For anyone looking to make and mix music using their computer, a MIDI keyboard is almost essential. But with a bewildering array of models available, choosing the best one to meet your needs can be confusing.
That’s where our buying guide comes in! We’re going to take a look at seven of the best MIDI keyboards out there right now. We’ll check out their pros and cons, and look at the factors to consider before you make your final selection.
Akai’s MIDI keyboard controller, available in black, white or red, offers bags of functionality at a reasonable price.
It’s designed to be compact, so it’s easy to pack up and take from place to place. No drivers are required, and it’s conveniently powered by USB.
Its compact design has only 25 keys – but that needn’t restrict your range. The octave-up and octave-down buttons allow you to access the full melodic scale. Each key is velocity-sensitive.
A four-way thumbstick allows you to control pitch and modulation. There’s a built-in arpeggiator too. With this keyboard, you can also change the range, resolution and mode of your arpeggios.
It comes with eight MPC drum pads. These are backlit and velocity-sensitive, and offer note repeat and full level options. They’ll allow you to program drums, trigger pre-recorded samples and control virtual instruments or DAWs.
Also included is the MPC Production Experience, offering production tools and features from Akai’s Professional MPC Series. Use it to record and mix tracks, find any sound using three pro synth engines, edit samples, and more.
There are eight Q-Link knobs which you can assign as you choose. They’re great for tweaking plug-ins and mixing melodies.
You’ll get an impressive software package for either Mac or PC, offering no fewer than 1,400 sounds. As well as Akai’s Pro MPC Beats, this includes SONiVOX Wobble. That’s a grime synthesizer with two channels of spectral morphing synthesis with individual filtering, harmonics and LFO controls.
Also included is Hybrid 3. Download this high-def synth for the warm sound of analog synthesizers together with almost endless capabilities for digital manipulation.
The major challenge with this keyboard is the software installation. It is far from easy. You’ll need to read the manual carefully, and we’d recommend looking up online tutorials for extra help. Oddly, the best tutorials aren’t offered by the manufacturer, an issue Akai really should work on correcting.
The other issue here is the build quality. While this is certainly lightweight, it’s also rather flimsy. The plastic is very thin and flexes when the keys are pressed. This makes the keys vulnerable to snapping if you put a lot of pressure on them whilst playing.
Compact and easily portable
Eight Q-Link knobs and drum pads
The process for downloading the software is very complex
The keys have been known to snap off – this isn’t for the heavy-handed.
The VMini from Alesis is another good option for those who want a compact and portable keyboard. It’s small and light enough to fit easily into a suitcase, laptop case or backpack. It’s a good idea to keep it inside its box if you do that, though, to avoid putting any strain on the knobs.
It’s powered by USB, so you can use it anywhere. Like the Akai Mini, it has 25 keys with buttons to move up and down the octaves.
Other aspects of the design are simpler. Here, you’ll get four drum pads, rather than eight. They’re conveniently located to program drums and trigger clips. You’ll also get four assignable knobs. Both pads and knobs are backlit, so you’ll be able to see what you’re doing in a darkened studio.
The 25 mini keys are velocity-sensitive and expressive, with typical synthesizer action. In addition to the octave up and down buttons, there are others for pitch bend, sustain and modulation.
You won’t have to spend ages on a complicated set-up. The single USB connection to your PC or Mac is used for both MIDI functionality and power. And there are no drivers required before you can get started.
It comes with a suite of software including the First Alesis Edition of Pro Tools, Eleven Lite, DB-33, Mini Grand and Xpand!2. And it’s compatible with most DAWs.
You can manage presets for your hardware and software setup using the V-Mini Editor. The downloadable software allows you to configure your controller as you wish. We have, however, heard of some issues with the Editor being unable to change the sensitivity of the keys.
One other thing to be aware of with this one is that the keyboard is again rather flimsy. This seems to be the trade-off for its lightweight and portability. The keys are quite stiff too. You may find you need to press down on them harder than you’d like.
Lightweight and compact design means it’s easily portable
No drivers required
Comes with software including Pro Tools Eleven Lite and XPand!2
We’ve heard of some issues with the Editor software not working properly
M-Audio’s Mini 32 MIDI keyboard is less than two thirds the price of the Akai or Alesis mini models. So what do you get for your money?
Well, here there are 32 keys. They’re all mini-sized and velocity-sensitive, and have a nice, semi-weighted feel. (M-Audio also make models with 49 and 61 keys.)
It’s obviously a larger instrument than 25-key options, but the design remains simple and compact. And it’s light enough to be easily portable.
There are buttons to move up and down octaves, plus buttons for modulation and pitch bend. There’s also a sustain button, to give the effect of a sustain pedal on an acoustic piano. But while there’s a dial to adjust the volume, you won’t find any knobs or drum pads with this one.
It supports USB-MIDI connectivity and can also be connected to iOS using the Apple Lightning to USB camera adapter. You will, however, need to buy the adapter separately.
You’ll get a bunch of software too, though this is another case where you’ll need to download it. That means setting up a profile on M-Audio and registering your serial number. Once done, you’ll be able to access packages including Xpand!2, Ableton Live Lite, and Pro Tools First M-Audio Edition.
If connecting to a Mac, you’ll need an Intel Mac, Mac OS X 10.11 and at least 2GB of RAM. You’ll get better results with 4GB of RAM. For a PC, minimum system requirements are Windows 7 and an Intel Core 2 Duo 2 GHz processor. Again, you’ll need at least 2GB of RAM, and 4GB is recommended.
One thing to watch out for, though, is that it may not get enough power if plugged into some laptops. The issue seems to be with USB 3.0. Plugging it into a powered USB 2.0 hub usually sorts out the problem. That does, however, make it less portable than it would otherwise be.
The AKM320 from Midiplus is another 32-key model, with mini keys. It offers exceptional value for money, at a third of the price of the 25-key Akai. And at just 1.6 pounds, it’s a great option if you’re looking for a portable keyboard.
There is some compromise to be made when it comes to functionality. You won’t find any Q-Link knobs or drum pads on this keyboard. There are, however, wheels to adjust the pitch and modulation. And there are buttons to transpose the keyboard and to move up and down an octave.
There’s also an interface for a sustain switch, although a pedal isn’t included. The driver should load automatically, so you can plug in a USB cable and start playing straight away.
If you encounter any difficulties, the first thing to check is that cable. We’ve come across instances where the cable supplied with the keyboard has been faulty. Fortunately, that’s an easy and inexpensive problem to fix.
While the keys here are velocity-sensitive, it’s worth remembering that keyboard feel is very much an individual thing. Some people love the semi-weighted feel of these keys. For others, they’re stiff and unresponsive.
You won’t get many bells and whistles here, but at this price that’s hardly surprising. But if you’re looking for an entry-level MIDI keyboard, this is a good option. And it’s lightweight and slimline enough to make music on the go.
Excellent value 35-key controller
Weighs just 1.6 pounds
Controls for pitch, modulation, transpose and up and down octaves
Nektar IMPACT LX25+ is a great choice for those looking for a broader range of functionality. It sits at about the same price point as the Akai and Alesis keyboards. So how does it measure up?
Well, as the model name suggests, there are 25 synth-action keys here. They’re velocity-sensitive and, in this case, they’re also full size.
You can also choose between four different velocity curves, allowing you to pick one that suits your playing style. If you’ve found other keyboards too light or heavy, this is a great option.
It’s compatible with Windows, OSX or iOS operating systems. That means you can use it with either a PC, Mac or iPad. It will work with all MIDI music applications.
And it offers Nektar’s DAW integration. It connects up automatically, allowing it to function as a smart controller for eleven of the most popular DAWs. Use it to tweak your virtual instruments, mix music, and navigate through your projects without a mouse or trackpad.
The control center is impressive. There’s one 30-millimeter fader and eight control knobs. Each is fully programmable, and you can store the settings in up to five different pre-sets. That means you can control up to five different devices, not counting the DAW integration.
Pitch bend and modulation are controlled by two wheels, and there’s a port for a sustain pedal.
There are dedicated buttons for octave up and down, and to transpose the keyboard. It’s also possible to program the buttons to change other functions if required – for example, selecting your chosen pre-set.
There are eight backlit drum pads, to which you can assign your choice of sounds or MIDI notes. Activate the “Pad Learn” feature, choose a pad, then press a key to assign it. It’s as simple as that. You can save your settings in up to four different “Pad Maps”.
Set up is surprisingly straightforward. The keyboard is already mapped to DAW internal devices, and many popular instrument plug-ins are also pre-mapped. The instructions are, however, a little complicated for anyone just starting out with MIDI keyboards.
You get a huge amount of functionality here for a very modest outlay. If there is a trade-off, it’s in the build quality. This is a fairly lightweight keyboard, so think twice about taking it on the road. But used in the studio, it will be just fine.
Bags of functionality for a very modest price
Choice of four velocity curves to suit your playing style
Pre-mapped to 11 DAWs and many popular instrument plug-ins for easy set-up
The instructions are more complicated than we’d like
Build quality is a little lightweight for taking this on the road.
Arturia market the MiniLab MkII as the most responsive MIDI keyboard in its category. And it’s not difficult to see why.
One of the most obvious features is the number of knobs here. You’ll get no fewer than 16 assignable encoders to control your DAW. Two of the 16 are clickable too.
There are eight high-quality drum pads that are both velocity and pressure-sensitive. These sit above 25 mini keys and below buttons for pitch bend and modulation.
You’ll get a range of software too. For synth, organ, piano and strings, use Analog Lab Lite, while UVI Grand recreates the sound of a Steinway Model D piano.
Also included is Ableton Live Lite, which allows you to bring your musical ideas together into a final composition. Finally, MiniLab Mk II offers a range of creative options in sound design, production and performance.
Included alongside the keyboard is a USB to MIDI cable. This both communicates with your computer and powers the keyboard.
Also in the package are instructions for quick set-up, including the codes needed to download the software. Configuring the knobs and pads to work with non-Arturia VST plug-ins, however, takes a bit of time and concentration.
The build quality here is a cut above that of many other MIDI keyboards. It feels solid and robust. The keys, knobs and pads are a joy to use.
What’s less of a joy, however, is the use of the knobs for VST control. You can choose to use the knobs in absolute or relative modes, and both have their problems.
In absolute mode, the absence of minimum or maximum stopping points makes it virtually impossible to tell the current value.
In relative mode, the knobs send different messages depending on how fast they’re turned. This sounds clever, until you realize that many DAWs don’t support that functionality. The result is that you’ll need to turn the knob very slowly in order for it to register.
Note, however, that Arturia have just released a firmware update to address this. Hopefully, this means the knobs problem in relative mode will be a thing of a past.
Excellent build quality
Eight velocity and pressure-sensitive drum pads
Downloadable software includes MiniLab Mk II, Ableton Live Lite and Analog Lab Lite
The knobs are a pain to use – although Arturia have now released a firmware update to address this
Configuring the knobs and pads for non-Arturia plug-ins is quite a complicated job.
The Komplete Kontrol M32 from Native Instruments has 32 compact synth-action, velocity-sensitive keys. The all-black design is smart and sleek, and it offers a good range of production features. The lightweight design is great for travel, so you can unpack it wherever inspiration strikes.
It’s powered by a USB 2.0 cable, which is included in the package. It’s compatible with either a Mac or PC, but not iOS. For Macs, you’ll need OS 10.12, 10.13 or 10.14, an Intel Core i5 processor and 4 GB of RAM. For PCs, you’ll need Windows 10, an Intel Core i5 processor or equivalent, and 2 GB of RAM.
And whatever kind of computer you’re using, you’ll need a graphics card which supports a minimum of OpenGL 2.1.
The range of the velocity response is greater than for other MIDI keyboards at this price point. And it’s nice and consistent. Just be aware that the keys are a little clicky.
A helpful OLED display allows you to navigate your projects. There are eight touch-sensitive control knobs and two touch strips, but no drum pads.
Use it to intuitively control Logic Pro X, GarageBand and Ableton Live. A forthcoming software upgrade will also allow integration with Cubase and Nuendo.
It comes with a rage of software as standard. The Komplete Kontrol package allows you to browse and preview all your virtual instruments and effects, direct from the keyboard. Listen to samples as you browse, then go on to play them without needing to load them first.
Also included are Ableton Live 10 Lite, Maschine Essentials, Reaktor Prism, Monark and Scarbee Mark I. You’ll also get two months of access to the Sounds website, which includes upwards of a million loops and samples.
Accessing the software requires you to register the keyboard. You’ll then receive several emails with the licenses and instructions to download the software.
All in all, this is a well-built and inexpensive entry model keyboard for Native Instruments.
Well-built keyboard with consistent and wide-ranging velocity-sensitivity
Helpful OLED display to assist navigation
Range of downloadable software includes Ableton Live 10 Lite, Machine Essentials, and Komplete Kontrol
With so many features to consider, you may still be wondering which is the best MIDI keyboard for you. Read on for some questions to help you narrow down your search.
Will it be compatible with your computer?
The first thing to check is the system requirements of any MIDI keyboard. You don’t want to invest your hard-earned cash only to find it won’t work with your computer, tablet or laptop!
All the keyboards on our list are compatible with Macs or PCs. Not all, however, are compatible with Apple’s iOS. If you plan to use your keyboard with an iPad or iPhone, those won’t work.
It’s also important to check your system specifications. MIDI keyboards vary according to how much memory – RAM – they require to function effectively. The same goes for the operating system and processing power required.
Match your specifications to the requirements of the keyboard, and you’ll save yourself a lot of frustration.
When considering the size of your keyboard, there are a number of factors to bear in mind.
The most obvious is the number of keys. 25-key models will be small and usually lightweight, making them easily portable. If you want to take your keyboard from place to place, they can be a great option. And models with buttons to move up and down octaves will give more flexibility.
But if you want to play two-handed, 25 keys will be rather cramped. 32-key models offer a good compromise between portability and range. And while there are none on our list, other models go all the way up to 88 keys.
It’s also worth thinking about where you’re going to be storing and playing your keyboard. 25 and 32-key models like those on our list can easily be played on a desktop. That means you won’t have to find room for a bulky keyboard stand.
Lastly, check the size of the keys themselves. Mini keys are a great option for a compact keyboard. But if you are used to playing on an acoustic piano, they’ll take some getting used to. Full-sized options may be better if you’re going to be switching between instruments.
Music software can be very expensive, so check out what is included with your keyboard. Most manufacturers will require you to register your device before downloading the packages included with it. That means you will need to be prepared to give up your email address for the privilege.
There’s a lot of variation in the software available with different keyboards. If you have preferred packages, check that they’ll work effectively with the keyboard before you buy. There are some great plug-and-play options with DAWs pre-mapped to get you started quickly and easily.
Ready to choose?
That brings us to the end of our reviews of seven of the best midi keyboards out there. We hope you’ve enjoyed our tour, and that you’re now closer to choosing the keyboard that’s right for you.
Our top pick is Akai’s Professional MPK Mini MKII. It packs a huge range of features into its compact and lightweight design. And with drum pads and Q-Link knobs, it offers great value for its very reasonable price tag.
Whichever MIDI keyboard is right for you, we hope you enjoy taking your home studio to the next level. Happy music making!