Best MIDI Keyboard Controllers 2019
Your MIDI keyboard is the physical connection between you and your world of synthesis, sound, instruments, and grooves. You can play pianos, compose strings, perform synth solos, bang out grooves and trigger loops all with your fingers and thumbs. There is a wide range of MIDI keyboard controllers out there that give you the notes to play and come with a lot of other features and controls as well. In this list of MIDI keyboards for 2019, I select the ones that I believe offer something interesting and could be the next keyboard to take center stage in your studio or performance.
Here are our picks for the best MIDI keyboard controllers available in 2019:
- Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol M32
- Novation SL Mk III
- Akai Pro MPK Road 88
- Joué by Joué
- Roland AX-Edge
- Nektar Panorama
- ROLI Seaboard
- Alesis Vortex Wireless 2
Best MIDI Keyboard Controllers of 2019
1. Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol M32
*At time of writing
We’re starting off with something compact and portable that’ll fit in your bag and be the perfect accompaniment to your laptop-based music-making rig.
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.
It’s a great little keyboard with all the power and features of the larger A-Series controllers for $129.
The MPK Road 88 has a premium 88-key hammer-action keybed with aftertouch. Akai has spent 2 years developing the keyboard technology to deliver an incredibly natural and responsive feel. It has MIDI In/Out, USB MIDI and three pedal inputs. The USB connection also offers a 4-output audio interface so you don’t need any other gear for getting audio out of your computer. It has a couple of buttons and a knob but otherwise, there is plenty of room on top for stacking up your beers. This is a keyboard built for gigging.
2. Novation SL Mk III
*At time of writing
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 the perfect choice. It’s $599 for the 49 key version and $699 for the 61 keys.
3. Akai Pro MPK Road 88
*At time of writing
Now, this is the exact opposite of everything we’ve seen so far. The MPK Road 88 is a beautifully simple and rugged road-worthy box of 88 piano keys in a MIDI controller. It looks like a Stage Piano but it has no internal sounds, it’s just a MIDI controller for your computer or other MIDI gear.
The MPK Road 88 has a premium 88-key hammer-action keybed with aftertouch. Akai has spent 2 years developing the keyboard technology to deliver an incredibly natural and responsive feel. It has MIDI In/Out, USB MIDI and three pedal inputs. The USB connection also offers a 4-output audio interface so you don’t need any other gear for getting audio out of your computer. It has a couple of buttons and a knob but otherwise, there is plenty of room on top for stacking up your beers. This is a keyboard built for gigging. Sure, it would work in the studio but it wants to be on the road. It comes built into a flight case with a lid ready to go.
At $899 this is one for the piano players and performers. It comes with a great bundle of Akai software, including their VIP hosting software, AIR Music Tech DB-33, AIR Music Tech Velvet and AIR Music Tech Mini Grand for Road 88.
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.
4. Joué by Joué
Link to Website: www.play-joue.com
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.
5. Roland AX-Edge
*At time of writing
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 controls 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, 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!
There are lots of possibilities in the MIDI controller market. If my choices don’t quite fit the bill then here are some alternatives to check out. For controlling everything like the SL MK III then try Nektar Panorama T4 and T6 keyboards with unparalleled DAW control and virtual instrument mapping. If MPE control appeals but you want something closer to a keyboard then the Seaboard from ROLI is the best choice. And finally, if paying a grand for a keytar is too much then the $299 Alesis Vortex could be what you’re looking for.
*At time of writing
Photo via Roland AX-Edge.
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