. Carrying a simple controller along with a laptop can replace an awful lot of bulky and heavy instruments, as well as the dreaded “checking your email” laptop look on stage.
It might feel complicated at first. But once you grasp the technicalities, using one should be a breeze. So go on and let the world hear your brilliance!
Continue learning with hundreds more lessons on mixing, DIY home audio production, electronic music recording, beat making, and so much more, with Soundfly’s in-depth online courses, like The Art of Hip-Hop Production, Making Music in Logic Pro X and Modern Pop Vocal Production to name a few. Subscribe to get unlimited access here.
Alex Cortez is the founder of Noisylabs, a site dedicated to everything regarding sound which includes music production, home speakers, and more.