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MIDI controllers/keyboards: What they are and what they do

In this guide, I’m exploring some reasons why you need a MIDI keyboard and checking out some other types of MIDI controllers. Let’s get into it.

About me

James Nugent, writer at Higher Hz

I’m a producer, sound designer, and multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience in the music industry. As a sound designer and lover of virtual instruments, MIDI controllers play a huge role in my life as a musician. If it has keys, pads, or faders, you’ll probably find at least one in my studio.


You can use these jump links to navigate to the desired section of the article.

What is a MIDI keyboard?

A MIDI controller keyboard is a device used to send MIDI data to a computer or other hardware.

In more basic terms, it’s a keyboard that is used to trigger sounds from an external source. The external source can be another piece of hardware or a virtual instrument in your DAW.

The most important thing that you need to understand about a controller keyboard is that they generate no sound on their own. If you buy one expecting it to perform like a regular musical keyboard or synth, you’ll be greatly disappointed.

As I said above, they are used to trigger sounds from other devices by sending MIDI data. It would be a good idea to check out my guide on MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) if you haven’t already.

Controller keyboards come in many shapes and sizes, typically from 25-keys all the way up to 88-keys. They also range from non-weighted keys to progressive hammer-action keys.

25-key MIDI controller
25-key MIDI controller | Image: Higher Hz

Whether you make techno, hip-hop, or classical music, there’s a MIDI keyboard to suit you.

MIDI keyboards don’t stop at the keys: they offer other ways to control your DAW or external hardware.

Many MIDI controller keyboards come with assignable knobs and sliders that can be used to control a multitude of parameters.

Many also come with drum/sample pads that are typically used for finger-drumming or triggering samples for recording or live performance.

What does a MIDI keyboard do?

So, I have briefly outlined what a MIDI keyboard does when explaining what they are. They trigger sounds from an external source by sending MIDI data. Let’s expand on that a little.

In the world of virtual instruments, we aren’t dealing with audio signals. MIDI is the language that your DAW and virtual instruments understand. In a sense, a MIDI keyboard provides a way for you to communicate musically in a digital world.

It allows you to play as you would do on any other musical keyboard without worrying about how your performance translates into something a computer will understand.

It lets you sequence music and control your virtual instruments intuitively.

Can I make music without a MIDI controller?

Yes, absolutely. If you have a DAW of any kind, you can make music using just a mouse.

Why do I need a MIDI controller keyboard?

Just because it’s possible to create/sequence music using a mouse doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

Don’t get me wrong: there are times when using a mouse is a great option. For example, while traveling, or to sketch out a rough demo/template.

But, it’s not a very musical process at all. Using a MIDI keyboard is far more musical and far more intuitive. Generally, in music-making, a more tactile, hands-on approach works best.

Remember, it’s not just about playing the right notes: it’s about how you play them. Nothing captures the subtle nuances and expression of a performance like playing it properly.

Apart from the time it would take you to draw in every little bit of dynamics and expression with a mouse, it just wouldn’t sound as natural.

Adding expression to your performance doesn’t stop there; this is where assignable controls come in. An excellent example of putting faders and knobs to use is when using virtual orchestral instruments.

faders on a MIDI controller
Faders and knobs on a MIDI controller | Image: M-Audio

For example, let’s say you are recording a string quartet, one voice at a time. You want to capture as much realism as possible, and that means not having a consistent volume from start to finish.

Stringed instruments have different attack and velocity rates depending on how they are bowed. Using faders to mimic the natural increase and decrease in velocity as the bow shifts its pressure on the strings makes a more believable recording. So much so that many film composers use a MIDI keyboard and virtual instruments on Hollywood scores.

Beyond the benefits of playing an instrument rather than clicking a mouse, there are more advantages of using a MIDI keyboard. Controller keyboards tend to be very light, which means you have a very mobile setup.

Being so portable is valuable to producers and performers alike. Obviously, as a producer, it makes it easier to create music wherever you are. As a performer, it saves you carrying a heavy workstation or stage piano if you don’t have to. A MIDI keyboard and a laptop will do.

It also opens up a whole world of sound options if you start to introduce virtual instruments to your live performance. Suddenly, in a lightweight package, you’ve got access to high-quality piano sounds, synth sounds, orchestral sounds, and much more.

Even if you are a performer who loves to have a lot of hardware on stage, a MIDI controller keyboard can still play a central role.

Let’s say you have a Nord Lead module, a Moog, and a Prophet; you can send the same MIDI from your controller to each of them. Now you are creating huge sounds that you couldn’t have done with just two hands before.

As you can see, there are lots of reasons that you need to have a MIDI keyboard in your setup. Every reason falls under the same umbrella; it makes your workflow far more musical and intuitive.

If you’re just starting out, be sure to check out my recommendations for the best MIDI controllers for beginners and the best budget MIDI keyboards – two carefully thought-out lists of quality units that will take you through your first steps in music production.

Different types of MIDI controllers

MIDI controllers don’t need to come in a piano keyboard form. There are pad controllers like the Akai MPC or MPD that are amazing for percussion and beat-making. Pad controllers are also great for sequencing in general.

drum pads on a MIDI controller
Drum pads on a MIDI controller | Image: Higher Hz

If you don’t want keys but don’t quite want to hit pads either, things like the Novation Launchpad with its grid format might be a good choice.

These types of controllers are fantastic for producers and performers who like to work with scenes (extended clips that you can sequence together and modulate/effect on the fly).

If you want something a little different, there are options like Korg’s NanoKey2. The NanoKey2 has a traditional piano keyboard layout, but traditional keys are replaced by rubber pads.

You can go even further with the Roli Seaboard, a keyboard-based controller that allows you to alter the keys’ shape when you press them.

The Seaboard takes some getting used to, but pretty soon, you instinctively start to bend the keys as you want to shape the sound.

A MIDI controller keyboard is always a safe place to start, but you aren’t short of options.


If you could see inside Hans Zimmer’s studio, amongst the seemingly never-ending Moog Modular setup, and countless expensive synths, you’ll find at least one MIDI keyboard.

They aren’t a cheaper alternative to a regular keyboard: they are an entirely different thing. While there are different types of MIDI controllers that I urge you to explore, every studio setup should have a controller keyboard.

If you don’t already, get one, it will enhance your workflow more than you can imagine.