Learn how to use Controllers or Control Surfaces.

Controllers (control surfaces) come in a thousand variations, with different numbers of knobs (pots), buttons, sliders, trackballs, and other possible options.

So what are they? Controllers Controllers help bridge the gap between a producer or performer and their computer or mixer or audio software. Control surfaces translate physical actions of the user (twisting a knob, changing the position of a slider or fader, pushing buttons, or tapping pads) into digital commands that are sent to the computer or audio equipment. These commands then alter the settings of the other devices, either in real-time or during production. This interaction can be done directly by using things like a mouse or keyboard or other input devices, but a controller is designed to be more efficient and intuitive to use. Controllers can really boost creativity and precision, giving you options for more intuitive manipulation of sound parameters, effects, and transitions. In DJ'ing, controllers help enable or improve real-time adjustments while you're performing, which helps improve the dynamic nature of your set or performance. When they're used in the studio, they can be set up to streamline workflows and the processes of sound design, mixing, and mastering. Basically, a controller is just one more tool which probably isn't technically necessary for you to accomplish what you want, but the controller should make everything a lot easier.

I'll talk about controllers in much more detail further down this page, but first, here's a video to explain how controllers work:

Let's discuss controllers in more detail. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. You can forget that phrase immediately, just remember the acronym MIDI and remember that it's a digital messaging protocol used in the world of audio. MIDI controllers are a very important and useful tool when it comes to both music production and performance.

Controllers vary widely widely in form and functionality. In fact, I can't think of any other type of audio-related equipment that is less "consistent." There are crazy variations in controllers, which can come in just about every imaginable shape and size, from MIDI keyboards that look like pianos, to MIDI control surfaces that are just covered with knobs and buttons and sliders and other types of controls. However, despite this variety, they all share the common purpose of sending MIDI data to other devices or software, in order to control different types of audio.

MIDI is a technical standard that describes a protocol, digital interface, and connectors. It allows musical instruments, computers, and other related devices to communicate with each other. MIDI does NOT transmit audio. It transmits digital data, just a binary stream of 1's and 0's. However, all MIDI devices understand how to convert this binary stream into specific codes messages which refer to things such as pitch, intensity, volume, and timbre changes. This allows the various piece of hardware or software to generate sound as we know it.

Again, MIDI controllers do not generate sound on their own. This can be confusing, because some MIDI controllers have sound modules embedded in the same piece of physical equipment (you'll especially see this on a few types of synthesizers). Others use external sound modules to create audible sound. Either way, the controller sends data to a sound module (hardware or software), which then generates the audio.

MIDI controllers typically connect to a computer or sound module via USB, MIDI, or wirelessly. The core technology revolves around sensors and mechanisms that translate physical actions (like pressing a key, moving a fader, or turning a knob) into MIDI messages. Here are some of the sensors that you might encounter:
- Keybeds and Velocity Sensitivity: Electronic keyboards (which look like a piano keyboard) use keybeds that can detect velocity (how hard a key is pressed). Some keybeds, but not all, also have the capacity of "aftertouch" detection, which measures pressure applied to keys after they are initially pressed. This capability is expensive, and is usually only found in more expensive keyboards.
- Pads and Touch Sensitivity: Many controllers feature pads that respond to velocity and pressure, useful for drum programming or triggering samples.
- Knobs, Faders, and Encoders: These elements send MIDI control change messages to adjust volume, pan, effects parameters, and other continuous controls within software.
- Touch Strips and Wheels: "Pitch bend" wheels, modulation wheels, and touch strips can provide expressive control over pitch modulation and other parameters.
- Digital Displays and Integration: Advanced MIDI controllers feature digital displays and integrate closely with specific software, offering visual feedback and control mappings that mirror the software environment for intuitive operation.

Keyboard-based Controllers & Control Surfaces

The distinction between keyboard-based MIDI controllers and control surfaces lies in their primary function and design. Keyboard-based controllers mimic the layout of traditional pianos or synthesizers, with the piano keys used as the primary interface for input. They're good for musicians, composers and performers who use keyboard techniques to input MIDI data. A musician feels comfortable with a keyboard controller, because it's a familiar and expressive means of performance.

Control Surfaces, which come in many shapes and sizes, focus on providing tactile control over software or hardware functions without a traditional keyboard. They usually have dozens of faders, knobs, pads, and buttons. These sensors are not usually pre-configured. They're designed to manipulate various parameters within your audio editing software (DAW) or live performance software, but they won't work right out of the box. This is because you have to "map" the physical controls on your controller to the controls in your software. This sounds like a lot of extra work, and yes, it can take a couple minutes to set up (although once it's set up, you can usually save your configuration). But this mapping is good because it's what gives you a huge amount of flexibility in the way that you use the controller. You're not locked in to existing mappings that you might not like.

Here's a list of some notable manufacturers and brands/products:
- Akai Professional: Known for its MPC series and MPK keyboard controllers, Akai offers pads with exceptional responsiveness, integration with popular DAWs, and robust build quality.
- Novation: The Launchpad and SL MkIII series stand out for their seamless integration with Ableton Live and innovative features like scale modes and chord memories.
- Native Instruments: The Komplete Kontrol series is notable for its tight integration with Native Instruments software, which of course is very popular.
- Arturia: Offers a range of controllers like the KeyLab series, known for their quality keybeds, comprehensive controls, and integration with Arturia's Analog Lab software.
- M-Audio: Provides a wide range of affordable options that appeal to beginners and professionals alike, with products like the Oxygen and Keystation series offering straightforward functionality and reliability.

There are obviously hundreds of other manufacturers, each which may have dozens of different products, but that's a quick summary of a few well-known names. I've linked the companies above to their websites.

So basically, MIDI controllers are an incredibly diverse category of music equipment, even though a controller by itself doesn't produce any sound! The choice between a keyboard-based controller and a control surface will depend on your specific needs. I hope you get a chance to check out the video that I produced up above.

View more of my music production, DJ'ing, and production tutorials: