Which MIDI controller is best?
With the advances made in software instrument plugins over the decades, productions that used to demand a full recording studio and dozens of musicians can now be accomplished by one person and a laptop computer.
However, naturally playing software instruments requires the use of a hardware MIDI controller such as the Arturia KeyStep Pro 37-Key Controller & Sequencer. Arturia’s flagship controller allows you to take full command of everything from basic software instrument control to playing and sequencing up to four separate instruments simultaneously. The KeyStep Pro’s simple design belies the device’s powerful flexibility, making it the best MIDI controller for musicians looking to both harness and inspire their creativity.
What to know before you buy a MIDI controller
While almost anything that provides input information into your computer can be used to control MIDI, consumer MIDI controllers are generally available in two basic types:
- Keyboard MIDI controllers are based on the familiar chromatic piano keyboard. These controllers are great for composers who have an understanding of music theory and are already able to play piano. However, they’re also ideal for people who wish to learn the basics of music composition without investing in an acoustic piano or expensive synthesizer. Keyboard controllers come in different key counts, sizes and weights to suit your playing preferences.
- Pad MIDI controllers forego the keyboard in favor of rubber pads. Popular with electronic musicians who compose rhythm tracks or trigger samples, the rubber pads can be played with your fingers like a drum kit. While pads are generally associated with hip-hop or R&B percussion, they’re also used to play notes, chords or even make changes in your computer’s software. Many keyboard MIDI controllers come with pads as well, providing you with the best of both options.
MIDI controllers are available in small, portable sizes that can easily slip into a laptop bag, all the way up to large models that feature 88 full-size piano keys. Consider the space available for your device and your style as a musician while shopping for a controller.
What to look for in a quality MIDI controller
An arpeggiator allows you to automatically play a series of notes in a predetermined order by simply pressing and holding one or more keys at a time. This feature allows you to easily create complex bass lines or leads. Look for a MIDI controller that has this feature as well as a “hold” button that allows the arpeggiator to continue playing, even if you take your fingers off the keys.
A sequencer is similar to an arpeggiator in that it allows you to use your controller to tell an instrument to automatically play the notes you desire. However, sequencers offer more flexibility in that many of them can also record and play changes such as note velocity, glide, pitch and gate. Sequences can also be strung together to play entire songs, based on the capabilities of your controller. A robust sequencer can essentially be used to play your instruments while freeing you to accompany or modify them on the fly.
Look for a MIDI controller that features a screen to display useful information such as what MIDI channel your controller is currently sending data to. Many controllers lack this feature, making it impossible to determine with a quick glance what the unit’s settings are. This isn’t a deal-breaker for studio use; however, if you plan on controlling multiple instruments in a live setting, a user interface that allows for quick assessment of your parameters is a necessity.
If you only need a MIDI controller to play notes or samples on your computer, a USB connection will suit your needs. However, playing hardware synthesizers will require more consideration. Many analog and vintage units require a connection via 5-pin MIDI or CV to communicate with your controller. Be sure to consult the information provided by the manufacturer of your synthesizer to ensure that you purchase a MIDI controller with the required connectivity options.
Knobs and faders
MIDI controllers usually come with a series of assignable knobs, faders and buttons. These can be used to change parameters such as volume, resonance, cutoff, modulation and more. They can also be assigned to perform shortcuts such as changing sound banks or songs within your DAW or performance software.
How much you can expect to spend on a MIDI controller
MIDI controllers can cost as little as $40 or as much as $800. Basic, budget MIDI controllers have very limited connectivity and are not built to withstand usage outside of occasional tinkering. Professional models are loaded with features such as full-color displays and connection options. Most musicians find that MIDI controllers in the $200-$500 range meet or exceed their needs.
MIDI controller FAQ
Do MIDI controllers produce sound?
A. No. While MIDI controllers look like traditional keyboards or synthesizers at first glance, they don’t produce any sound of their own. MIDI controllers are used as interfaces to control other instruments. Some hardware synthesizers, for example, don’t include a keyboard or a manner in which to actually play notes. To produce sound, they require an outside source such as a MIDI controller to tell them to do so.
Does a MIDI controller require AC power?
A. Most MIDI controllers can be powered over USB. However, if you use your controller to perform with analog or vintage synthesizers via 5-pin MIDI cable or CV without a computer connection, you’ll require an AC adapter to provide your controller with power.
Can you control multiple instruments with one MIDI controller?
A. Yes. One of the most convenient features of MIDI is the ability to use a controller as the centerpiece in your studio or performance rig thanks to its ability to control multiple instruments across 16 separate channels. The speed and ease with which you can change channels is dependent on the model of MIDI controller you choose.
What’s the best MIDI controller to buy?
Top MIDI controller
What you need to know: This MIDI controller and sequencer can easily form the centerpiece of a recording studio or synthesizer collection.
What you’ll love: Arturia’s user-friendly approach to their products makes this MIDI controller easy to figure out in spite of its wealth of deep features and programming options. The unit’s arpeggiator, sequencer and regular firmware updates make the KeyStep Pro the industry standard in the eyes of many musicians.
What you should consider: This controller is expensive and has more features than most musicians will ever need.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Top MIDI controller for the money
What you need to know: This compact MIDI controller comes from a brand known for affordable but reliable electronic music gear.
What you’ll love: Featuring 25 full-size keys, 16 pads and eight knobs, this MIDI controller packs a lot of features into a small package. LED illumination and a simple but effective display make this controller functional and aesthetically pleasing.
What you should consider: Some users found this controller to have limited functionality for professional performance uses.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Worth checking out
What you need to know: 25 full-size keys and deep programming options make this MIDI controller excellent for both live performance and home studio use.
What you’ll love: This controller has great flexibility, allowing for adjustments to pad sensitivity and even custom LED illumination. Easy to see on a dark stage, its screen provides useful information in a legible font. Also available in 49- or 61-key models.
What you should consider: This controller doesn’t have any sequencing options. Some users report that the customer service at Akai is not responsive to their concerns.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
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Derek Walborn writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.
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