Keyboard & MIDI Buyers Guides
(James Rushin | Posted 2011-03-05)
So maybe what you're looking for is a little more complex than what a stage piano can offer, but you still want something portable and lightweight. Maybe you need a whole series of keyboards controlling your sounds, or maybe you just want a better way to upgrade sounds as new ones become available. Take a look into MIDI, my friend, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It's the universal language of digital musical instruments, a set system of commands that can be issued to one or more controllers or processors at once. And every keyboard can speak MIDI in some form or another. How deep you dive into that rabbit hole just depends on how much control you want to have.
The first thing you need to know about MIDI is that it is NOT, in and of itself, the set of sounds known as the General MIDI soundbank. These sounds, while functional, are hardly performance ready (even the new version 2.0). That is, they're only good if you want to do a recreation of 16-bit soundtracks, because that's what they sound like. The music (and some noises) you heard while playing Commander Keen, Doom, Electroman, Contra, Super Mario Brothers, Yoshi's Island, and every game that was released from the 16-bit era backward, was somehow synthesized in MIDI. With those sounds and variations thereof. I don't want to block your creativity and say that you should never use them, but know what you're getting into, and know that there are other options.
Literally, thousands of other options, to be honest. Because the second thing you need to know about MIDI is that it's only a language code for signals. So you first need something to send those signals; a MIDI controller such as M-Audio's Keystation 88es will do nicely. A MIDI controller doesn't come with pre-loaded sounds, which leaves you all the freedom in the world to pick some. Most people opt for the the computer-based sound route and pick up either Native Instrument's Komplete or Propellerhead's Reason software. Make sure your MIDI Controller has a USB connection before you do this. On the other hand, there are plenty of sound modules made by Yamaha, Korg, Roland, and plenty of other manufacturers. Take the best sounds from three different keyboard companies with you to your next gig without paying thousands of dollars for the keyboard on which they were included. Sure, you wind up with two pieces instead of one, but that's hardly a price to pay when you can save several thousand dollars in the long run by not needing to buy a new keyboard. When you're using a MIDI controller, you only need to upgrade your sound module.
From a non-performance aspect, MIDI is also a huge help for composers and producers. The composer can hook his keyboard straight up to his computer via USB and control Finale, Sibelius, or whatever program he likes with the keys, and keyboards often include assignable pads, knobs, and sliders to let you work on drums, patches, compression, and all kinds of variables, without ever needing to browse through a menu for it. And not all controllers even have a keyboard. A producer might use a setup that just has three rows of buttons on it, and he's programmed them all to do exactly what he wants. Guitarists, bassists, and keyboardists will do the exact same thing to control large amounts of effects, adjust presets or line loops, or to control something as simple as patch changes from song to song (especially for the amount of patches many keyboard players need to go through).
This has only been a primer, giving you some basic ideas and options as to what to do with those funny-looking ports on the back of your keyboard or usb-powered MIDI device, but to be honest the sky is the limit when every one of your digital instruments can talk to each other in the same language, usually with very little to no editing required. With the invention of various new connectors like Line 6's Midi Mobilizer, even your iPod's and iPhone's are MIDI capable, and you can put several MIDI devices on the same input/output path. The possibilities are limitless with a universal program language, so explore as much as you like, and feel free to ask questions or let us know what you're up to in our forums or via e-mail. Be creative, and may you keep groovin'.