So you want to start making some music.
Maybe you're an aspiring beatmaker. You've already downloaded the programs you need, you've watched a few tutorials, and you're ready to start producing some super hot fire. Or maybe you're in a band, and you want to take advantage of some VST instruments to add more layers of music to your songs.
Whichever you are, you've probably quickly realized that trying to make music by clicking in melodies with your mouse is difficult, and simply speaking… Not a lot of fun. You want to be able to actually play your music with your fingers and be able to experiment with different notes to figure out the right melodies for your music.
Alas, what you need is a MIDI controller. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: if you want to make beats, this is probably one of the most important pieces of equipment that you'll invest in.
The problem? There's a lot of them out today… Too many, as a matter of fact. So the question is: with all the models out there today, how do you know which MIDI keyboard is the right one for you?
To answer that, first we have to know which factors are important when it comes to judging MIDI keyboards. While no perfect controller for everybody exists, you can weigh each model on six main factors in order to figure out which one would fit you the best:
Number of Keys
The first thing you have to determine when choosing a MIDI keyboard is: how many keys do you actually need? A 25-key MIDI controller would be perfect for most electronic musicians and hip-hop beatmakers as they really only need to be able to play melodies and simple chord progressions. But because these keyboards only span two octaves, you won't be doing any serious piano playing that requires both your left and right hands at the same time — for that, you'll want the larger 49-key or even a 61-key MIDI controllers.
Next up, you'll need to determine whether you want a full-sized keyboard or if a compact unit is more suitable for you. Since most people buying 25-key MIDI controllers aren't using it for complex piano playing, it only makes sense that compact keyboards are becoming more and more popular — not only are they cheaper, but they're a lot more portable and can fit on pretty much any desk. Obviously, the trade-off would be smaller keys — some people might find compact keyboards a little too cramped for their tastes and would prefer using a full-sized controller instead.
What exactly is key action? Simply put, this is how the keys feel when you press on them. Keyboards can either be synth-action or semi-weighted. Semi-weighted keys have weights attached to each key to make them feel heavier. Each press has more resistance, and “bounce” back when you let the keys go — not different from how a “real piano” feels like. On the other hand, synth-action keys use springs instead of weights to return the key to its initial depressed position. As a result, they're a lot quicker and feel a lot lighter than semi-weighted keyboards and won't tire your hands out as much, but can feel a bit sponge-y or maybe even a little cheap. At the end of the day, neither one is better — it all depends on which style you prefer playing with.
Another important thing you have to consider is exactly what do you want to do with your MIDI controller? At its very essence, your MIDI controller is there to allow you to play melodies and chords with your hands instead of drawing them in manually in your software's piano roll. If you're on a tight budget, then getting a bare bones unit could be a great option for you to save money. However, if you're willing to pay a little extra, some models have additional features that allow you to control your DAW from the keyboard itself, saving you from having to go back and forth between the keys and the mouse. Some keyboards have transport controls that allow you to press play, stop, and record, while others have far more advanced integrations that allow you to switch between windows and tweak instrument parameters.
When making beats, most people program their drums by clicking them in a step sequencer or in the piano roll. But maybe you prefer having the option to tap out your drum beats while composing, or maybe you perform live and finger drumming is one aspect of your performance. In this case, then you'll want to look at MIDI keyboards with drum pads built in it. Not only do you have to look at the number of pads and how they feel when tapping, but you'll also have to consider how easy it is to map out to whatever instrument software you're using.
Knobs and Faders
Lastly, some people like having faders on their keyboards in order to be able to tweak effects either when composing or when performing live. People who build synth sounds from the ground up will find knobs to be a very useful feature, since sound design often involves tweaking a lot of virtual knobs in order to get the exact sound you want. Again, you'll want to consider how easy it is to map to your instrument if this is an important consideration for you. You may also want to use knobs while mixing to dial in the exact values you want either in your mixer or your equalizer, in which case the more knobs and faders you have, the better.
Cool, now we have those factors out of the way. Luckily, I've been able to get my hands on quite a few MIDI controllers, carefully assess them, and weigh out its pros and cons. So what I did was list several scenarios, one or two of which you'd likely fall under and make my recommendation of what keyboard would best fit.
Here we go!
Best Portable MIDI Keyboard: Akai MPK Mini MK2
The Akai MPK Mini MK2 comes with a unique pitch/mod wheel that is similar to an analog stick. This feature functions much better than the Arturia MiniLabs touch bar pitch/mod wheels.
For producers who are short on desk space, you're better off served with a compact MIDI keyboard instead. While the lack of full-sized keys may be a hindrance to some, it won't make too much of a difference if you just need a MIDI keyboard to play out melodies and maybe some basic chords. For these purposes, I would highly recommend the Akai MPK Mini MK2 for you.
This keyboard is very light and is just a little over a foot long — the length spans 13 inches which makes it just slightly longer than a Macbook Air. The keys also have adjustable velocity curves, and the pads are great and feels very much like an MPC (Akai manufactures both instruments). And to save on space, Akai converted the pitch and modulation wheels into a single stick, which might takes a bit getting used to but is worth the additional space you get.
Best Value For Money: Nektar Impact LX25+
When it comes to 25-key MIDI controllers, Nektar's budget offering is as good as it gets and will give you the most value for your money. Retailing for just $99, the Impact LX25+ offers you 25 keys and 8 drum pads with adjustable velocity curves to adapt to your playing style. Transport controls are also present, so you can press play, stop, and record without having to reach for your mouse.
The best feature, however, is how the Impact LX25+ offers seamless integration with most major DAW software today — so whether you're using Reason, Logic, Studio One, or even Garageband, you'll be able to control your software and compose beats from your keyboard alone. The 8 rotary knobs map automatically depending on what you have selected as well. In my personal opinion, the huge improvement for your workflow makes this the best 25-key MIDI controller available today.
Best Keyboard For Ableton Live: Novation Launchkey 25 MK2
The Launchkey 25 comes with 25 full-sized keys and 8 rotary knobs
The less time you spend with your hands on your mouse or keyboard, the less time you're spending making music. Though it's hard to beat the Nektar Impact LX25+ in terms of DAW integration, at the end of the day it's still a jack-of-all-trades MIDI controller and will find it hard to beat a controller that was specifically made for a single particular DAW. And that's exactly what the Novation Launchkey 25 is — a MIDI controller that was made with Ableton Live in mind.
The Launchkey 25 comes with 25 full-sized keys and 8 rotary knobs like most of the controllers featured on this page. However, this comes with 16 pads that light up when pressed and are specifically mapped to different features of Ableton Live. You can use these to tap out your rhythms or launch clips when needed. Transport controls are also present to make recording more efficient. If you use Ableton as your primary DAW software, then consider getting the Launchkey for your home studio.
Best Keys + Pads Combo: M-Audio Oxygen 25 MKIV
The Oxygen 25 MKIV is the first in the Oxygen line of keyboards to feature drum pads. This unit also features transport controls and comes with 8 rotary knobs.
M-Audio has a long history of putting out quality instruments for the home musician for almost two decades now, starting with the very first Oxygen8 MIDI keyboard back in 2002. Now in its 4th generation, the Oxygen line of keyboards has gone through a lot of changes while still keeping its essential spirit of portability and functionality.
The Oxygen 25 MKIV is the first in the Oxygen line of keyboards to feature drum pads. The feel is great — it's rubbery and isn't too stiff, yet provides enough tactile feedback to make it an excellent choice for finger drumming. As for the keys, they're synth-action instead of semi-weighted, but thanks to the adjustable velocity curves experienced piano players shouldn't find it too difficult to get used to. This unit also features transport controls and comes with 8 rotary knobs. DAW integration could be a little bit better, but in terms of overall feel with the pads and the keys the Oxygen 25 MKIV is a winner.
Best Keyboard With Semi-Weighted Keys: Novation Impulse 25
The keys on this controller feel very good -- the springiness is just right and provide enough "bounce back" to make it feel like a heavy duty keyboard.
MIDI controllers with semi-weighted keys tend to not be as popular because they happen to be more expensive, but some people really just prefer semi-weighted over synth-action keys because these instruments feel more “real.” There's not a lot of them, but as far as the models with semi-weighted keys go, the Novation Impulse 25 will probably give you the best bang for your buck.
The keys on this controller feel very good — the springiness is just right and provide enough “bounce back” to make it feel like a heavy duty keyboard. The MIDI response is pretty accurate, too — so if you're an experienced piano player then you'll have no problems capturing the musical expressions of what you're playing. It also comes with 8 drum pads and 8 rotary knobs that you can use for finger drumming and instrument tweaking.
Aside from its keys, this model shines with its automap feature that gives you hands-on control with your DAW software and whatever plugins you're using (I would go as far as saying that this is probably one of the best MIDI controller keyboards for FL Studio as well). It may not be as plug-and-play and you'll likely have to read the manual to know how to operate it completely, but once you get the hang of it you'll find yourself spending less and less time on your mouse and more time actually making music.
Best Cheap MIDI Keyboard: Acorn Masterkey 25
For producers who simply want a no-nonsense MIDI keyboard to play melodies and chords with and pay as little as possible for it, the Masterkey 25 is the right keyboard for you.
If you're looking for a no-frills, bare bones MIDI keyboard for the lowest price possible, it's hard to go wrong with the Acorn Masterkey 25. This keyboard is as simple as it gets: 25 keys, pitch and modulation wheels, octave up/down buttons, 4 rotary knobs, and one fader.
There's not much else you can do with this keyboard — you can't adjust the velocity curves, nor does it come with transport controls. But for producers who simply want a no-nonsense MIDI keyboard to play melodies and chords with and pay as little as possible for it, the Masterkey 25 is the right keyboard for you.
Once again, I can't stress how important it is to buy a MIDI keyboard even if you're just starting your music production journey. I understand that it's a little difficult to choose a MIDI keyboard (especially when you're starting out) since there's a lot of models out there and you probably don't have much of a clue what separates each one from the rest. However, I hope this list will help narrow down the choices so you can get the right controller that would fit your needs.