Hardware, MIDI Controllers

How to Use A MIDI Keyboard Without A Computer [SIMPLE]

Written By : Andrew Siemon

There are a few ways of using a MIDI keyboard without even hooking it up to a computer.

Generally speaking, you can use a MIDI keyboard without a computer by connecting it either to a mobile device or a MIDI sound module. You can also use a standard electric piano with MIDI capability or a MIDI keyboard with a built-in speaker and sound library like the AKAI MPK Mini Play.

5 Ways Of Using A MIDI Keyboard Without A Computer

M-Audio Oxygen Pro 61 - How to Use A MIDI Keyboard Without A Computer [Or A DAW]
The M-Audio Oxygen Pro 61 and a standard MacBook Pro with GarageBand running

A MIDI controller is just that – a controller. They’re devices used to send and receive MIDI information to and from computers. In most instances, they’re used primarily for sending rather than receiving MIDI but they can be used for both if you really wanted.

In other words, we can use a MIDI keyboard, drum pad, or even a MIDI guitar to control computer software like VSTs, plugins, sound libraries, samplers, and digital audio workstations.

MIDI devices can also be used to communicate with each other, hence the name ”Musical Instrument Digital Interface.” They can also be used as solo devices if you’ve got access to the gear which makes this possible.

For example, there are some MIDI controllers that actually come with a built-in speaker which means you can use a stand-alone device for creating backing tracks, jam tracks, background music, or really for any purpose you can think of.

One example is the AKAI MPK Mini Play. This is a device based on the classic MIDI keyboard of choice for beginners everywhere: the AKAI MPK Mini.

1) With the AKAI MPK Mini Play

The AKAI MPK Mini Play - How to Use the AKAI MPK Mini Without A Computer
The AKAI MPK Mini Play MKIII – this device can be used on its own, without any other software or devices.

In my other article on the AKAI MPK Mini Play, I explained that it was very possible to use the MPK Mini Play without a computer because it is. That’s what it was designed for.

The speaker that’s shown in the image above is where it outputs sound. All you really need to use the AKAI MPK Mini Play as a stand-alone device is 3 double-A batteries and the willingness to experiment.

I own the AKAI MPK Mini and it’s a really solid device, especially the 3rd generation (MKIII). With that in mind, I highly recommend you get the MKIII version of the AKAI MPK Mini Play because it’s a much better iteration than the previous model.

In case you don’t know, there are three version of the AKAI MPK Mini, the first edition, the MKII and the MKIII. The AKAI MPK Mini Play also has two versions, the MKII and the MKIII. You want to make sure that you get the MKIII edition which is the one I linked to in the image above.

On the whole, there isn’t a lot to say here other than that this MIDI keyboard works the way it’s supposed to. In layman’s terms, the AKAI MPK Mini Play is like a tiny electric piano and drum machine that can also function as a MIDI controller.

It’s super cool and I wish I would’ve bought it instead of the regular MPK Mini. Regarding the sounds, I think they’re pretty good considering the price. But you can check out this YouTube video here to see what this thing looks and sounds like.

The guy in the YouTube video said he wasn’t crazy about its sounds but I think the in-built sound library sounds great considering how much it costs. Yes, the MPK Mini Play is pretty sick, but If you’ve got an iPhone or an iPad, you have many tools at your disposal too.

2) Use A Mobile Device (iPhone, Android, iPad, Tablet)

iPad/iPhone - How To Use A MIDI Keyboard Without A Computer
These two diagrams show you how easy it is to connect an AKAI MPK Mini to an iPhone and an iPad as well as what gear you need to do so.

Most developers have already released a mobile version of their DAW, or they’re at least in the process of getting one out there.

FL Studio Mobile is easy to set up with a MIDI controller (with my guide) and there are others too, including the notorious GarageBand iOS which is great. As I’ve said in my guide comparing macOS to iOS GarageBand, I think the iOS version isn’t far away anymore from being superior.

Apple continues to release sample packs, drum kit collections, brand new synthesizers and other updates to GarageBand iOS. And they do so quite regularly, unlike GarageBand macOS which gets an update every 3-4 years I would say, possibly even less.

There are even rumors that Logic Pro X could be coming to the iPad sometime in the future but it hasn’t been officially announced yet. That’ll be a good day when that does happen. Connecting to GarageBand iOS is super easy too, and none of this stuff is really time, energy, or gear-intensive.

In most cases, you need just a few things to get set up and you probably already have most of the stuff down below anyway, so no worries.

What You Need to Set Up A MIDI Controller With A Mobile Device

  • USB-C Cable
  • USB 2.0 (Printer Cable)
  • USB/Camera Adapter
  • Audio Interface
  • An External Power Bank (for older iPhone models)
  • Mobile Device

I just bought the latest iPad with the M1 chip and 1TB of storage space so I’m privy to using the iPad for my DAW instead of the MacBook. It’s brilliant because the AKAI MPK Mini and my iPad are small enough that I can easily take this stuff with me.

The next thing you can get is what’s called a MIDI Sound Module, and these have been around for much longer than iPads and the AKAI MPK Mini.

3) A MIDI Sound Module

Roland SC-7 MIDI Sound Module - How to Use A MIDI Keyboard Without A Computer [Or A DAW]
An old-school MIDI Sound Module from Roland (taken from Wikimedia Commons)

A MIDI Sound Module functions as a bank for all kinds of sounds. If I’m not mistaken, the Roland SC-7 MIDI Sound Module was released in 1992. At that point, computers weren’t very powerful.

The sound cards weren’t very good and the computers needed as much processing power for basic functions, so an external sound module was a good way of relieving your CPU and soundcard of that duty.

In simple terms, the Roland SC-7 is a device that you connect to your computer and your speakers. It’s responsible for taking your PC’s MIDI information and turning it into sound. You can see what that sounds like in this YouTube video.

I’ve time-stamped it for you so you can hear the difference between the PC’s sound card/module and the Roland SC-7.

You could drastically improve the sound of your computer games this way because an external sound module could be much, much better than the one inside the computer. So how does this relate to what you need today? MIDI sound modules have MIDI IN ports on the back of them.

You have to connect your MIDI controller to the sound module, and then connect the sound module to your speakers. This means you’ll be able to create music with your controller and sound module without a computer. You could probably find sound modules that have a built-in speaker too.

The Roland SC-7 is probably not a great purchase at this point because it’s 30 years old, but there are some others on the market. That said, the thing about them is they’re quite expensive, usually ranging anywhere from beginner-grade ($400) to professional-grade: ($1,000+).

You can get a cheap one like the Miditech PianoBox though. The next one on the list is the standard electric piano. Most quality electric pianos will have MIDI IN and MIDI OUT ports on the back, which means they can receive and send MIDI information.

4) With An Electric Piano [That Has MIDI Ports]

My Yamaha Keyboard - How to Use A MIDI Keyboard Without A Computer [Or A DAW]
Here’s my old electric piano that I got from my grandfather after he passed away – the Yamaha PSR-640

Probably the best way of having a MIDI controller and a stand-alone keyboard is just by using an old-fashioned electric keyboard. In the YouTube video seen down below, I demonstrated how you would turn a standard electric keyboard into a MIDI controller.

How to Connect An Old MIDI Keyboard To Your Computer

They work great, and the nice thing is that almost any old electric piano can be used in this way. As long as you’ve got a MIDI OUT port on the back of it, you’ll be able to send MIDI information from the piano to your audio interface to control your DAW (and it works for any DAW).

And when you want to use it as a stand-alone device, you just turn it on as you normally would because they have speakers right in them. Connecting an electric piano to your DAW (my guide) is super easy and using it as a regular piano is even easier.

Another great thing about using an electric piano is, unlike MIDI sound modules, there is a huge market for them. You can find probably thousands of models of electric keyboards from different manufacturers.

Just make sure you’ve chosen one with MIDI IN/OUT ports because that’s what counts in this context. The next thing on the list has to do with MIDI technology more generally. MIDI is super useful technology and it has been around for ages.

5) You Can Control Drum Machines, Synthesizers, And Other Electric Instruments With MIDI

This is the Roland TR-808 drum machine – one of the most iconic drum machines ever made. This machine can also be controlled with a MIDI device.

There’s no reason why you can’t also control an electric keyboard, synthesizer, and drum machine with a MIDI controller through the MIDI IN port. Essentially, any music-making device with MIDI capability can be controlled with another MIDI device.

As I explained in my guide on the pros and cons of MIDI, MIDI devices can be used to speak to and control each other. You can also control many of them at once, and not just one at a time which was demonstrated really well in Landr’s YouTube video on MIDI.

This is part of what makes MIDI so special. It’s like a common language used by many devices and it goes all the way back to 1982, so much of your old gear could probably be used in this way. All-in-all, I’m hope you learned something from this. If there’s a will to do something, there’s probably a way.

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Important Things To Note About Using A MIDI Keyboard Without A Computer

1) You Can Also Use A Bluetooth Adapter To Connect MIDI Devices

In case you didn’t know, there are also Bluetooth adapters like the Yamaha BT01 that you can use to connect your MIDI controller to another device via Bluetooth. In other words, you don’t even need to use a MIDI cable if you don’t want to.

2) It’s Better To Use The Device As A Controller

Sure, it’s possible to rig your MIDI controller up to other devices but I think it’s ultimately best to use them for what they’re designed for which is to control VSTs, plugins, transport controls, and other features right inside of a DAW. This is what they excel at, but that’s just my opinion.

Andrew Siemon is the principal creator of ProducerSociety.com, a website dedicated to all things music, including music production, music theory, recording, and how to use the most popular DAWs. Starting out as a metal guitarist, Andrew has since moved into other areas of music production including hip-hop and fusion

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