When choosing your midi keyboard you should take a lot of parameters into consideration.
First of all, do you need a midi keyboard?
On a midi keyboard you can bang out your drums and play chords and bass lines in real time. This sounds infinitely more natural than putting in notes on the piano roll with a mouse.
Even guitarists who cannot play the piano should be considering a midi keyboard. Why? Because the piano keys are laid-out in a very logical way. You could say that a piano keyboard (and the layout of a midi keyboard is that of a piano) reflects music theory in it’s most logical form. In music lessons the piano keyboard is used to illustrate scales, intervals, chords etc…
So, learning the piano keyboard is studying music theory. Or vice-versa, having a keyboard at your disposal facilitates the understanding of music theory.
Most midi keyboards have plastic keys that do not respond like a real piano keyboard. The mechanism to push the key back (upwards) is a system with springs. The keys are not “weighted”. This is fine for most purposes and will only bother you if you are a pianist used to play on a real piano.
Some keyboards have semi-weighted keys. This is, if done right, (usually) a step up from synth action keys.
If you are a discerning pianist you should consider a real “master keyboard”. The more expensive master keyboards have a real “hammer action”. These come at a price however. You could then also consider using a digital piano or stage piano as a master keyboard.
Size and features
Midi keyboards come in a lot of sizes and can differ a lot in features. You should base your choice of keyboard based on the different features you need. I have different keyboards for different purposes. Read on and you will understand why.
Mini keyboards with mini keys
These are suited for the traveling musician. You can also buy one of these if you really don’t have the space for a bigger keyboard. The mini keys are never very comfortabel to play unless you have really tiny fingers. Most of these also only feature 2 octaves. That is really not that much (not enough) to “play the piano”. They are sufficient to lay down an idea in your DAW.
Mini keyboards with mini keys and encoder (controller) knobs and faders
The encoder knobs and sliders (and transport buttons, depending on the make and model) are used to tweak the mixer and software synths in your DAW. Due to the size of the mini keyboard as a whole the number of controllers is lower than on full sized keyboards.
Normal key size keyboards
These have normal size keys. The same size as piano keys. The range from 2 octave keyboards up to the full piano range. The 2 octave keyboards can also be used to travel if your backpack is not really small.
Normal key size keyboards with encoder knobs and faders and transport controls
Same as with the mini keyboards. The number of encoders will usually be higher due to the larger size. Some keyboards with encoder buttons are specialized or tuned for use with a specific DAW or multiple DAW’s. In that case a template must be activated to make the controls correspond with the most used controllers in your DAW like mixer faders, pan knobs, synth parameters…
The intention is to have mouse free control of your DAW and synths so you can concentrate more on your music. Some of these keyboards are so well thought-out that you hardly have to look at your computer screen any more.
Number of keys
As all this is not enough, the same keyboard comes usually in multiple versions sporting more or less keys, from 2 octaves to the full 88 keys of a piano.
The number of keys has of course an impact on the size of the device. Keyboards with mini keys usually count no more than 37 keys. Most come with 2 octaves of keys.
Normal key size keyboards usually come in 25, 37, 49, 61, and 88 key versions. More keys means usually a higher price. I would advise to buy the 25 keys versions only when space is of consideration (a keyboard takes a lot of space on your desk, believe me). 25 keys is really not comfortable to play. You will reach for the octave up and down buttons all the time. Drums for instance are generally programmed in the lower octaves and basses are of course “low”. Melodies will be played 1 or 2 octaves up from the central C. You see the picture…
A lot of flashy buttons look nice, but if you are taking your first steps in DAW and midi world, don’t skimp on number of keys in favor of encoder knobs, unless…
Unless you are an Ableton Live user. In that case you should consider investing in a dedicated Ableton Live keyboard.
Bundled DAW software
Most keyboards come with a copy of a light version of a DAW. I have the impression Ableton Live Lite is very well represented here. It is a cheap way to get your hands on (yet another) DAW. Ableton Live Lite has serious limitations though. Only 8 tracks is one of them. So, it is worthwhile checking what you get as free software with your keyboard.
But imagine this: if you have a Mac (Mac’s are low latency capable from the get go), you just have to buy a Midi keyboard and get Ableton Live Lite for free and your “in business”. No audio interface needed to get your feet wet in (electronic) music production!
Most, if not all keyboards are connected via usb nowadays. Midi is not very data-heavy (unlike audio and video, which are) so the usb1 standard is more than sufficient. A lot of keyboards are also class compliant. This means that no special drivers have to be installed for basic operation. In case of keyboards with more controllers/ knobs, it might be necessary to install or copy a file or script into a dedicated folder where your DAW is installed.
Most of the larger keyboards come also with a standard midi connector. This is not the case for most smaller (mini keys) keyboards.
Here are some midi keyboards with their features:
Mini midi keyboards with mini keys
As said before, these are designed mainly with portability in mind!
Garagekey mini 37
Unlike most keyboards with mini keys, this one features 37 keys. This makes it longer of course, so check if it will fit in your backpack.
Korg nanokey slim-line keyboard
As most of these, only 2 octaves. Key travel is quasi non-existent, so don’t expect very comfortable playing action. It works, is cheap and very space-efficient. Your backpack has to be really small to not accommodate this thingie.
If you would buy it because it’s cheap, buy a keyboard with full size keys. The can be had for twenty or so $ more…
Samson Graphite M25 Mini USB MIDI Controller
Samson makes usually quite well made “low budget” gear. I think this one is not an exception.
Samson Graphite M32 Mini USB MIDI Controller
This one looks very nice indeed. More than 2 octaves is always good!
M-Audio Keystation Mini 32
32 keys, but a bit shallower keybed. This means that the travel (down) is not very large.
Korg Microkey 25
This is a nice keyboard keeping the limitations like size and the mini keys in mind.
Korg Microkey 37
The “bigger” brother of the Microkey 25.
From iK Multimedia. This keyboard is not only intended for iOS devices. It works equally well with normal computers (tested first hand). In my opinion it is one of the more playable mini keyboards. 37 keys!
Mini keyboards with mini keys and encoder buttons
Akai MPK Mini
This is a true classic. Superseded by the MKII by now and discounted since (so it’s still available).
I had one and it worked okey. Don’t put it in your back pack with the mini USB connector still connected. It sticks out and will break the inside of the connector on the keyboard. I guess this goes for any keyboard…
Akai MPK Mini MKII
Updated version of the original Akai MPK Mini.
Novation Launchkey 25 mini
I have the large Launchkey 61 and it is a very good keyboard for the price. I expect this will be the same for the Launchkey mini. A serious competitor for the Akai MPK Mini MKII
With controls mapped for the Arturia Soft Synth “Analog Lab” (included) that boasts 5000 sounds from their flagship synths.
Akai APC key 25
This one is especially tailored for use with Ableton Live.
Normal key size keyboards
These are something in between mini keyboards and normal size keyboards. They are clearly designed for the traveling musician. The are very “flat”.
If you are looking for a keyboard with the feel of a normal sized keys synth keyboard, don’t buy one of these…
This one is quite special. Keys are “large” like normal size keys, but the keybed is very flat. Special design for travellers who dislike mini keys. The CME X-key 25 still fits in a normal size back pack. I have bought one since I thought I would make some music while traveling. Did not happen :-). I have a feeling that it doesn’t compare to real full size keys…
Larger brother of the Xkey 25. Adding more keys defies the purpose of this controller (in my opinion). The thing is very flat, yes, but will not fit in any backpack any more. It will, on the other hand, not take much space in your luggage (it is really very flat).
M-Audio midi Keyboards
M-Audio Keystation 49
I have version 1 of the M-Audio Keystation 49. The keyboard is very light and the build is a bit flimsy. Price is in the middle of the segment. I honestly think there are slightly better alternatives, especially taking the price into account.
This keyboard exists in 49, 61 and 88 keys versions
Alesis Midi Keyboards
Speaking about an M-Audio Keystation alternative. We have one of these at school. I value it higher than the Keystation. It’s cheaper too, depending where you buy it.
This keyboard is available in different configurations boasting more or less keys:
Acorn Instruments Midi Keyboards
The Acorn Masterkey keyboards remind me of older M-audio offerings. We have one Acorn Masterkey keyboard at school. It’s pretty solid and works as advertised. I have the impression the built is a bit more solid than current low budget M-Audio offerings. The Acorn keyboards are generally quite a bit less expensive than M-Audio keyboards. I have the impression that you get about the same or superior quality for far less…
A copy of Presonus Studio One Artist is included. Presonus Studio One is a very complete (cross-platform Windows/ Mac) DAW. The only drawback of the Artist version is that it can not host 3rd party VST instruments.
Acorn Instruments Masterkey 25
Acorn Instruments Masterkey 49
Acorn Instruments Masterkey 61
The bigger brother of the 49 keys version. All the remarks of the 49 version apply. Decent basic midi keyboard for a more than decent price…
Line 6 Midi Keyboard
Advertised as an iOS keyboard (iPad). Works equally well with a PC or Mac. One user reported a problem with the iPad Mini, but confessed not having updated the firmware if the keyboard when asked to do so. Build seems very light (a good thing for transport). iPad connector is reported to be a little flimsy.
Midiplus Midi Keyboards
Very cheap indeed. Seems to have all necessary features. 49 keys. Even features a regular midi socket!
Another really not expensive keyboard from midiplus. Again all basic features are present, midi jacks, usb connection, sustain pedal…The naming suggests ipad connectivity, but I don’t see that reflected in the specs…
Nektar MIDI Keyboards
The Nectar keyboards are getting glowing reviews all over the place. You pay a little more for the same features, like number of keys, connectivity, but at the end of the day what really matters is how well the keybed is made and how enjoyable the instrument is to play. I think the Nectar Keyboards win over most of the competitors here. This is the most basic of their offerings.
Nectar also excels in DAW integration with their more elaborated keyboards with encoder knobs and sliders. So if you are in the market for such a keyboard, read the section about keyboards with knobs and sliders a little further down.
Nectar Impact iX61
Normal key size keyboards with encoder buttons and transport controls
The addition of encoders, sliders, drum pads for MPC style drumming and DAW integration blew up the price of a midi keyboard considerably. In the past you could pay easily three times more than for a simpler keyboard with the same number of keys.
However, competition in this segment has been heating up recently. New players in the market and resulting new developments have been pushing prices down and quality up.
Not that long ago you had to assign buttons and encoders manually to functions in your DAW. I know better things to do with my time.
This is becoming history since integration with major DAW’s like Cubase, Logic ProX, Ableton Live, Reason etc…is standard with most recently developed keyboards. Always check out if your DAW of choice is supported with the controller. Nothing more frustrating than unpacking and connecting the controller to find out your DAW is not supported out of the box.
The level of support is also not the same for every keyboard/ brand or line of keyboards. You can distinguish 2 levels of support.
The first level is basic DAW control. Transport controls engage play, stop, rewind etc, and the faders and rotary controls controlling the mixers faders and pan controls.
The second level is control over the most used parameters of your DAW’s software synthesizers and effects. Most keyboards offer the first level of control, but it is the second level of control you want with knobs and faders configured and assigned out of the box!
Bottom line: if you choose right, you get a keyboard with excellent DAW support out of the box at half the price you had to pay only a few years ago. No more tedious hand made midi control assignments!
One word though: the smallest offerings of these keyboards (the 25 keys models) usually offer less controllers (rotary knobs and faders) than their bigger counterparts. This is mainly due to the smaller footprint. There is simply not enough surface space available for more. Generally the faders are left out.
I am not going to list all available keyboards. Just the ones that get the best reviews and have the best reputation in the industry…
Nektar Keyboards with DAW Control
Nektar keyboards come with a free copy of the Presonus Studio One Artis DAW (some of the graphics show a combination of the keyboards with Bitwig Studio. This is a mistake).
Nektar Impact LX49 49 note USB keyboard controller
Honestly, If I would be in the market for a new keyboard, this would be the one (or the bigger one with 88 keys). Compared to M-Audio, Nectar is a relatively new player. You could say Nektar is the challenger of the more established brands. It does a remarkable good job.
Being a new player they had the chance to develop a really new product from a fresh point of view. The result is not only an excellent product for the price (which is very low for what you get), but an excellent product even disregarding the price, period!
The Nektar Impact LX keyboards supporter-mapped integration with Cubase, Digital Performer, Garageband, Logic, Sonar & Studio One.
Nektar Impact LX61 61 note USB keyboard controller
Same offering as the 49 keys version, but with 61 keys. If you have the spare space and cash (and it’s not that expensive honestly) always go with the 61 keys version (or bigger) of any keyboard. It is so much more comfortable to use/ play. You have to switch octaves a lot less (for programming drums and basses) and you can just, well…play.
Nectar Impact LX88
Now THIS is a keyboard. Read the full specs here. Mostly glowing reviews. There ARE keyboards with better weighted keys, but they come at a higher price and/ or are less well integrated with DAW’s.
Nektar Panarama P6
I should have saved the first sentence of the previous keyboard for this one. I’ll say it again: now this is a keyboard!
The Panorama P6 is in fact the debut keyboard from Nektar. It is still their flagship keyboard. And this comes at a price…
It was first of all designed as a Reason DAW controller, but now supports all major DAW softwares.
Reading the reviews, some people are not that satisfied with the (semi-weighted) keys. Major point of criticism is a different feel/ resistance between the white and black keys. Read the reviews before purchasing!
I would honestly choose an LX61 over the Panorama P6.
Korg Midi Keyboard
Korg Midi keyboard with DAW Control
This one is very interesting. The keyboard features a X-Y pad and offers integration with all major DAW’s. Doing some research I could not find any indication that the integration goes deeper than mixer and transport controls. It’s not guaranteed that when you fire up a soft synth for example you can control it’s main parameters out of the box. With the Nektar keyboards the parameters are mapped out without any effort from your part. No word about this in case of the Korg Taktile. If the parameters are not mapped already, you have to manually assign them (sigh).
Aka Professional midi keyboards with DAW Control
Akai Professional MPK225 Compact Keyboard Controller
The Akai MPK keyboards are around like forever. In the meantime they got some competition. The MPK keyboards get very good reviews in general (aftertouch!).
This new development of the MPK line of keyboards are reported to have better MPC style drumpads that the previous version.
Presets for most DAW’s are available. When reading the setup instructions on the AKAI website, I have the impression that automatic integration with DAW’s doesn’t go further than transport controls and the mixer. I am under the impression that soft synths controls will have to be mapped manually…
Especially the 25 keys version defies the term portable.
The controller / keyboard comes also in a 49 keys version and a 61 keys version.
M-Audio midi keyboards with DAW Control
The M-Audio midi keyboards have been around for a long time. Reviews for these keyboards are mixed bag. The majority of users are quite happy, only few have less stellar experiences.
Most complaints are from Protools Windows users and users with an older Windows (pre-Windows 7) version. If you have a more recent operating system or a Mac you shouldn’t have these problems.
The M-Audio Oxygen Keyboards are at their 4th generation and are available in 3 configurations: 25, 49 and 61 keys. They belong to the cheaper keyboard range.
A free copy of Ableton Live Lite is provided and you get 2 virtual synths/ romplers to get you started sound-wise: SONiVOX TWIST (synth) and AIR Music Tech Xpand!2 (rompler).
M-Audio Axiom Midi keyboards
The M-Audio Axiom keyboards are a step up from the Oxygen range. One of the biggest differences is the semi-wighted keyboard (the Oxygen series feature a synth style keyboard). The direct link system also enables you to control soft synth parameters or DAW mixer channels at the flick of a switch.
As usual 3 versions are available. 25, 49 and 61 keys.
M-Audio Axiom Air Midi Keyboards
UPDATE: I have read through a lot of reviews on this keyboard and I can not really recommend it.
Issues users are experiencing:
Keyboard “freezing”. Keyboard crashes and a restart is needed to function again.
Rotary controls erratic behavior: difficult to predict what value you end up with.
Drum pads response delay.
Not all DAW’s supported. Users report slow and/ or not helpful support and slow driver updates.
The Axiom Air range has a much more futuristic look than the normal Axiom range. They also feature a bigger display, but come with synth-action keys. These are reported to be an improvement.
The hypercontrol software also functions a but differently/ better than with the Axiom series. You can mix midi CC functions with hypercontrol functionality.
The usual offering of free software and plugins package applies. One difference: with certain models you get a copy of Protools Express. I guess this is a leftover from the M-Audio/ Avid connection. It’s worth checking in front if you get Protools express or Ableton Live Lite if that matters to you.
M-Audio Code series Midi Keyboards/ Controllers
The latest offering from M-Audio is the Code series of midi keyboards. They look compelling enough and boast 16 drum pads besides the usual controllers. I couldn’t find a word on automatic DAW controller assignment. It’s a drag if you have to assign controllers manually.
The keys are semi-weighted.
Includes Ableton Live Lite and Hybrid 3.0 and Loom by AIR Music Technology.
M-Audio Code 25
This concludes this choosing a midi keyboard article for the time being. I will update as time permits. If you have a remark or if you spotted an error, please comment below. You can also subscribe to the newsletter below if you want to get updates on this article or the site! Thanks for reading.