Wednesday, January 26, 2022

PRODUCT SURVEY: Controller Keyboards. Part One. Functions, Features, and Software Packages.


If there's one product group within the world of hi tech music that offers a truly bewildering array of products and options then it's controller keyboards. If you need, or think you need a controller keyboard then there really are plenty of manufacturers, ranges, sizes and types to choose from. So I'm going to attempt to 'unpick' and sort out the entire market. 

So in this part of our controller keyboard review we'll ask 'what does a controller keyboard do?', and begin to answer the question what might be 'the best usb controller keyboard for me?'

In the next part we'll take an in depth look at the market, ranges, and controller keyboard manufacturers. 

What Does A Controller Keyboard Do?

A controller keyboard makes no sound of it's own, but instead provides a piano style keyboard alongside a number of other switches, faders, and triggers that can be used to 'control' the software within a computer for live performance or recording. These tactile controls are much more accessible and instant than reaching for a mouse and several parameters can be adjusted simultaneously. 

As the controller keyboard has developed, more ideas have been introduced and we'll take a look at each of the common concepts and sections of these devices below (click to expand/enlarge). 

The Keyboard.

I guess the first thing we should talk about is the keyboard itself. Many lengths and keyboard sizes are available. Micro, mini, full size, and weighted piano style actions in anything from 25 to 88 (concert piano) notes. Most of them offer velocity sensitivity (they respond to how fast/hard the keyboard is played), including most 'mini' keyboard types, and some offer aftertouch/pressure sensitivity which can be used to introduce modulation such as vibrato by applying pressure to the keys when they are fully depressed. 

If you're a more accomplished musician, keyboard feel and playability is going to be important to you. For this, a visit to a music shop is going to be required.....don't be brave, they're not all that bad  

'Legacy', Or Performance Controls.

Things like the pitch bend and modulation wheel controllers I include as 'legacy' controls since they've been around pretty much since the invention of the synthesizer (the Minimoog had them). Pitch bend adjusts the pitch of a sound within a set number of semitones up and/or down whilst the 'mod wheel' was commonly used to introduce pitch modulation (vibrato) to a sound, although nowadays it can be assigned to any parameter.      

Modern keyboard controllers may also add switches to the performance controls. Again, as with most of the controls these can be assigned to almost anything. Often they are used to transpose the keyboard up or down, particularly useful on the shorter 25 and 37 key models. 

Trigger or Performance Pads. 

This is where we start moving away from what might be traditionally found on any reasonably well equipped synthesizer or workstation. These can be used to trigger sampled drums or loops and beats, but many manufacturers also use them as a way of instantly selecting the keyboards programs. So the entire keyboards controller assignments can be changed in an instant. Often, you'll find colour coded LED backlights for these. 

DAW Controls. 

Many controller keyboards have transport controls for your computer based DAW. These are the most popular controls including play, record, reset to zero, forward and rewind. Most keyboards and DAWs now adhere to the MCU/HUI protocol so these controls should work with the most popular DAWs at least. 

The ability to use hardware switches to control your recording platform without having to reach for the mouse, trackpad or computer keyboard is a real plus. 

Knobs and Faders.

A collection of knobs and faders that can be assigned to just about anything. They can be used to control level and panning on a DAWs mixer or they can be used to control the parameters of a software synthesizer such as it's filter cutoff, resonance, or release time.  

LCD Screen and Program Control. 

Since there are so many possibilities and assignments that can be made to this comprehensive collection of controls, a way of arranging them into programs can usually be found. Memory slots that allow you to instantly reprogram the controller assignments for different songs. 

Around The Back. 

Then there's the all important connectivity around the back. The primary function of most controllers is the control of computer based software such as a music production platform or live music VST host, so you're usually going to find a USB connector to hook straight up to your computer. 

Many USB keyboard controllers are 'bus powered' which means they are powered by the computer down the USB cable so no mains adaptor power connector is required although one of these is usually supplied if you're using the keyboard without a computer, for one or more MIDI modules for example. 

Which brings us to MIDI. Many provide a MIDI output (5 pin DIN) connector for connecting to MIDI equipment directly and not via a computer and interface. 

Other connectors may be provided such as a connector for a damper/sustain pedal which is usually fairly essential but sometimes not available particularly on the mini usb controller keyboard variants, so look out for that when you're choosing. 

There are controller keyboards that have CV/Gate connectors for interfacing with analog synthesizer equipment mainly modular synths and modules. These tend to feature on more expensive, specialised models. 

Controller Keyboard Software Packages

The vast majority of USB controller keyboards now come packaged with a software collection. Often an entry level DAW or music production platform, and maybe some additional plugins. If you find two or more keyboards that fulfil your requirements then this may be the deciding factor. 

Again, different packages may suite different types of musicians. Some may be geared more towards the electronic artist and some may be more for singer/songwriters. 

A note of caution here, as some manufacturers do package software that is readily available free to download anyway, without purchasing the keyboard hardware.    

Choosing The Right Controller Keyboard for You. 

So with this guide to the features and facilities of controller keyboards, we should be able to decide which ones we need, what is important to us, and maybe what might be surplus to our requirements. 

What type of musician and/or performer you are might be a factor. If you're a singer songwriter putting together demos using largely acoustic recreations, piano, bass drums, that sort of thing, then you may only require something relatively simple and clutter free....and cheaper. 
If you're writing and recording electronica then you may find an abundance of assignable knobs and faders more useful to facilitate real time changes to your synth and effects parameters much more useful.  

If you're a pianist then a weighted action 88 note model may be the ticket, equipped with the features you require. 

Of course, you may be many types of musician, in which case you may need an all-rounder such as yourself, or maybe even more than one. 

And then there's the software package. The software packages are often entry level or 'taster' type products designed to tempt you into the larger commercial versions. But don't underestimate some of the supplied products, they can be quite capable and useful. 

Controller Keyboard Models

In the following parts of this series we'll take a look at some product types and specific models starting with popular mid-range 49/61 note models from some well known and not so famous manufacturers. All in Part Two.     

Hope you enjoyed this post and found it useful. For all my latest music technology blog posts, videos and sound packs, follow me on at my Facebook Page


The information contained within this blog post is offered on an informal basis and is correct to the best of my knowledge. I accept no responsibility for outcomes arising from the mis/interpretation or use of this information and/or associated download files. Always download files via security/scanning software.

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