Despite it’s stature as an industry standard, Pro Tools doesn’t get nearly enough love on the internet. There’s little information online on the best MIDI keyboards and controllers for Pro Tools and how to decide the right pick for your needs. Our latest guide on the best MIDI keyboard for Pro Tools seeks to find some answers.
However, there is one music production behemoth missing from this lineup: Pro Tools.
Pro Tools might not have as many EDM tutorials on YouTube and it might get that many beginners making 4/4 beats on it, but when it comes to serious industry grade performance, you can’t really look beyond it. Its interface might be clunky and the cost prohibitively high, but in terms of sheer power-user friendliness, nothing can beat Pro Tools.
Which is why if you were to walk into a major recording studio right now, 9 times out of 10, you’ll find someone hunched over Pro Tools.
Given the importance of this software, we felt it was necessary to have a guide on buying the best MIDI controller for it. Below, we’ll share our list of the best MIDI keyboard for Pro Tools, why we chose them, and how to pick the right option for your needs.[toc]
A Brief Note About Our Selection Process
Pro Tools and its users are very different from the kind of people who first pick up Garageband, FL Studio, or even Ableton.
For starters – and you can correct me if I’m wrong over email – the people who use Pro Tools tend to fall into the “power user” category. People aren’t exactly lining up to buy Pro Tools as their first ever DAW. Rather, people come to Pro Tools only if:
- They’ve had extensive experience working with other DAWs and want to upgrade to a more powerful tool
- They’re learning music production or audio engineering in a formal setting and want industry standard tools
If you’ve ever used a trial version of Pro Tools, you’ll know why. The entire interface and setup patently discourages casual users. It’s not easy because it’s not meant to be easy.
Given this user base, our choice of the best MIDI controllers/keyboards for Pro Tools had to be different as well. Cheap $100 Akai MPKs were out, as were tools designed specifically for one DAW (like the Ableton Push).
Instead, we deliberately picked MIDI keyboards that:
- Could take the rough and tumble of studio use – reliability was a key factor
- Offered enough control options for a pro user
- Worked effortlessly on both Mac and Windows (though Windows-running studios are increasingly hard to find)
- Support Pro Tools specific formats and mapping, such as AAX support
The last point is particularly important. Some older keyboards (such as Novation’s pre-2015 models) don’t have AAX support for automap. This makes it pretty difficult to use them in a studio setting.
Do keep in mind that 100% plug-and-play keyboards are non-existent with Pro Tools. You can search the market (we did too), but you’ll still have to go to Setup > MIDI > MIDI Studio to configure your keyboard.
With this in mind, let’s look at some of the best MIDI keyboards for Pro Tools that you can buy right now.
The 3 Best MIDI Keyboards for Pro Tools: Detailed Analysis
You saw our picks for the best MIDI keyboard for Pro Tools above.
In this section, we’ll do a deep dive into our top picks, why we chose them, and what’s the right option for you:
Best Overall: Akai Pro Advance 49
- 49 semi-weighted, velocity-sensitive keys
- 4.3″ TFT screen
- Color screen shows real-time information
- 8 endless knobs
- 8 RGB pads
- Akai VIP software included
Like a lot of our other keyboard lists, an Akai tops the charts here as well. However, given the poweruser demographic of Pro Tools, we feel that the incredibly powerful (but expensive) Akai Advance 49 is a better option than the more conservative MPK249 (read our review here).
Like the MPK, this keyboard has 49 keys. We feel this is the ideal size in a studio setting. 25 keys is too few and 61 is overkill for the kind of applications a studio has (casual playing, entering notes, and mostly, automation).
The standout feature of the Advance 49 is its bright, high-resolution built-in screen. This color screen gives 1:1 real-time feedback of key plugin parameters. It natively supports AAX plugins as well so you can get data on your most important plugins, in real-time. More importantly, it lets you use this keyboard as an instrument and skip the monitor entirely.
In addition, Akai’s VIP software will catalog all your VST instruments and synths, and you can select them right from the screen. The bad news is that most serious musicians have thousands of sounds and finding the right one is a serious pain in the a**. You’re better off using your mouse to do this.
The keybed is semi-weighted and velocity-sensitive. In terms of feel, it is somewhere between a mid-range Yamaha and a Casio keyboard. You’ll enjoy playing it, even if you’re used to a full-fledged digital piano.
Other control options include 8 RGB pads and 8 endless control knobs. The control knobs, in particular, offer great feedback and fine control. Although the pads are quite responsive, we feel that 8 is too few. We would have liked to see at least 16 pads to give us options for more expression. But then again, this is a studio keyboard, not a live stage one.
Integration with Pro Tools is relatively smooth. Pro Tools recognizes the keyboard but you’ll still have to fiddle around with key mappings to get the optimum performance.
One major plus that a lot of people overlook is the small footprint. Other competitors in this space, like the NI S49, are absolutely massive. Even if you have a huge studio desk, it is nice to have a keyboard that doesn’t hog it entirely.
What we don’t like
Some important issues that we’d like to get addressed:
- The Akai VIP software used for cataloging instruments keeps crashing, especially on Mac. Not a dealbreaker (the VIP software is an extra), but would have been nice to use this fantastically useful software without the crashes.
- Outside of the color screen, it’s not a massive upgrade from MPK249 as the price might indicate.
Best Performance: NI Komplete Kontrol S49 MK2
- 49 semi-weighted keys with aftertouch
- Large pitch/mod wheels
- Innovative touch strip for expression control
- 2x high-resolution screens to browse/preview sounds
- Integrates with most popular DAWs
- Smart backlit function keys
Native Instruments’ higher price points mean that the company’s keyboards often fly under the radar, especially among non-enthusiasts and amateur musicians. But serious pros and industry insiders will be the first ones to recommend NI’s keyboards, especially from the A and S series.
The 49 key variant in the S-series – S49 – is one of the more expensive keyboards money can buy. Powerfully specced and feature rich, this keyboard is designed from the ground up for professional musicians. If you care about performance and have the budget to spare, I would put this right at the top of your buying list.
While the Akai Advance 49 gives you one screen, NI S49 ups the ante with two high-res screens. The two screens are placed next to each other in the center of the console and let you load up two completely separate panels simultaneously. You can have one screen monitor key plugin parameters while the other is used for browsing through sounds. If you’re the kind of musician who likes monitor-free immersive playing, you’ll love this feature.
The standout feature, however, is the keybed. While semi-weighted keys are pretty much standard at this level, the Komplete Kontrol S49 also offers Aftertouch. This is usually found on mid-range and up digital pianos, and goes a long way towards offering an immersive, stage-ready performance experience.
While fantastic keys are nice to have, the S49 goes one step further and offers a variable backlit keybed. The LEDs placed above each key can light up in a different color. More than a gimmick, this is a fantastic tool for creating distinct keyboard zones and quick access to important controls.
Everything on this keyboard seems like an upgraded, refined version of regular controls. The pitch/mod wheels, for instance, are larger, chunkier, and simply feel better than what you would see on a cheaper keyboard. There’s an innovative “expression strip” in between the two wheels that lets you modulate the sound in innovative ways.
There is no instant integration with Pro Tools, however. You will have to configure things around until you find the settings that work for you.
What we don’t like
Our biggest issue, of course, is the price. The S49 is prohibitively expensive for all but the most serious of pros. The higher key variants (S61) are astronomically expensive.
Price aside, there are a few more issues you should know:
- The keyboard footprint is huge, especially its depth. You will need a large desk to accommodate it.
- The keybed is very deep. Some producers who are used to shallower keys might find that the key travel is too much for touch playing.
- Native Instruments’ customer service is a hit or a miss.
- Limited number of pads impact this keyboard’s versatility
Best Budget: Alesis VI49
- 49 semi-weighted keys with aftertouch
- 16 velocity-sensitive pads
- 12 assignable knobs
- 36 assignable buttons
Looking at the above list, you might be led to believe that buying the best MIDI keyboard for Pro Tools means splurging $500+.
But what if you’re a producer on a budget? Maybe you’re just setting up your studio, or maybe you don’t find enough use for a $500 keyboard?
In that case, you’ll love the Alesis VI49.
The “pro” version of the popular Alesis V49 (read our review here), the VI49 has a better keybed, more pads, more knobs, and more buttons. It is, in every sense of the word, an upgrade over the V49.
Let’s start with the keybed. Unlike the V49, the keys on Alesis VI49 are semi-weighted and have Aftertouch. The semi-weighted keys aren’t as good as, say, the NI S49, but they’re a distinct improvement to the V49. Aftertouch is a nice touch (pun intended).
There are far more control options compared to the V49. You get 16 RGB pads (instead of just 8 on the V49), a full set of 12 knobs, and a whopping 36 assignable buttons. There is almost nothing you can control right from the keyboard itself. You’ll particularly love the buttons and knobs in a studio setting.
In the context of the price, this is a serious value buy. You get a lot of keyboard for a relatively small price tag. Budget-conscious producers should put this at the top of their wishlists.
What we don’t like
Integration is an issue, and the sheer number of control options don’t help. You’ll have to invest some serious time into setting up all the buttons and knobs to get any value out of them.
The lack of a screen really hurts this keyboard as well, especially if you’ve been spoiled by the bright screens on the Akai Advance 49 and NI S49. You can’t play this keyboard without the monitor, so we recommend using it strictly as a controller in a studio setting.
Another pet peeve is the placement of the pitch/mod wheels. Since they’re located right above the pads, you’ll have a hard time using the wheels and triggering a pad intermittently.
Buying the best MIDI keyboard for Pro Tools isn’t easy. There are too few keyboards that integrate easily with this DAW. And even when they do, the vagaries of pro use mean that it’s hard to settle on the “right” keyboard.
The three keyboards we shared above offer a good mix of price, value, and performance. Pick any one based on your requirements and you won’t be disappointed.
Just to recap, here is our list of the best MIDI keyboard for Pro Tools sorted by category:
- Akai Pro Advance 49 (Best overall)
- Alesis VI49 (Best budget)
- Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49 MK2 (Best performance)
Questions, suggestions, or doubts?