MIDI Controllers: An Actionable Guide to a Versatile Tool

Getting to know MIDI controllers

A MIDI controller is a type of input device used to send MIDI data to a computer or another type of device. In simple terms, it triggers sounds from an external source. A MIDI controller essentially allows you to control musical hardware or software in a similar way to using a keyboard or mouse to control your PC.

There are various types of MIDI controllers, from keyboard controllers to drum pads, and they work with all kinds of sources, including synthesisers, mixing desks and virtual instruments within a DAW.

What does a MIDI controller do?

A MIDI controller enables you to perform music on a digital device in an audio language a computer or some other kind of device understands. As the same suggests, MIDI controllers harness something called MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). This is a universal communication protocol that communicates a musical performance in a digital language, and is used to send commands from a MIDI controller to other devices.

Instead of sound itself, MIDI sends information and instructions about how notes and patterns are performed. MIDI therefore allows digital music equipment to communicate with each other. Sent as binary, MIDI information is translated to what you see or hear — for example, the playing of a note or the change of a device setting.

Why use a MIDI controller?

While it’s certainly possible to create music on a laptop using a mouse and a QWERTY keyboard, this isn’t exactly ideal. Clicking in notes manually or attempting to play them on computer keys may just about work for a rough demo, but for anything else, a MIDI controller is essential.

Using a MIDI controller like a keyboard or a drum pad is not only a lot more tactile, but features like faders for expression and velocity sensitivity and built-in high-quality piano sounds, synth sounds, orchestral sounds and more simply make the music production process a million times better.

Types of MIDI controller

Keyboard controllers

The most common kind of MIDI controller, keyboard controllers naturally mimic the form of a keyboard instrument, though some are more akin to a synth or traditional piano. Keyboard controllers also differ in size, with some having more keys than others, while you can also invest in kinds with more sensitive keys and aftertouch to allow you to play more expressively.

Drum pads

Drum pad MIDI controllers — also referred to as touchpad MIDI controllers — are most similar to drums musically, and feature touch-sensitive pads to tap out beats, trigger samples, control software, and more. Many come in the form of grid controllers, while others look like bonafide drums and even come with drum sticks.

Fader controllers

Fader controllers allow you to control parameters inside your musical software or hardware using faders. This makes them useful for managing software mixing desks or sliding parameters for those who don’t want to use a mouse to do so.

DJ controllers

A DJ controller connects with your DJ software, enabling you to control it with a variety of hands-on methods. These typically include platters, mixers, pads, and effects — plus buttons to browse your playlists.

Guitar and wind instrument controllers

As the name suggests, these MIDI controllers are built in the form of guitars and wind instruments, converting your strumming or breath into digital notes.

How to choose a MIDI controller

Consider your needs

The main thing you need to think about is your requirements. Are you looking for a specific function or do you want a MIDI controller for more general use? In the former case, a more focused controller would make sense — like a DJ controller for use with DJ software, for example — whereas an all-rounder is the best option in the latter scenario.

Consider your budget

The more features a MIDI controller has, the more it is likely to cost. Consequently, you need to square your requirements with your budget. Closely consider whether you really need all of the bells and whistles the top-end models offer, and if so, consider buying a second-hand MIDI controller to save money.

Read reviews

As is the case with any tech purchase, the quality of different manufacturers differs wildly. As such, it’s vital that you check out a range of reviews on a MIDI controller before making a purchase. They often don’t come cheap, so doing your due diligence is essential.

How to use a MIDI controller

Connect the controller to your computer

There are two main ways to connect your MIDI controller to your computer: either via a USB or through the controller’s MIDI IN and MIDI OUT port. Of course, laptops only have the former type of connection, so you’ll need to invest in a MIDI cable or MIDI interface to be able to connect the two devices if your controller doesn’t have a USB port.

Install MIDI drivers on your computer

Like with any form of USB hardware, your computer needs the controller’s drivers to recognise it so it can send and receive messages from the device. Fortunately, most USB devices have these drivers built inside of them, however, if this isn’t the case, you’ll need to download the drivers from the hardware provider.

Configure the MIDI controller

Next, you’ll need to configure the MIDI controller with your DAW. The steps are different depending on the DAW, but generally involve the following:

  1. In your DAW, search for something like “inputs”, “midi inputs”, “midi instruments” or “devices”.
  2. Look for a list of available MIDI devices — you may need to enable the MIDI inputs before you can use the controller.
  3. Click on the option referring to your controller — its brand or model will typically be displayed.
  4. Ensure your speakers are on and test that everything is set up by playing some notes on your controller.

Map the controls

MIDI mapping allows you to assign parts of your controller to controls in your DAW for in-depth customisation. For instance, you can assign a certain knob a specific sound or FX from your DAW. This saves you from having to tweak a filter via the computer and mouse, but instead by turning the knob. Check out this guide to MIDI mapping by Ableton to learn how to do so.

New and innovative ways to use MIDI controllers

Controlling hardware remotely

It’s now possible to control your collaborator’s DAW using your MIDI controller from wherever you are. Audiomovers’s LISTENTO supports real-time MIDI streaming, enabling you to connect your DAWs and stream from your collaborator’s laptop remotely.

Remote DAW sessions

Our LISTENTO plugin also enables you to stream your own MIDI and audio simultaneously via your DAW. Your collaborators can use their web browser, LISTENTO mobile app or DAW to access the session via a link, further enabling real-time remote collaboration.

MIDI controllers, in summary

The benefits of using MIDI controllers

From facilitating more natural music recording to offering vast options for customisation, there are so many reasons to use MIDI controllers during music production. With plugins like LISTENTO also transforming the scope of such tech, the possibilities for musicians using MIDI controllers truly are endless.

The future of MIDI controllers

The advent of MIDI has made music production significantly simpler, with the release of MIDI 1.0 allowing us to make music from wherever we are via MIDI controllers. With the ongoing development of MIDI 2.0, however, which offers features like two-way conversations and 32-bit resolution, expect MIDI controllers to increasingly make our lives even easier.