So What exactly IS a MIDI Controller?

Up on top there, is my prized possession - The AKAI MPK49 MIDI Keyboard Controller. It is my prized possession not because it cost me a fortune to buy (that will go to my MacBook, which I equally love) but because it lets me do exactly what I want to do, without a mouse or a keyboard (the computer k/b of course :p ).

That is the basic idea behind every MIDI Controller. They allow the users to control a software through a hardware that mimics the software or has the same functionalities (knobs, faders, buttons, etc). I will be talking about hardware MIDI Controllers of course. There are softwares (plugins and such) that control through generating and sending MIDI signals.

Another way of saying it is how the wikipedia article puts it - "In the other more technical sense, a MIDI controller is an abstraction of the hardware used to control a performance, but which is not directly related to note-on/note-off events".

These are essentially hardwares that do not do much except send out (and receive) MIDI signals. When mapped properly in the software, moving a fader on the controller will also move the corresponding fader in the software. And latest controllers also process MIDI that is received. This is used to turn on LEDs and move a motorised  fader into place. That means, the changes within the software is now also reflected by corresponding changes in the hardware. 
(psst - More on motorised faders later!)

So now that there is a real interface that corresponds to the functions on the software, the user is no longer tied to a keyboard and a mouse. He/she is free to operate these softwares (which are usually programs meant for audio/video live performance, recording and/or editing).

I have already talked about why MIDI was chosen and how it works. I will just repeat myself briefly to make more sense in this post.

MIDI as a protocol for such controlling was chosen because it was already there in musical instruments. And they were already controlling each other, in a way, via MIDI. That is what MIDI was designed for in the first place. So it made sense to use MIDI. Now, of course, here in controllers, the protocol doesn't trigger musical notes (okay, sometimes it does). The same data is now interpreted by the software as control data.

A button on the controller can be sending a C5 to the software and the software is using it to toggle a button that is mapped to that C5. And MIDI channels here are used to separate control channels. Like - in the MPK49 above (review coming soon!), I use channel 1 for the actual keyboard. I use channel 2 and 3 for drum pads, 4 for the faders and their buttons. This way, I can play drums that are, say c1-a2 and play the piano c1-a2 all at the same time. This is in Ableton Live, where i have setup my tracks to receive the signals according to what they have (drums or piano, for example).

That is one practical example how the 16 channels of the MIDI protocol can be used. There are many more out there and I am sure that those of you who are using controllers have already started using different channels to avoid triggering the wrong control. Imagine a barrage of drum sounds that happen along with your playing the piano on a computer. That is what can happen if the same MIDI device is set to play both drums and piano and they are both sitting on the same channel.

So now you are that much richer in knowledge about what a MIDI controller really is. Some points to keep in mind are these: -

  • MIDI controllers do not necessarily have a sound-card/audio interface, but some controllers are coming out with sound-cards (some DJ controllers specifically). There are also hybrid machines that have the ability to act as a MIDI controller ( E.g. - a studio mixer type device with motorised faders, Digital I/Os, a built in firewire interface and MIDI control capability)
  • MIDI controllers can be made, ordered or purchased off the rack. It all depends on what you can spend and what you are looking for. For Controllers that you can make, you need know-how on electronics.
  • MIDI controllers come in all different shapes and sizes - from keyboards to dj controllers, fader boxes, boxes with only knobs, wind controllers, foot controllers, controllers that you can wear (yes! info coming soon, right here!) experimental and conceptual designs and now even touch - thanks to JazzMutant and the iPhone. (more on that soon) and many, many more.
So basically, when it comes to these controllers, all you need is money, know-how and contacts and you can get almost anything you can imagine! If you want more food for fuelling your thoughts and imaginations, check back for more. ControlMIDI is updated daily with the best and latest in MIDI controllers. This current series is sort of a base building exercise for beginners. The reviews and updates are coming real soon. So don't you worry.

Don't forget to subscribe! Get your updates delivered to you via RSS or Atom . Anyway YOU like it!

What is MIDI?

Now, I know that many of you out there are completely confused about what MIDI really is. And with today's technology using MIDI everywhere, it is easy for beginners to get confused.

For ease of reference, here's a link to the Wikipedia page on MIDI. For really detailed information and history, you can go there. I will just summarize the useful bits that you need to understand for daily usage.

Now MIDI is an abbreviation, it stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. And that should tell you, that it does not hold sounds. Some people tend to think that since they can 'play' MIDI files, the files must have sounds on them. Not really.

You see, as the name suggests, MIDI was developed by a few companies to make it easy for different instruments to 'talk' to each other. Hence, it not exactly a language, but it is actually a protocol.

A system usually has two MIDI ports - one for input and one for output. Some may also have a third - MIDI-THRU. This third is used for relaying the incoming outside the instrument. Now this is not the instruments own MIDI. It is the MIDI being sent to the interface.

Imagine this scenario - we have 3 MIDI instruments, A, B and C. Now A's output goes to B's input and B's 3rd 'relay' or the MIDI-THRU output goes to C' input. Now depending on the settings, I can now play both B and C through A. How does this happen?

Well, MIDI has 16 channels through data can be sent and one control channel. So, theoretically, these 16 channels can be assigned to 16 different instruments. And then they can all be played at once. Also, each channel has a possible 128 individual commands.

Our case, A is giving the commands and B and C are following them. The MIDI-THRU port on B is only copying the incoming signal from A and sending it to C.

What actually happened when MIDI was originally developed was that developers wanted to create a standard for playing sounds on instruments. So they got together and fixed a certain order in which instruments are arranged. So, for each channel, there are instruments assigned for specific ranges and they are the same on all standard MIDI devices.

Which is why, MIDI programmers could create a piece on their computer and rest assured that the MIDI would sound the same elsewhere. Of course, actual instruments differ. Like may be the original programmer was listening to a pan-flute when the piece was made. But on another system, it is a simpler flute, which sounds different, but is a flute nonetheless and not a piano.

Many of the older games had all the sounds in MIDI. So, essentially, the sound stays on the system that this receiving the MIDI. The MIDI just tells system the following things - What note is being played (like C5), when is it being played (4th bar, 2nd beat), how long is it being played (may be a quarter, an eighth or something in between), how hard it is being played (also called velocity) and now there is also something called aftertouch. When it comes to MIDI music files, it also says what range is being played, which defines the instrument that should played.

Now, if you have played on a MIDI keyboard, you will be familiar with these things or somethings may suddenly make sense to you. For those of you who are waiting for controllers to arrive, your wait is almost over.

Developers at one point decided to MIDI as a protocol and apply it to control software. Now, there are many reasons why MIDI was chosen over developing a new control standard (Like OSC [covered in another post]).

MIDI was easily available and it was a simple enough protocol to be manipulated. Of course, with simplicity, came limits. But simple controllers didn't really need to bother about the limits of the magic number '128'.

So MIDI was chosen. Now, when softwares come into play, they interpret MIDI in a very different way. These understand all MIDI signal as control data. That means, mapped commands can be CC commands or notes. So, if c5 is assigned to a button, pressing c5 will only act to toggle that button and nothing else. These is how MIDI is used to control softwares. The data here is control data.

It gets a bit more complex inside DAWs [Digital Audio Workstations], where the controller's MIDI is taken as control data as well as musical notes and associated parameters for playing virtual instruments within the DAW. This is how a MIDI Keyboard with extra controls can both play the virtual instruments and control the knobs and faders of the virtual mixer.

As time went by, more sophisticated controllers started to be produced and now we have the latest crop which uses hi-resolution MIDI. This became necessary for MIDI controllers that wanted to emulate a turntable. Implemented first for Serato's Itch, by Numark and Vestax, these controllers have wheels which send out a higher tracking count per revolution to register even the tiniest of movements. This in turn makes for very accurate tracking and hence, very good for scratching.

I will stop here for now. Remember that information posts like these are constantly edited and corrected (one can never have absolute knowledge) and new posts are added everyday. So subscribe if you want to stay updated.

Welcome to the World of MIDI Controllers!

Welcome to ControlMIDI! 

This will be your number one resource for everything concerning MIDI Controllers. You will find the details, prices and the reviews latest and the greatest MIDI Controllers. 

In fact every controller in the market will be put up here in time. You will find daily updates to keep you updated in the latest in MIDI Controller goodness.

So no matter if you are looking for MIDI Keyboard controllers, Dj MIDI Controllers, DAW MIDI  controllers, Dedicated software controllers, DIY MIDI controllers or even boutique controllers like the JazzMutant Dexter or the Monome, you will find them all here.

Occasionally, I will hunt out the best deals available online for you and let you know where your hard earned money will be best spent.

So hey, if you want to stay updated with the latest in MIDI controllers, be sure to subscribe and check back for daily updates.

Till then, happy MIDI controlling! (yeah I know, I need a better catchphrase, working on it :P)