Beginners Guide to MIDI Controllers: Best Keyboard to Buy?

Have you ever seen a home recording studio? Do you ever wonder about those keyboards that producers use? Usually they sit right in front of the person that is sitting at the computer. The producer simply clicks something on the computer and then suddenly he or she can play stuff that records directly into the computer.

Ever wonder what that was and how it worked?

What you’re seeing when you’re looking at those piano keyboard things are actually MIDI controllers. So, what’s a MIDI controller?

Well, one way to easily think about MIDI is that it basically doesn’t make any sound on its own. MIDI only transmits information into the computer. Producers use software they refer to as VST plugins, which are on the computer. The MIDI controller basically connects to the computer in order to control this software and make sounds.

If you’re a beginner and you’re interested in making music, you’re going to probably need three things. One, a MIDI controller that you can easily understand and use.  Two, a computer to plug it into, and three, a digital audio workstation, which is basically a fancy term for a recording program. Common digital audio workstations include Ableton Live, Pro Tools, and Apple Logic. But you can also use cheaper ones like Garageband or FL Studio if you’d like.

Below, please use the interactive table to view some of the most popular MIDI controllers currently on today’s market (including some that we will be discussing in today’s article):

Akai MPK249Akai MPK249
arturia-keylab-49Arturia KeyLab 49 MKII
roland-a88Roland A-88
Novation Launchkey 61 MK3
Roland A49

I think it’s important that people who are interested in making music, but aren’t sure whether they’re going to like it, shouldn’t have to spend thousands in order to get started. Therefore, I’d like to tell you about some MIDI controllers I like that you can easily use to get started without spending more than $200.

After all, as a beginner, you probably won’t want all of the fancy features of the really expensive MIDI controllers anyway, so I think you will find at least one of these useful.

5. Acorn Masterkey 49

Acorn has one of the more friendly looking MIDI controllers on the market today. It’s quite simple, which can be really great if you feel overwhelmed by a lot of the buttons, pads, and knobs on some of the other beginner MIDI keyboards. But, I like it for a lot of reasons.

The keys are velocity responsive, which means that if you press it softly, the sound from the computer will play softly. If you press it hard, the same effect will come through. There is a volume control, which is very easy to slide up and down in order to get the right volume, and there is also a pitch bender, which means that if you bend the wheel, the note will either go lower or higher, depending on which way you bend it. And it also has a nice modulation wheel, which can change the tone of the sound, depending on which sound you’re playing on your computer.

One of the great things about this MIDI controller is that it comes with a digital audio workstation called Studio One. I’ve looked at this software and it looks quite nice, although for some it might feel a little confusing. However, it comes with sounds and plugins you can use with your new MIDI controller right away so you don’t have to buy anything extra. The Masterkey also comes with a set of four knobs that can control effects that you can select from in the software.

However, like some Alesis and other cheap keyboards, the keys sometimes have trouble handling the right velocity. While this doesn’t happen with every model, it can happen with some of them. The keys themselves feel nice, but something like the Keystation II has better ones in my opinion, simply because they’re easier to control.

3. Akai MPK Mini MkII

Some people want more features out of a MIDI controller. With this 25 key MIDI keyboard, there are actually more than the Keystation II. As the name suggests, the keys are small, in fact the whole MIDI controller itself is very small, and it still manages to fit a ton of things on it.

For those who want a little more of a learning curve, but still want something that’s perfect for beginners, the MPK Mini definitely has some things that can help you learn more about MIDI stuff.

For instance, let’s look at the pads on the keyboard. There are eight of them with two banks. That means there are technically sixteen slots for sounds in the pads, but you need to scroll through the banks in order to get to the other eight.

So what exactly can you do with these pads? Well, I have a MIDI controller with pads as well, and I like to assign drum sounds to the pads in order to record them. A lot of people prefer playing drum sounds on the pads instead of the keys, and I think it’s because the pads are uniform in shape, are very sensitive, and are easier to press without accidentally striking another one.

There are also eight knobs, and they can be assigned to effects. Depending on the digital audio workstation you’re using, you might have to learn how to do this. In Ableton, it’s as easy as selecting a parameter and clicking the MIDI map button on the computer, and then moving the knob I want to assign to that parameter. Then, it’s easy and done. Here’s a great article on MIDI mapping if you’re interested in learning more.

So, if you’re interested in learning how to do this stuff, a keyboard like the Keystation II might be a little too “beginner” for you. The MPK Mini is not intimidating, and it’s small enough to understand what everything is, so it’s a great starting keyboard if you want to get into the effects and stuff.

I should also mention that there is a great onboard arpeggiator, which basically takes the chords you play and turns them into melodies. It’s really cool, and Akai is one of the few MIDI manufacturers to do this with their controllers. It’s definitely a great feature. The MPK Mini MkII gets a 4 out of 5 stars for me.

2. M-Audio Oxygen 49 MKIV

Remember everything I loved about the Keystation 49? Well the Oxygen 49 is kind of like a bigger brother of the Keystation. Don’t worry, it’s still really easy to use, but it’s got a few more features that beginners can still enjoy without feeling totally overwhelmed.

Here are some of the features you can find on it:

  • 8 assignable pads
  • 9 faders
  • 8 knobs for encoding
  • Record, play, and stop DAW controls
  • LED Screen
  • Pitch/mod wheels
  • Octave buttons
  • 49 velocity sensitive keys.

So, here’s what I love about this keyboard: it’s complex but simple at the same time. There’s no chaos to the layout at all; everything is very easy to find and use when you need it.

M-Audio makes really great keybeds, and while they’re not my personal favorite, they’re still very good. While this might not be relevant to everyone, I also love the way it looks. It has a sleek, curvy black body with a really great pro-looking shape to it. It works great with several different DAWs and even comes with a copy of Ableton Live Lite.

So, if you’re interested in getting started in a professional DAW at a basic, beginner level, the Lite version of Ableton is perfect for you. Plus with the purchase of this keyboard, it’s free, which is great.

I do like the faders, but admittedly they’re a little hard to grab. They’re kind of flat and they don’t have much versatility. The Launchkey from Novation does a much better job with the faders. By the way, faders can be used to adjust the levels of different tracks simultaneously. So, let’s say if you have four different tracks running at the same time, and you want one to be louder than the other, you can simply turn the rest down without having to click on the computer screen. It’s a really useful tool and I use it all the time with my MIDI controller, which also has them.

The Oxygen 49 costs more than MIDI controllers like the Masterkey 49 because it has more features and the keys are better. The great thing about getting a keyboard with more features, in my opinion, is that you can always learn gradually, rather than having to upgrade later.

At least you’ll have them from the very beginning, and you don’t have to use them right away. I’ll give the Oxygen 49 a 4.5 out of 5 stars for beginners because it’s still low cost with a lot of great features.

1) Novation Launchkey 49 MKII

Well, I’m a big fan of Novation, but I have to say, even from an objective standpoint, the Launchkey 49 MKII is a great MIDI keyboard, not only for beginners, but for everyone.

The cool thing about using a MIDI controller like this is that you won’t grow out of it, but you can use it for the basic functions with ease. For instance, if you just want to use it to play notes, you’ll be able to do so on some of the best semi-weighted keys I’ve ever played. They slide and glide like butter, and they’re totally awesome for everyone who plays them. They’re extremely accurate with velocity and the extra money definitely goes toward the better playing experience in my opinion.

You’re paying more for the nice keys, but you’re also paying for the integration with Ableton Live. The cool thing about Novation is that they always make everything easier for controlling the digital audio workstation. The Incontrol buttons help you scroll through the clips with ease, and the pads can also double as clip launchers.

So, as a beginner, you might not know what any of this means, but if you’re interested in learning Ableton (by the way, this one also comes with a free copy, as well as the bass station VST software synth for Ableton), you can get a jumpstart by using a tool that’s meant for it. But even with things like Pro Tools, the applications are simple enough to cross over smoothly.

I had mentioned that I prefer the faders on the Launchkey more than the ones on the Oxygen 49. I also like the whole look of the Launchkey better as well. It’s got a great charcoal black top with a cool teal bottom. It’s very professional looking and I prefer the layout on the face as well.

While on the Oxygen you can still tell where everything is, the Launchkey gets rid of any unnecessary clutter by stacking the pads and knobs right on top of each other in order to free up more space. It’s easier to look at and even looks more like a beginner MIDI controller than the Oxygen.

It’s USB powered as well, and automatically turns on when you plug it in. On the Oxygen, you have to flick a switch in order to turn it on, which is just another step that wastes time, in my opinion. I also like the feel of the mod and pitch wheels better on the Novation, mainly because of the rubber tops that coat it. They’re notched really nicely for easy bending as well, which is just great.

You’ll pay a little more for this one than any of the other ones, but that’s because the build quality is overall the best. While you might feel more comfortable paying under $100 for a MIDI controller, just keep in mind that you’ll have to spend more than that if you ever want to upgrade. Otherwise, you could invest in something that’ll last you forever, so long as you take care of it. I personally love the Launchkey 49 and I think it’s a perfect 5 out of 5 stars for anyone who picks it up, including beginners.

Novation is great because they always put the most interesting possibilities in their MIDI controllers. Here’s a forum post detailing a how-to on making light shows with the LED pads, which look amazing and are really bright.


The Launchkey 49 is my top pick for beginners, but any of these will do nicely in order to introduce you to the world of MIDI. Remember that MIDI is all about controlling the notes on the computer, and so as long as it can do that well, it’s going to be perfect for you as a beginner. Additional features are always an added bonus if you’re interested in learning more about how to control MIDI in more extensive ways.

One final note would be that if you’re going to purchase a MIDI controller, be sure your computer can handle the minimum requirements for the controller, as MIDI does take up some processing power. If your computer is too slow, you might have trouble accurately playing.

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