MIDI keyboards and controllers have relevance to all musicians, simply because all musicians have the potential to find themselves, to one degree or another, in a situation where they are producing music. A MIDI keyboard is one of the most basic tools you would be using in that scenario.
And the best keyboard for music production doesn't necessarily have to be the most expensive. Thus, I've put together this list based on value and contextual need. In other words, I'm looking for the most quality and usefulness at the lowest possible price.
Here's what I've come up with:
If I could pick one...
BOTTOM LINE: I like the MPK Mini by Akai because it's inexpensive, universally compatible (via a USB connection) and really easy to use. As someone who focuses on another instrument (guitar) and only uses additional sounds intermittently, this keyboard is perfect for adding effects and manipulating software on my Macbook as needed.
1. Akai MPK Mini (MPII)
This keyboard is, by a wide margin, the #1 best-selling MIDI keyboard on Amazon and is consistently recommended by the music production community. Part of its value is seen in the cost which hovers in the two-figure retail range, while used options can dip significantly lower than retail. While it does come with its own downloadable software package, the direct USB connection works with any recording software or digital DAW that you might want to throw at it.
Direct USB connection from an Akai MPK mini keyboard to a Macbook. (View Larger Image)
Features include eight different drum pads, octave controls, the direct USB connection, 25 keys and a multi-directional joystick for pitch and modulation control. For basic music production needs the MPII covers everything, making it an ideal fit for any skill level or production environment. Since it's so small, and runs a straightforward interface, I like it a lot for live environments and settings where you just need to add intermittent sound effects through a device that's easily portable.
Once again you have a direct USB connection, meaning you don't have to worry about any MIDI cables or USB interfaces. Instead, just plug straight from the keyboard into your computer with the provided USB cable. Additionally, you have some key options:
- 25 Keys
- 49 Keys
- 61 Keys
A 61-key version of the Oxygen from M-Audio. (View Larger Image)
Those with a stronger piano background might opt for a version with more keys, since it may feel more comfortable for them and allow them to use the Oxygen more as a fully functional keyboard or piano.
Those who intend to use it more in the context of complimenting another instrument, or just adding effects, can save money with the 25-key version.
Other Features and Price
You have eight knobs that can be assigned for mixing and manipulating sounds, along with a built-in fader for further aid in mixing.
A closeup of the controls. (View Larger Image)
Like the Akai board there are eight drum pads and plus/minus octave controls.
Though it retails around in the low three figures the Oxygen's used pricing dips down into the mid two-digits, just like the MKII. While there isn't a lot of feature distinction between the two keyboards, the Oxygen does give you the choice of an expanded key count. If that's important to you, one way or the other, this board is the better option.
This keyboard was designed with the Ableton Live software in mind. However, that does not mean that it won't work with most other DAW software suites as well.
Here's how Novation advertises it:
The Launckey 49 works "especially" well with Ableton. (View Larger Image)
Like the other keyboards we've looked at, it has a direct USB connection that makes it easy to setup and program with most any type of music production software. At the same time, I'd be remiss not to emphasize that it's particularly ideal for those that happen to already own Ableton Live.
The Ableton compatibility is highlighted in the above graphics. (View Larger Image)
Integration with Ableton is extremely quick and intuitive. Further, software graphics in Ableton will actually correspond to the knobs and buttons that are available on the keyboard, making assignment of functionality far easier.
Other Features and Pricing
The 49-note version of this keyboard is the most popular, though you can get smaller or larger ones depending on your preference. 16 pads (colored) and eight control knobs give you a wealth of manipulation options, along with the sliders on the left side of the keyboard.
Note that your purchase includes the following software:
- A Lite Version of Ableton Live
- Novation Bass Station
- V-Station Virtual Instruments
You also get a 4GB collection of production-ready samples from Loopmasters via an included download card. This is the most complete keyboard of the three we've looked at so far and certainly an easy choice for Ableton Live users, if not any serious music producer.
4. Alesis VX49
The Alesis V series keyboards give you a ton of different options, both in terms of pricing and features. Between two different categories, sizes and styles, you have seven different purchasing options and combinations.
They include the following:
- 25 Keys
- 49 Keys
- 61 Keys
- Color screen
In other words, you can go from the monstrosity I pictured in the banner photo, to this:
A closer look at the Alesis V Mini keyboard. (Shop the Alesis V Mini)
The Mini pictured above retails in the high two-digit range while the color screen-equipped 49-key version jumps up significantly higher. This means that the V series is designed to fit a wide variety of contexts and budgets, giving you every opportunity to get the features you might want or to omit those you don't want to pay for.
As a guitarist who only uses a synth and MIDI keyboard to add complimentary effects, I'd opt for the V Mini.
Most of the V series boards come with both MIDI and USB ports, as well as a TRS input for an expression pedal control. Octave controls, pitch modulation wheels (on the larger models) and drum pads are also included.
Alesis throws in software download cards, if you don't have (or don't want to use) your own DAW.
One feature you get with the Impulse that I really like is responsive, weighted keys that feel much more like an actual piano. This makes it an excellent choice for those who might be used to an acoustic piano or a more natural-feeling keyboard, intending to use it more so in the context of a piano player or performer.
The system includes software that helps you quickly map controls to your DAW and start producing music. Once it's setup, you have all the expected MIDI keyboard features to work with:
As a bonus, you get an LED screen that helps you keep track of your plugins and DAW settings. It's one of the more comfortable and intuitive MIDI keyboards on the market right now.
Other Features and Pricing
Like the Novation Launchkey, the Impluse comes packaged with Ableton Live Lite, Novations Bass Station Synth and the Loopmasters sample pack.
It's also worth mentioning that the drum pads are multi-functional, allowing you to launch clips (if you're using Ableton) in addition to their expected beat rolling and click tracks.
The 49-key version's retail price is usually just modestly higher than the used options. There's also 25 and 61 key versions of the Impulse available.
Most of the software options we've mentioned so far are high-priced, studio-quality music production packages.
However, there are plenty "lite" versions of these and some worthwhile free MIDI-controllable software that might be worth a look, if you don't have a DAW that you routinely rely on.
We mentioned Garageband, which ships free with any Mac computer.
Otherwise, here are a few I'd recommend checking out.
The lite version of FL Studio
The trial version of FL Studio has some saving limitations, though it's still totally capable of allowing you to produce sounds and tinker with plugins as much as you want.
You can download the trial version of FL Studio here from a few different sources.
Both Mac and Windows will run FL Studio 12 without issue.
PreSonus Studio One 3 Prime
The Studio One software suite by PreSonus is a professional grade product that's priced accordingly.
However, Studio One Prime is a solid free version of the software, that gives you the following features:
- Single window environment with drag/drop functionality
- Unlimited audio and MIDI tracks, buses and FX channels
- Presence XT sampler with sound library
- Nine native effects (Ampire, Beat Delay, Chorus, MixVerb)
The RAM recommendation is pretty high at eight GB, though it should run okay with four, supporting both Windows and Mac environments.
You can download Studio One 3 Prime here.
Unlike most of the other DAW software on this list, SoundTrap is entirely web based and works only in the Chrome browser.
While there's a premium version, the free version gives you plenty of room to work, while upgrading unlocks other instrument sounds and loops.
All MIDI devices and keyboards will work with the software as well.
Assuming you've downloaded Chrome, you can create a free account and access the software here.
What is a MIDI keyboard and what is it used for?
MIDI keyboards, also sometimes called "MIDI controllers," do not play sounds on their own. I would surmise that if you're in the market for one, you already know this.
However, it's prudent to outline the purpose and design all the same.
MIDI keyboards are used to control sounds in another device or piece of software.
For example, you might use a MIDI keyboard via a USB connection to control sounds or samples in a piece of synth software on your computer or you DAW of choice like Ableton Live, GarageBand or FL Studio.
You could also use it to control units like synth modules that don't have their own keyboard. The Moog Minitaur is a good example of one such unit.
A close look at the Moog Minitaur bass synthesizer, which needs to be controlled via a MIDI keyboard. (Shop This Device)
What sounds can you make?
The exact sounds and samples that you'll be able to take advantage of will depend both on the MIDI keyboard you select and the software or module that it might be paired with.
However, most USB compatible MIDI keyboards will work with any music production software.
Some of the most common DAW software packages includes the following:
A lot of MIDI keyboards, like the Akai MPK Mini, come with their own software suite and sound banks.
The Akai MPK mini music production MIDI keyboard. (View Larger Image)
Generally speaking, the most typical sounds that you'll be able to utilize are variations of the following:
- Electronic drums
- Drum kit loop samples
- Organ samples
- Electronic keyboard
- Synthesizer waves
Thus, MIDI keyboards can be used either in the studio for producing music or in a live setting to add samples, backing tracks or additional sound effects.
All of the keyboards in this list can work in either role.
With their functionality covered, how do we go about finding the right features and a good "fit?"
There are some variables we can highlight from the beginning.
What to look for in a MIDI keyboard
While connection and software compatibility is usually not a major issue (more on that below) there are some other variables to consider before hitting the BUY button.
Keep in mind that most MIDI keyboards and controllers can serve either in a studio or performance environment.
Further considerations include the following:
- Your budget
- Number of keys you want/need
- Extra controls
Your budget should dictate how you handle prioritizing certain keyboards. Yet, setting your budget is going to be surprisingly flexible, since you can get MIDI keyboards for as low as $30 or as high as several thousand.
Most of the top selling keyboards go in the $90 to $400 range.
Things like size, number of keys (some MIDI keyboards have a much smaller number of keys) and additional controls should all be considered in an examination of features.
Your final task before buying is to make sure you know exactly how a MIDI keyboard works and how to set one up.
Let's cover a basic Mac or PC configuration.
Connecting a MIDI Keyboard to a Mac or PC
Most of the MIDI controllers and keyboards (especially the newer ones) will have a USB port that you'll use to connect directly to your laptop or computer tower, just like you would a printer or scanner.
Setting up a MIDI keyboard without a USB connection usually involves the following components:
- MIDI cable
- USB interface
You'll run the MIDI cable from the back of your keyboard, the MIDI "out" port, into the MIDI "in" port on the back of your USB interface.
From there, you'll plug your USB interface into your computer and turn on your keyboard.
Connecting a MIDI keyboard to your laptop through a USB interface. (View Larger Image)
The USB audio interface would be something like the PreSonus Audiobox, which allows you to connect a MIDI device that bridges a connection between that device and your laptop via USB.
Once again, encase you missed this in the above paragraph:
IMPORTANT: If your keyboard has its own USB port (which all of the boards listed here do) you can bypass the audio interface.
Otherwise, purchasing one (if you don't already own one) will be necessary.
Front and back of the PreSonus AudioBox USB interface with MIDI ports. (View Larger Image)
Whether or not you want to spring for the extra money to purchase a USB audio interface should impact your keyboard selection, in that you'd do well to avoid keyboards that only support a MIDI connection.
Again, almost all of them do support their own USB connection, though it's always worth checking if a straight USB line is a deal breaker.
Particularly if you buy used, some of the older versions may still be refusing to get on board.
Other Music Production-Related Content
- Record Guitar into GarageBand or Audacity: How to send a guitar signal to two of the most popular free recording software suites.
- Best USB Microphone Roundup: A collection of our favorite plug-and-play USB microphones.
- Connection your Guitar to a Computer: Four step guide to connecting a guitar to either a Mac or Windows machine for recording.
- Best Headphones for Guitar: Rounding up our favorite headphones to pair with a guitar and amplifier.
- Best Cheap Studio Monitors: A roundup of our favorite studio monitors under $500, both active and passive.
- Best Laptops for Music Production: Notebooks and laptops we like for handling the heavy demands of DAWs and recording software.
- Cheap Headphones for Music Production: Rounding up our favorite headphones to pair with music production software.
- Guitar Rack System Basics: How to set up a signal processing chain in a rackmounted system instead of a pedalboard.
- Wireless PA System Guide: A roundup of PA systems that are either paired with or include a wireless mic system
- Church PA System Guide: Setting up a PA system for a small to mid-sized congregation.
- Music Production Windows PC: Building a Windows PC that can handle all the heavy lifting of music production software and DAWs.
Have a MIDI keyboard setup you use for music production?
Drop a description in the comments section so the community can benefit.
Thanks for the read.
Flickr Commons Image via Crnewbedford