How to Choose a Keyboard Controller
MIDI keyboard controllers have become an important part of the music-making process for contemporary musicians and producers due to the increasing use of virtual instruments onstage and in the studio. The Sweetwater MIDI Controllers Buying Guide includes tips to help you choose the right controller for your needs. As always, we welcome your questions at (800) 222-4700.
What is a Keyboard Controller?
Way back in the 1980s, one of the original purposes of developing the MIDI specification was to allow live performers the ability to control the sounds of multiple synthesizers from a single keyboard. That concept has been a smashing success! Today, live performers, songwriters with laptops, studio musicians, sound designers, and others can all benefit from the flexibility a keyboard controller offers them.
Technically, a keyboard controller is a device with piano or synth-style keys, and usually a selection of knobs, buttons, and sliders. All of these transmit MIDI data to external sound modules (synthesizers), computer software synthesizers, or a hardware or software sequencer. Most keyboard controllers themselves have no internal sound-generating capability, but almost any keyboard synthesizer/workstation can act to control the sounds and parameters of other devices.
The real advantages of a keyboard controller are versatility and portability. They give you control over virtually the entire range of modern music hardware and software while sometimes even being compact enough to fit in your laptop computer bag.
Faders, Buttons, and Knobs
n addition to the piano-style keys found on keyboard controllers, many also include a range of knobs, sliders, and buttons on their top panels. These are capable of transmitting MIDI data and can dramatically increase the hands-on control you have over your software or any module you have connected to your controller. Here’s a specific example: you have your controller plugged into your computer and your DAW of choice running with an instance of your favorite soft synth. The controller’s knobs, sliders, and modulation wheel give you hands-on, real-time control over tweaking the synth’s filter cutoff and resonance, amp envelope, and so forth. This provides a much more “authentic analog” feel over using a mouse. Some controllers now include automapping technology that sets up the knobs and faders to correspond to your specific software applications.
Using a Keyboard Controller in Live Performance
This was one of the original concepts of MIDI: control of other modules from one keyboard. Onstage, you could connect your controller to your laptop – or a rack full of synth modules and effects processors – and use presets to combine or split devices using simple button pushes. If you’re a DJ, you would definitely appreciate the compactness of a 25-key controller while using its knobs to modulate the filters of a loop sequencer that lives on your laptop.
How much space do you have in your studio? Do you play two-handed? Do you want to be able to do keyboard splits (range mapping)? How important is portability – are you taking your controller on the road? Your answers to these questions will determine how many keys you’ll want on your controller. Controllers generally come with 25, 49, 61, or 88 keys, and can be anywhere from under 20″ to over 50″ in length. We also occasionally see models with 32, 37, 73, and 76 keys.
Keyboard Action Types
A vital quality of any keyboard controller is the keyboard action – the manner in which the key responds to playing. You, the player, need to feel comfortable using the controller, whether live on stage or in your songwriting or recording studio. Don’t underestimate the impact of having a less-than-ideal keyboard on your creativity and productivity! The type of action you prefer is usually determined mostly by what you are accustomed to, and also by the particular style of music that you play, which may call for one type of action over another. You can choose from three basic keyboard action types:
Weighted Hammer Action
Many controllers have 88-note keyboards that replicate the mechanical action of a conventional piano keyboard. This is difficult to do because a controller has no strings or hammers. Manufacturers use different methods of applying weights and springs to mimic a piano’s action. Others add a hammer action to more closely replicate a true piano “feel.” If your primary instrument is piano, or if you compose a lot of piano-oriented music, the realism of a weighted hammer-action keyboard might be ideal for you.
Similar to a weighted action, but with less key resistance and a slightly springier release, semi-weighted actions are popular with many players. If you don’t need realistic piano response but don’t care for spring-loaded synth actions (see below), try a semi-weighted keyboard.
A synth-action keyboard, on the other hand, feels more like an electronic organ. The spring-loaded keys are light and capable of being moved very quickly. They also tend to return to their resting position much more quickly. This can be an important advantage when trying to play very fast parts such as lead lines or fast arpeggios. Synth-action keys are perfect for musicians who aren’t pianists by nature, such as guitarists wanting to add MIDI functionality to their setup. If you need an ultra-compact controller that slips into a backpack, several manufacturers also make controllers with synth-action mini keys.
Aftertouch – do I need it?
Closely watch your favorite pro keyboardist lay down a synth lead line that ends in a bit of tasty vibrato, and you may witness a finger leaning deeper into the key, providing the extra key pressure that triggers an aftertouch event. Aftertouch is a convenient, ergonomic way to add expressiveness to your playing. The alternative, of course, is commandeering your left hand to rock your controller’s pitch wheel or joystick (not possible if you’re using it to comp under your lead). Typically found on higher-end controllers, aftertouch is one of those features you don’t know you need until you’ve used it.
Aftertouch comes in two flavors, monophonic (channel aftertouch) and polyphonic. Channel aftertouch typically employs a “rail” that can be pressured by any key, and it sends an average MIDI value for all held keys. Polyphonic aftertouch lets you vary a parameter on each note independently, based on the pressure on the key after the note is struck. Because it’s expensive to design and manufacture, generates a lot of MIDI information, and requires a certain dexterity on the part of the player to take full advantage of it, polyphonic aftertouch is found on relatively few keyboards.
While all modern controller keyboards transmit MIDI via USB, for more complex setups, there are two other types of jacks that can make your life easier. Having conventional 5-pin MIDI DIN jacks on your controller lets you connect and control external MIDI instruments such as hardware synths, while CV and Gate outputs will even let you play and modulate vintage (non-MIDI) synth gear.
Almost all keyboard controllers are equipped with a sustain (switch-type) pedal jack, but basic models usually don’t offer one for a continuous controller pedal. Having an expression pedal in your rig can make your performances significantly more, well, expressive, letting you modulate any controllable parameter in real time – all without taking your hands off the keys! Where higher-end keyboard controllers will typically let you assign a MIDI CC (continuous controller) number to the pedal jack, most inexpensive controllers’ jacks are preset to send either CC 7 (volume) or CC 11 (expression). So, if your keyboard has a fixed-CC volume pedal input and you’d like to sweep a filter that’s expecting to see CC 11, you’d have to reset the mapping of that parameter in your software (a simple task if your software has a “MIDI learn” mode)
Sone keyboardists have no problem using their black-and-whites for playing percussion. Others detest it, preferring the supple feel of velocity-sensing performance pads. Many of today’s keyboard controllers sport eight or more pads that you can use to play drums and trigger loops. Some pads even sense aftertouch. A bank of pads (along with knobs, faders, buttons, and LCD screen) takes up real estate on your keyboard’s top deck, making for a larger (and heavier) controller, so you should get out the tape measure and factor your workspace into your decision.
Alternatives to the Standard Keyboard
Some controllers go beyond the standard definition of “keyboard.” An excellent example is the so-called “keytar,” a strap-on device that allows live keyboardists the chance to step out from behind their rigs and claim some of the glory that normally gets lavished on guitar players.
Popular with hip-hop producers and remixers, pad devices allow MIDI samples to be triggered at the tap of a pad. They’re great for programming drumbeats.
Another device that abandons the “keyboard” concept entirely is the wind controller, which gives wind players access to MIDI sound modules and software.
What to Look for…
What to Look for…
Key count: Do you need 25, 49, 61, or 88 keys?
Keyboard Action Type: An important choice! Synth, semi-weighted, or weighted hammer action?
Aftertouch – Do you need it?
Faders, buttons, and knobs: How many, layout; Automapping?
I/O: MIDI via USB, iOS; conventional 5-pin MIDI jacks, CV/Gate outputs
Performance pads: How many, feel, aftertouch-sensing?