When someone’s getting started out in music production, they usually have a pretty decent knowledge of the main components they need; DAWs, audio interface, MIDI keyboards, etc, etc.
But do you need one component or device to run another; does a MIDI keyboard need an audio interface or vice-versa, for example?
Hooking up the various components of an audio production rig into one smoothly functioning, reliable and cohesive setup is often the tricky bit.
To answer the question, let’s start with exhibit A – the audio interface.
Do You Need an Audio Interface?
It depends on what you’re planning to do.
Audio interfaces are essentially external sound cards for your computer.
PCs and laptops are equipped with basic soundcards. Sound cards are the hardware component that processes audio coming in and out of your computer. Sounds produced on your computer are output through the built-in speakers and other headphones or speaker ports, typically through a 3.5mm mini-jack AUX cable.
Some PCs and laptops do also have inputs. Some pre-late-2012 Macbook Pros have a line-in, for example – this enables you to connect instruments and other audio outputs to your Mac and record them directly.
It’s quite possible that your PC or laptop has a line-in, though they are less common now.
Even if your computer lacks inputs, you can connect USB microphones to record sounds without an audio interface.
So why do you even need one?
Audio interfaces provide pre-amped XLR and/or ¼” jack inputs and stereo outputs. This allows you to record instruments and vocals whilst outputting audio to a connected pair of studio monitor speakers.
You can also monitor audio with headphones.
Even the simplest audio interfaces have these basic functions, but some, like the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20, have enough inputs to record 8 different sources at once, enough for a small band.
Moreover, audio interfaces have superior audio quality to the sound cards contained within most PCs and laptops.
Basic audio interfaces like the Focusrite Solo are inexpensive.
Whilst you don’t strictly need them to produce music or other audio, the benefits are there for all to see.
Now, let’s look at exhibit B; the MIDI keyboard or controller.
What Are MIDI Keyboards or Controllers?
MIDI controllers, keyboards and pads are all very similar at heart, and they all serve broadly the same function.
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface and has been around since 1983.
In simple terms, MIDI is a file protocol that enables a computer to send and receive data from a MIDI-enabled controller.
Every control; each note, button, wheel, encoder, fader and switch mounted on a MIDI keyboard or controller sends MIDI data to the computer.
This data ‘maps’ what you’re playing on the controller to your PC. MIDI keyboards allow you to control plugins within your DAW.
MIDI controllers do not produce any audio in their own right, they’re merely a vessel for MIDI data, which is cool because MIDI enables you to play near-infinite different sounds from within your DAW.
Software synthesisers like Massive or Xfer Serum, drum machines like Battery and even guitar emulation plugins like SugarBytes Guitarist can all be controlled with a MIDI keyboard or controller.
MIDI enables you to tap into a whole universe of sonic potential without the need for expensive hardware synthesisers.
Does a MIDI Keyboard Need an Audio Interface to Function?
The short answer is no, MIDI keyboards and audio interfaces are two separate devices that don’t require each other to function.
Each one will work without the other – there’s nothing stopping you from using your MIDI keyboard to play some MIDI notes into your DAW without an interface.
The only exception would be if your MIDI controller only has MIDI outputs, in which case you’ll need an interface with MIDI inputs to receive MIDI from the controller.
This is very rare these days. 99%+ of MIDI controllers are equipped with USB connections – you plug them directly into your computer, not your interface.
You’d have to go back to the early 2000s to find MIDI controllers without USB outputs.
MIDI cables are still used in some studios or live sound applications, but for standard music production, they serve the same purpose as USB.
MIDI cables, like USB cables, just transfer data from A to B.
In fact, many modern MIDI controllers no longer have MIDI outputs at all, just USB outputs!
MIDI keyboards and controllers of all varieties are generally really easy to set up and automatically map to your DAW so they can be used straight away.
You’ll typically just need to plug them in and select them in your DAW’s MIDI device section.
How to Connect a MIDI Device to a DAW
Most DAWs are plug-and-play with most major MIDI devices or controllers – setting them up is usually easy and takes just minutes.
Here are some guides for setting up MIDI controllers with most major DAWs:
- Setting up a MIDI device in Logic Pro
- Connecting a MIDI device to Pro Tools
- Setting up MIDI controllers in FL Studio
- Adding MIDI controllers to Ableton
- Connect MIDI device to Garageband
- Setting up MIDI controllers in Reaper
- Connecting MIDI controllers to Studio One
Once connected, your MIDI keyboard will allow you to control MIDI-enabled plugins in your DAW. If you load up a software instrument on a MIDI, audio or instrument track, you should be able to control the instrument using your MIDI controller.
Here are some key points to bear in mind when using your MIDI controller for the first time:
- You’ll be able to control notes in the case of a MIDI keyboard or drum hits/samples in the case of a MIDI pad/controller.
- Many MIDI controllers also have a mixture of keys, pads and other controls. The key is to experiment – you’ll get a feel of how different software instruments work with your controller – it’s generally smooth sailing from there!
- Various controls from your MIDI keyboard should be pre-mapped to functions within the software instrument.
- For example, the mod wheel on your MIDI keyboard might control an LFO, filter, flanger, phaser or other pre-mapped effects within the software instrument.
- You can also record automation using your MIDI controller, e.g. by playing in some beats or notes and automating some effects with the mod-wheel.
- You’ll also be able to customise your mapping with certain software instruments, for example, to map different effects to your controller’s encoders and switches.
- There’s a huge amount you can do with a MIDI controller but the basics are straightforward and intuitive – once you’re connected, you’re good to go!
Summary: Does a MIDI Keyboard Need an Audio Interface?
So long as your MIDI controller, keyboard or other device has a USB output then no, you don’t need an audio interface.
The only exception would be if your MIDI controller only has MIDI outputs. This is possible if your MIDI controller is old, but modern MIDI controllers specifically designed for digital music production will all have USB connectivity.
For all other purposes, MIDI keyboards/controllers/devices and audio interfaces are two separate entities.