In this article, I’d like to talk about MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controllers and their significance in the music production industry as well as their uses in live performance. A midi controller is not a digital piano, as there are no sounds found in MIDI controllers. Rather, a MIDI controller is meant for triggering virtual sounds and sending MIDI information to a computer.
Originally, when MIDI first came out, the input/output was a five-pin connection that was common on all types of musical instruments, from modular synthesizers to MIDI controllers, to digital pianos if you wanted to convert it into a MIDI controller. Today, we use a USB cable that plugs into the back of the MIDI controller and connects to one of your USB ports on your computer or laptop.
Later on in this article, I’ll present to you a handful of MIDI controllers that I think are worthy of your consideration if you’re considering buying one, and we’ll discuss the advantages and disadvantages each one offers and see how they compare to their competitors, as well.
But first, below, please take a look at the interactive table to see how some of the best MIDI controllers available on the market today compare to one another based on size, keys, price and more.
$ = $500 or less | $$ = $500 – $1,000 | $$$ = $1,000 and up
|M-Audio Axiom AIR Mini 32||32||$||8 Velocity-Sensitive Trigger Pads|
|Arturia KeyLab 61 MKII||61||$||Semi-Weighted Keys w/Velocity and Aftertouch|
|Arturia MatrixBrute||49||$$$||3 Brute oscillators|
|Arturia MicroBrute||25||$||Step Sequencer w/8 Memory Locations|
|M-Audio Code 61||61||$||Semi-Weighted Keys|
|M-Audio Hammer 88||88||$||Weighted Keys|
|M-Audio Keystation Mini 32||32||$||Velocity-Sensitive Synth-Action Keys|
|Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 MK2||88||$$||Fully-Weighted Keybed|
|Nektar Impact LX49+||49||$||Mac, PC and iOS compatible|
|Roland A-800 Pro||88||$||Velocity-Sensitive Keys|
What is a MIDI Controller?
A MIDI controller (also referred to as a MIDI keyboard) controls your DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation. Digital audio workstations like Ableton Live, Cubase, Logic, and Pro Tools are all software programs meant for designing and programming music, as well as recording from live instruments and microphones.
All digital sounds are usually controlled and triggered by the MIDI controller, and you essentially write MIDI notes by playing the MIDI keyboard and recording your input. The cool thing about MIDI is that it’s not technically audio, which means it can be manipulated in order to sound better.
For instance, you can quantize your MIDI notes. Quantization is the act of automatically aligning your notes against a grid that fits them into a perfectly timed rhythm. So you can imagine the implications of MIDI in digital music. You can make everything perfect if you want, and that’s why music production has come a long way since its humble beginnings.
You can assign much more than just keyboard and piano sounds to your MIDI controller, though. You can also assign samples, like sound effects and drums, so that you don’t need to actually record a real drum kit.
For pop and EDM today, most people don’t record any real instruments anymore, and instead choose to use samples and VST plugins, which are basically software synths controlled by the MIDI controller inside the DAW. I’m throwing a lot of potentially brand new terms at you, I know, but once you get the hang of it, it’ll become like a second language.
And before we continue, please take a moment to view a small list of some of the best selling MIDI keyboards available on Amazon:
|1) Akai MPK Mini MKII|
|2) Novation Launchkey|
|3) Alesis V49|
|4) M Audio Keystation 49 MK3|
|5) Arturia KeyLab 49|
Where Do I Use a MIDI Controller?
Midi controllers can also be used for live performance, but you do need to bring a computer—preferably a laptop—that has audio outputs to plug into the sound system through a direct input box. MIDI controllers are usually lightweight, although some have weighted keys, and they’re often found in key groups of 49, 61, 76, 88, and sometimes fewer, like 25.
So what’s the best MIDI controller? Well I have an opinion on a few, but when considering all of the elements you should expect to find on a MIDI controller, you need to consider these five things every good MIDI controller should have:
- Simplistic Design
- USB to Host Output
- DAW controls
- Encoders (i.e. knobs, pads, sliders)
- Easy DAW Integration
A keyboard with these five elements will be your ideal keyboard. But there are other factors to consider too. A midi keyboard forum like this one has advice from pros and amateurs alike, each with their own preference.
With that said, here are five MIDI controllers that I think are most worthy of your attention. In my description of each, I’ll cover things like how much the MIDI controller costs, its targeted audience, its features and usability, and how well it stacks up to its competitors.
Top 5 MIDI Controllers on the Market
And now, without further ado, let’s get to the five MIDI controllers that I feel are the best on the market. Let’s begin with my number five selection.
Let’s start with one of my favorite low-end MIDI controllers, the M-Audio KeyStation 49 II. It’s a cheap MIDI controller, but for the price it’s fantastic.
M-Audio makes good, cheap products that are perfect for beginner producers and performers who need an extra keyboard on the stage to connect to their computer for triggering simple, clean sounds easily. It’s got a great keybed, the keys feel springy and sturdy, and the entire interface on the face of the keyboard is very simple to use.
There aren’t many buttons on this thing, but a lot of the controls are accessible by pressing and holding the advanced button and pressing a key to select channels, transpose, and more.
You can control the DAW using the arrow keys and the stop, record, and playback buttons. They’re very easy to find and simple to use. I love that about this MIDI keyboard; it’s very simple. It’s quite ideal for beginners and people looking to get into MIDI controllers; it’s a great starter MIDI controller for sure. It also has a pitch and mod wheel, master volume, and octave buttons. It has USB to HOST capabilities, a sustain port, and an external power option.
Why do I seemingly love this MIDI keyboard so much? Well, partly because M-Audio makes great products for beginners (to be fair, they also make pro products that are amazing), and I of course used to be a beginner, and the product’s simple interface really helps people understand the controller elements without feeling overwhelmed.
Plus it’s only $100, which is totally worth it for what you get. Here’s a quick look at detailed specs.
As far as a drawback, I’d personally would’ve liked to see a few more features onboard; this MIDI controller has only a few buttons, so that does make it quite simplified. Therefore, if you’re more of an intermediate or advanced professional, there’s a chance that the limitations here might be frustrating. Something with slightly more features and encoders, like a Novation MIDI controller (which we’ll get to later), might be more beneficial.
Still, for the right person, this MIDI controller gives you a great bang for your buck.
GRADE: 3.8 out of 5 stars.
Arturia isn’t just a MIDI company. They actually specialize in all kinds of synthesizers, including analog synths. They’re best known for their clever analog engineering, so it’s interesting to see them translate their synth workflow setup to MIDI controllers.
The KeyLab 49 is a highly integrated DAW MIDI controller that comes with its own VST plugin called AnalogLab, which is designed to model analog synthesizers and be controlled in real time. I’ve tried the software before and it sounds amazing; it’s probably worth the price of this MIDI controller on its own.
This MIDI controller has quite a few controls, from pads (which also double as chord triggers), to buttons, and DAW transport controls. If you use AnalogLab with this MIDI controller, everything is already mapped for you, but if you want to use it with another plugin, everything is universal and can be assigned to different parameters depending on your need. The keys are semi-weighted, feel great, and have excellent velocity response.
I love the white and wood coloring too; I think it looks high-tech and durable. This one is good for live performance too, because all of the control elements are onboard for easy sound assignments. There’s also a little screen on the corner that displays information about your selected patch, which is great if you’re playing on a dark stage and need to see what you’re doing.
Some cons on this one are that the interface might be a little confusing for beginners. AnalogLab demands a lot of tweaking to get the sounds just right, so if that’s off-putting, there are simpler MIDI controllers out there designed for the beginner. M-Audio’s MIDI controllers, for instance, might beat this one in terms of simplicity.
The KeyLab 49 gets a 4.0 out of 5 stars.
3. Akai MPK249
Akai’s MPK249 is great for a lot of people, and while it’s not for everyone, it certainly has some useful features. It’s a 49 key MIDI controller with 16 pads, eight faders and knobs, and several DAW transport controls. The screen is blue and bright, and I really like the fact that it’s right in the middle, so you can easily look at it while you’re playing or scrolling through sounds.
So why do I love this keyboard? Well for me, it’s all about the pads and the built-in arpeggiator. The pads feel so good; they’re velocity sensitive and easy to assign sounds to. Plus there are multiple banks, so you can assign tons of sounds to each bank, making your pad-playing easy useful when triggering sounds. It’s a perfect MIDI keyboard for live performance, because everything is clearly labeled and colorful.
One negative aspect is that the DAW controls are a little complicated, not to mention haphazardly placed. For instance, why would they put the DAW control arrow keys on one side of the pads and then have the transport keys in a different spot?
Layout wise it leaves to be desired.
But the keys feel very good; they’re stiff but hold up to aggressive playing styles, and respond well to velocity. It’s definitely a pro keyboard, great for DJs and EDM enthusiasts who are all about sound design and workflow.
At the same time, the performance elements are easy to get to—which is always a great thing. For instance, the onboard arpeggiator is something I wish every single MIDI controller had. It allows you to arpeggiate any selected sound and sync it to the tempo of your DAW.
It’s genius, really, and I don’t know why Novation or Arturia hasn’t jumped on this trend.
This keyboard only weighs about 12 lbs. so it’s very portable too. Is it the perfect MIDI keyboard? No, I think Akai gets too ambitious with its controls and leads players into confusing places sometimes. Overall though, it’s really quite excellent.
GRADE: 4.3 out of 5 stars.
*Check out our review of the Akai MPK249 here.*
The Launchkey 49 from Novation is an old friend of mine. I’ve owned it for a while now and it’s suited me very well. In my opinion, it’s a perfect blend of simplicity and still has enough features to get everything you need out of it.
One of my favorite things about the Launchkey is how great the keys feel. They’re the perfect weight for synth-style playing, just springy enough to get good action but not too stiff to hurt your fingers.
The pads are the right texture; they’re taken from Novation’s line of Launchpads, which are MIDI controllers with pads only, so you know their pad design is great.
There are DAW transport controls, knobs, and faders, and they’re all easy to map, use, and mess with. Whereas the M-Audio KeyStation has quite a lot of simplicity, this keyboard adds just enough features to make it feel like a pro keyboard without overwhelming any new players.
Novation is also famous for their integration with Ableton Live, which is my DAW of choice, and I highly recommend the Launchkey 49 to any and all Ableton users. Here’s an overview of how Ableton and Launchkey work together.
If this MIDI controller had the same arpeggiator as the MPK249, it would be the perfect MIDI keyboard, but unfortunately you have to use an external DAW arpeggiator in order to get it to work.
Still, this is extremely portable, weighing about 8 lbs., and it’s very sturdy. I took it to a gig last week along with my MacBook and ran Ableton Live out of it. It triggers all of my sounds really well, and I don’t see myself ever needing another MIDI keyboard until this one breaks or wears out. It also comes in a 25 and 61 key variation, in case you want a different keyboard length.
For the price, it beats out the KeyLab and the MPK249, and I definitely recommend it. I’d give it a 4.7 out of 5 stars for its excellent integration and simplicity.
I’m a big fan of Native Instruments. Unlike Akai, Arturia, and even Novation, they’re total specialists when it comes to plugins. If you’re a music producer, even a new one, you might even use one of their plugins, such as Kontakt, Massive, Absynth, or Reaktor. They’re masters of sound design and music production, and they have a giant all-inclusive bundle of all their sounds, available for purchase, called Komplete. They’re now on Komplete 11, and if you buy it, it’ll be the last set of music plugins you’ll probably ever need.
Komplete Kontrol is Native Instruments’ series of MIDI controllers designed for flawless integration with Komplete software, which already integrates flawlessy with most major DAWs. The S49 is the 49 key version of this series, and it’s incredible. The keys feel better than the Launchkey’s, and despite the fact that this MIDI keyboard can control what seems like a million different sounds, the S49 only needs a handful of buttons.
It’s a really great interface. You use the knob encoders to manipulate presets in any Native Instruments plugin. The organization of the edit and arpeggiator buttons, the navigation buttons, and the DAW transport buttons are perfect, easy to find and use, and simple. This MIDI keyboard allows you to play chords with one touch, play in “scales” that force you to play the right notes by lighting up the individual LEDs on the keybed, and you can transpose anything.
For a $600 dollar keyboard, you might expect the keys to be weighted. However, only the S88 has weighted keys.
Still the S49 is fairly portable portable. At just over 15 lbs., it’s still quite easy to take to gigs or to a friend’s studio.
If you want this MIDI keyboard but don’t use Native Instruments plugins, you can still map anything you want to the keys and encoders. However, to get the full effect, you’ll need at least some Native Instruments plugins, and preferably a copy of Komplete 11.
Komplete starts at $400, so that means you’re investing $1000 at least into this setup. If you have the money, it’s a must-have. Otherwise, go with something more affordable that’s just as easy to use, like the Novation Launchkey 49.
GRADE: 5/5 stars.
*Check out our review of the Komplete Kontrol S49 here.*
When it comes to the best MIDI controller, it’s cliche to think that the most expensive one is the best. However, in this case, the most expensive one is actually the best, in my opinion. But all of these are good options for experienced and new producers, and any one of them could likely fit your needs better than others.
In a dream scenario, I’d get Komplete with the S49 and spend all the money I could on integrating Native Instruments in all of my music production, but realistically, it’s all about simplicity and ease of use (whatever that means to you).
Still, because the S49 is so perfectly simplistic and yet so powerful, it tops my list.
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