With so many different types of MIDI controllers on the market, there's no compelling reason to use a keyboard controller for live performance if playing keyboards isn't your forte. Even if it's just being used for triggering samples, a controller should match the instrument on which a performer is the most proficient. For example, you wouldn't ask a turntablist to play guitar for your band, so why ask a guitar player to trigger samples from a keyboard? If you're unfamiliar with the black-and-whites, hunting for G#4 to play a particular sample, in the midst of a performance, is definitely unnerving. Fortunately, with so many choices of controllers available, one is sure to fit your playing style — even if you're not a trained musician.
If guitar is your instrument, the obvious choice for MIDI control is a guitar-controller setup. This comprises a guitar-to-MIDI converter box (such as Blue Chip's Axon AX 100) and a special pickup (such as Blue Chip's AXI 101) on your guitar. Guitar-to-MIDI converters have a reputation for being frustrating to play due to poor tracking, no matter how you adjust your playing style. But thanks to the AX 100's neural net technology, it suffers from neither slow nor inaccurate tracking, and it is amazingly precise and pleasant to play (when used with a properly set up guitar). It even features several keyboard split options, allowing you to map different MIDI channels to different zones of your guitar (strings, frets and the picking area between the guitar's bridge and its neck). This gives you control of as many as 13 different MIDI sound sources from one guitar. You can mount the AXI 101 pickup on your favorite guitar, or a few manufacturers make guitars with compatible pickup systems built in (such as Godin's Freeway SA). A bass guitar can be fitted with Blue Chip's AXI 103 to take advantage of the AX 100.
For drummers, nothing beats Roland's V-Drum systems, which are available in several factory-configured setups or as pad and pedal separates that you can purchase individually to assemble your own custom kit. The V-Drum pads and pedals connect to one of Roland's percussion modules, either the TD-20 (16 trigger inputs) or the less-expensive TD-12 (13 trigger inputs). The module functions as a drum-trigger-to-MIDI converter, sending out MIDI note and controller information to whichever MIDI sound modules you have connected. If you want to stick with your own acoustic drums, you can pick up a set of drum triggers at a fraction of the price of a V-Drum kit. For example, Roland's RT-Kit 1 comes with five acoustic drum triggers that you can mount nonpermanently on any drum. You then connect the triggers to a drum-trigger-to-MIDI converter (such as Roland's TMC-6, which is much less expensive than the TD modules because it has no internal sounds and only six input triggers).
A more compact alternative to the V-Drums is Roland's HandSonic HPD-15. Based on the same technology as the V-Drums, it features 15 pads neatly arranged on a single control surface. Hand percussionists will feel right at home using the HPD-15, but the unit also has jacks on its rear for kick and hi-hat pedal control, making it possible to play it like a traditional drum kit from a seated position. Impressive controller features include aftertouch, Roland's D Beam light controller and two ribbon controllers. No matter how you play it, whether you're a seasoned drummer or an inexperienced bongo player, the HPD-15 is a wonderful controller to bang, tap, stroke and wave your hand over — without a keyboard in sight.
If a wind controller is more your style, the Yamaha WX5 has the reputation of a solid workhorse, with reed-style and recorder mouthpiece options and several fingering modes (three sax and one flute). Horn players might try Patchman Music's Morrison Digital Trumpet (MDT). Vocalists and horn players can also plug in a microphone directly to the AX 100's mono audio input for simple pitch-to-MIDI conversion. And there are many other MIDI controllers based on traditional instruments, including Zeta's MIDI violin systems and Alternate Mode's MalletKat for mallet instruments (such as marimba and vibes). If you play a common Western instrument, there's certain to be a controller available to fit your playing style.
The most accessible MIDI controllers feature controls that you can tap, turn, touch, push and stroke. M-Audio's Trigger Finger provides just such tactile control in 16 velocity- and pressure-sensitive pads, eight assignable knobs and four assignable faders. It's perfect for everything from triggering loops and adjusting MIDI volumes to sweeping filter parameters and banging out rhythms. If you want knobs only, check out Doepfer's Pocket Dial, which sports 16 dials and four dedicated Bank buttons to quickly switch between different setups. To tap and stroke your way to happiness on an x-y axis, nothing beats Korg's Kaoss Pad 2. With MIDI I/O implemented in version 2, its unique x-y pad works as well as a MIDI controller as it does for tweaking the unit's own effects. Now, imagine rolling all of this control into one unit with complete control of the physical properties of your controls and how they are arranged on a touch-screen LCD, and you have JazzMutant's Lemur (now with MIDI support). The performance possibilities of the Lemur are mind-boggling, without losing sight of the familiar controls (knobs, buttons, faders and so forth) that everyone loves to have their hands on.
Keep in mind that any MIDI-controller system you choose will need to connect to either a hardware MIDI sound module or your laptop. If the controller has a MIDI Out jack, it can connect directly to a MIDI sound module via a MIDI cable. For a laptop, if the controller doesn't sport a built-in USB-to-MIDI port, you'll need a USB-to-MIDI interface. When designing your ultimate MIDI-controller setup, stay in control and remember to take any extra peripherals and MIDI cables you might need into account.