Back when I played in my first band I was the keyboard player. My nights usually consisted of setting up a couple “A-frame” keyboard stands with four different synths sitting on them. The set up varied, but is usually consisted of a couple Rolands (Juno and D-20) and a couple Ensoniqs (ESQ-1 and Mirage). I was usually the first one setting up and the last one tearing down. It even took me longer than the drummer.
The last show I did where I played keyboards consisted of one keyboard controller, an audio interface and a Mac running Mainstage. It took me maybe 10 minutes to setup. Now, this doesn’t take into consideration the time it took to set up Mainstage, but it was much faster than programming sounds in the old synths.
But I digress.
Choosing the right controller
There are several things to think about before you make your purchase. These include:
- Budget – A new keyboard controller can range anywhere from $50 up to hundreds.
- How big – The number of keys on the controller will play a role in the size. They come available in as small as 25 keys up to 88 keys.
- Key size – Some of the smaller keyboard controllers have very small keys. If you have big clumsy hands like me, they can be hard to play. Others have full size, weighted keys to make it feel more like you’re playing a real piano.
- Extras – Many of the midi controllers also have knobs, sliders and pads that you can assign to just about any task you need like volume, drum sounds and even controlling lights.
There is additional information at Musician’s Friend buying guide that may help, but the above list includes the primary things to consider.
So with those things in mind, let’s get to it:
Alesis “Q” Series
Not to be confused with the QX line, the Q line is a basic MIDI keyboard controller. There are minimal “extras” like knobs, sliders and pads to get in the way, which is what I like about it. I personally use the Q25 when sitting on the couch playing around with song ideas or sequencing tracks. It’s bus powered via USB on my laptop, so I only have the one cable to deal with. It has full size keys which makes it easy to play. The only negative some people may have is that the key action is a bit “spongy”, meaning there is little weight to the keys and they bounce back rather quickly. These come bundled with Abelton Live Lite, so simply install it on your computer and you’re ready to start making music.
- Velocity sensitive keys
- USB MIDI and traditional MIDI for use with Mac and PC, as well as MIDI hardware
- Pitch and Modulation wheels
- Backlit Octave Up and Down buttons
- Sustain pedal input
- Comes with Ableton Live Lite Alesis Edition for recording, sequencing, and performing
- Bus powered via USB, so you won’t need a power cable
*Note I haven’t had the chance to test them, but there is now an upgraded version, the “V” line that adds some pads and knobs.
The Oxygen line offers more features than the Alesis Q series with more buttons, pads, sliders and knobs. There is also a “digital” readout that displays a numerical value based on which patch you’re using, your volume setting and more. The Oxygen line is also bus powered so you only have to use the single USB hookup for power and data. I currently use the Oxygen 61 and like the “transport control” that acts like the play controls on a DAW and allows me to start and stop tracks with the MIDI controller. They also have the full sized, synth action keys that are velocity sensitive, which means they respond to how hard you press the keys; the harder/faster you press, the louder the sound.
- 61 full-size, synth-action velocity-sensitive keys
- 8 velocity-sensitive trigger pads
- 8 assignable knobs
- 9 assignable faders
- Transport controls
Stepping it up a bit is the Novation Impulse line. These are considered a little more professional level in their build, but are great for both stage and home studios. The action on the keys isn’t full piano simulation, but still feels a bit more responsive that some of the synth action keyboard midi controllers. The sliders sit a little lower than some of the others that I’ve seen, which I kinda liked because they were not so obtrusive. The Novation Impulse line also has the trigger pads for drum sounds or triggering samples, if you need them. The LED screen is a bit bigger with more available information.
- Ultra-responsive semi weighted keyboard with aftertouch
- Full DAW/plug-in control surface: 8 knobs, 9 faders and buttons (1 fader & button on Impulse 25) and a custom LCD screen
- Multi-function, back-lit drum pads
- USB powered, with expression and sustain pedal inputs as well as MIDI in and out ports for connecting external MIDI instruments
- Includes – Ableton Live Lite, Novation Bass Station, Loopmasters sample library, Mike The Drummer
Akai Professional MPK
The Akai Pro MPK series is another pro-level line of MIDI controllers with all the bells and whistles you can imagine. The build feels really solid and durable. I would feel completely safe using this on tour and in any live situations. The key action is nice, but not I think I prefer the Novation just a bit more. The backlit trigger pads look cool and have good action as well. I like the multiple colors. The red color of the “record” button in the transport controls make it super easy to spot quickly for on the fly recording.
- Semi-weighted, velocity sensitive full size keys
- iOS compatible (with the camera kit sold separately)
- USB bus powered
- Sustain and Expression pedal compatible.
This one is kind of surprising. It’s small form-factor, but is pro quality built, made out of brushed aluminum like the Macbook Pro. It is super portable and lightweight (1.3lbs), so you can throw it in your backpack for on-the-go gigs. Even though it’s so small, it has full size, pressure/velocity sensitive keys. And though it’s only two octaves, it has transpose buttons so you can quickly shift to the octaves up or down the scale.
- Ultra 3.6 mm slim edge, elegant aluminum frame, light and portable design
- 25 Standard-size keys, Professional velocity sensitivity, Polyphonic after touch, High Resolution Pitch Bend
- USB MIDI compliant with iPad, Android, Microsoft Surface Pro, Mac and PC
The CME XKey is only available in the Xkey 25-key configuration
Bonus – Korg nanoKEY2
I wouldn’t necessarily call this the “best” in the list, but for what it is, it’s worth a look. The Korg nanoKEY was one of the first micro-controllers out there. It isn’t much more than some clunky buttons on a piece of plastic, but if you’re really in a bind for space and need something super portable, then this will work just fine. I used one of these on a flight once and it actually worked really well. It was small enough to fit in my lap and not be too noticeable (I didn’t want to be “That guy”).
One of these nanoKEYs might be useful on stage for quickly triggering samples or tracks, but I can’t imagine trying to play anything complex on them. I don’t imagine they were intended for that, anyhow.
- Low-profile, 25-key USB-MIDI keyboard
- Velocity-sensitive keys
- Sustain button
- Pitch up/down buttons
- Octave Shift up/down buttons with -4 to +4 octave range
- Modulation button
Korg nanoKEY2 is only available in the Korg nanoKEY2 configuration
Obviously we’ve only touched on a few select MIDI keyboard controllers. Depending on the type of musician you are (EMD, band performer, etc.) will dictate which midi controller is best for you.