MIDI controllers can make life as a musician much simpler. Finding the best MIDI controller can make composing and performing easier and open up a world of possibilities regarding new sounds and new ways to perform.
However, there are plenty of difficulties when it comes to choosing the right MIDI controller, and knowing which model is right for you. If you like to play big, complex and expressive songs, a 25-key MIDI keyboard won’t cut it.
Also, the industry has come such a long way in recent times that finding a recent model may mean more new and exciting features as well as slicker controls and simple setup.
Generally, you will need to match up your own unique requirements with the ideal MIDI controller. For some, cheap and compact will be ideal, others will want a huge level of control to build a studio around.
We’ve spent hours researching the very best options to bring you the ideal MIDI controllers in a variety of different categories.
Top 10 MIDI Controllers
1. Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII – Best Overall
Akai’s range of MIDI controllers is pretty big. They manufactured some of the first hugely popular controllers, meaning they have quite a big reputation in the industry.
This MIDI controller is extremely popular, and packs an awful lot into a relatively small package.
- USB Powered.
- 4-way thumbstick for dynamic modulation.
- Plug and play capabilities.
- Includes software from AIR music tech.
- 8 drum pads and 8 knobs for tweaking sounds.
We’ve named it the best overall for a variety of different reasons.
This keyboard/controller has all we would expect from a 25-key model including plug and play capabilities.
Whether you are connecting to a Mac or to a Windows PC, you don’t need to worry about drivers.
This is such a flexible option, as it has backlit drum pads to trigger samples and drum kits, an inbuilt arpeggiator and 8 different knobs for mixing or changing parameters on plugins.
These add a level of expression you might not get with other MIDI controllers.
If you don’t have any software, it can also be a good option as it includes a production package, meaning you can still trigger sounds and control synths including AIR Music Tech’s Hybrid 3.
- Easy to see on stage.
- Small and relatively portable.
- Easy to assign and control loads of sounds from your DAW.
- No option for two-handed play.
- Included software is not a full DAW.
2. Novation Launchkey 49 USB Keyboard Controller For Ableton Live
Novation is another big player in the world of music tech. This option has 49 keys, so just over half of the size of a standard acoustic piano, which allows for some two-handed melodies.
- 49 keys, 16 RGB pads and 8 knobs.
- LED display included.
- Works with Mac or PC.
- Option to add a sustain pedal.
- 3-year Novation warranty.
- Includes Ableton Live Lite.
This MIDI controller is further proof that you don’t have to choose between keys or pads, as both are included.
Combine this with the included software and the flexibility to include a sustain pedal, plus a pitch bend and mod wheel, and you have a powerful piece of kit.
Ableton Live Lite is not the full version of this powerful software, but it can get you started easily. The controller is plug and play, meaning no extra installations of drivers.
- Play some melodies with two-hands.
- Pad controls and knobs allow further control.
- Easy to set up, totally USB powered.
- Can be expanded with a sustain pedal.
- Bigger than many portable 25-key options.
- Can be more confusing to operate due to so many options.
3. M-Audio Oxygen 25 IV – Best Velocity Sensitivity
It is very limiting if you have a keyboard that doesn’t recognize and record based on how hard the keys are hit.
It is also unrealistic compared to digital or acoustic pianos. The M-Audio Oxygen 25 mk IV solves this issue by creating reliable touch sensitivity.
- 25 touch sensitive keys.
- 8 trigger pads (also velocity sensitive) and 8 assignable knobs.
- Onboard LCD display.
- DirectLink automatically creates controls for popular DAW software.
- USB powered.
This keyboard is available in different sizes.
We’ve reviewed the 25-key model here, but you can go for 49 or 61 keys if you want to play melodies with two hands and get more range in your performances.
It has the same pad functions as many of the other MIDI controllers.
The velocity sensitivity is what sets it apart. Both how hard you play the keys and how hard you hit the pads are relevant, allowing expressive performances with dynamics.
DirectLink also means that there are loads of profiles already set up for connecting to DAWs. Ableton, Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic and Reaper can all be connected to in a matter of seconds, with a proper, working control map.
- Comes with free software instruments.
- Excellent touch-sensitivity.
- Lightweight and portable.
- Easy to map controls from your audio software.
- Build-quality is lacking compared to some other options.
4. Akai Professional LPK25 – Best Compact MIDI Controller
Create music on your laptop? There are plenty of people out there who need the smallest possible USB controller, and the LPK25 could be an answer.
- 4 memory banks for different mappings.
- USB plug and play power and setup.
- 25 velocity sensitive “mini keys”.
- Arpeggiator onboard.
- Sustain button included.
There are, of course, some limits with such a small MIDI controller, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good option.
If you just want to be able to play simple synth leads or basslines, this can be an easy way to do so, that fits in your laptop bag and doesn’t need any extra power supply.
It works with a number of the top DAW software options, and the 4 different programmable maps means you can recall different settings instantly for different performances.
- Extremely small and lightweight.
- Velocity sensitive keys.
- USB power and simple setup.
- Affordable option.
- No pads or knob controllers.
- Mini keys feel less “realistic” to play.
- Limited options to what you can play on the small design.
- No software included.
5. Akai Professional APC Mini – Best Pad Controller
Continuing with the mini theme, we have the APC mini, an affordable but high-quality pad controller giving loads of options, and especially good for triggering samples and making drum patterns.
- Integrated with Ableton Live.
- Can be used with mobile devices.
- 8 x 8 MIDI clip matrix.
- 8 assignable faders.
- Comes with Hybrid 3 by AIR and Ableton Live Lite.
It is worth noting before delving properly into the review, that this doesn’t have any keyboard, and it is really only suited to use within Ableton software.
Luckily, Ableton Live Lite is included, so people who buy don’t have an extra expense of buying software.
This is great for those who don’t really play piano or keyboard but want to trigger samples such as drum loops or drum hits.
The APC is based on hip-hop samplers of years gone by.
While some people will see it as annoying that you need to use Ableton, the two link up seamlessly, and you can even still control virtual instruments in spite of not having keys.
- Great for drum beats.
- Works seamlessly with Ableton.
- Free software included.
- Backlit and easy to see on stage or in dark practice rooms.
- Good value for money.
- Only really suited to Ableton.
- No keyboard included, just pads.
6. CME, Xkey Air 25-Key – Best Bluetooth MIDI Controller
It looks like it is straight out of a science fiction movie, and most music technology lovers will be big fans of the small and modern design!
This is the first and only Bluetooth design on the list, but over the coming years, expect far more similar models to hit the market.
- Full size piano keys.
- Ultra portable. 0.6 inches thick and weighs under 2 lbs.
- Velocity sensitive with a Poly aftertouch.
- Not plastic, made with aluminum for durability.
- Use with iOS, Android, Mac, PC and Linux.
In theory, this is one of the most flexible MIDI controllers out there when you consider the fact that it easily connects to loads of different operating systems.
But some DAWs are lagging behind a little when it comes to connecting Bluetooth devices, so the connection isn’t always 100% reliable.
That said, we expect this to be the way things go in the future, with more companies providing Bluetooth options.
The fact that this is so lightweight and simple in design is appealing to some, and it can easily be slipped in a laptop bag or even an iPad case.
Looking for a companion to GarageBand or other mobile software? This could be a good call.
- Extremely small and lightweight.
- Connects to multiple operating systems.
- Use mobile with your tablet.
- Keys are flat and don’t feel ‘real’ to play.
- No pad controls.
- Quite expensive compared to USB models.
7. Nektar Impact LX49+ Keyboard Controller – Most Powerful Control
The Nektar range is truly appealing to musicians, and while we could’ve picked any of the different Nektar models, we’ve opted for the LX49+.
Keep in mind that those who want more “piano” style playability can go for the 61+ and those prioritizing portability can go for the 25+.
- 49 note keyboard.
- Includes Bitwig DAW.
- 26 programmable real-time controls: 9x 30mm faders, 9x MIDI buttons and 8x potentiometers.
- Integrates with most DAWs.
- iOS compatible as well as Mac and PC.
This has the look and feel of a synth, with velocity sensitivity and aftertouch adding to the clever design.
The Nektar option has an incredible level of control, and as well as altering 26 different parameters at a time, it can also be used to save profiles to be recalled for different performances.
This can be used with iOS though it doesn’t work with Android devices.
Lots of DAWs and VSTi’s come automatically mapped to the Nektar controls so you can instantly use the controller with ease.
It also includes the Bitwig DAW. This isn’t the most powerful but it can be a good companion for live performance.
- Maps automatically to a lot of different software and instruments.
- Loads of controls and compatibility with different DAWs.
- Can be used with iOS.
- No Android compatibility.
- Bigger than many of the alternative options.
8. Nektar Impact LX88+ – Best 88-Key MIDI Controller
There will inevitably be plenty of people looking to find the best 88-key MIDI controller.
This provides the full range of a digital piano, and it is the impressive Nektar range of MIDI controllers that provides the best 88-key option.
- Semi-weighted keys.
- Split, layer and transpose buttons.
- 9 faders, 9 buttons, 8 potentiometers and 10 additional buttons.
- MIDI out and USB out.
- Nektar DAW integrated.
- Bitwig software included.
As well as being a big keyboard to build your studio around, this has a lot to offer that the other MIDI controllers simply cannot.
For instance, the split and layer controls let you play two sounds at once, both of which can be altered and controlled by the buttons, pots and faders that are included.
It would be nice to have fully weighted, hammer-action keys on a full-sized MIDI controller like this, but the semi-weighted keys are a decent substitute and give a fair level of expression.
The integration with DAWs is one of the Nektar brand’s strengths, too.
- Includes split and layer modes.
- Loads of control over sounds with over 30 buttons, pots and faders.
- Keys only semi-weighted.
- Big and bulky so not very portable.
9. Arturia MiniLab MkII 25 Slim-Key – Best MIDI Controller with Inbuilt Mapping
Companies who make virtual instruments and then create hardware controllers for them are rare, but Arturia do exactly this, and their instruments are not only very high-quality.
They are also perfectly mapped to the Arturia hardware in a matter of seconds. No more fiddling around trying to map your synth to the right controls.
- 16 assignable encoders.
- 8 pressure-sensitive pads.
- Includes V-Collection synths, 21 different included instruments.
- 25 velocity sensitive keys.
The main strength of this MIDI controller is the fact that it includes access to, and compatibility with, some incredible software.
The build-quality is great, the sensitive pads are easy to use and the 16 assignable encoders give loads of control, but the instruments that can be installed and controlled by the Arturia give you a recording studio at your fingertips.
Analog Lab gives you over 500 different classic synth sounds, and Ableton Live Lite is also included for even more effects and synth controls.
- Excellent build quality.
- Velocity and pressure sensitive keys and pads.
- Auto mapped to loads of excellent, Arturia software.
- Heavier than most 25-key models.
10. Akai Professional LPD8 Portable – Best Mini Pad Controller
If you are looking for an ultra-slim, small pad controller for drum machines or triggering loops and samples then the LPD8 could be your answer.
It’s tiny, and still offers some pretty cool functionality for musicians, making it a good companion for composing.
- 8 knobs for mapping to parameters.
- 8 backlit, velocity-sensitive drum pads.
- Good DAW compatibility, Garageband, Logic, Ableton and more.
- USB powered.
This is one of the most simplistic pad controllers out there, and though you can get much more powerful options, this is a good choice for people who want ultra-portable pad control.
It can help you to trigger loops, play individual sounds and program drum patterns.
There’s no keyboard, but it can still have some impact over parameters in your DAW.
It’s simple to map to most workstations and you also have the option to save your mapping presets.
- Extremely small and lightweight.
- Easy to get the hang of the controls.
- No need for external power.
- Simple to connect to most DAWs and other software.
- No keyboard.
- A bit flimsy due to the small size.
MIDI Controller Buying Considerations
Number Of Keys
Almost all MIDI controllers are built around some form of keyboard. The number of keys is therefore an important consideration.
In the world of digital pianos, keyboards and MIDI controllers, you will find a few “standard” sizes. 25-key models are really popular.
These are usually compact enough to take out and about with you, making them an ideal choice for laptop producers.
However, they don’t give you the option to play two-handed. This is fine for punching in a quick melody but not ideal for playing full songs.
If you want to play two-handed then other options, such as 49-key and 61-key MIDI controllers are available. You can even find some models that are 88-keys, which constitutes “full-size” in terms of pianos and digital pianos.
Assignable Pads And Knobs
Another feature that will be high on the priorities for some, but unimportant for others. MIDI controllers often have pads, knobs and sliders that can be assigned to certain parameters. In conjunction with software, they can give way more control of the sound.
For instance, assignable pads can allow you to play drum sounds quickly and easily. You can assign the drums to the pads, and when you tap the pad it will trigger the sound. You can also do similar things with assigning loops, and build a whole live performance around your keyboard.
Knobs and sliders can be assigned to different controls within your DAW, too. You can use them to change volumes and settings, for instance, or to control different aspects of a virtual instrument. Change the filter while you’re playing, or make a track quieter for a certain part of your performance.
If you just want to play melodies, this stuff might be overkill. For some musicians, producers and performers, it’s the whole reason to look for a MIDI controller.
Compatibility – Software And Hardware
What can you use your MIDI controller with? It’s very important to remember that most MIDI keyboards and controllers have no inbuilt sounds. This means that you can only play sounds when you connect to other hardware and software.
Most people use their MIDI controller in conjunction with some form of software. Connecting to a computer or laptop is as easy as using a USB-MIDI connection.
Most computers will be able to recognize the controller, and music software such as Ableton, FL Studio, Reaper and Logic will be able to connect to it.
In terms of hardware, some modular synths can connect to the MIDI connection of your controller. This means that you could use it to play melodies into the synth.
A synthesizer that only has 25 keys may be able to connect to a bigger MIDI keyboard and this can be used to trigger the sounds and play more intricate melodies.
Some MIDI controllers can offer iOS or Android compatibility. This can allow you to use them easily in conjunction with your phone or tablet device, too.
What About A Keyboard With MIDI Capabilities?
This is definitely an option for a lot of people. Some standard keyboards and digital pianos have MIDI outputs, meaning that they have both the on board sounds and the option to connect to your laptop or other MIDI compatible devices.
There are pros and cons to doing it this way. A keyboard will probably not have any MIDI assignable pads, for instance, and they may not be as small and portable. Plus, many MIDI controllers run from USB power, but keyboards may need an external power supply.
The benefit is that there are sounds on the keyboards already, meaning you can practice and play even when you don’t have a separate device available for triggering the sounds. They also have inbuilt speakers, so you aren’t reliant on the output of your computer.
Size, Weight And Portability
This overlaps with the number of keys, but the two are different features. If you are looking for a model to take out and about with you, you will be pleased to know that there are some very, very small MIDI controllers including Korg’s nano range, which are extremely lightweight.
Sometimes, in order to stay smaller, the keyboards will be made with smaller keys and without some features such as touch sensitivity, so there are downsides to it.
However, in general, if you aren’t too bothered about these functions you can find some incredibly small controllers. For making music on the train or just keeping all your kit transportation to a minimum, this can be very helpful
Benefits Of Owning A MIDI Controller
Expand The Possibilities
If you are composing, producing or playing live then a MIDI controller can add a lot of different aspects and possibilities to what you can do.
You can make changes to different parameters on the fly, switch sounds easily, and play a multitude of virtual instruments. There are virtually no limits on what you can do if you link up to the right DAW software.
Keep Your Setup Portable
MIDI keyboards can allow you to do far more within a much smaller package. Instead of needing multiple instruments, you may be able to assign the sounds to your MIDI controller and trigger these live.
This can prevent you from having to take lots of equipment with you to band practice or shows.
Pad Controller Or MIDI Keyboard, What’s Best?
A lot of MIDI controllers pack in the features of both pads and a keyboard. This is probably something that is recommended if you are looking for a well-rounded performance tool.
Those who aren’t able (or willing) to play keyboard can just use a pad controller to trigger sounds.
If you are a pianist, for instance, and you want to use your controller to play melodies then a keyboard is probably the best option, though it won’t hurt to have extra faders etc.
As you can see, a MIDI controller can allow you to do so much more as a musician, controlling more parameters and not having to spend all your time performing or composing staring at the screen.
The main things to decide upon are whether or not you need pad controls or keyboard controls, the number of keys and the size of your controller. You should also consider compatibility with your software or other hardware.
The Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII has been named as the best overall due to the fact it has a bit of everything! As well as a keyboard, it has pads and knobs, and it simply and easily connects to multiple DAWs.
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