What are the main elements of a keyboard controller?
Simply put, a keyboard controller is meant to mimic some of the piano functions with piano or synth-style keys. In addition, these machines, generally incorporate various knobs, buttons, and sliders. In brief, all of these elements, when they are connected to your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) transmit data in order to enable you to control certain functions of your virtual instruments (software synthesizers or effects VST’s/Audio Units).
The main limitation of MIDI keyboards comes from the fact that they don’t have any internal sound-generating capabilities. Therefore, without computers or hardware synthesizers, they are like empty vessels. Some MIDI keyboards come with a more complete set of functions. Top panels may (or not) include supplementary knobs, sliders or buttons if basis parameters are insufficient. That being said, there are really basic MIDI keyboards (M-Audio Keystation 49) and more complex ones (Nektar Panorama or the Novation Launchkey).
Additionally, the MIDI keyboard is great for real-time control over the synth’s modifiable functions such as the filter cutoff, resonance, amp envelope, etc. Providing a genuine touch, the interactive mapping technology is the one that will allow you to assign certain functions of the synthesizer you want to tweak to the buttons, knobs or faders of your midi controller. This mapping technology can sometimes be automatic. Nonetheless, most of the time, this is not the case. For example, in Sylenth1 (a very popular software synthesiser), you need to manually map the tweakable settings you are planning to use.
Are the number of keys on a MIDI keyboard an important consideration?
It all depends on your needs. Options are extensive today with 25, 49, 61 or even 88-keys MIDI keyboards. Needs and possibilities can be symbolised by:
- The space in your studio
- How you play the piano (single or two-handed), if you want to do keyboard splits (range mapping)
- Requirement to perform live with your MIDI keyboard.
Our advice would be:
- If you are not a beginner, you should get (at least) a 61-key.
- Conversely, if you’re a beginner or only need a MIDI keyboard for you home studio setup, a 25-key and 49-key should best the option.
- Nevertheless, if you are a piano player (like me) and you enjoy having several octaves, and playing complex harmonies, you should definitely get a 49-key keyboard at least.
What is aftertouch? Is it a necessary feature?
Most of the time it is high-end MIDI controllers that feature this function. Not very popular, when discovered, this feature can add a lot of expressiveness to your playing style and compositions. Briefly defined, aftertouch is a beneficial, efficient way to expressivity to your playing. Most of the best MIDI keyboards, which are featured, later on in our article don’t include this feature. Aftertouch, generally, comes in two different options, monophonic* (also called “channel aftertouch”) and polyphonic*:
1. Monophonic aftertouch functions with a “rail” that can be activated by any key, sending an overall average MIDI value for all the keys which are pressed.
2. Polyphonic aftertouch enables you to vary a given parameter independently on each note. This parameter takes into account the amount of pressure which is applied to a key. The reasons behind its absence on a great number of MIDI keyboards are:
a. That it is extremely expensive to be manufactured.
b. It generates an extensive amount of MIDI information.
c. It requires a playing sensibility by the player to take full advantage of its potential.
What are the most important features when buying a MIDI keyboard?
In the first section of this article, we have mentioned some important questions to consider when you are buying a MIDI keyboard. In brief, considerations which should cross your mind are the available space in your studio, the usage you will make of your MIDI keyboard, how you play the keyboard, the portability of the device, the features which are included and your piano playing capabilities. For example, if the piano is your first choice instrument, we recommend a 61-key keyboard even though a 49-key could be sufficient for some users. If you are a guitarist, a (25-key) or don’t have an extensive musical background, a 25-key is more than enough to begin with. Without further ado, here is our list of the best midi keyboards on today’s market…
REVIEWS: BEST MIDI KEYBOARDS | TOP 5
- overall rating 80%
Pros & Cons
As opposed to the previously featured product, the Novation Launchkey 49 is a keyboard controller which is aimed at more advanced musicians. The design of this MIDI keyboard is rather simplistic but more resistant and solidly constructed than some lower tier models. The Launchkey 49 comes in black but keeps a cheap, velocity sensitive synth-style keyboard. However, you have the choice to go with a 49-key, 25-key or 61-Key model. Similarly to the MPK Mini MK II, this controller offers 16 full-color RGB backlit velocity-sensitive drum pads. Moreover, 8 pad knobs are featured. As opposed to a lot of entry-level products, this MIDI keyboard provides additional elements in the box. Importantly, the user will get a limited version of the very user-friendly Ableton Live 9.
Useful octave up and down buttons, allowing you to go either two octaves up or down, and transpose buttons. Unfortunately, to use an arpeggiator with this product, you need to download an additional software. Facilitating the process, this device works straight out of the box without necessitating any additional drivers on Mac or PC. With this device, the user will also get 6 dedicated transport controls, 9 siders. Moreover, a pitch bend and modulation wheel are also featured. Truly intuitive with your workstation, the 8 mute/solo buttons and a toggle button allow you to listen to all the elements of your track at the same too, or only the ones that really matter to you.
- overall rating 80%
Pros & Cons
At the crossroad of the previous two products, the Akai MPK249 is specifically aimed at both more advanced musicians and travelers. Build with qualitative and solid components, this product comes in a pleasing black finish. The keyboard action type is a semi-weighted and features full-size keys which provide pressure sensitivity. Thus, the feel is much more satisfying. Moreover, a very rare feature such as aftertouch is featured on this MIDI keyboard. The MPK249 comes in 49, but also 25 Key and 61-Key versions. More complete than the Akai MPK Mini MKII, the MPK 249 comes with 16 pressure and velocity-sensitive pads. Additionally, 8 control knobs and 8 faders with 8 backlit switches are built in.
Once again, as if with the Akai MPK Mini MKII, Hybrid 3 or SONiVOX Twist 2.0 are featured. Notwithstanding, this time a constrained version (lite) of Ableton Live, a valuable version of the Akai Pro MPC Essentials (downloadable) and “Vip 3.0”, all add an additional weight to the purchase of the product. A built-in arpeggiator is also part of the device. The USB powered machine also allows a plug-and-play connectivity. Octave up and down buttons allow you to juggle between 10 octaves. If the computer connectivity is USB powered, this time it is a 5-pin MIDI input & output which is featured. Additional controls features include the “MPC Note Repeat”, the “MPC” Swing, tap tempo, and time division which were present on the emblematic Akai MPC.
- overall rating 85%
Pros & Cons
If you are a beginner or traveler, the Akai MPK Mini MKII will probably suit you best. Following up on the very successful Akai MPK Mini, this model uses the strengths of its predecessor while implementing convincing novelties. In terms of build quality and design, we must say there hasn’t been much of an evolution. The most noticeable change is the implementation of an interesting thumbstick. In addition, you will get 25 velocity-sensitive synth-action keys. Keys are not top-notch quality, nonetheless, it’s the multi-functionality of this device that makes up for the absence of more higher range components. This MIDI keyboard is original in the sense that it also implements true controller functions.
Inspired by the legendary “Akai MPC”, 8 pressure and velocity sensitive pads are present. Lighting up when the device is plugged in, these pads are an asset if you are planning to record drums. Furthermore, 8 assignable potentiometers are included. The intriguing thumbtack allows the user to control dynamic pitch and overseeing modulation inside his software. Besides, rather useful softwares such as Akai Pro MPC Essentials, SONiVOX Wobble, and Hybrid 3 are included. As with the original “Akai MPK Mini”, the user will be able to make good use of a very easily usable arpeggiator. 4 different programmes can be found in this device. Two octaves up and down buttons are also available. Finally, it’s important to mention that the controller comes with a note repeat button, full level button, tap tempo button.
- overall rating 85%
Pros & Cons
The Novation Impulse is a product which we would definitely advise to more advanced musicians who need a keyboard for their home studio. Coming in a 49 key version (also available in 25-Key and 61-Key versions), this keyboard features a note velocity sensitive piano style keyboard which provides the user with an aftertouch feature. If from the outside, this is a sort of inferior imitation to a Moog hardware synthesizer of the 1980s, the keys are definitely synth styled semi-weighted keys. Nonetheless, the design is classy, solid and displays an appealing black finish. This MIDI controller also features 8 multi-color large backlit velocity-sensitive drum pads, which are rather solid and will provide a beat maker with a good basis. If this is not enough, your creative muse will definitely be stimulated by pad knobs and multiple well constructed and useful faders.
An arpeggiator which features tap tempo and roll is also provided. As with a lot of MIDI keyboards, this one is totally bus powered and is functioning with your computer (MAC/PC) without the installation of any supplementary software drivers. It is also worth mentioning that there are 8 endless encoders with infinite rotation, 9 sliders (for 49-key and 61-key versions), 6 dedicated transport controls, pitch bend modulation wheels and so much other particularities which make this product stand out on the MIDI keyboard market. To see all included accessories, click on the view more button below. In terms of other features, one gets access to the entrance (lite) level version of Ableton Live 9.
- overall rating 80%
Pros & Cons
Focusing on the requirements of performing musicians or conventional composer which use Ableton, the “Akai APC 25” is the MIDI keyboard which is aimed at more professional musicians, people that need a lot of features, and which don’t want an entrance level MIDI controller. As with many Akai products, the keyboard comes in a black finish. Overall, the product is resistant enough to tear and wear and can be described as being solidly built. Nonetheless, the keyboard action type that is featured can be considered as rather ingenuine and cheap synth-action mini keys. It is important to mention this detail in the sense that some piano players can’t support this uncomfortable feeling. Coming with 25 keys, and 40 tri-color LED pads, and 8 knobs, the internal capabilities of this seemingly peculiar device are truly astonishing and meet the requirements of the all modern ‘music-maker’.
Similarly to a lot of Akai products in the same range, the user gets some really handy software such as the Akai Pro VIP3.0, Ableton Lite Live, Hybrid 3, and finally the very valuable “SONiVOX Twist / Toolroom artist launch packs”. There is also an octave up and down buttons function which permits the user to juggle around his lead, base, or chord notes. The APC 25 is fully powered by a USB jack cable and, therefore, doesn’t necessitate any power adapter (Mac and PC compatible). Furthermore, quite amusingly for this type of product, 4 VST effects can be assigned per instrument channel.
More MIDI Keyboard Considerations
1. How did electronic keyboards become mainstream?
As explained earlier, the rise of computers made MIDI keyboards a necessity in order to control software functions. Indeed, it is much easier and logical to assign certain (memorised) functions to an external keyboard, than spending countless hours tweaking a software synthesiser with your mouse. Notwithstanding, there was another more practical reason behind the rising popularity of MIDI keyboards.
MIDI and USB connectivity between a computer and a MIDI keyboard.
Accordingly, during the 1980s, the desire was to allow live performers to have a more accessible way to control the outcoming sounds of several synthesisers from a single source. In present days, the flexibility of these products has allowed them to be not only used by live performers but also by music producers with laptops, studio musicians or even sound designers.
Flume’s live performance setup
If we can summarise the qualities of a MIDI keyboard in two words, it would be versatility and portability. This implies that their (most of the time) small size allows you to take them anywhere with you whilst enabling you to control most of the contemporary music hardware and software.
2. How can you use a Keyboard Controller in Live Performance?
As explained earlier, the mainstream arrival of MIDI keyboards on the market coincided with the necessity to use a source which would allow the musician to take control over several synthesisers from a single keyboard. Linking your controller to your laptop, and/or synthesisers and effect processors can genuinely extend creative options. Today, it is not impossible that a DJ also decides to implement a MIDI keyboard in his live setup.
3. What are keyboard action types and why are they important?
Keyboard action corresponds to the way keys respond when the musician is playing. Generally, MIDI keyboards are not known for their authentic feel when it comes to keys. However, some more high-range keyboards or synthesisers offer a more genuine touch. The user has to determine whether he is feeling comfortable with a given controller, on stage or in his studio. This choice is not be considered lightly, knowing that a MIDI keyboard can have a direct effect on your creativity and productivity and hamper down the very amusing part that is music creation.
1. Weighted Hammer Action
The first option entails realistic piano characteristics. This process is not as easy as it seems, since a controller does not possess any strings or hammers. Different methods are used to emulate a piano’s actions. The weighted hammer action includes the application of weights or springs to mimic a true piano feel. Some manufacturers include a hammer action to make the touch really close to a real-life piano. If you are a pianist, or the piano is the main instrument you use when creating/playing music, the weighted hammer-action keyboard is probably the best option for you.
2. Semi-weighted Action
3. Synth Action
The synth-action keyboard is probably the “cheapest feeling” option on the market. The keys of this keyboard are very light and return to their position much faster. In some circumstances, this can be desired. For example, when fast piano parts (such as lead lines or arpeggios) must be played. Synth actions are most suited for musicians who are not pianists. Very often, it is this option that accompanies “mini MIDI controllers” which are easily portable on the road and, thus, make for great travel companions.
MIDI keyboards come in different shapes and with varying specificities. Nonetheless, in the end, they possess similar general characteristics. They allow you to record notes through MIDI transmission. We have tried our best to compile the best MIDI keyboards on today’s market. But, keep in mind the fact that no product is perfect. In the end, there is no “best MIDI keyboard”. There will always be advantages and disadvantages. The most important thing to keep in mind is to consider what your true needs are. Notwithstanding, you will certainly not make a mistake if you choose a MIDI keyboard from the ones we carefully handpicked for you in this review.