What Is a MIDI Controller? A Comprehensive Guide

I often get asked, "What is a MIDI controller?" In this article, I'll answer your questions about MIDI controllers and whether you need one for your setup.

If you’ve been in music production for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard of MIDI controllers. These innovative devices open up a realm of creative possibilities, allowing you to take control of your music like never before. From the studio to the stage, MIDI controllers offer a seamless connection between your music and the digital realm. But what exactly are MIDI controllers, and do you really need one in your home recording studio?

What is a MIDI controller? A MIDI controller is a musical instrument that allows you to control electronic music instruments using your computer. They usually don’t have an onboard speaker, so they need to be connected to an external speaker.

What is a MIDI controller?

A MIDI controller is any piece of hardware or software that can send and receive Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) data, which is used to trigger sounds and modify other performance characteristics in electronic music. A MIDI controller can turn on lights and other effects.

Image of someone using a portable midi controller at their home. Source: karolina grabowska, pexels
Image of someone using a portable mdid controller at their home. Source: karolina grabowska, pexels

Most MIDI controllers offer controller knobs and drum pads, while the larger ones have an additional bank of sliders. In addition, certain digital audio workstation programs require using certain MIDI controllers. Most layouts have different key combinations, so you can change them to fit your needs and tastes. The majority of keyboards also provide free downloadable applications.

My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

What is a midi controller? A comprehensive guide | 717qmgla7zl. Ac sl1500 | audio apartment
My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

I’m loving the AKAI MPK Mini MK3 for its compact design and the range of controls. It’s one of my essential tools. The velocity-sensitive keys and MPC-style pads are great for making beats, while the thumbstick and knobs give me precise control.

What is a MIDI keyboard?

Keyboard controllers are usually used to send information about the pitches of notes. Their main job is to send MIDI data to sound sources outside the computer. You may get controller keyboards with anything from 25 keys up to 88 keys. Some even provide a port for a footswitch and an expression pedal.

MIDI keyboards have keys and other controls, such as knobs and sliders, that can be set up to change different settings. Also, many have a drum or sample pad that they play with their fingers to imitate a drum kit or trigger samples in the studio or onstage. Keep an eye out for the pitch and modulation wheels.

It is important to remember that a controller keyboard doesn’t make any sound. So, if you buy one thinking it will work like a standard keyboard or synthesizer, you will be very disappointed.

How does a MIDI controller work?

When it comes to connecting MIDI devices to a computer, a trusty USB Type B cable does the trick. This nifty cable establishes what we call a “MIDI over USB” connection, allowing the digital conversation between MIDI devices and computers to flow seamlessly. The Universal Serial Bus (USB) cables are digital cables that allow MIDI devices to talk to computers.

Through this connection, MIDI messages, which are data packets filled with instructions, are sent to our software, creating a bridge between the physical realm of MIDI hardware and the digital domain of our virtual instruments or digital audio workstations (DAWs). Now, let’s talk about MIDI files.

A MIDI file captures the user’s interaction with MIDI hardware, including the notes played…

A MIDI file captures the user’s interaction with MIDI hardware, including the notes played, parameter values tweaked, and the intensity with which those changes were made. However, it’s important to note that a MIDI file itself doesn’t contain information about how a particular track, channel, or instrument sounds. That’s where a DAW comes into play.

To make sense of MIDI files, we rely on our trusty Digital Audio Workstations. These powerful software environments interpret the instructions within MIDI files and use them to play the right notes or make the appropriate changes. Think of it as a musical translator that brings the instructions to life in audible form.

What is a MIDI controller used for?

A MIDI controller serves as a versatile tool used to control and manipulate various aspects of music production and performance. It provides a physical interface that allows musicians, producers, and DJs to interact with software instruments, synthesizers, digital audio workstations (DAWs), and other MIDI-enabled devices.

Here are some key uses of MIDI controllers:

  1. Playing and Recording Virtual Instruments: MIDI controllers enable musicians to play and record virtual instruments using keys, pads, or other interface elements. These instruments can include virtual pianos, synthesizers, drum machines, and more. The MIDI controller translates the user’s playing into MIDI data that triggers the corresponding sounds in the software.
  2. Controlling DAW Parameters: MIDI controllers offer hands-on control over various parameters within a digital audio workstation (DAW). This includes adjusting mixer levels, panning, automation, plugin parameters, and transport controls like play, stop, and record. It allows for a more intuitive and tactile experience when working with software-based recording and editing environments.
  3. Live Performance and DJing: MIDI controllers are widely used for live performances and DJing, providing performers with tactile control over effects, samples, loops, and other elements. DJs can use MIDI controllers to manipulate tracks, trigger samples, and control mixing parameters, offering a more interactive and dynamic performance experience.
  4. Expression and Real-Time Manipulation: MIDI controllers often feature various input elements such as knobs, sliders, wheels, and touch-sensitive pads, allowing performers to add expressive nuances to their music. These elements can be assigned to control parameters like pitch bend, modulation, filter cutoff, and more, enabling real-time manipulation and shaping of sounds.
  5. Sequencing and Step Recording: MIDI controllers can also serve as powerful tools for sequencing and step recording. They allow users to input note and event data into a sequencer or MIDI-enabled software in a step-by-step manner, enabling precise composition and arrangement of musical patterns.

Why should you own a MIDI controller in your home recording studio?

Even though it’s possible to use a mouse to write and record music, it isn’t always a good idea. Using a MIDI keyboard instead of a mouse has more benefits. In most cases, controller keyboards won’t weigh you down too much, so your setup can go wherever you go. A MIDI keyboard can be used to create a feel that is more musical and organic.

Remember that it’s not enough to hit the right notes; your execution matters too. It has to be played right for the performance’s depth and feeling to come through. If you manually drew every nuance of dynamics and emotion with a mouse and keyboard, it wouldn’t sound as natural and would take a lot of time.

Image of a man using a midi controller in a home studio. Source: unsplash
Image of a man using a midi controller in a home studio. Source: unsplash

Assignable controllers allow for even more expressiveness during performances. Faders and knobs can be used in many ways, such as with virtual symphonic instruments. Consider recording a string quartet where each person’s part is recorded separately. If you’re going for maximum authenticity, the volume should vary throughout the piece.

When playing a stringed instrument, the attack and velocity rates are also affected by how the bow is used. Faders can make a recording sound more real by simulating how the bow’s speed changes as it moves over the strings. Because of this, many Hollywood composers use MIDI keyboards to make their music.

Additionally, you can access various sounds that have never been heard before if you use virtual instruments in your live performance. You can now get a variety of high-quality instrument sounds, including piano, synth, symphony, and more, in a small package.

If you want even more tips and insights, watch this video called “MIDI Explained for Beginners” from the Music Sequencing YouTube channel.

A video called “MIDI Explained for Beginners” from the Music Sequencing YouTube channel.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Do you still have questions? Below are some of the most commonly asked questions about what a MIDI keyboard is.

What is a MIDI controller used for?

With a MIDI controller, you can easily play virtual instruments and sequence music on a computer. It makes music by sending MIDI data (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) to a computer or synthesizer.

Which is better, MIDI or USB?

The bandwidth of a USB connection is much higher than that of a DIN-MIDI connection. This means that a single USB cable can connect 16 virtual MIDI ports, each with 16 channels, for 256 MIDI channels.

Should a beginner get a MIDI keyboard?

If you want to learn to play the piano from the ground up, you shouldn’t feel bad about picking up a MIDI keyboard as your first instrument. It’ll help you free up room, plus it’s lightweight and easy to transport. There are variations, but if you can get an 88-key weighted keyboard, you will be quite close.


MIDI controllers are more than just a simple upgrade to your studio. They add so much functionality and ease to your work that it’s hard not to get one. Moreover, they’re also affordable enough for most people to try them out without worrying about breaking the bank! If you haven’t used one yet, there is no better time than now to buy one.

So, do you usually use your MIDI controller? And did I cover everything you wanted to know? Let me know in the comments section below. I read and reply to every comment. If you found this article helpful, check out my full blog for more tips and tricks on music production. Thanks for reading, and never stop making music.

Key takeaways

This article covered what a MIDI controller is, what a MIDI keyboard is, and what a MIDI controller is used for. Here are some key takeaways:

  • A MIDI controller is any piece of hardware or software that can send and receive MIDI data, which is used to trigger sounds and modify other performance characteristics in electronic music.
  • It is important to remember that a controller keyboard doesn’t make any sounds.
  • Using a MIDI controller, like a keyboard, one synthesizer may talk to another or a computer.

Helpful resources

Image Andrew Ash
Written by Andrew Ash, Staff Writer

Hey there! My name is Andrew, and I'm relatively new to music production, but I've been learning a ton, and documenting my journey along the way. That's why I started this blog. If you want to improve your home studio setup and learn more along with me, this is the place for you!

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