Whatever type of music you’re making, whether it be hip-hop beats or full-fledged orchestral scores, there’s no doubt that you’ll eventually need a MIDI keyboard.
Technology is continually improving, and producers/musicians everywhere are realizing the practicality of adding these digital instruments to their arsenals.
MIDI keyboards are not only cost-effective, but they’re also incredibly versatile. Unlike a regular synthesizer or other analog gear, MIDI keyboards can be used to recreate almost any instrument, effect, or sound, that you can think of!
All over the Internet, burgeoning musicians are taking to forums to ask,
“What’s the Best MIDI Keyboard?”
Well, we’re here to give you the definitive guide to help you find the best one for your budget and needs.
- 1 What to Consider Before Buying a Midi Keyboard Controller
- 2 Midi Controller Comparison - Top 5 Picks
- 3 Get In Control
What to Consider Before Buying a Midi Keyboard Controller
Number of Keys
This is probably one of the very first things you’ll notice when you begin looking at MIDI keyboard controllers. You need to ask yourself a few questions such as:
“Do I need something portable that I can take on the road with me?”
“How much room do I have in my studio or bedroom?”
“Do I want to play with two hands like a traditional piano?”
These are the types of questions that will help you to choose the number of keys that you’ll have on your controller.
Typically, MIDI keyboards will come with either 25, 49, 61, or 88 keys. There are sometimes models that have in-between numbers such as 32 or 76, though they are few and far between.
25-Key: These are usually the smallest keyboards that you’ll find on the market. They’re very light and portable, though pretty much only suited for playing one-handed parts like basslines.
49-Key: When you hit 49 keys, this is about where you can begin to start playing two-handed parts with ease.
61-Key: 61-Key models are reflective of the classic Hammond B3 Organ, allowing you more than enough room to play two-handed parts.
88-Key: This is the full key range and the number of keys you would find on a traditional piano. While they are the most versatile regarding playing styles, they are also the heaviest and least portable.
Another significant factor to consider is the action on your keyboard. Action is how a key responds to your touch.
As a player, you should feel natural and comfortable when playing your keyboard, regardless of if you are using it for live shows or recording in your bedroom.
The type of action that you need is dependent on your playing style or the kind of keyboard/piano that you are accustomed to already. Though there are many different action types, here are the most common:
Weighted Hammer Action
Weighted-hammer action is the closest you can get to the feeling of a traditional piano. Piano keys feel weighted because they have hammers and strings.
To try and recreate that feeling, MIDI keyboard manufacturers utilize different types of weights or springs within the keyboard. Some higher-end manufacturers employ hammer action to get a feeling that is even more like a traditional piano.
We would highly recommend weight hammer action for anyone who is composing music for piano. It will give you the most realistic feel as you play.
Semi-Weighted Action is very similar to weighted-hammer action, though has a bit less resistance and more spring to the touch. Semi-weighted keyboards give consumers a compromise between high price and feel.
We would typically recommend Semi-Weighted to anyone who wants a realistic feel, though doesn’t need the extra weight for true, piano-style playing.
Synth Action keyboards are un-weighted and typically spring-loaded. These are often the cheapest of the bunch and provide the feel of an electronic organ or cheap synthesizer.
Because the keys aren’t weighted, they’re much lighter, making it easier to play faster passages on.
These are typically best suited for beginners or those who aren’t keyboardists and just want to have a solid MIDI controller in their setup.
Many, though not all, keyboards these days are capable of utilizing aftertouch.
In a nutshell, aftertouch adds another layer of expressiveness to your playing by sending additional messages to your DAW. If you’ve ever seen a keyboard player dig a bit deeper into the keybed to get a bit of vibrato or extra flavor, this is how aftertouch can be useful.
Aftertouch can help to emphasize melodies and chords and is typically found on higher end MIDI keyboard controllers.
Aftertouch can either be monophonic or polyphonic.
If it’s monophonic, you can apply one aftertouch value across all of the keys. It’s a bit limited, though still impressive.
If it’s polyphonic, you can change the parameter of each held note, separate from the others, depending on how hard you press down the key. Polyphonic aftertouch is very complex and you won’t ever find it on budget MIDI keyboards.
Inputs & Outputs
Most all modern MIDI keyboards utilize USB outputs to transmit MIDI data, though there are also many higher end keyboards that have multiple outputs for versatility.
One example of a common output is a 5-pin MIDI DIN, which can allow you to connect external synthesizers and piece of hardware. Being able to play and modulate external instruments can be really useful, especially if you’re a gearhead.
As for pedals, most keyboards have jacks for sustain or expression pedals. Keyboard sustain pedals are perfect for getting that realistic piano-style playing while expression pedals are perfect for controlling and modulating parameters of your choice. These can add an extra dimension to your playing.
While many producers and musicians are fine with just tickling the ivory to bang out a sick beat, many people who buy MIDI controller keyboards love having pads, as it gives them the feel of that old-style MPC.
Pads, just like keys, can sense velocity so that you can add realism and dynamics to your beats.
They’re typically made out of a rubber material and are found in sets of 8 or more, allowing you to play drums, trigger loops, etc. Just like with the keys, higher-end MIDI Keyboards have pad aftertouch to give you that extra element.
If you’re primarily making hip-hop, trap, electronic, or any other kind of music that requires setting down a programmed beat, pads can add tons of creativity to your production. We’d strongly suggest considering this option if you don’t already own a separate drum pad controller.
Knobs, Faders, Buttons
Besides the keys and the pads, you’ll typically find that MIDI keyboards come equipped with a variety of different knobs, faders, and buttons. Just like the keys and pads, they can transmit MIDI data to provide a more hands-on experience as you play your software instrument.
Whether you want to automate volume, play with filters, or change just about any parameter on the fly, these additional features allow you to do so.
Buttons are typically assignable for editing menus, MIDI Information, transport and transpose functions, or changing octaves. They’re very helpful in keeping your hand off the mouse and on your keyboard.
Knobs and Sliders can be assigned to pretty much any function you can think of. If you have an array of VST synths, having these different functions can create a much more realistic approach to making your music.
Having zones can allow you to split up your keybed into different sections so that you can play multiple instruments without having to switch through presets.
A common use for this is when keyboardists play bass on the lower end of their keyboards and piano or synth on the top end of their keyboards.
It seems like it would be a standard feature, though not many MIDI keyboards have it onboard. Some VSTs allow you to map it out within the VST, though it can be helpful to have it on the hardware so that you can control it directly.
If you’re looking for a MIDI keyboard that is portable, you’re going to need one that is bus-powered or battery-powered. Bus-powered means that you can power your keyboard from your laptop or computer without any other external power source. Not only does this make your keyboard more portable, it also eliminates clutter that multiple cables can cause.
On the other hand, many bigger units require an external power source like an AC Adaptor. Always consider the space you’ll be using your keyboard in, as you’ll need to make sure you have wall warts near by.
Auto-Mapping & Integration
Some MIDI keyboards are built to be fairly well-rounded in that you can use them for any DAW or VST and map the physical controls to the software ones.
That being said, all DAWs and VSTs are made different. If you’re using certain software more than others, it might be in your best interest to get a MIDI keyboard geared towards that software.
If you’re using many Native Instruments plugins, for example, having a Native Instruments keyboard can help in auto-mapping to your software. Companies like Arturia also have something similar with their software as well.
If you don’t get a keyboard like this, you will have to map everything manually. It isn’t hard by any means, though it will lengthen your process overall.
Midi Controller Comparison - Top 5 Picks
Akai is one of the OGs of MIDI controller manufacturing and has come along way since their inception decades ago. They have some of the highest end and most popular hardware equipment in terms of MIDI, and for a good reason.
Recently, they upgraded their MPC-style keyboards, improving greatly on their reliability and functionality. When you buy it, you also get Ableton Live Lite, Hybrid 3.0 (a pretty solid virtual synthesizer), SONiVOX Twist 2.0 (a cool sound design tool), and MPC Essentials (a DAW that is well...let’s just say you should get a real DAW).
The keys are full-sized and semi-weighted, giving you an excellent feel as you play, though not too heavy for non-keyboardists. The drum pads are backlit for aesthetics and velocity-sensitive so that you can bring more dynamics to your playing.
Though we recommend the 61-key in terms of versatility, Akai also makes the same model in 25 and 49 keys as well. You get a high-resolution LCD screen, 8 assignable faders, buttons and kbos, and a built-in arpeggiator.
Bottom Line: If you’re looking for solid key performance and a plethora of control options, as well as reliability, there’s no reason not to get the Akai MPK261.
Best Value Option
The Panorama incorporates quite a bit in terms of auto-mapping and software integration, giving you quite a bit of versatility for the price. Whether you’re using Cubase, Reason, Logic, or an array of other DAWs, it’s very compatible for different studio operations.
The P4 comes with 49 full-sized keys that are semi-weighted and have aftertouch. Besides having a great feel, the Panorama keyboard is known for the array of physical controls that allow you to optimize your VST experience.
You have 16 different encoders (sliders and knobs), 12 velocity-sensitive pads, and a small batch of transport controls. Lastly, you have an onboard TFT display that gives the keyboard a sleek and futuristic look. It’s never bad having a bit of a visual reference when trying to set your parameters.
Bottom Line: While many people use the Nektar Panorama for Reason, it is easily one of the best feeling and most responsive keyboards out there for just about any DAW you can think of.
Best Cheap/Budget Option
The Arturia MiniLab is pretty much everywhere these days. It’s one of the most compact, and portable MIDI controllers on the market and surprisingly comes with a plethora of controls considering its small size. If you’re an electronic musician or working with a ton of Arturia instruments, this is the MIDI keyboard controller for you.
The 16 built-in encoders on this bad boy are pretty unique in comparison with most budget MIDI keyboards, in that they allow you to control filters, LFOs, and other parameters, in real time.
You also have the eight built-in RGB lit pads for making beats, as well as two touch strips rather than wheels to control your pitch and modulation. In a way, it puts the unit ahead of the times. All of this is wrapped up in a beautifully slim and lightweight 25-key build.
While the keys are only synth-action and don’t allow you to play the unit like a traditional keyboard, you can easily store this thing and take it just about anywhere you go. Pair that with the fact that it is bus powered and you have a solid budget keyboard.
Bottom Line: If you’re someone who is maybe recording with a ton of analog and wants something small for their software instruments, or just someone who wants a cheap and portable MIDI controller, the MiniLab is one of the best around.
Best with Drum Pads
This full-sized, semi-weighted keyboard controller is taking the market by storm. It’s very functional in an array of DAWs from Ableton to Pro Tools to Logic and back, and gives you full control of your DAW and VSTs with manual mapping thanks to 12 assignable knobs and multitude of buttons.
While that’s all gravy, the best thing about the Alesis VI49 are the pads, hands down. Their made of soft silicone, incredibly responsive, and look great with their multicolor backing.
The pads, as well as the keys, have a solid aftertouch for added expression, and it is bus powered, meaning you can take it with you wherever. For the size, it’s reasonably slim and lightweight and not too difficult to travel with.
Bottom Line: If you’re looking for a less expensive MIDI controller that still features high-quality pads, the Alesis VI49 has the best mix of both. It’s easily one of the most sturdy of the lower-end MIDI keyboard models as well.
Best for Beginners
If you’re on a budget or just getting into the world of MIDI keyboards, the M-Audio Keystation is a great keyboard to start with. It’s got a low retail price and a simple array of functions so to not overwhelm the newbie user.
If you don’t need a variety of extra controls like knobs, faders, pads, etc., the M-Audio Keystation is excellent for you! You’re basically just getting the 49 synth-action keys, a volume slider, and two wheels for modulation and pitch.
The synth-action is perfect for non-keyboardists, though might feel a bit weak for those looking to produce piano-based music.
Bundled up, M-Audio gives you the SONiVox Eighty-Eight Ensemble, a solid orchestra-style VST that is surprisingly usable for the price. Obviously, you don’t have the knobs or faders to expedite the automation process, but then again, you’ll be saving some dough.
Bottom Line: Even though this is a beginner keyboard, it’s still renowned by many producers. M-Audio keyboards can be found all over the world.
Get In Control
Any major producer will tell you that there is truly something special about putting your hands on a physical piece of musical hardware instead of clicking all over a computer screen. It amplifies your entire creative process and changes how you make your music.
A great MIDI Keyboard will allow you to optimize your workflow in conjunction with your DAW and VSTs. Being able to make more ‘humanized’ beats, automate different parameters in real time, and add expressiveness to your playing, are all different things that a great MIDI controller will allow you to do.
The reason why we picked the Akai MPK261 as our top pick, is that it does all these things very well, and much more. Akai is also a legendary company that has been making some of the best MIDI controllers for years. Make sure that you consider everything above so that you can take one step forward towards becoming the best producer you can be.