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

Updated on November 10, 2016

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!


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • profile image


      13 months ago

      Hi Sam, I just bought one of these. What pedals plug into the 3.5mm expression port?

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      What cable is that? Also do you use a midi interface?

    • samislam profile imageAUTHOR

      Sam Islam 

      3 years ago from Vancouver, WA

      I'm just playing random chords in the video, not attempting a song. Truth be told, I'm pretty terrible on the keys so I'm surprised anything that resembled a song came through.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Hey I know you were showing off the keyboard functions... but me and gf are trying to figure out what song you played from the chords you used in your video LOL can you help us out

    • samislam profile imageAUTHOR

      Sam Islam 

      5 years ago from Vancouver, WA

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

    • profile image


      5 years ago

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


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)