Audio / Buying Guide

5 Recommended Unique MIDI Controllers to Help Your Creativity


There’s no shortage of MIDI controllers on the market, most of which come in the form of keyboards, drum pads, and mixer emulations with faders and knobs. In fact, you’ve probably already noticed the abundance of all-in-one keyboard controllers with drum pads, faders, and knobs.  With so many options, I thought it might be useful to look at some MIDI controllers that shy away from the norm and offer new ways of interacting with your software or hardware instruments.

NU-Desine AlphaSphere Nexus

The AlphaSphere Nexus was conceived and designed for electronic music production, composition, and performance. The unit features six rows of eight touch- and velocity-sensitive pads that can be custom-configured to work with any MIDI software or DAW. The unit can be played percussively to trigger drum samples or loops, but also offers polyphonic aftertouch, which opens up another level of expression with the ability to generate note messages, pitch-bend, and modulation simultaneously. Additionally, the unit offers programmable LEDs that respond to velocity and aftertouch, which gives the performer additional visual feedback. The AlphaSphere ships with AlphaLive, a stand-alone application that enables the unit to operate as a number of common devices found within electronic music production, including a MIDI interface, sampler, sequencer, and controller. This wholly unusual device can be used for music production and performance, but also to control video and lighting.

Naonext Crystall Ball

The Crystall Ball MIDI controller is another spherical device that is designed to control sound, light, and video applications. The devices uses five infrared optical distance sensors that allow you to control sound and lighting effects using your hands or other objects. The keypad interface includes 30 program buttons with 24 banks and 5 quick presets for controlling the five optical sensors. The unit offers MIDI control over effects, samples, and notes. The device’s “Memory” function memorizes the position of your hands, allowing the sound, sample, or effect to remain active while you switch to another event—thereby multiplying the possibilities for interplay. The operating range of the sensors is between 5 and 35 cm. The Crystall Ball connects to your computer via USB, but also offers MIDI input and output via traditional 5-pin DIN MIDI ports. Additionally, the device offers a ¼" jack for connecting a footswitch or additional sensors, such as movement, torsion, or temperature sensors. There is a free Crystal-Ball Editor, which provides configuration and customization of MIDI events.

Livid Instruments Guitar Wing

The Guitar Wing offers guitarists a viable solution for controlling their favorite software or MIDI hardware devices—wirelessly. The device attaches or detaches quickly to any size electric guitar in a matter of seconds and offers a multitude of controls, including five pressure- and velocity-sensitive pads with aftertouch, three touch faders with LED indicators, six button switches, four select switches, and a built-in accelerometer that allows you to transmit MIDI data by moving your guitar. The unit utilizes Bluetooth for wireless connectivity and includes a wireless USB receiver. The included WingFX software works in stand-alone fashion or as a VST/AU plug-in with a whole host of filters, samples and, more specifically, is designed to match the unique controls on the Guitar Wing. The class-compliant interface is compatible with Mac or iOS and works with most major DAWs including Logic, GarageBand, Ableton Live, Guitar Rig, Reason, and more. The unit includes a rechargeable lithium-ion battery with up to 8 hours of performance from a single charge.  

Keith McMillen QuNeo 3-D

The QuNeo 3D looks like it might be a “run-of-the-mill” MIDI pad controller, but it goes much deeper and offers electronic musicians, DJs, VJs, and DYI hackers a unique tool for a variety of applications. This compact and lightweight controller utilizes Smart Senor technology to make the QuNeo sensitive to gesture in three dimensions, offering an unprecedented degree of control and nuance. The QuNeo offers 16 pads with velocity, pressure, and location (XY) sensitivity, eight pressure-sensitive touch sliders, a long pressure-sensitive multi-touch slider, two pressure-sensitive rotary encoders, and 17 pressure-sensitive buttons. There are 251 programmable LEDs with 16 levels of brightness. Each of the 16 pads offers an impressive 127 levels of velocity and each pad can trigger four different MIDI notes, which are allocated to each of the four corners. The touch-sensitive sliders are capable of being mapped to fader and effects controls, and each can behave as VU meters, flashing green, yellow, and red for instant feedback without looking at your computer screen. The dual rotary sensors measure angle, pressure, and distance from the center, which enables you to trigger, stretch, scrub, pinch, and play phrases of audio, as well as operate continuous controllers. The controller utilizes a free editor to customize all of the settings and store presets for different applications.

Roli Seaboard RISE

Offered in both 25 and 49-note versions, the Seaboard RISE remodels the traditional keyboard as a pressure-sensitive continuous surface that responds to the subtlest of gestures. The device utilizes cutting-edge, sensor-embedded silicone keywaves, which allows for five dimensions of touch: strike, press, glide, slide, and lift. Additionally, the controller offers an XY pad and three touch-faders for another layer of expressive control. The RISE utilizes MIDI over USB and is completely wireless, via MIDI over Bluetooth, and has an internal battery offering up to twelve hours of playability. The controller ships with Dashboard, an editor application that offers a graphic representation of the keywave surface, as well as customized expression settings and MIDI message assignments. Also included is Equator, ROLI’s software synthesizer that is designed to take advantage of the multidimensional sound control. The instrument offers wavetable oscillators, frequency modulation, sample playback, and multi-mode filters. Equator is compatible with most major DAWs, while the RISE controller works with most software instruments including Kontakt, Omnisphere 2, and Logic’s EFM1, ES2, EXS24, and Sculpture.

As you can see, there are some great options for controlling your music/video/lighting devices, whether software or hardware. Each of these controllers offers a unique way of interacting with your synthesizers, DJ software, DMX lighting, or VJ software. With so many options, I’m sure you’ll find a boost to your creativity or a kick to that writer’s block.