Best Production Stations 2020: Keyboards For Songwriting and Producing - Rolling Stone
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The Best Production Stations to Get Your Song Ideas on Track

The easiest way to turn your song ideas into a full-blown masterpiece

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Where do your song ideas come from?

Whether it’s while driving or dreaming, brainstorming or bored at work, it doesn’t matter – what’s important is where you go to get them down.

That’s where a production station comes in. Whatever genre or style you’re into, a MIDI keyboard is your first step in swiftly crafting a track. Connect it to your digital audio workstation (DAW) software of choice, get your main melody recorded, and start expanding on it from there with endless options (think: everything from pitch shifting to tapping out drums and beats just how you imagined them). You’ll be able to add layers and loops that truly make the track your own creative creation.

What You Need to Know Before Buying a Production Station

Selecting the best production station depends on what exactly you’ll be using it for. All the options here include a limited MIDI keyboard for melody and beats, but if you’re a pianist or keyboardist, you’ll most likely want something with either a full range of keys or easy access to other octaves, both high and low. On the production side, the options for effects are endless, and include digital modifications like distortion, resonators, equalizers, synthesizers, compressors, chorus, virtual amps, limiters, phasers, and flangers. While some stations have pre-assigned knobs and levers, others let you set them to whatever feature you’ll be using to manipulate your sound the most.

Add layers on top of layers, adjust the tone, pitch, speeds of your samples, and mess with your modifications until eventually, you’ve created something entirely new for the world to hear. Finishing a track that you’re proud of is a great feeling, and getting positive feedback on it acts as fuel to keep on writing, recording, and producing. You may even start helping others make their ideas into an audible reality too.

With a good production station that fits your needs, you’ll quickly learn your way around it, until it becomes an extension of your creative output. We’ve chosen some trusted brands to get you started.

1. Novation Launchkey 49 USB Keyboard

This colorful choice is ready when you are. No drivers or power cables here, the Launchkey is fully USB-powered and class-compliant, with no external software needed.

While Abelton users may get a little more out of this, as it was designed with Ableton Live in mind, ultimately it doesn’t matter what you’re using for a DAW program. The Launchkey’s InControl feature connects instantly to your studio program of choice.

The keyboard’s 16 brightly backlit RGB pads, eight knobs, 49 keys and dedicated navigation buttonsautomatically become the hands-on controls for your session view, instruments, effects and mixer. Its velocity-sensitive drum pads mean your emotive beats are recorded exactly the way you play, and the weighted pitch bend and modulation wheels let you easily explore new places to take your track.

This mighty little MIDI packs a lot into a decently-sized keyboard that’s ideal for starting a home studio.

PROS: Lightweight and loaded with everything you need to get started making music. For those looking to get into music production, or needing something simple but sturdy, this is your jam. Free key and pad-drumming lessons are included too.

CONS: Some users report that while it’s great for home recording, a few of the controls are difficult for playing live and needing to switch between sounds and features quickly.

Courtesy Amazon

Buy: Novation Launchkey 49 USB Keyboard at $320.79

2. Yamaha MX49 49-Key Keyboard Production Station

There’s always something new to discover with the Yamaha MX-49. This 49-key synth comes pre-loaded up with more than 1000 samples from the MOTIF XS Sounds series, and a complete suite of music production software already included. 

Lay a beat down for your idea with lots of percussive rhythms to choose from, then layer it up with everything from piano, acoustic guitar, and a wide range of vocal sounds. The VCM (Virtual Circuitry Modeling) lets you emulate Seventies-era synth effects like equalizer, flanger, wah and phaser too. 

The MX49’s bi-directional interface is a nice feature. Easily connect a USB cable to your computer for recording directly into your software, or connect to external studio monitors (or a PA) to better hear your tracks out loud. All of the MX’s audio converts are made for professional music applications, which means that when using the MX output, everything (even games!) coming from your computer will sound better. 

PROS: This is a music-idea battle station for dreaming up beats, melodies and song ideas. An easily accessed Split/Layer Performance Mode lets you individualize effects and levels on separate parts, each with their own arpeggiator, before combining them. Layer up to 16 at once, creating the sound of a full band, with the ability to seamlessly switch between them all and never interrupt the track.  

CONS:  If you’re a pianist and looking for a digital piano replacement, go with the 61 key MX61, as it covers a much wider range than this, which is geared to a more casual player. While the MX-49 is great for any melodies in the middle scales, it becomes limited and difficult trying to play bass notes and higher octaves simultaneously. As a minor gripe, some users say there are too many sounds and options they’ll never use, making it difficult to find what they really want, and spending too much time navigating through endless choices.

Courtesy Amazon

Buy: Yamaha MX49 49-Key Keyboard Production… at $549.99

3. M Audio Oxygen 49 IV

M-AUDIO’S Oxygen MIDI keyboard is a compact and portable performance machine. Its 49 full-sized keys are velocity sensitive, capturing the dynamics and intensity of each note right when and where you want it. The same goes for its eight, easily-accessible trigger pads, which make beat production a breeze.

Setup is simple – the unit is USB-powered with class compliant, plug-and-play functionality. Automatically connect to most DAWs such as Ableton Live, Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, FL Studio and more. As a bonus, it even comes with a software suite that includes Ableton Live Lite and TouchLoop’s library of 500+ samples. 

The Oxygen’s eight assignable knobs and nine assignable faders give you full control over virtual instruments, as well as your studio program’s parameters and plugins, which are clearly visible on the built-in LCD screen for fast feedback.

Also built-in are dedicated pitch bend and modulation wheels, along with octave up and down buttons that increase the keyboard to full melodic range. The incredibly convenient transport buttons let you control your DAW software directly, without needing to constantly switch between keyboard and computer.

PROS: Works with pretty much any DAW software, which is ideal if you’ll be using it in different studios and collaborating with other musicians who use different recording applications.

CONS:  If you’ll be fully relying on pre-made samples, or need a full-sized keyboard, one of the other brands may be better to go with. Also some users report that the touch-sensitive keys don’t have the same feel as the older M-AUDIO models. If that’s a crucial element to your production, it’s best to try before you buy. 

Courtesy Amazon

Buy: M Audio Oxygen 49 IV at $89.88

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