What is a MIDI Controller?
In simplest terms, a MIDI controller is a piece of hardware that you could plug into your computer in order to send over musical notes.
There are so many MIDI controllers for so many different tasks. A MIDI controller is any piece of hardware that is able to generate Musical Instrument Digital Interface data to devices capable of receiving those signals.
Usually, we think of MIDI controllers as keyboards that you plug into a laptop, but there are so many variations. Hell, even your computer’s keyboard can be a MIDI controller.
So, with that in mind, we have created this guide to help you choose the right MIDI controller. Lo and behold! This is our official producer’s handbook to MIDI controllers.
Whether you’re looking to control soft synths, mixing with plugins, compose music, control a whole DAW, play virtual drums, or everything in between, this guide should give you sufficient information on everything that’s out there when it comes to MIDI controllers. You can then choose whatever it is that best suits your needs.
To start off, we’ll address the things you need to consider when buying any MIDI Controller like budget, travel needs, number of keys (if any), and we’ll also give you what we think are our best options for each case.
Let’s get to it…
How To Choose The Right MIDI Controller
Learning the lingo
Have you ever read the description of a MIDI controller that you fancy, only to find that there are a bunch of terms you don’t understand? What are all those features for? Do you actually need them? To understand better what each MIDI product can offer you, first we have to take a look at the essential MIDI Controller terminology:
This means that the piece of hardware can not only produce MIDI signals, it can also receive them in order to alter them and produce different sounds.
This is the classic use of a MIDI Controller. It enables you to send signals to an external device, be it a computer or a hardware synth.
When using a DAW, you got an Audio Channel for audio signals produced from any microphone or plugged source of audio or a MIDI channel for those MIDI signals that will be assigned to the virtual device of your choice.
Depending on the way MIDI notes are captured on the DAW’s MIDI channel (i.e. how hard you hit those keys or pads) they will vary in intensity and produce different styles of sound accordingly. This is called velocity.
MIDI controllers with integrated keyboards can have varying styles of keys. Semi-weighted means that these combine the spring-loaded mechanism of synth action with light weights on each key. This sort of imitates the weighted action of real pianos and helps with the overall feel and nuance that each player can give to a performance (captured through velocity).
These are keys that are meant to replicate the action that you get on real pianos. Since piano keys are actually attached to hammers that strike the inner strings in order to produce sound, they are much more heavy to play than the ones on most MIDI keyboards. Thus manufacturer’s decided to add weights to their keys and achieve this sensation when playing.
Since synthesizers were never aimed at pianists, early manufacturers developed their own method to return the keys to their original position after being played. This is the spring-loaded mechanism we mentioned above, which is much lighter and quicker in terms of feel.
Those are the basic terms that you should keep in mind when shopping for a MIDI controller.
Questions to consider
Of course, you should also ask yourself the following questions:
How much space do you have?
Two different controllers with the same number of keys can occupy different amounts of space depending on key size and other features. You also want to make sure that whatever you buy fits well into your studio/music production facility/bedroom so that it’s easy and comfortable to sit down and start creating music.
What’s your budget?
In this guide, we’ll cover everything from a $69 USB portable mini-keyboard to something ultra-specialized like the $799 Ableton Push.
Will you be traveling a lot?
Similar to the question of size, you need to decide whether your MIDI controller is something you would like to take on the road with you. And if so, what are the essential characteristics that you need for producing out of your studio? That leads us to...
What do you need?
This is the biggest question of the whole guide. Perhaps you’ve been producing for a while, or perhaps you’ve just recently decided to embark on what could be a lifelong journey into music production. What should you get next? Do you need lots of keys? Pads? Knobs? Something for a particular software?
Many producers end up buying the craziest of MIDI controllers with tons of knobs, maybe even faders and pads, only to find out later that they will rarely use them. It’s best to figure out what you want to do and what do you need to make that happen for you. It’s all about buying something that will make your life as a producer easier. Something that will truly engage you and have you produce for hours and hours. So, with all that in mind, let’s delve deep into the various types of MIDI Controllers that are out there.
Best Budget MIDI Controllers
Here we’ve put together a list of the best five budget controllers that we would recommend. We took into consideration a vast array of needs and uses, but outstanding quality and reliability are constants in all of them.
IK Multimedia iRig Keys Pro
At approximately $135 USD, this USB keyboard features 37 full-sized keys and compatibility with iPhone, iPad and Mac/PC. It doesn’t feature much apart from a volume/data knob, octave up and down, modulation and pitch/bend wheels. If you're simply looking for something to control virtual synths/piano with, this gives you 3 octaves plus one note without having to navigate too much.
Its dimensions are 7.44 x 23.23 x 2.24 in, it also weighs 3.51 lbs. So it’s probably not the most travel-friendly of keyboard controllers (there’s a mini version for that). But it certainly doesn’t take up too much room and won’t be a hassle to carry around.
This mini-USB keyboard controller is definitely what you want if you’re looking to take some keys on the road with you. It’s got 25 mini keys, an integrated arpeggiator, octave up/down and four programmable memory banks. The great thing about the LPK25 is that you get all that in a 0.9 lbs little package that will easily fit most backpacks or laptop bags. Also, it’s around $69 USD. There’s also a wireless version that runs for approximately $99.00.
Novation Launchkey Mini
The Launchkey Mini is slightly pricier than the previous controllers, but it’s also a 25-key mini-controller that you can take anywhere. The reason for the slight price bump (it costs around $99)? … pads and knobs! If your remote producing also requires pads to trigger loops, launch samples, tap drums or even play instruments that way, then this thing will certainly do the trick. You also get 8 knobs to control effects. Add track and scene control to that, and this is probably the most functionality you can get on the least sizable hardware. That’s certainly worth considering, even if you don’t get an arpeggiator.
Perhaps portability isn’t what you need from your next controller and you’re simply looking to get the biggest number of keys for the least money. If that’s the case, the Alesis V49 gives you 49 synth-action, full-sized keys for around $129. You also get 8 backlit pads, 4 knobs, and 4 buttons that can be programmed to control different parameters of the virtual instruments you wish.
And finally, if you don’t even need keys but simply something to drum with your fingertips, the MPD218 is probably the least-expensive all-pad controller we would recommend. Apart from 16 pads and 4 assignable knobs, it’s got 3 control layers. So you’re sort of getting 48 pads and 18 knobs worth of total control. You can configure up to 16 presets and it’s got some of the functions from the classic MPC’s, like Note Repeat and Full Level mode, which makes the pads play at maximum velocity no matter how hard or soft you hit them.
88-Key MIDI Controllers
If you’re willing to spend a little more but the number of keys is something essential to you, we have compiled the following list of the best 88-key controllers that we would recommend.
While this one is not per se a MIDI Controller, we think it’s a very good choice for people who are looking for a realistic piano-playing experience. The P45 is actually a Digital Piano, capable of producing its own sounds, and with fully weighted keys. But it also features a very convenient USB port on the back that allows you to use it as a MIDI controller with any computer. If synth keys or the weighted and semi-weighted ones that you’ll find on most MIDI Controllers won’t fit your style of playing, this is a really recommendable option at around $449. Of course, it doesn’t feature much in terms of MIDI control outside of keys and a sustain pedal. Perfect if you don’t need any knobs or pads. Otherwise, do keep reading!
M-Audio Keystation 88
At around $199, this keyboard probably gives you the most keys (beyond the 49 range) for the money. If you don’t mind semi-weighted keys but prefer to save up and get a controller that is essentially just the keys you need, this thing will probably do it. It’s also very lightweight (22lbs) USB powered and very economical in terms of controls. Just the regular pitch bend and mod wheels, inputs for sustain and volume pedals, MIDI Out, a little master volume fader and navigation controls. For pretty much the same price and design, be sure to check out the Alesis Q88.
Akai Professional MPK88
If your production needs require more hands-on features like faders, pads, and knobs, the 88-key MPK is a great package. Q-link technology for an assignable controller section allows you to personalize it toward just about any music production software. Among the controller options, you get 16 MPC velocity-sensitive pads with four banks to choose from and cool features like Note Repeat, Swing, and Full Level. It also comes with eight assignable knobs, eight faders, and eight Q-link buttons with three banks each. The integrated keyboard can be split in order to control two different soft synth sounds at the same time, and it also comes with Akai’s notable arpeggiator. Whether you’re looking for this as your sole controller for studio productions or even as a performance tool, this is probably one of the most complete MIDI controllers out there.
Arturia Keylab 88
Competing side by side with the MPK88 is Arturia’s Keylab 88. This controller features some very similar specs to the MPK, like 16 pads, 9 faders, and 10 potentiometers.
However, the Keylab is notable for featuring hammer action on its 88 keys, as opposed to spring technology. It’s also a software/hardware bundle, as it comes with Arturia’s Analog Lab 2 software. This gives you over 5000 synth sounds from 13 soft synth emulations of classic analog synths and electric pianos. If you haven’t delved so much into the world of plugins and haven’t found your favorites, this could be an interesting package to look at, that is priced exactly as the MPK (Around $799).
49-Key MIDI Controllers
Of course, each manufacturer usually has versions of the same controller on the 49-key range. Let’s take a look at those now…
The second generation of Akai Professional's MPK controllers failed to feature an 88-key version (there are only 25, 49 and 61 key versions), but if you want all the controller features from the MPK88 on a smaller package, you should check this one out. At a glance, the MPK249 has the specs that are standard for almost all MPK’s, MPC pads, 24 assignable Q-Link controllers (8 knobs, faders and switched), MPC Note Repeat, Swing, Full Level, 16 level, 4 banks for the pads, 3 for the rest of the controllers and an onboard arpeggiator. So with the 249, keys are really the only thing you’re getting less of. Also, the second generation of MPK’s features better aftertouch on the keys and RGB backlit pads.
Novation Launchkey 49
If you don’t mind slightly fewer specs but need a 49-key controller that is specifically designed for Ableton, Novation’s Launchkey might be a right fit.
The 16 velocity-sensitive RGB pads are designed for hands-on control of Ableton’s Session View. They even match the color that you assign to your clips on Live, and you can shift from scene to scene via two small buttons. Nevertheless, these pads can also be used for controlling effects and instruments, in case finger-drumming is something you need. Do note that the keys are synth-style, so perhaps not quite what piano players would prefer.
Novation Impulse 49
The Impulse 49, on the other hand, does feature semi-weighted keys. Although it’s not specifically made for Ableton, it still packs up the essential features that you would need for DAW control during production as well as performance. This means, 9 faders, 8 knobs, 8 pads that are almost MPC-sized, and other assignable buttons. A cool feature about the Impulse’s pad section is that it can also be used to launch clips, warp arpeggios, and roll clips on Ableton.
Lastly, we’ve got Alesis’ version of the 49-key MIDI controller. This thing is also packing just about all the essentials (except for faders) with semi-weighted keys, 16 pads, 12 knobs, and 36 buttons for assignable functions.
Although not tailored for any particular software, you’ll find the Alesis to be quite straightforward and simplistic compared to the previous controllers. If your pad and knob needs are best kept to a minimum, and you prefer semi-weighted keys on a medium-sized keyboard, this thing is just around $229.
25-Key MIDI Controllers
As you have probably noticed by now, this guide has been going from only-key controllers to fewer and fewer keys in each section. Nevertheless, as each controller loses some keys, it tends to gain other features that are handy for both production and performance. The 25 key controller is a beauty when it comes to joining up both worlds on a small package. If your keyboard needs only require you to play synth bass lines or leads and you’re trying to go economical with space and weight, be sure to check out the following products.
Akai MPK Mini MKII
This is Akai’s smaller keyboard to still feature most of the other production tools that are inherent to the MPK. Along with 25 synth-action mini keys, you get 8 backlit pads, 8 assignable knobs, and an onboard arpeggiator. Probably just about everything that a producer would want to take on the road, with realistic expectations of course.
One cool feature is the 4-way thumbstick for pitch and modulation control. It’s almost like a joystick that’ll make you feel like Robert Delong at some point. Or not.
This one is probably the most compact keyboard controller to still feature full-sized keys. It’s got an innovative chiclet key mechanism that allows each key to depress evenly no matter where the finger pushes down. This means that it retains pretty good playability in spite of its small size, ridiculous width and insanely lightweight (1.32 lbs).
The keys are also velocity sensitive, it is polyphonic and it also includes after touch. One cool feature is that the black keys are nicely elevated, so it’s probably as close as you can get to a real piano with something this small and portable. It’s compatible with PC’s, Macbooks, iPads and other tablets via USB. Of course, it’s bus-powered and features other nice controls like pitch bend, modulation, sustain and octave up/down. If you need even more keys, there’s also a 37-key version you might want to take a look at.
Ableton MIDI Controllers
Seeing as more and more producers are turning to Ableton Live due to its ground-breaking Session View and the ease with which it can be used to produce, perform and even DJ; we have included some of what we think are the best controllers that are specifically designed for this software.
At the top of the Ableton Controller mountain (the price range too) is a piece of hardware that is designed and manufactured by the very people that brought you the software. It has been stated several times that more than a DAW, Ableton Live is like a musical instrument of its own. Push basically takes that notion to the next level. You basically got most of Ableton’s functions at your fingertips, from playing and slicing beats, to sequencing ideas, or even playing keys on backlit pads. You can also access all of Live’s devices, third party plugins, and samples, thanks to its browsing capabilities and the previews that it generates on its beautiful display. But it’s really not enough to read about it. We widely recommend watching the following video to see Push at work.
Somewhat more conservative, but still insanely popular, is Novation’s very own Launchpad.
This is meant to be a hardware version of Ableton’s Session View’s most basic features. You basically get a matrix of 64 RGB backlit mini pads that lend themselves to fire clips, but also to play virtual instruments. To the far right of the 9.45x9.45in little square, you get buttons to launch whole scenes but also go into other modes of the controller. This means that the launchpad can also function like a mixer within Ableton, letting you control volume, sends, mute, solo, and arm record for each track. As a nice plus, it includes a lite version of the software and there are several versions of the same hardware, like the Launchpad Pro with additional controls, or the travel-friendly Launchpad Mini.
Naturally, Akai Professional also has its very own Ableton Live Controller. The features on this one will seem very familiar to the ones we saw on the MPK’s. The main distinction here is a 5x8 matrix of 40 little pads that serve for clip launching. You can, of course, navigate to other areas of your Ableton Session View. What sets this one apart from Novation’s Launchpad is that you get hardware iterations of features that are mere modes within the same buttons on the Launchpad. In other words, instead of accessing the fader function via a certain mode and using the same pads that launch clips as faders, with the APC you actually get 9 faders (8 tracks + master), 18 knobs, solo, and rec arm buttons for each track and even a crossfader.
Does this mean it’s better than the Launchpad? Not necessarily. It’s all a matter of your personal style and production needs. The APC certainly is larger than the launchpad and slightly more expensive, but there’s an APC Mini that includes all the basic features and an even larger clip matrix.
Drum Machine MIDI Controllers
Sometimes as a producer, you want to have a nice keyboard controller and then something to create beats with, not necessarily something that combines the two like some of the controllers we’ve seen. Therefore, let us now cover the controllers we recommend that are specifically for Drum Machines.
Native Instruments Maschine MK2
This is the second iteration of the production system that Native Instruments has been manufacturing for quite a few years now, well-known for its amazingly-feeling pads and the software it includes. A bit like Ableton’s Push, this is not really a Controller destined for high compatibility with a wide range of DAW’s and instruments, but rather a hardware/software bundle. On a computer, the Maschine software can be run as a stand-alone app or as a Plug-In within the DAW of your choice.
You basically get access to some of the sample sounds from Komplete Elements, and the necessary software to edit them, as well as the ability to load up your own samples.
You can then use the controller to actually play. By loading up your own or its integrated samples, you can produce beats, melodies, and harmonies with the 16 velocity sensitive pads. You also get an integrated arpeggiator, a sequencer and effect control through knobs.
Native Instruments Maschine Studio
Taking it up a notch, there is the Maschine Studio. More than a USB control surface, this thing is a whole production system packed with its own sampling and sequencing workstation software.
That means that not only can you load up your own samples, but it’s got tons of audio suites that you can acquire online, not to mention the ones that are already included in the Komplete Select software bundle.
Hardware wise, it’s got its own colored 2-screen display so you can browse through sounds, load them up, and alter them on-the-go without having to look at your computer. Sample editing on hardware is probably easier than in any other controller, definitely more intuitive than on the MK2.
Akai Professional MPD32
While the sounds and ease of use of the Machine are highly celebrated, maybe you just want something to play with the samples you already have, preferably within your current DAW as instead of a plugin. If that’s the case, Akai has a nice series of USB controllers devoted exclusively to drums. The MPD32 features 16 MPC pads with velocity and pressure-sensitive response. Like many Akai controllers, it’s packed with 8 assignable faders, 8 knobs, 3 banks for the controls, 4 banks for the pads, and Note Repeat, Tap Tempo, Full Level and 16 Level for the pads.
Akai Professional MPD218
Worth mentioning again here, this is an even more straightforward iteration of the same idea that produced the MPD32.
You get 16 backlit pads and just 6 knobs with 3 banks for the whole thing. Full Level and Note Repeat are the only additional controls to the pads.
So if it’s simple controls and a modest price you're looking for on a Drum Machine MIDI Controller, this is what we recommend.
DJ MIDI Controllers
Very often people that get into electronic music production are probably more inclined toward DJing than making music. While there’s nothing wrong with that, sometimes people just buy the piece of hardware that seems like it will cover the most functions, instead of simply going for what they need. That’s the whole theme of this guide, so we thought we’d cover some of the best controllers for DJing here too. If you’re more interested in performing as a DJ before tackling your own productions, here are the controllers we recommend.
Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4
It really depends on the software you're using. You could actually DJ with Ableton and an APC40. But if Traktor is what you prefer, for instance, Native Instruments makes a beautiful all-in-one 4 channel DJ system that puts most of that software into hardware form for you.
It also includes a set of very interesting connectivity options. While totally possible to DJ with only this thing and a laptop, it can also be connected to turntables, CD decks, instruments, and other MIDI gear. You also get different inputs for each channel and a Mic input.
Numark Mixtrack 3
While less compatible with other hardware but still very straightforward and with as much controls as you need, the Mixtrack 3 by Numark is a low-cost controller that exists both for Virtual DJ and Serato DJ. It’s USB-powered, features only 2 channels, a single crossfader and some pads for additional sounds and effects that you may want to integrate into your set.
The entry level controller deck from one of DJing’s most revered brands is the DDJ-SB2 for Serato DJ. It’s a totally portable 2-channel controller that features large jog wheels for some fun scratch action and more dynamic playing. Pads on this one are below the wheels and can be used to do live sampling, looping, and other actions like Play, Cue, Sync, and Shift. On a personal level, I prefer these controls to be near the bottom end of the deck, as opposed to up like on the Numark ones, but it’s really a matter of your personal style.
iPad/Tablet MIDI Controllers
If remaining able to produce while traveling or being anywhere you want is what you’re looking for, then some serious compatibility with iPad and tablets would probably be a necessity. For that, we recommend looking into the following products:
IK Multimedia iRig Keys
This baby is very similar to the IK Multimedia iRig Keys Pro that we covered on the Budget Controllers section of this guide, except that this one features 37 mini keys as opposed to full-sized ones. Other than that, it’s got the same basic controls so it’s pretty much just a portable version.
Novation Launchkey 25
For a similar kind of easy connectivity with iPads or tablet, but more functions and controls apart from basic keys, we recommend checking out the 25-key version of Novation’s Launchpad. You can see it in action with some of Novation’s apps below:
MIDI Foot Controllers
If you’re a guitarist/bassist in need of a performance tool that will let you control just about anything MIDI-compatible while freeing up your hands, check out the next set of MIDI controllers that are designed to use with your feet.
The FCB1010 is a Foot Controller popular with guitarists due to its wide range of possibilities. It can be used in the studio to create presets for each of its ten banks and then take those same presets on the road. Given of course that the same hardware and software are taken as well. Some people connect it to Main Stage, others to Guitar Rig, and many use it to select the channels on their amplifiers as well. Two assignable expression pedals are a nice addition.
This one’s basically a 3-foot switch USB foot controller. It will show up as a basic MIDI device on any Mac or PC and you can assign any MIDI-compatible function to each footswitch. Thus, the UMI3 is ideal to control parameters or functions on any DAW, as well as on looping recording programs.
Korg 5-Switch Multi-Function Pedalboard
Similarly to the UMI3, Korg has this multi-function pedalboard that is used primarily as an accessory with Korg Arranger Keyboards. It can, however, be assigned for other purposes. So this last one and the above options are good if you want to control simple functions or guitar-related sounds with your feet. But what if you’d like to play keyboards with virtual synths while freeing up your hands? That’s where the following might come in handy:
Keith McMillen Instruments 12 Step Chromatic Keyboard Foot Controller
Whoah. What a name right? This is a very cool thing though. Remember those footboards that some organs have to enable the user to play bass with his/her feet while playing keyboard with both hands? Well, this is a MIDI controller inspired by that same thing.
The basic idea is that you get to connect it via USB to just about any MIDI-Controllable virtual instrument and voila! You can play basic keys with your feet while playing guitar or doing whatever you want with your arms. Roland used to have a pretty similar thing that, God knows why it’s discontinued.
We’ve now covered just about all the types of MIDI Controllers out there, including some rarities.
By now you hopefully have a better understanding of how the many iterations of the MIDI Controller out there can cover whatever your production or performance needs are. That being said, we’ll now look at some of the accessories that could make your life easier.
A little piece of wonder that allows you to connect multiple USB devices to the same USB outlet. God bless whoever invented this. Here´s the one we like.
Another beauty. This thing allows you to turn anything with a MIDI Out or MIDI In jacks to USB. Thus, you can use a synthesizer or digital piano as a controller. We like this one.
Got a MIDI controller that is not compatible with your iPad’s port? Try this.
For those that wouldn’t believe the hype and use other types of tablets, there are Android-to-USB adapters. There are of course different charging cables depending on what android device one owns. Here’s a list of ones that might work. Depending on your device, you might also make do with an adapter for micro USB phones. We recommend this.
And of course, for USB-C phones, here’s this.
Frequently Asked Questions
We wouldn’t have a complete guide to MIDI Controllers without some frequently asked questions. If you’re struggling with something, we’ve probably struggled with the same things on our studios and musical endeavors of various types, so here’s a FAQ that will hopefully help you with whatever it is you're trying to do…
How do MIDI controllers work?
MIDI Protocol has been around since the 1980’s. Basically, a MIDI controller is anything that sends signals with messages telling any device to activate or deactivate a MIDI note or action. Thus, a MIDI controller can tell a device to play something, stop playing, play a certain note, move certain parameter… hell, even pitch bend information is MIDI information.
So, even though MIDI was originally used to further control of other pieces of hardware like synthesizers or drum machines, when people began using computers for music production and the first virtual instruments were created, MIDI was and still is the language of choice for hardware/software interactions. That’s why today it’s most commonly used through MIDI-over-USB.Since we’re on that trip down memory lane, here’s a nice documentary about MIDI and Music produced by Apple in 1988.
Do MIDI Controllers work in all DAWs?
The short answer is yes. While their ease of use may vary, since lots of controllers are already mapped to the most popular DAW’s, most of them will support MIDI to a certain extent. You’ll have a hard time finding a DAW that doesn’t support MIDI these days. In fact, if you do let us know about that little piece of trivia below.
Of course, it is worth mentioning that with software-specifically-designed controllers like Ableton Push you’ll certainly not be able to use certain features outside of the designated software.
How do I set up a MIDI controller?
With most cases, you simply plug it into your computer and configure it in your DAW’s settings. While the process is very intuitive, here are some guides that are aimed at the most popular DAWs:
MIDI is up and foremost a facilitator between several music-making devices. As such, the iterations it covers and its uses are extremely vast. But that is precisely what we love about it. There are many things that have been solved through MIDI that its inventors probably never imagined and this shall continue to be the case as we move forward. Thus, keep in mind that this guide was written in 2017 and, depending on when you’re reading, perhaps there are new technological advancements or ideas being put into place that may not be covered here.
Whether that’s the case or not, we hope you’ve finished this guide more sure about what the best MIDI controller is for your needs. If not, remember that there’s hardly a piece of hardware or software that will cover all of your needs as a musician or producer. But that’s the beauty of it. You can purchase something that gets close and find out in practice that it takes you to places you never imagined. Often to places that require new and different types of hardware.Just remember to try out new things and, above all, have fun. Best wishes!
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