Your cart

Your cart is empty

What is a MIDI controller ?

What is a MIDI controller ?

In this second article, we will try to explain what a MIDI controller is, and introduce you to different kind depending on their usage. In particular, we will see those suitable for controlling effects pedals with MIDI, such as RIDGE and MOHO.


Episode 2: What is a MIDI controller ? 

As we saw in the  first episode, MIDI's main purpose is to be remotely control specific functions by sending messages from one device to another. What we call a "MIDI controller" is simply a device capable of sending those MIDI messages. But concretely, what is it used for?


What purpose can a MIDI controller serve ? 

The primary benefit of having a MIDI controller in a setup is the ability to remotely control another device without needing to be right next to it.

For example, this allows a guitarist on stage to have only a MIDI pedalboard at his feet, controlling all of its effects located in a rack backstage.

Another advantage, thanks to MIDI channels, is that one can control multiple devices from a single controller. This unit becoming the focal point of the entire setup, greatly simplifying the workflow.

For instance, a keyboardist can control all of their sound generators from a single keyboard, whether on stage or in their home studio.

Now, let's take a closer look at what the different controllers available can look like.


Controllers tailored for each musician.

The term "MIDI controller" encompasses a range of products that can have very different functions. Above all, we'll see that each controller is primarily adapted for specific uses :

  • A synthesizer player would rather needs a MIDI master keyboard. Pads will be suitable for controlling electronic drum kits. MIDI pedalboards are designed for guitarists. Even DJs have their own tools like Native Instruments Traktor Control.
  • There’s also dedicated controllers that serve as interfaces for softwares like Ableton Push for LIVE. As well, we’ll explore how a computer equipped with a USB MIDI interface can become the central hub of a home studio.
  • At last, we also find increasingly futuristic controllers that redefine musical instruments. Despite their avant-garde appearance, they still use MIDI for interfacing.


MIDI Master Keyboards

Master keyboards were the first applications of the MIDI standard. Today, there is a wide range of control keyboards, called master keyboards, all featuring piano-style keyboards. These controllers send NOTE on and NOTE off messages, allowing sound generators to trigger sounds at corresponding pitches.

You can find portable master keyboards with only 2 octaves, featuring mini keys particulary  practical for composing while traveling. You can also find keyboards limited to 5 octaves, with a full size synthesizer-type touch. At the other extreme, there are MIDI master keyboards that feature real piano mechanics inside, with the full 88 keys.

Korg microkeys air25, Arturia Keylab61, Kawai VPC-1

Korg microkeys air25, Arturia Keylab61, Kawai VPC-1 



This type of controller is optimized for triggering drum samples or electronic sounds. You can find them with matrix of small pads designed to be played with fingers, as well as pads that can be used with real drumsticks or even complete drum kits. You'll need to connect this type of controller to a drum sound generator via MIDI to produce sounds. Each pad is assigned to a NOTE on, which then triggers a particular sound assigned to it on the generator.

Akai MPD218 : finger drums pad & Roland TD07 : full MIDI drums controller

Akai MPD218 : finger drums pad - Roland TD07: full MIDI drums controller

Simmons SDS9, one of the first Drum pad with MIDI,  used by Depeche mode or pink Floyd on stage (1985)

Simmons SDS9, one of the first Drum pad with MIDI, used by Depeche mode or pink Floyd on stage (1985)


MIDI foot controllers for Guitarists

This type of controller is more specific to guitarists. They are foot-controlled units equipped with multiple footswitches. They allow for remotely select  different effects, loading presets, and some also have expression pedals for varying parameters continuously.

To achieve this, the controller needs to be MIDI-connected to various effects equipped with MIDI, and each footswitch needs to be assigned the correct presets to load. A single footswitch can trigger multiple effects simultaneously, allowing for switching from a rhythmic sound with chorus to a lead sound with delay and reverb with just one switch press, without the need for intricate footwork. We will delve into the details of how this works in an upcoming blog post.

Foot MIDI controllers come in various sizes depending on their usage, ranging from the compact Hotone Ampero Control with only 4 footswitches to the CAVEMAN SC1, used among others by the Edge on stage, which can have several dozen footswitches for professional use.

Hotone, Roland FC300, Caveman SC1

Hotone Ampero Control, Roland FC300, Caveman SC1

Custom MIDI controllers are also available, such as those from Pete Cornish, capable of controlling an entire live setup

Custom MIDI controllers are also available, such as those from Pete Cornish, capable of controlling an entire live setup. These controllers are tailored to specific needs and can be seen in action with artists like David Gilmour during the Pink Floyd Pulse tour in 1994. 


DAWs with MIDI Interfaces

Digital Audio Workstation software can all generate various MIDI messages to control external sound generators or effects with automation messages. To communicate in MIDI with different effects or generators, all you need to do is connect a MIDI interface to your computer via USB. You can find small interfaces with one MIDI input and one output, or more advanced units with 8 inputs and 8 outputs. Many USB sound cards today also incorporate MIDI connectors.

Roland UMone, Miditech MIDIface 8x8,  Focusrite Scarlett 4i4

Roland UMone, Miditech MIDIface 8x8, Focusrite Scarlett 4i4

MIDI sequencers allows you to record the notes played from a master keyboard, then modify them and replay them at different tempos. Most DAWs also directly incorporate sound generators in the form of virtual instruments, drum kits, synths, and others that can be played from a MIDI master keyboard.

Spectrasonc Omnispher and arturia V Collection are virtual instrument to be played with MIDI controllers

Spectrasonc Omnispher and Arturia V Collection are virtual instrument to be played with MIDI controllers. 

Most modern MIDI master keyboards also feature a number of potentiometers that can control parameters of these virtual synths using MIDI Control Change messages


Dedicated MIDI Controllers

There are also MIDI controllers dedicated to specific software, incorporating an interface optimized for particular uses. For example, Native Instruments' Traktor Kontrol is dedicated to DJs, or the Softube Console 1 controller, which integrates potentiometers to emulate a complete console channel strip for controlling plugins in a computer. All these controllers, even though they connect directly via USB, still use MIDI messages to communicate with the dedicated software.

NI traktor control, softube Channel 1

NI traktor control and Softube Channel 1


Futuristic Controllers

Lastly, there are also new types of controllers now available, allowing for playing music with innovative gestures. One example is the Osmose control keyboard, with keys that can be vibrated to add vibrato to each note independently, thanks to an addition to the MIDI standard called MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression).

Osmose E expression equipped with MPE touches

We can also mention controllers like the Haken Continuum, the LinnStrument by Roger Linn, or the Intuitive instrument Exquis.

Roger Linn - Linnstrument, Intuitive Instrument - Exquis, Haken - Continuuum

Roger Linn - Linnstrument, Intuitive Instrument - Exquis, Haken - Continuuum

The Embodme Erae 2 goes even further by allowing for completely personalized configuration of its tactile control surface, triggering sounds with sticks, or modify sounds of multiples pedals at the same time.

Embodme Erae2


What about Kernom ? 

The Kernom RIDGE and Kernom MOHO being both pedals with MIDI features, you can send MIDI messages to them via those kind of MIDI controller we've just talk about. They can receive Control Changes, or Program Changes depending on what you want to do. We will in a futur blog post explain how you can recall presets, combine your pedal with an expression pedal or adjusting one of the six parameters of your pedal to do some crazy things.

As a conclusion, MIDI controllers push the boundaries of how musicians can harness technology for their creations. It’s pretty sure there’s one for your needs outside which will ease your practice. Let us know what's the craziest thing you've done (or will do) with a MIDI controller ;)


Photo de l'auteur

by Antoine Petroff

Antoine is a seasoned audio, electronics and acoustics engineer with 20 years of experience both in the studio and in the lab working on high end audio products. He also plays keyboard and guitar and therefore has both a deep technical and artistic understanding of today’s musicians’ needs.

Previous post

Leave a comment