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Buyers Guide: How do I Choose the Right MIDI Studio Controller?

When computers first became tried-and-true media machines, we saw a new breed of studio technology gradually branching out: controllers. These days, it's impossible to imagine a studio without one. The range of controllers available on the market today has exploded into a plethora of models that boggles the mind!

When computers first became tried-and-true media machines, we saw a new breed of studio technology gradually branching out: controllers. These days, it's impossible to imagine a studio without one. The range of controllers available on the market today has exploded into a plethora of models that boggles the mind!

In relation to a computer, you could say that the controller is a sort of mouse. That's not meant as derogatory, but merely in terms of usability. You can adjust the parameters of your software with your mouse and even with your computer keyboard, but a controller offers even more ways to adjust and alter sounds by means of a fader or a rotary knob. By using a controller, you're creating more ways to manipulate and tweak your sound that go beyond the limited capabilities of the mouse and keyboard that came with your computer.

The main task of a controller's fader or rotary knob is so you can see what your exact parameter settings are. Sure, the computer monitor will show you as well, but this offers a more hands-on approach that appeals to studio producers who work creatively with audio.

Controller components

There are a variety of methods for showing parameter settings on a controller. Some methods are more popular than others, and sometimes more costly, which results in a lot of choice on the controller market, especially in terms of price. Controller components can be divided into three types: active, semi-active, and passive.

Active controller components will always show the actual, up-to-date parameter settings, physically, even when they're changed by the software. Semi-active controller components will need a display to show the parameter settings, as they don't move by themselves. Passive controller components won't move by themselves, nor will they display the actual parameter settings.

Motorised faders

Motorised faders are examples of active controller components because they have built-in motors that move them back and forth, showing a direct, accurate relationship between the fader position and the assigned parameter, even at a distance. Motorised faders are especially popular on mixing consoles, seeing as that direct relationship comes in handy when adjusting the volume of any given track. And, let's not forget, most producers are total gear-heads who just love to see those faders move! Be aware however—controllers with motorised faders don't come cheap, so you probably won't find one in the bargain basement.

Non-motorised faders

A controller with non-motorised faders is a lot more affordable. The actual settings of the faders are communicated to the software, but the faders themselves don't actually move by themselves. This is what's known as a passive controller component, which is a much more affordable option. If you don't use multiple parameter banks or parameter automation (whereby the faders follow the changing MIDI parameters), then non-motorised faders will suit your needs. In fact, you could compare non-motorised, passive faders with the type of faders on a synthesizer.

Touch faders

These days, touch faders are being implemented more and more. A touch fader is essentially a type of ribbon controller, and although it is not motorised, you can use your finger to adjust your parameters the same way you would with a motorised fader. A touch fader can also provide visual information with LED lights underneath it, for instance. A touch fader is a combination of an active and a semi-active controller component.

Rotary encoder

The above-mentioned faders all have one disadvantage: they take up a considerable amount of space. You could fit three rotary encoders in the space needed for a single fader! Rotary encoders, or rotary knobs, are commonly found on MIDI studio controllers.

There's actually no such thing as an active encoder. Encoders are either passive or semi-active, and budget-friendly controllers are usually equipped with passive controller components. Rotary encoders are not motorised, and when they don't rotate around endlessly, they need to have markings on them. Basically, they act the same way as non-motorised faders in that they show the exact position of your parameter but don't rotate automatically when those parameters are adjusted elsewhere.

Semi-active controller components are becoming increasingly more common. This type of encoder rotates endlessly, and features a numerical display or LED ring around it for positioning. The knobs themselves don't have any markings on them which means they are unable to give an accurate position. Only the numerical notation or the LED ring itself changes when parameters are adjusted, which, again, is comparable to the touch fader.

Buttons

Buttons are pretty straightforward. They show a certain status, such as on or off, or they trigger a specific action. Typical examples of status buttons on a mixing console are solo, mute, arm, and rec. These parameters are either on or off, and visual feedback comes in the form of an individual LED light or a button that is back-lit.

The trigger buttons don't have a permanent status; they merely send a signal, but don't save any information. Another example of a trigger button is a play/pause button or a fast-forward/rewind button. It tells the DAW to do something, but not the controller. These days, most trigger buttons have built-in LED lights in all different colours.

Some trigger buttons are quite large and velocity-sensitive. In that case, they're referred to as pads. Pads are essentially keys that can be used to trigger samples or drum loops in the software. They function just like the keys of a regular keyboard but in a different layout, but some producers prefer pads for playing drum samples in particular.

Pads like these often have another function, the origins of which lie in the software. That's quite unique, as all other functions originate from hardware. Pads are the preferred method of triggering clips in Ableton Live, and Ableton Live is the preferred software package of EDM producers who want to take their music to the stage.

Controller layout

When it comes to size, all MIDI controllers fall into one of two clear categories. The first category has to do with performing and remote applications. For mobile producers, a MIDI controller needs to be compact enough to fit into a rucksack together with a laptop and perhaps a set of headphones.

The second category is all about studio applications, where a MIDI controller will most likely be set up in a permanent spot. Size is of no consequence in that case; nonetheless, some producers are bound to have more than one controller on their table. That's because MIDI controllers are not available in such enormous sizes, as they would be virtually priceless, and only be accessible to high-end studios.

Obviously, the size of a controller is directly related to the number and size of its controls. An Ableton controller, for instance, needs plenty of room for its large-sized pads. Add its comprehensive 8x8 pad matrix and you're looking at a pretty sizeable piece of equipment. A mixer-style controller is more flexible and consists of a few channel strips that include a fader, buttons, and an encoder. A controller usually has eight channel strips. Often, a controller also features bank buttons so the user can navigate through a group of channel strips, thereby increasing the number of available tracks/parameters they have to work with.

These types of banks are where the semi-active controller components really show their worth. When you see the parameter settings actively change, you can easily switch to navigating through the banks; the controls will automatically adjust to what you're doing. Passive controller components make for a more difficult workflow because there is no visual feedback.

What's most important?

The above-mentioned point about visual feedback is an important aspect to take into account before purchasing a MIDI controller. Passive controllers are a lot more affordable, and therefore more accessible. However, if you work with parameter banks or want to use your software to actively drive the settings back to the controller, then a semi-active or active controller will better suit your needs. As you can see, the most appropriate controller may not always be the least expensive one!

Are you still in doubt? Take this into consideration: a good controller is a long-term investment. Years from now, you should still be able to use whatever software is on the market with your controller, even though you'll probably have an entirely new computer. Look at the cost of your investment over the number of years you'll be able to use it, and it'll work out to be a bargain!

If you're in the market for a pad controller purely for triggering drums or other samples, then you'll require a different device; a more basic interface with trigger buttons that acts much like a keyboard, and doesn't require the visual feedback capability you may need in a controller.


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