One of the most essential tools for the home studio is a MIDI keyboard. From this one device, you can add virtual instrumentation to your tracks, control modulations, add foot switches and expression pedals, and with many models also control functions in your DAW. Today we’re going to check out some of the most popular MIDI keyboard models, compare their features, and figure out which is best for your home studio.
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What is a MIDI Keyboard?
MIDI, short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, is a standard that allows you to convert analog signals and turn them into their digital equivalents for music creation. A MIDI keyboard is designed to emulate a piano or other keyboard in look and feel and send MIDI messages to your computer. The signal includes both a note and a velocity, and is passed via a special MIDI cable or standard USB with very little latency to your computer or other MIDI equipment. For example, if you press middle C on a MIDI keyboard as hard as you can, it will pass the signal “3C 7F” to your computer, which means “fourth octave C at full velocity,” and the DAW or virtual instrument will play the sample for middle C at the highest intensity level. There is also a signal sent when you release they key, press a foot switch, or use any other knob or button on the unit.
It’s important to note that a MIDI keyboard doesn’t have speakers or jacks to hook up to headphones or keyboard amps, as all of the signals travel via MIDI only. There are many standalone keyboards on the market that have MIDI or USB jacks that may be a better fit if you plan on practicing or performing without your computer.
What Features Should You Look for in a MIDI Keyboard?
MIDI controllers come in a variety of shapes and sizes and may include drum pads and control surface features built in. Also, many include software bundles with DAWs, virtual instruments, sample packs, and more. Let’s take a look at the most common features that influence the price of a MIDI keyboard:
Number and Type of Keys
MIDI keyboards come in flavors that range from 25 keys all the way up to a full 88 to emulate a full piano keyboard. Common configurations are 25, 49, 61, and 88 keys, and they usually have octave up/down buttons for easy access to other octave ranges. Most keyboards come with full-size keys, however some do have smaller keys to help with portability. Also, though the vast majority of MIDI keyboards will have velocity-sensitive keys, some only act as on/off switches, which is something to watch out for. Finally, many MIDI keyboard models have weighted keys which are designed to feel like a real piano keyboard, which is important for the tactile feel of the keyboard, especially for those who learned on a real piano or another weighted board.
Control Surface Features
More often than not, new MIDI keyboards come with extra controls flanking the piano roll that take the place of a separate MIDI control surface. These controls include knobs or rotary encoders, faders, transport controls, and other function buttons for controlling your DAW without picking up your mouse. It’s important to not let yourself be overly concerned with these extra features, however, since they typically are not as robust as the functions on a separate control surface.
As the focus among musicians continues to shift more towards electronic music, many MIDI keyboards now come with MIDI drum pads. Some may have 4-8 pads, while others may have 16 or more for controlling full kits. Some may also have RGB backlights, multiple banks, velocity controls, and more.
Similar to other MIDI devices and audio interfaces, bundled software is often a major contributing factor in the cost of MIDI keyboards. Nearly every keyboard will come with a stripped-down version of a DAW, and many come with virtual instruments, sample packs, sampler software, or huge software suites.
Most MIDI controllers have jacks for adding sustain pedals, and some also have expression pedal jacks, but don’t usually come with the pedals in the box. If you’re primarily playing songs with piano, or if you want to use sustain for other virtual instruments, you’ll definitely want at least a sustain pedal. Anothet pedal type, expression pedals, are great for controlling volume swells, painting in automations, or using with guitar software to take the place of a foot controller. Also, if you don’t have anywhere to sit or to set your keyboard, you’ll want to consider stands and benches as well.
Best MIDI Keyboards under $250
Keyboards on the more affordable end of the spectrum require that you sacrifice something to fit in your budget, be it the number of keys, the extra knobs, or just the overall size of the keyboard. Let’s take a look at the popular options:
(Please note that since studio gear goes in and out of stock frequently due to high demand and low supply, prices can and will vary. If the listed price for an item doesn’t fall within the category I’ve placed it in, it’s likely because it’s out of stock. In that case, you may want to seek out another vendor, pick a different item, or wait until the one you want is back in stock.)
AKAI Professional MPK mini MK2
The tiny (and I do mean tiny) AKAI MPK mini MK2 includes 25 keys, eight knobs, eight pressure-sensitive drum pads, arpeggiator, sustain pedal jack, and a nifty thumbstick for pitch/mod control. The keys are not full-sized, but they are velocity-sensitive. Comes with MPC Beats, SONiVOX Wobble, and Hybrid 3 for a nice selection of virtual instruments for your DAW. For those on a budget, with very limited space, or for whom portability is an important factor, this is a formidable option.
M-Audio Keystation 88 MKII
The Keystation 88 MKII by M-Audio has very few bells and whistles, just 88 velocity-sensitive keys, transport controls, and standard pitch and mod wheels. On the rear there are jacks for both sustain and expression pedals, a MIDI out, and a power switch. The Keystation comes with Pro Tools First and Ableton Live Lite, Eleven Lite guitar amp sim, SONiVOX Eighty Eight Ensemble, and XPand!2, giving you lots of recording and virtual instrument options. The Keystation is also available in 49- and 61-key flavors for a few dollars less.
M-Audio Oxygen 49 MKIV
The M-Audio Oxygen series marries the piano roll of the Keystation with a control surface and drum pad all in one. The Oxygen comes with eight assignable knobs, eight trigger pads, nine faders and function buttons, and full-size touch-sensitive keys. The software package of DAWs and plugins includes Pro Tools First, Ableton Live Lite, Eleven Lite, Twist 2, SONiVOX Eighty-Eight Ensemble, and XPand!2. The Oxygen comes in 25-, 49-, and 61-key options, but the 25-key version does sacrifice the faders and function buttons to save space.
Best MIDI Keyboards over $250
As we step into the more expensive options, the breadth of bundled software starts to inflate the prices, as do the number of extra controls or the overall build quality of the keyboard:
M-Audio Hammer 88
I had the pleasure of playing a Hammer 88 at my local music store and was blown away at how realistic the keys felt. Also, this is one of the only keyboards in our roundup that has jacks for sustain, expression, and sostenuto pedals. It has very few controls, just pitch and mod wheels, octaves, and 88 weighted keys with aftertouch, but what it does have is very well executed. The impressive software suite includes Pro Tools First, Ableton Live Lite, Eleven Lite, plus Velvet, Hybrid 3, XPand!2, Mini Grand, DB-33, and LOOM from AIR Music Technology. If you’re a piano player at heart, this may be one of your best options.
Arturia Keylab 61 MKII
Arturia’s all-in-one MIDI keyboard controller solution comes with tons of controls and bundled software to justify its price tag. Sixteen RGB velocity-sensitive drum pads, nine faders, rotary encoders, and function buttons, transport controls, and programmable presets give you a ton of options beyond the piano roll. The back panel has CV/Gate outputs for controlling outboard synth modules, MIDI in and out, five pedal jacks including sustain and expression, and a power switch. The software bundle includes Ableton Live Lite, Arturia Piano V2 and Analog Lab from Arturia’s V-Collection, making this a complete studio solution worth careful consideration if you have the budget. The KeyLab is also available in 49-key configuration, or they sell the KeyLab Essential version with fewer drum pads and a toned-down software bundle.
Native Instruments KOMPLETE KONTROL S49 MK2
Multi-colored LEDs sit above each of the 49 weighted, velocity-sensitive Fatar keys on this beast of a MIDI controller to help you keep track of octaves, multiple instruments, or other functions you’ve mapped. The two LED screens with eight rotary encoders and buttons give you the ability to browse and modify Native Kontrol Standard (NKS) instruments, many of which are included in the KOMPLETE Select and Maschine Essentials software bundle the KONTROL S49 comes with. The back panel has two sustain pedal inputs, 5-pin MIDI in and out, and a power button. There are also 25- and 61-key models, and for those on a budget they also have the A-Series which has many of the same features without the screens or the extra software.
Best MIDI Keyboard Accessories
None of they keyboards in this roundup come with any accessories, so if you want to expand the functions with pedals or need somewhere to put your keyboard, here are a few options:
AmazonBasics Sustain Foot Pedal
If you’re using a MIDI keyboard with piano, organ, electric keyboard or other pedal-style virtual instruments, you’re probably going to want a sustain pedal. They are fairly universal, so this is the cheapest one I could find with good reviews. These can also be used as a sostenuto or other auxiliary pedal with other MIDI gear.
M-Audio EX-P Expression Pedal
If you’d like to control volume, pitch, modulation, or other effects like wah or tremolo with a MIDI pedal, consider adding an expression pedal as well. They are mappable to any function in your DAW, so really the only limit is your imagination. Again, as they are universal, I chose the most affordable one I could find to include in the roundup.
Amazon Basics Keyboard Stand
If you don’t have somewhere to put your keyboard, you’ll want to consider a dedicated keyboard stand. This is the lowest-priced option I could find with solid reviews, though spending a bit more may get you more options like piano straps, fixed legs, Z- or H-style stands, or heavier-duty construction.
RockJam KB100 Padded Keyboard Bench
For the complete piano experience with your MIDI controllers, you might want a dedicated keyboard bench. This one has a 340-pound weight limit for the thiccbois, but is highly adjustable and folds up for easy storage when not in use.
Best MIDI Keyboards for Home Studio 2021 – The Bottom Line
There we have it, the best options for MIDI keyboards and accessories for the home studio musician. If you’re still not sure which one is the best fit for your particular use case, drop by our Home Studio Enthusiasts Facebook group and create a new post. We have thousands of home studio musicians just like you in the group to help answer your questions and point you in the right direction.