Last Updated on September 18, 2020 by Ryan Harrell
In a live performance, you can’t afford to make any mistakes. You need reliability, instantaneous response, and most of all, equipment you’re comfortable with. Anything that doesn’t truly fit will show up in your performance. This is why we put together this guide to help you buy the best MIDI controller for live performance. Use this to find the right MIDI keyboard or pad controller to take on the most demanding of live gigs without breaking a sweat.
Akai APC40 MK2
- Solid integration
- Tons of control options
- Reliable live performance
Akai Pro Advance 49
- Excellent build quality
- Great semi-weighted keys
- Lots of control options
- Bluetooth enabled
- Built-in sounds
- Integrates easily with iPad
Live gigs are tough work. One mistake can throw you – and your audience – completely off its groove.
A MIDI controller in a live setting fulfills a very different role than a controller in a studio. For starters, you don’t have the freedom to carry every gear you want. In a studio, you might have one controller for its keybed, another for its pads.
But in a live setting, you’re limited by what you – and the venue – can carry.
Reliability – that quality so often ignored in studios – becomes a top priority in a live gig. You don’t want to hook up the controller to the laptop only to find that the driver has crashed or the knobs aren’t responding.
But most importantly, live performance comes down to comfort. If you’re not comfortable and happy with the equipment, it will show in your performance.
This is why it’s never a good idea to compromise on live performance gear. Buy the best you can afford and maintain it well.
To help you out, we put together this guide to the best MIDI controller for live performance.
Our Selection Process
The term “MIDI controller”, as we’ve discussed in the past, is a little tricky. Different people think of different things when they think of it.
Categorically speaking, a “MIDI controller” is any equipment with a MIDI interface that lets you control other gear. This “other gear” can be hardware (such as a hardware synth) or software (such as a DAW/software synth).
But when we talk about music production and performance, “MIDI controllers”, colloquially, have come to mean one of three things:
- A keyboard-only MIDI controller without any pads, knobs, or faders. This is useful for controlling hardware or software synths
- A pad-only MIDI controller without any keyboard. This is useful for controlling a DAW
- A hybrid MIDI controller with both a keyboard and a set of control options (pads, knobs, faders). This allows you to control some parameters of hardware/software synths and DAWs and play melodies/chords right from the synth.
For most live performances, we recommend choosing hybrid controllers. They give you the best of both worlds in live settings. You can play chords and melodies. You can also control different parameters, trigger clips, or control EQ with the built-in control options.
There is another class of MIDI controllers that we’ve considered for this list. This includes stage pianos and synths with MIDI-out options. While you’d likely not use them with your DAW, they offer the kind of plug-and-play performance that’s great for live settings.
For instance, the popular Yamaha MX49 synth has MIDI-out options. You can create sounds from scratch with the MX49’s built-in synthesizer. Or you can hook it up to the computer and use the software synth. This gives you a great deal of versatility.
Since we’re looking at the best MIDI controller for live performance, we also prioritized a large number of keys and control options. Portability might be a virtue, but you don’t want to be limited by key count or size in a live gig.
3 Things to Consider Before Buying
Playing live is very different than producing in your home studio. There is no trial and error live; once the show starts, the audience expects you to be professional and polished. If you spend half the show tinkering with your gear, your audience will be out the door before you can even launch your DAW.
The more central the gear is to your performance, the more money and time you should spend on buying the right option. If you’re a guitarist, buy the best guitar you can afford. If you’re a producer or DJ, buy the best MIDI controller for live performance.
So before you start the buying process, here are the top three things to consider:
1. Build Quality and Reliability
Performing live means carrying gear to gigs. It means touring. It means checking in expensive gear on flights.
None of these are kind to your gear.
Build quality, therefore, becomes paramount. If your MIDI controller can’t take the abuse of touring, it’s not a controller that will perform well in a live setting.
Another facet of build quality is reliability. There are two aspects to it:
- Hardware reliability: Hardware reliability describes two things – the build quality, and whether the hardware performs its expected function reliably. While the latter is influenced by build quality, it’s not completely tied to it. A badly built piece of equipment can be “reliable” if it produces the expected output every time without fail.
- Software reliability: Your MIDI controller will interface with your computer. Faulty drivers, poor compatibility – these can all be major bottlenecks in a live performance.
Here are some key considerations to keep in mind when optimizing for reliability:
- Pick a MIDI controller that is well-optimized with your software stack. Fixes and workarounds might work in a studio, but in a live setting, you want out of the box compatibility
- While badly built controllers can be “reliable”, they are less likely to take the rigors of touring. Optimize for build quality if the price permits
- Look for controllers with high repairability. If a rubber pad comes loose or a key starts wobbling, you should be able to fix it on your own quickly
It goes without saying that portability should be a factor when choosing the best MIDI controller for live performance. Touring is tough; you don’t want to lug around 150lbs of gear everywhere you go.
Portability can be a tough metric to optimize for. You obviously want the performance freedom larger controllers offer – bigger keys, full-size 88-key keyboards. But you also want to keep things light enough for traveling.
What sort of compromise you choose will depend on your performance style and priority. If you play complex piano solos in your performances, I would never recommend getting any controller with fewer than 61 keys. But if you mostly play two octave melodies and tap out some drum patterns, a smaller controller might do the trick.
One aspect of portability that a lot of performers ignore is compatibility. Every “hack” you have to find to connect your hardware/software together adds to your portability problems. Every extra cable, interface, clip takes up space in your touring luggage.
Thus, opt for a MIDI controller that works with as few extra cables and hacks as possible with your hardware and software stacks.
3. Ease of Use and Comfort
The most important consideration in your decision should be ease of use. You want a MIDI controller that a) works seamlessly with your software/hardware stack, and b) you’re comfortable playing.
The second reason is why I always recommend performers to pick a poorer quality MIDI controller that they’re comfortable with over a better controller they’ve never used before.
For instance, if you’ve been using Akai controllers all your life, it would be better to stick to the same brand instead of buying a better offering from, say, Nektar.
As I like to tell people who email me – find your poison, then stick with it.
The Best MIDI Controller for Live Performance
Given the three factors we discussed above, let’s take a closer look at our top picks for the best MIDI controllers for live gigs:
Akai APC40 MK2 is designed to work seamlessly with most DAWs, though it is particularly good when used with Ableton Live. This midi controller has 40 buttons organized in five scenes depth by eight tracks wide. The new version has RGB-enabled pads, which are an update from the previous versions, and it reflects the same colors on live tracks displaying three clip status which indicate playing, loaded, and recording.
Other features that make Akai APC40 MK2 special include eight control knobs, nine-channel faders, and eight device controls. Under every eight tracks, there is a devoted crossfade assign, track activator, Record and solo buttons.
This device features a new layout of buttons and knobs, which is an upgrade from the previous model. Another additions that make APC40 MK2 the best midi controller for live performance is the RGB-colored pads which enhance better visual organization, reduces the need for looking at the PC screen, and also makes Ableton Live a lively and thrilling controller.
What we don’t like:
The Akai APC40 MK2doesn’t have the robustness of some other live DAW controllers. Iits knobs and faders glitch out fast and affect the other controller components.
- Pro-Quality Keyboard Sounds
- Bluetooth Streaming
- Smartphone support
- 61 Ivory feel and box-shape keys with velocity
- Performance Pad
- Built-in recorder
Roland GO-61k is a digital, easy to use, and fun keyboard designed for creating good music. It features a 61-key keyboard ivory feel, box-shaped with velocity-sensitive keys which are suitable for people who know how to play a keyboard well. Nonetheless, the in-built loop mix function allows newbies to trigger the loop phrases related to the notes you hit.
Through the on-board performance pads, you can change parameters like the pitch and also use filters if needed. Additionally, it is packed with 500 sounds beginners as well as pro players can and will enjoy.
Why do I list Roland GO-61k as the best midi controller for live performance? All the 500 sounds are sourced from much-admired Roland’s pro synthesizers, thus giving you a wide range of world-class sounds at the fingertips.
It also features Bluetooth streaming function that enables music streaming or tracks backing using a tablet or smartphone. This musical instrument can be used anywhere anytime, thanks to the 6 x AA batteries-powered keyboard.
What we don’t like
It comes with plastic bubble buttons used for selecting sounds, but these buttons wear out quick.
- Over 16 Gigs Of Software Included
- Sophisticated But Easy To Use
- 49 premium, semi-weighted velocity-sensitive keybed with Aftertouch
- Expression pedal and footswitch inputs
- Rubberized Pitch and Modulation wheels
- Virtual Instrument Player software
Akai Pro Advance 61 has made it to the best midi controller for live performance for one reason. It offers exceptional playability as well as limitless manipulation of the virtual instruments using unique interactive, full-color display, accompanied by hardware controls with high performance.
Advance Keyboards convert the PC-based plugins to complete practical playing experience. It comes with a unified high-resolution full-color 4.3-inch display surface that provides real-time feedback and control of the virtual gadgets. The display screen adapts to the chosen plugin control instantly, thus providing instantaneous access not only to the instruments but numerous editable functions.
Nonetheless, the Advance Keyboards is compatible with any VSTi virtual instrument. When using the Virtual Instrument Player (VIP) software program customized for the advance keyboard, you can control the whole of VSTi library from one application. The Virtual Instrument Player runs as a plugin in any stand-alone application or primary digital audio workstation (DAW), and both Windows and Mac devices support it.
What we don’t like
VIP software is flaky, and there seem to be a lot of bugs as well as incompatibility issues with various audio interfaces needs fixing. The keyboard has no option for full velocity.
- Split /Layer Performance
- Analog & Digital Connectivity
- Cubase AI and Cubase LE included
- Controls for VSTs and DAWs
- Over 1000 MOTIF Voices
Yamaha MX49 is a music synthesizer in the MX BK/BU series. It features more than 1000 voices from the renowned Motif series in addition to the deep integration of computer and iOS in a new blue color, compacted, and lightweight keyboard.
As the best midi controller for live performance, it comes with a powerful sonic palette package accessible in 49- and 61-note versions and perfectly fits in the present-day lifestyle. Nevertheless, this MX BK/BU series is more than just synthesizers. They feature a unique design that aid in bridging the gap between software and hardware.
With the extras of MIDI USB connectivity, extensive audio, cutting-edge DAW and VST controller options and the most powerful music production software suite, Yamaha MX49 and the entire MX BK/BU incorporate controller flexibility and hardware reliability to provide fantastic trustworthiness and affordability.
What we don’t like
This midi controller comes with keys that are typical synth action. They are not weighted keys, like many people would prefer them to be.
- Seamless Transitions
- Three-part multi-timbral
- Split and layer all three sections with optional Split Point Crossfades
- OLED Display for an excellent overview
- More Advanced and Organize Program Section
Nord is famous for producing the best electronic pianos, synthesizers, and organs universally. Nord Electro 6D 61 comes with a 61-note half-weighted waterfall keybed with physical drawbars which sets this high-quality vintage electro mechanical and audio instruments apart from the rest and makes it ultraportable package.
With a new restructured and simplified user interface, three independent sound sections, and overall seamless transitions, Nord proudly presents not only the most flexible and powerful midi controller but also the best midi controller for live performance to the world. Its panel includes three independent sound sections, which are the organ, piano, and the sample synth. These can be used concurrently as a split or layer.
Other features of Nord Electro 6D 61 is the six split points and a new split point crossfade options designed to enhance smooth transitions between the two split zones. The modernized program sector has a conveniently organized mode with a copy, paste, and move functions to help with quick assembly of programs in the desired order.
What we don’t like
The latest Nord Electro 6D 61 could be too advanced for newbies. The cost is also prohibitively high.
- 61 Hammer-Action Keys
- On-Stage KSP100 Keyboard Sustain Pedal
- 16 Drum Pads
- Aftertouch keys
- Analog Lab Software for Mac and Windows
- 13 Encoders
This controller is perfect for modern producers, pianists, and the demanding stage entertainers. The weighted keys feature set’s this midi controller apart from the rest although it not so necessary. As the best midi controller for live performance, I recommend the Arturia Keylab 61 for musicians who play live or composes with a lot of different sounds that they would wish to incorporate.
Something exciting about this keyboard, it allows for easy splitting of the keys and using multiple VST sounds in each split. It comes with very responsive pads that are also easy to program. Typically, most 61-key MIDI controllers don’t house any internal sounds, but Arturia’s KeyLab 88 feels not only dense but also durable.
KeyLab 61 is designed to take the standards of professional controller keyboards to another level. Besides, it features a complete piano-style pedal which is suitable for getting responsive and sturdy control for sustenance.
What we don’t like
While it is well built and has the right technology on the MIDI, Arturia Keylab 61 is a little dated and needs a model refresh.
Over to You
Buying live performance gear is always a challenge. Juggling performance, reliability, and portability is never easy.
Hopefully, this list will help you select the best MIDI controller for live performance.
For more recommendations and advice, don’t hesitate to reach out to me here.
- See our list of the best MIDI keyboards
- Need a controller for Ableton? See our list of the best Ableton controllers
- For more DAW specific recommendations, see our MIDI controllers lists for: Logic Pro X, Cubase, FL Studio, Pro Tools