Keyboard Controller Buyers Guide 2022


Novation Impulse controller Novation Impulse controller

Take the Helm, Captain
No doubt about it: your computer is often the engine that drives your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and the hub that hosts your music software titles. But that means sitting in front of your computer can sometimes feel the same as sitting with Scotty down in the engine room. 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.

Navigating your way through the current selection of keyboard controllers can seem a bit overwhelming at first, so American Musical Supply has put together this guide to help you zero in on the features and functions that best suit your personal needs, whether you are the music director on a world tour or playing GarageBand during study hall—or anywhere in between.

Natural Selection
The controller keyboard was born as a MIDI master keyboard; it was a way to control multiple sound modules, keyboard instruments, a hardware sequencer, and other gadgets from a single performance platform. Over time, the keyboard controller has evolved to serve a more computer-centric role, unifying soft-synth sound manipulation, DAW recording and mixing control, plus keyboard composition and performance—all in a single integrated hardware device.

Special Needs
While most keyboard controllers aim to be general purpose in nature and adapt to the needs of the user, there are certain controllers that serve a more specific function. For example, there are a number of 88-key controllers that are focused on providing a compelling piano experience, and that may lack some of the other common “non-piano” controls—mixer surface, drum pads, etc. Other keyboard controller packages may include built-in sounds, or in other cases their control surface may be uniquely integrated to the included software synthesizer, such as with certain Arturia products. You may also discover keyboard controllers with audio connections that can serve double-duty as an audio/MIDI interface for your computer. And don’t forget the strap-on keytar-style controllers for achieving the ultimate in onstage mobility!

Survival of the Fittest

Today’s keyboard controllers are at home in the professional recording world, the project studio, and on the performance stage. Each one supplies a variety of keyboard abilities, control surface elements, MIDI interaction, performance controllers, and software support. When it comes to choosing your next keyboard controller, be aware that piling on more and more features may or may not bring you closer to meeting your own individual needs. Instead, take a few moments to honestly answer a few questions about how you will be using you keyboard controller. Then you will be in a better position to look for the features you feel are essential, and to compare models to find one that suits your needs, desires, and budget.

  1. How much keyboard do I need?
    For many musicians and producers, the controller keyboard may not be the only keyboard instrument in their setup. So if there is another performance instrument available, maybe you don’t need as many keys, or don’t require an emulated piano action. Ask yourself if your keyboard skills require an upgraded action to perform comfortably. Or are you looking to enhance your performance with the additional expression provided by the latest generation of non-traditional key surfaces?
  2. How much space do I have in my studio or setup?
    True, you can grow into your new keyboard controller; but 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 most diminutive keyboard to access nearly the entire note range. Controllers can be reassigned, so you don’t need to have dedicated controllers for tweaking and editing every parameter. Having a clear, unobstructed space where your keyboard controller will live will reward you with the best results.
  3. 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 multiple 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 may be beneficial. When using advanced DAW software, having assignable mixer knobs and faders may provide a more intuitive feel. In addition, certain keyboard controllers have been designed to matchup to a specific software package—such as Ableton Live. Note that many keyboard controllers may include a starter pack containing complete software programs or upgradeable demo versions.
  4. What type of performance control do I need?
    We mentioned the quality of the keyboard earlier, but what other performance features are important to you? Pitch Bend and Modulation Wheels? Pedal inputs? Keyboard Aftertouch? And of course, the ubiquitous drum/sample Trigger Pads? Making a list of any of these “must-have” features will help you make an informed choice. We have put together a feature check list in the following section that can help refine your choices.

Once you have considered these questions, you will be in a better position to look for the features you feel are essential, and ready to compare models to find one that suits your needs, desires, and budget.

Building Your Feature Checklist

Now that we’ve talked a little bit about keyboard controllers, AMS would like to help you put together a checklist. By having a list of features that you’d love to see in your new keyboard controller, you can make an informed decision. Read through this list of keyboard controller features so that you can understand the precise capabilities being offered, and start putting together a list of specific features.

  1. Keyboard Options
    In addition to choosing the number of keys, you will also need to 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 synth action may suffice. More accomplished players will require more keys, and may prefer a weighted or semi-weighted action. Players who are piano trained may prefer an 88-key, hammer-style action. For the player seeking the ultimate in keyboard expression, aftertouch (the ability to introduce modulation or adjust another parameter by pushing down harder on an already depressed key) is a must. Newer models—such as the ROLI Seaboard—are beginning to move beyond traditional keyboards to deliver extended expression. At the other end of the spectrum are keyboard controllers equipped with space-saving push-button keys of appeal to the laptop musician.
  2. Performance Controls & 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, pitch bend & modulation wheels—these are the most common performance controllers available today. Pedal inputs provide hands-free control of similar features—and most importantly, sustain.
  3. Trigger Pads
    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 have at least a handful onboard. If you will use the 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 programs such as Ableton. Specialty keyboard controllers created expressly for Ableton Live are also available.
  4. Display & Illumination
    Keyboard controllers can be brimming with all types of knobs, buttons, switches, pads, dials, etc. Illuminated controls, color-coded LEDS, and an informative display 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 LCD screen to provide more immediate status information. Keep in mind that backlit LCD screens offer better visibility in low-light environments.
  5. Transport Controls
    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 regardless of the current front panel or scene settings.
  6. Mixer/Edit Controls—Faders, Buttons, and Knobs
    The additional faders (sliders), buttons, and/or knobs built in to 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 of many software synthesizers 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 soft-synths and plug-ins you may be controlling, and choose a keyboard controller that will satisfy your sound-editing needs.
  7. Scenes
    Switching between scenes instantly re-assigns the individual controllers to access either new functions, or to control a different piece of software—DAW, soft-synth, plug-in, etc. Changing scenes can allow access to more mixer channels, additional sound parameters, or nearly any software feature. In performance, switch scenes to provide real-time control throughout your set.
  8. Software Editor
    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.
  9. USB & MIDI
    A single USB cable provides a two-way link between the keyboard controller and your computer. 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. You may need an Apple adapter to connect the keyboard controller to your iOS device via USB.
  10. Demo Software Pack
    Your new keyboard controller may contain a demo software package, containing 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 new 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 will use your new keyboard controller; which features are important to you; and be sure to select a model that suits your own playing style. 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.