There are a number of reasons why a MIDI keyboard can be useful. From time conservation to more creative control on real-time effects and volume adjustments, they help us, producers, big time. One fairly esoteric benefit MIDI keyboards provide is the feeling of human touch but I wouldn’t say it’s the biggest one.
Probably the most amazing feature is the ability to trigger and sound with the press of a key – or drum pad if yours has one. I could talk for hours about all of the ways a solid MIDI controller can help you. That said, I think I can put it to you in a simple way that would really explain it well.
MIDI keyboards are very useful tools for music producers because they provide more range, more octaves, velocity-control, weighted keys, drum pads, volume faders, and knobs. They’re also designed as pianos which are easy to compose with due to the way the keys repeat themselves across the octaves.
Let’s take an in-depth look at MIDI keyboards and what they provide. Most people want to know if they really need a MIDI keyboard and if so, why. People also want to know if they need special software and if MIDI keyboards make sounds by themselves. We’ll explore all of these questions and more down below.
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Why Every Music Producer Should Get A MIDI Keyboard
There are a whole host of things MIDI keyboards and MIDI controllers can do. This article just scratches the surface of what they’re capable of. There’s also a big difference between premium and entry-level models in terms of their quality and capabilities.
That said, here is a short table I made that describes some of these features, as well as a brief explanation of some of them afterward.
|Common MIDI Keyboard Features|
|Allows you to trigger and play virtual instruments and sample libraries|
|Often includes drum pads|
|Constructed as a piano which is more conducive to composition|
|Volume faders, knobs, potentiometers, endless encoders, and other time-saving controls|
|Allows for velocity and dynamics|
|Premium keyboards have weighted or hammer action keys|
|Purchase often comes with downloads and plugins|
|You can learn to play the piano on a MIDI keyboard|
|MIDI keyboards are portable|
|MIDI technology, including older keyboards, is usually compatible with newer technology and computers|
|Contain sequencers and/or arpeggiators|
|Often come with loops and/or sample libraries|
|USB powered – power adapters aren’t usually necessary (although it depends on the model)|
|Many MIDI keyboards are class-compliant, ie, “plug and play”|
|Come in many types, including 25 key, 49 key, 61 key, and 88 key units|
|Sometimes Include LED screens with timing, BPM, key signature, or harmonic information|
|MIDI foot controllers can be used as well|
|Most models include pitch modulation and vibrato|
|Breath controllers can be used for different synth tones|
|Often includes transport controls like play, rewind, stop and fast-forward|
|Programmable with MIDI CC information|
1) MIDI Keyboards Provide a Human Touch
A key element in the creation and production of a song is the connection to a feel or a groove. Modern music production uses computers which are a great, quick way to create music. However, without paying special attention to the feel and groove of a song it can easily sound robotic and mechanical.
If you’ve ever heard a song and wondered why it sounded boring or flat, it’s possible it just doesn’t have much passion in it. The song could’ve been made by painting MIDI notes into a Digital Audio Workstation/DAW – (without much attention paid to the velocity and other attributes of each MIDI note).
In other words, I feel that a MIDI keyboard is one way to help with this because then you can record in real-time. As a result, you’ll get around being too grid-focused. Natural velocity (notes the player has struck hard and soft) is another reason.
2) MIDI Keyboards Have Velocity Control
A MIDI keyboard can play a crucial role in adding velocity and dynamics to your tracks. One example would be the piano. You wouldn’t want to press every key with the same amount of pressure because that gets old real quick. Ideally, you want a track with soft and hard parts. Quiet and loud.
Obviously, not every song needs dynamics like this – hardcore punk and metalcore are great examples. But knowing how to add loud and soft parts, fast and slow sections, etc. is a great way to make your tracks sound great. This is one reason why automation is so useful as well (my guide on that).
3) Recording In Real Time With A Keyboard Increases Timing Variation (Less On-The-Grid)
As I mentioned in passing earlier, one of the ways MIDI keyboards add a human feel is by varying quantization and velocity. When music producers work in a DAW and use the mouse to paint MIDI notes the default setting is to snap the notes to the grid.
This is so everything is perfectly lined up and arranged into the individual cells in each row of the arrangement grid. For the most part, it’s common practice – and a good idea – to keep most of the elements of a track lined up and quantized (here’s my guide on that).
Quantization is one reason to use a DAW, to begin with (also because of VSTs, sample libraries, and how convenient it is to record). However, the fact of the matter is real-world musicians aren’t computers.
When they play there are small differences in dynamics between each note. Put another way, there are variations in the amount of pressure applied to the key or percussive instrument.
There also are variations of breath for woodwind, brass, and other instruments. These deviations from perfection are part of what I’m talking about when I say “human feel” or “human touch.”
These slight variations exist for each note individually and can also exist in the context of a loop, or repeated segment of audio, e.g. a drum loop.
MIDI keyboards digitally communicate these variations and slight imperfections from the real world to the computer both on the individual note level and also when creating and capturing loops.
It is possible to achieve similar results using a mouse, computer keyboard, and DAW. The MIDI keyboard is quite a bit easier and faster though because it actually happens in real-time.
Internet Money has a great video called How To Humanize Your Melodies you can watch to see what the process can look like.
4) They Can Be Used To Trigger Any VST Instrument or Sample Library
The main purpose of a MIDI keyboard is to send messages from the MIDI device to another device, in this case, the computer. The MIDI keyboard sends information about the pressed key of the adjusted control.
It also provides information about the interaction including the velocity. The computer maps these MIDI events to a VST Instrument in a DAW. There are also other software applications that you can use with your MIDI keyboard.
For example, some MIDI keyboard manufacturers provide software that you can install on your computer or laptop and use with it.
In most cases, VST Instruments are synths or digital representations of real-world instruments. Take the piano or trumpet, for example. There are also Virtual Drum Machine VSTs that can be used with MIDI keyboards.
Some MIDI keyboards have Drum Pads on them and you can directly map the pads on the MIDI keyboards to pads in the Drum Pad VST. It’s like you have an 808 or real-world drum machine.
Using a MIDI keyboard with a piano or synth VST essentially provides a low-cost and flexible way to use and even learn a key style instrument.
Another cool use of MIDI keyboards is using them for sampler VSTs. This enables you to map keys on the MIDI keyboard to sound files on your computer through the samples. You could even map the entire MIDI keyboard to sounds of your choosing. I showed how to do this recently for FL Studio. Here’s the video:
Combining a VST and MIDI keyboard is a powerful way to add a nice human touch to your songs. There are thousands of options, some of which I outlined in my guide to the best free and premium plugins.
5) MIDI Keyboards Are An Inexpensive & Flexible Way to Learn the Piano
There are many different types of MIDI keyboards and controllers on the market. You could even build your own. Price ranges for MIDI keyboards are extremely reasonable and provide an excellent entry for beginners.
Coupled with PianoForAll (from Robin Hall’s site), you can be well on your way to learning the piano – and without spending a ton of money.
A few that are worth looking into are the M-Audio Keystation 49 (on Amazon) and the Arturia KeyLab 61 (also on Amazon). Some people recommend 25-key keyboards like the Akai MPK 25-Key, however, I say go big or go home.
Especially if you’re trying to learn the whole piano. I asked Robin Hall about this for my other article on pianos vs keyboards and he said that a 61-key keyboard was crucial if you’re serious about learning.
6) MIDI Keyboards Give You Way More Range and Octaves
The reason I bought one the day I did was due to a lack of range. The first keyboard I ever had was the Acorn Masterkey 49, and it was well worth the money. Only having 2 octaves makes it difficult for me to make the melodies I want.
A large keyboard, even just a 49-key unit, gives access to much lower and higher notes than a smaller keyboard. You can then play a C Major 7 add9 chord, for instance, while using notes at many different octaves. Of course, you can do the same thing just by painting the notes in the piano roll, but I prefer actually playing it.
Another interesting point to make is that a foundational skill in a producer’s tool belt is the understanding of basic music theory. Learning to play the piano is a great way to develop this skill.
Attaining even a basic level ability to play chords and notes can dramatically increase the quality of your work. Understanding notes, scales, and chords are essential for any serious musician (here’s my guide on how to start). Although, you can certainly get by without it.
Many MIDI keyboard manufacturers provide some types of basic software that can be used to learn the basics of music theory even without a DAW.
7) Premium Keyboards Often Have Weighted Keys
We’ve already brushed on this topic, but it deserves mention on its own. Simply put, high-end MIDI keyboards usually have weighted keys. The weighted keys provide much better control over the velocity.
This velocity and pressure information is sent from the MIDI keyboard to the computer. This information is crucial for providing professional studio-quality sound and dynamics.
Most MIDI keyboards have some type of velocity and pressure information that is sent when you press on the keys. The issue with the lower-end models is they feel cheap and finicky – like a toy.
Like I said in my article on the MKII vs MKIII, some people used to complain about this on the AKAI MPK Mini 3, however, they’ve since improved the key bed.
The response from the keys can be slugging to springy to flat on some of the cheaper options. These are still extremely useful devices; they just don’t offer the same level of control and response. Not only that, but they’re just not as fun to use when they feel cheap.
Well-designed MIDI keyboards do more than provide an excellent experience and contribute to the creative flow of the music creation process. They also capture the essence of the atmosphere and emotion from the recording session.
Believe it or not the emotion from the player of an instrument translates digitally through MIDI. The quality of a MIDI device is generally relative to the level of expressiveness that can be generated, captured, and digitized for playback.
This is one of the times where paying additional money for higher-end equipment can really make a substantial difference. I think a great MIDI keyboard is certainly worth the money – no question.
8) MIDI Keyboards Often Come with Drum Pads
Many producers and musicians enjoy using a drum machine to make beats. Some of them even prefer using a drum machine. A MIDI Keyboard with a drum pad provides a very similar experience.
Depending on your needs, having a drum pad may not be mission-critical. If you’re primarily a pianist wanting to record playing sessions, then the cost of an added drum pad might be better spent on weighted keys. On the other hand, if your main focus is on beat making then having a drum pad could be quite a bit more important.
What I will say about drum pads is they’re an incredible amount of fun. I own an AKAI MPD 226 (on Amazon) and it’s great for programming beats and rhythm sections.
I know people like Deadmau5, for example, prefer using the piano roll, but I know myself – and others – enjoy actually smacking on the drum pad like it’s a real-life kit. It’s also a lot more entertaining and interesting to watch if you’re into creating social media content for TikTok – just one example (here’s my guide to that, by the way).
9) Keyboards and Pianos Are Easier to Compose Music With
As I said earlier, the familiarity and classic design of a piano has been around for quite some time. The concept of a piano keyboard is widely understood and recognized. The piano was created to make music. The computer, on the other hand, wasn’t.
There is a lot that can be done without a MIDI keyboard. It can however be very time-consuming and difficult to translate an exact idea in your head into a DAW. For some, there is a much more natural feeling and process involved when using a piano keyboard.
Using a computer keyboard and mouse to make music can feel restricted as well. Navigating a DAW to change the octave can be cumbersome sometimes. It can be difficult to play notes from two octaves that are far apart. MIDI keyboards resolve this issue by putting all the notes right at your fingertips.
Not only that, but it’s a lot easier to actually see the relationships between notes on a keyboard. For instance, I know when I think of a C Major chord, I don’t envision the way it looks in a piano roll. I think of how it looks on the piano or on the guitar.
You can see intervals between notes much clearer. You can see the diatonic scales on the keyboard easier, and the accidentals are also a lot easier, ie, the black keys.
But, on the other hand, I imagine if you’ve used nothing but a piano roll your whole life, you could probably say that it’s easier. I understand some of this is subjective, but if you ask me, I’d say that the piano is just more conducive to composition.
10) MIDI Keyboards Have Other Controls Like Volume Faders and Pots
There’s an entire assortment of options of controls for MIDI keyboards. Some of the controls available are knobs, faders, buttons, and pads – usually in the form of potentiometers or endless encoders.
Each of these controls can be linked to nearly any control of the DAW of VST. Access to volume, rewind, fast-forward, record, playback, etc, can lead to a better overall music creation experience.
Using a mouse to add automation to emulate real-time changes can take a long time. Controls present the opportunity to capture and save the real-time automation from a recording session. Capturing the real-time adjustments from the controls can help create a more natural-sounding song.
MIDI keyboards that have controls can also be used in live performances along with and in place of synths and real instruments. There are some fantastic synths available in many DAWs and the selection found in terms of VSTs is huge. Ableton and other applications also offer functionality tailored for live performances with a MIDI keyboard.
11) Keyboards Make It Easier To Learn Music Theory Like Intervals and Scales
Real pianos are usually huge, heavy, and expensive. MIDI keyboards can basically function like pianos. They are a bit more versatile than traditional pianos and they’re much lighter. Learning basic music theory is exactly the same on a MIDI keyboard as it is on a piano.
Like I said earlier, the keyboard is more conducive to learning music theory and how music generally works. Just a few things that you can learn are: how to form chords, the difference between a sharp and flat, which keys play which notes, scales, and what intervals are why they are important.
It can be helpful to learn how to count out measures and play melodies and also get a feel for timing and rhythm, although, I would argue that the DAW grid is also very good for that.
12) MIDI Keyboards Are High Value for Low Dollar Cost for Beginners
|Entry Level||Pro-Consumer Level||Professional|
|AKAI MPK Mini 3||Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol A49||Arturia KeyLab 88 MKII|
|Acorn Masterkey 49||Alesis V49||Akai Professional MPK261|
|Alesis V25||M-Audio Keystation 61 MK3||M-Audio Hammer 88 Pro|
|M-Audio Keystation 32||Arturia KeyLab 49 Essential||Novation SL MkIII|
|$50-$150||$250 – $500||$500 +|
Using a MIDI keyboard turns your computer into a very powerful and flexible synthesizer. The amount of DAWs, VSTs, and standalone applications that can be used with a MIDI keyboard is endless. Even if you’re only using freeware with a MIDI keyboard there is an infinite amount of sounds you can play.
Most instruments are fairly expensive, at least anything of any quality. They’re also limited to the sounds they play. A piano doesn’t make the same sounds that a guitar makes.
Synths can bridge the gap but the ones that produce quality sounds can be expensive. The lower-end synths are also usually somewhat limited in the number of different types of sounds they can make.
For the cost of a lower-to-mid range MIDI keyboard, you can have a basic piano and a moderately sized selection of synth options. Another cool thing as you get more audio production software you can use it with the MIDI keyboard and it can be like getting a whole new synth.
13) They Increase Productivity & Speed Up Workflow
Some of the tasks that can take a substantial amount of time can be accomplished much faster when using a MIDI keyboard. For example, quickly creating several possibilities for a melody of a song.
Several different versions of a melody can be quickly played and captured with a MIDI keyboard. As mentioned, the time to manually adjust the velocity for each note with a mouse can really add up. MIDI keyboards can help.
Decreasing the time it takes to create a song with MIDI keyboards is also possible because they provide instantaneous feedback. Having the ability to tweak effects and other attributes for a sound in real-time with physical controls is a game-changer.
Regarding drum programming, you can also save time when using a MIDI keyboard, especially if it has a drum pad. Rather than using the mouse to click and add every single hi-hat, snare, kick, and other percussion element you can actually play the drums similar to a drum set.
I know my AKAI MPD 226, for instance, has a setting on it where it can program a ton of hi-hats all at once. FL Studio can also do this, but if you’re using a DAW that doesn’t have that feature by default, a keyboard can do it for you.
14) MIDI Keyboards are Portable – You Can Take Them Anywhere
Live performances are an area where a MIDI keyboard can really shine. Dragging a drum machine, a few synths, and turntables to shows can become a huge chore.
The versatility and flexibility of a MIDI keyboard paired with a laptop and compatible software can provide an abyss of musical options. The VST market is gigantic and offers many instruments that are either modeled after ones from the real world or replicate them.
Imagine being able to access an 808 for one song and then a MOOG for another, without the actual equipment. Many of those old units are heavy and valuable and you might not want to take them to a live venue.
15) MIDI Keyboards Are Easy to Set Up
Although it depends on the model, most MIDI keyboards are what’s called “class-compliant.” This means you can usually plug them directly into your computer via USB and they’ll work perfectly.
It depends on what model you’ve purchased and what DAW you have, but most of them are totally compatible with all kinds of computers and DAWs. The video above – and my article here – shows you how to do it in GarageBand, but it’s not terribly different from other DAWs.
The only time I’ve had an issue with compatibility was when I tried using a Korg control pad – (the name of the product escapes me now). The great thing about MIDI keyboards is that even electric keyboards that have MIDI IN/OUT ports on them are also functional with new technology and computers.
The nice thing about this is that all you need – usually – is a simple audio interface with MIDI IN/OUT on the back of it. The Pre Sonus Audio Box 96 (on Amazon) has this capability, and the older Scarletts did as well.
With all that said though, there is one thing you should know about MIDI keyboards and I’ll talk about that now.
Do MIDI Keyboards Make Sound On Their Own?
Some MIDI keyboards actually do contain what are known as internal sound banks. Internal sound banks are collections of audio that can be played and heard from the MIDI keyboard without having it connected to a computer, laptop, or another device. One example of this is the AKAI Professional MPK Mini Play.
Standard MIDI keyboards can usually be purchased for under $100. Standard MIDI keyboards don’t have onboard audio and need to be connected to a computer to function. As I said before, some manufacturers provide basic software with the MIDI keyboard that an individual can learn a key-styled instrument with.
On the whole, though, most MIDI keyboards can’t play music on their own. They have to be connected to a device that has sample libraries capable of triggering via MIDI control.
Important Things to Note About Using A MIDI Keyboard As A Beginner
1) Using A MIDI Keyboard Won’t Necessarily Make You A Better Producer – It’s Just Easier
If you’re thinking about getting a MIDI Keyboard is your salvation to better music, you’re probably not thinking about it the right way. On the other hand, they do make things a lot easier, and I mean a lot, due to the increase in range and additional controls.
If you’ll recall what I said earlier, I bought a MIDI keyboard because I use to make beats with just GarageBand’s two-octave musical typing feature. It worked fine, but getting a 49-key keyboard allowed for so much more versatility.
1) PianoForAll (from their site)
2) M-Audio Keystation 49 (on Amazon)
3) Arturia KeyLab 61 (on Amazon)