Composing music at home is easier than ever, thanks to MIDI instruments that allow you to sample and sequence a wide range of sounds and loops to create elaborate tracks. However, to fully utilize all the benefits of your MIDI keyboard, you’ll need a digital audio workstation, also known as a DAW.
You do need a DAW for MIDI instruments, as it interprets the signals produced by the instrument. A DAW also allows you to sequence multiple individual tracks, use unique samples provided by the software, and polish the quality of your music to a professional level with precise controls and settings.
Using a MIDI keyboard with a DAW can be confusing, but you’re in the right place to learn everything you’ll need to know when it comes to composing your masterpieces from the comfort of your home. We’ll also cover the best DAWs on the market for MIDI composing at any price range.
Why DAW Is Necessary for MIDI Controllers
To use your MIDI controller to its full potential, you’re going to need a digital audio workstation to allocate sounds to specific tracks and then organize the tracks you’ve compiled to create a complete piece of music. Most DAWs come with massive libraries of samples, instruments, and short loops you can use to create any music you could imagine.
Basically, your MIDI controller is pretty useless by itself; you’re going to need to find a DAW that works best for you to be able to compose, arrange, and produce your musical projects. Thankfully, DAWs are becoming easier to use and more affordable in recent years.
All you need to do is use the DAW to assign particular sound snippets to different tracks on your keyboard and then interpret and arrange them within the software. Of course, this is a bit of an oversimplification of the many elaborate settings and specifications many DAWs are capable of, but it’s the best way to explain what DAWs are used for as concisely as possible.
The result of using a DAW with your MIDI instrument is a fully realized song, album, or piece of music without having to collaborate with other artists or musicians. It allows you to use your MIDI keyboard to its full potential by giving you an interface to organize and compose music using a built-in library of sounds and samples.
You can also create your own samples and save them for use later with a DAW if you don’t want to use your workstation’s default library and make your music sound as unique as it can be. The possibilities are pretty vast when using a DAW with your MIDI keyboard, and DAWs are constantly evolving to make creating quality music accessible to anyone, not just commercial producers and mainstream musicians.
DAWs and MIDI Instruments Work Together
Although your MIDI controller is technically the instrument you’ll be using to create music; you’ll still need a DAW to assign certain sounds to specific buttons and then organize them within the software. You can also use other instruments with DAWs, but MIDI controllers are very common thanks to their ease of use, inexpensive cost, and flexibility.
Your DAW essentially will allow you to create complex, fully-realized musical compositions using your MIDI keyboard while also offering you a simple interface to break down your music into those individual tracks, arrange them, and adjust their levels and specific sounds.
You can think of your MIDI keyboard as a sort of vehicle for composing music. To run correctly, this vehicle needs gas, oil, and a complex set of parts that communicate with each other and turn the gas and oil into a running, fully functioning machine. Your DAW is essentially this set of components in a neat, easy-to-use package.
Are DAWs Expensive?
DAWs were once expensive, elaborate, and complex pieces of hardware mainly used by established music industry professionals. But modern DAWs are very affordable; They’re like multitrack tape recorders with even more elaborate settings and specifications and accessible to anyone with a computer.
Today, dozens of different digital audio workstations are available at various price points with many features and plug-ins to create individual tracks and compiling them to create a complete piece of music simpler than ever before. Plus, DAWs often come with huge libraries of sounds and short loops you can use with your MIDI instrument, putting essentially any type of instrument at your fingertips.
While DAWs were once costly and nearly inaccessible for novice composers, there now exists a vast range of high-quality software to help you create your own music with just a computer and a MIDI keyboard.
What To Look For in a DAW for MIDI Composing
Depending on your skill level, you might want a DAW that’s simpler to use and either free or affordable such as GarageBand or Cakewalk, or a more complex and costly software like Ableton or Avid Pro Tools. There are also plenty of mid-range options available.
Another important factor is operating system compatibility. While many DAWs work with both Macs and PCs, some are restricted to a specific OS. You’ll need to find a workstation that is compatible with your computer and MIDI controller.
Finally, you’ll want something with an aesthetically pleasing interface and an easy-to-use layout. Thankfully, many popular DAWs have free or inexpensive trial options that allow you to test them out for a bit before committing to them, so you should try as many of them as you can.
For more information, check out my article about whether all DAWs are the same.
Best DAWs for MIDI Composing
Nowadays, there’s a huge range of excellent DAWs ranging in price points, quality, features, and compatibility, so it’s easier than ever to find the best one for you. Three of our favorite DAWs for MIDI composing are Cockos Reaper, Steinberg Cubase, and FL Studio.
Cockos Reaper is highly recommended for MIDI composition, mainly thanks to its affordability, great range of features, and highly customizable interface. It’s compatible with PCs, Macs, and Linux, and it offers a free trial version you can try out for 30 days to decide if it’s right for you. It’s a fantastic value for its reasonably low price, and musicians of all skill levels find it easy and enjoyable to use.
Steinberg Cubase is an older DAW that has managed to keep up with modern software by implementing frequent updates and adding new features. It’s on the pricier end, but it’s a tried and true veteran of the industry that is reliable and adaptable. It has a massive library of samples and sounds for you to play with while composing your unique pieces of music.
Finally, FL Studio is another well-known DAW that is commonly used for MIDI composing. It’s a great mid-range option that comes with free lifetime updates, and it’s compatible with PC and Mac systems. Thanks to its diverse range of modern features and simple interface, it has an excellent reputation amongst EDM, hip-hop, and R&B producers.
Keep in mind these are far from the only great DAWs on the market for MIDI composing; these are just three of our favorites with solid reputations, valuable features, and reasonable price points.
Using a DAW with your MIDI instruments makes composing unique and quality pieces of music easy and accessible. Finding the right DAW for your MIDI controller can be a confusing experience, but it doesn’t have to be with a bit of research. There’s a wide range of well-made, affordable DAWs, such as the ones we recommended above to help streamline your composing experience.
- Audio Mentor: Choosing Your DAW For MIDI Composing
- E-Home Recording Studio: Best DAW Software: The Ultimate Guide
- Indiana University Bloomington: The MIDI Standard: Introduction to MIDI and Computer Music: Center For Electronic and Computer Music: Jacobs School of Music
- Magix: The principles of music production using a DAW
- MIDI Association: Tutorial: Benefits of MIDI
- Music Gateway: Everything You Need to Know About MIDI
- MusicRadar: The best DAWs 2021: the best digital audio workstations for PC and Mac
- Recording Connection: What are digital audio workstations (DAW)?