This article is a part of RS Recommends, an editorial series reviewing products in music and entertainment. Items are independently selected; Penske Media may earn a commission from purchases made from our links.
First things first: not all keyboards are MIDI controllers and not all MIDI controllers are keyboards. If you want to play and perform your favorite tune, you’ll want a keyboard. But to really take that track to the next level (think: adding sound effects or modulations), you’ll want to pick up a MIDI controller.
A MIDI controller is a simple way to sequence music and play virtual instruments on your Mac or PC. It works by sending MIDI data (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) to a computer or synthesizer, which then interprets the signal and spits out a sound. Ever see keyboard players using a laptop on stage? They’ve likely got a regular keyboard to play on, and a MIDI keyboard that lets them create and sample a ton of sounds.
While both feature a set of playable keys, an electronic keyboard works as a standalone device, while a MIDI controller needs to be connected to a computer or tablet. MIDI controllers also require the use of a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation).
In a MIDI keyboard controller, different sections of the keyboard can be assigned to control different instruments. Use the lower end to control the drums, for example, and the higher end for a flute. You can also use your keyboard to program drum beats, change the tone, trigger sample loops or modulate the pitch. The features can all be added and edited individually, so you never have to re-record the main part. (Think of it like layering your clothes. Your basic T-shirt is your main track and the MIDI effects are like your jacket, shoes and accessories). A MIDI keyboard lets you get creative with your musical production, adding more personality, complexity and uniqueness to every track.
Ready to start mixing with a MIDI controller? We’ve rounded up some solid options that boast a ton of features and helpful software in portable, easy-to-use packages. Whether you’re headed to the studio or just producing music at home, here’s what you’ll need.
1. Novation Launchkey 49 USB Keyboard Controller
A quick, easy and creative way to produce and perform music, this Launchkey Keyboard Controller gets you everything you need to get started with digital production in one compact package.
The 49-note model boasts 16 RGB pads, eight knobs, and dedicated navigation and control buttons, which make it easy to adjust your pitch, launch a clip or create a backbeat. With more keys, you can experiment with chords and bigger melodies (or play both simultaneously).
The controller works with both Macs and PCs and is USB bus-powered, which means you don’t need to plug into any additional cables to get going. Just connect the unit to your computer via USB and you’re good to go.
PROS: Simple, intuitive system; this set comes with free keys and pad drumming lessons with Melodics.
CONS: Some users say the pads are quite stiff and you need to press down with a little bit of force to activate their functions.
2. Alesis V25 25 Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller
This MIDI Keyboard features 25 full-sized keys, along with eight production pads, and assignable knobs and buttons that easily interface with your music software to adjust volume, and activate effects and filters.
An “octave up” and “octave down” button lets you expand your track to a full keyboard range, while pitch and modulation wheels let you get creative.
The keys aren’t weighted, per se, but they do have a stickier, more tactile feel, giving you more control over what you’re playing.
This bundle comes with software from ProTools, Ableton Live Lite 9 and more.
PROS: Full-sized keys provide a more realistic, tactile look and feel.
CONS: The drum pads are bouncy and many users say the pads double hit. Remedy this by using a two finger press.
3. M Audio Keystation Mini 32 MK3 MIDI Keyboard Controller
Thirty-two low-profile keys fit easily into this compact package, which weighs less than two pounds and is just 16 inches long.
Use the “octave up” and “octave down” buttons to expand your keyboard range, and adjust the dedicated pitch-bend and modulation buttons to enhance your track. The “velocity sensitive” keys provide a more natural feel, while the addition of a sustain button lets you mimic a piano sustain.
This set includes access to popular software suites like Pro Tools and XPand!2.
PROS: 32 keys instead of the traditional 24 keys for a mini keyboard.
CONS: Some users say they had to plug this into a powered USB hub that then plugs into a computer for the MIDI controller and software to sync up.