Best MIDI Keyboards: An informative buying guide

Best MIDI Keyboards: An informative buying guide

In the market for a MIDI keyboard? Wondering what a MIDI Keyboard is? Not sure about the difference between MIDI keyboards, MIDI controllers and normal keyboards? Well, you’re proverbially knocking on the right door!

In this article, we’ll discuss what a MIDI keyboard is, and what it does.

We’ve compiled a list of the best MIDI Keyboard buys in various price categories, and before you hit the shops cash-in-hand, we’ll take you through the various functions and models that you should look for.

This article will also educate you on the differences between MIDI keyboards and other electronic keyboard instruments, and highlight the pros and cons of owning them.

This is the ULTIMATE buying guide. Grab a seat and get ready to be the ULTIMATE, well-informed MIDI Keyboard buyer!

What is a MIDI Keyboard?

Alesis MIDI keyboard
The Alesis VI61 MIDI Keyboard

While you might have some idea of the application and design of MIDI keyboards, we still want to just hold the horses and discuss the finer details of what a MIDI Keyboard is and does first.

Although it’s hard to provide a simple definition of a MIDI keyboard, we’ll try: A MIDI keyboard is a keyboard-style instrument that plugs into your computer, through which you can produce music.

So, it’s actually just a glamorized digital piano, you might ask? Well… No. The chief difference between a MIDI keyboard and other digital keyboards and pianos is that a MIDI keyboard does not have any sound output. It does not have built in speakers or amplifiers. Don’t expect to find a headphone jack or ANY other audio outputs. If you play on a MIDI keyboard that sound HAS to be processed through an external source. So, a MIDI Keyboard is basically hardware that produces no sound by itself. The only way to action the input (the sound the keys should make when played) on a MIDI keyboard is to connect it to an external source – usually a computer. All MIDI data is transferred via a USB cable. MIDI, by the way is an acronym for Music Instrument Digital Interface.

The USB cable connected to the MIDI keyboard transmits the MIDI data to an external sound module – which can be other synthesizers, computers with synth sound-modules on, or any other sequencers. The data transmitted is then processed and sent to an output which may include a speaker or sound system. The process sounds complicated, but as long as you know that a MIDI Keyboard is the ULTIMATE sound arrangement tool, you`ll be fine. The array of possibilities is endless, provided you have the right sound engines and software. Studio engineers, for example, use MIDI controllers almost exclusively in the production of electronic sounds for the tracks they produce.

A practical example:

You play middle C on your MIDI keyboard. The MIDI information that you’ve generated is now transferred via USB, and the communication it sends will go something like this:

  • Middle C has been pressed down
  • It will also communicate the velocity level (how loudly of softly the note was played).
  • Was the sustain, sostenuto or tenuto pedal activated?
  • Note-length: The MIDI controller will also communicate how long the note was depressed for before you lifted your finger up.

At this point, the input (you playing middle C on the piano) becomes property of your sound engine/software/other synth. You can either manipulate this sound electronically, edit it on your music software, or have it play through your speaker system.

Thinking of keyboards and especially MIDI keyboards this way makes it way easier to understand why a MIDI keyboard is sometimes referred to as a controller. It CONTROLS the sound, essentially.

What is a MIDI controller?

Pro-one MIDI controller with 37 keys
The Sequencial Circuits PRO-ONE MIDI controller from the early 80`s

IMAGE SOURCE: http://till-kopper.de/pro-one.html

MIDI controllers were originally developed to assist musicians and music producers with the music-making process. When they were initially introduced in the 80’s MIDI controllers really were the best thing since sliced bread! MIDI controllers were used on stage first, where they made it possible for live performers to control keyboard inputs through modern music software and other hardware. For the first time it was now possible to action multiple synthesizers from a single piano or synth-style keyboard. No need for a whole rack of synthesizers anymore. Hooray!

So, is a MIDI controller and a MIDI keyboard the same thing? Well, yes and no. Just like a piano is a music instrument, a music instrument COULD be a piano, but it could also be something entirely different. Many other instrumentalists have and use MIDI controllers in the production of their sound – and not all MIDI controllers have piano-like keys. For example, have a look at this MIDI controller, which was developed for use by guitar players… Not quite a MIDI keyboard, is it?

Akai MIDIMIX MIDI controller with buttons and sliders
The Akai MIDIMIX MIDI controller.

IMAGE SOURCE: https://www.audiomart.co.za/product_info.php/akai-midimix-high-performance-portable-mixer-daw-controller-p-6990?gclid=CjwKCAjwza_mBRBTEiwASDWVvtCLLNW5jPSQXUCs3dj_o_YD_zkcoJCjYpGsP4e1grGHfgJgDcQhDxoC704QAvD_BwE

The right terminology

As technology progresses, our application of it adapts. Some MIDI keyboards – especially the later models – are powered by USB ports/cables. These keyboards have the same functions and applications as MIDI keyboards, except in the case of live performance. We STILL refer to them as MIDI keyboards, even though they aren’t strictly speaking MIDI powered or connected. The term USB keyboard brings images of bendy roll-up toy pianos to mind, and we won’t be discussing those.

So, there you have it. While some folks rightly refer to MIDI keyboards as MIDI controllers, Piano controllers or USB pianos, these terms – MIDI controller in particular – could create confusion and we’ll stick to the term MIDI keyboard for the purposes of this article.

Now I know what a MIDI keyboard is… but do I actually NEED one?

If you can already play a keyboard instrument, congratulations! You can now start MAKING music. Many pianists eventually start playing the organ or accordion. Most music producers started off as instrumentalists. Playing complex melodies on your instrument is great. But, playing jives is also great, and making short jingles such as the ones you hear in adverts, mobile games and shop radios is a real gig too. In order to do this well, you`ll need a MIDI keyboard.

Some musicians use a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) which is essentially just application software used in the music production process. A DAW producer creates audio clips or tracks without using a MIDI keyboard, by manually inputting the notes on the software application. It can be done. But it is an onerous task and one that can easily be simplified by using a MIDI keyboard. Imagine having to program a six-note chord:

Situation one: You hit record and play the chord.

Situation two: You manually draw the notes, one-by-one, on your DAW with a mouse.

Situation one is way more fun, and way more productive. A MIDI keyboard won’t just make the note input easier – the controls on a MIDI keyboard will come in handy when it`s time to manipulate the sound of that same 6-note chord too, and you’ll be thankful that you packed your computer mouse away for good!

For the musician on-the-go, the amateur programmer, the live-gigger and just about anyone else in the music world who can afford it, buying a MIDI keyboard is a no-brainer.

We now know that you absolutely, one hundred percent need a MIDI keyboard. But before we continue, it might serve us well to examine how MIDI keyboards differ from other keyboard instruments.

A MIDI keyboard is NOT a digital keyboard

Yamaha PSR Digital keyboard with piano keys
The Yamaha PSR EW-300 is an excellent example of a digital keyboard

You already know what a MIDI keyboard is, so how does a conventional digital keyboard differ from it? Here are a few notable differences which can either be pros or cons, depending on your point of departure and need:

  • A digital keyboard is the MIDI Keyboard’s closest relative. Some digital keyboards even have MIDI in/out ports. Using them as MIDI controllers feels graceless and lump though, primarily because keyboards don`t have proper knobs, toggles, faders and other buttons which make manipulation sounds easier.
  • Unlike a MIDI keyboard, a digital keyboard usually has on board sound, and amplified speakers. MIDI keyboards can not be used as stand-alone instruments.
  • You don`t need any add-ons to make music with a Keyboard. If you own a MIDI keyboard, you’ll need to procure a computer, and sound modules or software.
  • Keyboards usually have an arrangement of sounds but toggling between them can be a chore – and once you’ve chosen a tone, you’re pretty much stuck with it. It is quite easy to change the tone you’re creating on a MIDI keyboard, as they usually have a range of toggles and switches.
  • Good digital keyboards have weighted keys (which makes playing on them feel a lot like playing on an acoustic piano). MIDI controllers do not offer the same playing pleasure or touch response.
  • MIDI keyboards have the capability of triggering sounds from external sources, such as other synths, modules or sound cards.

A MIDI keyboard is NOT a digital piano

Roland F140 upright digital piano
The Roland F140 Digital piano

Digital pianos are by name and use pianos be it at home, in the recording studio or at a live performance. Here are some notable differences between digital pianos and MIDI controllers

As you know by now, MIDI controllers have no built-in speakers or sound outputs, while many digital pianos have excellent speakers and amplifiers built in.

A MIDI controller is way more portable. Some MIDI controllers don’t even have a full octave of keys, and seeing decent MIDI controllers with say, 25 keys is very common. Travelling with a MIDI controller is thus very easy, and you could chuck it in a backpack and hit the road. With a digital piano, you better have your ma’s van at the ready.

Digital pianos are a whole lot more fun to play, as most of them have weighted keys, touch response and the like. They were engineered to feel like a piano, and it does feel like it. It doesn’t do the job of a MIDI keyboard though, and to compare the two is almost unfair – yes, a MIDI keyboard doesn’t have weighted keys, BUT a digital piano can’t be used as a controller. See where we’re going with this?

A MIDI Keyboard is NOT an organ, accordion, electronic melodica or any other piano-like instrument.

Enough said.

What should I look for in a MIDI keyboard, and what makes a MIDI keyboard great?

Before purchasing a MIDI keyboard, you need to know what you are looking for.

A horse isn’t just a horse, for example. Some horses are bred to be raced, and jockeys the world over will tell you that not just any horse will cut it on the race circuits. Some horses are pack horses, and many people still use horses to draw carts, haul cargo and transport goods or people. Other horses are used for recreational purposes – be it just out-rides, showjumping or dressing. The same can be said for MIDI keyboards!

The main determining factor in what you eventually buy, is what you intend to use your MIDI Keyboard for. You will know best about your needs right now – but taking the following points into consideration might make it easier for you to make the ultimate purchase.

How many keys

MIDI keyboards, just like digital pianos, are equipped with any number of keys between 25 and 88. Obvious considerations such as space and portability come into play here, as well as your playing style and skill level. Do you play with just one hand? Will you be taking your MIDI keyboard on the road? How big is your storage space, studio or the performance room where this keyboard will be set up? Your answers to these questions are a good starting point.

If you just want to play basic melodies or bass lines, program drum lines in or use the MIDI keyboard as an easy carry-along compositional aid, a 25- or 33-note MIDI keyboard should suffice.

If you want a better octave range, a mid-sized MIDI keyboard would be a better buy for you. Intermediate piano players and musicians wanting to use fuller chords will also need at LEAST a 49-key MIDI keyboard. The added advantage is that keyboards in this range has mobility AND versatility.

If the MIDI keyboard you buy will be a performance keyboard, you’ll need at least 76 keys. Proficient piano players and performers will need either 76 or 88 keys – making it possible to play ever the most complex repertoire with the added benefit of a full-range of notes for arrangement and programming in the studio. When buying a top end, full-sized MIDI controller, you’ll also need to consider the key action on it… which brings us to our next point:

The keyboard action

One of the most important considerations after deciding how many keys your MIDI keyboard should have, is what the keyboard action should feel like. As the primary user of the keyboard, you want to feel comfortable using the keyboard in whatever arena you decide to purpose it. Having a keyboard that doesn’t react well or accommodate your playing style will inevitably impact your performance and level of creativity!

There are three types of keyboard action – and off the bat, we need to recommend that you get a weighted action MIDI keyboard if it falls into your budget!

1. Weighted action

Most of the full-sized MIDI keyboards (and some of the 76-keyed ones) have keys with weighted action. Some manufacturers refer to ‘Hammer-action’, which is the same thing and an accurate description: Weighted keys are developed to mimic the hammer action of an acoustic piano, which creates a very real feel to them. At the same time, the keys of a weighted keyboard will make it easy to control the dynamic range of both performances and composition, as they are loud when pressed hard, and soft when your touch is soft. Some musicians rate that weighted keys feel heavy, and this may be the case – but, if you’re used to playing on an acoustic piano you should naturally accustom to playing on a weighted action keyboard. If you are a skilled pianist, or if you’ll be composing a lot of piano-orientated music, weighted keys are a must for you!

2. Semi-weighted action

Second best, semi-weighted keys are the cousins of weighted keys. The wording here is almost self-explanatory… Semi-weighted keys don’t have the heavier feel of weighted keys, but still offer a touch-response, meaning that the keys play louder or softer depending on how hard you play them.

3. Synth action

The third option you’ve got, is to buy a synth-action keyboard. The keys on a Synth-action keyboard are spring loaded and don’t react to touch sensitivity which can be a good or a bad thing depending on your need. If you plan on practicing piano on one, bad news: It will feel plastic which might be a passion breaker for you. If you have some skill already or plan on just using your MIDI controller in a studio set-up, great news: You might have just found the ultimate instrument! Synth action keys are light to carry around, and easy to play on. Repeated fast notes are easy to do as the spring action on these keys rebound quickly – which makes programming different instruments – like drumbeats for instance – easy to do.

The key size

Some MIDI keyboards are designed with smaller keys than those of a normal piano. In fact, some MIDI keyboards have ‘mini keys’ which are tiny replicas of real keys. This can be a great option if space or portability is your concern but be forewarned that mini keys aren’t make for performance or extended play. Some keys are just a fraction smaller than full-sized keys and might be a good mid-way option. If you want to perform extensively or play concerto`s on your MIDI keyboard, get one with a full-sized key range. As a pianist, you will be surprised at how awkward it feels to play on one with smaller keys!

Buttons, faders, knobs and other controls

Most MIDI keyboards have a few controls on them. The best MIDI keyboards have a whole bank of buttons, faders and knobs for operating virtual controls – which is great for a hands-on performance while you are connected to other plug ins such as mixers or your DAW.

MIDI keyboards are certainly intended for more than just note entry on your DAW – but if you just want to send basic notation or melodies to your software or other plug-ins, you won’t need much in the way of other controls.

If you want to operate other virtual controls, trigger other samples (such as the drums) or have an all-in-one MIDI keyboard, save yourself the cost of having to invest in a second MIDI controller later by buying one with the necessary controls now.

A short word on aftertouch

Any synth player worth his salt will insist on having aftertouch on his MIDI keyboard, which takes away the need of your left hand having to action note-effects on the bank of sliders and controls on the keyboard to a great extend.

Aftertouch is a performance feature which allows you to economically trigger other effects – such as vibrato’s and other sound modulations on the keys of your MIDI Keyboard. There are monophonic and polyphonic versions of aftertouch, with the latter offering you more scope in a note’s reaction to your touch (the parameters of response that the aftertouch has).

Tobays AS-1 created an excellent tutorial on his Youtube channel which explains this function in a simple language with bit more detail:

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qctaSLO4kK0

So, what do I buy?

The best MIDI keyboards under 100 dollars

AKAI MPK Mini MIDI keyboard with pads
The Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII

Akai MPK Mini

OUR RATING: 4/5

There are several low-cost mini MIDI keyboards on the market today, and many of them are offered in the sub $100 category. Now many, however, van contend with the feature-packed Akai MPK mini.

Featuring 25 full-size velocity-sensitive keys in a portable laptop-size casing this really IS a portable MIDI Keyboard. It is fully USB powered, adding to the convenience of its plug-and-play intention. – both Mac and PC will power this little monster without any further driver installation.

The 8 soft drum pads are a welcome addition too – especially for its price. The lights of the drumpad are backlit and finding and playing on them is intuitive and fun!

Although there are only 25 keys, the MPK mini has an octave up and down function enabling you to access a full 88-key piano. The 8 control knobs and a built-in joystick make changing sounds easy, although the space between them are very limited. Speaking of changing sounds: The MPK Mini has four programs, an arpeggiator and a very user-friendly interface that communicates with your computer.

All in all, this is a powerful tool for your studio, and a fun instrument for your collection – all backed by the well-known high quality of big-brand MIDI keyboard manufacturer Akai.

PROS

  • Affordable, yet remarkably functional.
  • You don’t need a power cable to use it
  • The drum pads are amazing!
  • Many handy extras – such as the arpeggiator.

CONS

  • The knobs are – due to its size – very close together
  • There is no pitch bend wheel

BUY NOW: https://www.amazon.com/Akai-Professional-MPK-Performance-Ready-8-Assignable/dp/B00IJ6QAO2/ref=dp_ob_title_ce

Worlde Panda MIDI keybaord
The Worlde Panda Mini Keyboard

Worlde Panda Mini

OUR RATING: 3.5/5

The Worlde Panda Mini, manufactured by Ammoon Worlde, is an unpopular brand meeting a popular need – that of a decent mini-keyboard that can hold its own when it comes to MIDI usage. This is definitely the mature choice, and, given that it doesn’t come with a user manual and there’s not much of a resource base on the net, best suited for the more experienced user.

Is it any good? Certainly! At just a rudimentary glance, you’ll see that the Panda Mini has all the essential controls needed in a production exercise. Its 25 velocity-sensitive keys feel great for what it is – a simple, portable synth-style MIDI keyboard.

The Panda Mini has 4 MIDI control groups (4 assignable knobs and 4 assignable sliders) and 4 banks for different settings. There’s also 8 control buttons covering everything from Modulations, pitch adjustments and octave selections. The general lay-out of the keyboard and its controls are well thought out, and user friendly.

Featuring 8 backlit trigger pads which are as good as some of the more expensive alternatives, you should be able to play and record at least semi-live finger drumming on it. Be warned though that the pads are extremely stiff, and they barely seem to register unless it is stationed on a firm, level, stable surface… so much for the portable on-the-go play!

To conclude, this IS a solid MIDI keyboard, and a great carry-around option. With the full set of controls and enough features to satisfy most producers, this little monster weighs in at just 742 grams. It is also one of the cheaper options on the market today, currently retailing at just under $60 on Amazon.

PROS

  • Light and easy to carry around.
  • Solid build.
  • Great lay-out of controls

CONS

  • No clear instruction manual/resource
  • The trigger/drum pads are temperamental and hard to play on

BUY NOW: https://www.amazon.com/ammoon-Worlde-Portable-Keyboard-Controller/dp/B01DGACVKM

Our choice in the sub 100 dollar price-range:

Alesis V25 25-note MIDI keyboard
The Alesis V25

Alesis V25

OUR RATING: 4/5

The Alesis V25 is a straight-forward, easy-to-use functional MIDI keyboard. This is a portable USB-powered Keyboard, featuring 25 full-sized keys with adjustable sensitivity.

Connectivity is easy (through its USB power) and the Alesis comes with a wonderful DAW – and you’ll need to install it before you can change velocity settings on the keys, and other parameters.

Like the Akai MPK, it also has a drum pad, with 8 LED-backlit trigger pads. These too are velocity sensitive. Their positioning is really well thought out – you don’t need to stretch over other keys or buttons to get to them. Adding drum beats on the fly is easy, and the position comfortable. They are however hard to trigger – you need more force(velocity) to activate them than one would expect. Bring on Ringo Star!

Other controls on the cabinet, are 4 assignable knobs, and 4 assignable buttons.

The Alesis`s selling point is that it has pitch and Mod wheels, allowing for a great extend of creative control. All in all, the Alesis M25 offers a great package for the producer on the go and it should tick all the boxes.

PROS

  • The layout of the controls, knobs and drum pads are well thought out
  • The inclusion of pitch bend and mod wheels
  • The price. How a brand like Alesis manages to profit off the function packed M25 baffles us!

CONS

  • The drum pads are heavy
  • You need to install software before you can change the velocity settings – this is a chore!

BUY NOW: https://www.amazon.com/Alesis-V25-Keyboard-Controller-Buttons/dp/B00IWWBSD6

The best MIDI keyboards under 300 dollars

Novation Launchkey49 MIDI Keyboard with backlit pads
The Novation Launchkey 49

Novation Launchkey 49

OUR RATING: 4/5

The Novation Launchkey is a mid-range MIDI keyboard which is great for beginners and powerful in the hands of the experienced! It features 49 Synth-style keys which are velocity-sensitive. Navigation is easy with its 8 knobs and 8 sliders, and manipulating notes are effortlessly done with the pitch and modulation wheels located in the left corner of the cabinet.

The Launch pad is small enough to be portable, yet large enough to fit its jam-packed features in a comfortable, ergonomic way. The cabinet is plastic but feels rugged. I for one wouldn’t think twice before chucking it in the back of a car or a backpack.

Its retro look (thanks to the sliders on the top left) has a great nostalgic feel, yet it is modern enough to appease the latest generation of newbie arrangers and musicians. The first thing that catches your eye on the Launchkey, is the double row of drum-pads. These 16 pads are pressure sensitive, and a joy to play on!

The designers at Novation went through a great deal of trouble to create an Ableton Keyboard – as a matter of fact, their marketing efforts screamed that that this keyboard is ‘designed for Ableton’. You could still use it with other DAW’s, but its close Ableton integration (which is packaged with most sales) makes it an absolute pleasure to work and play on!

Right in the top-left corner of the Novation, you’ll find an LCD screen which displays information about the actual controls – such as what setting you’re on, the transposition setting, and so on.

PROS

  • The overall look – as functional as it is
  • Flexible mapping and Ableton integration
  • The pressure sensitive pads feel awesome

CONS

  • Non-assignable controls
  • It would’ve been nice to have this package with weighted keys

BUY NOW: https://www.amazon.com/Novation-Launchkey-Keyboard-Controller-Ableton/dp/B00VVK2A3I

Our choice in the sub 300 dollar price-range:

Arturia Keylab Essential 49 MIDI keyboard
The Arturia Keylab Essential 49

Arturia Keylab Essential

OUR RATING: 4.5/5

The 49-key Arturia Keylab essential with its slick white cabinet and robust build quality looks like a million dollars – and it’s excellent Arturia Analog Lab integration and software bundle clinches the deal.

Playing on the Keylab Essential is a joy – the action is light and pretty quiet. If you don’t give us weighted keys, we’ll settle for something that plays well, I’d say!

The Keylab Essential has extensive Hands-on Controls, including 9 backlit knobs, 9 sliders, and an 8-pad drum station. In the centre is a two-line LCD screen that provides excellent visual feedback. Actioning the sounds, as expected, are two wheels for pitch bend and modulations.

Much has been said about Analog Lab, the DAW that comes bundled with the controller. Analog Lab is a virtual synth that presents a wide range of synth sounds in an easy-to-use interface. The only drawback of this package is that integration with other DAW’s isn’t quite possible. The chord function is intelligent and someone at Arturia should get the high-five for thinking of the player behind the keys here. The chord function lets you save chords for easy access to one-button complex chords – which is great for performance on the fly.

There’s a lot to like on the Keylab Essential – and all in all, this is a well-built, modern-looking Keyboard with a great set of core features.

PROS

  • Integrated DAW controls
  • The chord mode is fantastic
  • Responsive two-line LCD screen

CONS

  • No aftertouch
  • The Keylab essential doesn’t offer Keyboard Layering

BUY NOW: https://www.amazon.com/Arturia-KeyLab-Essential-Keyboard-Controller/dp/B06Y4CKTTL/ref=sr_1_27?keywords=MIDI+keyboard&qid=1557693179&s=gateway&sr=8-27

M-audio Code 49 MIDI keyboard
The M-Audio Code 49

M-Audio Code 49

OUR RATING: 4/5

The M-Audio Code 49-key MIDI keyboard is a solid MIDI keyboard with lots of lights, controls and colors. The fanfare-look suits it well, and you’re in for one hell of a ride playing it!

Featuring 49 full-size, velocity-sensitive keys with after touch and four assignable zones for splits and layering, the Code is quite a contender in the music production stable. It comes packaged with Ableton Live lite and has 8 assignable 360 encoders for manipulating virtual instruments and plug-ins on Ableton – or any other DAW – to your liking.

The colorful pads placed on the left of the keyboard’s cabinet is designed for drums and can produce sample slices. These colors can be edited by the way. There is also an XY pad (with 9 assignable buttons) designed for HID control – so you can hand over the Code as a controller keyboard.

Does this sound like French to you? The M-Audio is an intricate instrument – and although the pre-set functions are easy understand and use, assigning different functions and using its full spectrum of featured capabilities is on a more senior level and not-so-easy to grasp. The only real positive contributing factor in this regard is the stunning LCD screen that provides instant parameter feedback.

Something has to be said for the playability of it – the Code really is a player’s keyboard, with an excellent touch, response and action.

While this isn’t the best intro-device, the M-Audio Code 49 will live up to every expectation you could have… and more.

PROS

  • 16 fully assignable backlit drum pads
  • 6-digit LED display with excellent quick-time feedback
  • Excellent key-action and feel

CONS

  • Not for the beginner or first time MIDI user.

BUY NOW: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01NB18S4I/ref=psdc_11973721_t3_B00APZ3WCS?th=1

The best MIDI keyboards under 500 dollars

Novation Impulse 61 MIDI Keyboard
The Novation Impulse 61

Novation Impulse 61

OUR RATING:4.5/5

Novation is a big name in the MIDI world. They generally design keyboards of superb quality with a well thought out layout – and the Impulse 61 is no exception.

As the name suggests, the Novation Impulse 61 has 61 keys. What it doesn’t tell you is that these keys are semi-weighted with assignable aftertouch. The action is fantastic, and the keys feel sturdy and springy – giving us the impression that this keyboard has been designed to feel and play like an instrument rather than just a computer peripheral.

Actioning MIDI commands is pretty straight forward on the Impulse, and the 8 knobs, 9 sliders, pitch and mod wheels, 2 octave buttons, arpeggiator, beat roll- and clip launch buttons all add to the easy access to predictable commands any user might have. The Impulse 61 comes packaged with Ableton lite, which is a decent DAW.

The 8 backlit drum pads stationed on the top right of the keyboard are velocity-sensitive with aftertouch. The aftertouch makes the onboard “Beat Roll” function even more amazing. For example, you can hold on to the pad to create a repeated hit/drumroll pattern – and because they are pressure sensitive, you can change the volume of the drum as it is rolling with the touch of a finger. Imagine the rhythm tricks you could do, use and program with THAT!

All in all, the Novation Impulse is a wonderful mid-range option for the discerning player. It does what it needs to do, and a little more… with the added glitz of a few very useful functions.

PROS

  • 61 Semi-weighted keys
  • Great Beat roll function
  • Pads are velocity sensitive with aftertouch

CONS

  • The low-resolution LCD display – probably a result of being powered by a USB port
  • The look. It’s 2019 now, and I wouldn’t want to strut one of these archaic-looking monsters around my friends

BUY NOW: https://www.amazon.com/Novation-Impulse-Midi-Controller-Keyboard/dp/B005M02VPK

M-Audio Venom 49 MIDI keyboard in white
The M-Audio Venom 49

M-Audio Venom

Our rating 3.5/5

First things first: The M-audio Venom is actually a Keyboard synthesizer, doubling as a MIDI interface. Why include it here? Because as far as MIDI keyboards go, this is a keyboard with similar capabilities, and a few other extras – and shortcomings. Let’s take a look…

You can’t help but notice the rugged, don’t-mess-with-me look of the hardened plastic cabinet. I’m sure that the designers at M-audio intended for it to look as threatening as possible. Quite ironic then that the hardest punch it throws with a first glance, is the blindingly illuminated green LCD screen. I for one wouldn’t want to gig a whole show with that in my face!

So, what does it do? The M-Audio Venom has a whole bunch (94 wave-forms, to be exact) of classic synth-sounds, a range of punchy, more aggressive sounds and a selection of drum machines. This is coupled with 512 single patches and 256 multi-sound or layered patches. The sound designers have certainly been busy, and it shows. The multi-mode on the Venom allows you to trigger drum, bass and melody parts simultaneously – which is great for live gigging.

Playing these sounds is a joy on the 49-key keyboard which has a decent weighed touch. The action is springy, and the four octaves on offer is enough – especially when including the options of using its pitch bend/mod wheels and the Octave up and down buttons. As expected, we also have an arpeggiator function here. The only shortcoming the keyboard itself has, is that if offers no aftertouch function.

PROS

  • Fantastic, wide range of synth sounds
  • The look might work for some

CONS

  • The look might work for some – but…
  • The almost unreadable, bright LCD screen and the spindly text it uses
  • While this is a feature packed keyboard, it doesn’t have any special selling points

Buy Now: https://www.amazon.com/M-Audio-Venom-Synthesizer-Compatible-Interface/dp/B004J96JTO/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8

Our choice in the sub 500 dollar price-range:

Akai MPK249 MIDI keyboard
The Akai MPK249

Akai MPK249

OUR RATING: 4.5/5

The Akai MPK249 is a lightweight MIDI keyboard with a serious attitude. It is feature loaded and modern with a great look. Its numerous toggles and switches and its 4-bank 16 pad lighted drum station LOOKS like it can do the job… and it can!

Don’t let the term ‘lightweight’ throw you off though – this is a durable, rugged keyboard with 49 semi-weighted keys with touch response, so no music mission should be unplayable. There is the standard octave switch, pitch and modulation wheels, an arpeggiator and many other functions to expand on its range and reach too.

This is a solid MIDI Keyboard with awesome software – it comes packaged with Ableton Live (lite) and Akai Pro MPCEssentials, and it is fully Mac and PC compatible. There are some features which could be confusing to a new player, but most of its use and function is easy to understand, and almost anyone should be able to master what they need it to do with moderate ease.

Other notable bonus features include a quick, responsive LCD screen, and if we may mention it again, the multiple-color illuminated pads it has. The 8 control knobs, 8 faders and 8 other switches are assignable via 3 banks, and this really is a user friendly lay-out and set-up!

This is the ideal keyboard for the musician with a limited budget looking for a state-of-the-art upgrade to their system, or as a first keyboard in the I-want-something-special category.

PROS

  • Neat layout which makes the workflow intuitive and easy
  • 16 pad drum station
  • Software bundle for added DAW and VST options
  • Bright backlit LCD screen

CONS

  • Although it can run on power, you’d need to buy the cable separately.
  • Some of its functions will be hard to grasp for the total amateur.

BUY NOW: https://www.amazon.com/Akai-Professional-MPK249-Keyboard-Controller/dp/B00IJ7FGSC

The best MIDI keyboards under 1000 dollars

Nektar Panorama P6 MIDI keyboard with 61 keys
The Nektar Panorama P6

Nektar Panorama P6

OUR RATING: 3.5/5

The Nektar Panorama P6 is a sophisticated, feature-packed MIDI Keyboard designed with the professional musician in mind. Its deep integration with all big-name DAW’s, 61-note weighted keyboard (with after touch) and 12 velocity and pressure sensitive pads attest to the same.

It`s wonderful to play on a piano-like MIDI keyboard – although the keys have a slight drawback: They are a little noisy, which might mess with a miked-in studio recording session. None the less, the weighted keys offer the pianist/producer the best of both worlds, and I would vote to keep them!

The P6 has a great intuitive workflow. The enormous amount of assignable controls makes the P6 one of the best equipped MIDI keyboards in this price category. It has 16 Encoder buttons, 9 faders, 10 LED buttons, 12 other buttons and one motorized(yes!) fader which all contribute to an active, fully hands-on music production process. The pitch bend and modulation wheels should be standard on a keyboard in this price-range, but we’ll mention them just because the folks at Nektar didn’t forget to put them where they should be – conveniently located right next to the notes in the left corner.

All settings and other selections are reflected on the high-quality color-screen of its LCD screen, located right in the centre of its cabinet.

Creating drum beats on a MIDI keyboard can be a chore… but the P6’s velocity and pressure sensitive pads (with 7 velocity curves) make it a breeze. The build quality and feel here is great, and the 12 pads rock up and do their jobs with panache… although, especially in this price-range, we’d have loved to see 16.

PROS

  • LED display gives detailed information.
  • Excellent feeling weighted keyboard.
  • All its features, and easy access to them via all the buttons and sliders.

CONS

  • Keys are somewhat noisy.
  • The drum pad will be sufficient for most users, but a 16-pad set-up would’ve been better.

BUY NOW: https://www.amazon.com/Nektar-Panorama-P6-Controller-Keyboard-x/dp/B00APZ3WCS

White Arturia Keylab 88 MIDI keyboard
The Arturia Keylab 88

Arturia Keylab 88

OUR RATING: 4/5

An 88 key MIDI Keyboard with fully weighted keys in this price range is an almost impossible find – but the Arturia Keylab 88 is just that. A player’s piano with velocity and aftertouch sensitivity and amazing piano sampling in – we’ll say it again – a FULL size, 88 key piano.

This is ultimately the closest to a digital piano a MIDI Keyboard comes, but it doesn’t just feature rich piano sounds. The sound designers at Arturio threw in an astounding 5000 pre-set virtual instrument range.

The layout of the KeyLab 88 is well thought out and user-friendly in general. The pitch and mod wheels (located above the key bed) might be uncomfortable to get used to, but it wouldn’t make sense to station them next to the notes where they are traditionally found – the keyboard would just become too long. There is quite an array of buttons and knobs – including 9 assignable sliders, ten assignable rotary knobs and 16 backlit pads.

The LED screen, located in the left of the cabinet, is brighter than you’d need it to be – but it does a sterling job of giving parameter feedback and showing instant selection and function activations.

There is a dual more that allows you to split and layer sounds.

The Arturia Analog Lab and the rest of the software bundled with a new Keylab 88 is invaluable. As far as good DAW’s go, the Analog is the ultimate!

The now infamous chord mode comes standard in the Keylab 88, and we need to mention how amazing this is again. Chord mode lets you program the 16 pads with chords – however complex you want them – to access them at the push of a button (or pad in this case) later on.

So, is this the best-buy MIDI keyboard under 1000 dollars? Possibly. Would we buy it? No. The one niggling issue at the house of Arturia is that they seem to ship an astounding number of ‘dud’ keyboards. The fact that they replace these without much of a squeal is irrelevant – too many reviewers on various forums complained of initial dead-notes, pad malfunctions and other issues. To be quite frank, it feels like too much of a headache and admin load should you need to rectify a purchase before you’re able to use it.

PROS

  • It looks and feels solid.
  • The bundled software is fantastic.
  • The chord-mode is a great added feature

CONS

  • Pitch/mod wheel position,
  • The possibility of buying a dud

BUY NOW: https://www.amazon.com/Arturia-KeyLab-Hammer-Action-Keyboard-Controller/dp/B00LU1OCF2

Our choice in the sub 100 dollar price-range:

Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S61 MIDI keyboard
The Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S61

Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S61

Our rating: 5/5

The Komplete Kontrol S61 is an upscale MIDI keyboard with excellent built quality, a superior high-class look and an accompanying ability to get the job done. No mess, no fuss.

Featuring 61 semi-weighted keys with aftertouch (that are great to play on), touch ribbon wheels that activate pitch and mod wheels, and the Komplete Kontrol DAW software, this package looks as modern as it is.

Going through all the functions and features of this keyboard will take some time – so we’ll leave that to the folks from Sweetwater sound, who’s video you can watch below. There is one AMAZING feature we’d like to point out though – that of the Light Guide. The Light Guide is an RGB LED above each note, that provides visual feedback to indicate a variety of information… including drum assignments, scale selections and other roles. Just have a look at how amazing it looks:

Novation Impulse Light Guide
Source: https://freelancesoundlabs.com/images/ArticleImages/AAvKK/kklightguide.jpg

Herewith, the video-review we promised. After you’ve watched it, we’ll take a final look at PROS and CONS

An all-encompassing review of the Komplete Kontrol S61

Video Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVeeG5F7YnU&t=15s

PROS

  • This is a beautiful, modern keyboard
  • Great Komplete Kontrol software
  • Key-action, touch and feel
  • The Light Guide does a great job in adding to performance clarity

CONS

  • This Keyboard only runs on power supply

You’re ready to go into the great big world, my son.

That concludes our review of the best MIDI keyboards out there. You’re now ready to go out to get the right one for you (and your budget). While we tried to guide you towards the ‘right’ one, you are still the end-user and the only person who needs to be happy with the choice you made and the one you buy.

Our final pearl of advice is that you should play as many MIDI keyboards and ask as many questions as any salesman can tolerate before you buy. Put some miles under the fingers, and happy hunting!

SOURCES

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