MIDI is without doubt one of the most powerful tools in music creation to date. If you decide to utilise MIDI within your DAW, then your musical possibilities are endless. If you’re a complete beginner using a DAW then you should already have access to MIDI, but you might not know how to use it yet. It may seem complicated at first but it’s actually a lot easier to use than you think. Not sure what a DAW is? Check out my post ‘What is a DAW?’. In this article I’m going to cover the basics of MIDI and answer the question ‘What is a MIDI keyboard?’ to clarify the confusion. In order to understand what a MIDI keyboard is fully; we need to also look at what MIDI is. First let’s talk a little bit about the history of MIDI.
What is MIDI?
A Brief History
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, which to be honest doesn’t make it any easier to understand. MIDI is data. Data that allows computers, musical instruments, and other hardware to communicate with each other. It was developed in the 1980s to help synchronise the huge amount of digital music hardware that was revolutionising the industry at the time; for better, or for worse… When you think of popular 80s music, what sounds come to mind? For me it’s synthesisers, electronic drums, over-exaggerated snare drums, sequencers, and plenty of effects. It was a time of digital revolution for music production.
MIDI helped different manufactures’ products to be compatible with others from different brands. Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland came up with the idea to create a standardised instrument language, and proposed the idea to numerous manufacturers. It was an ambitious and complicated project to undertake. The developers of MIDI had to find a way for 1980s technology to synchronise and communicate with each other flawlessly. Nonetheless, in the 1982 they finished the project and changed the music industry forever. Today MIDI is more popular than ever before, and thanks to the development of technology and software, it’s incredibly easy to use.
How does MIDI work?
Without getting too technical, MIDI sends information, not music or audio itself. MIDI sends digital signals in the form of binary digits (1s and 0s). These digital signals contain information such as the note(s) played, the duration of note(s), the velocity, after-touch (when the pressed pressure changes), vibrato, and pitch bend use.
What does MIDI look like?
Although data in the form of binary digitals sounds technical and complex, MIDI in your DAW looks incredibly simple, and honestly, it’s effortless to use. Take a look at the image below. This is what a typical piano roll looks like in any DAW. When you play and record a MIDI controller such a MIDI keyboard, the notes appear as small coloured rectangles. On the piano roll you can see the time/beats, note duration, and velocity. You can adjust, trim, and manipulate the notes and parameters with ease by using your mouse, and keyboard for shortcuts if you like. As I said it’s effortless to create and edit MIDI in a DAW.
Where do the sounds and music come from?
So, we’ve established that MIDI is data, data that carries information. But if MIDI is only data, where do the sounds and music come from? The answer is VSTs, more specifically VST instruments. VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology, and VST instruments are literally just virtual instruments.
Virtual instruments have come a tremendous way since the 80s. When you think of virtual instruments, you might imagine those awful dated sounding synthesisers that would poorly attempt to recreate the sound of a choir, strings, drum kit etc. Today, companies create virtual instruments by sampling real instruments. Yes, you read that correctly.
For example, a VST company such as Spitfire Audio (one of my favourites) will bring in an orchestra into a massive recording studio and work with them tireless for weeks or even months. They will get them to painstakingly record individual notes at different velocities, with different playing techniques to capture a huge variety of musical notes. They then edit, organise, and program these samples into to a VST plug-in which you can upload in your DAW.
Audio companies have created VSTs for practically any instrument you can imagine. Nowadays you can get VSTs for drums, guitars, basses, vocals, orchestral instruments, pianos, organs, and synthesisers. These are just common examples; you name it and it’s probably been done. Obscure and unusual instruments can also be found in the form of VSTs. A lot of DAWs these days come with their own VSTs, but the options are limited. However, there are hundreds of companies that make VSTs, you’ll never be short to find them, and most likely you’ll become addicted to buying them, like me. They are super fun to play around with.
How easy is it to use VSTs?
Incredibly easy. It’s as easy as clicking ‘insert VST’ on an instrument track in your DAW. Even after you’ve recorded all of your MIDI notes, you can change the VST at any time, it’s never permanent. So, if you decide you no longer like the grand piano you chose to begin with, simply select another VST and the sounds will change.
This is what is so ground breaking about using MIDI with VSTs. Practically any instrument in the world is now available at your fingertips, in your home studio. How cool is that? Now you know all about MIDI, the history, how it works, what it looks like, and how we generate sound and music from MIDI data. Now let’s move on to what you came here for, to learn about MIDI keyboards.
What is a MIDI keyboard?
At first glance a MIDI keyboard looks like any normal keyboard. The ones that have a selection of virtual instrument pre-sets available, that sound through the keyboards’ speakers when you play a note. But remember what I said earlier? MIDI is just data that carries information. A MIDI keyboard generates absolutely no sound or music, it’s responsible for transferring MIDI data.
You play a MIDI keyboard just like a regular keyboard, but when you do it carries the MIDI information to your computer. What you play comes out of your speakers or headphones -connected to your audio interface– in real time. Whichever VST you choose, will be the one responsible for generating the audio. So, if you have a piano selected, it will seem just like you’re playing a real piano. If you hit record, the data is stored as colourful rectangle notes.
MIDI keyboards are incredibly versatile. They come in different sizes, shapes, and can include extra buttons, knobs, wheels, drum pads, and sliders to increase functionality. Now you we’ve answered ‘what is a MIDI keyboard?’, let’s examine each aspect of MIDI keyboards one by one.
Size – It’s Down to Preference
MIDI keyboards come in different sizes, which is determined by how many keys they have. The most common sizes come with 25, 32, 49, 61, or 88 keys, in terms of length they are approximately as follows:
- 25 Keys –12.5 inches (31.7cm)
- 32 Keys – 17 inches (43.7cm)
- 49 Keys – 32 inches (81cm)
- 61 Keys – 39.5 inches (100cm)
- 88 Keys –58.5 inches (145cm)
Which size is right for you?
This really depends on what you need a MIDI keyboard for, and how much space you have on your studio desk. If you want something that’s close to a piano then I would recommend going with at least 61 keys. But if you want something transportable, and you only need a MIDI keyboard to make leads snyth or bass parts, then 25-29 keys may serve you well. It’s all about personal preference really, budget may also be an important factor for you. I use a the Nektar Impact LX88+ which is an 88 keys MIDI keyboard. I love it because of the amount of extra controls it has on it, plus the 88 keys gives me a the full range to work with.
Weighted Keys or None-Weighted Keys
If you’ve ever played a cheap keyboard, perhaps like the ones you used to play during music class in high school, then you’ve played a none-weighted keyboard. MIDI keyboards can come with either weighted or none-weighted keys. What’s the difference and why does it matter? Well as the names suggested, none-weight keys have no weight to them. When you touch them, they bounce straight back up which doesn’t feel very natural. But on the other hand, keys that are light and springy are good for more rapid attacks, which is useful if you want to play drum samples for example.
Weighted keys are designed to mimic the keys of a quality piano. They have a more natural and heavier feel to them. If you’re a pianist, or just prefer the feel of a piano then this is a good option to go for. Again, it’s about personal preference, but if you’re not sure which to go for, then a lot of MIDI keyboards -like my own- have semi-weighted keys. I’ve found this type to be the perfect balance between weighted and none-weighted keys, they’re not too heavy or too springy, just perfect.
Extra Features for a Smoother Workflow
A lot of MIDI keyboards -especially those within a higher budget- feature buttons, knobs, sliders, a pitch bend, wheels, and drum pads. These extra hands-on controls can speed up your workflow as they correspond with your DAW.
For example, instead of using a mouse to interact with your VST synthesiser, the knobs and modulation wheel on your MIDI keyboard can control parameters such as cut-off, resonance, amp envelope etc. The knobs can also be used to pan your audio tracks from left to right. The buttons can control functions such as loop, record, stop/play, fast-forward and rewind. Sliders can act as volume faders, and the drums pads are handy for playing drum VSTs with more feel.
These are just a few examples and quite often you can program these controls to have any function you like. These extra features really help to make everything feel more interactive and fluid whilst writing and mixing your music. There’s nothing worse than trying to use a mouse to control everything, which in my opinion feels much more artificial and restrictive. As we live in a digital world now, I welcome anything that brings that analog feel back to me.
Midi Keyboards Are the Ultimate Creative Tool
I hope that this article helped to answer the question ‘What is a MIDI Keyboard?’. You can’t understand what a MIDI keyboard is, without first understanding what MIDI is, and how it works. Using MIDI opens up a whole new realm of possibilities when creating music. VSTs give you access to an unlimited number of virtual instruments and sounds. And a MIDI keyboard not only allows you to play virtual instruments, but can give you more functionality within your home studio, if you have one with extra controls. MIDI keyboards are very affordable these days, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding one that fits your budgets.
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