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.

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