In this article, I’m going to help you discover ten of the best MIDI controller keyboards on the market that you should consider buying.
And to better help you with this decision, we encourage you to take a look at the interactive table below, where you can directly compare these keyboards against one another based on things like price and notable features.
|Arturia KeyLab 49 MKII
|Novation Launchkey 61 MK3
How to Decide on a MIDI Controller?
When deciding on a controller, one should first decide which price range they’re willing to spend. In addition to that, you should determine what you ‘re looking to use this keyboard for: for live gigs or in the studio, for controlling a DAW, for controlling software instruments, or for controlling external hardware synthesizers or keyboards.
After that, you should decide how many keys and what type of keys you would like. The number of keys generally ranges between 25, 32, 49, 61, 73, and 88. The lowest numbers are usually semi-weighted synth action keys, and can be either full size, slim keys, or mini keys. 88 key controllers are very often fully-weighted or hammer action, and will always feature full-size keys.
In this article, we will be looking at the following controllers:
- Novation SL MkIII
- Arturia Keystep
- Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol M32
- Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S range (Mk2)
- Alesis V Line
- Arturia KeyLab MK2
- M-Audio Code
- Nektar Impact LX range
- Nektar Panorama P range
- Studiologic SL range
Below, please take a moment to a handful of the best selling MIDI controller keyboards online, and see how well they compare to the keyboards we discuss throughout this article.
|1) M-Audio Hammer 88
|2) Arturia KeyStep Pro
|3) Arturia KeyLab 49 MkII
Novation SL MkIII
The SL MkIII is the latest keyboard controller from Novation, the third in the acclaimed SL range. This controller is extremely unique because it has a built-in 8 track step sequencer, which can be used for controlling hardware, software, or any combination of both.
It is very much marketed towards people with a lot of hardware synthesizers that they are looking to control all from one unit. In addition to being able to control external gear, it also has some great DAW control features. It has a very sleek and attractive interface, with 5 LCD screens, 8 rotary encoders, 8 faders 16 velocity-sensitive performance pads, and LED lights above each key.
Most of the lights on this controller are RGB, meaning they can be customized to have a different color for each track/instrument. The ability to have different colors above the keys for each instrument makes it very easy to tell which instrument you are playing at a glance. The LEDs above the keys are most useful in conjunction with the zoning feature, which allows you to have up to 8 different splits and layers of any instruments you are controlling.
It comes in two different models, a 49 key version and a 61 key version. Both versions are identical feature-wise, and both feature a custom synth-action keybed with velocity and aftertouch. It should be noted that the keybed on this keyboard isn’t the best for playing traditional acoustic piano sounds, due to the fact that it is only semi-weighted. Because of this, it is more difficult to get the nuance and control that you might find on a proper hammer-action controller.
That being said, this keyboard excels at playing just about any other sound, especially synth sounds. It has a few different velocity curves built in, which is useful if you are either a particularly heavy-handed or light-handed player. It is a premium product and comes in at a price to match, due to its multitude of features, namely the built in sequencer.
The onboard polyphonic step sequencer on the SL MkIII gives you the ability to sequence up to 8 different instruments without the need for a DAW. This is great if you’re looking for a way to perform live without needing a laptop. The instruments you control can be hardware synthesizers, other keyboards, or even software instruments; pretty much anything with a MIDI, control voltage, or USB connection.
You are even able to map controls for these instruments right onboard, giving you the ability to change parameters on an external synth right on the controller itself. You can either real-time record into the sequencer, or input your pattern one note at a time. You can have up to 64 sequencer sessions, each with 8 different tracks and 8 patterns per track. Each pattern has 16 steps but can be chained together for longer sequences.
Outside of the sequencer, this keyboard boasts a deep integration with a number of different DAWs including Logic, Reason, Cubase, Pro Tools and more. When you enter “InControl” mode, the keyboard allows you to control a number of different parameters in your DAW, including volume and pan for individual tracks, solo/mute/record per track, and more using the faders, potentiometers, and buttons. The LCD screens provide useful visual information including track names or parameter amounts, depending on what you have selected.
There is a ton of hardware connectivity on this controller, which allows you to control any synth you might own, including eurorack gear. It has MIDI DIN in, out, and thru; the thru can also work as a second MIDI out if you choose. It has footswitch, expression pedal, and sustain pedal inputs.
In addition, it has two sets of CV/gate/mod outputs and a clock output on mini jacks, making interfacing with your gear a breeze. From a gear-lover’s perspective, this keyboard has just about everything you might be looking for in a MIDI controller, and more. For this reason, in addition to having a built in sequencer, 8-part zoning, and DAW integration, is why this is certainly one of my favorite picks on this list. .
The Novation 61SL MkIII retails at $699 USD.
The Novation 49SL MkIII retails at $599.
The Keystep by Arturia is considered by many synthesizer enthusiasts to be a must-have controller. It is a lightweight, portable keyboard controller with built in 64 step sequencer and arpeggiator.
The Keystep has a 32 key keybed with “slim” keys, which are slightly bigger than mini-keys. This keybed also supports velocity and aftertouch. It also has pitch bend and mod controls on the left side; the mod can be used to control any parameter on a modular or semi-modular synth using the mod output on the rear. Overall, it has a feature set that is unmatched in its price range, and is pretty much a no-brainer purchase if you’re looking for a compact keyboard to control hardware synths or eurorack gear with.
The built-in sequencer on the keystep is up to 8 voice polyphonic, can have up to 64 steps per pattern, and allows you to save up to 8 different sequences. It has swing and gate controls, in addition to a rate knob for controlling the tempo of the sequence. With a recent update, you can change the tempo in increments of whole beats per minute, instead of arbitrary values.
The interface for recording sequences is very simple and straightforward, mainly due to the very limited amount of controls. This can be seen as either an advantage or disadvantage. The arpeggiator has 8 different modes and 8 different time divisions, including triplets. It also has a hold function. There is also a chord mode that lets you quickly program a chord and be able to play it with one finger.
The Keystep has a lot of connectivity on the back, especially for a keyboard of its size/price. It has MIDI in and out, clock sync in and out, a sustain pedal input, and control voltage outputs for mod, gate, and pitch. It can be powered either over micro usb or using an AC adapter. There are also some dip switches on the back for choosing which source you would like to control the tempo clock; you can pick either the internal clock, clock over MIDI, clock over USB, or via the clock sync in.
This wealth of connections means you can use it with many types of gear, including hardware synthesizers, eurorack modular synths, or even software synths. The Keystep is truly a great controller with a multitude of different uses, there’s a reason why you see these used so often in desktop synth setups.
The Arturia KeyStep retails at $119 USD.
One of the newest controllers on this list, the Komplete Kontrol M32 is Native Instruments’ entry into the mini-key controller market. Small controllers with mini keys have become extremely popular with music producers, beatmakers, etc. due to their portability, small footprint, and affordability. After seeing the success of other companies like Akai, Novation, and Arturia in this scene, they decided to try their hand at a similar product.
It has a similar appearance to the Komplete Kontrol A range, but instead of full-size keys it has 32 synth-action micro keys. To the left of the keyboard, there are two touch strips, to use for pitch/mod control.
In addition to this, it has 8 rotary encoders and an additional 4-way encoder for controlling software instruments and DAWs, a small OLED screen for displaying settings, octave controls, scale and arp editing controls, and some additional DAW control settings. The large amount of features in a keyboard of this size definitely makes it into a contender for the best portable MIDI controller.
The M32 includes a bunch of great Native Instruments software with your purchase. This includes Monark, a mono synth plugin; Reaktor Prism, a poly synth plugin; Scarbee Mark I, an electric piano; as well as Komplete Kontrol software, Maschine essentials, and Ableton Live 10 Lite.
Native Instruments are known for the quality of their software instruments, and the fact that you get so many plugins for free with the purchase of a budget controller is a great deal. In addition to being able to control software instruments, the Komplete Kontrol M32 has integrated control of Logic Pro, Garageband, and Ableton.
Unlike the Arturia Keystep, there is very limited physical connectivity on the back of this controller. The only connections are a USB B port for power and connection to a computer, and a foot pedal input for sustain pedal control.
Overall, it makes a great, high quality portable keyboard for controlling software, but would be almost useless if you’re looking to control hardware synthesizers. Based on Native Instrument’s track record, you can rest assured that you’d be getting a solid, well-built product.
The Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol M32 retails for $139 USD.
Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S Range MK2
The Komplete Kontrol S series by Native Instruments is perhaps the most iconic MIDI controller out there; you see them used in studios around the world, both professional and amateur. It has a very sleek look with LEDs above every key, pitch and mod wheel, touch strip, 8 rotary encoders, and 2 large full-color screens.
It comes in three different models: the S49 and S61 have a high quality synth-action Fatar keybed with velocity and aftertouch, while the S88 has a fully weighted hammer-action Fatar keybed, also with velocity and aftertouch.
Any of these models have been designed to work well with any sort of instrument you might be trying to play (piano, electric piano, organ, synth, etc), but the S88 obviously excels at having authentic acoustic piano-style feel and expression.
They are a premium product and come in at a pretty high price point; I personally feel like the feature doesn’t quite justify the price tag, especially when compared to something like the SL MkIII. Regardless, there’s no denying that this is a quality keyboard with a lot of attention to detail.
The Komplete Kontrol controllers are designed to have perfect integration with any Native Instruments software including anything in Komplete. In addition, they have introduced the Native Kontrol Standard, allowing outside companies to create software that smoothly integrates with Native Instruments hardware as well.
This means you can browse and edit these plugins right on the keyboard’s screens using the encoders. It also has transport controls for controlling your DAW on board, and supports Logic Pro X, Garageband, Ableton Live, Cubase, and Nuendo.
When you purchase a Komplete Kontrol S series MK2 controller, you also receive the Native Instruments Komplete 11 Select software bundle for free. This bundle is normally worth around $1,000, and includes Massive, a wavetable synthesizer; Monark, a virtual analog mono synth; The Gentleman, a high quality upright piano; Drumlab, a percussion synthesizer and sampler; Reaktor Prism, a polyphonic synthesizer; Scarbee Mark 1, an electric piano; Retro Machines, which includes over 20 retro synthesizer emulations; Vintage Organs; West Africa, a percussion plugin; Solid Bus compressor; and finally Replika, a delay plugin.
The connections of the rear of this keyboard, are somewhat limited, but include the essentials: a USB B port for connecting to a computer, a DC input for power, two different control pedal inputs, and MIDI DIN in and out.
Overall, if you’re looking for a quality keyboard controller for use within a DAW and software instruments, especially if you use a lot of Native Instruments software, the Komplete Kontrol range is certainly one of the best options, if you’re able to foot the bill.
The Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 MK2 retails at $1,049 USD.
The Komplete Kontrol S61 MK2 retails at $779.
The Komplete Kontrol S49 MK2 retails at $669.
Alesis V Line
The V series of MIDI controllers by Alesis is one of the best options if you’re looking for a very affordable, barebones controller with full size keys, but don’t need a ton of other fancy features. It has a very compact footprint and is lightweight for a full size keyboard, consisting almost entirely of the keyboard and a few control features on the left side, and a decent build quality for the price.
The Alesis V series comes in three different models; the V25, V49, and V61. All of them have the same full-size, synth action keybed, but with different number of keys.
In addition to the keyboard, the V series has a minimal amount of controls on the left side. It has eight backlit touch pads, four encoders, four assignable buttons, octave controls, and pitch and mod wheels. Although the controls are limited, they are all very useful, without any wasted space.
The only software that is included with this controller is Ableton Live Lite. There are only two connections on the back; USB B for both power and connecting to a computer, and a sustain pedal input.
There isn’t a MIDI DIN output unfortunately, so you are limited to controlling software and unable to control any sort of hardware synths/keyboards without using an adapter. If this is a dealbreaker for you, I would check out the slightly-higher-end Alesis VI controller range, which has a MIDI output and a lot more controls.
Overall, the V range is a great pick if you’re looking for a compact full-size keyboard without all the bells and whistles that some controllers have, without breaking the bank.
The Alesis V61 Keyboard Controller retails at $169 USD.
The Alesis V49 retails at $129.
The Alesis V25 retails at $89.
The KeyLab MkII is the successor to the original KeyLab series of MIDI controllers by Arturia. It is a mid-range item in terms of quality and pricing. It has an aluminum body for a solid build and feel. The pitch and mod wheels are also made of aluminum, and it has real wood in the end cheeks.
It comes in a few different models: a 49-key model with a quality synth action keybed, a 61-key model also with a synth action keybed, and an 88-key model with a premium hammer-action Fatar keybed. The 49 and 61 key models come in both black and white, while the 88 key version only comes in white. All three models support velocity and channel aftertouch.
In addition to the keyboard, the Keylab MkII includes a lot of physical controls for use within a DAW or software instrument. These controls include 16 backlit touch pads, 9 faders, 9 rotary encoders, pitch/mod wheels, and a number of different transport/track controls. These controls work with most major DAWs, but work especially well with Ableton Live and Steinberg Cubase, they even include physical overlays for the controls depending on which DAW you’re using.
Similarly, this controller can be used with most software instruments, but excel at integration with any Arturia software products. Speaking of which, when you purchase one of the Keylab MkII’s, you will receive free downloads for Arturia Analog Lab 3, Arturia Piano V 2, Ableton Live Lite, and Arturia MIDI Control Center. Arturia has a rich library of high quality software, and this controller no doubt integrates better with these plugins than any other brand of controller.
The Keylab MkII series features a ton of useful connectivity on the back, significantly more than most other brands of controller. In addition to having DC power input and a USB B slot for computer connectivity, it has a whopping 5 quarter-inch control pedal inputs, as well as a control voltage input that can be used in a similar manner.
These pedal inputs are for sustain, expression, and 3 different auxiliary inputs for controlling whatever you might need. In addition to this, it has MIDI DIN in and out, and finally 4 different control voltage outputs for pitch out, gate out, mod 1, and mod 2. These CV parameters can be routed and edited right onboard the controller. All of these connections make it a great choice for controlling and integrating with hardware synthesizers and eurorack modular gear, alongside its great DAW/software integrations.
All in all, Arturia’s Keylab range is a great all-around controller with a number of different uses and applications. It has a very good build quality and a lot of useful controls in addition to the keyboard itself. In terms of price, it falls somewhere in between high-end and low-end, but even so it can integrate far better with a hardware setup than a high-end controller like the Komplete Kontrol series.
The Arturia KeyLab MKII 88 retails for $899 USD.
The KeyLab MKII 61 retails for $499.
The KeyLab MKII 49 retails for $449.
For better or for worse, M-Audio is known for having affordable, budget products. This often means a sacrifice in overall quality, unfortunately. However, the M-Audio Code controller range is on the higher-end of M-Audio’s keyboards, and I think strikes a reasonable balance between quality and affordability.
It comes in two different models, a 61 key and a 49 key; both of these have the same features, controls, and a synth-action keybed with velocity and aftertouch.
Based on other M-Audio keyboards I’ve played, the quality of this keybed may be sub-par, but acceptable if you aren’t a professional. Interestingly enough, due to a recent price-drop on these controllers, both models go for the same price.
There are a bunch of performance/DAW controls included on this keyboard as well. It has pitch & modulation wheels, a grid of 16 performance pads, 9 faders, 8 rotary encoders, a 6 character display, and a number of transport controls. In addition to this, it has an X/Y pad, similar to what you would find on a Kaoss pad.
This is a pretty unique feature for sure. This controller works natively with most software instruments and DAWs, including Ableton Live, Logic, Garageband, Pro Tools, and Cubase. Additionally, the hardware controls can be assigned and mapped using either Mackie Control or HUI. It also comes with some free software: Ableton Live Lite, AIR Music Technology’s Loom virtual instrument, and Hybrid 3.
There are a decent amount of connections on this controller. It has a DC input for power, USB B for connecting to a computer (and also can be used for power), a sustain pedal input, expression pedal input, and MIDI DIN input and output.
This means this controller can be used for both controlling hardware in addition to software, depending on your needs. Overall, the M-Audio Code range of controllers is a good, affordable choice for a multipurpose MIDI controller.
The M-Audio Code 61 retails for $299 USD.
The M-Audio Code 49 retails for $299.
Nektar Impact LX
The Nektar Impact LX range is another great budget option for a MIDI controller. It has a lot of similar features to many of the other controllers on this list; ultimately a lot of the choice comes down to personal preference and your specific needs. It comes in four different models, the LX88, LX61, LX49, and LX25. All of these models, including the 88-key version, have a semi-weighted synth action keybed. This is a unique feature, if you’re looking for an 88 key keyboard that doesn’t have weighted keys.
This keyboard has a decent amount of additional controls as well. These can be used for software instruments, but are really designed for DAW control. It has pitch & mod wheels, octave/transpose controls, 9 faders, 8 rotary encoders, 8 backlit performance pads, and transport controls.
The 88 key model has additional split/layer controls. Perhaps the most notable feature of this controller range is the fact that it comes with pre-mapped DAW configurations for a ton of different DAWs, meaning you don’t have to worry about mapping all of the hardware controls yourself. They include configurations for Bitwig Studio, Steinberg Cubase, Digital Performer, Garageband, Logic Pro, Nuendo, Reason, Sonar, Studio One, FL Studio, and Reaper.
The DAW support for this controller is much more extensive than any of these other controllers, which is great for people who use less-popular DAWs. It also includes the Bitwig 8-Track DAW for free download with purchase.
Unfortunately, there is very limited connections available on the back of this keyboard. On the 61, 49, and 25 note versions there is only USB B for power and computer connection, and a sustain pedal input. The 88 key version has a little more to offer, with an additional MIDI DIN output. Overall, this range of keyboards would make a great option if you’re looking for a budget MIDI controller to use within a DAW or with software instrument.
The Nektar Impact LX88 retails for $359 USD.
The Nektar Impact LX61 retails for $239.
The Nektar Impact LX49 retails for $189.
The Nektar Impact LX25 retails for $129.
Nektar Panorama P Range
The Panorama P series is a sleek, high quality MIDI controller from Nektar. It is very much a premium controller when compared to their Impact range. It is full-featured with a decidedly cool, modern appearance. It comes in two models; the Panorama P6 has 61 keys and the Panorama P4 has 49 keys. On both models, the keybed is very high quality, synth-action, with velocity and aftertouch. Aside from amount of keys, both versions have the exact same features and controls.
There is a bunch of controls on the front panel of the Panorama P series, which can be used either to control your DAW or a software instrument. It has 9 regular faders, a motorized fader, 16 rotary encoders, 12 performance pads, a full color display, pitch & mod wheels, and DAW transport controls.
Having the one motorized fader is a very useful feature for controlling tracks in a DAW; when you select a track the fader will instantly move to the level of the volume fader on that particular track. The LCD display shows you what parameters you are changing in your DAW or software instrument, so you don’t have to look away from your controller while you are playing.
Similarly to the Impact LX models, the Panorama series comes with pre-mapped DAW controls, which allows you to plug in the controller and instantly be able to control your DAW without needing to waste time mapping the controls yourself. Nektar have programmed their own system for DAW integration, giving you a full-featured control experience. The DAWs that are supported by this feature are Bitwig Studio, Steinberg Cubase, Nuendo, Logic Pro, Main Stage, Reason, and Reaper.
The connections on the back of the Nektar Panorama are fairly limited, unfortunately. They have both USB B and Micro USB for power and computer connection, two assignable foot pedal inputs, and a MIDI DIN output. The presence of a physical MIDI output is nice for any hardware you might want to control, but it is lacking a lot of the additional connections, like control voltage, that the similarly-priced Arturia KeyLab MKII has.
Overall, the Panorama P range is a very nice controller with one of the better quality synth-action keybeds available, and some very nice DAW controls and integration. I think it is a bit too overpriced; it has very similar features to controllers in a lower price bracket, and not too much that would convince you to buy it over these cheaper options.
The Nektar Panorama P6 retails for $649 USD.
The Nektar Panorama P4 retails for $569.
Studiologic SL Range
Most of the controllers on this list have synth action keybeds and are mainly marketed towards producers who are maybe not professional players, but would like a way to control the virtual instruments in their projects. However, the Studiologic SL range is very much a player’s controller, meant to give you the authentic feel of a real acoustic piano in a relatively-lightweight, portable keyboard.
It comes in three different models. The SL88 Grand is their finest controller, complete with an 88 key Fatar graded hammer-action keybed with “ivory touch”. This controller has been designed to give you the uncompromised touch, feel, response, and expression of an acoustic grand piano. The SL Grand is certainly one of the best 88 key weighted MIDI controllers on the market right now.
The SL88 Studio and SL73 Studio models also have a Fatar hammer-action keybed, but sacrifices some of the extreme-realism of the Grand in exchange for being a significantly lighter keyboard. That’s certainly not to say that the Studio models do not have a great feeling weighted-keyboard; if you’re familiar with Fatar keybeds you know they are some of the best available on the market.
All versions support velocity and channel aftertouch. All three models have a very solid build with a metal case built to stand up to gigging. Interestingly, both sizes of the SL Studio cost the same price at the moment.
The quality of keybed on these keyboards is certainly their most notable feature; the Studiologic SL lacks the robust DAW controls that a lot of these controllers have to offer. The only way to control software with this controller is using the three X/Y joysticks. If you’re looking for a controller to control software instruments with, you might want to look elsewhere.
It does, however, have a full color display and four-way encoder that can be used to access some of the internal features of this controller. This gives you access to its zoning features, which allows you to split or layer up to four different sounds. It also allows you to edit the velocity curves and the keyboard “feel” setting, which gives you the option to switch between soft, medium, hard, and fixed.
The SL range offers a pretty decent amount of connections on the back of the keyboard. It has a DC input for power and USB B for connecting to a computer. It has a MIDI DIN input and two outputs, which are separately assignable, giving you the ability to connect to multiple pieces of hardware or other keyboards with this single controller.
It has four foot pedal inputs for various different uses; two are for switch-type pedals, one is for a continuous-type pedal, and one is a universal connection. This gives you quite a bit of options when it comes to external controls and connections.
All in all, the Studiologic SL controllers are an amazing option if you’re looking for a high quality hammer-action keybed with an authentic feel and portability. However, it should be noted that this controller does not have barely any additional faders, knobs, etc. for controlling software instruments or DAW tracks.
Considering the quality of its keybed and number of keys, the SL Studio versions come in at a pretty reasonable price, and the Grand isn’t too bad either for what you get.
The Studiologic SL88 Grand retails for $899 USD.
The Studiologic SL88 Studio retails for $499.
The Studiologic SL73 Studio retails for $499.
In the current market, there are certainly a ton of different MIDI controllers to pick from. A lot of these controllers can be cheap junk, so it’s definitely good to do your research and identify which keyboards are worth the price, and which aren’t worth getting at all. It is a booming market these days, and there is no doubt a controller for any purpose you may need it for, with any number of different features and connectivity.
The controllers highlighted in this article is only scratching the surface of the number available, but I tried to include a bunch of different options with contrasting features, form factors, and price points. I hope this has been a help to you in your buying process, and I hope the controller you ultimately decide on purchasing works well for what you need it for!
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