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Published Sep. 17, 2021

A midi keyboard is an essential tool for every home music studio. Also known as a midi keyboard controller, this versatile piece of gear can be used to input music into digital notation software, track virtual instruments and effects in a digital audio workstation (DAW), and control synths and samples in a live performance.

One way to think about this powerful equipment is as a smooth connection between composing and producing. Midi keyboards are a bridge between the highly technical parameters of a DAW interface (like adjusting frequency, gain, or waveform shape) and the tactile experience of making music with an instrument (like percussively tapping buttons, turning knobs, or manipulating sliders). 

This guide is a jumping-off point for both formally trained and DIY musicians working with a DAW for the first time, or expanding an existing studio to include more specialized gear for your preferred musical styles. We’ll break down the pros and cons of individual models, help you choose from the top brands on the market, and make it easier to realize your artistic vision from anywhere. 

How We Picked the Products

Methodology

I’m a professional musician who plays an acoustic instrument and uses digital software as an aid to composing, recording, and editing. These are the main criteria I used to emphasize gear that enhances the possibilities of music creation while centering the individual artist’s expertise as a curator of sound. 

Brand: My choices were exclusively from brands carried by retailers who cater to serious musicians. No matter where you are in the process of composing and producing music, a quality tool from a reputable brand will give you better and more inspiring results.

Creative Process: Just because a midi keyboard controller is packed with features doesn’t mean an artist will find it comfortable to use them. I evaluated these selections by considering the perspectives of creators with different musical backgrounds, styles, and workflows.

Value: While pros can definitely find picks that meet their needs in these selections, I looked for keyboard controllers with a blend of features suitable for a wide range of creators at low- to mid-range prices.

Size: Many of the midi keyboards I selected are available in multiple sizes, usually pertaining to how many keys they have (ranging from 25 to 88). I considered size and its relationship to the type of creator best suited to a particular model when making my selections.

The Best Midi Keyboards: Reviews and Recommendations

Best Overall: M-Audio Oxygen Pro 49

A Balance of Powers

Every kind of musical artist can find something to appreciate in this versatile pick.
M-Audio

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Why It Made The Cut: We chose the M-Audio Oxygen Pro 49 as an all-around solid purchase for its ample keyboard, beat pads, analog-feel knobs, and faders at a reasonable price.

Specs: 

  • Number of keys: 49
  • Product Dimensions: 10.4 by 31.5 by 3.3 inches 
  • Software Compatibility: Most DAWs including Pro Tools

Pros: 

  • 8 assignable knobs and 9 assignable faders
  • Plays nice with Pro Tools
  • Trigger full chords with a single key or pad

Cons: 

  • No touch strips, which some users may prefer to knobs, sliders, and wheels

While there are many DAWs on the market today from Apple’s Logic Pro X to Ableton Live, Pro Tools by Avid is ubiquitous for recording, producing, mixing, and mastering. Avid used to own M-Audio, and while M-Audio is now part of inMusic’s brands, the M-Audio Oxygen Pro 49 controls can easily be integrated into Pro Tools. This integration feature also applies to Ableton, MPC Beats, Cubase, Logic, Studio One, and more. 

Compatibility alone is enough to make this midi keyboard a smart pick for users who aren’t totally sure which DAW is best for them or who wear different musical hats (i.e., compose at home in Cubase, record, and mix in a studio running Pro Tools). Additional features like Channel Aftertouch where you can use key pressure to inform parameters of a virtual instrument plugin add customization on a pro-level. 

Can you find midi keyboards that feel more natural to the touch, with sleeker touch strips over clunkier faders and chunky wheels? Absolutely. But the M-Audio Oxygen Pro 49’s balanced range of features makes it a standout option for developing your process and voice as an artist.

Best Out-of-the-Box: Novation Launchkey Mini [MK3]

Versatile Instrument

This portable controller travels with you from the stage to the studio.
Novation

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Why It Made The Cut: We chose the compact and affordable Novation Launchkey Mini because it’s designed to work seamlessly with Ableton Live, an excellent DAW for both live performance and studio sessions. 

Specs:  

  • Number of keys: 25 minikeys
  • Product dimensions: 12.99 by 6.77 by 1.22 inches(1.57 inches including knob-caps) 
  • Software compatibility: Ableton Live 10 and up (built-in compatibility); other DAWs through scripts or HUI (Human User Interface)

Pros: 

  • Works out of the box with Ableton Live Lite (included)
  • Touch strips to control pitch and modulation
  • Arpeggiator makes intricate note patterns easy for non-instrumentalists

Cons: 

  • Minikeys not ideal for pianists
  • Use with DAWs other than Ableton Live not intuitive

Founded in 1992 by Ian Jannaway and Mark Thompson as Novation Electronic Music Systems, Novation is a company that produces a wide range of high-quality amateur and pro-level synths and electronic music equipment. The Novation Launchkey Mini is a great little midi keyboard controller for a wide range of music makers and is the most compact and portable version of their Launchkey series. 

While anyone can use this controller as part of a larger setup, we recommend it as an ideal choice for creators who want to use Ableton Live as their DAW, and for people who want to jump right into making electronic music, especially without a formal background in music and acoustic instruments. The Novation Latchkey Mini comes with a license for Ableton Live 10 Lite and recognizes Ableton sessions intuitively, so you can control your session right away without any custom mapping.

Even though this midi keyboard takes up minimal space, it still features 16 drum pads backlit with RGB colors that respond to your touch for a more nuanced performance. With the arpeggiator feature, you don’t need technical skill or rhythmic accuracy to play multiple notes at once in an endless variety of patterns. Just find some sounds you like and adjust the parameters to fit with the rest of your song.

Best Portability: Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol M32

Tiny but Mighty

Pro-level midi keyboard controller especially powerful for composers using Komplete sounds and Native Kontrol Standard (NKS) plug-ins. Native Instruments

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Why It Made The Cut: The Komplete Kontrol M32 is a well-priced and compact choice for film, video, and television composers, especially if they already love Native Instruments sounds and samples.

Specs: 

  • Number of keys: 32 
  • Product dimensions: 18.7 by 6.57 by 1.96 inches 
  • Software compatibility: Compatible with most DAWs, but advanced functionality doesn’t work with Pro Tools

Pros: 

  • 8 touch sensitive control knobs and two control strips
  • Comes with Komplete instruments and effects
  • Fits into a backpack

Cons:

  • No drum pads
  • Keys aren’t weighted

Industry leader Native Instruments is best known for its extensive libraries of VST (Virtual Studio Technology) instruments, including realistic orchestral sounds created by sampling the individual instruments (i.e., bowed cello, plucked viola). Their Komplete Kontrol M32 is a midi keyboard controller designed first and foremost for users of their proprietary instruments and effects, like film composer Alan Silvestri (The Avengers). 

That said, it’s still a standout midi keyboard controller for composers, engineers, and electronic musicians who aren’t scoring for a symphony orchestra. Composers who produce written music notation will find the 32-key length convenient for input into music notation software.

If you use Logic Pro X, GarageBand, Ableton Live, Cubase, and Nuendo you can take advantage of transport controls and more with intuitive integration. You can also custom map your keyboard to the features (such as chords) you use the most.

 Best for Performance: Arturia KeyLab MKII 61

Expressive Elegance

Wide-ranging midi controls with a performer-friendly feel. Arturia

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Why It Made The Cut: The KeyLab MKII 61 from French hardware and software maker Arturia is packed with thoughtful features that help streamline your flow in the studio or on stage.

Specs:  

  • Number of keys: 61 
  • Product dimensions: 34.5 by 11.7 by 2.1 inches 
  • Software compatibility: Works with most DAWs and includes 6 magnetic overlays so the controls match your software

Pros: 

  • Keys built for performing, with velocity and pressure sensitivity
  • LCD browser for sounds
  • Optional DC power 

Cons:

  • Keyboard isn’t full size (88 keys)
  • Non-entry-level price point

If you’re a performer and have a higher budget to invest in a midi keyboard, Arturia’s KeyLab MKII line offers an ideal blend of playability and midi controls. With just about every feature of a powerful controller, this model levels up. Instead of 8 faders and 8 rotary encoding knobs, you get 9. Instead of relying solely on USB power, you can add a DC adapter. 

In addition to compatibility with most DAWs, the KeyLab MKII 61 comes with Analog Lab, Piano V, and Ableton Live Lite software that provides access to thousands of sounds you can add to your tracks and customize to your preferred parameters. A front-and-center LCD browsing window and jog wheel helps you find the perfect sound more quickly. 

If you’re just starting out with midi, enjoy the piano-like feel of the keys and take advantage of Ableton Live Lite to start creating right away. If you’re already a pro, the customization possibilities and user-friendly design will help you turn the 1s and 0s of binary code into nuanced artistry.

Best Value: M-Audio Keystation 88 MK3

Compose Freely

Electronic music-making power with an analog sensibility.

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Why It Made The Cut: For composers and instrumentalists seeking a tool to sequence midi that feels more like an analog piano than a digital keyboard, the price point of this model can’t be beat.

Specs:  

  • Number of keys: 88 full-size 
  • Product dimensions: 54.24 by 8.52 by 2.88 inches 
  • Software compatibility: Compatible with most DAWs; includes Ableton Live Lite, ProTools First M-Audio Edition, and Akai’s MPC Beats

Pros: 

  • Semi-weighted keys for a player experience
  • Inputs for sustain and expression pedals
  • Pitch and modulation wheels 

Cons:

  • No drum pads

For musicians with a background in playing analog instruments, M-Audio’s Keystation 88 MK3 is an attractive and affordable way to combine the best of both the analog and digital worlds. Even with 88 full-size keys, it takes up a modest amount of space in your studio. At just 13.75 pounds, you can even take it with you to a live performance or recording session. While the semi-weighted keys don’t match the experience of playing a top-of-the-line digital piano, their velocity sensitivity allows for more natural expression when recording tracks. 

The pitch and modulation controls are designed as ergonomic wheels rather than touch strips and sliders, which is another feature fans of hardware synths, amplifiers, and turntables can appreciate. Another great feature is the volume fader, transport, and directional buttons at the top of the keyboard so you can seamlessly play, record, and review your sessions.

With relatively basic control features and no drum pads, this midi keyboard is not the best choice for beat-makers and musicians who focus on electronics. However, with the purchase of an Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter as a power source, you can escape a traditional studio setup and use the Keystation 88MK3 with apps on your iPad or other iOS device. 

Things to Consider Before Buying a Midi Keyboard

Before you dig into the whole range of features of a midi keyboard, there are a few crucial things to consider that will help you narrow your search.

Musical Genre

Film composers, live performers of electronic music, producers, and beat makers will all have different must-haves in an ideal midi keyboard. How you make the music in your chosen genre will also shape your choice of midi keyboard. For example, piano players and professionally trained musicians may prefer weighted keys and bigger keyboards, while DIY musicians may gravitate toward touch-sensitive drum pads and built-in DAW integration that works right out of the box.

Feel of Keys and Knobs

Are you the type of musician or creator who likes turning a guitar amp up to 11, hitting a cymbal with the grace of a ballet dancer, or sitting down at an upright piano to find inspiration? If so, look for midi keyboards with knobs, velocity sensitivity, and control wheels rather than touch strips and mini keys, which can feel more like tech input devices and less like analog instruments.

Portability

Choosing a portable midi keyboard isn’t just about size or number of keys. If you’re adding it to a performance setup, drum pads and inputs for a sustain or expression pedal can be important features to have. You should also be aware that If you want to use your midi keyboard with a smartphone or notebook, you may need to purchase a separate battery pack so the device has sufficient power.

Digital Audio Workstations (DAWS)

As a general rule, most midi keyboard controllers will work with the DAW of your choice if you map it to your software, but all features may not be available. If reading product documentation and checking out tech forums aren’t your thing, look for midi keyboard controllers that have built-in integration with your DAW of choice to save yourself some gear headaches.

FAQs

Q: What is the difference between a MIDI keyboard and a keyboard?

MIDI is a computer language that uses binary code to communicate musical ideas.  MIDI keyboards generate a signal that tells its destination (like a DAW on your laptop or a hardware synth) what sound to make, but doesn’t actually produce the sound. Unlike an electric keyboard where pressing a specific key produces a specific note (like middle C), MIDI keyboards are capable of generating signals for all kinds of sounds, and can be mapped for your artistic vision (i.e., “middle C” can send a signal to trigger the sound of a hi-hat).

Q: What MIDI keyboards do professionals use?

Professional musicians use a wide variety of MIDI keyboards depending on the type of work they do and their musical background. For example, a film composer writing orchestral music is more likely to have a full-size MIDI keyboard with semi or fully-weighted keys than an electronic musician who uses a medium-size MIDI keyboard with a drum pad to trigger beats and synth samples on stage. Pros tend to stick to top brands including M-Audio, Novation, Arturia, Roland, and Native Instruments and, since many pros help test products for instrument makers, they may also have a big impact on the newest models on the market. 

Q: Can you use a MIDI keyboard without a computer?

The short answer is yes, but whether that is something you’ll want to do depends on your goals. MIDI keyboards themselves don’t produce sound, so they need to be connected to something that can—like a hardware synth or sound module. You can also connect MIDI keyboards to smartphones and notebooks, though these are technically computers, just smaller than your laptop or desktop. Double-check the specs for compatibility before purchasing if you want to go this route.

Final Thoughts

With so many great midi keyboards on the market, it can be tough to decide exactly what you want, especially if you’re also learning a DAW at the same time. That’s why we recommend the M-Audio Oxygen Pro 49 as our best overall pick. Remember, this piece of gear is just one tool in the vast toolbox of sounds and creative inspiration available to modern musical artists. Even a wayward spin of a knob or accidental trigger of a drum pad can take your music in a whole new direction, so there’s no reason not to get started.


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