I will try and review some of the midi controllers that I have used to hopefully give you an idea of what to look for in a midi controller.
In my many years of music making whether it being producing or mixing, I have been fortunate enough to have worked with a variety of midi controllers ranging from the extremely cheap ones like:
This type of midi controllers provide basic functionalities and no more than that. With an exception for the Vmini which has drum pads that are actually assignable and you could assign them to different midi cc. The Qmini has one assignable volume knob which can be set for a limited number of functions inside the DAW. The aspect that made me want to upgrade from these controllers the most was the plastic synthesizer feel of the keys which I am not a big fan of. Light keys feel a little bit awkward for me to play on because of the fact that I am a pianist first and a keyboard player second.
Even with their limited functions, these controllers are far away from being terrible. They are in my opinion the best options for someone who is just starting out or that does not need any more functionality out of their midi controller other than it being a midi keyboard.
The other side of the coin is where I enjoy working the most. The more stacked midi controllers. These are controllers that leave close to nothing to what they can do and therefore giving me, and hopefully you, the chance to focus more on the music rather than the technicalities and the software.
I would like to introduce you to three of my all time favorite midi controllers and I will also provide what I like most about them as well as some of the cons about each one. I will start with the cheapest to the most expensive out of the three.
This one is my first ever big investment for my studio even before buying studio monitors, as I was still in university and was still producing using headphones. What gravitated me towards it more was the integration with practically every DAW, mine was Cubase, and the full integration with Abelton and Logic, which I used from time to time depending on which computer I plugged it into. It comes with 16 pads, yes 16 pads, 8 knobs, with 9 faders and fader buttons. All of which are assignable inside the novation software. The arpeggiator feature saves more time than I imagined when I got it as it has more controls than the regular arpeggiator keyboards out there.
However, it did have some negatives which prompted me to upgrade a while after. One massive downside is the keybed feel. The keys were a little bit too light for my liking which made the velocity sensitivity feel a bit lighter than it should have been if the keys were a tad heavier. As I was using multiple vst instruments, I soon realized how limited the integration with these instruments the Launchkey was.
The next step up I had in mind was to see if novation makes another midi controller with more advanced features and a better keybed. And I found it.
This one had almost the exact same features the Launchkey had except that the SL MK3 was obviously made for the more advanced and more demanding users. Starting with the semi-weighted keybed and the amazing light guide feature for pre recorded chords on the included 8 track sequencer. The keys do also have after touch capability which can be freely assigned to whatever midi cc you want, I personally use it for vibrato on some instruments. The SL MK3 beats the arpeggiator on the Launchkey by a landslide, mind the pun. With the use of both the arpeggiator button and the drum pads one can create different and creative sequences. The SL MK3 also allows the user to save sessions, meaning that you could save presets and entire ‘projects’ from within the controller to access at a later time, which comes very handy for live performances. With its seamless integration, the SL MK3 lets you control effects and channels in your DAW straight from the keyboard.
With all that being said, the issue with the integration for vst instruments still persists and even though it is way better in the SL MK3 than it is in the Launchkey it still was not enough for me. In addition, the lack of displays on the faders made it somewhat of an inconvenience sometimes trying to figure out which channel I am controlling and having to move the faders each time to make sure I am on the track I wanted.
That is when I made the jump for my favorite and my current controller which I have been using for two years now.
This beast of a controller does it all for me. Whether it is just playing with its amazing semi-weighted keys or controlling my DAW mixer and plugins or even controlling the native instrument software komplete kontrol. It comes with the starter version of komplete which in itself is a massive bonus considering the amount of powerful libraries it has to offer. The Komplete Kontrol S49 MK2 takes midi controller devices to a whole new level with how vast the features can get. The two displays makes figuring out what aspect of the DAW, mixer, plugin, or their software you are controlling very easy. It basically has everything the SL MK3 has to offer plus some extra features that take it that extra level. For me it was the addition of the touch strip under the mod wheel and the pitch band. Assigning it to expression on some instruments made creating realistic sounding instruments like strings seem possible without doing it manually inside of the midi editor. The lights on this keyboard makes it easier for people who are less educated in music theory to start playing without having to guess which keys are in scale and which keys are not. Activating the scale option on the keyboard would illuminate the keys that are on the desired scale and the keys that are out of scale would not be illuminated and playing them would just play a key inside the scale. The four way rotary knob is a life saver, and this is not me exaggerating. It gives you the flexibility of choosing your desired tracks from the controller without having to use your mouse and keyboard as well as being able to zoom in and out of your project window. Plus, it has lights on each of the four sides that indicate whether there is a possibility to move further in that side.
Using the included Komplete Kontrol software, you could browse the patches and the sounds from within the keyboard itself, making finding that patch that you are looking for way easier as while you scroll through the patches, Komplete Kontrol will give you a preview of what that patch sounds like and how it plays. The Komplete Kontrol S49 MK2 has a handy button called ‘mixer’ which simply gives you your DAW mixer in the two displays giving you the opportunity to mix your session without having to look at your computer screen, which is a nod to the old way of mixing using actual mixers.
The Komplete Kontrol S49 MK2 had little to no cons for me. One thing I found a little bit annoying was the difficulty I had at first trying to setup my sustain pedal. After I figured out how to do it, everything was smooth and steady for the past two years of using it. Another thing that I wish could be implemented is a way to favorite a patch or a sound, or at least a way to sort sounds other than the original way of sorting, which is either by instrument type or library.
To sum up, starting with a decent low budget midi controller was beneficial to my growth as a musician as it gave me a base to build upon and discover what the budget options can do and what I needed to upgrade before going straight to the best options out there. However, after a while of wanting more out of the controller I had, I knew I had to upgrade which made me work faster and at the same time focus on the music rather that on the controller and its limits. Now, I can produce and execute my ideas without hesitation and without needing to look up how do I achieve something using a vst instrument because I now know the capabilities of my controller and how far I could push it, and believe me it is far.
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