In this article, I’d like to talk to you about using smaller keyboards for music production. In fact, to be more specific, we’re going to focus our attention to 32-key MIDI keyboards. What are your best options in the 32-key range? How do some of the best keyboards on the market stack up against one another? Well, that’s exactly what we’re going to find out today.
And to better help you determine the best keyboard, please use our interactive table below to compare and contrast some of the top 32-key keyboards currently on the market:
|Arturia KeyLab 49 MKII
|Novation Launchkey 61 MK3
Finding the Right Keyboard
Keyboards with few amounts of keys are typically better for music production, especially if you’re just getting started and you don’t have a big budget. Besides, the great thing about recording in MIDI is that you can always add in notes separately, so you don’t even have to play with both hands at the same time.
32 keys is the equivalent of just over two and a half octaves. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough if you’re making beats and not trying to record classical or jazz music, and it’s also a little more room than a 25-key MIDI keyboard.
Personally, I prefer more keys, and that’s because a 32-key MIDI keyboard allows me to play a chord and one bass note at the same time.
Usually if you like pop music, or any other similar genre, you can totally handle making music on a smaller keyboard. All of the 32 key MIDI keyboards I will tell you about today will also have the ability to change octaves, so if you need to play lower, you can press the octave button and play lower.
But, there are also a lot of advantages to having a smaller MIDI keyboard. For instance, it’s portable, and you could take it anywhere, like a plane or a coffee shop, and along with your laptop and some headphones you can make music anywhere too. It’ll also take up less space on your desk.
I should also mention that if you’re getting a digital piano instead of a MIDI keyboard, you’re going to need more keys. Digital pianos are more for performing and practicing, so fewer keys would be really impractical and you’d be limited. But when you can add things in layers and record over MIDI notes in a digital audio workstation, you don’t need as many keys.
So, what should you look for in a 32 key MIDI keyboard? Here are a few things:
- Keys that are easy to play
- Octave control
- Uses MIDI Controller USB Cable
- Any Form of Modulation Control
- When Possible, Trigger Pads Or Knobs
Before we move onto our five recommended 32-key MIDI keyboards, please take a moment to view some of the best-selling MIDI keyboards that are currently available online:
|1) M-Audio Hammer 88
|2) Arturia KeyStep Pro
|3) Arturia KeyLab 49 MkII
And now, let’s begin with the Sampson M32.
Don’t have much experience with MIDI keyboards? Do you find the ones with lots of buttons and knobs intimidating? Then maybe you should look into the M32. It’s small but it still have 32 keys, and it is very simple.
The touch sliders on the left hand side of the panel control the pitch bend and modulation (you can map modulation to anything you want), and there is an octave control, an option to sustain a note simply by pressing a button (a great feature not a lot of MIDI keyboards have), a program button, a slider, a volume knob, and a series of functions you can trigger by pressing a key and then the enter key.
Realistically, you might even use fewer features on here than it has. If you’re just looking for something to play notes, this is a great investment. It’s light, at just over one pound, and it connects with mini USB, which you can connect to a computer or even an iPad. It’s a low-stakes investment, and it’s a lot of fun.
I like the touch sliders although I wish they were a little more sensitive. Same thing with the keys, which aren’t the worst, but are definitely small and aren’t high quality. But you can always adjust the velocity in your DAW later, if you need to.
The touch sliders beat out one of its competitors’, the M-Audio Keystation Mini 32, however, in fact, that one doesn’t even have sliders, but buttons instead. Otherwise they’re pretty similar, but the Keystation Mini 32 costs $65, so if you want the sliders, you’re going to have to pay five extra bucks.
I really like this one because it’s extremely simple, which is perfect for beginners. There are only seven buttons on it, and one knob, and the knob controls the volume. The plus and minus symbols control the octave shift, so you can go from playing high notes to low notes with ease.
Like the Samson M32, it also has a sustain button, but I think I like the placement of it on the Keystation Mini 32 better, because you can press it without obstructing your vision. With the other MIDI keyboard, you have to press it in the middle of the keyboard, which could cause problems for playing.
I love the design as well. It’s clean, professional, and minimalistic. It also connects with mini USB, and it will come with a cable to connect it to the computer. I do like the portability of mini USB, but it can be a little fragile sometimes, so you’ll need to be careful. Whereas on something like the Roland A-300, you get full sized USB which is more sturdy.
So one improvement I’d suggest on this one, and mind you, it is still very cheap so you get what you pay for, is that the pitch bending function is in button form. This is extremely impractical, because the whole point of bending notes is that every subtle touch is a change.
M-Audio’s Axiom Air Mini also has these buttons, and while I like that keyboard more in general because it had more features like pads and knobs to map, I think M-Audio should change the button thing in the future.
A popular analog synth maker and VST plugin developer, Arturia also has a great lineup of MIDI controllers. This one is really simple, which is great, especially for beginners. In fact I would classify this as more of a beginner to intermediate MIDI controller.
Now, the really cool thing about this one is that there are a lot exciting features you won’t find on some of the previously mentioned MIDI controllers. First, you can sequence notes with it in real time. there’s an arpeggiator that allows you to hold down a series of notes and it creates a melody for you (This forum post talks about the pros and cons of the sequencing capabilities; some users love it, some are skeptical. Check it out!).
There’s also controls for playback and recording in your DAW, so if you’re using Logic for instance, you can tell the MIDI keyboard to control the record button on Logic rather than clicking it on your mouse or trackpad.
But there’s a lot more as well. If you own modular synths, you can send MIDI clock information to the rack as well. You might not have all this gear, but if you ever needed a controller that could control analog hardware as well, you could easily do it with the Keystep. It’s got an input for a sustain pedal, and also connects with mini USB.
I like this one better than the first two because it has touch sliders for pitch and mod, but they work really well. While the Samson M32 has them, they’re not quite as responsive.
The velocity is also better, and for almost double the price, you might find it worth it. It’s also only 3 pounds, so it’s light and easy to carry to another location to make music.
- You can view our review of the Arturia KeyStep here.
The last two MIDI controllers I’d like to recommend are geared a little more toward intermediate and pro MIDI controller users who simply want something light, compact, and perfect for travel. The M-Audio Axiom Air Mini 32 is a great addition to this list.
It has a lot of the features the other ones have, including the regrettable pitch bend buttons, solid octave buttons, a sustain button, and controls to record, stop, and play your music inside your Garageband or DAW of choice. However, the Air Mini 32 definitely steps it up when it comes to the extra features. It’s got two banks’ worth of eight trigger pads. What are these used for? Well on my MIDI keyboard, I use them for drums.
You can assign kicks, snares, toms, and any other type of drums to the pads in order to play them easier. It’s a really great way to create a better workflow, and for more experienced MIDI users this is a must-have. I love the way these pads feel, and they’re wide enough for nearly any finger size.
The next set of features I want to point out are the knobs. These are meant more for effects, but you can do other things with them as well. But for effects, these knobs are ideal. They have a value of 127, which means that if you apply a filter, you can leave it in 127 different locations to shape the bandpass of your sound. It’s always a great thing to have and it makes designing your sounds a lot easier.
Of course, you could get by and not use them. I don’t even use the ones on mine every single time. but if you want them, you’ll have them with the Air Mini 32.
Now while you can do a lot with this MIDI controller, you still might find the arpeggiator, tap tempo, sustain pedal option, and ability to control modular hardware all things that are arguably more important than pads and knobs. It depends on what you want to do. But the Arturia, while it’s missing pads and knobs, which is a bummer, does have all of those other things.
I’d say the way the keys feel are roughly tied, I don’t really have a preference there. It’s a little lighter than the Arturia despite having more physical features. It weighs 2.5 pounds, which is great if you want to put it in a backpack. Check out the full list of specs here.
By the way, rather than using the mod wheel on this thing, which is just a button, you can assign one of the knobs to do any modulation. So in this case, I prefer this MIDI controller over the Keystation Mini 32 overall.
Now we arrive at the only 32 key MIDI controller on this list with full size keys: the Roland A-300 Pro. In fact, the keys are miles ahead of any of the other MIDI controllers on this list, which might be why it’s also the most expensive one. In addition to knobs and pads, this MIDI controller also has sliders, which are meant for leveling tracks and mixing.
This is a useful tool, and undoubtedly more geared toward pros, but as a beginner it’s not hard to figure out. Want something a little quieter? Find the corresponding slider and turn it down.
The pads are actually kind of small, closer to Novation’s pads on their MIDI controllers, such as the Launchpad. Still, they feel nice, and have a firm texture while still being velocity sensitive.
Out of all of the MIDI controllers on this list, this one feels the most like a pro MIDI controller. There are extra DAW controls that allow you to skip measures in your arrangement, rather than only a button that cues the beginning of the song. It’s also the only MIDI controller on this list to have a full-sized USB port, which is much more sturdy.
You also have a really cool option that most MIDI controllers don’t have: the ability to split and layer sounds based on how your DAW is set up. That’s really cool, and that’s a feature normally only possible with digital pianos. It’s cool to see that dynamic because it hints that performing with this small MIDI controller is actually plausible.
The pitch and mod is the traditional Roland shape, where it’s all rolled into one. Bend the pitch by pushing left or right, and bend the mod by pushing up or down. It’s super easy and allows you to combine the two effects with only a finger or two. It has an input for old-school five-pin MIDI as well, and an option to connect two pedals.
This MIDI controller can do far more than the other ones overall, but is still missing a few key features, such as the tempo tapping, sequencing, and arpeggiating power of the Arturia. Of course, you can set up sequencers on the computer, so it’s not like you won’t be able to accomplish this goal at all if you don’t have these features, it’s just easy to do when it’s on a MIDI controller.
It’s more durable as well, at 8.7 pounds, with light playable keys that are still full-sized and a hefty body that can still fit on a desk. Overall it’s a great MIDI controller and definitely worth the money.
With this MIDI controller you also get a cool bundle with some production software. This review explains more about how this can be useful for producers.
Conclusion: What’s My Pick?
As someone who likes to have full-sized keys and can live without a couple of features onboard, I am willing to pay the extra money for the A-300. It’s got a lot of great features, feels great, and looks great. I think the connectivity and option for both a sustain and expression pedal gives it a lot more playability.
I would have made the pads a little bigger, because playing drums on a pad should be an expressive experience, and should feel natural. Focusing on hitting the small pads would be a little more challenging, and I like the feel of the pads on the Axiom Air Mini 32 better.
But for me, it’s all about the keys, and I have to say, I’m impressed with a lot of the features on Roland’s A-300, so I think it’s the best 32 key MIDI keyboard. A close second for me would be the Keystep Mini from Arturia, but it’s just a little too limited in terms of physical features, and I’d be afraid of breaking it if I took it around too much.
While having only 25 keys in a MIDI controller is manageable, having the flexibility of the extra keys really helps, especially if you want to play chords. So when it comes to 32 key MIDI controllers, I’d definitely recommend the A-300 Pro.
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