Best MIDI Controller Keyboards
Regardless of how software-based you are, there’s one vital piece of hardware that bridges the musical gap between human and computer — the MIDI controller keyboard. Even if you can’t “play” a keyboard it can be a much quicker and easier way to enter notes than the mouse alone. They can be as simple as buttons, as traditional as hammer-weighted grand pianos or as complex as advanced futuristic sensor-laden expressive machines. Choosing the right MIDI controller keyboard takes a bit of thought and it’s worth digging into the details a bit to see how else they could enhance your workflow.
Our 2017 Picks
Native Instruments Kontrol MK2
Relative newcomers to the world of keyboards Native Instruments designed a range of controllers that not only look great but have advanced integration with their own software instruments. The new S49 and S61 MK2 controllers are built with Fatar premium keybeds and have two high-res color screens which provide information from their integration with the Komplete range of virtual instruments. You can browse and load your entire library directly from the keyboard and all the most important parameters shown on the keyboard and mapped to the 8 knob encoders.
They use technology called NKS or “Native Kontrol Standard” which is open to any developer to take advantage of the mapping and integration features. This includes the innovative “Light Guide.” Each key has an RGB LED behind it that will mirror the color of key switches and sounds and samples in the virtual instrument. It makes for quite a dazzling display! With the displays on the keyboards themselves, along with the knobs and buttons, you’ll find you rarely have to look at the computer screen at all.
Other features include DAW control, scale mapping, chord mode, arpeggiator, and multi-purpose touch strips and pitch and modulation wheels. Each keyboard comes with a bundle of instruments called Komplete 11 Select, which includes over $850 worth of virtual synths and sounds ready to go.
The Seaboard is a different animal, perfect for expressive control and perhaps a more nuanced way of creating music.
Nektar Panorama P4 – $499 (at time of writing)
Nektar Panorama Panorama P6 – $599 (at time of writing)
Nektar is big in the business of MIDI controller keyboards: it’s all they do. The cream of their range is the Panorama P4 and P6, 4 and 6-octave workstations of comprehensive control and expression. They’re built with weighted keys balanced to reduce fatigue and give a surprisingly light touch.
The idea of the Panorama is to give you tactile control over your DAW (recording software). With 16 encoder knobs, 9 faders, 1 big motorized fader, 38 buttons and 12 pads, you’ve got an entire control surface built into your keyboard. That makes for efficient use of your desktop real-estate. In the middle is a 3.5″ TFT color display, keeping you up-to-date on all the current settings and controls.
Nektar has enlisted several DAW manufacturers to provide completely integrated templates for their software. The list includes Bitwig Studio, Cubase, Nuendo, Logic Pro, Reaper, and Reason. Three modes let you swap between mixer, instruments and transport control and a fourth mode offers regular mappable MIDI control.
If the Panorama keyboards seem a bit overwhelming then Nektar also do some excellent, stripped back and simple controller keyboards in the GX49 and GX61.
These top end keyboards from Akai Professional are called “Virtual Instrument Production Controllers” and they are not kidding around. They come in semi-weighted 25, 49 and 61-keyed versions but all contain the same features. It’s all about the software integration which has become a bit of a theme so far in our MIDI controller keyboard list.
The Akai Advance centers around a 4.3″ high-resolution full-color screen. This connects directly to the VIP Virtual Instrument Player software you run on your computer. Load the plug-in into the VIP software and the parameters come up on the little screen and are accessible via the knob encoders and pads. Where this is different is in how the VIP software works. Rather than using proprietary software instruments or offering DAW control, VIP will let you load and configure any VST Instrument. You can combine and layer up to 8 different VSTi’s and create huge multi-layered combination patches. Lots of instruments are pre-patched or you can simply set up the controls you want to appear on the keyboard’s screen.
With the keyboard, you also receive over 10,000 sounds in 9 plugin instruments from Air Music Technology, SONiVOX and ToolRoom Records.
Akai also does a wide range of keyboard controllers, from minikeyed wireless to performance controllers for Ableton Live.
As it stands, the MiniLab Mk II is a high-quality controller for a very affordable price, ready to be mapped to your favorite synths and music software.
Arturia MiniLab Mk II
The MiniLab from Arturia is aiming to solve a slightly different problem. The concept is to create something small, sleek and portable while being rugged and full of control possibilities. It’s very compact with its 25 slim-keys, but it also manages to include 16 knob encoders, 8 pads and a pair of touch strips. As it stands, the MiniLab Mk II is a high-quality controller for a very affordable price, ready to be mapped to your favorite synths and music software.
There are no special extra features here but it does come with a great bundle of software. It kicks off with a special version of Ableton Live Lite which is all pre-mapped to the controls on the keyboard. Arturia’s Analog Lab software exactly mirrors the controls on the MiniLab Mk II and is pre-programmed to work seamlessly with it. The “Lite” version which comes in the box features 17 iconic instruments and hundreds of the best sounds taken from the full version. Lastly, they’ve put in a sampled Steinway Model D piano full of rich and exquisite detail. So, with a DAW and instruments ready to go, you’ll be making music in no time.
Ableton Live is a very popular platform for creating electronic music and it’s made all the easier with external hardware. There are several MIDI keyboards that support Ableton Live but probably the best is the LaunchPad range from Novation. It’s a regular MIDI keyboard controller with options for 25, 49 and 61 keys — but the other stuff makes it really interesting.
Once you’ve selected the LaunchKey as a controller in Ableton Live, then you’ll find it all just works. The sliders take on mixing duties, the knobs map themselves to the parameters of the selected device and the RGB pads reflect the color of clips and scenes in the software. It makes it easy to navigate, to play, record and perform without having to reach for the mouse every time you want to change something.
Of course, you can also use the LaunchKey with any MIDI software or DAW and they include a useful utility called “InControl” to help you map things to where you want them to go. The bundle of software includes the Novation Bass Station and V-Station plug-ins, Addictive Keys from XLN Audio and over 4GB of Loopmasters sample library. And they’ve also included a Lite version of Ableton Live in case you don’t have it.
Seaboard Blocks – $$299.95 (at time of writing)
Seaboard Rise 25 – $799 (at time of writing)
Seaboard Rise 49 – $1,099.95 (at time of writing)
Seaboard Grand Stage – $2999.95 (at time of writing)
No list of MIDI keyboard controllers would be complete without the innovative ROLI Seaboard. They may look weird and spacey but the Seaboard is designed to reimagine the piano keyboard as a smooth, continuous, touch-responsive surface where anything is possible. It’s not just about sending MIDI notes; this is all about expression and performance.
The Seaboard controllers use an advanced form of MIDI technology called MPE or Multi-dimensional Polyphony Expression. This enables you to send different sorts of performance data about every note played, individually. They talk about using the 5 dimensions of Strike, Glide, Slide, Pressure and Lift. So, you get your “note-on” and velocity when you strike but then you can move your finger left or right to change pitch, forward and back to add an effect, apply some pressure to modulate a synth’s filter cut-off and employ another parameter as you pull off. If you want expressive synth lines, emotional strings or screaming guitar solos then this is the controller for you.
This sort of generation of expressive data needs software that’s going to be able to interpret it. They all ship with a large workstation software synthesizer called Equator and Strobe 2 from Fxpansion, both of which support MPE mappings and control. It also comes with a simple version of Bitwig Studio, which is currently the only DAW to let you fully edit MPE expressions.
There’s a range of controller keyboards. At the top end are their GRAND Stage controllers, their premier performance synthesizer that costs thousands of dollars. At the more modest end, we have the Seaboard RISE 25 and 49 note controllers. These are $799 and $1099 respectively and offer the same technology in a smaller and more efficient form factor. And then recently they’ve released the Seaboard Block which fits with their Blocks mini controller system and offers 24 expressive notes at a more affordable $299.
If you are after a simple MIDI controller keyboard, then this probably isn’t the list for you. All the innovation is in software integration and making the control and the accessibility quicker and more comprehensive. Which one you choose should be based upon which software elements appeal to you the most. If you’re a big user of Komplete or Kontakt then the NI keyboards are hard to beat.
If you want to play live with multiple VST Instruments then the Akai with the VIP software would be your best bet. The MiniLab and LaunchKey work great for portable and compact solutions and the Panorama wins out on fully featured DAW control. The Seaboard is a different animal, perfect for expressive control and perhaps a more nuanced way of creating music. So, base your choice more on the software than the hardware. And remember, your controller keyboard will be the main link between your musicality and your recording software, so choose wisely.
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