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Picking the Best MIDI Keyboard for Garageband in 2020

Last Updated on September 18, 2020 by Ryan Harrell

Garageband might not have the power and flexibility of a professional DAW, but for many musicians, it’s the perfect – and often the first – introduction to music production. The easiest way to get more out of Garageband is to hook up a MIDI keyboard to it. As you’ll see below, the best MIDI keyboard for Garageband will give you fine control over your production and open up new avenues in performance. 

Garageband doesn’t get enough credit among producers. Sure, it’s underpowered and limited in flexibility. Sure, it suffers from a lack of features and you’re constrained by the limitations of iOS devices. But for a new producer, it’s a fantastic – and fun – tool to get into music.

That doesn’t mean Garageband is strictly for beginners – I know quite a few serious producers who use it as a mobile “idea studio”. They’ll use it to jot down ideas and jam out tunes on the go. An iPad Pro even has enough power to accommodate multiple plugins and dozens of tracks.

What stops Garageband from becoming a more full-fledged production studio (not that Apple would ever want it to replace its cash cow, Logic Pro) is the lack of hardware. Most music production hardware is aimed at full-fledged computers. Until recently, you couldn’t even find gear with USB-C ports, leaving one to juggle around multiple USB converters.

Thankfully, the stable of hardware compatible with mobile devices – and by proxy, Garageband – is on the rise. More and more big name manufacturers are offering Garageband-compatible MIDI keyboards and even audio interfaces. Combined with the better processing power of modern iPads, this makes Garageband a surprisingly capable mobile production studio.

We’ll look at the best MIDI keyboards for Garageband in this guide. I’ll share my top picks and what makes them suitable for production on the go. I’ll also share a few buying tips for buying the best MIDI keyboard for your needs.

But first, our top pick:

We use rigorous research, reviews, and real-world performance when recommending products. Our reviewers include producers, performers, and active musicians. You can read more about our review process here. Be advised that MIDINation might earn referral commissions on purchases made through this website. This does not affect your final purchase price.
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About your reviewer
Ryan Harrell is the founder of MIDINation and an experienced producer/DJ. His first experience with electronic music production dates back to Cubase 3.0 in the summer of 1997, and he’s been a fan ever since. He prefers Ableton as his primary DAW these days, though he is still partial to Cubase and Pro Tools. He lives in San Diego and freelances as a producer and part-time DJ.

The Best MIDI Keyboard for Garageband

When dealing with Garageband keyboards, there are two things that sit at the top of our priority list:

  • Instant compatibility with mobile devices and Garageband
  • Portability, since you’ll most likely use the keyboard on the move

Because of this, we’ve prioritized Bluetooth keyboards since they are instantly compatible with mobile devices, including iPad and iPhones.

Little wonder that our top pick is a Bluetooth MIDI keyboard as well:

CME Xkey Air

The XKey Air was one of the first Bluetooth MIDI controllers on the scene and it’s still arguably the best one around. While the keybed isn’t as good as some of the premium wired offerings, the Bluetooth implementation remains top notch. Compatibility with Garageband is top-notch and the latency is low enough, even on older iOS devices.

Our first option on this roundup is the truly excellent CME Xkey MIDI controller. It comes with several features that make it very playable and suited for some really intense music production.

We love the sheer simplicity of this option. While others come fitted with bells and whistles, the CME Xkey Air 25 does away with all that. Instead of features that do not really add any value, this model focuses more on practical features that elevate its playability.

The design is one of the reasons we are in love with this product. It comes in a modern-looking design. It doesn’t come with fancy design but looks ready for serious use. It comes in a slim and lightweight profile; a deviation from what is usually found on the market. Due to this profile, it looks elegant and sleek without overdoing it. It is one of the most portable MIDI controllers you can find.

When paired with your devices (laptops, tablets, etc.), it makes for a really appealing sight. From my experience, it comes in a design that makes you feel like you are holding a premium product from Apple. It looks great and is made from brushed aluminium. Considering the relatively high price, it isn’t really surprising that this product looks so good.

Aside from looking great, this model is very durable. We don’t recommend that you drop it, but in case it falls, you can rest assured that it will not get damaged easily.

The keys are impressive. These full-sized keys come with a twang that feels great and imitates perfectly typical MIDI controllers.

However, the portability means that it doesn’t feel exactly like what you will find on a piano. It features polyphonic after touch, which we found to be a really interesting addition.

Performance-wise, there is hardly a keyboard MIDI controller that can compete with this option. CME has seemed to perfect Bluetooth functionality. Hence, it connects seamlessly with Bluetooth enabled devices and delivers impressive overall performance. Throughout the testing period, I did not experience any Bluetooth connectivity issues with the product. It works without any latency at all.

What I don’t like:

Price wise, this is quite an investment. Therefore if you are looking for a cheap option, you will definitely have to look away from this model. Furthermore, this model doesn’t come with a sustain pedal port which I found to be quite disappointing.

Recommended for: I highly recommend this product for any advanced producers as it comes with so many excellent features and will be an excellent addition. Furthermore, it is simple enough to be used by beginners as well. With its sleek, portable size, it is a powerful option that can be used on the road.

Pros

  • Sleek, elegant build
  • Durable construction
  • Great connectivity

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Keybed is average at best

Best Budget Keyboard for Garageband: Korg MKEYAIR25

Key features:

  • Bluetooth connectivity
  • USB connectivity
  • Music software bundle included
  • 25-key MIDI controller

While our top pick above comes at a high price, the Korg MKEYAIR25 is one of the cheapest options in the market right now. However, do not let the low price fool you; it is still a nice MIDI controller that offers decent overall performance.

The design of this controller focuses on only the basics. Since it is a budget option, focusing only on important stuff is the way to go to cut down production costs. As such, it doesn’t come made from aluminium or other expensive materials. Instead, it features a plastic body. It is one of the simpler units in the market today; coming with a minimalist theme.

If you compare this product to others in its range, it comes in a compact, relatively lightweight form. It is a compact keyboard as it comes with just 25 keys. Therefore, it is a good option to have if you are usually on the go. Build quality doesn’t blow us out of our minds; however, the thin and lightweight product is made to last and wouldn’t suddenly let you down as you use it.

The features of this model are quite impressive; especially considering the price. The way to get the most out of it is to view it as a mobile tool for making music. That way, you won’t be too disappointed with the scanty features. The lack of touchpads is a bummer, but you will still enjoy some other features like the 25 velocity-sensitive keys and the mod wheels. Furthermore, it comes with a pair of USB ports that allow you to connect your external devices.

Now, aside from the ports, which are great, one feature that is really impressive is the Bluetooth connectivity that the device boasts of. It can be truly wireless; hence you can connect it to Bluetooth enabled devices.

Bluetooth uses quite a large amount of power, so we are pleased that the device comes with a great battery. During our testing, and from reviews from users, these batteries can last for several months before they get depleted.

It is an easy to use device and is compatible with Windows and Mac computers.

Performance wise, especially when the price and minimalist features are considered, it is the best budget option you can buy. It is especially good on the road as nobody wants to carry bulky equipment around.

I liked the XY joystick on this model that let me control pitch and modulation. If you plan on playing live with it, you will find the arpeggiator to be a really handy feature.

What I don’t like

Well, if you are going to be doing production work, the arpeggiator doesn’t really come in useful since it doesn’t sync to a BPM. It will require you to tap in the tempo, which can be stressful. Bluetooth is cool, but I observed that you have to keep the device connected to your computer at all times. If the connection breaks, you have to remove and reconnect, which can be annoying.

Recommended for: With its portable size and affordable price, I recommend this model for music makers that need a MIDI controller on the go at a cheap price. It will definitely help you to get the job done even in tight areas.

Pros

  • Comes with nice keys
  • Durable
  • Excellent wireless

Cons

  • Issues with automatic pairing
  • Keys are small

Best Keybed: M-Audio Keystation 49

Key features:

  • Premium software suite
  • Mac and Windows compatibility
  • 49 full size keys
  • Compact design

It might not look it, but this budget-friendly MIDI keyboard controller is one of the best options on the market right now. It isn’t expensive, but it comes with features that rival even more expensive models.

Whether you are a beginner or you are an expert, chances are pretty high that you will fall in love with this product.

The M-Audio Keystation comes with a trio of supplementary software that includes the popular Ableton Live Lite, Xpand!, and SONIVOX.

Traditional options were made to ensure that beginners have an easy time mastering the keyboard. They came with features that were easy to learn, but rather limited in scope. Therefore, the market has become filled with mediocre keyboards for beginners. When beginners become better, they find such keyboards to be useless.

If you are just starting out, you should get a keyboard that will last throughout your learning period, and that is what this model gives you. It is a wonderful option for all folks regardless of the level of expertise.

The design is simple and straightforward. It is compact and relatively lightweight as it weighs about 17 pounds. It comes with 49 full sized velocity sensitive keys that are semi-weighted. I love these keys as they feel cool and quite natural.

To make it easier to learn, it does away with complicated buttons and pads that might complicate the learning process.

The features of this keyboard are quite robust. The keys feel great whether you have been playing for a long time, or you are a novice.

It comes with a sustain pedal input that works with different control pedals on the market. Furthermore, it is compatible with Mac, Windows, and USB-MIDI.

The USB compatibility means that you will not need to have so many wires in your studio. The DAW compatibility means that you have near-endless compatibility with other devices.
The software that is bundled in the device makes it a really versatile option. For example, Ableton Live Lite, lets you record, mix, and edit your music very quickly and easily.

Another reason why I rate this so highly is that it comes with FM synthesis and wavetables sampling abilities; remarkable for a keyboard in this price range.

What I don’t like

While this is an excellent option, it comes with its fair share of flaws. For instance, it is quite noisy. The springs under the keys are responsible for this. Additionally, the USB cable that comes with the keyboard is rather short.

Recommended for: If you move between Garageband and other full-featured DAWs, you will likely enjoy using this product. It is one of the best MIDI keyboards for Garageband on the market and has the best keys within this roundup.

Pros

  • Solid, robust construction
  • USB charging
  • Relatively lightweight for its size

Cons

  • Keys are noisy
  • Short USB cord

Best MIDI Keyboard for Garageband (Portability): Arturia MiniLab MkII

Key features:

  • 21 keyboard instruments
  • 16 assignable encoders
  • Fully mapped

The Arturia MiniLab MKII is a leader in a world of low-priced MIDI keyboard controllers. The original model, the Arturia MiniLab, when it was first introduced back in 2013, made quite the impression on users around the world. It came with impressive drum pads, plenty of knobs, and other features. This latest model, the MKII, builds on those impressive features to deliver an even better model.

Right out of the box, the first thing you will notice about this model is that it is very compact; at least more compact than its predecessor. Therefore, although the Arturia MiniLab was quite portable and easy to carry around, this model is even more so.

One reason for the compact design is that the manufacturer has changed the position of the mod and pitch-bend touch strips. While some prefer these to be on the left, I was comfortable with the new position at the upper panel.

Therefore, if you are looking for a model that will fit your backpack quite snugly, you will likely love this option.

Plastic controllers might be lighter, but they aren’t as lightweight as aluminum or metal options. This model comes with a metal chassis, and while this isn’t the lightest option, it is very durable and will serve you for a long time.

Keyboard action is one of the most important considerations in a MIDI controller, and I am pleased that this model does not disappoint. In fact, it beats several of the competition in this regard. It feels so good to play, and that is saying something considering that I have played several controllers.

Other controllers on the market offer you 8 rotary controls, but this model offers even more. It has 16 different rotary controls which is great. Even better is that two of them can be clicked.
Aside from these, the keys and buttons offer velocity behavior, and the keyboard even comes with a footswitch jack!

The drum pads on the MKII feel really nice and do more than just controlling drim velocity and percussion. When used properly, these drums can be used as preset selectors.

Connections are nice and straightforward. You will find one USB connection port as the device is USB powered. It can also be powered using phones and laptops.

What I don’t like

Installing software on this product is quite tedious, to be honest. It takes time to organize, and it takes several attempts to get the software running.

Another minor negative is the poor availability. Half the time, you won’t find it in stock at most retailers.

Recommended for: If you seek a versatile controller for the studio that is quite affordable and that can be carried with you to gigs, then the MiniLab MKII might just be what you need.

Pros

  • Reliable performance
  • Excellent plug-ins included
  • Good quality at an affordable price

Cons

  • Keys might be too small for you
  • Software installation is cumbersome

Best Mixed-Use MIDI Keyboard: Novation Launchkey Mini [MK3]

Key features:

  • Creative Arpeggiator
  • Fixed Chord Mode
  • 16 velocity-sensitive RGB pads

Do not judge a book by its cover. This saying is applicable to Novation Launch key Mini. It comes in a compact design (the most compact on this roundup), but it packs quite a punch. It offers more than you’d think it can and comes with several creative features.

Just like the models that came before it, the MK3 is a keyboard and pad device. It is very easy to use.

The design is very neat and high quality, as is expected from a product from Novation. The size is one of the main reasons people love it. It has a width around that of your MacBook, and it is very lightweight. Therefore, you can throw it in a bag and carry it around without noticing the weight. Additionally, it is a durable model that can take the punishment of going on the road often. It comes with a well-designed layout that makes using it very comfortable. For instance, the 16 velocity sensitive pads are evenly spread, giving you plenty of room to play on the interface. While not all the buttons and knobs are this great (the rotaries feel weird), overall it is a joy to use.

This model isn’t as versatile as some of the other options that we have reviewed so far since it is made to be mostly compatible with Ableton Live. Nevertheless, Ableton Live is very useful, and you will get plenty of control over the software’s features. This includes the ability to play Drum Racks on the pads, and adjust other parameters. Aside from Ableton Live, you will also be able to control DAWs compatible with HUI, and your IOS devices.

The hardware is one point where this model really shines. Using the onboard arp, you will enjoy several modes, including a four-octave range and timing divisions.

The MIDI output port lets the model work in standalone mode, which I found to be awesome.

Set up is really straightforward on this model; all you need to do is plug it in, load up Ableton Live, and you are good to go.

What I don’t like

Despite the ability to use the Novation in standalone mode, I didn’t like that the adapter for the MIDI output port isn’t provided in the package.

Recommended for: This excellent MIDI controller is great for beginner producers and experienced hands alike. If you want to use your MIDI keyboard on Garageband as well as other DAWs, this is the right option for you.

Pros

  • It is very compact and lightweight
  • Comes with excellent chord modes
  • Easy to configure

Cons

  • Doesn’t come with a MIDI adapter

Over to You

Buying the best MIDI keyboard can be challenging. Your options are limited because of compatibility issues with Garageband and the lack of Bluetooth MIDI keyboards.

Hopefully, this list will help you make the right decision.

For more recommendations and advice, don’t hesitate to reach out to me here.

Also read:

  • Our guide to MIDI keyboards and controllers for other DAWs: Logic Pro X, Ableton, FL Studio, and Pro Tools
  • Need a portable option? Check out our favorite portable MIDI keyboards here

References:

Changelog
  • May 20, 2020: Article first published
  • September 18, 2020: Article updated

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