Buttons, Dials, Keys, and Pads Galore…
Today we’re going to look at keyboard controllers (which are referred to by many names – USB Controller, MIDI Controller, etc). These are almost always connected to a computer via USB, and enable the user to control the instruments contained within a piece of software. There are a few different things to look out for, so here’s our guide to choosing a keyboard controller.
Handy home setups with all the trimmings
Computer-based studios are wonderful things. With a half-decent PC, laptop or tablet, you have everything you need to create fully-fledged studio productions, from the comfort of your own home. Using an external audio interface elevates things further, allowing you to connect instruments like guitars, bass or keyboards so you can record their output.
Often, the software you use to record – known as a Digital Audio Workstation – will come complete with a selection of instruments built in, like pianos, synths, and organs. Certain DAWs, like Ableton Live, go further and offer up drums and all other kinds of fun stuff to work with.
The issue comes, however, when it reaches the point where you want to ‘play’ the music. It’s all very well tapping notes into a MIDI sequencer, but you can’t beat the experience of actually performing a piece of music. Particularly if you’re already coming from a background of playing…
Tip #1 – Size Matters
Controller keyboards come in a few different sizes, meaning you can choose generally between 25, 49, 61 or even 88 key versions. What you choose will depend on your experience. If you’re coming from a background of playing piano or keyboard anyway, then it makes sense to choose the larger versions as you will be able to play more naturally to how you’ve learned.
If, on the other hand, you’re a novice and are just looking for a way to play basic melody lines, a 25 or 49 key version will suffice. Something like the Novation Launchkey Mini MK3 (above) is perfect for composing ideas on from burst of inspiration to finished composition.
Tip #2 – To Key or Not to Key?
As well as standard black and white keys, many modern controller keyboards also include pads. These allow you to tap out drum patterns and can be great for providing a bit of basic inspiration.
The Akai MPK Mini Mk2 is a great example. As well as the 25 velocity-sensitive keys you’d expect, the top of the unit also houses MPC-style pads, which you can use to create drum patterns or trigger individual audio clips. The MPK Mini Mk2 even boasts eight assignable Q-Link knobs, a built-in arpeggiator for creating complex patterns and four-way thumbstick for intricate modulation and pitch control. All that and it slots readily into your bag to be taken anywhere and everywhere you go!
Tip #3 – Complete Control
As well as musical inputs like keys and pads, another thing to consider is extra controls which usually come in the form of rotary knobs. These are incredibly useful as they enable the user to control individual parameters within an instrument.
If, for example, you are using a delay effect, you may wish to alter the settings within the plugin. Most controllers automatically ‘map’ their settings to the DAW in use, so you can control the plugin using the knobs on the controller, as opposed breaking away from it to use your mouse or trackpad. These small things all have a profound impact on your workflow – basically, the more time you can spend off your mouse/computer keyboard, the more time you can be thinking creatively about your track.
The Alesis VI25 is a great option here. As well as keys and pads, it has 8 rotary knobs and 24 buttons, which are assignable to control anything your heart desires.
Tip #4 – Cost vs Quality
A key consideration for many people, particularly if they’re new to a particular hobby, is the cost of new gear. We understand this and have amazing kit to fit any budget. But what do you actually get for different quality levels?
At the budget end of the scale, you’re perhaps looking at cheaper plastics used in the housing. While this isn’t so much of a problem if the keyboard is staying in one place, and isn’t used for hours on end every day, it can be an issue if you need portability.
There’s also a difference in the bundled software you get. Higher-end gear tends to come with software instruments and effects included, giving you access to more options than you had before. This is great, but again the quality can vary according to what you buy.
For comparison, the Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol Mk2 is what would be deemed a higher-end controller keyboard. As well as being made more robustly, it comes with a selection of NI’s well-respected software included. This is a controller which is, to a degree, future-proofed. For those more advanced in their playing career, this is a solid choice of equipment.
As you can see, there are a few considerations when it comes to choosing a controller keyboard. The best approach is to think realistically about what you want to achieve, and what features you need to make that happen. Have a look at our complete selection of controller keyboards and see which fits the bill best for you.
Quick recap of the controllers highlighted in the article:
- Novation Launchkey Mini MK3
- Akai MPK Mini Mk2
- Alesis VI25 USB
- Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49 MK2
Jon is a multi-instrumentalist with a passion for inspiring others to get involved in making music. After spending many years playing venues here, there and – pretty much – everywhere, he joined the Dawsons’ Music Web Team before progressing into his current role managing the Dawsons Blog.