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A decent MIDI keyboard is one of the most vital parts of your studio.

The piano keyboard is an essential part of our interaction with music and our gear. With MIDI and USB connections you can play every sound in your DAW and control every parameter on your MIDI synths and electronic instruments. Whether you consider yourself a “player” or not you can use them to bang out a tune, finger-drum some beats, trigger events and take control of the sound.

To be a great MIDI keyboard controller depends on what your needs are. Some people need the feel and elegance of a fully weight piano keyboard whereas some need the speed and lightness of a synth keyboard. For some they need to be small enough to fit on their desk or in their bag. Others are looking for additional features like arpeggiation and sequencing to help them get creative. Running with a computer is only half the story as we’d also like to control a number of synths from a single keyboard.

In our list of the Best MIDI Keyboards I’ve tried to take a broad view and hit on a range of products that might suit different situations. They all have their unique selling points and many of them are available in different sizes to match the space you’re working in.

The best MIDI keyboard controllers (2021) are:

  • Arturia KeyStep Pro
  • Novation Launchkey Mini Mk3
  • Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol A25
  • Novation SL Mk III
  • Nektar Impact LX+
  • Arturia Keystep 37
  • Roland AX-Edge
  • Expressive E Osmose

Your Questions About MIDI Keyboard Controllers, Answered

Which MIDI Controllers do pros use?

Robin Vincent

Professional producers would usually have a number of MIDI controllers so that they can use the right one for the task. Sometimes they’d need a piano feel and so might use an 88 keyed controller from Novation or Arturia whereas at other times they need the speed and convenience of something small like the Kontakt A25 or Arturia KeyStep. Professionals will often use their favourite electric piano or synthesizer as a MIDI controller if they find the playability superior to regular controllers. What’s important is that it has the features and the connections they need to produce the music they’re making.


Can you use any keyboard as a MIDI controller?

Robin Vincent

If it has a MIDI or MIDI/USB output then yes you can. However, the layout or mapping of a synthesizer or electric piano might not very efficient for controlling other synthesizers or your DAW. As you’re controlling the other synth you’re also changing the sound of the synthesizer you’re using when moving the knobs and sliders – that might or might not matter. MIDI keyboard controllers are designed to offer clear and easily definable control over MIDI gear and software so are ideally suited to the task.


Can you use a MIDI controller without a computer?

Robin Vincent

It depends on the controller but usually yes. If the MIDI controller only has a USB connection on the back and no regular MIDI ports then it’s designed solely for computer use. However, if it has a MIDI output port then you can connect it directly to another MIDI synth or device and control it. Some MIDI controllers have to be powered by USB but you can always use a powered USB hub or USB charger to provide the power if there’s no computer to hand.

Best MIDI Keyboard Controllers 2021

Read on for our picks for the year’s best MIDI keyboard controllers!

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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.

There are larger versions available with all the same features but with full-sized keys from 25 to 61 and the larger ones also have MIDI faders to expand the control. While they are probably easier the play the “Mini” is just so convenient and easy to take with you.

Street Price: $109
Novation LaunchKey Mini Mk3

Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol A25

The Komplete Kontrol A25 is a step up from the M32 that was on this list last year. It’s still a compact size but has 25 full-sized synth-style keys and better modulation and pitch wheels. There are 49 and 61 keyed versions as well if you need to stretch your creativity a bit wider. Along with the great keyboard action you get 8 knobs of dedicated MIDI control and full support of the NKS control software.

The Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol software (NKS) 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 A25 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: $169
Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol A25

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

Nektar Impact LX+

Nektar have a different approach to MIDI control. They are not content to leave you to find your own way and instead provide some very clever software that makes the mapping of software instruments and DAW control really easy with a range of DAWs.

With a couple of button presses you can map the 8 knobs and the 8 faders to synthesizer parameters that can be recalled every time you load that instrument. The focus here is for use with a DAW and software instruments rather than external MIDI synths but it can work as a regular MIDI controller just like any other. The keyboard also includes full DAW control over mixer faders and transport while being able to control synths at the same time as well as some useful pads that can be quickly mapped to any drum machine.

In the LX+ range there’s a 25, 49, 61 and 88 keyed version giving you a choice to match the way you like to play. They do more expensive keyboards that have a more professional feel to the keyboard but the LX+ range are very well priced with a lot of powerful features.

Street Price: from $109
Nektar Impact LX+

Arturia KeyStep 37

While the massively featured Arturia KeyStep Pro tends to hog all the limelight the more compact KeyStep 37 is one of the best MIDI controllers I’ve used. Not because it has the greatest keyboard or a large amount of knobs or sliders but because it has a couple of awesome features that mean I use it all the time. Whenever I want to play with some synths, rock my modular or have a bit of fun this is the keyboard I reach for.

Firstly it has a regular MIDI output port so I can plug it into any external MIDI synthesizer. Secondly it has a CV/Gate output which means I can plug it straight into analog gear or my modular synthesizer. But more importantly it has a brilliant arpeggiator and step-sequencer which gets you immediately writing tunes without having the think about it.

One arpeggiator mode in particular is fantastic. It’s called “Pattern” and rather than going up and down the notes you hold it creates a sequenced pattern out of them and it always nails it. It just sounds great, every time. If you want something more deliberate then the step-sequencer is simple and easy to use and you’re off. All the notes come out of the CV/Gate outputs as well as MIDI and USB so you can plug it into anything you want.

The KeyStep 37 is not going to run your whole studio but as a working controlling within a hybrid setup of MIDI and modular it’s perfect.

Street Price: $199 (starting price)
Arturia KeyStep 37

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.

Development of the Osmose has had a tough time over the past year and they hope to have it available by the summer 2021, 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

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