Mixdown’s guide to the master keyboard
18.01.2022

Mixdown’s guide to the master keyboard

Words by Mixdown Staff

All you need to know and consider when upgrading your setup

A master keyboard means having a good quality MIDI keyboard in a comfortable location that, with minimum mucking about, can control any of your MIDI capable synths. It’s a bit of an investment of time and money for what is essentially convenience, but once you’ve set it up and arranged your studio space, it’ll allow for experimentation and use in a much easier manner.

Summary:

  • A master keyboard means having a good quality MIDI keyboard in a comfortable location that, with minimum mucking about, can control any of your MIDI capable synths.
  • How to optimise your MIDI flow and control your synths from afar.
  • What to consider when looking to buy a master keyboard.

To get you back into the swing of things for 2022, we’re reposting some old favourites of yours and ours. This article was originally published December 20, 2016.

Read up on all the latest features and columns here.

MIDI Flow

Lets say you’ve got three hardware synths you want to control with the one keyboard – how do you get midi from a single output on the master keyboard to all three synths without unplugging and re-plugging cables

There’s a couple of options; first check if your hardware has MIDI thru ports or if their MIDI out ports can work as thru. If so, then you’re in luck as you can just daisy chain the synths together with MIDI cables and you’re set. Just make sure you set each synth to a different MIDI channel so you don’t trigger them all at once, unless that’s what you want. But if you’re lacking thru ports you’ll need to invest in a MIDI merge device or MIDI hub.

The MIDI Solutions Quadra Thru is a simple little solution that simply takes one MIDI input and quadruples it to four outputs, which would suffice for this example.

Whether you route your MIDI signal in and out of your interface and DAW is really your call. If you’re a one stop shop bedroom producer, you’d be silly not to as you’ll be able to use your master board to control software synths and keys as well as hardware.

Controlling your synths from afar

Keys are great and all, but not having the sound sculpting capabilities of your synths on hand kind of defeats the purpose. Fortunately, just about all decent MIDI controller keyboards will have at least a handful of programmable knobs and/or sliders and the ability to flip between ‘scenes’.

This means your programmable controls are not stuck to one synth, you can change scenes to another template and control a different synth. On top of that, most DAW’s will have the functionality for you to set up an external instrument device with customised controls, which you’ll be able to save as a preset.

What to buy

There’s a ton of MIDI controllers on the market, but here’s some things to consider when looking to buy a master keyboard.

  • The number of keys – common wisdom is ‘bigger the better,’ but you’re probably not going to need an 88-key monster unless you’re classically trained, 49-61 is sufficient for most.
  • Programmable controls – are you a sound sculpting synthesiser master or are you happy just tweaking the frequency cut-off here and there? Sliders, knobs, foot controllers and drum pads are all options.
  • Velocity and aftertouch sensitivity – how expressive is your playing?
  • Connections – for a master keyboard going through an interface and your DAW, just USB will be fine but if you want to surpass the DAW and go straight to synths, you’ll likely need an old school MIDI DIN connection.
  • Bundled software – some keyboard controllers are designed specifically for, and bundled with software. Be aware you might pay a premium for that, but on the flip side, you might find it’s worth the cost.
  • Budget – obviously. Controllers go from $50 to thousands. For a master keyboard you will want something good quality with solid feeling keys and controls. If you can, get down to a dealership and have a play with some keyboards before you commit to buy. Ideally, this master keyboard will tide you over for years to come, so it needs to feel right to you.

For more keyboard brilliance, check out our chat with Alfa Mist.