Using a Graphics Tablet as a MIDI Controller

Ever played with a Wacom graphic tablet for Photoshop/graphic design? If you have one to hand, now's the time to use it for music production as a MIDI controller! Keith Crusher shows you how.  

That graphics tablet you have lying around can be used for more than just drawing in your design app. For musical applications it has many possibilities and I’m going to give you a quick run-down of what’s possible.

Requirements:

A graphics tablet. I’m using a cheap one I bought from Monoprice and it works well, though tablets from Wacom, while more expensive, give you more control capabilities.

Table to MIDI software - Mac users can grab the µ MIDI Controller app for free while Windows users can get either WMIDI or Tablet 2 MIDI (free with limitations or pay 39.95 Euro for full functionality, which is well worth the price as it gives you so much control).

Optional: A MIDI ‘spy’ application such as MIDI Monitor for Mac or MIDI Ox for Windows. 

For the purposes of this tutorial we’ll be covering installation and setup using µ MIDI Controller on Mac, but the same principles apply to Windows. 

Setup

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After installing and launching µ MIDI Controller you’ll be presented with a somewhat cryptic interface—it’s a good idea to read the documentation, as it will explain a lot of the interface functions. We’re going to go over a basic configuration to get you started and you can explore from there. 

Go to File > New to create a new document—you’ll be presented with a blank, grey Controller window with some settings available at the top. Start with the section labeled ‘MIDI Destinations’—click on the ‘Select’ area and, from the drop-down, choose ‘Virtual Source’. This will present the µ MIDI Controller ‘device’ as an available MIDI source in your instrument or DAW. You’ll see ‘Mu MIDI Controller’ available as an input, as indicated in the screenshot, where I’m using FM8. 

The section to the right of ‘MIDI Destinations’ with the buttons for ‘Note’ and ‘Chord’ send program changes—again, we can ignore these for now. 

To the far right we have 4 icons—going from top left to bottom right we have ‘Pen Mode’, On/Off, Tap mode and Panic (all notes off). Click on the ‘Pen Mode’ button so that it shows a Pen, then click on Tap mode so it shows a note on the blue background. This will enable you to touch the control surface with your pen to send MIDI note message. You’ll need to enable the On/Off button when you’re ready to use your tablet to send MIDI messages. 

From the Window menu, choose ‘Instrument Parameters’—this is where you’ll set everything from how notes are mapped across the tablet, controller messages, chords and much more. 

For now keep the ‘Notes per division’ at 1, Velocity Zones at it’s default (though you may want to change this if you have another parameter set to control volume) and disable ‘Key’ and ‘Control’ by setting them to ‘None’—this will disable input from your keyboard so you can use the tablet to send MIDI and keep the keyboard functional for other uses. 

The ‘pressure’, ‘x tilt’, ‘y tilt’ and ‘drag’ options are where the real fun begins—if your tablet is pressure sensitive, you can enable it to send a specific MIDI control message. In this case I’m using Volume—the harder I press, the louder the synth will get. The ‘x tilt’ and ‘y tilt’ are typically only available with Wacom tablets—on reason they’re more expensive. The last function, ‘drag’, sends a MIDI control message when the pen is dragged across the tablet surface. I’ve mapped mine to Pitch Bend. 

After mapping your MIDI Controllers, click on the Mouse Parameters tab—this is where you determine how many note divisions your tablet will have, as well as they’re note values. Select the low and high note octave values and the scale, click ‘Generate’, then ‘Set’—you’ll see the main window change with lines indicating each note division. One last step—click on the ‘Set Window’ to map the Instrument Parameters to the Controller window. You can have multiple Controller windows, each with their own Instrument Parameters—this can be useful if you want to create multiple ‘zones’ for your tablet. You could even forgo setting and MIDI Note values if you wanted to use your tablet for only sending MIDI Control messages. 

MIDI spy

It’s unfortunate that µ MIDI Controller doesn’t give us the controller number for each parameter name—this is where the optional MIDI spy applications may come in handy. To find the MIDI controller number, launch MIDI Monitor, check ‘Mu MIDI Controller’ in the MIDI Sources section and you can see which MIDI controller messages are being sent when you touch your tablet. 

Now that you’ve got your tablet ready to send MIDI messages, fire up a synth or your DAW and start mapping controller messages! If you’ve set µ MIDI Controller to send MIDI notes, you can play your synth by touching the tablet and, with the settings I’ve recommended in this tutorial, dragging will do pitch bends and pen pressure will change the volume.

Conclusion

There are so many uses—control X and Y axis of ‘morphing’ synths, use MIDI note on/off message to turn on/off parameters in a synth (instead of just note on/off), pen pressure to control resonance or cutoff—the possibilities are mind boggling. 

Keith Crusher founded RTFM Records in 1999 and is a 25-year veteran of the music and technology industries with an extensive background in music, video and web design. His many roles have included audio and FOH engineer, producer, photographer, video editor and graphic designer. His technical expertise assists countless companies, prod... Read More

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