The Best MIDI Keyboard Controllers for Home Music Studios - Careers in Music
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A decent MIDI keyboard is one of the most vital parts of your studio.

It might be the physical connection you have to software synths or it might organize and give you access to an array of hardware synthesizers and sound modules. These days it probably does both. But increasingly, MIDI controller keyboards are not content with simply letting you play notes, they can have cool features built-in like arpeggiators, sequencers, and chord modes. Or maybe they act as a hub for all your sounds while giving hands-on control over your DAW. This may also be the year when MIDI 2.0 controllers will begin to emerge.
 
In this list of MIDI keyboards for 2020, I’ve selected the ones that I believe offer something interesting and could be the next keyboard to take center stage in your studio or performance.

The best MIDI keyboard controllers are:

  • Arturia Keystep Pro
  • Novation Launchkey Mini Mk3
  • Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol M32
  • Novation SL Mk III
  • Roland A-88 Mk2
  • Joué by Joué
  • Roland AX-Edge
  • Expressive E Osmose

Arturia Keystep Pro

This is so much more than a MIDI controller and perhaps has more features than this round-up should really handle. But MIDI is not the only protocol at play in our increasingly diverse hybrid studios and so more and more controllers are including Control Voltage (CV) in their capabilities. The Keystep Pro does this in spades.
 
The Keystep Pro controls everything. It’ll do regular MIDI to hardware, USB to software, 4 channels of CV/Gate to analog and modular plus 8 Gates outputs to run a machine’s worth of drums. All of it can be run from the onboard 4-track polyphonic step-sequencer.
 
Each track can sequence hardware or software. Track 1 can run as a powerful 16 part drum machine while the other 3 can also run as arpeggiators for instant creativity. You can run monophonically with analog or modular gear and polyphonically with MIDI or USB. You can have your whole rig running from this controller. And then you’ve got performance controls over the top like rolls, loops, randomization, and transposition.
 
It can get deep and complicated but it also frees you from the confines of the DAW and puts multiple control over multiple instruments and devices right under your fingers. This is an extraordinary controller keyboard.

Street Price: $399
Arturia Keystep Pro

Novation Launchkey Mini Mk3

The Launchkey Mini Mk3 is a tiny controller that is packed with features and punches well above its weight. It’s perfect for running with a laptop or tablet and will fit perfectly into your bag for mobility. It looks great and plays great even with those slimline keys and only 2 octaves.
 
This controller comes alive when paired with Ableton Live. The pads match the color and configuration of the Live Session view and you have automatic mapping over the devices, parameters, and clips. It’s completely seamless and lets you get on with making music rather than staring at a screen or using a mouse. You can add tracks, set it recording, mute and solo channels, dial in effects, and control your session.
 
But that’s not all and you certainly don’t have to restrict yourself to Live. Inside is a very powerful arpeggiator that you can route to any MIDI destination in software or hardware. It’s controlled by two very creative parameters called Deviate and Mutate. One starts to push to melody into interesting places while the other messes with the gate timings.

Once you have a regular arp running you can use these features to work the melody into all sorts of interesting places. There’s also a very handy chord mode for banging out one-fingered progressions.
 
It’s a fun and creative little keyboard that’s more than just a Live controller and has a MIDI output for controlling hardware, which is very unusual for this sort of controller.

Street Price: $109
Novation LaunchKey Mini Mk3

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Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol M32

The Komplete Kontrol M32 is a micro-size keyboard controller. It has 32 compact keys but these shouldn’t be mistaken for “minikeys.” They are smaller than a regular keyboard, but they have a smooth synth-action and feel great under your fingers. You have octave up and down buttons and two touch strips to provide pitch bend and modulation or whatever you want to map them to.

But the cleverness behind the M32 is to be found in the software. Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol software is the backbone of all their controller keyboards. It’s an instrument and plug-in host for any software plug-ins that support their NKS standard. When they do, then all the knobs and controls on the M32 are instantly and automatically mapped to relevant controls on the synthesizer, instrument or effect.

Imagine dialing through your virtual instruments, loading one and finding all the controls perfectly mapped to the hardware, ready to go. You can also access the browser directly from the keyboard, switch plug-ins and change presets without having to touch the computer.

There are transport controls for your DAW and some special integration with Native Instruments’ included Maschine groove sequencer. Built into the keyboard is Smart Play, which includes different scale and arpeggiator modes, instant chords and tunings so that you never play a wrong note.

Street Price: $129
Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol M32

Novation SL Mk III

There’s a trend for MIDI keyboards to be the center of everything and to control everything. Not content to simply play notes, they want to offer drum pads, clip launching, transport controls, and parameter tweaking — and that’s awesome! Novation’s SL Mk III goes one step further and adds pattern-based sequencing into the hardware.

The SL Mk III has a lot of functionality built-in for Ableton Live. It has 5 little screens that can display parameters directly from Ableton Live devices and give you instant knob control over them. But it also has a library of hardware and software devices so that you can dial up instant mapping to a variety of sound sources and the displays reflect those parameters.

You can also create your own templates for how you want to work. The semi-weighted keyboard can be split into multiple layers and zones and you can apply scales and key changes with color-coded lights above the keys providing a guide.

The 8-track pattern-based sequencer is the stand-out feature. This is taken from their Circuit groove box and allows you to build real-time or step-based patterns directly from the keyboard. This is a fantastic feature for integrating external synthesizers and MIDI boxes into your DAW-based setup.

The SL Mk III also has two sets of CV, Gate, and Modulation outputs so you can sequence analog and modular gear as well. Many people are looking to go “DAW-less” in their creative workings or live performance and the SL Mk III can definitely provide that while being completely software integrated when you want it to be.

If all singing and all dancing are what you need in a MIDI controller for both your DAW and your external gear then the SL Mk III is a perfect choice. It’s $599 for the 49 key version and $699 for the 61 keys.

Street Price: $599
Novation SL Mk III

Roland A-88 Mk2

This is a professional MIDI controller with a superb hammer-action keyboard that is somehow housed in a small enough space so that it doesn’t completely dominate your desktop. It’s immensely playable with a solid piano feel and you can adjust the sensitivity and responsiveness to match your own style.
 
It has a decent range of modern and colorful features. There are 8 knobs individually colored for mapping to parameters. There are 8 colored pads for triggering drums and samples. The keyboard has three definable zones for layers and splits letting you easily control more than one source at a time. Along with a sustain pedal input, there are two further inputs for expressive pedal control.
 
The A-88 MK2 has an advanced arpeggiator with chord memory so you can create purely from the keyboard without having to use a DAW or sequencer. And everything can be configured and recalled via a software app.
 
It has regular MIDI In and Out but it also has a USB-C port for to a computer. Via that connection, the A-88 MK2 is the first MIDI controller keyboard to fully support the new MIDI 2.0 standard that has just been agreed on by the MIDI Manufacturers Association. It’s early days but the A-88 MK2 is ready to support all the new functionality and resolution that the new protocol will bring.

Street Price: $999
Roland A-88 Mk2

Joué by Joué

This is a bit more unusual and while it is absolutely a keyboard controller it can be great for many other types of controller as well.

Joué is an expressive MIDI controller with an exchangeable interface. It can move from being a keyboard to a fretted instrument, from percussion to expressive control. It works by polyphonic pressure applied to a flexible, squashy material that comes in all sorts of configurations.

Joué responds to striking, bending, vibrato, and aftertouch polyphonically, which means that each note can have its own expression data in what’s known as MIDI Polyphonic Expression or MPE. It allows you to pull off very natural and expressive performances and while it doesn’t feel like a regular keyboard you soon find yourself playing in a way you hadn’t considered before.

You begin with the slim, wooden edged Joué board which is split into three sections. The overlays then take up 1, 2 or 3 sections and you can mix and match between them. The overlays themselves are imprinted with technology that stores the configuration so that as soon as you place it on the board it starts working.

Amongst the possible overlays is the Grand Clavier 2 octave piano keyboard, a 6 string guitar fretboard, an XY Pad, drum pads, faders, and circular controls. The versatility in this controller is amazing and it’s also a very beautiful object.

The pricing varies depending on the overlays you want but the basic Joué is $399 and if you want to add a bundle of common overlays then it’s $499. It comes with an 8-track version of Bitwig Studio and some virtual sounds from Arturia Analog Lab Lite to get you started.

Street Price: $399 (starting price)
Joué by Joué

Roland AX-Edge

The trend in mad looking keytars continues with the Roland AX-Edge. This one has a massive blade down one edge that wouldn’t look out of place in some cosplay at a Comic-Con. The Roland AX-Edge features 49 full-sized keys with velocity and aftertouch. On the handle, you get a ribbon controller, a modulation bar, some control knobs, some buttons, and a master volume.

There’s also a pedal input which would seem odd if you are running around on stage with it. But then wouldn’t you be tethered to a computer or MIDI device? Well, no, because it has Bluetooth MIDI built-in and can run on batteries so now you can be totally wireless, on stage, playing a synth.

But the AX-Edge is not just a controller, it also has a Synth-EX engine with 256 voices, 79 effects, a song player, an arpeggiator and even a vocoder. All the sounds can be edited via an Android/iOS app. Whether you use the onboard sounds or Bluetooth into your computer, the AX-Edge is the most solid and imposing keytar I’ve ever seen. They have gone full-on rock-n-roll with this thing.

The AX-Edge is available in black or white for a shocking $999. But you can customize the blade edge!

Street Price: $999
Roland AX-Edge

Expressive E Osmose

Something a bit different, a bit futuristic perhaps? Osmose is an instrument more than a controller, although it does that too and in more ways than most. It has the mechanical feel of a piano while offering the sort of expressive control found in specialist MPE controllers that are usually very unlike pianos, like the Joué in this list. Osmose is a ground-breaking controller.
 
Each key has 3 dimensions of control with its Augmented Keyboard Action. It has the initial pressure, aftertouch, and pitch control on each note and every note with full polyphony. So you don’t just trigger a sound, you play it, enter into it and control it with every press, every note. For synthesizers and software that support MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) it offers an amazing level of expression and nuance when playing.
 
To show this off beautifully Osmose contains a specially designed instrument sound engine called EaganMatrix. It’s a digital modular synth designed by Haken Audio. You can shake sounds, strum them with your fingers, bend and manipulate like you would with strings or breath. It’s a wonderful playing experience.
 
Osmose is not available until later in the year but it’s already been celebrated by the musicians who have spent time with it during development. It’s unlike anything else out there.

Street Price: $1,799
Expressive E Osmose

Photo via Novation SL Mk III.

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