First, Wikipedia describes MIDI as a Musical Instrument Digital Interface. But when starting up, and even when experienced, this stuff is very confusing. Let’s just go over the basics to get you started in the right direction :). (And explain why a MIDI keyboard is the best route to take for the home-studio producer, when compared to a keyboard with built-in sounds like expensive Yamaha’s).
I’ve also created a page about the best midi keyboards available to you as a beatmaker!
Hardware Sounds vs. VSTs — Back in the Day,
Alright, so back in the day sounds were stored on analog/hardware gear, called sound modules. These would be on those expensive-looking studio racks where it would be loaded with tons of other analog gear like hardware compressors, hardware effects like delays and reverbs, EQ’s, pre-amps and so on!
If you had a MIDI controller back in the day, the connections would of looked like this picture. This was the standard MIDI connection. You would connect a MIDI cable from your keyboard to one of these analog sound modules. You would then switch between sounds on the sound module, and then record the audio from the sound module into your computer. And yes, there is a down side to this. Sure, you can edit your notes at first, but when you go to record, that’s your audio loop you’re working with. If you feel you’ve made a mistake, it looks like you’ll have to edit your MIDI notes, then record once again. (This is where VSTs save so much time and effort while making music, you can edit your loop instantly instead of recording it).
Music back in the day was not affordable because of having to purchase this kind of gear. However, now with computers, sounds and programs are amazingly affordable in compared to what it used to be. Computer programmers create synthesizers, other known as VSTs, which allow you to have a sound module within your computer!
This allows for quick and easy sound design, editing of the loop itself, and very fast beatmaking! This is the main reason why MIDI Keyboards using VSTs have a big advantage over hardware. However, you will always hear a debate on how analog (hardware) gear always sounds warmer and richer. In my opinion, I’d rather the faster, and easier workflow, with VSTs that still sound amazing. Like Nexus 2.
MIDI Keyboard vs. MIDI Controller
Remember this, USB is MIDI! So if you see an option to plug in USB or MIDI, USB is probably the best way to go, since it’s the most up to date.
The reason companies create the older MIDI connections is because people still use this analog gear within their productions, so it doesn’t look like the older MIDI connection is going away anytime soon. (USB also makes the home studio set up quick, affordable, and organized looking).
If you hear the term MIDI Keyboard, and MIDI Controller, these are in fact the exact same thing. A controller is more geared towards doing cool automation effects, or it could even be something like a drum pad. A MIDI Keyboard is the same thing as a MIDI Controller, but a MIDI Keyboard makes it easy to play piano pieces because of the keys. They are both sending the same signal (MIDI Messages).
What’s the Purpose of MIDI?
MIDI is meant to control your music program with ease. This means they do not have sounds within them by them self. So when buying the MIDI keyboard, bringing it home, and realizing.. “I don’t have any sounds! What did I just buy!?”, don’t worry, you’re not alone ;).
The sounds you play are through programs like VSTs, or your one-hit samples sounds. You use these sounds within your music program, which your MIDI keyboard/controller so awesomely controls and plays.
Why Get a Keyboard with No Sounds in it?
MIDI is the way to go for ease of use, affordability, while still creating extremely high quality beats. It allows for awesome control over your music program (DAW), and if your MIDI controller has knobs, allows the knobs to manipulate the VSTs’ controls for that hands-on approach.
Purchasing a hardware keyboard, in my opinion, is pointless in this generation. It requires way more money, it’s harder to record into your music program, and with technology the way it is, you get more bang for buck working within your computer, and a cleaner, more organized approach.
However, there are some MIDI Keyboards that are way too over the top, then some that don’t have enough features. So what features should you get on your MIDI Keyboard?
Must Have Features on a MIDI Keyboard
If you are in the market for a MIDI Keyboard, something you must have is the Play, Stop, and Record buttons. These are essential, and allow you to get into a great workflow when it comes to creating loops, stopping, pausing, repeating the loop over and over; just in general, it helps your workflow.
Another thing to keep in mind is having a pitch bend wheel and a mod wheel. Personally, because of FL Studio being complicated with hardware, I don’t use these too often, however, they are still nice to have.
Now, I probably wouldn’t recommend sliders on your keyboard, but knobs are nice. The reason for no sliders is because they’re not motorized, so it makes mixing complicated anyways, and harder than it should be. The knobs I do recommend because this allows you to change controls on VSTs, manipulating sounds hands-on, which is always fun.
Now, I have the Axiom 49 (2nd Generation) which is great! However, it’s loaded with so many features I don’t use half of them. Just keep this in mind when purchasing any audio products in general. Pay for what you need, and may want, but not so much what you think you’re going to use down the road. (Unless you know you’re going to use it — with so many features, the Axiom is great, but more expensive than other MIDI Keyboards).
Also, the Axiom 49 (2nd Generation) comes with a drum pad as well. Honestly, your keys are the same thing as the drum pad. So if you’re interested in sampling, I actually prefer using my keyboard’s keys over pads. It allows for more than 16 notes (like drum pads have), and saves money. If you use FL Studio, I highly recommend using Slicex for sampling, it’s awesome!
However, again, just like the analog/hardware debate, there is also a debate with drum pads of using MPCs (hardware) vs MIDI/Maschine (software).
Keep in mind, if you’re going to buy a drum pad with a MIDI keyboard, the Axiom 49 (2nd Generation) does come with both, your keys and drum pad. I purchased both in my beginnings.. not totally sure what I was doing, so here I am telling you to plan your purchases ahead of time ;). You can save money by either buying an all-in-one keyboard like the Axiom 49 (2nd Generation) or an Akai 49 MPK, or you can buy a more affordable MIDI Keyboard, and buy a drum pad separately.
A pro to the all-in-one is maybe you might save money, a pro to the separate is sometimes a separate drum maschine gives you a bit more flexibility in terms of where you want to put it, of features. There’s also Maschine if you want a nice MIDI Drum Pad.
You can also find out some info on learning how to set up your MIDI keyboard within FL Studio!