The Best MIDI Keyboards – October 2018
When MIDI keyboards burst onto the recording scene, they truly revolutionized the industry. Before MIDI (which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface), artists and producers were forced to use and record either actual pianos, or set up a long chain of adapters in order to route the signal from a traditional (and oftentimes terrible-sounding) keyboard onto their primary recording interface.
And it wasn’t just the subcategory of piano and keyboard recording that was revolutionized. MIDI keyboards allow you to trigger an almost limitless number of tones on your computer—ranging from the most realistic acoustic piano simulations to the most far-fetched EDM sounds imaginable. MIDI can even be used to trigger effects, time changes, dynamic shifts, and much more.
The only downside to the immense popularity of MIDI keyboards and controllers is that there’s a virtually limitless number to choose from. Depending on your budget and studio needs, you can find everything from MIDI controllers that resemble full-sized keyboards, to small, one-octave trigger consoles that you can take with you on the go.
Instead of focussing on just one type of MIDI keyboard, we’ve compiled a list of the best and most affordable MIDI interfaces across a wide range of styles and price points. For this reason, please take our numbered rankings with a grain of salt. For instance, our number one pick may not be right for someone who’s only looking for a portable controller to trigger their sample library. With that caveat in mind, enjoy the list.
When we said it was possible to find a MIDI keyboard that resembled a full-sized piano keyboard, we weren’t kidding. Although you can certainly find slightly more realistic MIDI pianos at much higher price points, you’d be hard pressed to find one that’s much better than the Yamaha P125 in terms of feel, functionality, and portability.
Any piano player will tell you that one of the most important variables in choosing a MIDI keyboard is key feel. Most low-end and budget MIDI controllers don’t have weighted keys, meaning there’s little-to-no resistance when you press down. The P125, on the other hand, has keys that are strikingly reminiscent of traditional piano keys, and the player is able to obtain an enormous amount of sonic subtly with each press.
This comes very much in handy if you’re trying to play classical piano, in which case dynamics and subtly reign supreme. It’s also helpful if you’re working in a more cinematic genre, where you need quick and nimble control over sudden shifts in string or orchestral volume. These keys also feature GHS weighted action—meaning the lower keys are actually heavier than the higher keys, just like in an acoustic piano.
Along with a full set of fully-weighted, full-sized keys, this keyboard features a pure CF sound engine that faithfully reproduces the tone of the acclaimed Yamaha 9’ CFIIS Concert Grant piano, with a tempo range of 5-280. But remember, the tone that comes out of the actual keyboard itself won’t even matter if you’re plugged into an audio program on your computer, since you’ll be able to trigger a limitless number of sounds obtained either by your DAW (such as Pro Tools or Ableton) or third-party plugins.
The P125 also features USB to host connectivity with MIDI and audio transfer, which is music to the ears of anyone who’s wrestled with In/Out MIDI configurations in the past. The P125’s setup means you can either connect directly to your computer’s USB port, or with a single MIDI cable that handles both directions of “traffic”. The setup is easier, and the hassle of setting up multiple cables and configuring intermediate sound modules is virtually eliminated.
The only downside to this amazing keyboard is that the included sustain pedal is a tad underwhelming. Whereas traditional sustain pedals (for instance those you would find on an acoustic piano) offer different levels of sustain depending on how far down your foot goes, this peddle is really all or nothing. But don’t worry, there are plenty of individual and far more realistic sustain peddles on the market you can substitute.
Now, in order to illustrate the extreme range of MIDI keyboard styles (and to satisfy readers who may not be looking to play Mozart or Bach in their spare time), we introduce to you the incredible compact Novation Launchkey. Don’t let its small size fool you. This little keyboard comes packed with a variety of powerful and innovative features that make it ideal for the on-the-go producer or beat-maker.
You won’t find the Yamaha P125’s weighted keys here, but for most producers (especially those who are interested primarily in electronic music) that’s not a problem. These producers are mainly interested in triggering samples in their DAW, and prefer to have a range of simple knobs and additional buttons that can be used to manipulate tone and program drum beats on the fly.
With 25 notes and 16 multi-colored backlit velocity-sensitive drum pads, this MIDI controller was crafted primarily with Ableton producers in mind, although it’s equally well-suited for practically any DAW or desktop production interface.
There are eight knobs that can be tied to a virtually limitless number of functions (ranging from pitch manipulation and tone shifting to fades and live transitions) and the included software works equally well on Mac and PC systems.
This controller lets you quickly build incredibly dynamic beats, control instruments on the fly, and add expressive effects like reverb and filters to any mix—all without having to spend time on swapping controllers or reconfiguring outputs.
Since there are plenty of on-board knobs and buttons, this intrepid controller is especially well-suited for live performance, since sonics and tracks can be adjusted and manipulated with the twist of a finger or the push of a pad.
If at first glance the Alesis V49 resembles somewhat of a middle ground between the Yamaha P125 and the Novation Launchkey, it’s because it combines many of the individual features that make these two keyboards great.
Available in 25-, 49-, and 61-key variations, this keyboard has a far more realistic piano feel than the Novation Launchkey, while maintaining some (although not all) of its added knob and pad functionality.
Of course the only relative downsize to this hybrid MIDI keyboard/controller is that it loses most of the portability that makes the Novation Launchkey so popular among traveling live performers, but it more than makes up for it with feel.
Each of the keys on this board are full-sized, and each features adjustable sensitivity—meaning you’ll be able to adjust the feel and resistance of the keys based on your personal preference or the project at hand.
There are 8 LED-backlit drum trigger pads that respond to both velocity and pressure (which is important for most beat-makers who want to have each sample triggered with varying intensity) and the 4 knobs are fully assignable to a limitless number of functions in both your DAW and on the console itself. There’s even an input for a sustain pedal if you want to add even more nuance to your tones.
The V series is also bundled with Ableton Live Lite 9—a powerful piece of software ideal for beginning and aspiring producers who want to become well-versed with the industry’s leading production platform without breaking the bank.
Next, we bring you the Arturia KeyStep—a tiny yet mighty MIDI controller that packs a surprising amount of punch for what appears to be a fairly simple gadget. The main reason why this keyboard is priced slightly higher than similar-sized controllers is that its keys are noticeably more realistic. Thanks to velocity and aftertouch technology, each key feels far more realistic and responsive than those on cheaper models, and you’ll be able to play with far more nuance if you’re looking for more than just a basic trigger.
There are tempo and rate controls built into the console itself (a welcome functionality addition for those who are constantly trying to sync various tracks and beats in vain), and there’s even a sequencer and arpeggiator Sustain Hold button that can be used to elongate notes and keep tones coming long after your finger as released the key.
This portable keyboard works as a handy controller for both digital and analogue devices, and you’ll be able to manipulate pitch, tempo, tone, and much more through the on-board touch controls.
The keys are slim (as opposed to the full-size keys found on some of the other models on this list), but again, that may in fact be a desirable attribute for musicians and producers who are looking more for a portable live controller than a full-fledged acoustic simulator.
This is a truly incredible machine, and those who are looking for a (relatively) portable MIDI keyboard that emulates the look and feel of a more traditional, full-sized keyboard should take notice. With 88, full-sized, semi-weighted keys, this keyboard is ideal for playing anything from pop to Bach, and of course it acts as a pristine sample controller as well.
It features an adjustable touch response that allows you to fine-tune your playing experience to match any familiar acoustic piano, and you’ll be able to practice and perform using five meticulously curated voices—each of which acts as a surprisingly accurate representation of a real-life piano. You’ll even be able to combine two voices at once in order to create unique tones.
This keyboard is also ideal for beginner pianists, since it includes a three-month premium subscription to the renewed Skoove interactive online piano lessons. These lessons provide feedback while you play, and help you develop a repertoire based on your individual preferences.
But most importantly, this keyboard is fun to play. The keys are light yet expressive, and USB connectivity means you can bypass MIDI all together and plug straight into your computer with minimal-to-no setup.
This is also one of the very few full-size keyboards that allows itself to be powered by 6 D batteries—meaning that if you need to perform or practice where no power source is available, you’re good to go.
Rounding out our list is the Worlde Panda. Although definitely built with beat-makers and DJs in mind, this compact controller is one of the most versatile and feature-laden keyboards at this low price point. We wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who’s looking to recreate the playing experience of an acoustic concert grand, but it definitely does the trick for quick, on-the-go programming.
There are eight trigger pads with velocity sensitivity, each of which is assignable to a limitless number of functions in your DAW, and quite a few functions on the controller itself. The four knobs are also fully assignable, and feature four individual banks for different, user-programmed settings.
You also won’t have to worry about traditional MIDI connections here, since a single USB interface gets the job done without any hassle. And most importantly, you won’t need an additional power supply, since all the necessary power comes from the USB itself.