Top 7 Best MIDI Keyboard Controllers The Core Of Every Home Studio
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Last Updated: October-31-2018
Since our last update, not much needed to change – especially when it came to removing models from our existing chart. However, we just couldn’t resist adding the cool and compact Arturia MiniLab MkII 25 to the list!
To say that modern technology has completely changed music production would be the understatement of the century! These days, you no longer need a studio full of bulky, expensive gear to make and edit great music – all you really need is a good laptop and a DAW!However, having some sort of hardware input, such as a MIDI keyboard controller, will make things even smoother and allow you to express your creativity in ways a QWERTY keyboard and mouse could not.
In today’s article we are going to highlight some of the best MIDI keyboard controllers as well as take a look at what they are designed for and how to best use one. Let’s get started with a rundown of the best devices on the market!
Top 7 Best MIDI Keyboard Controllers
|Image||Midi Controller / Rating||Summary||Check Price|
|+ -|| Novation Launchkey 61 |
Total of 4.80/5
Intuitive and highly versatile full sized controller that features very high compatibility.
|+ -|| Korg microKEY Air 37 |
Total of 4.75/5
Compact and lightweight solution for proper mixing or composing on the go.
|+ -|| MAudio Oxygen 49 MKIV |
Total of 4.70/5
One of MAudio's most impressive controllers they have designed to this day.
|+ -|| Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII |
Total of 4.63/5
One of the most versatile sub compact MIDI controllers on the market.
|+ -|| Alesis V49 |
Total of 4.60/5
An incredibly stylish and minimalist rig that offers a full sized piano style keyboard.
|+ -|| Arturia MiniLab MkII 25 |
Total of 4.67/5
Compact, portable, affordable – a winning controller for those on a budget!
|+ -|| Nektar IMPACT LX25+ |
Total of 4.50/5
A true no nonsense controller with all the right features, options and specs.
|+ -|| Korg nanoKEY2 |
Total of 4.43/5
One of the smallest, most compact yet fully functional MIDI keyboard controllers.
Full-sized MIDI keyboard controllers are back in style and Novation’s Launchkey 61 represents just how great these things can be.
With this controller, we are looking at a simple yet functional design that offers a lot more than first meets the eye. As the name suggests, it features 61 velocity-sensitive keys and 16 RGB touchpads for a plethora of control options, complemented by a secondary cluster of faders and knobs.
As we highlight in the full Launchkey 61 review, this controller works very well with all mainstream DAWs. For the relatively low price, you won’t find many better MIDI keyboard controllers!
With the microkey Air 37, Korg offers up a compact and minimalist MIDI controller that offers great portability and excellent performance on a budget.
This impressive little keyboard isn’t particularly saturated with features, yet – providing you don’t want drum pads – you still get what you need, including 37 velocity-sensitive keys and standard pitch/mod wheels.
What makes this particular model so interesting is its wireless capability (it connects via Bluetooth) and extra-long battery life. A solid choice for making music on the go! You can read more on the microkey Air 37 in the complete breakdown.
One of M-Audio’s best models to date is the Oxygen 49 MKIV, which comes with a decent price tag and lots of features to help you get the best from your creativity. For a mid-range compact unit, it packs a lot of punch!
The main features include 49 velocity-sensitive keys as well as eight programmable trigger pads, all fitted into a very sturdy yet stylish chassis.
Thanks to its full compatibility with all major DAWs, MAudio Oxygen 49 MKIV is a logical choice for those who need solid core functions to go with their creativity – as mentioned in the full review.
In terms of design, the Professional MPK Mini from Akai is one of the coolest on this list. It features an eye-catching red and black chassis which is very compact and great for travel.
As we mention in the full Professional MPK Mini review, Akai has managed to squeeze so much stuff into such a small chassis without sacrificing performance.
This includes 25 synth-style mini keys and a full pad cluster. Ultimately, this makes this MIDI keyboard controller a sensible choice for live performers who need a mobile platform, as well as home producers with limited space to work with.
The Alesis V49 represents a fusion of style, niche aesthetics and solid performance. With its boxy design, full-size piano style keys and a minimalist trigger pad layout, the result is a somewhat conservative package that has good versatility.
There are some decent controls including 49 keys, eight pads, six buttons and two rubber-coated jog wheels, while Alesis has made sure that V49 is compatible with all platforms and most mainstream DAWs.
It is highly recommended to both beginners and experienced users, especially at this price range. Be sure to check out the full review for more on the Alesis V49.
One of the best value MIDI keyboard controllers on this list comes from Arturia with the MiniLab MkII 25, which proves very portable and just as easy on the wallet.
With a compact and robust build, it is a stylish little controller that works well for small studios and taking with you on the go. It features 25 velocity-sensitive slim keys, eight touchpads and 16 multi-function encoders, so there are plenty of control options.
As we highlight in the complete review of the MiniLab MkII 25, the included software bundle is also handy – especially for beginners!
While searching for a compact, affordable MIDI controller, you may find yourself unearthing a few hidden gems – such as the cool IMPACT LX25+ from Nektar.
This simple unit features a clean design and pretty much everything you would want from a workhorse controller. With its 25 full-sized keys, intuitive layout and compact design, it is a solid choice for making music on the go.
At such an affordable price, the IMPACT 25+ can stand toe to toe with many of the higher-end controllers in its category. For more on the IMPACT 25+ read our full review.
It’s time for something a little different as we arrive at the Korg nanoKEY2. On first glance it doesn’t resemble a keyboard controller, but you soon realize that the black and grey pads resemble the white and black keys of a regular keyboard.
There are 25 of these keys for a compact but responsive platform from which to make music, while you get a few buttons for sustain, modulation and more.
While not as feature-rich as some, the main benefit of the ultra-affordable nanoKEY2 is its portability – it is slim and easily slips into a backpack. There’s more on the nanoKEY2 in the full review!
What is a MIDI Keyboard Controller?
The short answer is ‘a kind of little electronic piano’ but that is not a very complete answer! Let’s take a more in-depth look…
Firstly, a MIDI keyboard controller certainly does resemble a small electric piano, which connects to your computer via a USB cable or, in some cases, wirelessly. Unlike a regular electric keyboard, MIDI controllers don’t tend to make a sound of their own. Instead, they generate and send Musical Instrument Digital Interface data (or ‘MIDI’) to your computer’s DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) where it will be converted into music.
So, playing a few notes on your keyboard controller will result in the keyboard sending MIDI data (such as what note you played, how long it was played for, and so on) to your computer. This can then be manipulated, edited, enhanced and added to your tracks.
These keyboard controllers come in many varieties and sizes, ranging from compact 25-key models right up to the full-range 88-key models for a full piano playing experience. In addition to keyboard keys, a MIDI keyboard controller may feature other input options such as knobs, pads, faders, wheels, joysticks and touch sensors, which are used for everything from creating drumbeats and triggering samples, to bending pitch and making other modulations. This makes these controllers an incredibly versatile tool for music creation – they can act like hundreds of instruments in one station.
Are MIDI Controllers Limited to Studio Use?
MIDI keyboard controllers are an important part of modern music production and, due to their versatility in making and editing music, they are very often used in a studio setting. However, they are also an equally important component in live performances, allowing digital musicians to actually perform (as opposed to simply staring at a laptop screen for the entire set).
A lot of MIDI controllers don’t require the performer to look at the screen at all – they are equipped with the pads, knobs, keys and faders we have mentioned. So, whether you are finger drumming or playing the piano, a good MIDI controller will allow you to do it all.
Another reason why controllers are great for live use is the fact that you don’t need any special connections like a USB audio interface – the controller will plug directly into the laptop’s USB port for easy convenience.
Do I Need to Play Piano to Use a MIDI Keyboard Controller?
No! Of course, being familiar with the keys of a piano will certainly help (and being a maestro will make things even easier again), but you don’t need to be able to play piano to use a MIDI controller.
Regardless of your piano experience, buying a MIDI keyboard will make your studio setup and your input of notes a hundred times more musical. Just like using a good condenser microphone instead of the one built into your screen, you will appreciate playing notes on a piano keyboard as opposed to a standard QWERTY keyboard, or manually inputting every individual note in via a mouse click. While this is a feasible method, it is one that sucks the fun out of making music! Many MIDI keyboards also have the bonus of velocity-sensitive keys, which respond to the speed and how you actually play the note.
Finding the Best MIDI Keyboard Controller for Your Needs
Going about finding the best MIDI controller for your needs requires a bit of research. You will have to determine a few factors. These include:
The first thing you need to determine is what kind of application you will be using your controller for. Will you be using it a part of a live DJ set, or are you likely to be using it in your studio for making music? Or perhaps both?
This is important because working on music in the comfort of a studio is very different from trying to find specific pads or keys in a chaotic, low-light live setting. One quick glance at the models in our chart will show you that controllers come in all kinds of styles and formats – some which are more portable and convenient for travelling and live use.
On the other hand, if you stick to a studio, it makes more sense to buy a bigger keyboard and make use of the benefits that come with having the extra keyboard real estate.
A good keyboard controller is measured by the amount of features it brings to the table. In particular the keys. The most useful controller will offer slim synth-style velocity-sensitive keys, although you may also want to look out for full-sized keys if you are used to playing a regular piano.
The number of keys also makes a difference. Traditionally, MIDI keyboard controllers come in increments of 25, 49, 61 or 88 keys. Of course, the more keys you have that more flexibility you will have while composing music. The downside to this is that having more keys will mean you are working with a bulkier controller. Controllers with less keys and shorter scales may be harder to compose on, but they are far more mobile. This is worth bearing in mind if you are travelling from gig to gig, or working in a small studio space.
You will also want to look at the auxiliary controls that are featured on the controller, such as pads, knobs, faders and various buttons. Touchpads are a great tool because they allow you to trigger different samples as well as drum on the machine – many people will just find it odd to lay down beats on a piano keyboard! You can map them out any way you want, while some even allow you to apply more than one map and cycle them as you see fit.
With knobs and faders, it is a much easier deal. Having these two types of controls can be beneficial if you really like to be hands-on with your work. You want to ensure that the controls are responsive and accurate, which will help you work quickly and with less frustration.
Thankfully, compatibility issues are not as common in 2018, as pretty much every brand in this industry has recognized that their customers use different operating systems and different DAWs.
Still, some controllers may be locked to one particular DAW, which means you may be able to use your controller with every DAW, but you may not get complete compatibility if you do. In these scenarios, your DAW may not recognize what each of the buttons, knobs or faders on your controller is supposed to do. Fortunately, most DAWs will let you manually map the function for every control on your controller – a time-consuming process but one which you have to do from time to time.
Your budget will ultimately define what keyboard controller you end up going for – you may be convinced by the features of one particular keyboard, but if you cannot afford it, it is unlikely that’s the best one for you! Thankfully, these days you can get a very capable controller at an affordable price, so even if you are on a smaller budget your music making won’t suffer.
The Final Word
If you are planning on building a home studio and creating great music, you can get by without using a MIDI keyboard controller. However, the process of making music will be more difficult and much less fun without one!
The models we have shown you above are all great choices and represent a great cross-section of what the market has to offer. They should also go a long way to demonstrating that you do not have to break the bank in order to end up with a solid piece of equipment.
Take your time reading reviews and watching videos of the models on your shortlist and you should eventually end up with something that really enhances your music making!
If you need more help with setting up your studio, check out the related buying guides for recording gear:
Laptops For Music Production