Your computer is the engine that drives your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and the hub that hosts your music software titles. But that doesn’t mean you’re required to work only in the cramped engine room, limited to a mouse, trackpad, and qwerty keyboard.
Having a well-equipped keyboard controller puts you back on the bridge in the captain’s chair with intuitive, expressive, and instantaneous control over nearly all aspects of your music creation station right at your fingertips. Think of it like a beefed-up remote control for your DAW.
Navigating your way through the current selection of keyboard controllers can seem a bit overwhelming at first. This guide will help you zero in on the features and functions that best suit your personal needs, whether you’re the music director on tour or playing around during study hall — or anywhere in between.
Back to the beginning – A quick history of keyboard contollers
Keyboard controllers have a deep relationship with MIDI, a computer language that transmits information related to numerous audio applications.
MIDI (Music Instrument Digital Interface) was introduced at the 1983 Winter NAMM Show by Dave Smith (founder of Dave Smith Instruments and Sequential Circuits). In the years prior, there was no standardized way to synchronize electronic instruments from different brands. Instead, there were a bunch of complicated proprietary protocols that didn’t like to play nice with each other.
Ikutaro Kakehashi, the president of Roland, had approached Smith as well as representatives from other companies including Yamaha, Korg, and Kawai to discuss a straightforward and universal alternative. Thus, the predecessors of today’s keyboard controller were born!
These early devices controlled multiple sound modules, keyboard instruments, hardware sequencers, and other gadgets from a single performance platform. Over time, the keyboard controller has added MIDI over USB and FireWire connectivity as it evolved to serve a more computer-centric role, unifying softsynth sound manipulation, DAW recording and mixing control, plus keyboard composition and performance.
Main considerations for choosing the right keyboard controller
Keyboard controllers are right at home in the professional recording world, the project studio, and on the performance stage. Each one supplies a variety of control surface elements, MIDI interaction abilities, and software support.
When it comes to choosing your next keyboard controller, take a moment to answer a few questions about how you’ll be using the device. Then you’ll be in a better position to look for the features you feel are essential and find one that suits your needs, desires, and (last but not least) budget.
How many keys do I need on my keyboard controller?
Keyboard controllers range in size from 25 keys all the way up to the full size of 88 keys.
If you’re a piano player, a larger model with more keys and weighted key action will simulate the feel of an acoustic piano. You’ll be able to comfortably input your musical parts into a DAW or perform live while connected to softsynth programs.
If you’re primarily a bedroom or on-the-go producer, a compact model might be easier to use. You’ll have a couple octaves worth of notes at your disposal to easily stack melodies, chords, and rhythms by overdubbing. Smaller keyboard controllers also fit comfortably into a backpack or gear bag alongside a laptop, audio interface, and headphones.
For many musicians and producers, a keyboard controller may not be the only keyboard instrument in their setup. So, maybe you won’t need as many keys or require emulated piano action if you have other instruments available.
How much space do I have in my studio or setup?
If space is a concern, consider how to make the best use of your available real estate. Nearly all keyboard controllers feature Octave Shift keys that allow even the smallest models to access nearly the entire note range. Having a clear, unobstructed space where your keyboard controller will live offers the best results.
What types of software titles will I be using?
Certain keyboard controllers feature multiple scenes. Each scene can re-map the control surface to match up to a particular software title.
With scenes, you quickly switch between controlling different software instruments, music production software, and audio plug-ins. For sound design work or tweaking parameters in real time, having multiple assignable controls can be beneficial.
When using advanced DAW software, assignable mixer knobs and faders may provide a more intuitive feel. If you have your eye on specific software titles, certain keyboard controllers have been designed to match those platforms — such as those offered by Native Instruments or Ableton Live.
Note that many keyboard controllers may include a starter pack containing complete software programs or upgradeable demo versions.
Building your feature checklist
Now that we’ve talked a little bit about keyboard controllers, let’s put together a feature checklist. By having a list of features you’d love to see in your new keyboard controller, you can make a more informed decision.
Read through this list of top keyboard controller features so that you can understand the precise capabilities being offered.
It’s worth repeating: You’ll need to choose the number of keys and decide what type of keyboard you want. For thumping in some bass lines or blocking out some chords, fewer keys are required and a lighter action may suffice.
More accomplished pianists and trained professional players will require more keys and may prefer a weighted or semi-weighted action. Aftertouch — the ability to introduce modulation or adjust parameters in real time by pushing down harder on an already depressed key — is worth checking out if you’re looking for next-level keyboard expression.
Performance controls and pedal inputs
The ability to alter parameter values in real time as you play can add extra levels of expression to any performance.
While knobs and sliders are available, “left-hand” controllers and foot pedals provide the most expedient way to add expression to your performance. Joysticks, ribbon controllers, X-Y touchpads, and pitch bend and modulation wheels are some of the most common performance controllers available today. Pedal inputs also provide hands-free control of similar features — and most importantly, sustain.
Playing drum sounds, triggering off samples, playing loops creating chords, and accessing key software functions are the main reason for adding trigger pads to a keyboard controller. And many controllers have at least a handful of trigger pads onboard.
If you want to use pads to trigger drum sounds and samples, look for dynamic pads that respond to how much force is being applied.
Finally, pads can also be an integral part of launching and triggering clips in many software titles — especially in programs such as Ableton Live.
Display and illumination
Keyboard controllers can be brimming with all types of knobs, buttons, switches, pads, and dials. Illuminated controls, color-coded LEDS, and informative displays can certainly make navigating your new keyboard controller quite a bit easier, both on stage and in the studio.
Many controllers rely on the computer to provide information regarding the current status of any control element. Other keyboard controllers may offer a simple LED display or a comprehensive screen to provide more immediate status information.
Keep in mind that backlit LCD screens offer better visibility in low-light environments.
Often presented as dedicated single-purpose controls, the transport controls provide immediate access to the Record, Play, Pause, Stop, and Return/Rewind commands associated with most DAW recording systems. This arrangement allows you to operate these important commands right from your controller, regardless of the current front panel or scene settings.
Mixer/edit controls — faders, buttons, and knobs
The additional faders (sliders), buttons, and/or knobs built into many keyboard controllers are frequently laid out to emulate the channels of a mixing board; for example:
- Level (slider/fader)
- Pan (knob)
- Mute/Solo/Record (buttons)
This intuitive format makes it simple to control the mix of input and playback channels in conjunction with your DAW software. Switching between scenes provides access to additional channels so you don’t need a full set of controls for each channel. These controls can often be reassigned — either manually of automatically via software — to edit key sound-creation parameters found in software synths and audio plug-ins.
Quickly manipulating multiple parameters at once speeds up many editing and sound-design tasks, as well as adding more fun to the process. Think about how many softsynths and plug-ins you may be controlling and choose a keyboard controller that will satisfy your sound-editing needs.
Switching between scenes instantly re-assigns the individual controllers to access either new functions or to control a different piece of software: DAW, softsynth, plug-in, etc.
Changing scenes can allow access to more mixer channels, additional sound parameters, or extra software features. In performance, switch scenes to provide real-time control throughout your set.
Many manufacturers either include or provide a downloadable software editor for the keyboard controller itself. This software editor can help set certain global parameters and MIDI settings; map specific controls to certain functions; create, store, save, and load scenes; and much more.
USB and MIDI
A single USB cable provides a two-way link between the keyboard controller and your computer. And while MIDI data is shared over this USB connection, some keyboard controllers also include “old-school” din-style MIDI in and MIDI out ports, allowing other MIDI-compatible synths, drum machines, and other devices to be integrated into your computer music setup. Certain controller models may be able to use an Apple adapter to connect to your iOS device via USB.
It’s important to know that many keyboard controllers are bus-powered — meaning they’re powered by the computer when connected with a USB cable. If you plan on using a controller with other hardware via MIDI cable, you’ll need a model that has its own power supply.
Demo software pack
Your new keyboard controller may contain a demo software package with a collection of software titles to get you started — or to expand your current computer music rig. While some titles may have a limited feature set, they often contain a cost-effective upgrade route to the full version.
It's in your hands
Your keyboard controller creates a centralized command station for your complete computer-based music-making setup and provides a time-saving alternative to the “mix by mouse” method of interacting with your software.
By now, you’ve read through some of the information in this guide and have started to look at the great selection of keyboard controllers available at American Musical Supply. Keep in mind how you want to use your new keyboard controller, which features are important to you, and select a model that suits your own playing style.
And while you’re at it, don’t forget to look for a keyboard case or gig bag to protect your investment, a new keyboard stand or tier to integrate the controller into your setup, or any other accessories such as pedals and a power supply that you might need to make the most of your purchase.
If you still have questions (even after reading this awesome guide), feel free to give us a call. The AMS Gear Nerds are standing by to answer any and all of your keyboard controller questions. We’ll help to point you in the right direction to find the perfect keyboard controller to suit your music creation needs!