Play Like a Pro: How to control software with your keyboard

KEYS WEEK 2023: This Play Like A Pro series is focussing on some of the best techniques to make you a better keyboard player. Here we're looking at how to use your hardware controller keyboard to control your software.

Many controller keyboards sport a generous array of user-assignable hardware controls that can transform your favourite software synth’s flat, virtual control panel into a properly tweakable, hands-on experience.

All you have to do is 'tell' the software what it needs to do when it receives a continuous controller MIDI message from a particular hardware keyboard dial, fader or switch. Here’s how to set up the knobs and faders on your keyboard.

In the first example in our video above, we assign the filter cutoff in our synth to a rotary encoder on our Akai controller. We use MIDI CC Learn Mode to match the MIDI controller messages sent by the controller to any available destination on the synth (highlighted in green).

We simply move the desired control on the device to set up the link – doing this lets the synth know to map the controller message transmitted by the knob you moved to the parameter you selected. 

We then do the same thing in NI Massive. It’s a similar approach, but this time each control has its own separate ‘learn’ mode, as opposed to a global mode for the entire synth. In this case, simply right-click on the control you want to assign and select MIDI Learn from its popup menu.

Once assigned, you can record changes you make to the softsynth (via your keyboard) as automation data in your DAW. This is such an easy way to get movement into your tracks. Once you’ve worked out how to assign your favourite controls in your favourite synths, you’ll never go back to static sounds again!

Set your MIDI controllers up

(Image credit: Future)

Looking for more great keyboard gear and technique? Get all our reviews, news, features, tutorials, tips and more at our Keys Week 2023 hub page.

With contributions from
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