What Is a Midi Keyboard Controller? What You Need To Know

Have you ever noticed music producers and DJs working with a keyboard connected to their computer? That keyboard is likely a MIDI keyboard controller. But what is a MIDI keyboard controller, and how does it create all of that music?

A MIDI keyboard controller is a MIDI interface with a keyboard input device that sends MIDI messages to and from a computer. MIDI data is electronic signals that convert to audio signals once a sound source receives them. It also allows you to do things like layer in drum beats and change tones.

Read on to learn what a MIDI keyboard controller is and for a full breakdown of MIDI and how it works altogether. 

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What Is a MIDI Keyboard Controller?

You may assume that a MIDI keyboard controller works as an average electronic keyboard, except it connects to a computer. However, that’s not the case. In fact, MIDI controllers come in various formats, like groove boxes, for instance. 

Therefore, it’s crucial to understand what a MIDI controller is first.

MIDI controllers sequence music clips and play digital instruments through your Mac or PC. First, the controller transmits MIDI messages to the computer or synthesizer. Then, the computer or synthesizer translates the messages into audio and plays them as sound. Have you ever noticed a DJ with a laptop on stage? Well, they likely connect a MIDI controller to the computer, allowing them to create, mix, and sample music in real-time.

A MIDI keyboard controller is a MIDI controller designed as a keyboard, meaning the end-user assigns instruments to different keyboard sections. Suppose you wanted to incorporate drums and an electric guitar. In that case, you could use one end of the MIDI keyboard controller to play percussion and the other to control a digital guitar. MIDI keyboard controllers can also layer in drum beats, change tones, activate sample loops, and modulate pitches. 

If all of these features weren’t enough, a MIDI keyboard controller also flaunts convenience. Each part of the music can be added in or edited individually. That means you never have to re-record the original main track. In sum, MIDI keyboard controllers offer endless avenues of musical creativity and performance options.

For more information, check out this article about whether you need a MIDI keyboard for making music.

What Is MIDI?

We know that a MIDI keyboard controller uses MIDI to transmit messages that later become music, but what is MIDI in the first place? In short, MIDI is an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. This interface facilitates communication between musical instruments, computers, and other hardware.

The Origins of MIDI

Digital music boomed in the early 1980s. With so many kinds of digital instruments out there created by numerous manufacturers, incompatibility became a significant concern. 

How were all of these tools going to work together to create and play digital compositions? Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland, sought to solve this problem. In 1981, he proposed a universal digital instrument language to other manufacturers, like Sequential Circuits, Moog, and Oberheim.

The task did not come lightly. After all, while developing this new interconnected language, Kakehashi and his team had to translate all of a musical performance’s nuances into quantifiable messages. This process took time.

These musical dreams became a reality in 1982 when the first MIDI standard came to be. The development heavily impacted electronic music over the next forty years. For their extraordinary innovations, the Recording Academy awarded Dave Smith and Kakehashi a Technical Grammy in 2012.

How MIDI Works

The most important thing to understand about MIDI is what it’s not. MIDI doesn’t transmit an audio signal. In reality, MIDI sends electronic information that then converts to audio. To hear the data from the MIDI, you need a sound source. How does this all work, exactly? 

Let’s take a closer look. 

MIDI Messages and Events

MIDI transmits information through messages that instruct and guide digital music equipment. This information includes how the equipment should act, including specific notation.

When a MIDI message takes place at a specific time, it’s known as an event. Events are strung into sequences using MIDI sequencers, which we’ll address later. Right now, we want to focus on the two kinds of MIDI messages: channel and system messages.

Channel Messages

Channel messages are the most often used MIDI messages and carry up to two kinds of information simultaneously. For instance, on and off MIDI messages communicate note number values and note velocity values. In sum, channel messages articulate expressions found in performance.

Standard messages of this sort include:

  • Note ON and OFF
  • Aftertouch
  • Control Change
  • Channel Pressure
  • Pitch Bend Change
System Messages

While used less often, system messages are no less critical in MIDI. System messages manage vital data that digital instruments need to talk with each other. These messages cover broader commands, like clock functions or turning devices on and off. You will most likely work with these system messages reasonably often:

  • Timing Clock
  • Transport
  • System Exclusive (SysEx)

MIDI Sequencers

One of the standard ways of using MIDI is in a MIDI sequencer. MIDI sequencers hold MIDI data and oversee playback, editing, and recording. Furthermore, the sequencer keeps all of your MIDI devices in sync with each other through data transmissions. 

Digital Audio Workstations often perform a MIDI sequencer’s jobs, and the two are closely related to each other. However, some musicians perform sequencing on hardware instead of DAW software.

MIDI Setups

MIDI keyboard controllers come into play when addressing setup. You can configure your DAW in various ways. Some formats are centered with a software sequencer, while others run entirely on hardware. 

Here’s what you need to know:

MIDI Channels

MIDI is pretty spectacular because of its ability to coordinate and manage musical expressions between many instruments simultaneously with only one connection! So, how does it travel? 

One stream of MIDI info contains 16 separate channels for messages and events. Each tool in your MIDI configuration can communicate data on an individual channel. Furthermore, all of your devices can connect with a single MIDI cable.

MIDI Cables

MIDI cables are essential for connecting all of your MIDI gear. If you’re unfamiliar, MIDI uses 5-pin DIN cables for connecting inputs, outputs, and thru outputs among MIDI gear. More compact devices also use balanced TRS cables. Furthermore, MIDI interfaces and progressive-minded MIDI synths can often connect to the computer via USB.

MIDI Input, MIDI Output, and MIDI Thru

Okay, so how do you put this all together? Typically, most MIDI devices contain three ports: MIDI IN, MIDI OUT, and MIDI THRU. To establish the correct connection, you need to follow the signal flow’s direction as a guide. You can connect each device separately via a different channel, or you can use MIDI THRU to connect all your devices through a single MIDI stream.

Interfaces and Controllers

Lastly, the MIDI interface facilitates MIDI info transmissions in and out of your computer via USB. One example of a MIDI interface is the MIDI keyboard controller. MIDI controllers are considered interfaces that include input devices already built-in. In short, you can use a MIDI keyboard controller to send MIDI messages to your computer and the rest of your digital instruments.

Final Thoughts

A MIDI keyboard controller is a MIDI interface with a built-in keyboard input device. This interface manages MIDI messages between your computer and the rest of the instruments in your Digital Audio Workstation. Once you understand how MIDI keyboard controllers fit into the larger picture of your MIDI setup, you can use it to create your one-person band!



I'm Vinnie, and I'm here to support you to create your own studio at home, whether it’s for photography, recording audio, podcasts, or videos!

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