What is a MIDI keyboard?

MIDI is a communication protocol that allows electronic instruments, computers, and other devices to communicate with one another.

It’s most often associated with the rectangular notes that are used in the piano rolls of DAWs to create melodies, chord progressions, drum grooves, and more.

MIDI notes in the DAW

If you’ve ever done this yourself, you’ll know that making music with MIDI can happen entirely in the DAW. However, if you enjoy composing and recording your ideas with a physical instrument, or if live performance is a significant aspect of your music, then MIDI keyboards can be an incredibly useful tool for you.

In this article, let’s discuss what MIDI keyboards are and how you can apply them in your creative process. See the table of contents below to quickly navigate to any particular section:

What you’ll learn:

Let’s get started!


What is a MIDI keyboard?

A MIDI keyboard is an electronic musical keyboard that uses MIDI to transmit digital signals, allowing it to communicate with and control other MIDI-compatible devices. Some popular models include those in the Akai MPK series, the Arturia KeyLab series, and Native Instruments’ KOMPLETE series.

Visually, a MIDI keyboard resembles a piano, but often comes with some number of added buttons, wheels, and pads—you can see what one looks like in action via the video below:


What is a MIDI keyboard used for?

The video above showcases one of the most popular use cases for a MIDI keyboard, which is connecting it to the DAW to perform a part and record it straight into the session in the form of MIDI notes. For many musicians, the tactile nature of using a keyboard to brainstorm and capture ideas is an essential part of their workflow.

If you want to achieve a sound that reflects the nuances of human performance, it can also be much more efficient to do so by playing it in via a keyboard as opposed to trying to pencil in all of the subtleties in-the-box (although this is certainly possible).

Additionally, MIDI keyboards can be used in live performances to load and trigger a wide range of sounds—in conjunction with the software instruments you have at your disposal, you can have everything from violins and drums to synths and basses, all contained within one lightweight instrument.

What are the advantages of using a MIDI keyboard?

One of the greatest advantages of producing music using MIDI is its flexibility—because we’re just capturing the performance data as opposed to printing an audio waveform (as you would if you were recording an acoustic instrument or vocals with a microphone), we can change the instrument after the fact, or adjust the pitch, timing, aftertouch, and velocity (a value that typically represents how hard the keys were struck) of any notes with ease.

Because MIDI is a highly standardized protocol, you also have some level of confidence that it will be compatible with an incredibly wide range of hardware, software instruments, synthesizers, and DAWs.

What are the disadvantages of using a MIDI keyboard?

Though they’re a central piece to many bedroom and commercial studio setups alike, MIDI keyboards aren’t essential to producing music at the end of the day. If using a keyboard isn’t a natural fit with your workflow, you do always have the option of drawing MIDI notes directly in your DAW whenever you need them, as we mentioned earlier.

So, while it’s hard to identify any glaring disadvantages to using a MIDI keyboard, it’s worth noting that they present an added financial investment and learning curve that aren’t as essential as, say, obtaining or learning how to use a DAW.


What’s the difference between a MIDI keyboard and a MIDI controller?

This one is a little bit of a square / rectangle situation—put simply, all MIDI keyboards are MIDI controllers, as a MIDI controller is any device that sends MIDI data to control other devices or software. However, there are also MIDI controllers that aren’t shaped like keyboards; for example, they can consist of just pads and buttons, like the AKAI MPC:


How to connect a MIDI keyboard to your PC or laptop

Most modern MIDI keyboards can connect to your PC or laptop via a USB cable, which greatly streamlines the setup process. Simply plug the USB cable into the appropriate ports on your keyboard and computer, and your computer should automatically recognize the device. However, if your keyboard requires drivers, you might need to install them (you can check the manufacturer’s website for the latest drivers).

From there, launch your DAW and configure the MIDI preferences so that your keyboard is selected as the input device for the track you want to use it on. The exact menus for this will look different for each DAW—below are the steps for some of the most common workstations:

How to connect a MIDI keyboard to an audio interface

If you use an audio interface as a part of your setup, you might have to make use of the MIDI ports offered by your keyboard. Use a MIDI cable to connect the MIDI OUT port on your keyboard to the MIDI IN port on your interface. That said, if both devices feature a USB connection, that could also be sufficient here.


Conclusion

And there you have it! Hopefully this article gave you some insight into what MIDI keyboards are, what they’re used for, and how you can get set up with using one yourself.

Do you have any questions on MIDI keyboards? What other gear would you like to see us cover next? Start a conversation with us and a community of other music creators via the Splice Discord.


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February 7, 2024

Harrison Shimazu

Harrison Shimazu is a composer, content strategist, and writer who’s passionate about democratizing music creation and education. He leads the Splice blog and creates music as Namaboku.