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Choosing the Best MIDI Controllers

What is a MIDI controller?

MIDI is an acronym for Musical instrument Device Interface, data that tells a compatible “instrument” what sound to make. The instrument that actually generates the audio is typically a computer or synthesizer. The MIDI controller is the device that the musician interacts with or plays—typically a MIDI controller keyboard, although there are other form factors including pad controllers and a MIDI foot controller.

What is the difference between a MIDI controller and a synthesizer?

A synthesizer is an electronic musical instrument that generates sounds, often replicating (or synthesizing) the sound of traditional instruments like a piano, horns and strings. A synthesizer that doesn’t have its own onboard controller for musicians to interact with is often referred to as a sound module. And that’s where a MIDI controller comes in. You use a MIDI controller in whatever form factor you prefer—it could be a USB MIDI keyboard or MIDI keyboard with pads, for example—to connect to the sound module and play music based on the input from the MIDI controller.

What can you do with a MIDI controller, and how many keys do you need?

The popularity of MIDI controllers is in large part due to their versatility. If you want to fully replicate the experience of playing a piano you can get an 88 key MIDI controller, and even a MIDI controller with weighted keys. More limited synth playing could save space by using a more compact option like a 37 key MIDI controller for input. If you need to be able to easily play single chords for extended periods, a pad-style USB MIDI controller is popular. Many musicians employ a pedal-style MIDI foot controller for playing synthesized bass sequences. Drum pads allow a MIDI controller to play percussion.

In addition to the basic inputs, some MIDI controller keyboards also include other real-time audio controllers such as knobs, sliders and wheels that can apply special effects such as fading or modulation.

The key to remember is that with any MIDI controller, you need a MIDI-compatible sound module, computer or synthesizer to plug into in order to actually generate sound. And you’ll need a matching connection interface, typically a dedicated MIDI port, USB or even Bluetooth wireless.

What is the best MIDI controller for beginners?

For a beginner, the best MIDI controller is usually a multi-purpose version that keeps as many options open as possible. For example, a mini MIDI keyboard with a selection of pads and effects knobs lets you play virtually any “instrument” and offers some special effects for live customization of sound. For many musicians that first MIDI controller can be repurposed as part of a bigger setup later on. Because it’s an interface instead of an actual instrument, keys and pads can be reprogrammed as needed.