In this guide we’re taking a look at some of the best MIDI keyboards out there.
There are a plethora of choices no doubt about that. What is going to be the best for you comes down to what you need from your keyboard and what budget you have for it.
Our overall best MIDI keyboard, the Alesis VI49, offers a good value for money and comes with the usually wanted features, 49 semi-weighted keys with after touch to start off, a lot of programmable buttons, knobs and drum pads. It lacks faders but it’s not a deal breaker.
We are going to quickly go though our picks for various roles and we’ll expand on each of them further down in the article.
Also, you’re probably going to need a keyboard stand so be sure to check out our picks for those as well.
The overall best
The Alesis VI49 has just about everything you might want from it except maybe one thing, some faders. But at the price is hard to beat.
The design of the keyboard is a bit unusual in a way that I like. Mainly that the trigger pads are on the side of the keys instead of having them above the keys. It’s by no means a unique feature but I like it because you don’t have to go over the keys to get to the pads.
If you don’t mind spending quite a bit more, the Akai MPK249 would be the better choice. Not only do you get faders, you can assign a total of 64 trigger pads (16×4 banks), 24 knobs (8×3 banks), 24 faders (8×3 banks) and 8 switches (8×3 banks).
And you get trigger pads made by the guys who make the famous MPC samplers.
An in-between option
If you really want your faders but not the cost of the MPK249, the Novation Impulse 49 is a great alternative.
It has a more traditional layout with the trigger pads above the keys and has less of everything but adds 9 faders in the mix and it also has multiple banks of controls.
Best budget option
If your budget is really tight, the M-Audio Keystation 49 II is a nice option. You don’t have all the bells and whistles of the other guys but this also means that the keyboard takes up way less space.
If all you need or care about are the keys this might be a great space saving option with some decent portability if that is something you might need.
Different people have different needs in terms of portability so to make it clear, I have in mind the guy that wants his studio with him wherever he travels. So on that front, the Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII is probably the way to go.
It’s not the cheapest thing out there but it’s at a good price for what it is, has a lot of features for the size and the keys themselves are a decent size. They are not full size though so bear that in mind.
Best 88 hammer action keys
The Roland A-88 is our choice for this category. There aren’t a lot of options when it comes to 88 key midi controllers with hammer action. There are quite a few semi-weighted but for somebody that looks for truly, piano-like feel those are not enough.
If it’s a really good key action you are looking for this is the option for you. It’s definitely not for everybody due to its high price.
Most innovating keyboard
I couldn’t ignore the ROLI Seaboard RISE 49 for this list because I think that it’s a great addition to the music industry. It brings a new concept of interacting with the keyboard, what they call 5 dimensions of touch.
We’ll get back to it further in the article but essentially if you have the money and you want to be on the edge of out is out there, this is the keyboard for you.
It doesn’t really fit in the other categories because of how different it is and that is why it has it’s own category.
In this guide
- What is a Midi controller? What does it do, what does it not do?
- Who should grab a Midi keyboard?
- What to look for in a Midi keyboard
- Overall best midi keyboard – Alesis VI49
- The upgrade – Akai MPK249
- The in-between option – Novation Impulse 49
- Best budget keyboard – M-Audio Keystation 49 II
- Best portable midi keyboard – Akai MPK Mini MKII
- Best 88 keys hammer action – Roland A-88
- Most innovating keyboard – ROLI Seaboard RISE 49
- In conclusion
What is a Midi controller? What does it do, what does it not do?
If you are new to MIDI keyboards, right off the bat you need to know that they don’t produce any sounds. What they do is control software or other hardware that produces sound.
If you want a keyboard to have its own sounds look at digital pianos or synths.
MIDI controllers hook up to your computer via USB and will require more or less configuration in the software that you use to be able o use all the features of the board. Some will also work via Bluetooth.
Most boards will have some kind of issues for some users, with various software. Ideally, you take a look at the software support before you buy your keyboard. Also, do read the manual.
These issues are more or less to be expected given the vast amount of possible software combinations on various operating systems and so on. What I’m saying is that you should expect to do some setup work depending on what keyboard/software combination you want to use.
Who should grab a Midi keyboard?
The great thing about Midi keyboards is that they are very versatile. Because they are essentially controllers and not sound generators themselves you can use them for any music genre and in any studio or non-studio setting.
But, you do need to have software to care of the actual sounds. Most keyboards will come with basic software and virtual instruments so you are left with just a soundless keyboard if you are just starting out.
The keyboards also greatly vary in size and number of keys which means that you can go from super small and portable to larger options that better emulate real pianos in the feel of the keys.
If you want to use them in a live setting this means grabbing a laptop with you so depending on what your music goals are they might no be ideal in that scenario.
Opting a synthesizer for live events is also going to be a considerably more expensive option so ultimately it comes down to what you want to do, what you can afford and what works for you.
If you do a lot sampling and drum work then it might be more helpful for you to grab a drum pad instead. Or you can grab a keyboard with a decent section of drum pads like the Akai MPK249.
Generally speaking, most people involved in music will need a keyboard at some point.
What to look for in a Midi keyboard
Ok, so you know you want one but how do you pick and choose? There are a few differences between the options, some more visible than others so let’s see what separates a keyboard from another.
Number of keys and size
Before diving in the plethora of available options think about how you are going to use your keyboard.
If your music involves simplistic writing you might not need a lot of keys and 25 keys could be well enough for you. Note that you can still change octaves so you are not limited to a number of notes you just have to switch octaves as needed.
With small keyboards like these, you save a bit of space and depending on your final choice you can save money as well.
Personally, I like these a lot because you can get a bit of everything with something like the Akai MPK225 ( or Alesis VI25 ). You get 25 regular keys plus drum pads, plus programmable buttons and knobs all in a fairly small package.
If you are serious about your keyboard, playing with both hands, and more complex writing then you might want to look for 49 to 88 keys. And if you take this route, make sure you have enough space in your studio to be able to place them in a comfortable position while you play.
Also, most keyboards come in series. So if you see a keyboard and you think ‘man I would like that but with more / fewer keys’ look for that version because it most likely exists. Most series include 25 keys, 49 keys, and 61 keys versions at a minimum.
How the keys feel and work
In the same idea of being serious about your music, the feel of the keys is an important part of the keyboard.
On that side of things, there is what’s called the key action. This refers to how the keys react to you pressing them and how they come back from that.
Synth-action gives you light keys that are very easy to press and return to their position quickly. These are great for fast playing and they are the most common, especially in lower end keyboards since they are easy and cheap to make.
Semi-weighted keys add a bit more resistance and a bit slower release. They try to go a bit in the territory of emulating piano keys without actually getting there.
Personally, I find these more pleasant to play with than the synth-action keys but what you need to know is that they don’t really mimic pianos. That is something for the next action type.
Keyboards with this actions are generally a bit more expensive than the previous ones but not as expensive as the next ones.
Weighted, hammer action tries to emulate piano keys. These are ideal if you come from a piano background or want to learn to play an actual piano.
They are the more expensive of the bunch and they are the type of keys that you don’t really see on smaller keyboards. Most commonly you will find these on 88 key keyboards.
After-touch might be something to pay attention to. To put it simply, imagine your keys have two bottoms. You press the key with normal force to reach the bottom of the key, you then apply a bit more force and the key goes down even more and applies some effect to the sound. That is after-touch.
It’s a great way to add effects to synths, strings or anythings that have a longer, sustained sound while you are playing.
If this is something you want, make sure the keyboard supports it.
Extra buttons, faders, knobs, pads
Most keyboards come with some extra stuff besides the actual keys. What you would do with these is configure them in software to different functions.
They are nice for the convenience of not using the mouse for some of the things you would do inside your music software.
For others, it’s a matter of feeling more hands-on control, a more analog experience rather than clicking with a mouse.
In a live setting, you might find them very useful to quickly change sounds altogether or just changing the characteristics of a sound.
Of course, these extra buttons are still controllers so whatever you do, your software needs to have the functionality that you are looking for and then you have to configure your controllers to use that functionality.
What buttons or pads or how many you need, I don’t know. The only thing I could say, think about the kind of music you want to play with and how are you going to play it.
Would extra buttons help you out? Would the extra money be more helpful in other areas of your studio?
You will still need software and if you are tight on the budget it might make sense to go for a simpler and cheaper keyboard and use those saved dollars in other areas.
Point to point or endless knobs. These knobs are also called rotary encoders but those are just too many letters for me. If you see that naming in product specs know that those are knobs. What you need to know about these is that you can get two types of them. Point to point means that they have a start and an end, endless means that they spin without boundaries.
Transport controls. I just want to quickly mention these for people new to keyboards and music. These control play, stop pause and things like that.
If you are going to use your keyboard for live events, a nice feature to have is lighted controls. These will help in low light conditions. You don’t want to pull out your phone to see where are those knobs that you need during live play.
Besides the USB connection, there are keyboards that offer MIDI connections to be able to interact with other gear like sound generators and use the keyboard to control those.
Sustain or expression pedal inputs are something that you might care about. The pedals are not usually included with the controller but if you need them make sure the controller knows how to use them.
I can’t really go into detail here because each individual has it’s own needs and configurations but I hope you see the pattern of ‘try to figure out how you are going to use your keyboard and how it fits with current gear or even with future gear that you plan on getting.’
Overall best midi keyboard – Alesis VI49
The board comes with a lot of functionality for the price and is also quite compact due to its design.
They decided to put the trigger pads on the left side of the keys. This means that they can give you those 16 drum pads without making them tiny or by making the keyboard very deep in size.
The board has everything back-lit, but not an always-on type of back-light. The knobs and wheels are always-on while on the other things it’s more of a feedback feature.
For the buttons, they light up in an on or off fashion and for the drum pads they light up in different colors based on how hard you hit them, at least in the note mode. There are multiple ways of configuring them in the software but by my guess, most people will use them in that mode as drum pads.
It also has a display that gives you various information like what octave you are on. While you have 49 keys you can switch octaves and access a total of 127 notes.
A nice feature of the VI49 is the Roll Mode. With it, you can do drum rolls within the keyboard. You have controls to adjust timings, note length, swing and of course the tempo. For those in all the popular music genres, this is great, everything is quick and easy once you learn your way around it.
Alesis advertises the keyboard as plug and play. Unless you are using Ableton don’t expect much in terms of auto conflagration. You do however have an editor software at your disposal to configure the keyboard for your specific software and use case.
The keyboard doesn’t have faders as you noticed and I want to quickly mention that if what you want is simply to control things like channel volume you can still do that with the knobs, you just have to configure them.
What I’m trying to say is, don’t let the lack of sliders be a turn-off if you don’t really need them.
The drum pads are velocity sensitive, some people say that they are too sensitive, I say it’s personal preference.
Another great thing is that you have 16 of them in an MPC-style, 4 by 4 grid and you don’t have to ‘stretch’ over the keys in order to reach them like with other keyboards. Granted this might not be an issue for you anyway, depending on where you have space to put the keyboard.
The downside to this position of the drum pads is that you don’t have a place to rest your hand while you are using the pitch wheel above but that is just nitpicking really.
Overall, if it’s right where your budget is or you don’t fell like you need anything extra it’s a great choice.
If you need more functionality, more features, and you are ready to drop some extra dollars for that, read on.
The upgrade – Akai MPK249
The MPK249 would diffidently be our winner if it wouldn’t be for the price. It’s not for everybody and it’s definitely not for somebody that is just starting to mess with music.
Akai really knows their stuff when it comes to drum pads. They have a long history with their MPC and it shows. It borrows a lot from that, the sensitive pads are great in terms of feel and quality even though they are not the same as on the MPCs and you also get note repeat, swing and the appropriate settings for those.
You can also make the various adjustment to the pads at an individual level meaning that you can select the pad you want to change and change things like colors and aftertouch. Yes, the pads have aftertouch if that is something you might enjoy. You can also change how the pads react but that is done for all of them at once, in a different menu.
Essentially, there are two types of settings. One that allows you to change things on an individual level for a specific pad, knob, button, etc. The other allows you to make changes that affect all pads or all faders or all knobs, etc. This gives you a very nice level of control and configuration of your keyboard.
Another note regarding the pads is that they are not really RGB as you see all over the place. There are a number of predefined colors that you choose from. That to me is not RGB. Not until I can manually adjust how much red, green, blue to add in the mix.
The quality of the MPK249 is very good, and you feel it in everything from the actual keys to the pads, knobs, faders and pretty much everything you touch on it.
On the software side, it comes with Ableton Live Lite and MPC Essentials plus two virtual instruments, Hybrid 3 and SONiVOX Twist.
For more advanced users it also has pretty good connectivity. As you’ve seen from the specs it has MIDI in and out options and also inputs for expression and sustain but as with most MIDI keyboards, you have to get the pedals separately if you need them.
The in-between option – Novation Impulse 49
If you want a bit more than Alesis VI49 has to offer but the MPK249 is a bit too much. The solution is the Novation Impulse 49.
With this guy, you are right in the middle of the keyboards presented above. You got more features than with the Alesis VI49 and kind of the same features as the MPK249.
But, you get half the number of pads compared to both of the above keyboards and, in my opinion, they are also not in a great spot on the keyboard.
You get some LED feedback from the on/off switches and you get 3 colors for the drum pads. Functional but nothing spectacular.
You also have note-repeat to easily create drum rolls and arpeggiator.
But, the big selling point of this keyboard is its software, Automap. The thing makes is relatively easy to map your controls to various DAWs and virtual instruments and the level of configuration is very nice.
You can also switch on the fly between controlling your mixer for example and controlling a plugin. You can make configurations for plugins individually and save them for later. And it’s all quite easy.
There is a lot you can do. If you get this, spend a bit of time with the software to get a feel for what you can do and maybe you can find some ways of improving your workflow.
On the software side, this comes with Ableton Live 9, 4 GB of samples from Loopmasters, Bass Station virtual instrument and Addictive Keys, another virtual instrument. Pretty nice, especially for those just starting out.
Best budget keyboard – M-Audio Keystation 49 II
Well, it’s that guy. Next!
In all seriousness, the thing has been tried and tested. It doesn’t do a lot but it does the basics well. And this generation is painted black which makes it look a bit more serious that the previous generation which was a light gray, looking like a toy.
The Keystation 49 II also has a few buttons, namely the transport controls. And let’s not forget, it has semi-weighted keys.
It’s also quite compact so if you need some keys on the go and 25 keys are not enough then this might be a great option.
Best portable midi keyboard – Akai MPK Mini MKII
This is the Swiss Army Knife of mobile midi keyboards. A lot of tools in a very compact form factor. If you want to have a studio in a backpack this is a must have item.
The keyboard is not without flaws. I’m going to say this because a lot of people think that this is sort of a perfect product. It’s not perfect but keep in mind the price point and the size.
The size itself forces some changes. One of the issues a lot of people seem to have is with the pads sensitivity. And it’s quite understandable that it will have some issue here due to how slim the keyboard it. This doesn’t allow for much travel distance in the pads, at least that it what some Akai support guys say.
Another issue that people seem to have is downloading the software but from what I can tell those are around big sale events like Christmas when a lot of people buy the thing and then go to download the software in large numbers.
What I suspect is that the Akai website doesn’t handle well a lot of people trying to download the software around the same times. It should work fine when things calm down. By the way, this is not an Akai specific problem, most manufacturers have this issue.
Another thing to note, the keys are smaller than what you see on ‘regular’ keyboards, again, in the purpose of making this compact. Also, you might find the knobs a bit small but not unusable kind of small.
The keyboard fits the purpose, have all the features on the go. If you don’t need the ‘go’ aspect of things I would say go buy a ‘normal’ keyboard. By that I mean, get a 25 key version of something else, that has the full sized keys and it’s not necessarily meant for travel.
The Akai MPK249, for example, has as 25 key version but it’s also at a different price point. Somewhere around the same prices as the Mini MKII you can also find the Nektar Impact LX25+ which seems a nice alternative, both have full-size keys.
Coming back to the Mini MKII, if getting this thing in your backpack is the goal then yeah, it’s good for that.
Best 88 keys hammer action – Roland A-88
If you are a pro pianist or that is what you are aiming for then you probably want some serious gear. Something that would feel as close as possible to an actual piano, without being a piano.
Most people that use the keyboard are happy with the keys. The keys are the reason you get this keyboard and not much else.
As you might’ve observed it’s pretty bare bones in terms of assignable controls. If you need drum pads, knobs, whatever, you have to get them separately.
Alternately you can get the Akai MPK88. The keys are not as good as with the Roland but you also get 16 pads other controls. And if you are interested in even more options maybe take a look at our 88 key midi keyboards guide.
If you want to use the keyboard for live events, the Ronald it also a good option in terms of weight as it’s almost half the weight of its competitor from Akai.
Most innovating keyboard – ROLI Seaboard RISE 49
Well, if you are bored of the same keyboards and what something a bit special, this one is for you.
Gone are traditional keys, welcome the silicone. Yep, this keyboard replaced its keys with silicone to be able to detect more than regular up and down movement.
The Seaboard gives you ‘5 dimensions of touch’ to quote their marketing material. Those are press, strike, lift on the more traditional side of things, up and down movement side but then you also have glide and slide which turn this thing into a beast.
But you got to see it, words don’t do a got job explaining this thing.
The design of this keyboard is also on a different level of elegance compared to traditional keyboards. Given that they don’t need traditional keys the whole device is a lot slimmer, 23 mm more exactly.
And the case is made of anodized aluminum making it strong while keeping it light and make the device look like a premium device. Very nice.
If you want some portability, there is also a 25 key version to which you can also attach a tablet-like flip case and throw it in your backpack like you do with your laptop.
The device has an internal battery and can connect via Bluetooth so if you want to go make some music in the park you don’t even have to get any cables with you.
There a lot more options on the market of course. If you don’t like the options we listed you can still use our tips to help you find the right midi keyboard for you.
Featured image credits: little*star