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Our experts’ list of the best MIDI keyboards in 2020 is topped once again by offerings from Akai. Akai’s MPK261 remains our top choice for the best all-around MIDI keyboard, while the Akai MPK Mini is our favorite budget-friendly MIDI keyboard. Stiff competition from Roland, Novation, and Nektar round up our best MIDI keyboards list.
When you think of a “bedroom studio”, what do you imagine?
A computer – of course. A set of headphones. Maybe even two monitors.
But the image isn’t complete without a keyboard taking up half the desk.
That’s the role MIDI keyboard controllers play in any studio setup. Like Mr. Lebowski’s rug, they “tie everything together”.
A MIDI controller keyboard is the first, and often the only, physical instrument in a producer’s studio. You’ll use it to enter notes, control your DAW, and even tap out beats. Think of it as the command center of your studio.
Buying the best MIDI keyboard controller, then, becomes important. Get a keyboard controller with crappy keys and you’ll shy away from adding complex melodies to your tracks. Get one without decent pads (or no pads at all), and you’ll have to pencil in beats.
Which is why I created this guide. I’ll share some of the best MIDI keyboards you can buy right now. I’ll also share a detailed guide on what to look for when buying the best MIDI keyboards.
To quickly jump to the right section, use the navigation below
With the introduction out of the way, let’s answer the question you came here for: What’s the best MIDI keyboard to buy right now?
There are plenty of ways to organize any list of MIDI keyboard controllers. You can organize them by the availability and quality of pads, by the number of keys, and even by DAW.
But I feel the best way to categorize keyboards is by budget.
Thus, I’ve organized this list into three sections:
- Budget MIDI keyboards ($): Aimed at beginners. Often feature low grade keybeds, mini keys, limited (or missing) pads, and few features. A portable budget keyboard can be a good 2nd keyboard for a professional.
- Mid-range MIDI keyboards ($$): The mid-range is where you can often find some of the best deals. The best options in this category have middle-of-the-road capabilities and prices. Great for intermediate players, serious beginners, and pros looking for a 2nd keyboard.
- Premium MIDI keyboards ($$$): At the top of the range, you get digital piano-like keys, responsive pads, and great compatibility with most DAWs. The price, however, makes them suitable only for seasoned and serious producers.
On that note, let’s look at the best MIDI keyboards across these three categories:
Best Budget MIDI Keyboard
At the lowest end of the MIDI keyboard controller market, you’re spoiled for choice.
There are countless options from respected brands as well as cheap Chinese knockoffs.
In fact, my hardest task was narrowing down my list of candidates. There are so many similar (and similarly priced) keyboards in the budget range that it becomes hard to distinguish between them.
Since features are limited in the budget range, I focused on price and build quality. A budget controller keyboard shouldn’t feel cheap and plasticky. Nor should you settle for poor quality mini keys and crappy keyboard action.
Based on this criteria, here are my top picks for the best MIDI keyboards in the budget range:
What I like
I’ve made no secret of my love for the Akai MPK Mini MKII. In fact, read this site long enough and you’ll find that I’m generally favorable towards all Akai products. It’s not bias; it’s just experience.
So when I heard that Akai was updating the Akai MPK line with a new product named ‘Play’, I was all ears (pun intended).
The Mini Play offers everything that the vanilla MPK Mini offers (see below), but with one crucial difference: it has on-board sounds and a build-in speaker. Hence the name – Play.
The rest of the internals, pads, mini keys, and knobs are exactly the same as the MPK Mini. You just get a tiny LCD screen to help you select the sounds. And the number of knobs is 6 instead of 8 to make room for the speaker.
Normally, I’d consign a tiny onboard speaker as something of a gimmick, but given the MPK Mini’s form factor, it makes perfect sense. Most people who buy the MPK Mini – this author included – use it on the go. I carry it in my backpack when I’m traveling or visiting my parents.
But when I’m on the go, making music with the MPK Mini means hooking it up to a DAW and the computer. This extra effort means that many times when I have a tune in my head, I’ll pull out my iPhone and use a keyboard app to quickly record it – not a fun experience.
The MPK Mini Play fixes that. The onboard sounds mean that you can actually use it as a full-fledged keyboard, not just a controller. If I have a tune in my head, I don’t have to worry about connecting it to a computer. I can just pull out the Play and jam out the tune.
Sure, the onboard sounds are nothing to write home about, and there are much more powerful synths that offer the same form factor. But the combination of the Akai build quality, low price, low weight, and plenty of control options makes this one of the best MIDI keyboards on the market in 2019.
Of course, if you want the exact same features minus the onboard sounds, you can just pick the MPK Mini instead.
Who is it for?
The MPK Mini Play is perfect for people who want to make music on the go. If you’ve ever had a riff or idea for a song but no way to record it, this is the best MIDI keyboard controller for you. Don’t just hum the tune into your sound recorder. Just pull out the Mini Play from your backpack and use one of the onboard sounds to jam it out.
If you want a tiny controller just for use in the studio, the vanilla MPK Mini might be a better fit.
2. Akai MPK Mini MK2
Drop by any online store and you’ll see the Akai MPK Mini MK2 right at the top of the bestselling charts.
This nearly perfectly reviewed, perfectly priced offering from Akai is often the first MIDI keyboard musicians buy. It offers pretty much anything a beginner would want: compact size, fantastic mini keys, good build quality, decent keyboard action, and a good number of pads and knobs.
But it’s not just beginners who love the MPK Mini. Experienced musicians swear by it for its portability. At just 1.6lbs, it is half the weight of a Macbook Air. The form factor is such that you can drop it into your backpack. And the build quality is traditional Akai; it will take a beating.
If you’re looking for your first MIDI keyboard or want a portable second keyboard, I can’t recommend the Akai MPK Mini enough.
What I like
- Build quality: The MPK Mini is tiny and competitively priced. Yet, it doesn’t feel plasticky or cheap when you use it. The mini keys (synth-action) have fast response and play well. The knobs and buttons are durable. You might even mistake it for a $200+ product.
- Keys + pads: Most controllers in the budget range compromise on either the keys or the pads/knobs. Not the Mini. You get 25 responsive keys, 8 touch-sensitive pads and 8 knobs with satisfying resistance. To offset the lack of keys, there are dedicated buttons to go up/down an octave.
- Unique thumbstick: Instead of conventional pitch/mod wheels, the MK2 has a unique thumbstick for controlling pitch and modulation. This is a new feature in the MK2 and solves one of the biggest complaints in the original Mini.
- Exceptional portability: As I mentioned above, it weighs in at just 1.6lbs. It is also just a foot long and half a foot wide – smaller than a Macbook. It takes little space on desks, and even lesser in backpacks.
- Integrations and included software: As one of the bestselling MIDI keyboards of all time, the Akai Mini integrates easily with most popular DAWs. It also ships with Akai’s own MIDI editor which gives you quick access to different mappings and presets.
- Perfectly priced: I’m a big fan of no-nonsense pricing. The Akai Mini fulfills this criteria perfectly.
Who is it for?
The Akai MPK Mini MK2 is perfect for two kinds of buyers:
- Beginners buying their first MIDI keyboard controller
- Experienced musicians looking for a portable keyboard controller
From the features to the price, this is one of the best value offerings on the market. It doesn’t do anything exceptionally well, but it does everything well enough. The pads and keys are good, the integrations are in-depth and the thumbstick is a welcome addition. Add decent build-quality and you have a product you can’t go wrong with.
However, if you like and want to play the piano, I wouldn’t recommend this for you. Although you get dedicated octave up/down buttons, it can be a pain to play complex, octave-spanning melodies on the Mini. You’ll do much better with a 49-key setup, like the next option on my list.
3. Nektar Impact GX49
A full-sized 49-key MIDI controller keyboard for a budget price from a respected manufacturer?
I didn’t believe it at first. Surely, it would be a gimmick, a cheap plastic knockoff with unplayable keys and missing features.
Then I got a chance to try the Nektar Impact GX49 and was completely won over.
The GX49 is much closer to a digital piano than to a MIDI controller. You get 49-keys, two pitch/modulation wheels, and that’s it. There are no knobs, pads or faders.
What I like
- No-frills design: In a segment filled with manufacturers trying to cram even more features into their keyboards, this “purer”, no-frills approach is actually refreshing. It also means that Nektar can focus on improving the quality of the keys instead of spending resources on pads and knobs.
- Key quality: All the budget leftover from excluding pads and knobs finds its way into the keys. For a budget keyboard, the GX49’s keys are fantastic, with fast response and decent weight.
- Integrations and included software: You get a free copy of Bitwig 8-track. I’m not a huge fan but hey, it’s free! Besides the standard integrations, the GX49 is also iOS compatible, so you can even hook it up to your iPad.
Who is it for?
The GX49 is not for everyone. If you’re a beginner looking for his first MIDI keyboard, the Akai MPK Mini would serve you much better.
However, if you want to play piano or have any music training, the Nektar Impact GX49 should be your first choice. The key quality and range is excellent. Instead of fiddling with knobs and pads, you can use it as a digital piano and make music, distraction-free.
One of the challenges of buying the best MIDI keyboard controllers in the budget range is settling on a key configuration. The 25-key setup is too limited while the 49 or 61-keys are too expansive for beginning players.
The 37-key setup (3 octaves) offers a happy medium between the two.
And in this configuration, you can’t go wrong with the effortlessly portable iRig Keys Compact keyboard.
This is another no-frills keyboard. You don’t get any pads, knobs or buttons. Instead, you get 37 touch-sensitive keys and two wheels – one each for pitch and modulation control. There are no hidden bells and whistles; you get nice keys and that’s it.
If you want a portable 37-key setup, this one comes highly recommended.
What I like
- No-frills: As you probably saw above, I’m a big fan of no-frills, “less is more” design philosophy in the budget range. The iRig Keys Compact excels in this regard. The keys feel great and there are no pads or knobs to distract you from serious music making.
- Very portable: At under 2lbs of weight and 6” of width, this is one of the more portable keyboards on the market. The only other MIDI keyboard controller I would recommend for portability over this is the Akai MPK Mini.
- Velocity-sensitive keys: Though the keys are synth-action (can’t get sem-weighted keys in this range), they feel nice and play swiftly. They also don’t go soft quickly.
- Low power consumption: Some MIDI keyboards hog up all the resources when on USB power. Not this one. It doesn’t consume any more power than an external type keyboard.
Who is it for?
The iRig Keys Compact keyboard is best for people who value portability over features. It is also ideal for people who want a keyboard, not a full-fledged controller. The pared away, sparse design emphasizes the MIDI keyboard. You won’t find any pads, knobs or buttons on it.
If you want more keys than the Akai Mini and don’t care about the pads, this is the right keyboard for you.
The M-Audio Mini Keystation 32 was the cheapest keyboards on my shortlist. Surprisingly, it was also one of the most popular keyboards among my musician friends surveyed for this review.
Part of the reason for the Keystation Mini’s enduring popularity is the combination of price and portability. This thing is tiny.
Surprisingly, the keys are fast and responsive – a rare feat for a keyboard that costs less than a new video game. If you’re looking for a cheap and portable MIDI keyboard, the M-Audio Mini Keystation comes highly recommended.
What I like
- Portability is off the charts: This keyboard weighs just 1lb. That’s the same as an iPad (which it is compatible with, by the way). It is also just 4” deep – just an inch more than the iPhone 7+ width. It’s the lightest, most portable keyboard on my list.
- Better than expected keys: The 32 mini keys are velocity-sensitive. They won’t blow you away but for the price, they feel surprisingly well-made.
- Pitch/mod buttons: The keyboard includes dedicated pitch/modulation buttons – rare in this price category.
- Price: As I said, this thing costs less than a new copy of a AAA video game. You can’t really go wrong with that.
Who is it for?
Two kinds of people will love this keyboard:
- Beginners who want a cheap, no-frills keyboard
- Experienced musicians who want a second portable keyboard
If you’re on a budget, I recommend this as your first MIDI keyboard. On some promotions, you can get it for even $50 or lower. You don’t get any pads or knobs, but for the price, this is still massive value for money.
I also recommend it if you are an experienced musician and want a no-frills second keyboard for carrying around. The weight and dimensions are a big plus. You also get iOS compatibility to make music with your iPad on the go.
Best MIDI Keyboards (Mid-Range)
Choosing an offering in the mid-range of any product category is always difficult. There’s always the urge to spend just a little more and get a high-end product. This is particularly true for MIDI keyboards where top-tier keyboards are available for around $350.
For the purpose of this review, I picked my “mid-range” as keyboards below the high-end but above the budget range This gave me a large selection of products to choose from. Most of my selections fell in the middle of this range.
Just so you know, here’s the formula I used to calculate scores for this range:
Buyers in this segment care about features, but purchase on price. Summarily, I de-emphasized features and over-emphasized price as compared to high-end keyboards.
Based on this formula, here are my top 3 picks for the best MIDI keyboards in the mid-range of the market:
What I like
- Build quality is excellent for the price. It doesn’t feel as hefty as the Akai MPK, but at half the price, you can’t complain.
- Touch-sensitive synth-action keys: I’m normally not a big fan of synth-action keys, but the ones here are touch-sensitive and surprisingly responsive. Not as much fun as full-weighted or semi-weighted keys, of course, but best in its class nonetheless.
- Tight Ableton integration: I can’t speak for Logic or FL users, but the integration with Ableton is top-notch. Novation even highlights this in its marketing.
- Plenty of control options: 8 knobs, 16 RGB pads, 8 buttons and 9 faders turn the Launchkey into a full-fledged MIDI controller. My only complaint is the size of the pads.
- Dedicated pitch/mod wheels: Conveniently located dedicated pitch and modulation wheels – a missing feature in many of its competitors.
- Small form factor: Despite boasting 61 keys, the Novation Launchkey has a surprisingly small form factor. One of the few 61-key MIDI keyboards you won’t have trouble fitting on your desk.
Who is it for?
The Novation Launchkey 61 MK2 makes a great choice for a first-time buyer. If you’ve been playing around with electronic music and want to move from using the mouse to using a MIDI controller keyboard, this would be a great choice.
The features – which are robust – aside, this is one of the cheaper mid-range keyboards you can buy. At under $250, it is only $100 more expensive than some of the budget offerings. For this price, you get a lot more bang for your buck.
If you’re upgrading from a budget MIDI keyboard, however, I advise you to skip this and buy something with semi-weighted keys instead. Look at some of the high-end instruments above or the next option on this list.
2. Nektar IMPACT LX88+
If the Nektar Impact was priced even a fraction lower, it would be the only MIDI keyboard I would recommend to anyone.
Check this: you get 88 semi-weighted keys (not synth-action), 8 pads, 9 faders and 8 fully rotary knobs. There are dedicated pitch/mod wheels, a small LCD screen to show crucial data, and a space-saving narrow design.
The only reason I haven’t ranked this higher is that the price-tag puts it close to the high-end controller category, where better options await.
What I like
- 88 semi-weighted keys: This is the standout feature – you get a full-size keyboard with 88 semi-weighted keys. This gives you 7-octaves of playing range with fast, responsive keys that feel good. If you know how to play piano, this alone is reason enough to buy the Nektar Impact.
- Performance-ready features: Unlike most other controllers on this list, the Nektar Impact is designed for live performances. Summarily, you get performance-friendly features, such as a “layering” system to create up to 3 separate MIDI “zones”, each with its own presets. You can switch between zones quickly via dedicated buttons – great for live performances.
- Strong integration with leading DAWs. Nektar also includes mappings for popular plugins such as Massive, giving you complete instrument control from the keyboard itself.
Who is it for?
If you’re looking for the best MIDI keyboard controller with 88-keys, this is the unit for you. It is competitively priced, boasts decent build quality, and unlike many 88-key keyboards, actually doubles up as a controller (i.e. has pads, knobs and faders).
The Nektra Impact is also a great choice if you plan to perform live (as you should). The 88-keys makes playing bass and melodies simultaneously easier. The performance-ready features such as MIDI “layering” are also welcome.
I don’t recommend this as your first MIDI keyboard, especially if you have no prior piano experience. The 88-keys will quickly become overwhelming (not to mention, space consuming).
In that case, you’d want to try something with fewer keys, like our next option.
M-Audio makes some fine mid-range keyboards and the M-Audio Code 49 is easily the best among the lot. Priced just under $300, this is one of the more expensive M-Audios on the market, which is best known for its cheaper controllers.
The design of the Code 49 is its standout feature. I’m a big fan of the hard square edges and the pad placement. The form factor is also surprisingly small for a 49-key keyboard.
If you’re looking for a more “premium” M-Audio, this is a great option.
What I like
- Performance pads feel much better than competitors. They are also strategically placed to the left of the keys (where most keyboards keep their pitch/mod controls). The emphasis on the pads makes this a competent MIDI controller keyboard alternative.
- Space-saving design: The Code 49 is barely 2.5’ in length. This is one of the “tighter” designs in this category without compromising on the key width.
- Powerful preset editor: The included M-Audio MIDI editor makes it easy to create custom mappings. While plenty of manufacturers offer such software, M-Audio’s is a notch above the competition in flexibility and power.
- Unique XY pad: Ever wanted to change the frequency and chorus width with your keyboard? The touch sensitive XY pad will let you do that. The Code 49 is one of the keyboards offering this instrument. Not a gamechanger but definitely one reason to buy this keyboard.
Who is it for?
If you’ve been making music with just your mouse + computer keyboard for a while and know the basics of music production, the M-Audio Code 49 would make a great first-buy. The keys feel nice, the performance pads work great and the XY pad is a nice bonus.
If you already own a budget controller, however, I recommend going for one of the higher-end keyboards on this list. While it offers a ton of features, the M-Audio Code 49 doesn’t have the semi-weighted keys that warrant an upgrade from a budget controller.
Best Premium MIDI Keyboards
There is a massive variety to choose from in this price range, from the wildly innovative ROLI Seaboard Grand to the more workmanlike Akai MPK series.
If you’re looking at this segment, you are a serious musician and want more features, better key feel and the durability associated with higher-end products.
Keeping in mind the target audience for this article, I eliminated the ultra-expensive keyboards ($1,000+ range) from my shortlist. I also focused on conventional products as opposed to innovative offerings like the Roli Seaboard.
From this shortlist, here are my top picks for the best MIDI keyboard at the top of the range.
What I like
- Premium build quality: The Akai Professional MPK261 just feels premium. It’s apparent when you press the keys, turn a knob or press one of the 16 pads. I first used the MPK261 after years of using a cheap M-Audio Keystation and the difference was night and day. There is real heft to each key press and every component feels like it was thoughtfully designed.
- Full-fledged controller: You get 16 RGB pads (expandable to 64 pads via 4 separate banks), 8 knobs and 8 faders (a feature missing in many competitors). This turns the MPK261 into a full-fledged MIDI controller, not just a keyboard.
- Built-in screen that shows essential data such as track/sample information. Not groundbreaking, but nice to have nonetheless.
- Semi-weighted keys feel great: The 61-keys are semi-weighted and have pressure sensitivity. They feel great to touch and are responsive enough for piano players.
- Strong DAW integration: Since the MPK261 is one of the most popular and best-reviewed MIDi keyboards on the market, it is deeply integrated with nearly every DAW (though I’ve only tested it with Ableton).
Who is it for?
I recommend the MPK261 to anyone who is serious about making music. While it’s not necessarily for beginners, if you have the spare budget, I even recommend it as your first MIDI keyboard controller.
The MPK261 also makes a great upgrade for those of you who’ve used a budget keyboard and want something better. The semi-weighted keys are a marked improvement on the synth-action keys common in budget keyboards. And the overall finish will make playing the instrument much more enjoyable.
Do keep in mind that the MPK261 is not very portable. It weighs in at nearly 15lbs. If you want a simple keyboard for lugging around with your laptop, this isn’t for you.
At $499 for the 61-key version, this keyboard is also great value for money.
What if the Akai isn’t your thing and you want something more premium? In that case, you’ll love my next pick.
2. Nektar Panorama P6
The Nektar Panorama P6 is a great looking, thoughtfully designed MIDI keyboard at a competitive price. Although not as popular as Akai’s offerings, it is competent, capable and in some cases, much better than the best MIDI keyboards in this price range.
What I like
- Beautiful design: The white-on-black design of the Nektar Panorama stands out in a sea of black-on-black keyboards. It has a definite retro vibe which I particularly like.
- Responsive keys: The keys are semi-weighted, have a satisfying heft and keyboard. The responsiveness is great for piano pieces.
- Plenty of buttons: You get 9 faders, 12 pads, 8 buttons and 16 continuous rotary knobs. The pads are pressure-sensitive, as expected, though only 12 pads (instead of standard 16) is a bit strange.
- Motorized fader: Of the 9 faders, the final one (the ‘master’) is motorized. This gives you better control and makes for more satisfying operation.
Thoughtful design: Small touches such as dedicated Mute and Solo buttons (which you’ll use a LOT) make this a fantastically designed product.
Who is it for?
The 61-key variant of the Nektar Panorama P6 costs about the same as the Akai MPK261. If you’re upgrading from a budget keyboard and, for some reason, don’t like the Akai, this would be a great alternative.
There is good DAW integration (though some users report issues with Logic Pro X) and the design touches elevate it over the competition. The 80s-inspired design also stands out, much to my liking.
Overall, if you’re in the market for a high-end MIDI keyboard, the Nektar Panorama P6 comes highly recommend
3. Roland A-800 Pro
Roland is a name synonymous with synthesizers. Look at your favorite producers’ kits and you’ll find at least one Roland synth sticking out.
The A-800 Pro is one of Roland’s few MIDI keyboard controllers (i.e. no synth capabilities) in this price range. Originally called “Roland Cakewalk”, it was changed to the current brand name in 2011. It brings Roland’s established synth expertise to the MIDI keyboard market and makes quite an impression.
This is also the cheapest “high-end” MIDI keyboard on this list, making it all the more attractive.
What I like
- Exceptional build-quality: The first time you use the Roland A-800, it becomes clear that this is a lovingly made instrument. The keys, knobs and switches all feel well-crafted. You feel the weight of every component. The build quality is exceptional, even better than the Akai.
- Roland-quality keys: Roland’s claim to fame is the quality of its keys. Sure enough, this quality is apparent here. The semi-weighted keys are firm, yet responsive with decent travel distance. My only complaint is that the keys aren’t wide enough. This saves space but leaves room for errors for fat-fingered players like me.
- Pitch/mod stick: This controller has Roland’s divisive pitch/mod control stick – standard in Roland’s synths. People tend to either love it or hate it. I happen to love its “stickiness”. You might (or might not) feel otherwise.
- Plenty of buttons: The A-800 comes with 9 knobs, 9 faders and 8 pads – standard feature for controllers in this range. However, the pads are disappointingly small, highlighting the unit’s primary purpose as a keyboad, not a MIDI controller.
Who is it for?
For Roland enthusiasts, this might be the best value-for-money MIDI keyboard controller on the market right now. It has all the bells and whistles of the Akai MPK261 at a $100 lower price tag. You don’t get as many pads as the Akai or an information screen, but the quality of the keys makes up for it.
If you’re upgrading from a cheaper keyboard or even buying your first one, this is a capable, professional-grade option. I would recommend it over several of the mid-range keyboards on this list based on Roland’s build quality alone.
I do have to warn you that some users have encountered software issues. Although it will integrate with any DAW, some people complain about Roland’s software not recognizing the device. Keep this in mind before you make a purchase decision.
Unless you’re an experienced musician (in which case, feel free to skip this section), buying MIDI keyboards can be confusing. It’s not always clear what each feature means and whether it actually impacts performance.
Here are some things to look for when choosing the best MIDI keyboards:
Type of Keys
If you look-up any MIDI keyboard listing online, you’ll see a mention of the key-type.
This an important criteria and will hugely impact your decision.
MIDI keyboard keys can be divided into three categories:
- Fully-weighted keys: Fully-weighted keys are made to resemble acoustic piano keys. That is, they have heft and resistance (“weight”) similar to a conventional piano thanks to a built-in weight. MIDI keyboards with fully-weighted keys are pleasurable to play, though might offer too much resistance if you’re simply entering notes. Unless you know how to play the piano, I advise against fully-weighted keys.
- Semi-weighted: These keys have a combination of spring-loaded action and built-in weight to offer a balance between playability and swiftness. Most popular mid and high-end MIDI keyboards offer semi-weighted keys. For most players, this setup is ideal as it allows conventional jamming along with MIDI note entering.
- Synth-action: Synth-action keys are spring loaded and don’t have a built-in weight. This makes it easy to press them down (i.e. they have a swift response). However, the lack of resistance makes them a poor choice for jamming. Most lower-end models have synth-action keys.
What keys you choose will depend largely on your playing style and what you expect from the MIDI keyboard.
- If you simply want to enter MIDI notes, pick synth-action or semi-weighted keys.
- If you want to use the MIDI keyboard as a piano, choose fully-weighted keys for better playability.
- If you want a balance of MIDI and piano capabilities, choose semi-weighted keys.
Number of Keys
The number of keys in the best MIDI keyboard correspond to the number of octaves you can play. The minimum you’ll find is 25-keys. The maximum can be 88-keys for a full-scale keyboard (equivalent to a piano).
Most brands offer variations of each keyboard based on the number of keys. The popular variations are:
- 25-keys: Spans over two octaves. Ideal for portable keyboards and for playing short basslines. Can’t play bass and treble lines simultaneously
- 49-keys: Spans four octaves. Strikes a good balance between portability and flexibility. This is the most popular variation
- 61-keys: Spans five octaves. You can play most classical music with this (also has the same number of keys as an organ)
- 88-keys: Spans 7 octaves – same as a full-scale piano. Ideal for people who want to replicate the piano feel
Some manufacturers also offer 32-key, 37-key and 76-key variants.
How many keys you choose will depend on a number of factors, such as:
- Portability: Simple – if it has fewer keys, it is more portable. The Akai Mini MPK MK2, for instance, has just 25 keys and is small enough to fit in a laptop bag
- Playing style: If you want to just enter notes, the number of keys is largely immaterial. If you want to play piano, choose a minimum of 61-keys
- Music genre: If you want to just play basslines, a 25-key setup is more than enough. If you want to play classical or jazz music, you’ll need more keys (61-key minimum)
- Price: Generally speaking, cost goes up with the number of keys.
I recommend a minimum of 49-keys for most producers. This offers a good balance of portability, price and playability. If you have any music training, you might want to opt for 61 or 88-key variants.
For budget buyers just looking to enter MIDI notes, 25-key keyboards are a good starting point. These also offer exceptional portability.
A large number of MIDI keyboards today have built-in MIDI pads and knobs, like this Akai MPK Mini:
These pads essentially transform the unit from a MIDI “keyboard” to a “MIDI controller”. You can use these pads for anything – playing drums, setting off loops, or enabling FX.
The number of pads can vary from 8, 16 to even 32 pads in some models. Any good keyboard would have touch-sensitive pads (i.e. the harder you press the pad, the stronger the hit).
Some keyboards also include a number of knobs and faders (often called “sliders” as well), like this:
These knobs are usually used for controlling FX. Use them to change reverb dry/wet levels, chorus size, delay time, etc. on the fly.
Whether you want them or not, MIDI pads offer additional functionality. They don’t hurt but they can definitely help. Regardless of your playing style, I recommend choosing something with built-in pads and knobs.
While number of keys, MIDI pad availability and key-type are the most important considerations, there are a few additional things you have to keep in mind, such as:
- Budget: MIDI keyboard prices are all over the place. You can buy something for as low as $30 (seriously – sort the results by price on Amazon) to as high as $3,000. Keep aside a budget of at least $100 if you want a competent keyboard. At $300+, you should be able to get something professional-grade.
- Portability: If you plan to take the keyboard to gigs, you need something small and light enough for easier transportation. Smaller keyboards also occupy less desk space.
- Software integration: Although most popular MIDI keywords will work out of the box with popular DAWs, if you use something more obscure, you might have difficulty with integration.Some keyboards are designed to integrate closely with a specific DAW (such as Ableton). This is an advantage if you use that DAW.
- Additional functions: Pitch bend, arpeggiator, etc. are some additional features you should look for. How important these are to you will depend on the kind of music you like to play and your playing style. But it’s always better to get something with these features than without – you never know when your playing style might change!
A word about MIDI keyboard brands
Here’s one of the industry’s best kept secrets:
Most MIDI keyboard brands are owned by the same parent company.
Yup, that’s right. inMusicBrands, a Rhode Island based company owns some of the most iconic music brands in the world, including several purportedly competing keyboard brands.
Here are some of the brands inMusicBrands owns:
- Akai Pro
You might recognize M-Audio, Alesis, and Akai Pro as competitors in the MIDI keyboard space. Yet, they are owned by the same company. While they are completely different products, you can rest assured that there is plenty of technology transfer and sharing across them.
So keep this in mind when you choose the best MIDI keyboard in 2019. There’s a good chance that your choice of brand is just a disguised cheaper product from a “competing” brand.
FAQs About MIDI Keyboards
Before we leave, there are a few questions I think need to be answered about MIDI keyboards and making music in general. I frequently get these questions in my inbox and feel that they should be answered here best.
What’s the best MIDI keyboard for beginners?
Short answer – the Akai MPK Mini Play.
Why? Because it offers everything a beginner would want – lots of control options, decent keys, and most importantly, onboard sounds. This little thing is a joy to use on the go and you’ll get a TON of value from it if you’re a beginner.
I also encourage you to read my guide to buying the best digital piano for beginners.
Is a MIDI Keyboard Worth It?
Yes and no – it all depends on how you approach music production.
For the first half of my production career, I was mostly a guitarist. Since I did not know how to play the keyboard, I never really used my MIDI keyboard extensively. All my production was done via computer keyboard and mouse.
But when I finally learned the basics of playing the piano, I found an incredible amount of value from a MIDI keyboard. Entering notes via keyboard is so much more satisfying than using your mouse. You can also play melodies on the fly and get a much more “hands-on” production experience.
For these reasons, I would wholeheartedly recommend buying a MIDI keyboard for the vast majority of beginner producers today.
What is a MIDI Keyboard Used For?
Entering notes, playing melodies, making drum beats, triggering loops, changing volume or pan on the fly, equalization, automation, jamming out chords – there is no dearth of things that a MIDI keyboard can be used for.
Once you have a good MIDI keyboard and the knowledge to use it fully, you’ll find that the keyboard becomes the hub of your production center.
Akai vs M-Audio?
Akai vs M-Audio is the perennial debate among new producers. This is mostly because both these brands offer MIDI keyboards at the lower end of the market (though Akai also makes some fantastic pro-tier gear) and are advertised heavily.
In my personal opinion, Akai’s build quality is better than M-Audio. M-Audio’s keys are notorious for being loose and wonky after a year or two of use, though the newer MK3 iterations have improved on this count.
But don’t let this distract you from the fact that both Akai and M-Audio are owned by the same parent company (see InMusicBrands above). So while there is some difference in their build quality and performance, your money will essentially go to the same company.
What’s the Best MIDI Keyboard Software?
By this, I mean the actual software that comes with each MIDI keyboard, not your DAW (that’s the topic for another post).
There is, again, no real answer to this question. Every MIDI keyboard brand has its own software. Most will give you the ability to set configurations and map different controls to different functions.
Instead of looking at the keyboard software, look at how it integrates with your DAW instead. The closer the integration is with the DAW, the more “plug-and-play” the keyboard will be.
Akai, for instance, integrates perfectly with Ableton (Akai makes the Ableton Push controller after all). Thus, you get truly plug-and-play performance.
What’s the Best MIDI Keyboard Controller for FL Studio?
Short answer? Akai Fire. It’s the only MIDI controller designed from scratch for FL Studio. The layout is extraordinarily intuitive and it integrates perfectly with the DAW.
I can’t recommend this enough if you’re a FL Studio user. For more information, read our guide to the best MIDI keyboard for FL Studio.
What’s the Best MIDI Keyboard for Logic Pro X?
Short answer – Akai MPK249. Akai integrates neatly with Logic Pro X and the MPK249 offers pro-tier quality and performance. Though the price is slightly steep, you’ll love the keyboard action and overall pad quality.
For more information, check out our guide to the best MIDI keyboards for Logic Pro X.
What’s the Best MIDI Controller Keyboard for Ableton?
There are two aspects to this answer:
- The best keyboard for Ableton is Akai MPK249 for all the reasons mentioned above
- The best controller for Ableton is Ableton Push 2. Push 2 offers simply impeccable integration with Ableton and really opens up your music production skills. Every serious Ableton user needs to save up and try it out – it really is game-changing.
For more information, check out our guide to the best Ableton controllers.
Before we leave, I wanted to share my review methodology for creating this roundup.
In my review, I focused on the follow criteria:
- Features & Technical Specs: Since features and technical specs – pitch bend, touch-sensitive pads, number of keys, software integration, etc. – are the number one reason to buy any musical instrument, I focused heavily on this criteria.
- Key Quality: The quality and feel of the keyboard is of paramount importance. This criteria got a heavy weightage in my scoring process.
- Durability: MIDI keyboards go through heavy, even abusive use. A competent keyboard should be able to withstand the rough and tumble of music production.
- Portability: Some of you will want to carry your keyboard to gigs. While not a deciding factor, portability was a factor, especially for smaller keyboards.
- Design: How pleasing is the product to look at? Does it feel nice? Is the build quality good? Is the layout user-friendly?
- Price: For obvious reasons, price is an important consideration in any MIDI keyboard purchase decision.
- Personal Impressions: What I feel about the product. This was based mostly on my personal, subjective impressions, not any objective analysis. Summarily, I gave this criteria a smaller weightage.
To calculate the final score, I used the following formula:
Do note the score formula changed slightly based on the keyboard category. For premium keyboards, for instance, I reduced the weight to price and focused on key quality and design. For budget keyboards, price was a higher priority.
Over to You
Picking the best MIDI keyboards can be tough. You have to figure out how many keys you want, which features to look for (and which to ignore) and find something that fits your budget.
Hopefully, this article would have helped you choose the right keyboard for your needs.
For more recommendations and advice, don’t hesitate to reach out to me here.
- Need 61-key keyboard recommendations? See our article here
- For 49-key keyboards, check out this article
- Fans of portable 25-key keyboards should read this
- Need a digital piano for learning? Here are our top picks for this category