Updated 14/7/16

USB MIDI Controllers are laden with knobs and faders – but what do they do?

Korg nanoKontrol Studio Controller

Nowadays, even basic USB MIDI controllers feature a selection of knobs, faders and buttons on its front panel. If you’re new to music tech, you might wonder why you would need hands-on control over a keyboard with no on-board sounds, however.

To explain, it’s worth taking step back in time…

USB MIDI Controllers - MS20

In a land before MIDI…

Once upon a time, in an analogue age long before MIDI turned up to make life both easier and more complicated, synthesisers were basically a collection of analogue electronic components. Some of these could be adjusted to change the sound (usually via knobs or faders on the front panel).

This was actually a very intuitive way of creating sounds – if you wanted to change a sound, you simply grabbed the appropriate control and moved it.

What Do Knobs And Faders On USB MIDI Controllers Do?

Then, digital synth technology appeared. ‘Look at me,’ it said, ‘aren’t I sleek and smooth? Just a few buttons, and an LED display, but all of this digital power. Muhahaha!’

Synth users cried (literally in some cases), ‘No! We like all the knobs and faders! How are we going to tweak filters and envelopes?’

‘Why, via this handy 3 character LED, and this sophisticated menu system, of course…’

What Do Knobs And Faders On USB MIDI Controllers Do? - Roland JD800

After much tearing of hair, weeping, and harking back to the good old days, Roland answered the synth-lovers’ cries with a best-of-both-worlds solution – the JD-800. This was a digital synth, but with loads of hands on control.

Later, Roland took this a step further with the JP-8000, which emulated an analogue synth digitally, but with loads of hands-on controllers, too. By this point, things were really starting to change, though…

USB MIDI Controllers - Steinberg Model-E

Are you going soft?

The studio as we knew was, piece by piece, being converted into software, and run on a computer. First, audio recording and mixing software and FX made the transition, but then, software synthesizers started to appear.

Despite being technologically impressive, for many producers, the first reaction was ‘how am I supposed to mix with a mouse?’

This was swiftly followed by a cry from synth lovers, who (once they had finished pointing out that it didn’t sound as good as analogue tech) shouted ‘where are the knobs and faders?’

Thankfully, it wasn’t long before manufacturers recognised the need for real, physical controls for music software.

USB MIDI Controllers - Oxygen 8

One of the most well known and popular of these early developments was the M-Audio Oxygen 8- a 25 note USB MIDI controller keyboard, with eight assignable rotary controllers.

Effectively, these controllers could be set to control parameters within music software. This could range from EQ controls, to faders, to synth filter controls or, well, you name it. Suddenly, software felt a lot more ‘real’ and a lot less virtual.

USB MIDI Controllers - Novation iPad Apps

This is exactly what the assignable controllers on USB controllers do today. These days, you can get MIDI maps for all manner of software for just about any controller. In addition, clever software such as Novation’s Automap can automatically set controllers to be ready to use for the software you’re using, without having to do anything.

The future’s bright- the future’s got knobs on… 😉

For a full range of USB MIDI controllers, see our online store here.