There's no better way to wrestle back a human or performance-orientated feel in your computer-aided music endeavours than to use a hardware MIDI controller.
New MIDI controllers can connect to (and be powered by) your PC via USB, thus avoiding sound card MIDI port and spare power socket hassles. Here, I'll be showing you just a few of the interesting man-machine music interfaces available but first, some brief background - what is MIDI and why the heck do we need to control it?
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is the main standard that electronic musical devices use to communicate with each other and music creation/recording software on your PC. MIDI (usually saved as .MID files) contains no actual audio - just information like what note and type of sound should play, its duration, and so on.
In practice, this means you could take a MIDI part originally recorded using a piano sound and have it playback with a guitar sound. The possibilities are infinite, thanks to modern software synthesisers and sampling programs.
MIDI controllers also allow you to adjust volume, tweak effects, in fact, control almost any knob or slider you otherwise would adjust by mouse. Even though more and more traditionally hardware-based studio tools like instruments, mixers and effects are becoming staples in music sequencing software, musicians and producers still demand tactile, hands-on control. Accordingly, MIDI controllers are almost essential to computer musicians wishing to retain musicality. With that in mind, let's go (window) shopping...
MIDI keyboards offer the best bang for your buck when you're starting out, and they're also pretty immediate and easy to come to terms with. Less expensive models tend to be smaller, with narrower keys and with just one or two octaves, but are usually part of product families scaling all the way to full sized, multi octave layouts. That said, smaller keyboards can be easily "shifted" to move up and down octaves, and start at just $99. For a higher end MIDI keyboard with features like half-action, velocity-sensitive keys (quite important to some players), you're looking at $200 and up. Another main reason MIDI keyboards are so versatile is because they increasingly include MIDI assignable knobs, sliders or selection buttons just above the keys. These can be mapped to control software functions like channel volumes, effect levels, software synthesiser parameters - almost anything you want, all in one compact package.
It's interesting that some companies even include dedicated controller hardware for their software products. This was the case with Korg's software versions of some of its classic analog keyboards bundled as "The Legacy Collection" ($1199 from www.musiclink.com.au), which come complete with a mini replica MIDI keyboard and patch bay.
Some key players (sorry, it had to be said) in the MIDI keyboard space include Evolution ( www.sound-music.com), M-Audio (www.elfa.com.au) Edirol (www.edirol.com.au), Novation (www.innovativemusic.com.au) and Korg (www.musiclink.com.au).
Other instruments are also catered for in the world of MIDI. In fact, this area of MIDI controllers is probably the most diverse there is. All can control samples and sounds from your PC, but most also come with their own dedicated sound modules/synthesisers too.
For drummers, there are MIDI drums from Roland (www.rolandcorp.com.au), Yamaha (www.yamahamusic.com.au) and Clavia (www.elfa.com.au). There are also smaller drum pads designed to be hit with fingers or sticks such as Akai's MPD16 (www.akaipro.com; www.australismusic.com.au) and Roland's SPD range.
For the guitarist, Roland produce the GK-33 MIDI pickup, which, when installed on your guitar can turn your riffs and notes into MIDI information, allowing you to play a flute, saxophone, or anything with your axe! You're even able to adjust the tracking sensitivity. Additionally, Behringer (www.behringer.com.au) sells products like its FCB1010 - MIDI foot pedals that are assignable to everything, including software effects from music software on your PC. This would be perfect for virtual effects racks like Native Instrument's Guitar Rig (www.nativeinstruments.de). It even comes with its own foot pedal controller and there's a downloadable demo version available. Still on strings, ZETA Music (www.zetamusic.com) offers optional MIDI functionality on its solid body violins, violas, cellos and basses. How cool is that?
There are even MIDI wind controllers available from Akai and Yamaha - ideal for sax or clarinet players. The technology has progressed to the point where even subtle parts of a performance can be translated into MIDI information ripe for production.
More than studio tools
There are also MIDI controllers that are ideal for the studio as well as live performance use. Of particular value for money are the two new Behringer products shown above. The B-Control fader has motorised faders and the B-Control Rotary has status LEDs around the dials. Similar new products include CM Lab's (www.cmlabs.net) MotorMate and Motormix, Evolution's UC-33 plus Faderfox's (www.faderfox.de) range of little marvels that can all be connected together.
There are also consoles with MIDI crossfaders for the computer-based DJ using programs like Ableton Live. Some of the best include the Grex MFX8 (www.grexultra.com) and Evolution's X-Session. Korg's Kaos Pad range also deserves special mention due to its unique X-Y controller interface and MIDI prowess.
More and more instruments are becoming MIDI-enabled through retrofits or new models so, if you play an instrument not listed here, but you're still interested in getting MIDI-fied, don't sweat it - there's bound to be someone out there working towards that goal.
In the next issue we'll go step-by-step through connecting a basic MIDI controller keyboard to a PC with the purpose of recording MIDI notes for a composition. Still using MIDI, we'll also look at assigning functionality to a keyboard's sliders or knobs and touch upon the use of MIDI effects. See you then.
EXPERIMENTAL CONTROLLERS AND INSTRUMENTS
There's some truly weird and wonderful work being done in this area. I was impressed by the concept of the Audiopad (http://web.media.mit.edu/~jpatten/audiopad), a performance instrument that tracks the position of objects on a tabletop surface and converts their motion into music. Similarly Star Trek-esque is the Lemur MultiTouch Control Surface (www.jazzmutant.com). It comes with a library of on-screen controllers so you can customise your own setup. Interestingly, it uses the OpenSoundControl (OSC) standard, which can be more powerful than MIDI.
For interest value I have to mention one-man MIDI band, McRorie (www.mcrorie.ca). He performs with percussion sensors on his right foot and uses his left and right hand for bass and rhythm keyboards, respectively; plus has drum pads on his chest. McRorie rocks. Check out the Web site and see for yourself. It all puts new meaning into the term "control freak", doesn't it?