What is a MIDI Controller?

MIDI is the communications protocol used to control different electronic music instruments simultaneously from a single device. This device is known as a MIDI controller. These controllers generate and transmit MIDI data based on human input.

From the common Roland “piano” keyboard to the abstract Percussa AudioCube, MIDI controllers truly come in all conceivable shapes and sizes.

Common Types of MIDI Controllers

For many years, MIDI controllers consisted primarily of a “piano” keyboard usually accompanied by an expression pedal. In the last ten years, there have been numerous innovations in MIDI controller technology giving rise to a broad spectrum of products – each specifically designed to appeal to certain end users such as DJs, music producers, sound engineers, guitarists, and lighting engineers.

The keyboard controller is still the most common type of MIDI controller but even this mainstay has evolved over the years to include additional tactile controls like knobs, sliders and touch-sensitive pads. These extra controls give users more options for musical expression and tend to cater to those working with softsynths and virtual instruments.

Control surfaces for digital audio workstations are also a popular type of MIDI controller. These devices are designed to work in conjunction with DAW software (such as Cubase or Logic Pro) and  are usually comprised of sliders and knobs in much the same fashion as a traditional mixing console.

These control surfaces vary in size from small single fader devices, such as the Frontier Designs Alphatrack,to much larger, expandable surfaces like the Mackie Control Universal Pro. Regardless of size, these control surfaces are intended to make life easier for sound engineers and music producers by offering a more flexible and tactile control surface in comparison to a computer mouse.

The third most common type of MIDI controller caters specifically to drums and percussion. These devices are known as trigger pad controllers and have become extremely popular in all forms of dance music production and performance. Examples of these devices include Korg’s padKONTROL and the Akai MPD32.

Although still relatively new to the market, Apple’s iPhone has the potential to become a powerful MIDI controller. The touchscreen interface combined with a Mac OS makes the iPhone a very attractive device for software developers looking to create the next generation of MIDI controller software. With several MIDI controller apps already on the market, the iPhone is surely poised to become a leader in touchscreen MIDI control.

Endless Possibilities for MIDI Controllers

Outside of these three general types of MIDI controllers are dozens of less conventional devices. Percussa’s AudioCubes and C-Thru Music’s AXiS-64 are two such controllers that prove the sky is the limit in terms of professional MIDI controller design and innovation.

And not to be out done by the boutique companies are the countless do-it-yourself MIDI controllers – conceived and realized from such unconventional items as a piece of paper, a pair of pants, a driver’s license or a cage full of hamsters. Clearly, the possibilities of MIDI expression are limited only by the imagination.


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