There is a difference between good piano keyboards and MIDI keyboards, and it’s not in their quality, but in the fact that the first ones actually produce sounds while the MIDI keyboards are used more for recording purposes. MIDI keyboard pianos are actually part of setups used in music studios for producing music.
MIDI controller basics
There are many instruments in music, and if you’re going to only play a certain style, you don’t need to learn them all. However, there are some tools in the music industry that can help you anytime, and one of those tools is the MIDI keyboard.
This is an important device that is most useful for music producers, as it allows for much-needed versatility in the studio. It’s not an instrument per se, but rather an editing tool. It’s one thing that helps to transform your instruments into tracks. Thus, although it’s a keyboard, it doesn’t really function as a keyboard instrument.
The term MIDI is an abbreviation that stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and as this name suggests, it’s basically something that allows all the instruments and computers in a music studio to communicate between them. It relies heavily on its software, and it’s a more complex device than it seems.
As such, it consists of the interface, the connectors that you can use to make a piece of hardware “communicate” to another, and the data language.
Misconceptions about MIDI keyboards
You may notice that the MIDI keyboard doesn’t produce sounds by itself; it has no sound engine. Instead, it sends signals to a computer or other types of hardware and they actually produce the sounds.
The MIDI controller doesn’t actually create and transmit an audio signal, but it creates data, so you could consider MIDI keyboards more like small computers than instruments. Connected with the MIDI you have a sequencer that transmits that data forward. In recordings, the sound appears in the form of waves, but MIDI data appears as simple rectangles.
This means that MIDI data is much more compact and easy to read by software. That’s why many pieces of hardware can read it more easily, and that’s what the MIDI keyboard is made for. So when a computer or other kind of hardware replay the MIDI information, it doesn’t recreate a sound but it takes the data and triggers its information, which results in any sound imaginable.
Another advantage of MIDI data is the fact that it’s easy to modify. So you don’t have to re-record something to make it sound different. You just change some parameters and the sound will be modified as you wish.
As you may have already guessed, a MIDI controller will be useless by itself, so it needs to work alongside other pieces of hardware, to form a setup. And for that it needs to connect to them, doing that through cables. So when discussing a MIDI keyboard, we need to take into account the whole ensemble.
These connections can be quite complicated to understand. The old-fashioned way of connecting a MIDI keyboard to anything else was using a 5-pin DIN cable (also referred to as MIDI cable, for obvious reasons). These cables are still used today, but most new computers don’t have the capability to accept them.
Instead, some MIDI controllers use USB cables, which are much more popular and can usually be accepted by most computers and hardware.
When producing music you need to get the information, the sound and everything else, from your musical setup to your DAW (digital audio workstation). The DAW can be an electronic device, or it can be a piece of software installed on a computer. To make the connection between the setup and the DAW, you need a MIDI interface.
A MIDI interface is basically a small device that allows multiple connecting cables to be plugged into it, and thus to connect them all. This allows you to send data from any device to another.
You thus have different kinds of connections. As with most devices that can be connected with others, the MIDI keyboard has ports that allow information to go in it, and others that let information get out of it. MIDI IN transmissions will receive data from the sequencer or from instruments, directing them in the keyboard.
MIDI OUT gets data from the keyboard to another device, such as a MIDI interface and later onto the digital audio workstation (DAW). Most of the times you will be using the MIDI OUT to connect to your final piece of hardware in the setup.
There is also another kind of connection called MIDI THRU, and as the name suggests, this allows for the data that is received to simply be duplicated and send further along the line in the same form. The advantage of MIDI THRU is that it can help you connect all the gear together using just one single central sequencer.
So what is a MIDI keyboard for?
A MIDI keyboard piano isn’t usually made to play beautiful pieces of music on it or to feel like a pianist. Although there are some models that will allow you to play them like a digital keyboard (the ones with 88 keys), they are still primarily made to help you in the studio when you’re producing music.
Nowadays many digital audio workstations, especially those that run on computers, are the main way of producing music. And most of them have a function called the piano roll, that you can use to simply place the notes you want and tweak them using only a mouse.
Most DAWs also have a function allowing you to use the computer’s keyboard to do the same thing. You could map every key on your computer keyboard to match a specific note, and you could theoretically play a song using that. But you won’t do that if you’re producing music.
So instead, the MIDI keyboard was invented, to offer a better interface for those accustomed to musical instruments. These keyboards aren’t created for you to play a live performance virtually on your computer, but they offer a better feeling when you’re hitting the notes and creating a piece of music.
Using a MIDI controller to play everything from piano pieces to bass lines, or even guitars or drums, gives a better feeling, a human touch. It’s far better than simply programming the notes with a mouse and a keyboard, although the end result is the same, a series of digital information resulting in a pleasant sound.
For those that already know how to play a keyboard instrument, it makes the transition from playing to producing much easier, and it’s recommended that you certainly get a MIDI keyboard piano if you’re that kind of person.
It may seem simple to just connect all of your studio’s hardware to a single mixer and be done with it, but recording audio tracks offers limited opportunities compared to what a MIDI keyboard and a MIDI system can do.
Although it may not give you an analog and natural feeling all the time, a MIDI keyboard can offer better performances in recording and producing music, and it does that way faster. Its main advantage is that you can always edit what you don’t like, and you don’t have to redo that part.
If you don’t like a certain note in the composition you can either edit it and just remove that note simply and use the keyboard to redo it as you wish. With some DAWs you can do that in a couple of seconds.
Furthermore, you can take a simple part consisting of a small number of notes, and loop it how many times you want. So you could create a 10-minute piece of music in seconds. Of course, that may not end up to be the best piece of music, but you get the idea. Thus, MIDI keyboards will help you create music simpler and faster.
One of the most common and simple MIDI setups is pairing a MIDI keyboard piano with a DAW and nothing else. This is a versatile connection that will allow you to produce music even if you’re going somewhere; you just have to take the small keyboard and laptop with you.
The keyboard will be able to offer millions of sounds, it can replicate the sound of a guitar, piano, drums, bells, and many others, nearly anything you could think off. And that’s what a MIDI keyboard should be used for.