Ultimate Guide: How to Use a MIDI Keyboard

MIDI keyboards differ in length, functionality, and price. If you aren’t sure about the parameters you need at the time, it’s worth selecting a middle-class model, e.g. the best 61-key MIDI controller. Still, when you learn how to use a MIDI keyboard, you might find out that these controller boards aren’t much different from each other. The main parameters to consider are the following:

  • Number of controls. If you plan on recording simple tunes and do some editing, you might go well with the minimum setup (25 keys and about 5 basic faders and knobs).
  • Size. Think of the possible trips and jam sessions with your keyboard, and the space you have at home/studio.
  • Feel of the keys. It’s advisable to go with the semi-hammered or hammered keys, with quality velocity sensors.

With the MIDI keyboard, the size and number of keys aren’t as important as with synths and real pianos (unless you’re going to write the large opera compositions or play classics). The functionality of MIDI controllers depends largely on other devices connected, and the software used.

How to Use a MIDI Controller

The MIDI keyboard doesn’t have a built-in synth or an audio module. It requires a connection to a PC or a laptop, some models also support the smartphone connection. Another important component is the DAW software. The latter lets you map your keyboard to your liking, change the parameters of the recorded samples, equalize the sound, edit fragments, quantize the record, apply effects, play it in another instrument performance track, and so on.

Selecting the DAW, pay attention to its principal purpose. Take the MIDI-oriented one. While different DAWs might feature various samples and libraries, they all offer the standard effects (pitch, modulation, flanger, delay, etc.) and let you access different instrument patches. Choosing the DAW is more about the user’s comfort, as you might prefer a certain interface to others.

What can you do with a MIDI controller? Let’s make a list:

  • Play. You can quickly play the tune you need to assess its parameters and determine if it fits your purpose. With full-size MIDI keyboards, you can play on four and more octaves.
  • Record. As your controller is hooked up to a computer, all your records are stored in PC drives and are available for editing or mixing as well.
  • Use VST. You can assign an instrument type and mix the different instrument outputs in a single composition.
  • Apply effects. You can hook up a sustain pedal to your MIDI keyboard or select the sustain effect within the DAW interface. You can also use reverb, flanger, and other sound effects. You can control the intensity and time of the effects through the regulators on the MIDI or assign these functions to some of the keys.
  • Edit your sound. It’s easy to adjust records in real-time. You can cut, merge, overlap fragments, apply effects, switch to another instrument, change EQ parameters, and so on.
  • Assign controls. You can change all the presets on your MIDI keyboard, and assign certain functions to keys and CC elements. For example, you can create a sound sample and assign its playback to an action pad, make a knob a volume regulator, and invoke string sounds with the keys of the first octave. You can also map your keyboard so that a part of it serves, namely, for piano playback and another part—for effects or drums.
  • Change rhythm patterns. It’s especially important if you have a basic MIDI controller with non-weighted keys that don’t react to the character of the pressure. You can play a tune on the keyboard, and then apply a certain rhythmic pattern to it, increasing or decreasing velocity at certain points of playback.

Knowing how to use a MIDI keyboard controller, you can create and edit music, improvise and play different instrument parties. In order to make the process of music writing or editing convenient, make sure to set up your controller properly beforehand.

How to Set Up a MIDI Keyboard

In order to use the MIDI keyboard, it’s crucial to complete all of the configurations. Otherwise, you may not receive any input signal or be unable to use some of your DAW’s functions. Here I’ll describe how to set up a MIDI controller.

  1. Install drivers. Many modern MIDI keyboards come with pre-installed drivers that are compatible with the many popular OS (Windows, iOS, Android, etc.). However, it’s better to install the newest drivers available at the moment. For that, go to the manufacturer’s website, find your MIDI keyboard model, and download the necessary drivers. In case you’re using an audio interface, you might need to install the interface drivers in order to make the setup work.
  2. Install a DAW or use the one you already have. The user interface and primary purpose of DAW software are distinct. For example, DJ DAWs provide quick access to effects and mixing tools. MIDI-oriented DAWs let you configure your MIDI input and output within a single window, as well as applying various effects and editing tools, instrument packages. However, all DAW software types work with MIDI, so, if you use a DJ version, you can also map it to match your MIDI keyboard. When you pick a DAW, you might notice there are different versions available, 32-bit and 64-bit. This concerns the type of your OS (can be determined in the System settings), and the plugins that you already have installed or need to download to work with various VST.
  3. Configure the speaker output in your DAW. In order to ensure your MIDI keyboard works as intended, you must hear the sound synthesized by the computer as a result of the MIDI input. The configuration should be performed within the DAW interface and it may vary depending on the software you’re using. For most software interfaces, you’ll need to enter the Settings section and then look for the audio output settings. Then search for the “Device” submenu. In the opened list, look for the sound card of your computer (or for the audio interface, if you hook up the keyboard via this device), and enable the output.
  4. Configure the MIDI input in the DAW. Again, the actual config path might differ from DAW to DAW. However, in general, you need the “Input” menu. If there’s none, look for the “Device” section. When you’ve found your keyboard on the list, click to enable its input. In case the field stays non-clickable, try to plug out the keyboard, then enable the inputs for a MIDI signal, and plug the keyboard back. It should appear on the list. When the MIDI input is enabled, and your keyboard is recognized, play some keys. You should hear the sound out of your speakers. If you don’t, check the previous steps. If the problem isn’t solved, refer to the section “How to connect a MIDI keyboard”.

How to Connect a MIDI Keyboard to a Computer

Modern computers and portable devices usually don’t feature a MIDI suitable port, or it can’t be used for MIDI purposes (not each round 5-pin connector is wired to translate the MIDI signal). However, there are multiple connection options for a MIDI keyboard, though in some cases, you might need an intermediary device

  • Check if your sound card has the MIDI input and output. If so, plug in the MIDI cable into the keyboard’s “MIDI OUT” port and into the input on a sound card. Connect the keyboard’s input to the sound card’s output with a second MIDI cable.
  • If you’ve got an audio interface, then, connect the keyboard MIDI IN and OUT to the ports on the audio interface (OUT and IN accordingly), through a MIDI cord. Then, plug in the USB cable to the interface port, and to the USB Type-A port on the PC.
  • If your keyboard has a USB connection, plug the USB Type-B connector of the USB cable into the keyboard’s port, and the USB Type-A connector into the computer.
  • What if your sound card doesn’t have MIDI inputs, and there’s no USB interface in your keyboard? How to connect a MIDI keyboard to a PC in this case? Use the MIDI interface. That’s a cable having MIDI inputs (go into the keyboard ports) on one end, and a USB Type-A connector (goes into a PC) on another.