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The rise in popularity of electronic music and home recording studios in the past decades has spawned a mind-boggling variety of MIDI controllers. Most buying guides will advise you to consider what you intend to control and proceed from there. Sage advice, especially if, for example, you're a piano player and your intention is to get as close to the real feel of a piano as possible. In that case, you'd do well to find an 88-key, hammer-weighted keyboard. With the plethora of designs out there, from saxophone-like wind controllers to electronic drum kits to mixing boards, it's easy to find a controller that emulates your preferred instrument while staying within your budget. All that's left is to hook it up properly to a signal generator of some sort—whether a computer software or a rackmount synthesizer—and play!
It's amazing how far designers have brought the medium, both in terms of ease-of-use and flexibility. MIDI mapping capabilities in most Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), combined with control change templates within the controller itself, allow the user to almost instantly have hands-on access to common control changes; such as volume, panning, pitch bend, or modulation.
For the average user, this is perfect. The beauty of MIDI is its basic simplicity, a simplicity that can, with a little imagination, provide you with almost infinite control of every MIDI device in your possession.
Simply put, Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) was created in order to allow digital instruments to talk to each other.
This communication may seem very mysterious, but in fact there are only a handful of basic processes at work. Before we get to the fun stuff, let's define some terms.
A MIDI message contains several pieces of data:
Channel – The voice, program, or timbre that the message will send the rest of the data to
Key – Defines which key or pad/trigger was activated
Velocity/Pressure – How hard the key or pad was hit or pressed, ranging in value from 0-127
Controller – Defines which knob or fader was activated
Controller Value – A fixed range from 0-127; generally speaking a fader pulled down has a value of 0 and a fader pushed up has a value of 127
Here are some examples of messages this data is contained in:
Note On/Note Off – A key, drum pad, or button is pressed/released
Key Pressure (Aftertouch) – After the 'Note On' message, additional pressure is placed on the key, generally activating some form of modulation
Controller Change – A knob, fader, or wheel is moved
Program Change – A new set of preset controls is activated
Channel Pressure – The channel or voice activated is defined by the amount of pressure or velocity
Now we can start to consider the many applications that this beautiful, simple concept can have. Here are some ideas to get you experimenting.
Multiple parameters assigned to the same knob: When working with software, most DAWs have some sort of MIDI mapping capability. This usually involves activating the MIDI map; choosing a parameter within a softsynth, such as filter cutoff; and then moving a knob or fader on the controller. Amazingly, that's it … for starters. What if you also mapped the delay rate to that same knob? Or the pitch? Or both? Because each softsynth uses the same channel language, a single knob can also be assigned to parameters within several plug-ins. Don't be afraid to customize your controls to fit the way you play; for example, a modulation wheel can be very useful as a crossfader. The procedure for accomplishing this varies by controller and DAW, so don't be afraid to dig into manuals and ask questions on user forums.
Breathe new life into menu-based (knobless) synths: If you've ever had the pleasure of programming a synth patch on a one line LCD screen with push buttons, you probably know how frustrating it can be to make a simple tweak to the patch you've created. The good news is that many of these boards have a list of controllable MIDI parameters that can be found in the manual. Both the vintage Roland JUNO-1 and the more modern Alesis Micron (705522) are great examples of excellent devices that are infinitely more powerful when coupled with a controller such as the Behringer BCR2000 (701762). The Behringer has a MIDI-learn function to make this transition even easier, but spending the time to program each parameter manually is well worth the trouble when you consider the flexibility of having 32 knobs controlling the internal programs, sounds, filters, and pitches of these machines. Remember, you are limited to the functions that are predefined by the manufacturer, so be sure to see the manual for any device you are working with before getting a MIDI controller.
Control your light show and music simultaneously: MIDI works just as well with visuals as it does with sound. A single controller can be linked to multiple pieces of software, as we mentioned, but don't limit yourself to just music programs! If you are familiar with VJ programs, such as Cell DNA or Union from Livid, you'll know that they're just as controllable as your DAW. Of course you could set up your board to trigger both a new audio and video loop with a single key press. The same knob that controls filter sweep or resonance can also be used to trigger a wipe or effect in your VJ system. This concept combined with automation and motorized faders unleashes spectacular possibilities without even touching your controller during a performance. Imagine the cutoff for your master low-pass filter changing in sync with the spin and/or zoom of the projection behind you on stage, and you'll have a sense of how limitless this functionality really is.
Split keys and preset changes: One of the first applications of MIDI was to control several synths from the same board. If you are in the market for a keyboard controller, it may be tempting to go for a smaller, more portable design. But consider the amount of synths you could have at you disposal with an 88-note keyboard controller where each octave is assigned to a different channel. Of course, the same results can be accomplished with a smaller board by moving through the octaves, but there is something special about having everything available at your fingertips.
If you're just starting out, this can all be a little overwhelming. There are excellent resources and communities for learning about MIDI, NRPNs, or SysEx (harmonycentral.com/forums and midi.org are great places to start). It can be very time consuming to get everything programmed just right, but the huge amount of control that is enabled by the long hours of programming will be worth it. Start with the basics, see what weird combinations you can come up with, but most importantly, have fun!