MIDI Controllers. Every self-respecting music producer and musician uses MIDI—sometimes unknowingly. But with so many music controllers out there which one is best for your needs? Let's find out.
The audio marketplace is swamped with MIDI controllers of all types, and it can be quite daunting trying to figure out which to choose. Well, fear not, this article is here to demystify and give you some pointers on the MIDI controllers to look out that offer something unique. Take a read through and see which ones stick out for you.
If you are looking for a top quality 49-key MIDI controller keyboard with all the bells and whistles, check out the Nektar Panorama P4. It’s a semi-weighted keyboard with a plethora of controls. There’s 16 encoders, nine faders, 12 velocity-sensitive pads, 10 LED buttons, 28 buttons, and even a motorized fade on this unit. Now that's a comprehensive controller. And there’s also a display that shows you the details of the parameters that you’re tweaking. There’s even a 61-key model (the P6 Panorama).
This controller also includes compatibility for some of the top DAWs: Logic Pro X, MainStage, Cubase, Nuendo, Reaper, Reason, and Bitwig Studio.
Akai is known for their awesome drum pad controllers because of their great feel on their pads when bashing out a beat. If you want those great drum pads, but also the advantages of MIDI control and keyboard functionality, then take a look at their MPK249.
Something a bit different is Livid Instruments’ BASE II. What’s cool about this controller is that it includes touch buttons and faders, plus 32 x velocity sensitive pads. This can be a great tool for live performances and even in the studio. The LEDs also give a clear indication of what’s happening on the device. So from a distance you can see what each parameter is.
The controller includes a built-in arpeggiator, which may be on your list of ‘must-haves’ on a controller. These are great to MIDI program in your compositions and arrangements. The Arpeggiator even includes the classic MPC swing styles that can be incorporated into your MIDI programming.
The controller also includes eight rotary knobs, eight faders, and eight assignable buttons. A good number of options if you want to assign these to mixer tracks. There are even DAW transport control buttons, which make navigating through your songs simple.
A new player to the MIDI keyboard controller (but not to the software side) is Native Instruments’ Komplete Kontrol MIDI keyboard series.
The MIDI controller comes bundled with great features, plus the beauty of it is that you can use it to control your Native Instruments software. If you’re a Native Instruments fan, then this might be the controller for you. So if you have Komplete 9 or 10, you can take advantage of the Kontrol software to control your NI instruments. The Kontrol feature allows you to browse and navigate your NI software without having to take your eyes off the keyboard. But the keyboard can also be switched to MIDI mode to control your 3rd-party software.
Editor's Note: The recent release of Komplete Kontrol software 1.5 has seen the inclusion of Native Kontrol Standard, an extended plug-in format allowing third-party instruments to achieve the same deep integration previously only reserved for KOMPLETE Instruments. VST support lets KOMPLETE KONTROL owners load and play their entire software instrument collection.
On the technical front, this keyboard comes in 4 sizes: 25, 49, 61 & 88. It has Fatar semi-weighted keys, and eight endless rotary encoders (each with its own screen). Plus there’s a programmable Arpeggiator and chord mode on this keyboard. Lights above the keys indicate the chords or arp pattern. How cool is that. They’ve really pulled out all the stops on this guy.
And let’s not forget its touch-sensitive pitch and mod wheels that give you light-based feedback. Now that is awesome. Plus they can be re-configured to other options—you don’t have to stick to pitch and mod with these.
Let’s look at some of the MIDI Controllers that focus on Ableton. The first one that comes to mind is Ableton’s own Push controller. It integrates seamlessly with Ableton to the point that you can create a song without even having to look at your computer screen. It all can be done from the controller. It has 64 velocity-sensitive pads, a touch strip that can be assigned to Ableton parameters, 11 touch-sensitive encoders, an LCD display showing you your control changes, as well as a whole bunch of other controls that you can use to navigate your song in Ableton.
The only drawback here is that it only works with Ableton. But you can’t really complain about this as it is an Ableton product. But I would have loved to be able to use this with Logic or FL Studio for example.
Another Ableton specific controller is Novation’s Launchpad Pro. It can be used with other audio software, but it really shines with Ableton. It’s a 64 velocity-sensitive pad controller, but what’s cool is that these pads have RGB backlights. So you can get indications of the different velocities being triggered, or know which clips in Ableton are being played, assigned or record armed. There are extra buttons around the perimeter of the 64 grid pads that help you navigate your Ableton session. For example, you can jump between the session view by just clicking a button. And you can switch views to see your enabled clips, or even jump to the mixer to change parameters. So it has great visual feedback, plus allows you to navigate your Ableton sessions easily.
Here’s another Akai mention: the Akai Pro Advance 49 MIDI keyboard controller.
It also has some good visual feedback like the NI Kontrol keyboards. Its big selling point is that it can map seamlessly with your plug-ins.
What's a bit different is that it has some chunky controller knobs, which is actually a good thing as these can be quite small on other controllers. The keyboard is called 'Advance' as it uses some advanced software technology called VIP to scan your VST instruments and then utilize the metadata and instrument presets. That’s quite smart. But the con about this instrument is that the smart technology only works with VST plugins, not AU’s. It can be loaded up as an AU in your DAW, but will only recognize VST plugins.
If you’re using analog and digital gear and would like to incorporate both into your setup, then you need to check out the BeatStep Pro. This is a clever device that allows you to connect both the digital and analog environments into it, and then this becomes your MIDI sequencer and controller for the devices. The BeatStep Pro features two melodic sequencers and a drum sequencer. The device is packed with multiple ins and outs to connect your devices, such as MIDI, and CV ins and outs. Definitely check out this unit if sequencing is your preferred way of building up your music productions.
TouchOSC isn’t really a MIDI controller but an app that can be used on a touchscreen device. It works by sending OSC messages to your audio software. This is great on an iPad for example, as you can set up templates to control your audio software. And it’s compatible with quite a list of DAWs. This is a nifty complementary device to your current MIDI controller setup. And it’s so easy to customize the templates or even create your own.
Maybe one of the most underrated MIDI controllers is from the Korg nano range. These are billed as mobile controllers, which can sit (and pack away) nicely with your laptop. But they are also a great inclusion in the studio. They come in 3 varieties: the nanoKey2
(a small MIDI Keyboard); the nanoPAD2
(a small velocity sensitive 16 pad, and XY pad); and the nanoKontrol2
(a controller with nine faders, nine rotary knobs, and some buttons that can be assigned to transport controls). I particularly like the nanoPad as I can use the pads to switch between the key switches on my sample libraries, plus I use the XY pad to control XY parameters. So even though they may be small in size, they can make quite a difference in your setup.
So that’s a list of ten MIDI controllers for the electronic producer. Try them out at our nearest music store or retailer and see which ones jump out at you and invest in your favorite to enhance your current setup.