If you are serious about playing a keyboard or composing you are inevitably going to look for a full, 88 key controller at some point.
In a previous article on what we think are the best midi keyboards we also included an 88 hammer action keyboard.
This time we’re going to look at a few more options and what each brings to the table.
In this guide
Who should buy an 88 key controller
88 key controllers are definitely not for everybody and there are a few reasons for that.
First, you either want to properly learn how to play or already know how to play. There is really no point in having the full length of keys just to play simple lines with a few notes.
Another reason you might not want this kind of keyboard is space. It takes a lot of space and if you are someone like a DJ, a beat maker and so on, you need space for lots of different pieces of gear so space can become an issue.
Price is another factor. While you can get affordable controllers with 88 keys, if you want other features such as faders, drum pads and so on, those add to the price.
Not to mention that hammer action keys are really expensive compared to semi-weighted keys.
Going back to the initial question, if you really want to be a serious player then yes, you’ll need such a keyboard. If you want to play and write complex music, yes, you’ll need such keyboard.
And you probably know that already.
Also, seeing that a few people are a bit confused by Midi controllers, they don’t produce any sound by themselves.
You either connect them to your computer and use software to generate the sound or you connect them to a midi sound device.
If you want a keyboard with sounds, speakers and all that look for a digital piano.
Another quick note, you’ll probably going to need a keyboard stand so make sure you check out our guide on those as well.
Keys, weights, and hammers
A big part of keyboards and midi controllers is the key action.
What that is, is the mechanism that translates the pressing of a key into sound. Technically, into a signal that then gets processed into a sound.
Synths and midi controllers emulate pianos and naturally, some people also want the feel of a piano. And so, keyboard manufactures came up with solutions to bring the feeling of keys closer to that of a real piano.
So, what we ended up with are a few types of actions. Let’s quickly go through them.
Not weighted / synth action – you’ll find this in most entry-level digital pianos and midi controllers. They are the lightest and quickest of the bunch but they have the farthest feel from a real piano.
Synth musicians might prefer this type of action for quick synth play.
Semi-weighted – this type of action introduces a bit of weight to the keys so they don’t feel as quick or “springy” as the synth action. They kind of get into piano territory in terms of feel but they still far from it.
Weighted / hammer action – this type of action try to go head to head with pianos. I’ll spare you the details but they do that by emulating the mechanism of a piano with the hammer and all that.
Graded hammer action – this is essentially the same as the regular hammer action with the exception that lower note keys feel heavier than higher note keys. Hope that makes sense.
Now, a few things I would say you should keep in mind in regards to actions.
One, how good or bad the keys feel is mostly a personal preference so please don’t go in war mode on forums.
And secondly, as pointed out by Neil Haydock, not all pianos feel the same so naturally, not all piano emulations are going to feel the same.
Keep this in mind while reading all sort of people either parsing or bashing keyboards online. Quality is one thing, the feel of the keys is another story.
M-Audio Keystation 88 II
If you are looking for something affordable that does the job without many bells and whistles this could be the choice for you.
The keys are semi-weighted, so in terms of how the keyboard feels, it’s a middle-ground between a synth action and hammer action.
If you really want hammer action just pass and go further down the list.
The keys are also velocity sensitive but don’t feature aftertouch.
In terms of features, you don’t get much past the essentials. Pitch and modulation wheel, octave control and transport controls for your DAW (play, stop, etc) and a slider.
One nice thing about it is that it’s quite compact and light compared to other keyboards in this range. If you plan to take a full 88 keys board on the road that can be a nice bonus.
Nektar IMPACT LX88+
If you want more features from your keyboard whilst keeping a fairly low budget, then Nektar Impact might be the way to go.
The keys are semi-weighted on this one as well, but the keyboard has a lot more features than the previous M-Audio. The keys are also velocity sensitive.
You can also split the keyboards into zones, up to 3 if you into this kind of usage.
It has the usual suspects, pitch and modulation wheels and transport controls for your DAW but it also has 9 faders with buttons underneath, 8 knobs and 8 drum pads.
One thing I don’t like about this keyboard is the placement of the wheels, it feels weird. I’ve come to expect those to be on the left edge of the keyboard or somewhere around there, but they are not.
In terms of connectivity, you get the basics, a footswitch input, Midi out and USB.
Overall, I think it’s good value for the price especially for beginners that are into making music, not just learning piano.
M-Audio Hammer 88
A new addition to the M-audio line of products and so far you can’t really find complaints.
Could it be the next big star among the 88 key controllers? Only time will tell.
I’m usually skeptical about new releases because we have to see how it fairs after long-term use and also in various setups.
That said, this keyboard looks very promising.
In terms of features, you don’t get much. You get your pitch and mod wheels, 2 assignable buttons and a volume slider.
One cool feature that you get is the ability to split the keyboard into multiple zones. Doesn’t really grab me but I imagine that it would grab a lot of people.
You also get the necessary connections, a 5pin midi output, and inputs for sustain, soft and expression.
Overall, if you are the type that wants to at least try out the new stuff, give this one a shot.
Arturia KeyLab 88
If you are looking for both hammer action and other ‘regular’ features, the KeyLab might be the way to go for you.
Besides the keyboard, you also get the usual pitch and mod wheels, transport controls, 10 rotary encoders and 9 faders on two banks, 10 assignable buttons, and 16 drum pads.
Pretty much all you could expect from a keyboard, with the added benefit of the hammer action.
I don’t really want to touch on software in this article but I want to mention that Arturia did a great job on the software side of things on this one.
You see an image of the keyboard, you click on the button you want to set up and set it up. Nice and easy. You can’t really say that for many keyboards.
Another interesting thing about this keyboard is that they made the layout such that you also have a bit of space on the top right portion of the keyboard to place other items on it.
With an extension that attaches to the keyboard, you can place your laptop there.
Studiologic SL88 Grand
With this piece of equipment, we’re getting on the more serious side of the spectrum.
The SL88 is purpose-built for serious players. It doesn’t have the usual midi controller features, like faders, nobs and other things like that.
What is has is a graded, wooden, hammer action keyboard that is praised everywhere you look. And all of it is cased in a full metal shell so it can withstand being taken to gigs.
Being graded, if you recall from earlier in the article, means that the keys gradually get lighter as you go up the keyboard.
One interesting thing about this keyboard is that is that it replaces the usual pitch and mod wheel and with three different joysticks that you can configure as you see fit.
Even more interesting is that all of these joysticks act differently. The first one is spring loaded on both axes, so it returns in the center if you stop applying pressure on it.
This would be a great replacement for you pitch on one axis and something else on the other axis.
The second joystick is sprung on one axis while the other is free floating, and the third is fully free floating.
It’s definitely an interesting way of controlling various parameters. The one thing I’m not really convinced is the shape/size of these sticks. You kind of need to pay attention to what you are touching so you don’t use the wrong joystick.
It’s definitely not for the usual beat maker but for somebody who takes his piano skills seriously and wants that feeling of authenticity.
In terms of connectivity, you get plenty of options with four pedal inputs, one midi input and two outputs and of course, USB for your computer.
In the best midi controllers article, where we go across multiple sizes and use cases, I declared this the best 88 key, controller.
In the context of this particular article, I can better explain that decision. If you are looking for an 88 keyboard you likely want the piano feel as well.
Many keyboards have a hammer action, and they fell great, just not really like a piano as most people would expect it. This keyboard has that feel that I believe, can satisfy the more demanding customers.
Not many, but it also has a few extra features so it’s not just a row of keys and all of that in a package that is manageable in terms of size and also in terms of price.
One interesting but kind of gimmicky feature is the D-beam controller. An optical sensor that you can wave your hand over and control various parameters doing so.
Other than that is has dual zone keyboard splitting, so you can have two instruments on the keyboard at the same time, a pitch/mod joystick combo, octave control, and two buttons.
Overall a great option if you want a manageable, good feeling, keyboard.
If you want the one controller to rule them all, this is probably it. But, it’s not without downsides.
The first of those would be the price, it’s close to being double the price of the previous keyboard.
Secondly, it’s pretty big and heavy so it’s not very portable.
Get past that and you get a great grand hammer action praised across the board. And not much else.
To quote the company “No knobs, wheels, buttons or displays. Just eighty-eight real wooden keys and a beautiful wide surface for your laptop, mouse, or synth.”
You get his controller for the action and here is a video of two of Kawai actions. The video is quite old so the actions are outdated but it’s enough to give you an idea of how they approach actions.
If realism is something you are after and you got the cash for it, take a closer look into it.
In conclusion, there is something for everybody, for every need and every budget, what remains is for you to decide what you are looking for what is your budget and what you may be able to compromise to get there.