Using MIDI keyboards to write your tracks can be a great way to liven your sound up. It can seem really easy when we only use the piano roll, clicking notes in, but it can also make the song sound rigid and robotic.
Too much quantization, or sticking to the grid, is a fast way to make flat, lame tracks. While putting wicked samples into your tracks is one of our favorite methods, working on your keyboard chops is another great way to combat the rigidness, so we made the best guide for beginners to use a MIDI keyboard.
What is MIDI?
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Device Interface. Basica,lly it’s how we translate musical instruments into digital information so our DAW’s can follow and record notes and data. MIDI can be used for a number of things like controlling automation, triggering samples, and obviously replicating the experience of a keyboard, playing with VST instruments.
Different Kinds of Keyboards
Before we get into how to use a MIDI keyboard, it’s important to discuss the varieties and different factors to consider when purchasing your first one. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, with different pads and knobs that can either be useful or overwhelming.
Some keyboards advertise themselves as being optimized for on-the-go use. While these are admittedly good for travel and carrying your set up wherever you go, you should ask yourself how often you do that? If you actually produce on the road, then these types of keyboards could benefit your process.
Otherwise, you might find yourself too limited and spending money on something that doesn’t do everything you need it to. And while smaller keyboards might be tempting if you have a small amount of desk space, consider researching something in the medium-size range and making some room for it. You’ll more than likely appreciate the extra keys and options that travel-size keyboards just can’t offer.
MIDI Keyboards and Drum Machines can be considered different devices, but they use the same protocol and actually have more in common than you might think. Plenty of drum machines allow you to play their notes as keys on the piano roll due to the fact that, since they use MIDI just the same as keyboards, they’re still being mapped to specific notes in your DAW.
Chords would be a little wonky to play on a drum machine for sure. But if you focus a lot on your drums and want to get the best production you can out of the wicked kicks in this Chef Aazar pack, then a drum machine might be of better use to you than a keyboard.
Keep in mind you can play a MIDI keyboard just like a drum machine too, and there are plenty of options of keyboards that include small drum pads as well as the keys. Be cautious when you get something that “does everything,” though, but oftentimes they don’t quite excel in everything they offer compared to things that focus on one format.
Cheap Vs. Expensive
If you’re just starting the experience of shopping for a keyboard, you might notice there’s a pretty wide range when it comes to how much you could end up spending. From under $100 to a few thousand, is it really worth it to drop all that cash for a keyboard?
Yes, and no.
Keyboards you see running for cheap will have pretty significant drawbacks that will become very apparent very quickly. The keys themselves will feel light, thin, and overall just cheap, making playing on them difficult. They can really just feel like a toy. You want something with even a little bit of resistance so that your playing can feel realistic; otherwise, your melodies and chords won’t sound right.
You’ll also probably notice things start to fall apart pretty quickly because the reality is, if you’re paying a low price, you’re probably getting a cheaply made product.
That being said, you don’t have to ball out of control and spend a whole lot on a decent and reliable keyboard. Plenty of awesome MIDI keys are in the $200 range and will get the job done. Always read the reviews, and if you can, go try to check them out in person at your local music store.
Tips for Using Your Keyboard
Once you’ve done your research and found the perfect keyboard for your needs and budget, it’s time to start using it! But remember that this is a new instrument, and if you’re not already familiar with playing the piano, there’s going to be a bit of a learning curve.
But stick with it and follow these tips, and in no time, you’ll be the next Mike Dean jamming out.
Practice, Practice, Practice
It might be corny, but there’s no way around it. You have to practice playing on the keyboard. As much as we wish you could just walk up to the keys and just start shredding out killer melodies, odds are your fingers just aren’t going to know how to do what your brain wants.
And that’s ok! You just have to keep practicing. Your hands and brain need to get on the same page. Spend some time working on your keyboard and drum pads every day if you have them and want to use them.
Try Chord Packs
Chord packs like our MIDI Chord Pack can be super useful for starting up fresh ideas. Writer’s block combined with the learning curve of a new device can be pretty brutal, so give yourself an edge and start off with some great progressions to work over.
Learn Other Songs
This sort of goes with the Practice tip, but it’s a pretty tried-and-true method of using a new instrument. We know you want to start working on your own production, but it’s incredibly helpful to start by learning other songs.
Pick out a few tracks that you already are familiar with and look up the chords and how to play them. Over time and with practice, you’ll be playing along, maybe even adding your own flare here and there. This is a great way to boost your confidence and get comfortable with your keyboard at the same time.
A MIDI keyboard, in its basic function, is a controller. Adding one to your production arsenal means that you have a brand new set of controls that you didn’t have access to before. Keyboards generally have knobs that you can map to automation clips which is a great way to mess around and develop new sounds.
You also get the freedom to just mess around with the keys and find new ways to play with synthesizers and digital instruments that you never would’ve found in the piano roll. Experiment with what you have because some of the craziest and coolest songs were written by accident; you never know what you’ll come up with with your hands.
The Magic of MIDI
MIDI keyboards are a great way to incorporate a unique and human sound into your melodies and chords. When combined with samples and chord packs, you can truly make something that sounds awesome and is all yours.
Spend the time to do your research if you’re still looking, and try not to go too cheap if you can. Practice your instrument and build your confidence by learning other artists’ songs, and one day soon, you’ll be cranking out bangers.