Get the Most Out of Software—With a Mini-Keyboard

Keyswitching is a great way to change articulations when playing keyboards—if you have an 88-note keyboard! But if you don’t, there’s a simple, fast, inexpensive solution to add keyswitching to any keyboard controller.

Keyswitching and Looping

Many of today’s sampling-based virtual instruments (like IK Multimedia’s SampleTank) use a technique called keyswitching to choose different articulations, particularly for acoustic instruments. Keyswitching designates keys, typically in the lowest keyboard octave, not to generate notes but to change the articulation of notes played above the keyswitches. For example, if a sustained trumpet preset doesn’t have keyswitching and you want a staccato section, you’d normally need to overdub it. But with keyswitching, you can hit a “staccato” keyswitch, and subsequent notes will have a staccato characteristic until you choose a different articulation (Fig. 1).

1 Keyswitches
Figure 1: IK Multimedia’s SampleTank offers articulation options for several instruments. The keys outlined in yellow are keyswitches; the window outlined in green shows which switches control which articulations. The program highlights the currently selected articulation by coloring it red. The middle white and black keys play the sampled trumpet sounds for which you can choose various articulations.

Other programs have “construction kits” that spread loops across a keyboard, or assign a loop’s individual slices to different keyboard keys. But the problem with any of these approaches is that if you have a 49- or 61-note keyboard, you may not be able to access the keyswitch keys and the notes you want to play at the same time, or access all the loops in a construction kit. Fortunately, there’s a simpler, space-saving, and less expensive solution than trading in your keyboard for an 88-note model.

In addition to a 49-key Komplete Kontrol keyboard by Native Instruments, I’ve added Korg’s nanoKEY2 (Fig. 2) USB controller specifically to trigger keyswitches and loops.

2 nanoKEY2
Figure 2: At under $60, Korg’s nanoKEY2 extends an existing keyboard’s range.

Because all I really need is switches, the touch sensitivity and feel don’t matter, and of course, I certainly don’t need aftertouch. Your software will recognize whatever data is coming into a USB port, so by dedicating the nanoKEY2 to a programs’s keyswitch range, I can play the notes on the Komplete Kontrol keyboard, and choose articulations with the nanoKEY2.

Setup is easy. Your host software will have a window or other means of telling it to recognize specific MIDI controllers (Fig. 3).

3 Setup in DP.png
Figure 3: The MIDI setup window in MOTU’s Digital Performer is representative of the way you tell virtual studio software to recognize particular MIDI controllers.

Just make sure your keyboards are recognized and enabled, and you’re good to go. However, note that if you try to use two controllers with 5-pin DIN MIDI out connectors instead of USB, you’ll need a MIDI merger like the one in Fig. 4 from MIDI Solutions, or a MIDI interface that can merge MIDI inputs, so that both outputs are available simultaneously to a virtual instrument in your host software.

4 MIDI Merger
Figure 4: MIDI Solutions’ Merge can merge two 5-pin DIN MIDI outputs into a single MIDI output. The company also makes the Quadra-Merger and the M8, which can merge four and eight MIDI outputs respectively.

Korg’s nanoKEY2 isn’t the only option; for example, there’s Akai’s LPK25 which unlike the Korg, has organ-style keys instead of buttons. Another option is a mobile MIDI controller with pads, like the Akai LPD8 (Fig. 5).

5 Akai LPD8
Figure 5: Akai’s LPD8 offers eight pads that trigger notes.

The main advantage to a pad controller is that it can do double-duty as a pad controller when it’s not extending your main keyboard’s range. Other potential advantages are that most pad controllers have a companion computer application for programming the pads to transmit the notes of your choice, which means you can arrange keyswitch functions in the way that’s most logical to you; and pads can be a bigger target than keys, which may make selecting keyswitches easier.

Mobile Functionality

Although we’ve emphasized using mini-keyboards in conjunction with full-size keyboards, sometimes people don’t recognize how useful these can be for a variety of applications. If you travel with a laptop, a mobile keyboard or pad controller will likely fit in your laptop bag, which will make playing much easier than clicking on a virtual keyboard with a mouse. With suitable interfacing, you’ll even be able to play apps on your smartphone or tablet.

The final application we’ll cover is splits. If your keyboard controller or virtual software doesn’t do splits, then a mobile keyboard can provide the notes for one of the splits. Insert two instances of your virtual software, and assign each instance to a different MIDI channel. Now you can do tricks like play a bass part with your left hand on the mobile keyboard, while playing a different part on the main keyboard with your right hand.

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