best midi controller keyboards

The Year’s Best MIDI Keyboard Controllers

The piano keyboard is still the most common musical interface found in MIDI and the playing of electronically generated sound. Whether it’s software instruments, hardware synthesizers, sequencing or performance, a MIDI Controller Keyboard is most likely going to be the interface between your hands and the machine. For some people, the keyboard is just a tool, a series of switches for inputting notes. For others, it’s an extension of their creativity and needs to reflect and capture the nuance of their playing. There are some great keyboards out there that can satisfy the needs of whatever your fingers require. Here’s a round-up of the best MIDI controller keyboards we’ve seen this year.
Our 2018/2019 Picks

Arturia KeyLab MkII

Street Price: Keylab MkII 49 – $449 (at time of writing)

Street Price: Keylab MkII 61 – $499 (at time of writing)

As Arturia continues to develop the hardware side of their business their KeyLab MIDI controllers have gone through a bit of an upgrade. They wanted to provide something a bit special, so they borrowed the “Pro-Feel” key-bed from their flagship MatrixBrute synthesizer. They’ve moved the 16 performance pads over to the left and gifted them with RGB backlighting. The faders and knobs have been consolidated on the right in a much more logical layout. All-in-all they are looking smart.

In the middle is a jog-wheel centered interface designed for use with Arturia’s software instruments. It comes bundled with the Analog Lab software which contains over 6500 preset sounds — so the jog-wheel is going to see plenty of action. In Analog Lab mode the knobs and faders are automatically mapped to relevant software controls so it becomes a very useful and intuitive synth controller.

There are some other cool features such as “Chord Play,” which enables intelligent chord generating. There’s a handful of modular connections with pitch, gate, and two modulation CV outputs and a single CV input. Essentially it acts as a MIDI-to-CV converter which is very handy in this day and age of CV everywhere. The knobs and faders can be used for regular MIDI or combine with the transport controls to offer some standard DAW control. The pads also have three modes of play. First just pound away at them as regular trigger pads. Or you can use them to trigger up to 16 stored chords. Alternatively, they can transpose chords by triggering different shapes.

KeyLab MkII is a well thought out, unfussy and competent MIDI controller keyboard with a load of software sounds and a better-than-most keyboard. Available in black or white with 49 or 61 keys.

Link to Website: www.arturia.com

Alesis Vortex Wireless2

Street Price: $299 (at time of writing)

Love them or hate them you must appreciate the sheer balls and zaniness of the Keytar. Some players like to hide behind their keyboards, whereas others are born to perform and what could be better than the Alesis Vortex Wireless 2 keyboard controller?

It might have a 1980s angular shape but it has very modern technology. It starts with 37 velocity sensitive full-sized keys with aftertouch. Then you add in 8 RGB backlit trigger pads and 8 backlit faders for volume and parameter control. On the neck, you’ll find a thumb-controlled volume slider and pitch-bend wheel. For more performance controls you’ll find a MIDI touch-strip, zone, sustain and octave buttons and one last MIDI assignable control with the built-in tilt sensor. So, as you rock your Keytar you can be controlling a whole stack of things all at once.

The wireless connection is via a dedicated USB dongle which creates a reliable wireless connection. Your Vortex then runs on batteries leaving you completely free to throw yourself around the stage and crowd surf if you so wish.

The Alesis Vortex Wireless 2 is not for everybody but for those who want to be released into the performance while keeping control on your sounds then this is the best Keytar out there. Comes with a great bundle of software instruments and the obligatory Ableton Live Lite.

Link to Website: www.alesis.com

KeyLab MkII is a well thought out, unfussy and competent MIDI controller keyboard with a load of software sounds and a better-than-most keyboard. Available in black or white with 49 or 61 keys.

Nektar Panorama T4

Street Price: Panorama T4 – $299 (at time of writing)

Street Price: Panorama T6 – $359 (at time of writing)

Nektar is on a mission to make MIDI control and software integration as seamless and open as possible. Whereas other manufacturers create some great integration within their own eco-systems Nektar wants this sort of control available for all software instruments. Panorama T4 and T6 introduce a new level of integration while consolidating on the quality of their keyboards and performance features.

Nektar has already been running some deep integration with a range of DAWs, much more than the regular Mackie/MCU control. All the controls are fully mapped for Bitwig, Reason, Cubase, Nuendo GarageBand, Logic and Reaper. But now they have a new software layer called Nektarine which automatically maps the keyboard controls to any VST or AU plug-in. You no longer have to go in and MIDI learn the controls you want to map to your keyboard — it’s all there done for you. All of it backed up by the LCD screen which lists exactly what you’re controlling. You can load up to 8 instruments within an instance of Nektarine and create huge saveable multi-patches that let you switch between instrument controls on the fly.

There’s plenty of other features such as chord generation, key repeat, and pad repeat buttons for instant ratcheting and you can allocate all sorts of things to trigger on the 8 RGB pads. The keyboard is their second generation and most expressive action yet. And it’s all in a more compact footprint than previous Panorama keyboards.

Nektar continues to innovate and bring creative features to their keyboards at very competitive prices which you know will always feel great under your fingers.

Link to Website: www.nektartech.com

Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49 MkII

Street Price: Komplete Kontrol S49 MKII – $599 (at time of writing)

Street Price: Komplete Kontrol S61 MKII – $699 (at time of writing)

The Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49 MkII was introduced last year but still is at the top of its game in terms of software integration and performance control. While the S49 and S61 MkII Fatar based keyboards are sleek and refined it’s the software integration that really brings this controller alive.

The key to this integration is NKS (Native Kontrol Standard). It’s recently been through a big upgrade which has brought effects plug-in support along with the existing instrument support. Simply put, any instrument or effect plugin that supports NKS can be browsed, loaded, mapped and edited directly from the Komplete Kontrol S49 MKII’s twin screens without ever having to look at the computer. It gives a genuine hardware experience over software instruments, with the added bonus that you can now chain up effects after the instrument. So, if you want to add an Eventide reverb to your Alicia Keys Piano then that’s no problem. Many plug-in makers are onboard with NKS but it does require specific support. You get 11 instruments included for free with over 2500 sounds and it will, of course, integrate with all other NI instruments.

Other key features include built-in scales and chord support, a comprehensive arpeggiator and those colorful lights above the keys that can give you information on scales, chords, zones and sample groupings. You also get some cool DAW integration with levels and mixing appearing on the little screens.

It’s a neat solution that continues to evolve and take on more and more software support and the keyboard is not half bad either.

Link to Website: www.native-instruments.com

Akai Advance

Street Price: Akai Advance 25 – $399 (at time of writing)

Street Price: Akai Advance 49 – $449 (at time of writing)

Street Price: Akai Advance 61 – $599 (at time of writing)

Forging a similar path to Native Instruments the Akai Advance range looks to make software integration the key feature. This time the software is called VIP and it’s shaping up to be an impressive combination.

The VIP software acts as a host for all your VST instruments and plug-ins. You can then create combination patches of multiple instruments and effects and control everything from the keyboard. All the parameters come up mapped and ready to tweak and all the presets can be browsed in the little screen. VIP can act as a piece of performance software or it can be loaded into a DAW for music production. VIP has its own “VIPMS” format for deep integration but it can handle any VST plug-in with a bit of initial manual mapping work.

In terms of keyboard hardware, you have 25, 49 and 61 key semi-weighted versions with pressure sensitive RGB pads from the MPC and 8 large endless encoders. There are a note repeat function, pattern arpeggiator, and transport controls. You can get a ridiculous bundle of 10,000 sounds in 16GB from AIR Music Technology, SONiVOX and ToolRoom Records.

The hardware holds its own with others on the list but the software integration and included sounds makes for an amazing controller solution.

Link to Website: akaipro.com

The Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49 MkII was introduced last year but still is at the top of its game in terms of software integration and performance control. While the S49 and S61 MkII Fatar based keyboards are sleek and refined it’s the software integration that really brings this controller alive.

ROLI Seaboard Block

Street Price: $299 (at time of writing)

ROLI makes unique expressive controllers that employ all 5 dimensions of MPE or MIDI Polyphonic Expression. It’s a way of adding independent performance controls to individual notes. So rather than pitch bend or modulation effecting all notes held in a chord like regular MIDI, MPE allows for pitch bend, and modulation of any synthesis parameter for each note. To make that happen in performance it requires something special and the strange looking ROLI Seaboard keyboards are just the ticket.

They don’t have traditional keys, instead using a familiar keyboard layout, they have a weird spongy material that you can strike, push, slide and pull off to affect different parameters. It’s a strange experience but one that encourages experimentation and creativity.

The Seaboard Block is the entry-level controller and gives you 2 octaves of wireless MPE control. It can also act as a regular MIDI controller but it’s the MPE side that makes it interesting. MPE has recently been adopted by the MIDI Manufacturers Association and as a result, more MPE compatible software instruments are emerging all the time. They offer immensely expressive sounds and performance that would be impossible with regular MIDI. Seaboard controllers are expensive but at $299 the Seaboard Block offers a way into this sort of control that’s not going to break the bank. It also integrates with ROLI’s other Block controllers so you can build yourself a customized control station for your music making.

It’s different, interesting and will take you to new places.

Link to Website: roli.com

Conclusion


It’s not all about the keyboard these days, it’s about how seamlessly your controller integrates with software. All of the controllers on this list do a very capable job of offering close integration and the minimum of fuss when dealing with virtual instruments. They approach it differently — the Panorama looks for low impact, transparent control, the Keylab and Native Instruments controllers focus on their own instruments and the Akai wants it all through a VST host program. Underneath they are all going to be able to hook into your software or hardware MIDI instruments and offer great performance and recording controls. (Although I should note that the Arturia KeyLab is the only one offering a CV connection.) If you want to step out into expressiveness then see if you can get the chance to try a ROLI keyboard. Or if you want to rock then the Vortex is waiting.

 

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