There is no doubt that music production has come a long way and is more accessible now, more than ever. Without spending thousands of dollars on studio equipment—amateur and pro music producers can create full-blown smashes with just a laptop, pair of headphones, and their DAW of choice. Still, many young producers are wondering wether they have to purchase a MIDI keyboard in order to start producing music.
It is definitely possible to create music without a MIDI keyboard. One option is to use the DAW’s piano roll. The second option is to use the computer keyboard. The third option is to use a mobile phone or a tablet as a midi controller. The fourth option is creating music using only samples, loops, and live recordings.
Having a MIDI keyboard can be very useful in the studio, but you can get away with making 24-bar loops to full-length tracks—solely relying on production techniques, a computer, and music production software.
4 Ways To Make Music Without a MIDI Keyboard
There are many ways to create music without a MIDI keyboard. But before trying out the following music production techniques, make sure you have a computer with any music production software.
1. Use the Piano Roll in your DAW to Program MIDI
One of the most popular ways to make music, create chords, and write melodies without using a MIDI keyboard is by programming the notes with your DAW’s MIDI editor and Piano Roll. In fact, many producers who cannot play piano rely on this technique.
A MIDI keyboard might help you play the notes with a more human-like expression. Still, talented music producers can emulate the exact dynamics to make the notes sound like they were actually played and recorded live.
If you want your MIDI programming to sound more human and less robotic, you can adjust the velocity of each note. Some people tend to layout notes on the piano roll and line them up perfectly. However, the outcome might sound too robotic.
This image shows how perfectly lined up each note is. It does sound perfect, but that is the problem. It sounds too perfect—losing all the expression. You can adjust the velocity of each note to create a subtle but human-like effect.
After a few tweaks, the following image shows that the notes are not perfectly lined up, and the velocity of each note is a little bit different. The chord progression sounds more human-like and less robotic than what it used to sound like before tweaking.
You can choose to use the Piano Roll and MIDI editor to create the entire song, but there are more ways to create a song without a MIDI keyboard controller.
2. Use Keyboard Typing
In some DAWs like Logic Pro X and GarageBand, it is possible to play the notes of a musical keyboard using your computer’s keyboard. For GarageBand and Logic, just press “Command + K” to toggle musical typing—and a virtual MIDI keyboard will appear on the screen.
If you are using a MacBook Pro equipped with the Touch Bar, you can use the Touch Bar as a MIDI controller on both GarageBand and Logic X Pro.
3. Use Loops and Samples
Some DAWs come with vast music libraries filled with samples and loops. With those samples alone, you can create beats and full-length songs just by arranging them. You can also develop music production techniques, so you can chop, slice, and transform royalty-free samples and make them sound unique.
Many popular songs use the same sample, but different producers incorporate different production techniques to transform older samples and make them sound different.
4. Use an audio interface to create audio tracks
Although many producers rely solely on software to create full-blown tracks, you can use audio tracks to record guitar parts and vocals without a MIDI controller. Mastering your DAW of choice will make creating music without a MIDI controller a lot easier. But if you want to record guitar parts, vocals, and other analog tracks—and you don’t need a MIDI controller to do it.
MIDI Controller Functions
MIDI controllers do not always come in the form of a keyboard. Some MIDI controllers can come in the form of Pads, control surfaces (knobs, faders, etc.), or a combination of keys, pads, and knobs. Some MIDI controllers even resemble stringed instruments, such as a guitar or other instruments like electric drums. As long as they are programmed to send MIDI information to your DAW—it can be considered a MIDI controller.
In music production, producers use a MIDI Controller to:
Many producers use a MIDI controller to quickly adjust levels, such as volume, effect levels, and pan tracks, without using the mouse.
Control the DAW
You can also map out specific controls on your DAW, such as play, pause, stop, and record—so you don’t need to use keyboard shortcuts or your mouse.
Play Virtual Instruments
The most common way to use a MIDI controller to make music is to play virtual instruments more expressively than just programming the notes with the piano roll or editor.
Because you can do most of these functions within your DAW, you can get away with making music without using a MIDI keyboard controller.
MIDI Controller Alternatives
Suppose you are a keyboard player and you want to utilize your skills to record MIDI tracks. In that case, there are many alternatives if you don’t have a MIDI controller yet, such as a regular keyboard, your phone, a digital piano, and more. However, it is still best to use a MIDI keyboard if you prefer playing the notes you want to record instead of using alternatives or programming the notes manually.
Can you use your phone as a MIDI controller?
Not all MIDI controllers are keyboard controllers, meaning a MIDI controller is not just for recording instruments. You can also use MIDI controllers for transport controls, such as toggling commands like play, pause, stop, and record.
For software like GarageBand and Logic Pro X, you can download an app called Logic Remote on your iPhone or iPad. This app allows you to control certain features of your DAW wirelessly.
For other DAWs, you can purchase a USB OTG adapter to connect your phone to your computer and download MIDI keyboard apps on the Google Play Store or App Store to use your phone as a MIDI keyboard or controller on any DAW.
Can I use GarageBand without a MIDI controller?
It is possible to record and produce songs with GarageBand, even without a MIDI controller. You can try some of the stapes above, such as musical typing, using the Piano Roll, or arranging full-length songs using the built-in GarageBand loop library.
Can you use a regular keyboard as a MIDI controller?
As long as the digital keyboard or piano comes with a USB-B port—you can connect it to your computer and use it as a MIDI controller. However, you cannot map out the knobs, faders, transport controls, and pads on a regular keyboard because they are not made to send MIDI signals.
Can I Use Ableton without a MIDI Controller?
You can use almost any DAW, including Ableton, without a MIDI Controller. However, Ableton Live is a very intuitive DAW for playing live. Many artists use Ableton for liver performances with their MIDI controllers, DJ Controllers, Launchpads, and other MIDI devices. It is possible to make music with Ableton without a MIDI controller, but it is better to use one if you want to maximize all of Ableton’s unique features.