In the earliest days of MIDI, there wasn’t a separate device known as a controller keyboard. The entire point of MIDI was that each keyboard could act as a controller for any other keyboard in a setup. MIDI was a common language shared between instruments.
It didn’t take long before manufacturers realized that there was no longer a reason to attach physical keys to synthesizers. If a musician already had a MIDI-enabled keyboard, then they could control another instrument using that keyboard. The era of the box synth arrived.
Just as a “keyboard” no longer needed a keyboard, a box synth didn’t need to be hardware either. Instead of building a box around a programmed chip, virtual instruments use the resources of a computer. Today’s popular synthesizers exist inside the unrelated hardware.
The logical side development, once the first synth shed its black-and-white keyboard interface, was the keyboard that shed its sound-making electronics and operated as a controller. When these first appeared, even the cheapest plastic devices cost hundreds of dollars.
Controllers in that price range still exist today. In fact, fully piano-weighted, 88-key units can reach the $2,000 price mark. At the other end of this price range, inexpensive controllers can have piano-style keys so tiny that thick fingers get stuck between the black keys.
Today, however, we look at the best compact MIDI keyboards featuring full-size keys. Our winners all come in under $150, with key count ranging from 25 to 49.
Behringer U-Control UMA25S
For the musician in search of a versatile controller with enough capability to keep their cerebral cortex busy, the UMA25S packs a price/feature ratio that’s hard to beat.
There are 25 velocity sensitive full-size keys which are half action, meaning they have about half the vertical range of motion of a typical keyboard.
This isn’t uncommon in compact controllers. It’s a way to keep thickness down, but some players may find it unnerving.
There are typical controls such as modulation and pitch wheels, octave and volume feature on the UMA25S. A bank of 8 knobs and 8 buttons with full programmability set this controller apart. That would be notable even if the Behringer device didn’t include a USB audio interface in addition to its MIDI support.
The UMA25S doesn’t stop there. The keyboard ships with a gig bag, mic headset and guitar-style strap to hook over the performance buttons. More than 100 virtual instruments and 50 effects plug-ins mean the U-Control is ready for action right out of the box.
Because of its features and versatility, the UMA25S is the winner in this product class.
iRig Keys Pro
IK Multimedia has a range of controller products carrying the iRig Keys name. Only the Keys Pro has full-width keys, 37 in this case. The iRig name suggests that this is a controller designed for use with iOS products (which it does), but it is not limited to only iOS.
The Keys Pro also provides plug and play support for Mac and PC. The keys are full action and velocity sensitive. Essential controls include pitch and mod wheels, volume and octave controls.
While not nearly as well adorned as the Behringer, the piano keys double for programming and data entry along with additional buttons at the top. For the musician looking for simple plug and play response, things don’t get much easier than the Keys Pro.
The device ships with Sample Tank 3 SE and your iOS device unlocks more content from the IK website.
The Keys Pro supports a pedal, either sustain or expression, and comes equipped with a variety of connecting cables for use with iOS, USB or Android devices. If there’s a drawback to the Keys Pro, it is that the supplied cables are very short. Otherwise, this is one of the best playing keyboards in our group.
Nektar Impact iX49
Piano players first have issues with the lack of hammer feel when using controller keyboards. Another complain is the limited range of keys. Despite the fact that pianos in popular music usually play within a span of about two octaves, or 24 keys, compact controllers often feel claustrophobic to them.
A controller like the iRig Keys Pro still provides a tight fit at 37 keys. The Impact iX49 earns its place on our list with its 49 full size, velocity sensitive keys. It won’t make a diehard pianist happy, but it will reduce the grumbling.
The Impact iX49 focuses on the keys. Its other controls are minimal, adding transpose buttons to the pitch and mod wheels, volume and octave buttons. Transpose and octave buttons double as DAW transport controls. Presonus Studio One Artist DAW comes with the keyboard. It provides a great starting package for the piano player branching into computer based work.
Samson Graphite 25
While the Graphite 25 would not relieve pianist’s claustrophobia, there’s partial weighting to the 25 keys as well as adjustable velocity response and aftertouch. This device also includes 4 velocity sensitive trigger pads for performance functions beyond simply piano style keyboarding.
Other controls include the basics — two wheels, volume, octave and transpose — as well as assignable knobs and buttons. The Graphite 25 recalls the Behringer UMA25S in terms of flexibility.
Adding to the package, Native Instrument’s Komplete Elements ships with the Graphite 25, providing over 1,000 sampled sounds. Equally at home on stage or in the studio, Samson has developed a winner in the compact controller category.
Rounding up our top 5 compact controllers, the V25 expands on the Graphite 25’s performance versatility with a total of eight trigger pads that are both pressure and velocity sensitive. The piano keys feel great as well, along with an adjustable velocity sensitivity.
Basic controls include pitch and mod wheels as well as octave controls. The four remaining knobs and buttons can be configured to work with the keyboard or with software on a host computer.
Alesis comes along with software download cards in the V25 package, giving the buyer access to Ableton Live Lite 9. Xpand!2 can also be downloaded as part of the ownership perks.
The parity that exists in music equipments these days is a producer’s dream. For each of the five controllers we’ve presented here, there are likely 20 other worthy candidates.
Quality remains consistent through different price ranges, you won’t go wrong if you choose from a keyboard based on its build. Concentrate on key count and the features important to you. Happy recording!