With so much jargon surrounding computer-based music recording and production, it’s easy to get swamped by all the information. Sometimes simple questions become difficult questions through the online urinary Olympics of forums and gear sites. Latency? MIDI? Audio interfaces? A lot of the time, there’s a simple solution hiding in the vast ocean of information.
Simply put, you do not need an audio interface for use of a MIDI keyboard. For the most part, USB MIDI keyboards have a built-in interface so you can use your keyboard on your recording software without a dedicated audio interface. However, you might be missing out on a few nifty features that audio interfaces provide.
What is an audio interface?
An audio interface is like a middle-man between any respective recording software and what’s being recorded. It’s the hardware between the software. If you want to record guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, vocals, etc, then you’ll almost always need an audio interface. An instrument can usually be plugged directly in (DI) to an interface or a microphone is hooked up to record that way.
The audio interface allows for sonic malleability over what’s being recorded. Setting the right volume level, recording two or more signals at once, at the very basic level, an audio interface is a necessary component for an accurate recording that is then fed to the recording software.
High-end interfaces offer more input/outputs so more signals can be recorded at any one time, and they will provide excellent sound quality. Functionally, there’s not a huge difference between expensive and inexpensive audio interfaces — more or less, they all do the same thing. Asides from a thrown in compressor perhaps, there are no bells and whistles to be had — they’re a tool rather than a plaything. The difference is the varying degrees of success they have at achieving their basic functions. Some cheaper audio interfaces might give you tinny inaccurate recordings, but that’s not a rule of thumb, there are many interfaces under $200 that will provide crisp recordings, but you’ll most likely only get two input/outputs.
What is a MIDI keyboard?
A MIDI keyboard then has a basic interface built-in, so you can go straight into your DAW without another dedicated interface.
Music Instrument Digital Interface or MIDI is essentially a language between electric instruments, computers, and recording software and hardware. A MIDI keyboard doesn’t actually make a sound by itself; it interacts with music software to convey what notes are being played on the keys. What the music software does is play the notes back.
With the vast amount of plug-ins that you can buy or feature with recording software, you can get standard piano sounds right up to crazy synthesizer sounds and everything in between. All the MIDI keyboard is doing is communicating the notes and how they are played; the software takes care of what you actually hear.
What they do together
Most MIDI keyboards have USB connectivity meaning that they’re designed to go straight into your computer. For the MIDI keyboard going into an audio interface, both the interface and the keyboard need a MIDI input/output. Not all interfaces or MIDI keyboards have this function.
While you don’t strictly speaking need an audio interface in conjunction with a MIDI keyboard, some people experience latency issues with direct USB MIDI keyboards. Latency is the delay between pressing a key and the sound you hear. While this can be a problem, a good USB MIDI keyboard with good software should cover any unwanted latency.
Some MIDI keyboards especially older models don’t have USB connectivity, so an audio interface with a MIDI input/output is required. For the most part, modern MIDI keyboards only have USB connectivity. Some have both, but they often come with a larger price-tag.
USB MIDI keyboards are designed for convenience —they’re a simple solution, one cable, and bang, straight into your software.
The main issue with a MIDI keyboard without an audio interface happens when you want to record the MIDI keyboard alongside guitars and bass or any other signal that would go through an audio interface. An audio interface recording, for example, a guitar at the same time as a USB connected MIDI keyboard will likely be fraught with synchronization issues. So if you want to record with your buddy playing guitar you’ll need an audio interface and a MIDI keyboard both with MIDI in/out capability.
Audio interfaces are a godsend for the would-be recording artist. They’re a necessary component for recording drums, guitar, bass, and vocals, so down the line, picking one up might be wise if you see yourself recording more instruments. But for MIDI keyboard recordings alone, they’re not a requirement.
What is required is one: a good USB MIDI keyboard and two: decent recording software, that is presuming that your computer can handle it.