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Guide to MIDI Keyboard Controllers

In the age of modern virtual instruments, a good MIDI keyboard controller is one of the most important pieces of equipment you will purchase for your home studio. In this article, I will explain what MIDI keyboards are, and provide a few short reviews of some of the popular choices.

Before we go further, we should first explain the concept of MIDI. MIDI stands for musical instrument digital interface. When you are recording in MIDI, you are essentially recording every part of a performance, except for the actual voice of the instrument. The voice is the characteristics of a sound that tell you what instrument you are hearing. So when you are recording MIDI, you are recording information like when a note is played, how long the note is played, which note on the scale is being played, how strongly the note is being played, etc.

What makes MIDI great is that because you are recording everything except for the instrument voice, you can change the instrument after you are finished recording. Say you record a piano performance with MIDI, you can decide later to have the part played with an organ instead of a piano. This is where virtual instruments come in. A virtual instrument is a plugin that works with your recording software (Pro Tools, Logic, Reaper, Ableton, etc.) that contains all of the possible sounds for a given instrument. So for a virtual piano, sound recording of every single key are held within the plugin. When you play a recorded MIDI performance, the MIDI data tell the virtual instrument plugin when to trigger a note, how long to hold the note, which note to play, etc.

If you think about any standard keyboard, all of the sounds the keyboard makes are held in sound banks stored in the keyboard’s memory. With a MIDI keyboard, there is no internal sound bank. Instead, the keyboard is connected to the computer that your recording software and virtual plugins are on.  Essentially, your computer takes the place of the keyboard sound bank.

Another really nice feature of most MIDI keyboards is that they can have different features that can be used to control various aspects of your recording software. For example, instead of clicking on record within the recording software to start recording, you can use transport control buttons on the MIDI keyboard to start and stop recording. Other things you can control include volume, pan, switching active track, and more.

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