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Tweak's Guide to
Compact MIDI
Keyboard Controllers

Figure Out which one is right for your desktop studio

by Rich the TweakMeister


Novation Remote 25SL 25-Key Compact USB Keyboard Controller


Bigger is not always better.  Especially when it comes to studio gear that has to compete for the small space between you and your computer video monitors.  While I love my 88 key Fantom, with its amazing large sound set, it is a bit, uh, huge and does not lend itself to sitting on the desktop.  Often times, when working on a song, I just want to play an 8 bar drum pattern or a little melodic phrase, or a couple of triads (3-note chords) not play monster piano concerto.  Those are the moments my little 37 key MIDI controller gets heavy use.  Because it's small, I have found a place for it right below the computer monitor.  Thanks to the onboard transport controls, I can press record, trigger notes and stop faster than if I had to press record, then turn 90 degrees to my Fantom, orient my hands to the keyboard and then play.  For me, MIDI keyboard placement is one of those critical things that makes for a smooth efficient movement during the recording process. 

mido controllers do not have sounds of their ownThere are many small MIDI controller keyboards on the market now and some of them are getting rather advanced. 

Unlike a synth workstation, MIDI controller keyboards do not have sounds.  The assumption here is that you will be using your computer sequencer with software instruments, or will have MIDI modules making the sounds for your music.  The controller just sends MIDI data. 

Because of the small footprint, fewer keys, and fewer functions, many MIDI controllers are quite inexpensive and are a great way to get started.  You can find MIDI controller boards for under $100, and if you have great software instruments, no one will ever know if you cut your tracks on it or a massive Korg Oasys.  However, the cheapest controllers are definitely compromised.  We're going to devote the rest of the article to the features you should pay attention to when buying a MIDI controller for your computer based recording studio, and give you a basis for evaluating them to fit your needs and budget.


Size and number of keys

can your controller fit in the space where your computer keyboard is?The first thing you need to decide is how big of a space you have for the keyboard.  Be exacting here.  Get out the tape measure and find out exactly the coordinates in which the keyboard must fit.  That in itself will limit the number of products you have to choose from.   There are larger soundless keyboard controllers with 61, 73 and 88 keys, but this article focuses specifically on the compact ones.  Typically, you have a choice of 25, 37, or 49 keys.   Some shrink the size even more by giving you half sized keys which I will call a mini keyboard, like the Korg MicroKontrol, others almost look like a full sized synth with 49 full sized keys like the Novation X-station, which is one of the more expensive controllers in this group.  You can find the dimensions of most controllers in the product descriptions at zZounds, though in some cases you might have to go to the manufacturers website to get it out of the manual.


large product image

Edirol PCR-500 49-Key USB/MIDI Keyboard Controller



Budget controllers are most apt to compromise on the touch of the keyboard.  This "touch" consists of may things.  1. The actual feel of the keyboard and its response to your hands.  2. The presence of velocity sensitivity.  3. Whether it has aftertouch or not. 4. Whether the keys are weighted or unweighted.  All four of these variables combine to make your playing of the keyboard a pleasurable experience.  As you go up in price you will find more of these 4 critical features implemented

1. Feel  This is subjective to some extent, but most of you can quickly identify a cheap feeling keyboard.  The keys will feel inconsistent when you press them; they may "bottom out" fast to even a slight touch, and have a flimsy cheap plastic feel.  While all of these boards have plastic keyboards, there is a difference between cheap, thin plastic and plastic of better quality. 

2. Velocity sensitivity.  The harder you play, the higher the velocity value is sent to the computer for any given MIDI note.  Nearly all software samplers and synths respond to velocity, which is used to control the loudness and timbre of the note.  The presence of velocity can make your playing sound expressive.  If you don't have velocity, the keyboard sends the same velocity value for every note, which can make even great playing uninspiring.  So make sure you at minimum get a controller that transmits velocity sensitivity.

3. Aftertouch  You engage aftertouch by pressing the keys down after the initial strike. They keyboard will send a range of 127 values as long as you are holding the key and modulating pressure.  When implemented well, this is just like turning a knob.  Is it important?  Many software synths do not implement aftertouch, though many of the better ones do.  Most hardware synths do respond to aftertouch.  There are 2 basic kinds of aftertouch.  The most common is channel (mono) aftertouch (sometimes called channel pressure) where only one data stream of aftertouch data is generated and it affects every key on the midi channel).  The less common, but more complete implementation is called polyphonic aftertouch.  Here each key sends out 127 values at the same time, which is harder to implement and generates a ton more MIDI data.  Only a few software synths respond to polyphonic aftertouch

4. Weighted, semi weighted, unweighted action.  You won't find fully weighted keys in a compact keyboard controller, but you may find it in 88 key controllers.  "Weight" is added to the keys themselves and to the key travel mechanisms to make them respond more like a real piano's heavier keys do.  This is usually not desirable in a compact keyboard controller, where playing fast is often desired.  An "unweighted" keyboard offers little resistance.  You can spot an unweighted keyboard by touching it; it will be extremely light feeling and the keys may be "springy".  Many compact controllers are "semi-weighted".  These also have a light touch but offer a little more resistance and consistency.  They usually have a better feel for most people.  

Novation Nocturn 49 49-Key USB MIDI Controller

Controllers (knobs, wheels, sliders, touch pads, drum pads, program selectors and joysticks)

All Compact controller keyboards offer more controls than just the keys themselves.  At minimum, you will find some kind of pitch and modulation controls, which may be in the form of two separate wheels or a single joystick which combines the functions.  There is usually also an input on the back for connecting a sustain pedal.  Next, some boards have some kind of ability to switch programs and banks.  This is more important if you are controlling hardware midi synths, but less important for software instruments, where programs are more easily selected by the mouse, and which may not respond to these commands. Some controllers offer drum pads which can be assigned to the MIDI notes where drums usually reside on the keymap. (C0 to G1 typically).  Often that is an important consideration for those who want a dedicated surface for triggering drums. The M-audio Axiom series is nice.   Finally, and perhaps more importantly, the compact controller keyboard will  have knobs, sliders, touch pads to send additional MIDI continuous controller commands (CC events).  Typically, you can assign which CC events the knob or slider sends.  That is a good thing because software instrument manufacturers may use different CC values for controlling the important parameters of the instruments.  You can read more about how CC events are implemented in the guide article The Tweaker's Guide to MIDI Continuous Controller Commands.  


Controller assignment methods

There are 4 methods manufacturers use to get the knobs on the controller to match up with the parameters the software instrument uses.  They are Automapping, Templates, Auto-learn functions, and of course, manual assignment of the controls.  All of these solutions have advantages and drawbacks, and there is no perfect MIDI controller for all software instruments. 

Auto mapping

 One of the more innovative approaches to the thorny problem of assigning the knobs on your controller to your software instruments is the "automap" facility developed by Novation for their ReMote SL series.  I have reviewed the ReMote SL 37. The auto-mapping feature may map parameters you don't want mapped.  A lot of times all you want to do is adjust a filter cutoff and resonance and you may have to look through dozens of parameters to find it. 


Another approach is to allow the user to create and call up preset templates for different software instruments.   Using preset templates means scrolling through a list a finding the template before you play and tweak. This approach can be effective when using software environments like Reason. Indeed many controllers have a template for using Reason. 


Cheap N Cheerful:


Auto learning

Some software instruments allow the software to "learn" the controller values the keyboard controller sends.  You press a button in software, touch a software knob, then touch a hardware knob on your controller and the link is learned by the software.  This really has little to do with the controller and is done in the software instrument itself.

Manually assigning controls

Manually assigning knobs to software functions is can be tedious.  When you change to a different soft synth that uses different values you have to reassign the controller.  The good thing about simple manual assignments as many software instruments use common controls.  Filter cutoff is usually CC74, Resonance is usually CC71 and effects are usually on CC91 and 93.  Those are the most frequently used parameters for many common synths so having a controller with manual assignments works fine for most people most of the time.  Going deeper than that requires that you concern yourself with the issues of auto mapping vs. templates vs., software learn functions. 

Emu Xboard 49 49-Key MIDI Controller


Narrowing the field to the perfect controller for you.

Ok let's put it all together. 

The key question (ouch) you have to ask yourself is, "will having just a handful of controls be enough?"  I can tell you from experience that if you don't have fancy features on your controller you are unlikely to miss them.  Indeed for a newbie, having all these controls can unnecessarily complicate your musical life.  However, for the die hard tweak who loves to program synths the advanced boards give you a welcome alternative to tweaking by mouse and give you the hardware to sculpt and automate your tweaks in the sequencer. 

The Feel of the board is pretty important.  You would not want to buy a guitar with horrible action, right?  Its the same with a keyboard. A good feeling board gives you confidence allows you to play with greater agility and speed.

Consider the size you need first, as if the keyboard is too big, it will give you endless problems in a small desktop environment. You won't have room for all the stuff you need there!  Adding another foot to your keyboard might bump the control surface or mixer off the front table.  You have to answer for yourself, do you have the room?   Then  figure out your budget and cross off any that exceed it.   Then consider touch, check whether the board is semi weighted, offers velocity and aftertouch and make your list.   Finally. consider the method used for assigning controllers.  This often has you reflect upon which software instruments you have and intend to get.  You should now be down to less than a handful of controllers.  If you go through this process of decision making and research, you are likely to find the board you will be happy with.






Cool Threads


The Tweaker's Guide to MIDI Continuous Controller Commands

Tweak's review of the ReMote SL 37 by Novation


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MIDI Basics
How to buy a Keyboard: What you need to know
Chart: The Many Functions of MIDI DATA
All about MIDI interfaces
Keyboard Controllers
Rack mount Synth Modules

More Articles by Tweak on Keyboards and Synths

Keyboards and Modules INDEX
Choosing the Right Keyboard for your Studio
Synthesizer Comparison Chart
Guide to Compact MIDI Controllers
All about Synthesizer Modules
The Roland Fantom Family
The Yamaha Motif Family
The Access Virus Family
The Korg Triton/M3 Family
Roland V-Synth GT
Yamaha Motif XS
Korg M3 Resources
Triton Rack/EXB Card Review
Novation ReMote 37 SL
How to program a Synthesizer
Proteus 2000
Keyboard Price List





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