Choosing A MIDI Keyboard: The Key Guide

A black and white photo of a midi keyboard with an array of parameters

If you’re interested in any form of electronic music production, then chances are you’ve considered picking up a MIDI keyboard. There are quite literally hundreds to choose from and the prices can range wildly. If you’re new to music production or struggle to understand the jargon, picking one can be quite a daunting experience. The last thing any of us want is to get all excited about a new purchase to later find out that it’s no good for what we wanted to do. This article aims to address some of the key considerations and make choosing a keyboard a walk in the park!

Real Piano Feel

This is a pretty big consideration and usually one of the things that can cause the price to skyrocket. With this, it really comes down to your personal experience. If you’ve grown up a pianist and are used to playing a real piano then a MIDI keyboard without weighted or even semi-weighted keys will probably just feel like a cheap toy. This is usually pretty easy to find out with most products but beware of the claims of some manufacturers. Many MIDI keyboards claim to have weighted keys when in actual fact the design is similar to the feel of weighted keys but nothing like it. A discerning pianist will know the difference. If you’re looking to pick up a keyboard for other people to play, bare this in mind. If you’re looking for weighted keys and amongst other fantastic features, I can happily recommend the Komplete Kontrol S88. It’s light, sturdy and probably one of the best production tools that any musician could pick up. Admittedly they don’t come cheap, but they certainly are worth it.

MIDI Mapping & Controls

Many people pick up MIDI keyboards because of how useful they can be in live situations. Being able to simultaneously play an instrument whilst triggering samples and adjusting effects parameters is pretty amazing. Even in the studio, having all this at your fingertips can save so much time by improving your workflow. I typically have preset session templates for things like production, mixing, and mastering. Integrating this with predetermined MIDI maps from my keyboard is an awesome mixing technique. Many MIDI keyboards will come with a set of sample pads as well as faders, rotary encoders, and transport keys. Hooking these up to parameters within your DAW will not only save time but it’ll let you spend more time mixing with your ears instead of your eyes.

A midi keyboard with additional controllers

The very first time I hooked up my MIDI keyboard, I assigned the eight faders to eight group channels that controlled the instruments in a mix I was working on at the time. I also assigned the switches below the faders to the mute switches and the rotary encoders to the panning knobs. I knew there and then that this was something that I had to build into my session templates. Now, every time I finalise a mix I can do the final fine adjustments with my Midi keyboard. I turn the screens off and this gives me a chance to take a fresh approach where I can’t be swayed by my eyes. If this sounds like something you’re looking to do whether in a live setting or in the studio, I’d recommend checking out the Novation Launchkey series. A lot cheaper than the Komplete Kontrol and with a lot more parameters to boot. You should get a lot of use out of this wonderful little piece of gear.

A Budget MIDI Keyboard

Given that getting into music production can seem like an endless pit of spending, I’m sure many of you wouldn’t mind saving some money and getting something cheap and useful. Never fear as this can be done. Not only that but it can be done whilst still adding a very helpful tool to your arsenal. When you’re on a budget, you’re inevitably going to have to sacrifice some of your wants. If you’re looking for weighted keys then I’m sorry to say it’s just not going to happen. However, if you’re looking for a few more controls than just keys, then you are in luck! The Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII is the number one best selling MIDI keyboard on Amazon. Not only is it under $100 but you still get eight sample pads, eight rotary knobs and a four-way joypad style thumbstick for modulation control. Whilst it doesn’t come with faders, there is nothing stopping you hooking the rotary knobs up to your DAWs faders anyway to achieve the effect I described before.

Rolled up dollar bills of different amounts

Now, if $100 is still too steep for you and all you really want is some keys to be able to brush up on your songwriting, there are other options. Among many other cheaper Akai products, there is also the M-Audio Keystation Mini 32. This little workhorse comes in under $50 whilst still having all of the standard controls of a basic MIDI keyboard. You’ve got pitch bend, modulation, and octave changing as well as iOS compatibility and a free copy of Ableton Live Lite. It’s by no means a fancy piece of kit but for a budget MIDI keyboard, it’s certainly worth a look into. Also, if you’re regularly on the road and looking to write, this could be a lifesaver.

Multiple Outputs & Uses

Now there are a whole other world of MIDI keyboards out there that might interest some of you. A lot of the time it’s about getting the most bang for your buck.  Nowhere is this more clear than with MIDI keyboards that also act as hardware synths. Being able to not only create sounds but also write and control MIDI data is a game-changing production tool. But, that’s not even the best part. With something like the Novation Bass Station II, you don’t even need to be able to play keys to get the most out of it. This synth/MIDI keyboard has both MIDI Out and In. This means that you can send MIDI data in your DAW to the synth and it will play the sounds built into the synth. That leaves you free to adjust the parameters on the fly and do some really unique sound design with truly humanised programming. Equally, you still get to use it as a MIDI keyboard and can write and programme data within your DAW. Best of both worlds with only a couple of extra cables!

TL;DR

Picking up a MIDI keyboard doesn’t have to be as tricky as it may seem. Make a few basic decisions about what you want from it and try not to worry about all of the marketing jargon. If you can at least make sure you get what you need, then those added extras will reveal their uses to you as you go. Do you need weighted keys? If so, be prepared to dig pretty deep into your wallet. When buying new audio equipment, try and work out a budget and stick to it. You’d be surprised how many additional parameters you can without having to spend too much money. Equally, if you’ve got the funds and want more creativity from your purchase, pick up a hard synth with MIDI capabilities and make some crazy sounds while your DAW handles the notes!

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