MIDI keyboards are great tools in the studio. They allow you to play sounds loaded in your DAW, record and control your DAW using the transport control buttons and knobs they come with. But can you use a MIDI keyboard for live performances?
Musicians often use MIDI keyboards during live performances. The MIDI keyboard must be connected to a computer running a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software. This software is used to program sounds and instruments to the MIDI keyboard before using it during a live gig.
We’re going to cover everything musicians must know about using a MIDI keyboard for live performances and gigs! Once we’ve explained why many musicians use their MIDI keyboards for live performances, we’ll discuss some helpful tips for using this device live. We’ll also outline the many benefits of using a MIDI keyboard live!
Can MIDI Keyboards Be Used Live?
As you may already know, MIDI keyboards don’t make sounds on their own. These keyboards need to be connected to a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) program to translate key presses on your MIDI computer into audio notes on your computer.
Once your MIDI keyboard is connected to your computer, you can load virtual instruments and sound samples to the keyboard via your DAW software.
While MIDI keyboards are one of the most widely-used tools for music production, the functionality of this device allows it to be used for live performances.
Your MIDI keyboard will need to be connected to a computer with DAW software installed on it to be used live – which is why it’s not uncommon to see bands and musicians running a laptop during performances.
The DAW software is responsible for sending the MIDI keyboard’s sounds to speakers since most models don’t have built-in speakers.
With the right sounds loaded onto a MIDI keyboard, it can be used like a regular keyboard during live performances. The freedom to load almost any sound makes this one of the most versatile musical instruments today.
For many musicians, using a MIDI keyboard for live performances opens up many musical possibilities. This device will give you access to many diverse sounds and instruments in a lightweight package.
Preparation is key when using a MIDI keyboard live since it ensures that your performance runs as smoothly as possible. I’ll provide you with some tips on how to prep your MIDI keyboard and computer for a live performance later in this article. Let’s continue.
Things You Need to Use MIDI Keyboard for a Live Performance
Here are the things you’ll need if you want to use a MIDI keyboard as part of your live rig. And I’ll explain what each of them does.
- MIDI Keyboard
- Digital Audio Workstation
- Virtual Instruments or VST Plugins
- Audio Interface
Of course, if you’re planning to use a MIDI keyboard live, then obviously, you’ll need a MIDI keyboard. I didn’t have to include this because I assume you already have one.
However, I still wanted to talk about it because there are some things I wanted to share.
Ideally, you want a MIDI keyboard with buttons, faders, or knobs. That allows you to have more control over your sounds and instruments.
These controls on your MIDI keyboard will allow you to change sounds, volume, or tweak sounds as you perform. And if you are a keyboard player, you know how important having tactile control on your instruments is.
However, if you don’t have these controls on your MIDI keyboard, you can still make some of these changes with your computer.
I personally own and use a MIDI controller, the Novation Impulse 61 Keyboard (on Amazon). Although this has been around for a while, it still serves me well and gets the job done. It has all the controls I need for a live rig.
However, if I were to pick up a new MIDI controller, I would go for the Novation Launchkey 61 MK3 (also on Amazon).
This controller has everything you’ll need for a live performance – 16 colored buttons, nine faders, eight rotary encoders or knobs, a pitch bend and modulation wheel, and transport control for your DAW. And it’s fairly priced too.
Digital Audio Workstation
The Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW) will serve as the host. This software will receive all the MIDI data from your MIDI keyboard and then pass it on to the virtual instrument to generate a sound.
It will also receive the sound generated from the virtual instruments and then pass it onto the audio interface’s output so that you can hear the sound. So DAWs are actually quite important.
There are two main DAWs that are quite popular for live performances – Ableton Live and Mainstage.
Ableton Live is, without a doubt, one of the best DAWs for musicians, especially live musicians. And it is my preferred DAW for music production and live performance.
With Ableton, you can turn your MIDI keyboard into a live rig by combining different virtual instruments, audio effects, hardware sound modules, and more. I mean, the possibilities are endless with the software.
Ableton Live works on both PC and Macs, so it doesn’t matter which computer you have; you can get Ableton for it.
Mainstage is a stripped-down version of Apple’s Logic Pro X., And it is specifically designed for keyboard players who want to use their MIDI keyboards live. For this reason, it is incredibly easy to set up for MIDI keyboards compared to Ableton.
Also, there are many sound templates made for Mainstage that you can purchase and start using right away.
Unfortunately, Mainstage is only available for Macs.
Virtual instruments are software that has the sounds you want to play live. They are popularly known as VST plugins, and there are many of them available today.
Every DAW comes with virtual instruments, but usually, they sound too generic or may not exactly be the type of sounds you are looking to play live. But there are many third-party software instrument plugins with unique and high-quality sounds that you can install and use.
If you’re looking for recommendations, then you should check out Kontakt by Native instrument and my personal favorite – Omnisphere by Spectrasonics. Some of these third-party plugins are quite expensive. And I explained why VST plugins are expensive in this article. Feel free to check it out.
However, you can get some incredible sounds from these plugins – sounds you wouldn’t normally get on a traditional keyboard workstation.
Another important device you’ll need is an audio interface. Without getting into the technical details, an audio interface will receive a digital audio signal from your Digital Audio Workstation and process that into an analog signal so that you can hear the sounds you are playing.
Audio interfaces will have a Line Output (or Line Out) and a headphone out port.
The Line Out is the port you’ll use when you want to send your keyboard sounds to the live audio engineer, so it gets mixed with the rest of the band. If you want to know the difference between Line Out and Headphone Out, feel free to check out this article.
A simple but powerful audio interface I’ll highly recommend for you is the Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 (on Amazon). It is, without a doubt, one of the best audio interfaces available today, and they’re great for MIDI keyboard rigs.
7 Advantages Of Using MIDI Keyboards Live
Now that we’ve outlined some tips for using a MIDI keyboard live, you’re likely wondering about the advantages of using this device during live performances. Here are seven of the main benefits of using a MIDI keyboard live!
MIDI keyboards tend to be more affordable than traditional keyboards, which is a popular selling point for musicians. While you’ll also need to purchase DAW software to use your MIDI keyboard, this affordable device is perfect for musicians on a budget!
The main selling point to using MIDI keyboards live is how versatile your setup can be.
Firstly, you get access to incredible sounds used in music production that you wouldn’t normally find on a keyboard workstation. From EDM to classical orchestra sounds to unique experimental sounds. The possibilities are endless.
Also, besides playing sounds, you can set your MIDI keyboard up with your DAW to play backing tracks for the show. You can also record yourself playing an entire show.
MIDI keyboards are far more compact and lightweight than traditional keyboards and other instruments. Due to this design, MIDI keyboards are one of the easiest musical instruments to transport to a gig and pack away afterward! The portability of these devices means you can use them anywhere for a live performance!
Challenges with Using MIDI Keyboard Live
If your computer is not well-optimized for live performance, you may run into latency issues. Latency refers to the time difference between when you hit a note on your MIDI keyboard and when you hear the sound of the note.
Ideally, you want latency to be zero, meaning you want to be able to instantly hear the note you play on your MIDI keyboard. That leads to more effective performance.
However, if you don’t have a powerful computer with a fast processor, or you don’t optimize the audio settings properly in your DAW, you may run into a huge latency issue which can definitely make your performance a struggle.
2. Technical difficulties during live performance
Another challenge with using MIDI keyboards for live performances is unforeseen technical challenges that may come up during your set.
Your computer can freeze, DAW might crash, or you may not get sound out of your audio interface. There are a dozen other things that can go wrong with using your MIDI keyboard and computer for a live session.
This is why you need to prepare adequately before a gig. And I’ll provide you with some tips on how to do that.
Tips For Using A MIDI Keyboard Live
Here are five fantastic tips for using your MIDI keyboard live!
- Always prepare all your sounds, tracks, and backing tracks beforehand. You should test your MIDI keyboard before a live performance to ensure everything works correctly. Doing this will ensure you arrive at your gig ready to perform!
- Include MIDI triggers and automation in your MIDI keyboard setup. You want to be able to switch and tweak your sounds fast during your set.
- It’s better to be over-prepared when using a MIDI keyboard live. You don’t want to show up only to find out you’re missing a certain cable! Always check that you’ve packed all the necessary cables beforehand.
- You should have a computer that’s dedicated to running your DAW software. After all, this software allows you to use your MIDI keyboard live. Your chosen computer should be optimized for audio. And the computer should be powerful enough to process all the VST plugins you are using for a show.
- Never update your computer’s software before live performances. Software updates can cause bugs with your DAW software, so it’s crucial to only update your computer when you don’t have any current gigs. Doing this gives you enough time to test the DAW software for issues after installing updates.
Musicians often use MIDI keyboards during live performances. During a live performance, a MIDI keyboard must be connected to a computer running Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software. This software is used before a live gig to program sounds and instruments to the MIDI keyboard.
Hi, I’m Raymond. A keyboard player, music producer, and writer. And I’m also the founder of this blog. As someone who has been working with several audio and music equipment and different musicians for many years, my goal is to answer all your questions on music and equipment, as well as the latest music software and technology. For more info, check out my about me page