Musicians creating music on their computers have more options at their fingertips than ever before. Thanks to virtual instruments, a computer can replicate sounds from just about any synthesizer and simulate the sounds of almost every instrument imaginable.
But for many people, creating music with a mouse and QWERTY keyboard just isn't instinctive or convenient and it makes it difficult to capture the essence of their musical ideas when inspiration hits. That's where a slew of USB Controllers come in. These controllers allow them to control virtual instruments and synthesizers with much more musician-friendly interfaces, such as keyboards, drum pads, mixing boards, and other program-specific input devices. Adding a controller can turn your computer into a much more powerful music creation tool.
The most common type of controller is the keyboard controller. Modeled after a traditional piano keyboard, these controllers give musicians the power to control a wide variety of music hardware from one device. Keyboard controllers, for the most part, do not have the ability to generate sound on their own. They must rely on the synthesizer or computer to actually create the sounds.
They usually come in 25-, 49-, 61- or 88-key varieties. How many keys you need will depend on the type of music you are creating, your playing style, and how portable you require your controller to be.
Many keyboard controllers have velocity-sensitive keys. That means that the speed at which you hit the key will affect the resulting sound much like a real piano. Smashing the keys and lightly tapping them will result in completely different sounds. Many controllers actually give you some degree of control over how velocity-sensitive your keys are, because different styles of music may require different sensitivity profiles. Whether or not you need velocity-sensitive keys would depend on your personal preference.
One important thing to keep in mind when considering keyboard controllers is the keyboard action, which describes the feel of the keys as you're playing. The type of action you need depends on the style of music you'll be playing, as well as personal taste.
There are three keyboard action types: Weighted action, synth action, and semi-weighted action.
Weighted action: This type of action is designed to simulate the feel of a real piano. The keys are hammer-weighted to respond the exact same way as traditional piano keys would. If you are a pianist, or the music you create relies heavily on piano sounds, you may prefer the feel of a hammer-weighted action keyboard.
Synth action: Synth action keyboards make no attempt at simulating the feel and feedback of a real piano. These keys are light, and spring back almost instantly, which allows them to be played very quickly. Many people who are not trained on the piano tend to find synth action keyboards easier and more intuitive to learn and play. Looking to play lightning fast arpeggios? Then a synth action keyboard might be right for you.
Semi-weighted action: Some people prefer their keyboards to be a little springier and less heavy. Half-way between the feel of a weighted-action and a synth-action, semi-weighted actions have a bit less of the piano weighted feel, but some people find them easier to play. These keyboards would be perfect for someone looking for a happy medium between the true piano feel and the speed of a synth.
Here's a roundup of some popular controllers.
For a straightforward, no-frills keyboard controller, take a look at the 61-key M-Audio Keystation 61es. It has a velocity-sensitive semi-weighted action keyboard, and can be powered by either USB or 9v DC adapter. Or, if you prefer the sonic range of a full piano keyboard, look at the 88-key M-Audio Keystation 88es.
Interested in a real piano feel to the keys? Take a look at the USB bus powered M-Audio Keystation Pro 88, which features an 88 key hammer-weighted action keyboard, multiple dynamic velocity curves, and 59 midi-assignable controllers.
An inexpensive controller line you might want to take a look at is the M-Audio Oxygen series of keyboards. Within the series, you have the choice between 25-, 49- and 61-key models.
The 25-key M-Audio Oxygen 25 features velocity-sensitive keys, 8 assignable knobs, and dedicated transport and track-select buttons. There are built in presets which offer support for many popular virtual instruments right out of the box.
The 49- and 61- key M-Audio Oxygen 49 and M-Audio Oxygen 61 include everything the 25 has, plus nine additional assignable sliders. They are excellent values in this price range.
For an ultra-affordable, ultra-portable controller, you might want to consider the Korg nanoKEY. The different-looking nanoKEY is smaller than a laptop keyboard, but while it only has 25 keys, it has an octave shift function that allows you to play the entire midi note range. It is available in white and black.
Drum Pad Controllers:
Not everyone feels comfortable with keyboard controllers. Many musicians, especially those working with beats and drum sounds, might be much more at home using a drum pad controller. A drum pad controller has a series of pads that can control different drum sounds or beats. As with keyboard controllers, velocity sensitivity should be taken into consideration when considering a drum pad controller. These controllers vary in the number of pads, and the variety of control you have over your music. Take, for example, the Korg nanoPAD. The nanoPAD features 12 highly-responsive pads in a small footprint. It also allows you to program chords into a single pad, adding much more flexibility when programming the device. The nanoPAD comes in both black and white.
Keyboards with drum pads
Sometimes, a keyboard player may have a need for a drum pad controller. Assuming you don't want to spring for a second controller just for the pads, you may want to look at some controllers that feature both keyboards and drum pads.
The M-Audio Axiom line of keyboards comes in 25-, 49-, and 61- key flavors. They all feature semi-weighted action, assignable aftertouch, and eight drum trigger pads.
On the compact end of the spectrum, the M-Audio Axiom 25 is highly portable, and features 8 endless rotary encoder knobs to control synth parameters and virtual mixer controls.
A little less compact, but giving you more keys to play with, the 49-key Axiom 49 also features 9 programmable sliders to help you control even more software parameters, 15 midi assignable buttons, and assignable wheels and foot pedals give you even more control over your music.
The 61-key Axiom 61 has everything the Axiom 49 does, plus those extra 12 keys, which can come in very handy.
If you're looking for a couple more features in your controller, then you might be interested in the Akai MPK series of keyboards. It comes in four versions, with 25, 49, 61 and 88 keys, respectively.
The MPK25 feature semi-weighted keys, 12 drum trigger pads, and 12 knobs, as well as 4 buttons. It also has its own arpeggiator.
The MPK49 has 8 knobs, 12 pads, 8 full sized sliders, and 8 assignable backlit switches. The MPK61, in addition to having extra keys, bumps up the number of drum pads to 16. It also has a keysplit feature, which allows you to split the keyboard into two zones, to perform with two different programs simultaneously.
The MPK88 has an 88-key, fully hammer-weighted keyboard, for a more realistic piano feel.
Another great option is the M-Audio Axiom Pro line of controllers. They have all the features of the Axiom Line, but also give you higher-end semi-weighted keyboards with a much more expressive action. The Axiom Pro Keyboards are able to automatically map the track, transport, and plug-in controls for many different digital audio workstations (including Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, and Reason) to the Axiom Pro's knobs, sliders, buttons, and pads.
The 25-key M-Audio Axiom Pro 25 stays linked with your DAW, so that the keyboard's controls are always in sync with the software's active parameters. And the buttons can even be configured so that you can send QWERTY key commands directly from the Axiom Pro 25. It also has 50 memory slots to save settings.
The 49-key Axiom 49 and the 61-key Axiom 61 have all the same features as the Axiom 25, but have 9 assignable sliders for additional control.
Another 25 key controller to look at is the Novation Nocturn 25. It features velocity-sensitive keys, assignable aftertouch, 8 drum trigger pads, and also has LED rings around the eight knobs and backlit buttons, which could come in handy when performing in darker environments.
Other types of controllers
Different types of musicians need different types of controllers. If you'll be doing a lot of DJ'ing in dark clubs, you should consider the Novation Nocturn. Designed as a laptop DJ solution, the Nocturn will automap its knobs and sliders to every major sequencer, including Pro Tools. Every knob is surrounded by an eleven-LED ring that lights up as you turn the knob, which makes the Nocturn ideal for working in dark clubs. It also features a speed-dial knob which takes control of whatever function your mouse is over.
Great for live performances and studio use, the Novation ZeRO SL MkII can be rack mounted, used as a desktop controller, or it can even be angled for performance using the included legs. It includes a large LCD screen, so that you can easily see what parameters are assigned to each of the controllers. It features 8 faders, 16 knobs and 8 fully-assignable drum pads, as well as a speed dial which will take control of whatever parameter the mouse is hovering over.
For a system that can grow modularly with your studio, take a look at the Euphonics MC line of products. The Euphonics MC Control is designed to fit between a keyboard controller and the computer screen, giving you added control over your sound. It features a customizable touch-screen interface, 12 assignable soft keys, 4 faders, 8 knobs, and a jog/shuttle/zoom wheel. It allows you to control multiple workstations over the internet.
When you need a larger mixing control surface, you can attach a Euphonics MC Mix unit. The MC Mix, which can also work on its own, features 8 faders, 8 knobs and 8 displays for surround metering and parameter names. Up to four MC Mix units can be linked together for up to 36 faders.
For those of you that edit video and audio, you might want to enhance your system with the Euphonics MC Transport. It has a weighted jog wheel and programmable buttons to help you move through and edit your audio and video efficiently.
If you'll be working with Pro Tools, you'll definitely want to explore the Digidesign Command|8. The Command|8 was specifically designed to work with Pro Tools, and it really gives the hands on feel of an analog console. It has eight motorized faders, eight rotary encoders, and a large LCD screen. If you're involved in post production, you might be interested in the fact that Avid products are natively supported by the Command|8.
The Korg nanoKONTROL offers a lot of control in a tiny footprint. It has 9 knobs, 9 sliders, and 18 assignable buttons, as well as transport control. Attack and decay time can be specified for each of the 18 switches. It is available in black and white.
If portability isn't a concern, you might want to look at the Mackie Control Universal Pro. It features nine faders, a large backlit LCD screen, and eight rotary v-pots for fast tweaking. It's plug-and-play, so there is no need to do any MIDI mapping.
A great multi-purpose controller that can also act as analog and digital audio interfaces, as well as a speaker-switching and routing unit, is the Alesis MasterControl. As an interface, the FireWire MasterControl records 24-bit, 192 kHz low-latency audio with lots of different inputs and outputs. As a controller, it features 9 touch-sensitive faders, eight assignable knobs and two banks of eight assignable buttons.
Ableton Live users looking for a controller specifically designed for the software have choices available to them.
There's the AKAI APC40 Ableton live controller. It features a clip matrix that turns different colors to indicate clip status, and every knob, button and fader on the unit is completely customizable. It comes with Ableton Live Akai Professional APC40 Edition software.
Another option would be the Novation LAUNCHPAD Ableton Live controller. It has a multi-color 64-button grid and dedicated scene launch buttons. It comes with a dedicated 'Launchpad Edition' of Ableton Live.
Happy music making!