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Using the Harmonix Rockband 3 Keyboard as a MIDI Controller for Home Recording

Musicians tend to be biased against rhythm gaming. Ever since the rise (and eventual downfall) of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises, "true" musicians swept message-boards with variations of "why not spend your time learning a real instrument?" and "I can play that on a real [choose random instrument], so why would I waste my time with a video game?"

Harmonix, the developer of the original Guitar Hero and Rock Band games, seemed to take such comments to heart in 2010 when they introduced "pro" instrumentation in Rock Band 3. With the inclusion of a keyboard-controller interface, the Rock Band 3's pro-mode featured songs mapped out to their corresponding notes. This meant that players were actually given the opportunity to learn keyboard parts as they were intended--which was pretty cool, but they didn't stop there. The included keyboard controller has an interesting trick up its sleeve: it also works as a fully-functional MIDI controller for computer recording, right out of the box, no modification required. That's ever cooler.

The touch-strip is used for modulation effects
The touch-strip is used for modulation effects

Taking a Look at the Keyboard

The Rockband 3 keyboard has 25-keys, which translates to two-full octaves on control at any given time. It hosts a single 5-pin MIDI-din port, a touch strip for modulation, a 3.5" port for expression pedals and eight buttons for functionality control. The keys are velocity sensitive, which means that sound volume and intensity are dependent on how hard the keys are hit. It also has two shoulder-strap attachments that allow the keyboard to be played keytar style. It weighs less than 5lbs and is made of plastic--though surprisingly well built, considering how flimsy the Rockband guitar controllers typically feel. It may not be roadworthy for intense gigging, but it should hold up quite nicely in a normal home-studio environment.

The 5-pin MIDI-din port
The 5-pin MIDI-din port

The modulation-strip is not as accessible as a a dedicated modulation wheel on standard MIDI-keyboard controllers, but it works well enough. The directional control above the playable keys adjusts the octave placement, and the remaining keys function differently depending on the type of MIDI-voicing used. It's best to play around with the different buttons yourself to get an idea about their functionality.

This cheap MIDI-to-USB cable works fine with the Rockband keyboard controller
This cheap MIDI-to-USB cable works fine with the Rockband keyboard controller

What You'll Need to Get Started

The keyboard controller requires 3 AA batteries, and there is no option for an external power source. This is too bad, it would nice to be able to plug this thing in, but the battery power lasts a long while so changing them is an infrequent task. Even though the keyboard functions wirelessly with its game-console counterparts, it needs a separate cable in order to work as a MIDI controller. Any MIDI-to-USB option will work, and such a cable can be purchased on the cheap via Amazon.

You will also need a computer with a MIDI-capable DAW, if this isn't obvious yet. The Rockband 3 keyboard controller is not a standalone instrument--it's simply a controller for MIDI sounds synthesized on a computer (or similar device). Some computer DAW set-ups may need a little fine-tuning to recognize MIDI inputs, but this is a relatively painless process and there are tons on online resources available to help with this task. It's basically a plug-and-play process through Garageband on a Mac; the software immediately recognizes the keyboard controller after plugging it into a USB port.

It should be mentioned that console compatibility is unimportant when using the Rockband 3 keyboard as a MIDI controller. The Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii versions all function identically in this regard. All the pictures on this page represent the Wii version.

The Rockband Keyboard vs Other Controllers

The Rockband 3 keyboard controller can be significantly cheaper than other keyboard MIDI controllers. Even upon its initial release, it cost $80 without the gaming software. Now that demand for the game has all but diminished, the Rockband keyboard can be purchased for clearance prices at several big-box stores--even for as low as $40. This is a complete steal for a MIDi controller.

While a low price is all well and good, it's important to consider how well the Rockband keyboard stacks against other, "dedicated" MIDI keyboards. Truth be told, it actually ranks as a serious contender. It is basic in design, and it's functionality is not necessarily going to present surrounding awe from any group of home-recording elitists, but it does its job extremely well. MIDI-keyboard parts can be recorded with ease, and anyone who needs an inexpensive MIDI option should seriously consider giving the Rockband keyboard a try.

On a final note, the Rockband 3 keyboard is a simple tool that will not necessarily be able to replace more expensive MIDI options, but it's great at what it does. Those who already possess the device with a copy of Rockband 3 should be ecstatic: they've already taken the time to learn some keyboard basics through the in-game tutorials and the excellent pro-mode, and chances are they own a computer. With a little extra monetary investment, they are given the opportunity to actually make some real music. Musician elitist message-board commentators eat your heart out.

Video Demonstration

If this all sounds a little to good to be true, then bare witness to the video below, where I perform a basic demonstration of the Rockband 3 keyboard controller in action as a MIDI controller. In this video, I'm using a Garageband on a 2011 Macbook Pro, with the cheap MIDI-to-USB cable pictured earlier.

I apologize now for the video quality...I never claimed to be a videographer!

Comments 2 comments

Mys 2 years ago

Thanks, bought one for 20 bucks (with the game!)and can't wait.


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samislam 2 years ago from Vancouver, WA Author

Hi Mys, thanks for commenting! Have fun making music!

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