What is the Best 49 Key MIDI Controller in 2018?

We’ve covered keyboards extensively on these pages, from looking at the best MIDI keyboards to covering the best 88-key keyboards on the market.

What we haven’t covered so far is the best 49 key MIDI controller you can buy right now.

MIDI controllers are distinct from “keyboards” in that they serve a niche purpose – to assist in music production. They’re primarily studio instruments; you’re less likely to drag them to a live performance. Their features and requirements, therefore, need to be tailored for the studio, not the road.

49-keys is the ideal number for studio MIDI controllers. They’re not as unwieldy as their 88-key counterparts. Nor are they pruned and hard to use like their 25-key counterparts. They give you a full four octave range, which is more than enough to play complex melodies without shifting up/down octaves.

So what is the best 49-key MIDI controller on the market right now? And what should you look for when buying them?

I’ll share some answers below. But first, let’s look at 7 of the best 49 key MIDI controllers on the market right now:

  1. Akai MPK249 Professional
  2. Arturia Keylab Essential 49
  3. M-Audio Keystation 49 MK3
  4. Nektar Panorama P4
  5. Novation Launchkey 49 MK2
  6. Alesis Q49
  7. Roland A-500 Pro

In the next section, I’ll look at my top 10 picks for the best 49 key MIDI controllers that you can buy.

The 10 Best 49 Key MIDI Controllers

Before I can share my pick for the best 49 key MIDI controller, I want to clarify a few doubts you might have about MIDI controllers and MIDI keyboards.

MIDI Controllers and MIDI Keyboards

“MIDI controller” is an umbrella term for any instrument with MIDI capabilities that lets you control a DAW or synth. MIDI controllers may or may not include keyboards. Ableton Push, which has only pads, knobs, and sliders, is a MIDI controller. Akai MPK261, which has keys, is also a MIDI controller.

“MIDI keyboard” is a type of MIDI controller that has a built-in keyboard. The number of keys can range from 25 to 88, though 49-key models tend to be most popular among intermediate and advanced musicians.

MIDI controllers is the parent category. MIDI keyboards is the child category.

Which is to say, all MIDI keyboards are MIDI controllers, but all controllers aren’t keyboards.

Diving straight into the action, here’s a look at my pick for the 10 best 49 key MIDI controllers you can buy right now:

1. Best Overall: Akai Professional MPK249

Key features:

  • Full-size, semi-weighted keyboard
  • Aftertouch equipped keys for dynamic play
  • 16 RGB LED backlit trigger pads
  • Fast LCD screen
  • 8 faders and control knobs
  • USB-MIDI
  • Pitch bend and mod wheels, octave control
  • Ships with Hybrid 3.0 virtual synth, Ableton Live Lite, Sonivox Twist 2.0

When it comes to MIDI controllers, Akai rules the roost. You’ll find an Akai in every serious producer’s gear rack somewhere. From their MPCs to the tiny LPK25, Akai outsells and out-innovates nearly every other MIDI equipment manufacturer.

The Akai Professional MPK249 is the company’s flagship 49-key MIDI controller. Boasting a full-size keyboard with semi-weighted keys, the MPK249 feels much better to play than cheaper synth-action keys. They’re also lighter than fully-weighted keys, making them easier to play for longer hours and by inexperienced musicians.

You get the full range of controller options – 8 faders, 8 knobs, 8 switches and 16 pads. The pads are RGB backlit which is useful for identifying sounds. The faders and knobs have 3 banks, so you can actually assign 24 functions to them.

Additional features include a refreshed LCD screen that shows some vital information from your DAW. Integrations are also much better. WIth USB-MIDI, you can start using the MPK249 immediately after plugging in.

While a lot of MIDI controllers boast similar features, where the Akai MPK249 stands out is in the quality and finesse of each feature. The pads are borrowed from Akai’s legendary MPC drum machine. The knobs have a nice resistance. And the faders feel hefty and robust.

The standout feature is the keys. They’re not as light and springy as cheap synth-action keys. Nor are they as heavy and cumbersome as conventional fully-weighted keys. They’re somewhere right in the middle between “authentic” and “easy”.

The semi-weighted keys also have aftertouch (i.e. “polyphonic pressure”) which makes playing much more dynamic.

The overall build quality is exceptional. This newer professional model, which was refreshed in 2015, is also slimmer than its earlier counterpart. This added portability is a nice bonus.

Overall, if you’re looking for the best 49-key MIDI controller that will last you for years, you can’t go wrong with the Akai Professional MPK249.

Pros

  • Exceptional build quality
  • Keys feel nice to touch and play
  • MPC-like pads and close DAW integrations

Cons

2. Best Mid-Range MIDI Controller: Arturia Keylab Essential 49

Key features:

  • Full-size 49 key keyboard
  • 8 pads, 8+1 faders, 9 knobs
  • Dedicated pitch, mod wheels
  • Analog Lab sample library turns it into a synth
  • 5000 built-in sounds in Analog Lab
  • Synth-action keys

Long before there was Akai’s dominance in the controller market, there was Arturia with its Factory and Experience controllers. These were among the first controllers to realize the full potential of a hardware controller + software synth/DAW. So many of the design cues and features we now take as standard emerged from Arturia’s early experimentation.

The Arturia Keylab Essential essentially condenses all of Arturia’s learning into an affordable, well-built package. Light, portable, yet solid, this is the quintessential mid-range MIDI controller: good enough for advanced players, yet cheap enough for beginners.

The first thing you’ll notice is the color. In a sea of all-black controllers, the Keylab stands out with its all-white color scheme. The pastel shades used in the pads only add to the classy feel. Though as a negative, if you like to work in the dark, as I do, the white color does come across as a bit jarring.

The keyboard uses synth-action. As I noted earlier, this is lighter and faster than fully or semi-weighted keys. If you have any piano experience, you won’t enjoy this. But if you don’t, you’ll appreciate its speed and playability.

One of the standout features is Arturia Labs. This is a library of around 5,000 samples that can be selected with the giant knob in the center of the controller. Select your sample and you can essentially turn the Keylab into a synth. Just plug into a PA system and you’re ready to make music – no DAW necessary.

The other buttons – faders, knobs, pads – feel good, though it’s obviously not to the standard of MPK249 (especially the faders). The knobs are endlessly turning (i.e. they are encoders) which might or might not be a positive feature, depending on your playing style.

However, they get the job done which is more than you can say for a lot of mid-range offerings.

Integration with Ableton Live is smooth. Plug it in and Ableton will automatically recognize the device and shift key mappings. Using Logic, however, requires a longer manual process.

Overall, the Keylab Essential is one of the best 49-key MIDI controllers you can buy in the mid-range. It looks good, plays well, and has enough features to justify the prices.

Pros

  • Good looking design
  • Arturia Labs turns controller into a synth quickly

Cons

  • Poor integration with Logic and Pro Tools
  • Keys feel a little wobbly

3. Best Budget MIDI Controller: M-Audio Keystation 49 MK3

Key features:

  • Full-size 49 key keyboard
  • Synth action velocity sensitive keys
  • Dedicated pitch and mod wheels
  • Integrations with Ableton Live and Pro Tools
  • Ships with education software and several virtual instruments

The budget end of the 49-key controller market is usually quite sparse. Most decent offerings in this range tend to have at most 25 keys. It’s rare to find a 49 key controller that has a full-size keyboard or a complete range of pads and buttons.

Essentially, if you’re going to pick a budget MIDI controller, you’ll have to compromise. You can either have a full-size keyboard. Or you can have a full-range of pads, buttons and sliders.

For this list, I chose to go with a full-size keyboard. Hence my pick, the M-Audio Keystation 49 MK3.

The third iteration of the Keystation 49 series improves on the keyboard slightly. It still has barebones features. There are no pads, faders or knobs. But you do get a dedicated pitch/mod wheel as well as buttons for DAW control (start, stop, record, etc.).

The highlight of the package is the keyboard. You get full-size keys (most keyboards in this range have mini keys) that use synth action. The keys are velocity sensitive. For people who want to replicate the feel of a piano, there is even an option to plug in a sustain pedal sold separately.

Sure, you’re not going to replace a full-fledged digital piano or even a high-end MIDI keyboard with this, but for the price, the keyboard is remarkably nice and well-built.

Users who are not looking to play/perform, however, might be disappointed by the sparse features and lack of additional controls. This is strictly for people who want a good keyboard over everything else.

One positive is the close integration with Ableton and Pro Tools (no Logic or FL Studio – though there are scripts for that).

On the whole, the M-Audio Keystation 49 is a decent pick in the budget range, especially for those looking for full-size keyboards

Pros

  • Decent full-size keyboard for the price
  • Well-integrated with Ableton and Pro Tools

Cons

  • No pads, faders or buttons

4. Best Ableton MIDI Controller: Novation Launchkey 49 MK2

Key features:

  • Full-size 49 key keyboard with synth-style keys
  • 16 velocity-sensitive RGB pads
  • 9 faders, 8 knobs
  • Dedicated pitch, mod wheels
  • Close integration with Ableton Live
  • Lower power consumption

With its bright orange or teal underbelly, Novation Launchkey 49 MK2 almost feels like it’s hiding a secret. That there’s something more to it than meets the eye.

You wouldn’t be wrong for thinking so; the Launchkey looks like a typical MIDI controller, but packs in so much more inside.

The first thing that catches your eye is the row of 16 colorful pads. From bright purple to green, the colors of these pads is arresting and extremely useful for identifying tracks. They’re also pressure sensitive, making them a decent replacement for a basic drum machine.

You also get the standard MIDI controller fare of 8+1 faders and 8 knobs. Plus, there are dedicated pitch and mod wheels.

The keys are fast but not the most satisfying to use. Unlike the MPK249, they use synth-action which doesn’t offer much resistance. The low weight is good for studio use, but if you want to take this live, you’ll be underwhelmed.

Where the Launchkey truly shines is in its close integration with Ableton Live. In fact, Novation clearly states that this controller is “designed for Ableton” (not that you can’t use it with Logic or FL Studio). Plug the controller in (it only offers USB; no MIDI) and the pads will spring to life. Every control is already assigned in Ableton, so you can start playing within seconds without worrying about key mappings.

This close integration might leave other DAW users out in the cold, but it will put a smile on your face if you use Ableton (though there are scripts available for using it with Logic and Reason).

Overall, Novation Launchkey MK2 is a solid performer but works exceptionally well with Ableton. If you’re looking for an Ableton-specific MIDI controller, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Pros

  • Close Ableton integration
  • Pressure-sensitive RGB pads look and play well

Cons

  • Non-assignable controls
  • No 5-pin MIDI out

5. Best High-End MIDI Controller: Nektar Panorama P4

Key features:

  • Full-size semi-weighted keyboard
  • Velocity sensitive keys
  • 12 pads, 16 encoders, 9 faders, 10 buttons
  • 1 Motorized fader
  • 4 keyboard zones
  • Integrated with Logic Pro, Reason, Cubase
  • 20 preset locations
  • 3.5″ TFT screen

When it was first released in 2012, the Nektar Panorama was a revelation. It was the first product by Nektar Technology (which would go on to release the highly respected LX88+ and GX61). With its white base and black control keys, it was striking. A gorgeous, well-built piece of technology that seemed worth its outrageous price tag.

Fast forward to 2018 and the Panorama P4 still stands out in a crowded market. It is as beautiful to look at as it was in 2012. In fact, I’d even say the army of low-end, crummy looking MIDI controllers has made it even better looking with time.

Of course, looks are only one aspect. The Nektar Panorama P4 also boasts a seriously long list of features.

Let’s start with the keyboard itself. Like its competitor, the Akai MPK249, the P4 has semi-weighted, velocity sensitive keys with aftertouch. Aside from buying a fully-weighted digital piano, this is as good a playing experience as you can get in the MIDI controller range.

The list of controls is also extensive. 12 pads, 9 faders, 10 buttons, 16 encoders (not knobs – these have boundless movement), and a 3.5″ screen that integrates well with most DAWs. You also get a motorized fader which is great for lugging it around to gigs. Dedicated pitch and mod controls are, of course, standard.

The standout feature of the P4 is its close integration with several DAWs, notably Reason, Cubase, and Logic Pro. The integration is truly plug-and-play. Every control is already carefully mapped. And should you change it in the computer, it will update in real-time on the P4’s built-in screen. This turns the P4 into much more than a random controller; it’s a veritable different way to control music.

One negative is the lack of clear integration with Ableton Live (though you can download scripts for it). The P4 was released at a time when Ableton wasn’t the mega popular beast it is today. Though the P4 works well with Cubase and Reason, these DAWs have mostly fallen out of favor today.

The build quality is exceptional, as befitting an instrument of this price. If there is one niggle I can pinpoint, it’s the variability of the aftertouch on black and white keys. The black keys feel different than the white ones which can impact playing styles.

Overall, if you have the cash for it and need something with a bit more visual oomph, more controls, and a motorized fader, choose the Nektar Panorama P4 over the Akai MPK249.

Pros

  • Great build quality
  • Lots of controls
  • Exceptional integration with Logic Pro, Cubase, Reason

Cons

  • Poor integration with Ableton Live
  • Would be better with 16 drum pads

6. Best Keyboard: Roland A-500 Pro

Key features:

  • Velocity sensitive 49-key keyboard
  • 9 faders, 9 knobs, 8 pads, 12 buttons (total 45)
  • Durable build quality
  • Low weight and small form factor

Roland is one of the most constantly under-appreciated brands in the keyboard space. They have exceptional prestige among serious musicians, but as far as dominating social media conversations go, they’re hardly as talked about as their flashier counterparts.

The Roland A-500 Pro is no different. It boasts one of the best keyboards in this category and the legendary Roland build quality. Yet, few people know about the A-500 Pro. Even fewer choose it.

Part of the reason for this lack of interest is Roland’s focus on the keyboard instead of the pads, buttons, or faders. While you do get 45 assignable controls, they are secondary. The star of the show is the keyboard…

…and what a keyboard it is. Unlike the plasticky, cheap keys that dominate the best 49 key MIDI controller market, the Roland A-500 feels truly premium. The keys have a soft, ivory-like feel. Touch them and you’ll be reminded of $1,000 Yamaha digital pianos.

But they don’t just feel good; the keyboard is also extremely durable. From the keys to the buttons and pads, there are no unexpected wobbles and kinks. Everything feels well put together and sturdy. This is clearly a MIDI controller that will last your round the world tour, and then some more.

Speaking of additional controls, you get only 8 tiny pads and a handful of buttons. The knobs and faders have some decent resistance but nothing that instantly “clicks” as it does on the Akai MPK249. Roland is focused in its approach – it wants to sell you a keyboard, not a controller.

Integrations are a hit and miss. There are no dedicated mappings for Ableton/Logic/Pro Tools. You get some standard mappings (such as play, pause, etc.) but for the rest, you’ll have to do the key assignments yourself. If you’re looking for a plug-and-play MIDI controller, this isn’t for you.

On the whole, the Roland A-500 Pro is one of the best keyboards on the market. The keys feel good to touch and the build quality is exceptional. The rest of the package, however, is muted.

Grab this if you want a rock solid keyboard over everything else.

Pros

  • Exceptional build quality
  • Great keyboard

Cons

  • Tiny pads aren’t very intuitive
  • Limited integrations

7. Best for Portability: Alesis Q49

Key features:

  • Full-size velocity-sensitive keys
  • Synth action
  • Dedicated pitch and mod controls
  • Supports external sustain pedal

The Alesis Q49 won’t thrill you with its key quality, nor will it sweep you away with its long list of features.

What it will do, however, is give you a seriously useful keyboard at a seriously affordable price tag.

The Q49 joins the Q25 and Q61 as some of the best beginner-friendly MIDI keyboards around. Unlike some of the competitors, the Q49 is built on the “less is more” philosophy. Instead of loading up the controller with pads, buttons, knobs and faders – and doing a poor job with it – Alesis decided to focus exclusively on one thing: the keyboard.

The keys are synth action and velocity sensitive. Alesis designed them for responsiveness. Tap them gently and you’ll hear a soft murmur. Slam them in and you’ll hear a loud roar. The keyboard responds exceptionally well to your playing style, which will be a big hit with piano players.

The pitch wheel is also well put together. There is just enough heft and resistance to achieve realistic-sounding bends.

Another benefit of a small keyboard is portability. The entire keyboard weighs under 5lbs and is barely wider than half a foot. You can easily lug it around to gigs and practice sessions.

There are tons of missing features, of course. Integrations with Reason, Cubase, Logic and Pro Tool are iffy (though it works wonderfully well with Ableton). Pads and controls are obviously missed as well.

But on the whole, if you’re looking for a good no-fuss keyboard that you can carry around anywhere, the Q49 would be a great buy, particularly at its price.

Pros

  • Great keyboard quality; responsive keys
  • Mod/pitch wheel works great
  • Low weight and small dimensions
  • Great Ableton integrations

Cons

  • Limited integration with most DAWs
  • No pads, knobs, faders, or controls

8. Novation Impulse 49

Key features:

  • Full-size 49 key keyboard
  • Semi-weighted, velocity sensitive keys with aftertouch
  • 8 backlit pads, 8 knobs, 9 faders, 9 buttons
  • Dedicated mod and pitch wheels
  • USB + MIDI
  • Software included (Ableton Live Lite, Bass Station Synth, Addictive Keys)
  • Automap software for quick mapping + close DAW integration

The Novation Impulse range of MIDI controllers is almost a throwback to the ’80s era of chunky, plasticky synths that could be found in every teenage musician’s bedroom. The aesthetics are delightfully ’80s synth pop-ish – a black, white, and bordered by a wing of red. It feels tough, well-built, and slightly retro.

The design isn’t just for aesthetics; it also props up a clear and easy to access layout. The pads and knobs are on one side. The faders and buttons on the other. In between, there’s tiny screen and your primary play/pause/record controls. The bifurcated layout adds clarity that’s often missing from similar MIDI controllers.

This is one of the rare keyboards with a $300 MSRP that ships with semi-weighted, velocity-sensitive keys. As I mentioned in the Akai MPK249 review, semi-weighted keys add much needed resistance to the keys to mimic the action of a piano. They’re not quite as smooth as an expensive Yamaha, but they’re still better than the springy, unresponsive feel of synth-action keys.

The drum pads, despite being limited in number, work really well. They’re aftertouch and velocity sensitive so you can use them to bang out some nice finger-drumming patterns.

The rest of the controls – the 9 faders, buttons, and knobs – are trademark Novation – good and acceptable, not exceptional.

One of the better features is Novation’s Automap. A lot of MIDI controller software ends up being too clunky to use. Automap actually makes it a breeze to map controls for major DAWs. There’s a new “walkthrough” feature that makes setting up easier than ever.

You don’t have to go through the pain of control mappings, of course; Novation Impulse ships with built-in controls for most popular DAWs and software synths. In fact, 14 of the 20 template slots in Automap are already pre-configured for these DAWs (though you can overwrite them).

On the whole, the Novation Impulse is the perfect as the middle-of-the-road, good-but-not-great controller. It’s not the best 49 key MIDI controller around, but it does more than a decent job with great keys, good layout, and quick setup. If it only had better (and more) pads, the Impulse would be a top 5 MIDI controller easily.

Pros

  • Quality keyboard with semi-weighted keys
  • Good layout and build-quality
  • Easy to use with good integrations

Cons

  • Limited pads
  • Pad action isn’t as responsive as it could be

9. Monoprice 606607

Key features:

  • 49 velocity sensitive keys
  • Dedicated pitch, mod wheels
  • 4 built-in rotary encoder knobs
  • 1 fader
  • Room for external sustain and expression pedals

Keyboards in this range are usually guilty of doing too much (and failing) or offering too little to be worth it for even beginners.

This offering from Monoprice, thankfully, makes the smart choice of focusing mostly on the keyboard.

And I daresay the choice pays pays off.

The 49 keys are slightly shorter than a conventional 49-key keyboard, but they’re wide enough for accommodate thick fingers. The keys are synth action and velocity sensitive. It’s not the best keyboard you can buy, but for beginners, it’s a good, responsive pick.

There are four rotary knobs and a fader. The fader works well as a master slider. You can program the rotary knobs to control pitch, volume, etc.

Since there are so few controls, there are few things to map. This makes it easy to plug in and start playing on virtually any DAW.

Despite the small dimensions, the Monoprice 606607 is slightly on the heavier side (compared to the equally small Alesis Q49). It’s not a dealbreaker, but with a little lower weight, the small footprint would have made the 606607 a serious contender for the ‘most portable’ title.

There is little else to write about this; the keys work well, the small size makes it quite portable, and the pitch/mod wheels work well enough. The killer feature is the price tag which, at a MSRP just above $100, is hard to beat.

Overall, go for the Monoprice 606607 if you’re looking for a budget 49-key MIDI controller with responsive, lightweight keys.

Pros

  • Great value for money
  • Keys are light and responsive
  • Small form factor

Cons

  • Slightly heavy
  • Limited controls

10. Roland A-49

Key features:

  • 49 keys with synth action
  • Slim keys for enhanced portability
  • Includes two programmable knobs and buttons
  • Built-in pitch wheel
  • Innovative D-BEAM controller built-in

One of the biggest problems with portable keyboards is that the keyboard itself tends to be awful. Too many manufacturers ship sub-par keyboards just to get the weight below a certain “portable” threshold.

The Roland A-49 is one of the few MIDI controllers I’ve seen that doesn’t fall into this trap. At under 6 lbs and just over a foot, this is one of the most portable 49-key MIDI controllers around. Yet, it also boasts trademark Roland keys with exceptional build-quality and durability.

The keyboard is the star of the show. The 49 keys are slimmer than a standard keyboard (warning to those with thicker fingers) which helps the portability. But they’re as smooth and responsive as the keys on Roland’s higher grade models such as the A-500 Pro. There is little of the plasticky feel you usually associate with portable keyboards in this range.

There is little to write about besides the keyboard. You get two knobs and two buttons, but you’re unlikely to get much use out of them (except for maybe controlling volume, play/pause). There is also an innovative D-BEAM controller which basically helps you make music by waving your hand over it. In practice, it’s usually too sensitive (or not sensitive) enough to do anything actually useful. Consider it a gimmick and ignore it for the most part.

There is a chunky pitch wheel which feels great to use. And since there are so few controls, playing the Roland A-49 is as easy as plugging it into a computer.

The primary selling point is the portability. At just 6 lbs and 33″ in length, 7″ in width, this is one of the smaller MIDI controllers you can buy. It’s small enough that it can fit into a large backpack. Great if you want to carry around your gear on gigs.

On the whole, get the Roland A-49 if you want a great quality keyboard in portable package. The price is aggressive and trademark Roland durability will last you for years.

Pros

  • Great build quality
  • Fast, responsive keys
  • Highly portable

Cons

  • Keys are too slim for thick fingered players
  • Limited controls

So that covers the top 10 best 49 key MIDI controllers on the market right now.

This still leaves one more question to be answered: what should you look for in a MIDI controller?

I’ll share some answers below.

How to Buy the Best 49 Key MIDI Controller

 

Buying a MIDI controller can be a big challenge. Should you focus on a nice keyboard? Or should you focus on lots of controls? How important are integrations?

As with most things in music, the answers to these questions are entirely subjective. What kind of controller you choose to buy will depend entirely on the kind of music you like to make.

Having said that, there are a few things every musician should consider before jumping into the market to buy the best 49 key MIDI controller.

Let’s look at these questions in more detail.

 

Do You Really Need a MIDI Controller?

One of the most common questions I see in my inbox is: “what should I buy for a home studio setup?

For beginners, my shopping list is usually the following, based on priority:

  1. Laptop or desktop for music production
  2. DAW, like Ableton or Logic
  3. Studio headphones
  4. Audio interface
  5. A good sample pack
  6. Studio monitors

Notice how I don’t even include a MIDI controller in my list?

That’s because for beginners, a MIDI controller is usually overkill. If you’re working with a limited budget, you’ll do far better to invest it in a quality DAW + studio headphones + audio interface.

To understand why, you have to go back to the reason we use MIDI controllers.

As the name implies, this device is used as to control other equipment, such as a hardware synth of a DAW software. That’s it. All the bells and whistles you see listed in any MIDI controller’s marketing brochures is just trying to say the same thing in different words: “our device will help you control your DAW better”.

So what exactly do you need to control in a DAW?

The first and obvious candidate is entering MIDI notes. Using the mouse works fine, but it usually ends up making music too perfect. If you want something organic, you want notes to be slightly mistimed (as a real player would). Doing that with a mouse takes effort and fiddling around with quantization settings. Playing the same part via a keyboard means you get the natural groove (and tiny mistakes) of a real musician.

Another reason to own a MIDI controller is to experiment. It’s no fun entering notes with your mouse, hitting play, then realizing they don’t fit. It’s much more natural to just bang out a few notes on a controller and see if they fit.

That’s not the only thing you need to control. Maybe you want to bang out a drum pattern. Or maybe you want a fade-in effect. Or maybe you want to launch clips and audio effect with a tap of the button.

A MIDI controller will let you do all this, and more.

But the fact is, you don’t need a MIDI controller to do all the above. You can point and click to draw notes. Use automation to create fade-ins and build-ups. A MIDI controller makes things easier, but you don’t need it.
In fact, for the first two years of my musical life, I didn’t own a MIDI controller.

So before you splurge $300 on a MIDI controller, ask yourself: do I really need it? What do I currently do with my keyboard/mouse that I can do better with a dedicated controller?

You’ll find that buying a MIDI controller only makes sense if:

  • You’ve been playing for a while and have advanced beyond the ‘beginner’ stage
  • You have budget to spare
  • You actually know how to play the keyboard
  • You want something that’s more intuitive than software controls

For the rest of you, I’d say focus on improving your skills instead of buying a MIDI controller.

 

Should You Buy a Pad Controller or a Keyboard Controller?

To those of you who are unaware, controllers broadly come in two flavors: pad controllers and keyboard controllers.

Keyboard controllers are like the options you saw above. Their primary focus is a keyboard with anywhere from 25 to 88 keys. They might or might not have pads, knobs, faders, and extra buttons.

An example of a standard keyboard controller. This one has limited controls

Pad controllers, on the other hand, don’t have a keyboard. Instead, they include an array of pads (usually 64) and a set of knobs, faders, and buttons. Ableton Push is a perfect example of a pad controller:

The popular Ableton Push 2, a great example of a pad MIDI controller (Image source)

Whether you choose a pad or a keyboard controller will depend entirely on what you intend to do with your controller.

  • Choose a pad controller if you want to launch audio clips, trigger audio effects, and bang out drum patterns. If you make music primarily in Ableton’s Session view, you’ll find pad controllers to be extremely intuitive.
  • Choose a keyboard controller if you intend to compose tracks by playing MIDI notes. If you work primarily in Ableton’s Arrangement view, you’ll find keyboard controllers to be more intuitive.

Keyboard controllers are the more “traditional” form of MIDI controllers. They have a form that musicians understand – piano keys. They might or might not include additional controls (knobs, buttons, faders), but if they do, it just makes the controller more useful.

Pad controllers are focused more on giving you an intuitive interface to access your clips and sounds. They’re meant more for modern DJs and producers who want to bang out beats and experiment with sounds, not for composing tracks note by note. If that’s your playing style, you’ll find a lot of utility from pad controllers.

Ideally, you should have both. But I recommend that most musicians prioritize a keyboard controller first.

Do You Need Controls?

Even though this article is about MIDI controllers, you don’t necessarily need controls with your keyboard.

(By controls, I mean pads, knobs, faders, and buttons that ship with a lot of MIDI controllers).

It all depends on what you intend to do with your controller. If you want to play and make music note by note and chord by chord, you can do with a keyboard alone.

But if you want more flexibility in terms of launching clips, changing EQ settings on the fly, and turning up/down volume, pan, etc, you’ll want some form of controls built-in.

An ideal MIDI controller should have both a keyboard and controls (such as our top rated Akai MPK249. But if your pick doesn’t have built-in controls, it’s not really a deal breaker, provided it adheres to your playing style.

That is to say, controls are good to have, but not a must have. A decent keyboard should be a far higher priority.

 

What Kind of Keyboard Should You Buy?

Broadly speaking, MIDI controller keyboards fall into one of three categories:

  • Fully-weighted: Fully-weighted keyboards mimic the action of acoustic pianos. Hence, they are heavier and have variable resistance (lower octaves have higher resistance). This makes them great for people coming from a piano background. It is extremely rare to find MIDI controllers with fully-weighted keys. They’re much more common in digital pianos.
  • Semi-weighted: Semi-weighted keyboards are halfway between the full weight of piano keys and the low resistance, springy action of synthesizers. They offer a decent compromise between authenticity and comfort. Many MIDI controllers in the $300+ range have semi-weighted keys.
  • Synth-action: Synth-action keys are light, responsive and have little resistance. The keys don’t mimic piano action. That is, there is no variable weight or resistance. Pressing a key gives you immediate access to the sound, without any feedback. Synth action keys are common in low and mid-range MIDI controllers.

What kind of keyboard you buy will depend on your budget and playing style.

If you have a low budget (under $200), you will have to make do with synth-action keyboards. For semi-weighted keyboards, you’ll have to increase your budget to $200+ (preferably, $300+). Fully-weighted keyboards are extremely rare. If you want one, I suggest buying a digital piano and using it as a MIDI instrument.

Your playing style and experience will also impact your choice. Semi-weighted and fully-weighted keyboards are better suited for people with prior piano experience. Synth-action keyboards, however, are much more forgiving to beginners.

Unweighted or synth-action keys (Image source: Dummies.com)

If you know how to play the piano, go for semi-weighted keyboards. If not, pick synth-action keyboards instead.

 

What Should Be Your Budget for a MIDI Controller?

MIDI controllers aren’t very expensive as far as musical instruments go. If you’re used to $500 guitars and $1,000 digital pianos, you’ll be pleased to know that you can buy very competent MIDI controllers for under $200.

As a general rule, your budget will impact your choices as follows (with respect to 49 key controllers):

  • Under $100: In this range, you’ll mostly find mini keyboards with a handful of controls. Nearly all keyboards in this budget are synth-action. Portability is a big focus and most offerings clock in at 5-8lbs.
  • $100-$200: Keyboards in this range tend to be mostly synth-action. Some offerings at the top of this range ($200) will have semi-weighted keys. Most will have a mix of keyboard and controls. Most beginners and intermediate players should have a budget between $150-$200 to get a decent MIDI controller.
  • $200-$300: MIDI controllers in this range generally boast extensive controls (8-16 pads, 9 faders, 9 knobs, 8+ buttons are common). At the far end of this range, you’ll also find semi-weighted keyboards. The build quality of gear at this budget is generally very good.
  • $300+: The top end of the MIDI controller budget range boasts premium offerings from the likes of Akai and Roland. Their keyboards are usually semi-weighted and you get a full range of built-in controls. The build-quality of gear in this range tends to be exceptional. It’s not unusual to find a 15 year old $400 Akai working perfectly even today.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a great MIDI controller under $100. Go for this range only if you want a secondary controller that emphasizes portability.

Most beginners and intermediate players should aim for a budget between $100-$200. You’ll get a good mix of build-quality, key-quality, and controls.

Most beginners and intermediate players should aim for a budget between $100-$200

If you’ve been playing for a while, think of splurging on a premium MIDI controller. Look for semi-weighted keys since this will improve the playing experience substantially. A $300 budget is great for finding some great picks.

 

What Should You Look for in Built-in Controls?

If your MIDI controller has built-in controls, here’s what you should look for in them:

Pads

If the MIDI controller has built-in pads, consider the following:

  • Number of pads: 16 is ideal, 8 should be minimum
  • Pad size: Larger is better. Smaller pads make finger drumming difficult
  • Pad responsiveness: Fast, responsive pads are ideal. A slow pad that offers too much resistance makes finger drumming difficult.
  • Pad illumination: Backlit or RGB pads are ideal since you can assign different colors to different sounds. They also look better than plain black pads.

 

Knobs

Most controllers have at least a few knobs. These are useful for fade-ins, controlling volume, pan, etc. Here’s what you should consider when selecting knobs:

  • Number of knobs: Usually, the number of knobs will correspond to the number of faders (9). At the very least, you want two knobs to control volume and panning.
  • Knob resistance: A good quality knob should have some resistance when you turn it. If it is too loose, you might increase/decrease it too much. Look for some tightness and heft while turning.
  • Rotation freedom: Better-quality knobs have complete 360 degree freedom of movement (i.e. you can go from 0 and come back to 0 after a complete rotation).

 

Faders

Faders are common in MIDI controllers, usually used for handling EQ. Here’s what you should consider when selecting faders:

  • Number of faders: The most common layout for faders is 8+1. Here, you have 8 faders for EQ and the final 1 for the master control. Some MIDI controllers have just a single fader for controlling the master channel.
  • Movement resistance: As with knobs, a good fader should have some resistance when you move it. This increases the amount of fine control you have over the faders.
  • Mechanization: Some high-end MIDI controllers have mechanized faders (usually only one – the master channel). This lets you automate the fader action without touching it. You don’t need it, but it’s a great value-add.

 

Buttons

Besides faders, pads, and knobs, most MIDI controllers also have an assortment of buttons. You can program these to launch clips, effects, and perform different functions within the DAW.

The number of buttons in the MIDI controller varies a lot, but 2-16 is common. Since these are mostly just used as shortcuts, you don’t have to worry too much about their resistance or build-quality. As long as they work when you press them, you should be fine.

 

What Else Should You Consider in MIDI Controllers?

Apart from the things we’ve already discussed, there are a few more considerations when buying MIDI controllers, such as:

1. Layout

The layout of the MIDI controller is often overlooked, even though it impacts every aspect of the device. You want a controller that gives you easy access to all the controls while putting the keyboard front and center.

Most well-designed MIDI controllers follow a logical layout with pads on one side, faders and knobs on the other. For example, the popular Akai MPK249 keeps all buttons in the center while the knobs and faders occupy the right half:

Stay away from controllers that follow no clear and discernible layout pattern. If the knobs and faders are placed separately on either half of the controller, stay away – it’s not going to be very intuitive to use.

 

2. Screen

Most mid-range and up MIDI controllers have a built-in screen. This is useful for showing information from the DAW or giving you customization options and key mappings.

The screen is usually tiny. It’s rare to find a MIDI controller with a full color screen. The LCD screen on Akai MPK249 is pretty much the standard fare:

The lack of a screen isn’t a deal breaker. In fact, some very well-respected controllers, such as the Roland A-500 Pro, don’t have screens. You’ll have your laptop screen with the DAW anyway.

Consider this a “nice to have”, not a “must have”.

 

3. Integrations

Integrations are crucial for MIDI controllers. The better integrated the controller is with your DAW, the easier it will be to use.

Most modern controllers are well-integrated with the three most popular DAWs right now – Ableton, Logic, and Pro Tools. Ableton integrations tend to be particularly common. If your controller isn’t integrated out of the box with your DAW, be prepared to spend a decent amount of time mapping different controls to the controller.

Consider the kind of mapping software the controller ships with. Some software, such as Novation’s Automap, is a breeze to use. Other, such as M-Audio’s, can be cumbersome.

Fortunately, most mapping software will let you add your own scripts for quick integrations. You can easily find free downloadable scripts for most DAWs online. Check this before you make a purchase decision.

 

4. Included Software

It’s common for controllers in the mid-range and up to ship with free versions of DAWs, some software synths, and a few sample packs.

Novation’s Impulse range of controllers, for instance, ships with the following software:

  • Ableton Live Lite
  • Novation Bass Station synth
  • XLN Audio Addictive Keys
  • Loopmaster’s Sample Pack

It’s nice to have this free software but it isn’t a deal breaker. Most likely, this software can’t compete with any paid plugins or synths (Bass Station is nice, but it’s no Serum). Sample packs are also a dime-a-dozen.

Manufacturers usually use this software as a value-add to stand out from competitors. But don’t let it sway your decision; it’s much more important to get a controller that works well than one that gives you a lot of freebies.

 

5. Portability

Whether you prioritize portability or not will depend entirely on what you intend to do with your MIDI controller. If you plan to place it front and center in your home studio, it’s likely at the low-end of your priority list. However, if you plan on dragging your controller to your gigs, you’ll want a lightweight option.

At 49 keys, MIDI controllers in this category are perfectly placed for portability. They’re not as large as 88 or 61 key controllers to be difficult to carry around. Some of the lower-end models without built-in controls are even small enough to carry around in a backpack.

Image source: YouTube

If portability is a priority, look for MIDI controllers that weigh under 10 lbs (5-6 lbs is ideal). The size shouldn’t exceed 36” (the most portable options are around 33” mark).

 

6. Ports and Power Supply

Finally, consider the number and type of ports the MIDI controller has, and how it draws power.
For power, controllers usually have two options:

  • External power supply by a 9-12V adapter
  • USB power

USB power is ideal if you’re going to plug the controller into a computer. If you plan to plug it into a hardware synth, look for external power supply.

MIDI and USB ports are standard. Some controllers also have ports to attach external piano sustain and expression pedals. These are nice to have only if you plan on playing piano-style.

 

Final Words

With that, we come to a close in this extended guide to buying the best 49 key MIDI controller. We’ve covered everything from the factors that should impact your purchase decision to a comprehensive list of the best controllers on the market right now.

Just to recap, here is our list of the best 49 key MIDI controllers, sorted by category:

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