electronic music basics

All About MIDI Keyboards

MIDI keyboards let a musician communicate directly with their computer or another electronic instrument. These versatile controllers are an essential part of the musician’s toolkit. MIDI technology has only been around since the 1980s, but it works so well that it’s become a standard of the music industry.

A MIDI Keyboard can be part of a synthesizer

What Is a MIDI Keyboard?

A MIDI keyboard is a device that can send MIDI data. Both MIDI controllers and electronic keyboards might be referred to as MIDI keyboards; they look quite similar, but they’re actually different items.

An electronic keyboard is a MIDI instrument. These keyboards contain prerecorded sounds, and they might even be able to record new sounds. An electronic keyboard can be used to send, receive, and play MIDI data. You can use an electronic keyboard as a MIDI controller, but you can’t use a controller in place of an electronic keyboard.

A MIDI controller is the classic definition of a MIDI keyboard. These devices can’t produce sound on their own. Instead, they send MIDI data messages to a computer or another electronic instrument. Most MIDI keyboards look like miniature pianos, but all sorts of different MIDI controllers exist. From samplers to drum pads to MIDI guitars, any device that communicates in the MIDI language can be used as a controller if you have the right cable.

What Is MIDI?

MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, is a General MIDI is a standard specification for MIDI instruments. Computers and electronic keyboards that use general MIDI share the same program map; if the data says to play on program #57, the sound of a trumpet will always be produced.

Because MIDI data is so standardized, it can be used to accomplish a variety of musical feats. A composer might write a piece for an entire MIDI orchestra. If the data is sent to a general MIDI device, the song will be played exactly as the composer intended.

MIDI data can usually be converted to sheet music and vice versa. The same concepts of note length, pitch, and timing can be communicated across both languages; however, MIDI programs can include additional data like volume, instrument, or modulation that won’t appear in a sheet music score.

MIDI data is saved as a .MID file. If a program or device can read this file, it can recreate the song inside. The sounds might be different, but the notes, timing, and volume will all be the same.

It’s worth noting that MIDI keyboards are controllers; they don’t contain internal software, and they can’t receive, read, or record MIDI data. Instead, MIDI keyboards communicate data to a computer or another device.

How MIDI Keyboards Are Used by Musicians

A midi controller is an essential part of any musician’s home studio. From tiny desktop keyboards to complicated samplers, most digital artists can’t resist owning a few different controller types.

Most midi keyboards don’t make sound on their own, so musicians use a USB connection to plug the controller into their computer. A digital audio workstation (DAW) like Logic, Ableton, or Reaper is then used to connect the keyboard to a virtual instrument.

Musicians use keyboards to record digital performances. Additional keys on the controller might be mapped to produce specific effects; the DAW can record these effects in real-time. The performance can later be edited and re-mixed to achieve the desired sound.

Using a MIDI keyboard is significantly easier than entering notes in by hand. These keyboards can be used with almost any musical program; check out PianoRollComposer for a hassle-free way to play immediately.

If a MIDI keyboard isn’t working with a specific software, check the program’s settings. Most DAWs and programs require the keyboard to be “enabled” with a small checkbox next to the controller’s name.

A Brief History of the MIDI Keyboard

According to the MIDI Association, the history of MIDI starts with the development of the first musical machines in 850 AD. Humans have been playing with the idea of “automatic music” for quite some time; player pianos in the 1800s could read and recreate a score of music using a system that looks very much like the modern digital piano roll.

The actual MIDI language was first invented in 1981 by an engineering genius named Dave Smith. At this point, electric keyboards, synthesizers, and similar music technology already existed. Smith’s digital language allowed composers to program these devices to play sounds at specific times.

This development completely revolutionized the music industry. From simple recorded performances to daisy chains of MIDI devices all playing in unison, this new technology turned automatic music into a fun and functional reality. Over 30 years later, the MIDI 1.0 standard is still in use; when something works so well, there’s no reason to change it.

What Are Some Common Features of MIDI Keyboards?

The most necessary feature of a MIDI keyboard is the keyboard itself. If it doesn’t have piano keys, it’s a MIDI controller instead. You can find one-handed MIDI keyboards with 25 keys or full-range keyboards with 88 keys like a standard piano.

An essential but not visibly obvious feature of a MIDI keyboard is touch sensitivity. MIDI data includes the force with which a key was hit; a sensitive keyboard will be able to record more accurate performance information.

Next, many MIDI keyboards contain pitch and modulation wheels. These allow the performer to play with the sound of a note in real-time; check out this video by MangoldProject for an example.

Finally, a MIDI keyboard also tends to come with buttons, knobs, faders, and other controlling mechanisms. These features all act as “keys.” When you configure a DAW to work with a MIDI keyboard, you can choose to map a different function to each key; some musicians like to map samples, while other artists like to set up shortcuts for their most-used digital actions.

The beauty of MIDI controllers is that they’re completely customizable. Buy a simple keyboard for grab-and-go recording, or choose a controller with fifty buttons that you can carefully map in your DAW. Many samplers and other digital instruments can act as MIDI controllers; if it has a USB or a MIDI hookup, plug it into your DAW to see what it can do.