Best MIDI Keyboard Controller
MIDI keyboard controllers are becoming more and more popular as technology continues to evolve. It helps musicians enhance their creativity whether they are fully embracing the digital age or are opting for a hybrid of analog and digital music creation.
Regardless of the use, MIDI keyboard controllers come in a variety of sizes, designs, and with different key counts. The following is intended to direct you toward an assortment of top-rated MIDI keyboard controllers as well as help you learn more about this music software so that you can find out which type and model works best for your creative needs.
Korg microKEY Air 37-Key Wireless MIDI Controller Bundle: Best Wireless MIDI Keyboard Controller — $$
The microKEY Air from KORG can support Bluetooth Smart “Apple Bluetooth Low Energy MIDI”. What this means is that you can connect to both iPad and iPhone music apps in addition to any music production software on your Mac that is MIDI-capable without worrying about any wires.
Because of this type of connection, this keyboard controller might be ideal for mobile performances. You can instantly transform your iPhone into a high-quality playing experience. All of this makes the microKEY Air the best wireless MIDI keyboard controller.
Though it has a built-in Bluetooth function, this MIDI keyboard controller can still connect using a traditional USB cable. Using this method ensures that it can still connect to either Mac or Windows-based software. There is no need to install drivers either for it to work.
This microKEY Air is designed with a 37-key setup. It is designed with various controllers as well such as a modulation wheel, pitch bend wheel, and an octave shift button. The octave can shift from a range of -4 – +4. When purchasing the MIDI keyboard controller, it comes with two AA batteries, and it should be able to last you about a month before you need to change the batteries out again.
An advantage for musicians who are on the move is the overall size of this MIDI keyboard controller. It barely weighs 3lbs, and it is compact enough at 37 keys so you can play it just about anywhere.
- Great for on-the-go
- Easy wireless connectivity
- Black notes feel low-quality
- The casing seems a bit bulky
Novation Impulse 25 Keyboard Bundle w/ Sustain Pedal, MIDI Cables: Best Expressive MIDI Keyboard Controller — $$
The Novation Impulse is a versatile product that comes in a compact package. It has a full control surface that is powered up by Automap 4, which is the newest version of Novation’s Automap control software.
This keyboard controller comes with a number of fully assignable controls. Along with its design choice allowing it to feel more similar to an actual instrument other than software, the Novation Impulse may be the best expressive MIDI keyboard controller available now.
The Novation Impulse is USB-powered so that it can plug into a Mac or Windows computer. It has an easy-to-read LCD screen, and the keyboard controller features several buttons, smooth-action knobs, and low-profile 45mm faders. This also has pressure-sensitive pads so that you can lay down some drums along with the rest of your beats. All in all, this MIDI keyboard controller is DAW-friendly.
To speak more about the drum pads, they can also function as multicolored clip launchers when you use the Ableton Live software. This means that if they light up red, the clip is recording. When they light up yellow, the clip is loaded, and when they light green, the clip is playing.
The Novation Impulse even comes with aftertouch, for those interested in such a feature. All of these controls on this can allow the keyboard controller to integrate easily with most major music software in addition to being mapped to any parameter. With the 5 pin MIDI outputs, you can connect to any module or synth. This keyboard controller offers you 25 semi-weighted keys in total.
When you get this product, it comes with a bundle of MIDI cables and a sustain pedal so that you are ready to get to creating and playing music right out of the box.
- Good response
- Adapts to various instruments well
- Could have a stronger build
- Some issues with software installation
Novation Launchkey 61 USB Keyboard Controller for Ableton Live: Best Entry-Level MIDI Keyboard Controller — $$
Once you become used to it, the Novation Launchey 61-Key is perhaps the best entry-level MIDI keyboard controller. It features just about everything a budding artist needs to start creating their own sound.
One thing to factor in when it comes to this MIDI keyboard controller, however, is the overall feel of the keys and drum pads. Perhaps due to it having minimal weight, the keys can feel low in quality. They can also appear slightly uneven, which can be distracting to some. Nevertheless, the rest of the controls seem to be in order and easy to use.
This MK2 version of the MIDI keyboard controller features 61 synth-action keys. It is USB-powered for Windows or Mac so that it works without the need of drivers, and it comes with Ableton Live already installed so that you can get to making music as soon as you set the system up. This also has more than 4GB of Loopmasters samples, and it comes with V Station virtual instruments.
All of the controls can also be freely assigned as well. This has nine sliders that are 49 and 61 note, and a single slider that is 25 note. It is designed with 16 full-color RGB pads also so that it matches the color of your clips. There are also eight knobs in all. In addition, the Novation Launchkey 61 grants you hands-on control of other major music software thanks to InControl.
- Sturdy enough for travel
- Offers good feedback
- Drum pads need more sensitivity
- Keys can feel stiff
Novation Launchkey 25 USB Keyboard Controller for Ableton Live: Best Portable MIDI Keyboard Controller — $
With the Novation Launchkey 25, you can plug in using a USB-powered port and play immediately after you get the product. As it is class-compliant, you will not have to worry about downloading and installing any drivers in order for it to work. Furthermore, it comes pre-installed with Ableton Live, V Station virtual instruments, and Novation Bass Station.
If you are not interested in using the music making software that comes with the Novation Launchkey 25, then you can control other major music software instead. The design of this allows for hands-on control of various DAWs.
With its compact size and it being so light in weight, the Novation Launchkey 25 may be the best portable MIDI keyboard controller. It has enough power that you can take it along with you without having to worry about needing a power cable. The size of the frame allows it to rest easily on your desk without your computer as it leaves a small footprint.
This product also allows you to practice on your drumming skills. It features 16 velocity-sensitive pads that can offer RGB colors that signify the feedback for launching clips as well as when you create your own drum beats.
With 25 synth-action keys, you may only have a minimal range compared to other similar MIDI keyboard controllers that have a far greater amount of keys. However, there is still plenty one can accomplish thanks to the eight knobs, 16 pads for dynamic drums, and free music software that is already installed.
- Easy to play
- Good velocity sensitivity
- Pads have no RGB color if not using Ableton Live
- The frame feels too light
Novation Launchkey 49 USB Keyboard Controller for Ableton Live, 49-Note MK2 Version: Best Integrated MIDI Keyboard Controller — $$
The Novation Launchkey 49 is one of the best-integrated MIDI keyboard controllers as it can connect right away with various music software programs such as Ableton Live. By doing so, you have immediate hands-on control of everything from your instruments to your session grid.
There are some noted complications when it comes to the quality control of the Novation Launchkey 49. For instance, some of the keys may feel too stiff, and some may even require you to press down hard in spite of the fact that they are not weighted. In other cases, some of the keys stopped working entirely. It does appear that this MIDI keyboard controller comes with a 2-year warranty, so if anything does happen, it is relatively easy to get it fixed.
With the 49-key synth action design, you can have further control over your mixer. It comes with nine different dedicated faders that all integrate well. You can fully reassign them to wherever you want them to be for a greater level of personalization.
To further enhance your workflow, the Novation Launchkey 49 is designed with 16 RGB pads. It offers color-matched feedback so that you can see your session as you control FX, launch clips, and more while still playing your keys. There are numerous control buttons and knobs for you to work with.
It features a “plug in and play” design using the USB connector so that you can start using it without having to install drivers first. This MIDI keyboard controller can be used on both Mac and Windows computers.
- Good for those who may be inexperienced
- Quality frame build
- Slight delay with the drum pads
- USB can lose connection
The ONE Smart Piano Keyboard, 61-Key Portable, The ONE Light Keyboard, Electric MIDI Keyboard: Best Smart MIDI Keyboard Controller — $$$
The ONE Smart Piano Keyboard features a light-up guide on the 61 keys that assist in teaching you how to play. In addition, you can sync it up to a mobile device, either iOS or Android, in order to download the interactive music app. These qualities are what make this model the best smart MIDI keyboard controller.
Even though The ONE Smart Piano Keyboard can be ideal for those just starting out, there are some complications that come with it. For one thing, some have problems getting the app to work as it is intended to. Much of this can be due to the fact that the software itself does not update as frequently as it should.
No matter, the concept behind this MIDI keyboard controller is praised the most. There are more than 100 free video lessons that are integrated with the LED key lights, and you are able to go about these lessons at your own pace. Alongside that comes thousands of sheet music from a wide range of genres. You can select from jazz, pop, classical, and more.
There are also games you can play on the keyboard controller via the app. This may be more appreciative to children who are discovering the joys of creating their own music. You can also enjoy The ONE Smart Piano Keyboard without bothering anyone else as it comes with a built-in headphone socket.
It weighs around 11lbs, so it is easy to move around if needed. If the physical appearance of the MIDI keyboard controller interests you, then know that you can choose from three different colors: black, golden-white, and sakura pink.
- Works well as a learning platform
- Good volume range
- Can come across as too basic
- Minimal flexibility in software
Novation Launchkey Mini 25-Note USB Keyboard Controller, MK2 Version: Best Cost-Saving MIDI Keyboard Controller — $
The Novation Launchkey Mini might be the best cost-saving MIDI keyboard controller for those looking to get their feet wet with this type of music making software. It is small enough that it can fit inside of a backpack, but it still has a solid feel to it so that you know it won’t become damaged or anything of the sorts.
(*yellow*) There are 16 drum pads located on this MIDI keyboard controller. Not only can you use these to play beats and launch clips, but they can give you a light show as brighten up to showcase when you have done a variety of things such as recorded a clip or played a clip. It all matches up with the Ableton Live session view that comes pre-installed with the keyboard controller.
This USB-powered MIDI keyboard controller features 25 keys designed in a fast synth action. They do not have much weight, so it may not be good for those who are used to weighted keys. Also, although this is designed for Ableton Live, you can still use other DAWs with this unit if you wish in order to further explore the creative process.
There are eight knobs on the Novation Launchkey Mini. With these quality knobs, you can freely shape your own sound. You also get 4GB of Loopmasters samples to work with if you are unsure where to begin. This MIDI keyboard controller also lets you create expressive effects and manage dynamic beats mid-performance.
- Good lightweight feel
- Easy and fast setup
- Pads could do with more sensitivity
- Potential for it to disconnect sporadically
Arturia MiniLab MkII 25 Slim-Key Controller: Best Compact MIDI Keyboard Controller
The Arturia MiniLab MkII features a slim design, and it weighs less than 4lbs. With that said, it just may be the best compact MIDI keyboard controller. You truly can slip it inside almost anything and take it with you wherever you decide to go.
This slim-design MIDI keyboard controller comes equipped with Ableton Live Lite, which doesn’t offer you everything from the program, but it gives just enough so that you can create and record your music. In addition to that software, it has Analog Lab Lite, which allows you access to 500 classic synthesizer sounds.
In spite of its size, the Arturia MiniLab MkII comes with 25 keys, 16 encoders, and eight pads. The pads are also RGB and customizable. Two of the encoders allow for tighter integration when it comes to the Analog Lab Lite program. It is USB-powered, and you connect it to a Windows or Mac computer program.
It is evident that this MIDI keyboard controller was designed with mobile musicians in mind. The frame is of durable construction so that even if you take it everywhere, it can hold up to the journey. All of the controls are automatically assigned due to pre-mapping, so you do not have to spend as much time in the settings. You can still make adjustments to a variety of things such as your track levels and the effects.
The Arturia MiniLab MkII has seen a good deal of upgrades over time, but it is still a budget-friendly and user-friendly option. It has good responsive keys and is a recommended tool for those starting out.
- It is set up well out of the box
- Offers a good deal of flexibility
- May have issues with the software
- Drum pads require too much force to use
Understanding MIDI Keyboard Controllers
When you’re in the market for a MIDI keyboard controller, there are a number of different features to factor in before you make your choice on any one product.
What Exactly is a MIDI Keyboard Controller?
The original intention of a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) device, first developed in the 1980s, was to allow musicians to control sounds from multiple synthesizers all while using a single keyboard. It became a useful standard that is still used to this day.
Its advantage comes in the form of the sheer fact that it’s versatile. With a MIDI controller, musicians are able to get the most use out of their software with the potential to create a range of thousands of sounds. As an added bonus, MIDI keyboard controllers are typically light in weight, so they are easily portable.
The Importance of Key Counts
MIDI keyboard controllers come with a number of different key counts. There is no one-set perfect key count as it all depends on your style of playing and what exactly you need the controller for.
A common and popular, key count many musicians go with is 49 keys. It is just big enough that musicians can play two-handed style without overwhelming their workplace. However, those interested in playing two-handed may be even more comfortable using 61 keys instead as it gives them a bit more room without offering too much.
For the sake of greater portability, many opt for a smaller key count that reduces the overall length of the MIDI controller. Key count, in this case, tends to be 25. With this amount of keys, musicians can easily play in a one-handed style. In addition, many controllers of this size are designed with octave buttons. This can turn a compact MIDI controller into a full piano as it gives access to all 88 keys.
There are some uncommon key counts available as well. For instance, 32 keys offer a greater range when compared to 25 keys. These types of keyboard controllers are also far easier to carry and compact when compared to a unit that has the likes of 49 keys.
Types of Action
Another prime feature of any MIDI keyboard controller is the keyboard action. The action is the way the keys respond to the person playing it. Regardless of where you use the controller or what you are using it for, you must be able to feel completely comfortable while doing it. So, your type of action will be based on how at ease you feel with playing alongside the type of music you are creating.
In general, there are three basic keyboard action types you can play:
Out of all of the types of keyboard actions, the weighted action most resembles a traditional, acoustic piano. The keys have counterweights on them, and manufacturers also add in springs to further reproduce the sensation of a piano.
Some even design a “hammer” action. On traditional pianos, when you press a key, the damper lifts off the strings and throws down a hammer to strike them. Manufacturers replicate this in MIDI keyboard controllers using a weighted action hammer.
Although a heavy touch in weighted action keyboard controllers is required, when it comes to hammer action, a heavier touch is only needed for lower notes. The higher notes work best with a lighter touch.
The majority of electronic organs, as well as entry-level MIDI keyboard controllers, use synth action. It has spring-loaded keys that are light enough weight to allow for faster playing.
Furthermore, the keys are able to return to their resting position at a faster pace, especially when compared to weighted action keyboard controllers. This type of action is most recommended for those who are not traditionally pianists.
This is a sought-after, popular type of action as it offers a middle ground of sorts between weighted action keyboard controllers and synth action keyboard controllers. It offers a slight spring-like feel with only a little bit of resistance.
Many professional MIDI keyboard controllers feature semi-weighted action due to it having such an easy-to-use medium amid the other two actions.
Beyond the keys on a MIDI keyboard controller, there are various controls that allow you to further explore and manipulate DAW controls. Some of the common functions are as followed:
- Faders/Sliders: These are usually assignable controls, and they can be used to control equalizer (EQ), channel faders, and more.
- Knobs: Knobs can also be assigned to a specific function, and they can either be endless encoders or potentiometers.
- Buttons: There are usually multiple buttons that are either assigned or meant for editing various functions such as changing the octave, settings, splits, etc.
- Screen: Some keyboard controllers are designed with touchscreens that better integrate with other software, but others still use an LCD screen without touchscreen capabilities.
The type of controls you opt for can help to increase the amount of control you have over your MIDI keyboard controller. Some more modern controllers can even connect specifically with the companion software you have set up.
Depending on your needs, portability might be more or less important. There are mini MIDI keyboard controllers that are excellent if you are looking to use it while on-the-go. Other larger controllers can be transported too, but not all can simply be carried like a book or thrown into a backpack.
If you need something that you can place on your lap and use, look to controllers that are light in weight and compact. Smaller MIDI keyboard controllers can also take up less space on your desk if space-saving is important to you.
There are some additional things to factor in when choosing a MIDI keyboard controller. For one thing, you should decide whether or not you require aftertouch. Aftertouch can add more expressiveness to your music. It is generated once you press a key further into the keyboard after initially pressing it, although you never release it in order to get the aftertouch data.
Aftertouch can be assigned to a number of different effects from volume swells to adding some vibrato. These are typically only found on the more higher-end MIDI keyboard controllers, however, so it is beneficial for you to decide whether or not that is something you want before you decide on a particular product.
Another feature you can consider is a performance pad. Though many musicians can get by without it, others may enjoy having some more velocity-sensing in their performances. With a performance pad, you can input trigger loops and drums, while some pads have a built-in capability to detect aftertouch.
It does not appear that MIDI keyboard controllers will lose their popularity amongst musicians any time soon. They are versatile and allow you to further stretch your creativity. There are also plenty to choose from that have different features according to individual play styles. With our above countdown and buyer’s guide, you should not only know more about this convenient music software but also which one may be best for your purposes.
Our Best Choice
Out of the eight MIDI keyboard controllers we reviewed, the Novation Impulse 25 Keyboard is our best choice. It takes the natural convenience of a keyboard controller to the next level by offering easy fully assignable controls, a user-friendly LCD screen, and multi-functional, pressure-sensitive drum pads. The Novation Impulse is also ultra-responsive so that you can have the smoothest, most versatile playing experience possible. It even has a professional-like control surface that works with all major DAWs.