Whether you’re a hobbyist music producer who is just getting started or your skills in the studio are advanced, chances are at some point you’ll be looking for the best MIDI keyboard for your budget. A MIDI keyboard is an essential building block of a music studio, along with your computer/laptop, DAW, audio interface, headphones and/or studio monitors. The question "what’s the best MIDI keyboard" is being asked over and over in forums, and for good reason. There are lots of manufacturers out there making lots of MIDI keyboards that at first glance all look alike, and to make shopping for one even more complicated, they update the models fairly often (e.g. the Akai MPK49 suddenly becomes the Akai MPK249... you can see how that gets confusing). Well, fear not. Equipboard is here to demystify the process of choosing your next (or first) MIDI keyboard.
- The 5 Best MIDI Keyboards
- Upgrade Pick
- What Is a MIDI Keyboard, and What Are Its Uses?
- What to Look for in a MIDI Keyboard
- Why You Should Trust Us
The 5 Best MIDI Keyboards
|Image||MIDI Keyboard||Summary||Check Price|
|Akai MPK249||The Akai MPK249 (as well as the MPK225 and MPK261) carries a hefty price tag, but this is truly a pro-level MIDI keyboard. The feel of the keys, fit, and finish is top notch, and as a bonus you get Ableton Live Lite. Between the 3 sizes, we feel the 49-key Akai MPK249 hits the sweet spot. Best of the Best||Amazon|
|Akai MPK Mini MKII 25-Key||Whether a beginner on a budget or a pro looking for a super portable, full-featured MIDI keyboard, the Akai MPK Mini MKII is your best bet. Unfortunately it only comes in a 25-key version, but despite that remains one of the most highly recommended MIDI keyboards.||Amazon|
|Novation Launchkey 61 MK2||Considering all the features you get, the Novation Launchkey MIDI keyboards carry a very attractive price tag. If you're an Ableton Live user, you'll especially love how everything maps seamlessly. We highly recommend the Novation Launchkey 61 MK2 if you're looking for a 61-key controller. Best Bang for Your Buck||Amazon|
|M-Audio Keystation 49 MK3||If you don't need sliders knobs & pads, and simply want a great quality no-frills MIDI keyboard, the M-Audio Keystation is the one to get. Bonus points for the availability of 88-keys with the Keystation 88. Lots of pros use this one, and if you can do without sliders and pads, you're good to go.||Amazon|
|M-Audio Oxygen 49 MK IV||With an impressive build quality, superior drum pads, nice price tag, and plenty of pro users, the M-Audio Oxygen series is a worthy competitor to the Novation Launchkey. Ableton users might prefer the Launchkey, but otherwise the slight edge goes to this one.||Amazon|
|DAW Compatibility:||All DAWs (Ableton Live, Logic, FL Studio, Cubase, GarageBand, etc.)|
|Number of Keys Available:||25 Keys, 49 Keys, 61 Keys|
One of the most highly reviewed and recommended line of MIDI keyboards out there is Akai’s MPK2xx series, particularly the Akai MPK249 49-Key USB MIDI Drum Pad and Keyboard Controller. Three flavors are available: the MPK225 with 25 keys, MPK249 with 49 keys, and MPK261 with 61 keys. The Akai MPK249 seems to have improved on just about everything from its very popular predecessor, the Akai MPK 49. These are not the most budget-minded keyboards, with the smallest one starting around $250.
So, why the premium price tag? If we had to describe these Akai MIDI keyboards in one word, it would be quality. They simply feel more polished and sturdier than any other MIDI keyboard out there; they’re truly in a different league (the 61-key Akai MPK261 weighs in at a hefty 15 lbs). Akai set their sights on making a premium level keyboard controller, and it shows. Everything from the enclosure to the feel of the keys and knobs is reminiscent of a $1000+ synthesizer, as opposed to a plastic-feeling MIDI keyboard.
The full-size keys are semi-weighted and feel great. You get 16 MPC pads, which are very customizable right down to changing the color of each pad. The pads feel very musical, and respond well to your playing dynamics. It has 8 assignable knobs, 8 faders, and 8 switches, pitch bend and modulation wheels, 1 assignable footswitch jack and 1 expression jack, amongst more bells and whistles.
DAW integration is pretty solid, with presets existing for just about every DAW out there. We didn’t get to test this ourselves, but from reading many user reviews, it seems users of Logic Pro X had the most trouble, primarily complaining that the integration doesn’t go as deep as they’d like. But as one reviewer put it, it’s more of a frustration than a deal-breaker. The MPK249 has transport controls (buttons for play, stop, record, etc.), which makes it well-suited for controlling your DAW. And speaking of DAWs, bundled together with this keyboard you get a copy of Ableton Live Lite (a stripped-down version of the full Ableton Live DAW). Not a bad deal if you either don’t already have a DAW, or want to experiment with Live.
Bottom Line: Following in the footsteps of the popular Akai MPK 49, the newer MPK249 has a lot to love… except for maybe its price tag. If you can afford it, then we say you’d be hard pressed to find a more quality 49-key MIDI keyboard. Based on our tests, we feel the 49-key MPK249 is the best value in this line. If instead you need:
- 25 keys: We're inclined to steer you towards the very popular and more affordable Akai MPK Mini MKII.
- 61 keys: We find it hard to justify the price of the MPK261, and instead will point you to the M-Audio Oxygen 61, or Novation Launchkey 61, both of which we cover in this list.
Aside some spotty compatibility with Logic Pro X, there aren’t really any functional downsides to these. If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford them, know you’re getting the most premium MIDI keyboards around. Best of the Best.
Akai MPK Mini MKII 25-Key
|DAW Compatibility:||All DAWs (Ableton Live, Logic, FL Studio, Cubase, GarageBand, etc.)|
|Number of Keys Available:||25 Keys|
When it comes to ultra-portable 25-key MIDI keyboards, none receive more glowing reviews and recommendations than the Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII 25-Key USB MIDI Drum Pad and Keyboard Controller. This is actually a new and improved version of its predecessor, the original Akai MPK Mini. As well-loved as that MIDI keyboard was, it wasn’t without its problems, nearly all of which have been resolved by the newer MKII.
The Akai MPK Mini MKII is so popular because it fulfills many different roles for different musicians. Given its very budget-friendly price tag, it’s the perfect MIDI keyboard if you’re just starting out and might not yet know if you need more keys at your disposal. That said, it’s also the perfect portable controller keyboard for producers that may already have a larger keyboard in the studio. Pros spotted using the MPK Mini (both the previous and current MKII version) include Hard Rock Sofa, Steve Angello, Deorro, Skream, Earl Sweatshirt, and Noah "40" Shebib, amongst many others.
To better understand why it's so popular, let’s talk about the surprising amount of features Akai managed to pack in a keyboard with such a small footprint. First you have 25 synth-action velocity-sensitive mini keys. To make the keyboard this small, Akai sacrificed on the size and heftiness of the keys. Perhaps if you are just starting out (or depending on your use), the small spring-loaded keys won’t bother you much. If you’re used to keyboards or pianos with heavier keys however, or your fingers are particularly large, you might want to think twice before going for the Akai MPK Mini. In another space-saving measure, instead of pitch and modulation wheels, you get a 4-way thumbstick. The thumbstick takes some getting used to, but it works well enough. Something that users love about this keyboard are the 8 backlit MPC-style pads, which are also velocity-sensitive and much improved from the previous incarnation of this keyboard. Other features include 8 knobs, octave-up and down buttons, a sustain pedal input, and a built-in arpeggiator.
Reviewers (us included) have little to no trouble getting the Akai MPK Mini MKII set up and ready to go. On various operating systems using various DAWs, after you plug it into your computer via USB, it just works. No worries here.
Bottom Line: This is simply a fantastic little MIDI controller. It feels well-built, has an extremely small footprint, and is super portable. You should have no trouble slipping it into your backpack for travel use. Some users like this MIDI keyboard so much, that despite originally buying it for travel use, they end up using it as their primary studio keyboard. Of course, it doesn’t come without some downsides. 25 keys is the only version it comes in (without going to the pricier Akai MPK2xx line). For some musicians, 25 keys might simply be too limiting. Even if 25 keys suffice, be aware that the keys are smaller than average (about the width of a penny), and are not weighted. Also, the included Akai software leaves a lot to be desired, but that’s ok; you probably shouldn’t buy a MIDI keyboard for the software it comes bundled with. With Akai’s reliability, killer looks, an amazingly affordable price, and with total beginners all the way to seasoned pro producers making this their studio and portable MIDI keyboard of choice, we think it very much earns a spot on this list.
Novation Launchkey 61 MK2
|DAW Compatibility:||Made especially for Ableton Live, but will map to all major DAWs (Logic, FL Studio, Cubase, GarageBand, etc.)|
|Number of Keys Available:||25 Keys, 25 Keys Mini, 49 Keys, 61 Keys|
Novation is the name behind such classic synthesizers as the Novation Bass Station and Novation Supernova. In 2009 (and now owned by Focusrite) they launched one of the first grid-based performance controllers, the very popular Novation Launchpad. The point is, these guys know what they’re doing when it comes to keyboards and controllers, and it’s obvious when you get your hands on the Novation Launchkey 61 Keyboard Controller for Ableton Live, MK2 Version. The Launchkey MIDI keyboards have been designed specifically for maximum compatibility with the Ableton Live DAW. That’s not to say you can’t use it with other major DAWs, as well. Let’s dig in.
The Launchkey 61 is one of the better priced 61-key MIDI controllers out there (especially considering all the features it has). However, the Novation Launchkey series comes in 25 and 49-key versions (there is even an ultra-portable 25-key mini version). It’s worth mentioning that we are recommending the 2nd generation of the Novation Launchkey MIDI keyboards. While the 1st generation might still be available from some sellers, we prefer the newer ones since they improved on their predecessors. In terms of features, you get quite a few bells and whistles: 16 velocity-sensitive drum pads, 8 knobs, 9 sliders (the 25-key version has just 1 slider), transport controls for your DAW, pitch bend and mod wheels, 1/4" jack for a sustain pedal, and more. Feature-for-feature, this is pretty comparable to the Akai and M-Audio MIDI keyboards.
On the whole, the keys, pads, knobs, and sliders feel good, not great. It’s not that the Novation Launchkey is bad by any means, it’s just that it falls a little short when compared to the fit and finish of the Akai MPK 2xx MIDI keyboards. User reviews are mixed, with some calling the build quality anything from "cheap plastic," and some saying it's great. In our experience we wouldn't say it feels cheap, but you’re definitely giving up a little build quality (which is understandable considering how good the price is). We don’t think this is a deal-breaker, since a MIDI keyboard that will stay put in your studio doesn’t have to be built like a tank. In terms of the playability of the keys, they are "synth-action," are velocity-sensitive and provide good feedback. If you’re a piano player, these keys feel good enough, although you might prefer the Akai’s semi-weighted key action a little better.
As they advertise, the Novation Launchkey integrates especially well with Ableton - everything automatically maps. If you don’t use Ableton and this is scaring you away from choosing this keyboard, don’t worry! We tested it out with FL Studio, and after some re-mapping it worked quite well also. From the reviews we read, it seems the Launchkey will handle all major DAWs. One of the benefit to having so many knobs and sliders is you’ll be able to map to your VST instrument controls, which will make your software synths feel more like hardware. One feature users really love about the Launchkey is the fact that the drum pads are full-color RGB backlit:
The RGB touch pads that light up the same color as your track in Ableton is a great touch and adds to the overall aesthetic of the LaunchKey.
the wide variety of colors allow you to quickly switch between tracks which makes workflow much more seamless…
Novation sweetens this already-good deal even more by throwing in a lite version of Ableton Live (perfect if you want to start out with Ableton), and Novation Bass Station and V-Station VST plugins which will delight electronic music producers.
Bottom Line: When it comes to price-to-features ratio, the Novation Launchkey MIDI controllers offer an amazing bang for the buck, especially considering they are priced at roughly half of what the Akai MPK2xx controllers are. To a lot of budget-minded musicians out there, that’s a big difference! The included version of Ableton and VST plugins is a plus as well. As we mentioned, the fit, finish, and feel of the controls is not the best there is, but this was a necessary sacrifice to keep the price so low. If you need a 61-key MIDI keyboard controller, the Novation Launchkey 61 has an amazingly budget-minded price tag, and is your best bet. For 49 or 25-key controllers, if you can afford it, we would opt for the Akai MPK2xx instead (granted, those are still not very budget-priced). We give the Novation Launchkey series the Best Bang for Your Buck, especially if you use Ableton Live!
M-Audio Keystation 49 MK3
|DAW Compatibility:||All DAWs (Ableton, Logic, FL Studio, Cubase, GarageBand, etc.)|
|Number of Keys Available:||32 keys, 49 Keys, 61 Keys, 88 Keys|
This one’s for the minimalists. The M-Audio Keystation 49 MK3 is one of the most no-frills MIDI keyboards available. You’ll immediately notice it doesn’t have sliders, knobs, or drum pads. This is a sleek, attractive, well-built keyboard for those that simply want a MIDI keyboard at an outstanding price, and the option of getting one with 88 keys is great for the piano and keyboard players out there.
This is a sub $100 MIDI keyboard. You cannot expect it to be a replacement to a concert piano but having said that, this does not feel like a cheap toy either. The keys are semi-weighted which feel great for most applications. Apart from the 49 keys, there are a few additional buttons, a fader style volume control, a pitch bender and a modulation wheel. It is quite light in weight and is pretty nicely put together. The real estate is dominated by the 49 keys leaving very little room for any design elements. It won’t take up too much space and is great if you move a lot or have space restrictions on your workstation. However like most 49-key keyboards out there, it likely won’t fit in your backpack (for that, there is an ultra-portable 32-key version).
Setting up this MIDI keyboard is as simple as plugging it into a USB port, firing up your DAW, and you are good to go. We tested the M-Audio Keystation 49 MK3 across a range of DAWs and it worked seamlessly across all of them, mostly. The keys, modulation wheel, pitch bender, and the octave changers worked perfectly on all the DAWs right out of the box. The advanced buttons and the master volume needed some tinkering to get it working correctly but for the most part you can hook it up and just start playing. The M-Audio Keystation 49 MK3 has been pre-configured for Ableton Live and everything works perfectly on this DAW. If you use some other DAW don’t be discouraged as it will hardly take ten minutes to set everything up perfectly.
This software that comes included with the M-Audio Keystation is pretty nice. You get the Lite version of Ableton Live which is a great tool for beginners. It also comes with ProTools First, Velvet, Mini Grand, and XPand!2 all of which make this a great option to get you started on the MIDI journey. At some point you will need and want a full-fledged DAW but until you get there, all these bundled goodies will keep you plenty occupied.
The thing about the M-Audio Keystation that really amazes us, and truly speaks to its quality, is the sheer amount of pro producers using it in their studio and on the road! The 49 key version is used by Nicky Romero, Hardwell, Audien, Nervo, and Syn Cole, amongst many others. The 61-key version is used by pros like Dada Life, Madeon, Diplo, and Tiesto, while the 88-key version is found in the studios of Avicii, Mat Zo, and Markus Schulz. As you can see, quite the star power behind this one. M-Audio must be doing something right! You might be asking why the pro producers look to be using a silver version, whereas the currently available M-Audio Keystation is a darker color. The silver is the previous version, and has been discontinued (it went by the name Keystation es). Trust us, you’re better off with the newest version.
Bottom Line: For those that don’t require dozens of drum pads, sliders, and knobs, and prefer the simplicity and sleekness of a simple MIDI keyboard, the M-Audio Keystation is the one to get. All versions of it - 32-key, 49-key, 61-key, and 88-key - are priced extremely well (the 49-key in particular is a bargain). If you opt for the 88-key version, just make sure you realize the keys are not fully-weighted like on a real piano, and you’ll be just fine!
M-Audio Oxygen 49 MK IV
|DAW Compatibility:||All DAWs (Ableton, Logic, FL Studio, Cubase, GarageBand, etc.)|
|Number of Keys Available:||25 Keys, 49 Keys, 61 Keys|
The M-Audio Oxygen MKIV line of MIDI keyboards looks to be M-Audio’s answer to the Novation Launchkey. It’s also the more advanced version of M-Audio’s Keystation controllers, adding pads, knobs, and faders for more DAW control.
Unlike the Novation Launchkey, the M-Audio Oxygen MKIV is not made specifically for compatibility with a particular DAW. Based on the user reviews and forum threads we read through, users were able to map the controls of this keyboard to any DAW (some users reported minor headaches with some DAW and operating system combos). The features you get are pretty standard compared to its competitors: synth-action velocity-sensitive keys on all 3 key sizes, 8 velocity-sensitive pads, 8 knobs, 9 faders (the 25-key M-Audio Oxygen 25 MK IV only has a single fader), transport controls, and a sustain pedal input. The feel of the keys is nice and springy. Note that there’s no 88-key version available, so if that’s what you’re looking for you’re better off looking at M-Audio’s Keystation line.
In terms of build quality, it feels very solid - surprisingly so, given its very low price tag. We’ll have to give the edge to M-Audio here over Novation, with one user calling it "an absolute tank of a keyboard." The drum pads, knobs, sliders, and modulation and pitch wheels all feel very good and respond very well. The drum pads in particular receive many positive mentions from owners of this keyboard for their tightness and responsiveness. Reviewers have also praised this keyboard’s DAW compatibility. We counted positive remarks regarding how well it plays with Logic Pro X, Pro Tools, and more.
Bottom Line: The most appropriate comparison of the M-Audio Oxygen 25/49/61 MKIV is to the Novation Launchkey 25/49/61, as they are in a very similar price range and compete feature-for-feature. The Novation Launchkey has the edge with 16 pads instead of 8, but we prefer the general layout of the M-Audio Oxygen. The Oxygen’s build quality is also superior to that of the Launchkey. Where the Novation Launchkey excels is its tight integration with Ableton Live. If you’re an Ableton Live user, we recommend that one over this one. Otherwise, we’ll have to give the ever so slight edge to the M-Audio Oxygen, since it’s priced a few dollars lower than the Launchkey (depending on the key size). Either way, you can’t really go wrong. The M-Audio Oxygen MIDI keyboards are used by many pro artists, including The M Machine, Pharrell Williams, Marcus Schossow, Kygo, Liam Howlett (of The Prodigy fame), Nicky Romero and Flux Pavilion. Some of these pros may be using the Oxygen’s previous version (now discontinued), which accounts for the minor layout differences. As always, we recommend the latest versions, since M-Audio does a good job of improving on every aspect.
Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49 Mk2
When it comes to MIDI keyboards, the entry-level and the mid-level segments are filled to the brim with options but the choices start to run thin as you look towards the more premium products. Often, the features do not justify the premium price. The Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49 was one of the few rare premium MIDI keyboards that came close to being a good return on the investment. The MK2 ups the ante further and now the Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49 Mk2 is one of the best MIDI keyboards in the $500+ segment. Here is the rundown on this impressive piece of hardware.
The first clue that this isn’t your typical MIDI keyboard is the way it looks. It looks more like a workstation keyboard than a MIDI controller. The dual screens will be the first thing that grab your attention but there are plenty of premium features all around it. Let’s start with the way the keys feel. The 49-key version uses a semi-weighted key system which is actually one of the best of its type. Only the seasoned pianist will have anything to complaint about and they can go for the 88-key version which comes with the graded weighted keys.
The screens allow you to get down to every nitty-gritty detail of the sound offering absolute control over the music you produce. The addition of a pitch wheel and a mod wheel makes for a welcome change over the previous iteration. The touch strip below these wheels is also a nice touch. There are a plethora of knobs and buttons that in conjunction with the screens allow for a truly mouse-free music creation experience. However, as with any MIDI keyboard, it can only be as good as its software counterpart and that brings us to...
Chances are that you already have a capable DAW if you are buying this MIDI controller, but Native Instruments sweetens the pot by including Komplete 12 Select and Maschine Essentials which gives you access to nearly $300 worth of sounds and plugins for free. It also means that even if you do not have a DAW on hand, you can still make a decent start. Combine these bundles with a DAW and you have a powerhouse setup that would be the envy of any music producer or composer.
Native Instruments has understood that not everyone who wants to compose music would be proficient with music theory and all the intricate knowledge one needs to know to make a great composition. That is why the Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49 Mk2 makes it really easy to understand the different scales and chords with its very cool and equally useful lighting system just above the keys. Not many MIDI controllers are this thoughtful and while this one does have a lot of complicated features, it is also surprisingly easy to use.
Native Instruments is The name when it comes to plugins and high-quality sounds which every DAW user ends up using at some point of their musical journey. That makes the Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49 Mk2 really handy as you can use it to control every aspect of the plugin from the keyboard itself, all without ever needing to touch the computer’s keyboard or a mouse. The goodness does not end there as all the controls come pre-mapped to all the major DAWs such as Logic, Ableton Live, Cubase, Nuendo, and GarageBand.
As polished as it is, the Komplete Kontrol S49 Mk2 isn’t perfect. At this price, they could have included an upgraded keybed as it does feel a bit wanting when playing some fast-paced piano pieces. Also, you will run into the occasional snags when not using one of the DAWs this controller has been mapped for. The absence of pads and sliders also feels a bit strange at this price point as much cheaper MIDI controllers have them.
Bottom Line: This user of the Komplete Kontrol S49 Mk2 sums it up nicely:
“I was the proud owner of an S49 original. When I caught wind of the MkII I was skeptical, but seeing the beautiful color screens, the re-introduction of the wheel along with a ribbon controller, DAW integration, etc...I was sold. I purchased and haven't looked back since. The color screen alone is just the biggest change-up ever and the software integration just continues to get stronger and stronger with every update. For what I do, it is the cornerstone of my studio...”
Provided you use one of DAWs it comes configured for then this is the closest you will come to a seamless experience between a MIDI controller and its software counterparts allowing for the most intuitive music production yet.
What Is a MIDI Keyboard, and What Are Its Uses?
First, let’s make sure we know exactly what a MIDI keyboard is and isn’t. A MIDI keyboard is also known as a MIDI keyboard controller. To put it simply, a controller (or more appropriately a MIDI controller) is simply something with a combination of keys, pads, buttons, knobs, and/or sliders that can be used to control parameters on another device via MIDI messages.
All MIDI keyboards are MIDI controllers, but not all MIDI controllers are necessarily MIDI keyboards. Some notable MIDI controllers that are not keyboards include the Akai MPC40, Novation Launchpad S, and the list goes on and on.
In this buyer's guide, we’re talking specifically about MIDI keyboard controllers, i.e. controllers that have black and white piano-like keys (amongst other things). Music producers that work in a home or professional studio typically opt for a MIDI keyboard as the centerpiece of their setup, right in front of their computer. The reason for this is that there’s a good chance most of the sounds you record into your DAW will be played on your keyboard. It can be a pain both in terms of productivity and ergonomics if your keyboard controller is not right in front of you. Many producers know the feeling of scrolling through presets on their software synths with one hand, and playing melodies or bass lines with their other hand for hours on end, until they come up with something worth recording.
Remember, keyboards that are marketed as MIDI Keyboard Controllers typically don’t generate any sounds on their own. They are used to trigger or play sounds on another device, like a software synth you installed on your computer inside your DAW. Playing notes on your soft synths is just one of the many applications for a MIDI keyboard. You might be triggering samples, controlling various parameters of your DAW and other software, or playing notes from hardware synth modules that don’t have a keyboard of their own (e.g. a Moog Minitaur). If you have a background in playing the piano, having a substantial number of keys in front of you is essential to play melodies using both hands. Of course, some pro producers are very adept at drawing notes into their DAW using only their mouse. These days even these producers have a MIDI keyboard on hand in front of them, and switch off between drawing notes in, and playing them on their keyboard. Pro music producer and DJ Avicii comes to mind. If you watch him work, he’s very adept at drawing notes into FL Studio, but he also plays melodies on his keyboard. When asked how he generates a melody:
Nowadays it’s mostly on piano, but sometimes I don’t play it in and I draw it out. That’s where I start a production; I’ll start playing around with a lead or just a piano to begin with. Then I’ll come up with a melody and build everything else around that.
What to Look for in a MIDI Keyboard
Various factors are going to affect your buying decision. Let’s go over them:
Number of Keys: Perhaps the most important factor in choosing the best MIDI keyboard is selecting the correct size for you in terms of number of keys. The smallest keyboard you can buy has 25 keys. After that it’s 49, 61, and 88 (full size pianos have 88 keys, so that’s the max). Another size you might see out in the wild is 37 keys. Anecdotally, based on all our research, 49 keys seems to be the size the majority of producers go for. That’s big enough to be able to play melodies across 4 octaves, yet won’t take up too much space on your desk. You might choose 61 to have that extra octave, but that choice comes down to budget and personal preference. We lean on the side of 49 keys if this is your first one. People that go for 88 key keyboards probably have a piano playing background, and can’t stand having anything that feels different. If you’re looking for maximum portability, you’ll have to go below 49 keys.
Portability: If your studio space is especially small, you travel and produce music on-the-go, or just prefer to play and record simpler melodies with one hand, you’ll probably want a portable controller with 25 or 37 keys. Be aware that just because a controller is 25 keys doesn’t necessarily make it portable. An Akai MPK225 25-Key controller has a pretty big footprint, and might not fit into your backpack. Then again, the slim M-Audio Keystation Mini 32 travels very easily.
Budget: Always important, your budget will dictate what keyboards you should be looking at from what brands. The biggest things that affect the price are the brand name (e.g. Akai is pricier than Behringer), number of keys, and the number of extras like pads, sliders, buttons, etc. If you’re on a tight budget you’ll need to decide which of the above are most important to you, and which you can do without. Roughly, you can spend as little as $50 on a MIDI keyboard, or as much as $500 (and up).
Keyboard Feel: Acoustic pianos have set the standard for what a keyboard should feel like. Keys that feel as heavy to the touch as real piano keys are known as fully-weighted. The next grades down from that are semi-weighted, and unweighted (also called synth-action). We might catch flak for saying this, but for a MIDI keyboard for your studio, having fully-weighted piano-like keys is not crucial... unless of course you’ll be playing a lot of piano. Semi-weighted keys feel very nice, and will provide great response as you play your notes. Most MIDI keyboard controllers available today have semi-weighted or synth-action keys. You’ll also read about keys being velocity-sensitive, which just means they respond to how soft or hard you play a note. If you barely touch a key, it will register that you played a note very softly, whereas if you smash a key, it’ll register the note with max strength. Velocity sensitivity is pretty crucial, since it will capture your playing dynamics and could make for more interesting recordings.
Extra Controls: These are things you get in addition to keys. Think pads, knobs, sliders, buttons, wheels, etc. Just looking at a MIDI keyboard should give you an idea of how many extra controls you’re getting. A controller like the M-Audio Keystation 49 looks pretty sleek and spartan, with a handful of buttons at best. Some controllers look like the command center of a spaceship, like the Akai MPK249. Whether or not you need a bunch of extra controls depends on whether or not you really plan to use them. You’re probably thinking, "Thanks, Captain Obvious!" Lots of these MIDI keyboards map their sliders, knobs, and buttons to your DAW software like Ableton, FL Studio, Logic, etc. It just depends on your workflow. For instance, some of the people on the Equipboard staff prefer to use their computer mouse and keyboard to manipulate their DAW and VSTs, and only use a MIDI keyboard to play in melodies, basslines, and drum loops. Others like to map the sliders to the mixer, the drum pads to samples, and even the transport controls (play, stop, rewind, etc.) on their MIDI keyboard to their DAW. Example: some musicians might prefer to bang out percussion parts on a grid of pads, rather than a keyboard, so they might like the pads on the Akai MPK249.
DAW Compatibility: We were surprised at just how many people in forums are asking for MIDI keyboard recommendations based on their DAW. What’s the best MIDI keyboard for Ableton? Can you recommend the best MIDI keyboard for FL Studio? You can for the most part make any keyboard controller work for any DAW, although some are made specifically for a DAW in mind, meaning the mapping of all the knobs and sliders to that DAW happens automatically - no headaches. Our recommendation is to focus more on the quality and features of the MIDI keyboard, before you worry about DAW compatibility. To help you out, in our reviews we’ll mention if there are any special considerations in terms of DAW compatibility.
Why You Should Trust Us
You might be wondering how we came up with our top 5 recommendations. Our process is very comprehensive, and we put in many hours of research to make sure we’re pointing you to the best gear. We hunt down dozens of forum posts where people are asking for MIDI keyboard recommendations (we look in forums like reddit and Gearslutz). We tally up the recommendations, combine that with reviews on Amazon and other musical instrument retailers, and look at which MIDI keyboards are the top sellers. We then make a final top list, and in this case we headed to our local music shop to spend time with the keyboards ourselves (or in some cases we already had them in our studio). Another factor we consider is what keyboards pro musicians are using in their studios and live setups. Rest assured the top picks we’re giving you have had many hours of research put behind them!
The "best" for one person may not always be the best for another, since things like budget and special requirements vary between musicians. We try to present a balanced selection, and consider things like which keyboard is the best of the best regardless of budget, all the way down to the best bang for your buck.