How to add expression to your music with MIDI/MPE Controllers
Updated: Oct 20, 2021
Henry whipped out his guitar and started shredding with the pick in his mouth. I didn't even think about what chords or rhythm he was playing. I just vibed. I started rapping and like all my freestyles it probably ended with a mom joke.
There's something about live music that just moves you. I'm not a pro on any instrument but luckily we've advanced to a time where electronic sounds can have just as much, if not more, expression and authenticity than traditional acoustic instruments. For modern producers and artists looking to utilize the next-generation of music making technology, there's a plethora of tools at our disposal to add unique character and expression to our tracks. We'll dive into some of our favorite tools and share how MIDI and MPE controllers work below.
What Is MIDI/MPE?
So, how exactly can we transform an electronic instrument into a dynamic, organic-sounding track? The answer lies in MIDI. MIDI, which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, is a type of communication between certain hardware and software. MIDI can communicate data points like tempo, dynamics, and more. Therefore, when you play a C4 on your MIDI controller, your DAW will do the same with the selected instrument.
MPE is a more specific type of MIDI communication. It stands for MIDI Polyphonic Expression which is basically a fancy way of saying that you can modulate more "human-like" parameters simultaneously. MPE picks up how hard you pressed on the key, and whether or not you changed pitch, etc.
A notable difference between the two communication types is that MIDI typically generalizes all information based on a whole hardware piece while MPE can separate by individual keys or knobs. For example, on an MPE compatible controller, you can individually alter the pitch bend of each note. A MIDI controller may still be able to adjust pitch, but it will apply the same amount of pitch modulation to all keys rather than picking up on the nuances in real time.
The more control options you have, the more likely you are to create something that sounds live, engaging, and difficult to replicate.
Best Controllers For Adding Expression To Your Beats
Without further ado, here is a handful of MIDI controllers to take into consideration for beefing up your beats.
$100: Akai MPK Mini MK3 Compact Keyboard/Pad Controller
Snag this portable, versatile controller for around $100 and you'll be jamming out organic tracks in no time. With keys, pads, and knobs you can lay down chords with realistic velocity, play drum parts with natural groove, or physically modulate up to 8 parameters. Unfortunately you only have two hands so this means you will most likely be modulating 2 parameters at a time. Maybe 4 if you have superior toes.
$700: Roli Seaboard
Piano players prepare yourselves. This instrument is the epitome of expressive electronic sounds. With a soft foam bed of keys that sense 5 dimensions of touch per note, you can pretty much recreate any acoustic instrument except with even more expression. It's safe to say this beast of a keyboard is ahead of it's time. Check out MusicRadar's Review of the Roli Seaboard here
Free: Controlla XYZ
If you're looking for a free option that leverage's the hardware you already own, Controlla XYZ is an iOS app that lets you map any parameter in your DAW to 3 dimensions in 3D space. Simply hold your phone and move it around to expressively modulate 3 effects or synth parameters of your choosing.
The real enthusiasts will use this in one hand while playing the Roli Seaboard in the other. That's a total of 8 parameters being modulated in real time in a physically expressive way. Try finding an acoustic instrument that does that.
Controlla XYZ is currently in private alpha, you can sign up to be an early user below. It's also totally free, so it's certainly worth giving a try especially if you don't already own a MPE controller.
Regardless of what controller you choose, taking the time to add a little bit of organic sound to your electronic beats can go a long way. Have fun experimenting and happy beatmaking!