Can You Play Any Instrument On A MIDI Keyboard?

If you own a MIDI keyboard or are thinking about purchasing a MIDI keyboard you may be wondering, “Can you play any instrument on a MIDI keyboard?” Almost any virtual instrument you can think of is available and they sound very realistic. You can use virtual instruments with your MIDI keyboard to create full productions. Let’s take a look.

Can You Play Any Instrument On A MIDI Keyboard?

Yes, you can play almost any instrument on a MIDI keyboard. Virtual instruments have come along ways since they were first introduced and are more affordable today than ever. Some keyboards come stocked full of great sounding instruments and there is a plethora of virtual instruments available if you are using a MIDI keyboard. The real question is, “Can you make a virtual instrument sound realistic with your MIDI keyboard?” The answer is yes you can if you learn how it’s done. It takes a good MIDI keyboard, a quality virtual instrument, and the ability to control or edit certain MIDI functions like expression and modulation to bring the virtual instrument to life.

Video Credit: EastWest Sounds

A Keyboard

You may be wondering the difference between a keyboard and a MIDI keyboard.

A keyboard has built in sounds that come with the keyboard.

A keyboard also has MIDI in and output connections.

Keyboard With Built In Sounds

The quality of built-in sounds on your keyboard will vary depending on the manufacture and the amount you pay for the keyboard.

Quality multi sampled virtual instruments have a very realistic sound and it takes a good built-in processor on your keyboard to power the instruments.

The quality of the instruments and the processor inside your keyboard greatly affect the price of the keyboard.

A MIDI Keyboard

A MIDI keyboard has no onboard sounds.

A MIDI keyboard has MIDI in and output connections.

Midi Keyboard

You have to connect your MIDI keyboard to your computer and use virtual instruments through your DAW software if you want to record MIDI data and utilize virtual instruments audio sounds for playing and recording.

Some virtual instruments will also work as stand-alone units on your computer without having to use your DAW software.

Understanding MIDI

First, let’s take a look at MIDI and what it is. I’m not going to go to in depth, but I want to give you a basic understanding.

MIDI stands for, (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) and is a communication protocol developed in the 1980’s which allows electronic instruments, computers, connectors and other digital musical tools to communicate with each other.

MIDI itself does not make sound.

MIDI is a series of messages like “note on,” “note off,” “pitchbend,” “velocity,” “expression,” and many more functions.

These messages are interpreted by a MIDI instrument or a virtual instrument to produce sound.

A MIDI instrument can be a piece of hardware (electronic keyboard, synthesizer) or part of a software environment such as DAW software and or a virtual instrument.

Common MIDI Editing Functions

To give your virtual instruments more realistic sound you will want to add modulation and expression functions to some of the instruments that you play.

Another important MIDI function is velocity which controls how hard the note is played. Velocity is the attack of the note.

Of course, volume will be important as well.

Volume and velocity will occur naturally as you play the keyboard. Be mindful of how you are playing the keys to create proper dynamics.

Things like modulation and expression can be edited in later in the piano roll section of your DAW software or you can get a MIDI fader controller and use the faders to change expression and modulation as you play.

High end virtual instruments are multi sampled and when you modify the expression and modulation while playing these virtual instruments the sound and styling of the instruments will change as well.

This gives the virtual instruments a more realistic sound and feel.

Think About How The Instrument Is Played

When you are playing a virtual instrument with your MIDI keyboard be mindful of how the real instrument in real life is being played.

Violins, Cello, and Bass are all string and bow instruments. The sound from the instrument is created when you slide the bow across the strings.

So, if you are trying to play a string ensemble or single solo stringed instrument, when you hit the keyboard keys the virtual instrument will start to bow the strings just like on a real instrument.

You will find with instruments like the violin the notes start slow and build.

Violin Player

You can also change the playing style of the violins, cello, and basses by changing the key switch setting in the virtual instrument or by selecting a different patch.

You can set the virtual instrument up to play sharp quick notes on the string and bow instruments for quicker play action and different styles.

I just used the violin as an example. There are virtual instruments made for almost any instrument you can think of and with different playing styles (articulations) which you can select with different key switches.

Play In The Correct Octave

To get the most realistic sound from the virtual instrument, you should be playing the instrument in the correct octave.

For instance, let’s say you want to play a violin virtual instrument.

The violin covers about four different octaves. All of the octaves that the violin can cover are in the upper register on your keyboard and not the lower to low mid-range.

To get the most realistic sound from your virtual instrument you should play in the correct octave range on your keyboard that corresponds to the instrument you are playing.

Some virtual instruments will only let you play the instrument within certain octaves or keys on your keyboard, and this is why

How To Stylize Your MIDI On The Fly

We talked about some of the different MIDI functions above.

MIDI functions like “expression,” and “modulation” have an effect on how the virtual instrument sounds.

The more high-end virtual instruments are layered with live recording samples that can be manipulated and controlled with MIDI expression and modulation.

By changing the MIDI expression and modulation while you are playing the virtual instrument on your keyboard will make the virtual instrument sound more real.

Depending on the way the manufacture designed the virtual instrument, most virtual instruments will react in a positive way when you increase and decrease MIDI expression and MIDI modulation while you are playing the instrument.

You can also change the “velocity” of your notes by how hard you hit the notes on your keyboard.

Velocity is a great feature for drum instruments as well as other instruments.

MIDI Fader Controller

You may be wondering, “How do I change the expression and modulation MIDI functions while I’m playing a part?”

The best way to do this is with a MIDI fader controller.

You can pick up a MIDI fader controller and program MIDI cc1 (modulation) to a fader and MIDI cc11 (expression) to a fader on your MIDI fader controller.

In this way you can make small or large changes to MIDI modulation and expression with the fader controls using one hand and use the other hand to play the keyboard through the virtual instrument.

Try it! This will make a huge difference in the way your virtual instruments play and sound. You will find you get a more realistic sound from your virtual instrument.

Korg NanoKontrol2 USB Controller

Different Types Of MIDI Controllers

There are several different styles of MIDI controllers available on the market today.

Different MIDI controllers allow you to have better control over the way MIDI information is manipulated and recorded in your DAW software.

MIDI Keyboard

In my opinion every home recording studio should have a MIDI keyboard.

A MIDI keyboard is a great way to play different notes through your virtual instrument to generate different virtual instrument notes and sounds.

A MIDI keyboard can also be used to play drum and percussion virtual instruments.

Wind Or Breath Instrument Controller

A MIDI wind or breath controller can be used to control different MIDI functions with the amount of pressure you blow into the device.

MIDI wind and breath controllers are great if you are accustomed to playing woodwind or brass instruments.

Some wind controllers like the Akai Professional EWI USB wind instrument controller react just like a woodwind instrument.

Breath controllers like the TEControl BBC2 can be used to replace MIDI fader controllers and are great for woodwind, brass, and string instruments.

One advantage the MIDI breath controllers offer is that you can control up to 4 different MIDI functions with your breath, bite, forward tilt of your head, and side tilt of your head.

This frees up both hands to play on your keyboard.

MIDI Drums Controller

Electronic drum sets make great MIDI controllers for percussion and drum parts.

You can also use MIDI finger pads and keyboards to control your virtual drum instruments.

MIDI Guitar Controller

If you are a guitar player and want to work with MIDI you can add a MIDI pickup to the bridge of your guitar.

The MIDI guitar pickup works like a regular guitar pickup except the MIDI pickup transmits MIDI data to your virtual instruments.

This is a great way to play chords, individual notes, and get some creative dynamic control through the strings on your guitar.

You can mount a MIDI pickup on your guitar without too much trouble or damage to your guitar.

Companies like Fishman and Roland have some nice MIDI guitar pickups.

Another option is to buy a guitar already set up with MIDI. Godin Guitars make some really nice guitars already set up for MIDI.

MIDI Ring Controller

The MIDI Ring controller is a ring that you wear on your finger to control different MIDI functions while you play your MIDI keyboard.

The ring concept is fairly new and works very well to control 4 different MIDI functions like vibrato, pitch bend, roll, and tilt.

You can edit which MIDI functions the ring will control. Neova is one company that has a nice MIDI ring on the market today.

MIDI Fader Controller

The MIDI fader controller is one of my favorite ways to control MIDI functions while playing keyboard.

Pick the size fader controller that works for your desk space and simply slide the faders up and down with one hand while you play your keyboard with the other hand.

MIDI fader controllers are simple to set up and do not cost too much depending on what you pick out.

Editing MIDI With Your DAW Software

You can also edit your MIDI functions inside your DAW software.

I know Studio One Professional, Logic Pro, and Pro Tools have some good MIDI editing functions inside the piano roll function inside the software.

Once you have your MIDI information recorded inside of your DAW software you can open up the edit portion of the MIDI window and simply draw in the MIDI functions like expression, modulation, and volume.

MIDI functions like expression, modulation, and volume can be drawn in with the pencil tool and usually sound best coming from a lower level, slowly increasing to cause the notes to bloom, crescendo, or vibrato and then slowly decreasing the effect.

In this way you can develop the natural dynamics of the instruments to make them sound more natural.

Draw In Your MIDI Edits With The Pencil Tool

Virtual Instruments

There are many different virtual instrument manufactures with a lot of different products available.

In most cases, you will get what you pay for.

The more expensive virtual instruments will sound better and more realistic because the sound you hear coming out of the virtual instrument are real instruments that were recorded live in professional halls and theatres with professional microphones, engineers, and musicians.

So, what you are hearing are real instruments recorded live by pro players and multi sampled for a full, rich, realistic sound.

Some of my favorite virtual instrument manufactures are: EastWest Sounds, Spitfire Audio, Best Service, UJAM, Native Instruments Komplete, and Tunetrack.

Not to leave any other virtual instruments out, these are instruments I have experience with and know are good virtual instruments.

Relevant Article: If you want to learn more about EastWest Virtual Instruments check out my article: EastWest Sounds OPUS

Creating Realistic Sounding Instruments With Virtual Instruments

So how do I create realistic sounding projects with virtual instruments and a MIDI keyboard?

If you have been reading this article you know there are several factors that go into creating music with MIDI and virtual instruments.

It takes a good MIDI keyboard, a quality virtual instrument, and the ability to control or edit certain MIDI functions like expression and modulation to bring the virtual instrument to life.

You also need a good DAW software that will give you full control over editing the MIDI functions.

Some good DAW software options are: Studio One Professional, Pro Tools, and Logic Pro.

You will want a DAW that allows you to edit MIDI functions like expression, modulation, and volume so you can build dynamics and expression into your virtual instruments.

This more than anything makes your virtual instruments come alive and sound realistic.

Relevant Article: If you want to learn more about PreSonus Studio One Professional check out my review. PreSonus Studio One Review.

What Are Key Switches

Key switches are a way to tell your virtual instrument what musical style (Articulation) to play the virtual instrument.

Some basic articulations are:

Legato

Indicates musical notes are to be played or sung smoothly and connected.

Staccato

Signifies a note of shortened duration or detached (not legato)

Pizzicato

A technique by plucking the strings with the hand and not bowing the instrument.

Apagados

Notes that are played dampened or “muted” without sustain.

I wanted to list a few different articulations to give you an idea of what different articulations do.

You may want quick, short notes. You may want longer notes with vibrato or trill, or you may want long sustained notes that slowly build to a crescendo.

There are many different articulations that you can select with your virtual instrument.

The way you select the articulation or playing style is with the key switch.

You can change the key switch of the virtual instrument by selecting a lower note on the keyboard designated by the virtual instrument manufacture.

When you are playing your virtual instrument live for a recording or performance you can instantly change the style (articulation) of the instrument by selecting different key switches.

Most musicians use different playing styles while playing a piece of music. Some notes get vibrato, some notes get a bend, some notes are muted, etc.

Key Switch Functions With Studio One Professional and EastWest OPUS

It’s very common to hear several different articulations happen in a short span of time in a piece of music.

Being able to adjust the articulations with key switches will make your virtual instrument sound more realistic.

Some people find that messing with key switches while playing a piece of music is annoying.

You can go into your piano roll where you edit MIDI inside your DAW software and easily place the key switches (MIDI note) in after the MIDI information has been recorded.

This will also trigger the virtual instrument to change the playing style (articulation) after the piece has already been recorded.

On top of changing articulations, you can also edit your expression, modulation, volume, and velocity MIDI functions to really bring your virtual instrument to life.

What Others Are Saying

Direct QuoteSource
“You can use any sound that you have access to and it’s possible to emulate the sound of a string section, lead guitar, saxophone, flute etc. HOWEVER, it takes a lot to play them convincingly – you need to think how the real instrument sounds, considering things like note range, attack (staccato/legato) and pitchbend techniques.”https://www.quora.com/Can-I-play-any-instrument-on-a-MIDI-keyboard#:~:text=You%20can’t%20play%20anything,the%20sounds%20of%20any%20instrument.
“Remember that to play an instrument realistically with a keyboard you will need to learn to mimic the… feel of the instrument. You can’t just play anything and have it sound like a real guitar played those notes, you need to be playing the keyboard like a guitar.”https://www.reddit.com/r/edmproduction/comments/4qg0ns/playing_any_instrument_through_the_keyboard/
“I would recommend getting a MIDI keyboard controller since it allows you a lot of possibilities in sound generations, either with hardware sound or software sound modules.”https://music.stackexchange.com/questions/98194/can-you-use-a-midi-controller-without-knowing-how-to-play-any-instrument
“Midi controllers are keyboards that let you play virtual instruments and transmit MIDI information to your DAW for recording. Most of the time they connect to your computer via USB for easy integration and very little set-up.”https://producelikeapro.com/blog/using-midi-controllers-to-play-virtual-instruments/
“A keyboard with large polyphonic options and enough instruments voices to mimic a big orchestra is possible.”https://www.mozartproject.org/how-to-make-the-piano-keyboard-play-a-certain-instrument/
“An acoustic piano does one thing — produces piano notes as you press the keys. But, with a MIDI system attached to a digital or hybrid keyboard, you can connect to and communicate with other keyboards, your computer, or other digital equipment and produce a vast array of piano sounds and non-piano sounds. MIDI (musical instrument digital interface, if you were wondering), pronounced mid-ee, can change your musical life.”https://www.dummies.com/article/academics-the-arts/music/instruments/piano/using-a-midi-system-with-your-digital-keyboard-191607/
“Basically, to be able to play the MIDI keyboard and make it sound, you need to connect the keyboard to a computer (or a tablet) and install the keyboard drivers in that computer. Then you will have to install and lunch a software that is able to produce sound. Finally you will have to configure that software to detect your midi keyboard and then send audio to the computer speakers or studio monitors if you have some.”https://makethatbeat.com/play-midi-keyboard/
“If you’re buying a keyboard for the first time, it can be confusing. There are a few different styles you can buy. A MIDI keyboard is different from a standard keyboard or a digital piano. MIDI keyboards usually don’t have any sounds inbuilt. They are merely a controller, and they need to be combined with other music equipment or a computer in order to provide sound.”https://pianu.com/blog/can-you-use-a-midi-keyboard-as-a-piano
“The easiest way to produce sounds using MIDI is to use the MIDI sequencer built into your DAW software.”https://musicianshq.com/a-beginners-guide-to-midi/
“MIDI keyboards are often also MIDI controllers, and many MIDI controllers have keyboards. That’s why they’re often described as MIDI keyboard controllers. Other MIDI controllers have pads that you press like you press keys on a computer keyboard.”https://homestudioexpert.com/can-you-use-a-midi-keyboard-as-a-piano/

Final Thoughts

So, Can You Play Any Instrument On A MIDI Keyboard? You can play any instrument that you have access to.

A great way to add to your instrument collection is with virtual instruments. You can buy a virtual instrument bundle such as EastWest Sounds OPUS, Native Instruments Komplete, and Best Service makes some great Era and Style specific virtual instruments.

It will take a little practice with your MIDI keyboard and MIDI fader controllers to get the hang of making your virtual instruments sound their best.

A lot of music you hear in movies, commercials, and film are created with high quality virtual instruments.

If you like to play, write, record, compose, and produce music you are in the right place.

Make yourself at home and check out some of my articles that interest you. You will find a lot of great information to help you get started with your home recording studio setup.

Please leave your questions and helpful comments below and thanks for stopping by.

6 thoughts on “Can You Play Any Instrument On A MIDI Keyboard?”

  1. A really well-done blog. I don’t play any instruments, but my son does, and when he was in the band, he did some sound engineering on the first album the band released.

    As this is his passion, he still has a soundproof studio with all of his equipment. I’ll be sure to return to your website for more sound engineering gear suggestions and recommendations. Thank you so much.

    Reply
  2. Wow, never heard of midi keyboard.  We have a standard keyboard often played by my husband who use to be in the choir.

    I have tried few times to learn how to play but  it seems very difficult. I will make sure my husband read this post , I believe he will have better understanding because he’s so used to keyboard keys.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  3. With the advancement of technology, the possibilities available with musical instruments, have also increased tremendously. It is amazing to find that one can reproduce the sound of any musical instrument, on a MIDI keyboard. And that is actually sounds realistic as well. Using a virtual instrument is a great way of adding other sounds to your recordings. Thanks for sharing a very helpful blog post.

    Reply
    • Hi Line, it’s a great time to set up a home recording studio.  The advancement in instruments and software are amazing and everything is becoming more affordable.

      Virtual instruments are a great way to supplement your recordings and are amazing tools to compose with. 

      Virtual instruments have come a long way and sound more realistic today than ever.

      Reply

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