There is a lot of discussion about the idea of using or not using a MIDI keyboard or controller for music production. Some people like them, other people don’t. I personally enjoy having one.
I would say MIDI Keyboards are totally worth it. They are not mandatory for music production. You can still work without a keyboard or without any other MIDI controller and still come up with a great production. However, there are very good reasons to have and use MIDI controllers to make your beats! Stay with me and let me point the advantages of having a MIDI keyboard controller (at least a keyboard) in your home studio, despite you are a beginner or a more experienced producer.
As we have explained in this blog a couple of times, a MIDI controller is a hardware that doesn’t make any sound by itself, but you have to connect it to a computer. Then you need a music production software (a DAW, Digital Audio Workstation) where you will make your beats, and you can use the MIDI controller to actually control your software.
Basically, with a MIDI controller you can do many of the things that you do just with your computer mouse.
On top of that, MIDI keyboard controllers are not the only MIDI controllers that you can use with your music production software. You can also find drum pads and control surfaces. But all of them serve the same purpose: to help you control your software to produce music or for a live performance.
I already mentioned that MIDI controllers can be used for live performances. In that case, it is easier to see that a controller can be really useful. It is hard to imagine a musician playing just with a mouse, right?
But for music production. If you can do 100% of the work just using your mouse, why would you need a MIDI controller? Why would you put any money on that? Well, I see many, many reasons. Starting with making your work easier, but also helping with your creative process. And a very important one: helping you making beats that are more human, rather than robotic.
Let’s review some of the benefits I see of having a MIDI keyboard controller at your home studio.
When you are composing music, having an actual keyboard can be really useful to just play music ideas before you record or draw anything in your software. You can just play series of notes to come up with ideas for the melody of your song, or for the bass or you can try some chords to see what could work for your master piece.
If you have a keyboard in front of you while you are composing your music, you can just try and hear immediately your ideas. You can experiment. You can play the music that is inside your head, and listen to it right away.
Just this first point convinces me to have a MIDI keyboard for my music production process!
If you do not have a physical keyboard where you can experiment, it can be really difficult to try ideas. It can be really time consuming and frustrating. You would have to draw the notes with your mouse, and see how they sound by hitting the play button. That is just not cool!
Most composers create their music with the keyboard, actually playing it before recording. Then they do record what they play or they just draw with the mouse. In fact, many producers do use the mouse to draw the notes in the software instead of recording. But that is much easier, because they already have the idea and they already know where to draw.
Staring to draw with a mouse notes here and there using the virtual piano is just too abstract. That’s why having a MIDI keyboard, something physical that you can actually play, makes a huge difference for the creation process.
To me, this reason is enough to get a MIDI keyboard. But there are more!
If you are a creative and visual person, having a real keyboard can really boost your inspiration. It makes a huge difference getting to your “production room” or to your “production space” at home, and see the keyboard close to your computer, rather than just seeing a boring desk and a laptop or PC.
Inspiration comes from many sources. And having your instrument and having other music related symbols can really help you sit down and start producing.
For me, it is really inspiring to see my keyboard, with the drum pads and the knobs and those cool lights. That just makes me more exited about turning my computer on and start trying some new ideas.
MIDI in general is very robotic. It is not that organic. In the end, beats are pretty much computer music. You use synthesizers to create machine produced sounds. You can also use real instruments samples, but still you play them through a computer program. No real musician is playing.
You can also record real instrument performances or a singer. But other than that, the music is played only by the computer, and it is your job to make it sound human, to make it sound like that music has a soul, that it is not just a machine playing. Machines do not connect with humans (most of the time).
Having a MIDI keyboard can help you to give your music a more human feel, because you will be the human who is going to be recording the music. It is way different to perform and record something than just to draw it with a mouse. I think the drum section is particularly important. You can create a nice groove if you actually perform.
An important parameter in MIDI music is the velocity. The velocity can be understood as the volume of a note. MIDI is not sound. It is data. When you create a MIDI note, that note has several parameters. For example, one of the parameters is a numeric value that represents the real note (the sound of C, D, E, etc.) that that MIDI note represents. Another parameter is the velocity, which represents how loud or how soft that note would have been played by a musician.
So, some MIDI controllers have sensitivity, which translates into velocity in the music production software. This is, if you hit the drum pad softly, the velocity in the DAW will be lower, and the sound of a snare would be less loud.
This velocity management helps you with the performance and with the human feeling for your music!
It is important to note that not all the MIDI controllers have this feature. You have to check the product you are looking to buy, if you want to have it. And it is always nice to have this feature. The controllers that do not come with this sensitivity are more used for live performances.
It is also important to say that your music production software will let you control the velocity of each note you draw or record. So, yes, in theory you do not need to have a controller. But again, if you perform with your physical instrument, you will have a better idea of where a real human plays harder and where he or she plays softer. And then you can adjust in your software.
Something really useful and cool that you can do with your MIDI keyboard is to assign the physical knobs of the keyboard to the virtual knobs in your software. With this assignment you will be able to control the knobs in your plug-ins and instruments with the physical ones. Being able to do this is really useful for automation.
Automation is a process in which you define how a specific parameter in your production software will change with the time. For example, you can automate the volume of a strings section, which will start pretty quite and will get louder and louder during five seconds, until it reaches the maximum volume you want to have for those strings. To automate that change of volume, first you have to define how the volume will change. You typically do that by creating an automation track, where you draw a line in your software that represents the change of volume.
Instead of drawing that automation line, you can use your controller and move the volume knob to create the effect that you are looking for.
The advantages of doing the automation with the controller are first, that it is much easier to do it with a physical object than drawing with the mouse, and second, again, the human feel you give your production.
Another reason why a lot of people find useful to have a MIDI keyboard for music production is that you can actually get better at playing the piano.
If playing the piano is something that is important for you, having a real keyboard can really help you with your knowledge of the instrument, your knowledge of music theory and with your ability to play the piano.
For me, knowing music theory is very important, even if you are making beats. There is a lot of people who do not know much about music, about chords, about scales, and they still try to produce music. Don’t get me wrong. It is great that they want to try and create music, and actually some people can come up with great beats, even if they do not know much about music.
However, knowledge is always necessary. One should study, learn theory, get better at playing. The more you know, the more ideas you will have, and the more freedom you will get to be creative.
Having a real keyboard will not give you the knowledge. But you can certainly practice more, and learn more, than just by using a virtual keyboard in the computer.
This reason to use a MIDI keyboard or a MIDI drum pad is similar to the previous one about getting better to play the piano.
When you have a MIDI controller and use it to actually play notes or drums, you actually get better at making beats, too. You get better at creating ideas “on the fly”. You get better at playing the drums section in real time!
If you just use your software to create the beats, it is ok. You also get better and better. But having the ability to actually perform using a keyboard or a drums pad, how cool is that! Using your controller regularly to play the ideas or even to record, will help you become a better musician, and will take you beyond being just a computer music producer.
This point is my favorite! If you have a MIDI controller you can actually jam! You need to know a little bit about music to be able to do it. But, again, you can learn and practice will make you better.
Most of the time, the people who create music do not have the opportunity to meet other musicians to jam. Most of the time, we are making music at home, recording in our home studio. I usually hang out with my guitar by myself.
When we make music in the computer, we get the great advantage of having a full band playing with us, inside the software. That is why having a MIDI controller is so fun. You can produce your music and then you can jam with your own production. That is really fun.
There is absolutely no way to do that just with your mouse.
Ok, this really depends on you as a producer. But, for me just having the vertical virtual keyboard (or piano roll) is really boring. It doesn’t inspire me that much.
It is really difficult to be just drawing notes in the piano roll, hitting the play button all the time to check how it sounds, and correct. And then repeat. Hundreds of times. It is just boring, time consuming and frustrating, sometimes.
I really prefer to just play the notes on my keyboard, come up with ideas, and then either draw the notes or record them with the keyboard. That is just more creative to me, and it is more fluid.
I see a lot of good reasons to have a MIDI controller. But it is important to mention that MIDI controllers are not for every producer. As for anything, it depends on each person’s taste.
A lot of producers just hate recording. They prefer to just draw the notes using the mouse. Or other producers do not know how to play the piano. Or they do not know much about music theory, but they can still come up with great ideas for a song.
Some producers are just really good with the computer and with all the controls of the software, that they don’t feel the need of having a physical device. And that is ok. Having a MIDI controller is a preference.
I think having a MIDI controller, either it is a keyboard, or a drums pad or a control surface for mixing, is totally worth it. There are so many advantages. In my case, I have used all of them, and I have them too in my home studio.
I am a musician, and I have played instruments for years. So, it doesn’t make sense to not have a real keyboard for making music with my computer.
In fact, to my eyes there are only 3 negative points about having a controller:
I hope I have given you some good reasons and ideas about how it is to make your beats with a MIDI controller and I hope you have the chance to experiment with one.