The Ultimate MIDI Controller Buyer’s Guide 2021


So you’re wondering which MIDI controller you should buy, rent or otherwise try out. In this comprehensive buyer’s guide, we’ll go through everything worth considering before you make any decisions about a MIDI controller.

If you’ve found yourself asking, “which MIDI controller should I buy?” this extensive resource is for you.

Please feel free to jump around this article and read all additional resources I have provided links to.

With that, let’s get into this comprehensive MIDI controller buyer’s guide to help you in your next controller purchase!

Related article:
Top 11 Best MIDI Controller Brands In The World


Table Of Contents


What Is Your MIDI Controller Budget?

The first thing to consider when making any purchase is your budget. Money can be a touchy subject for some, and so I’ll keep this section brief.

I would never advise anyone to overspend on any audio equipment. Know what you can realistically afford, and do your best to stay within those limitations, whatever they may be.

MIDI controllers, like many audio devices, range significantly in price. The market is rather large, and so there should be a good selection for any budget.

Note that some retailers offer payment plans, which could be an option.

Consider the cost to benefit ratio of the purchase of the MIDI controllers. For example, if the controller is needed for business, perhaps stretching the budget is more appropriate. On the other hand, if you don’t plan on making money with the controller, perhaps a more conservative budget is appropriate.

Also, consider any additional accessories or upkeep that may be required for your MIDI controller.

Only you can determine your budget. All I’m here to say is that you should consider it.

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Choosing A MIDI Controller That Fits With Your Workflow

Anyone’s ideal MIDI controller should fit perfectly with their workflow. Therefore, it’s important to consider your workflow before buying.

Ask yourself how you like to make music. Are you proficient in playing keyboard instruments and love using virtual instruments or synthesizers? How many keys would you need in this case? Are weighted keys a deal-breaker for your playing style?

Do you prefer finger drumming on pads, or are keys fine (if you do it at all)? Do you generally rely on samples?

Is it important to have tactile control over instrument and DAW parameters with knobs, mod wheels, and faders?

Will the MIDI controller be used exclusively in studio environments, during live performances on stages, or a combination of the two?

How much physical space can you allocate to a MIDI controller?

It’s important to know what we want and need in a MIDI controller before committing money toward the purchase. Functionality and playability are critical aspects to consider when incorporating a new controller into our workflow.

A pianist may feel limited by a single-octave MIDI controller with non-weighted keys.

Someone into electronics music or who is savy the production and mixing side of things may benefit greatly from additional knobs and faders, which can be linked to parameters with DAWs and virtual instruments.

Artists into sample-based Hip-Hop may do away with a keyboard altogether and opt for a velocity-sensitive beat pad MIDI controller.

The beauty of music is in its diversity. MIDI controllers, like other audio equipment, vary in design to accommodate.

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MIDI Keyboard Controllers & Features

Let’s discuss MIDI controller keyboards and their features. When looking for a controller with a keyboard, there are a few specs to consider:

Number Of Keys In A MIDI Controller

MIDI keyboard controllers typically come with 25 (2 octaves), 49 (4 octaves), 61 (5 octaves), or 88 keys (over 7 octaves). Of course, there are other options as well, but these numbers are the most common.

How many keys do you need? Here are few questions worth asking:

  • How much space do I have? More keys means more physical real estate.
  • How portable do I need the controller to be? Carrying larger controllers from place to place may be an issue.
  • Do you play two-handed and will you require a large keyboard for your work? More keys are especially useful for those proficient at playing keyboard instruments.
  • Will you need to split the keyboard (range mapping) for control over two separate instruments? A larger keyboard can be split more easily without losing range.

Note that MIDI keyboards will typically have octave controls, so choosing a smaller keyboard won’t limit the range of the key triggers. However, it will limit the immediate range and the options for simultaneous wide-ranging notes.

Key Action Of A MIDI Controller

Key action refers to how the keys respond to our playing. There are three main types of keyboard action:

Fully-weighted Action MIDI Keyboards

Fully-weighted action aims to replicate the feel of acoustic piano keyboards (without the hammer and strings). This action type is more common with MIDI controllers designed to mimic the tactile feeling of piano, which also tend to have larger key counts (like 88).

Full-weighted action is often preferred by those comfortable with playing piano and interested in composing with a piano-like controller.

Semi-weighted Action MIDI Keyboards

As we can guess, semi-weighted keys offer some amount of weight and resistance but are designed with a quicker release than their fully-weighted counterparts. This action is popular among those who like a more “realistic” feel than the springy synth action but don’t want the full feeling of a piano (MIDI controllers control much more than piano patches, after all).

Synth Action MIDI Keyboards

Synth action has light, spring-loaded keys that can move very quickly. Depressing the keys is easy, and they tend to return to their original position promptly after being released.

These keys feel similar to electronic organs or synthesizer keyboards and are optimized for speed. However, many musicians dislike synth action, stating it feels “cheap”.

Aftertouch Feature In A MIDI Controller

Aftertouch is a feature that sends pressure-sensitive MIDI data after a key has been engaged and held down, hence the name. This feature is often routed to control vibrato or volume but can be routed to many other parameters as well. There are two main types of aftertouch: channel aftertouch and polyphonic aftertouch.

Channel aftertouch reads the aftertouch of all depressed keys and transmits aftertouch data according to the highest value (the key with the most pressure applied).

Polyphonic aftertouch sends separate and independent aftertouch values for each and every key being held. As we can imagine, polyphonic aftertouch has the potential to be incredibly expressive. However, even if this expressiveness is controlled correctly, it still transmits a lot of MIDI data, which will undoubtedly increase response times and latency.

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MIDI Beat Pad Controllers & Features

Beat pads are another popular feature in MIDI controllers. While some musicians and producers are fine with using the keyboard to trigger samples, others much prefer the feel of pads.

These pads are pretty straightforward; hit them, and they’ll trigger a sample. Here are a few specifications to consider when choosing a MIDI controller with beat pads:

  • Number of pads: more pads offer more immediate sample options but take up more physical space on the controller. Note that many beat pad controllers have bank scrollers to make swapping the triggers easy.
  • Velocity sensitivity: velocity-sensitive pads will react differently depending on the velocity at which they’re hit. This can really add a human element to sample levels or velocity-sensitive virtual instruments.
  • Aftertouch: some beat pads even offer aftertouch, which we’ve discussed previously.

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Other MIDI Controller Features

Beyond keys and beat pads, there are plenty of other controls featured in MIDI controllers. These controls include, but are not limited to, the following:

Faders

Faders (sometimes called sliders) are controls that slide along a track or slot from a minimum value (at the bottom) to a maximum value (at the top). Faders are often routed to track levels in DAWs, oscillator levels in synthesizers, and bands in graphic EQs but can be routed as we see fit, thanks to MIDI.

Buttons

Buttons are generally used to send on/off information via MIDI. Buttons are often routed to control the octave range of the keyboard. Still, they can often be routed with MIDI to control such things as mute switches, record buttons and other transport controls, sequencer controls, and even be set up as trigger pads, among many other actions.

Knobs

Knobs are similar to faders in that they control parameters between maximum and minimum values.

Potentiometer-type knobs generally offer about 270-degrees of control between a min and max value. Rotary encoder knobs turn continuously.

Knobs are often routed to panning and volume controls along with buss, group and auxiliary send controls within the DAW. They’re incredibly useful for adjusting parameters in virtual instruments and especially in synthesizers. They’re also often preferred for controlling parameters during automation.

Pitch Bend & Modulation Wheels

Pitch bend and mod wheel controls are popular with MIDI keyboards and keyboards in general.

As the name suggests, pitch bend controls will alter the pitch of the inputted MIDI data. These controls were designed to give keyboardists control over vibrato and pitch bending, similar to the guitar. These wheels generally offer 1 whole tone of pitch bending in either direction and are spring-loaded to return to resting position once let go over.

Modwheels are similar in form factor, shaped like a wheel and mounted perpendicular to the keyboard surface. However, they are typically not spring-loaded and stay put when let go of. Modulation wheels act to control one or more parameters of a virtual instrument or synthesizer between a minimum and maximum MIDI value.

XY Pads

XY pads are touchpads that offer two-dimensional control over an x-axis and y-axis. XY pads allow versatile control over two or more parameters linked together on a 2-D plane.

Transport Controls

Transport controls are typically found in control surfaces. These controls interact with the digital audio workstation’s transport section, which is responsible for the following functions:

  • Play
  • Stop
  • Record
  • Loop
  • Fastforward
  • Rewind

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MIDI Controller I/O

Connecting a MIDI-controlled via USB is fairly straightforward. However, to truly understand MIDI controllers, we should understand the possible inputs and outputs we’ll encounter. MIDI controller I/O may include any of the following:

USB

USB is a popular standard for connecting MIDI controllers to computers. Even if adapters are required (USB-A to USB-B, for example), this is the most popular way to connect the two. USB sends MIDI information effectively.

5-pin MIDI DIN

The 5-pin DIN connector is the original MIDI connector that is still popular today for connecting MIDI devices. This connection won’t necessarily connect the controller to your computer, but it will make it compatible with other MIDI devices such as synthesizers. Higher-end MIDI controllers often have MIDI inputs and outputs.

CV

CV (control voltage) outputs allow the MIDI controller to connect the CV input of a synthesizer or other electronic instrument/effect (like certain guitar pedals) and modulator some parameter(s) with a voltage. CV inputs in other devices are often routed to volume controls, filters, pitch, LFO rates and can be routed to other parameters if the third-party devices allow for it.

Note that control voltages are analog. They are not sent via MIDI protocol, nor are they send to a computer via USB.

Gate

Gate outputs allow MIDI controllers to connect to the gate inputs of synthesizers, drum machines and other electronic instruments. Unlike CVs, which ideally offer continuous control over parameters, gates act more like triggers, which engage or disengage ‘go’ and ‘stop’ responses. In other words, gates are preferred for sequencing rather than continuous control.

Note that gate voltages are analog. They are not sent via MIDI protocol, nor are they send to a computer via USB.

Pedal Controller Input

A pedal controller input is technically a CV/gate input, depending on the capabilities of the MIDI controller.

This CV/gate input accepts a sustain pedal, which acts as a gate voltage. The sustain is either on or off. Many sustain pedals can be configured to have the on/off positions switched so that holding the pedal down will give the desired response.

Clock

A MIDI clock is a signal sent over MIDI that allows the user to sync several devices together, so they stay in sync. MIDI controllers with extra functionality often offer the option to either set the master clock or sync to another clock (in the computer or another MIDI device).

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Other MIDI Controller Instrument Types & Features

Thus far, we’ve focused on the two primary MIDI controller instrument types: the keyboard and the beat pad.

However, other MIDI instruments are worth considering, such as EWI (electronic wind instruments) and MIDI guitars. These instruments naturally have more expressiveness than keyboards but are becoming more practical as MIDI information technology evolves.

So if you’re into the idea of strumming chords or blowing lines to produce MIDI, there are optioned beyond keyboards and beat pads that are worth checking out.

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Compatible Software

Fortunately, MIDI is universal, and so are the digital connections between MIDI controllers and their computers or synthesizers. The overwhelming majority of MIDI controllers will work perfectly fine with any digital audio workstation or standalone software.

That being said, there are certain controllers on the market designed specifically for certain software. These controllers are optimized to integrate seamlessly with specific software or DAWs. Some controllers even come bundled with their own software instruments and workstations.

So although it’s possible to incorporate most MIDI controllers with whatever DAW you prefer, it’s worth considering a MIDI controller option that best suits your go-to workstation.

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DAW Control Surfaces

DAW control surfaces are special MIDI controllers designed to control digital audio workstations.

These control surfaces provide tactile control over multiple functions of the DAW, offering a more hands-on approach to DAW workflow than hotkeys and mouse clicks.

Control surfaces typically have buttons, faders, encoders, and knobs that can be routed to the track channels and other parts of the DAW. They tend to have channels, transport, navigation, and automation controls to help improve workflow within digital audio workstations.

Let’s consider the typical control features and what they actually control with the DAW:

DAW control surface transport controls typically offer the following functions:

  • Play
  • Stop
  • Record
  • Loop
  • Fast Forward
  • Rewind

DAW control surface channels typically offer the following functions:

  • Record Arm
  • Level
  • Pan
  • Solo
  • Mute

DAW control surface navigation centres typically offer the following functions:

  • Track Scroll
  • Timeline Scroll
  • Horizontal Zoom
  • Vertical Zoom
  • Scrub/Nudge

DAW control surface automation typically offer the following functions:

  • Touch
  • Latch
  • Trim
  • Write
  • Read
  • Off

As mentioned in the previous section, some control surfaces are better suited to specific DAW software. Unlike generic MIDI controllers, we should double-check that the DAW control surfaces are compatible with our DAW of choice.

The following standards are used in control surfaces. I’ve listed the standards and the compatible DAWs:

  • MCU (Mackie Control Universal):
    • Avid Pro Tools
    • Steinberg Cubase
    • PreSonus Studio One
    • Ableton Live
    • MOTU Digital Performer
    • Reason Studio Reason
    • Image-Line FL Studio
    • Bitwig Studio
  • HUI (Human User Interface):
    • Avid Pro Tools
    • Steinberg Cubase
    • PreSonus Studio One
    • MOTU Digital Performer
  • EUCON (Extended User Control)
    • Avid Pro Tools
    • Steinberg Cubase
    • Apple Logic Pro X
    • MOTU Digital Performer
    • Steinberg Nuendo

Also, be sure that the control surface is compatible with your operating system and computer specifications. When in doubt, read the manual or system requirements of the control surface.

Related articles:
Top 11 Best DAW Control Surface Brands In The World
Top 7 Best Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) On The Market

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This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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