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5 of the Best MIDI Keyboards for Music Producers

November 29, 2020
by
Tristan Mendoza
Learn about the best MIDI keyboard for beginners, portable use, and professional music producers. Discover which MIDI keyboard is right for you.
An assortment of MIDI keyboards.

MIDI keyboards come in all different form factors and price ranges; some are for simple note input, while others can control certain hardware found within your studio. Whether you’re a first-time buyer or looking to make an upgrade, there’s a MIDI keyboard on this list for you. We’re going to take a look at five of the best MIDI keyboards for music producers.

Before diving in, please note that many of the MIDI keyboards on this list are available in various sizes, ranging from 25 to 88 keys. The less keys a MIDI keyboard contains, the less expensive it will be. On the flip side, if you like the features that one of these MIDI keyboards provides, but would like access to more keys, there’s likely a model with more keys available.

1. Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol M32 - Best For Beginners ($139)

An image of the Komplete Kontrol M32.
Figure 1: The Komplete Kontrol M32 MIDI keyboard.

When thinking about the best MIDI keyboard for beginners, I considered the form factor, ease of use, and value. That’s why I believe that Native Instruments’ Komplete Kontrol M32 is the best MIDI keyboard for beginner producers. Native Instruments has always had an incredible track record in the hardware department, putting creativity and workflow first. What’s interesting about the Komplete Kontrol M32 is that if you look at its features independently, they don't seem that impressive. However, when all the specs and features of the keyboard come together, they create a great user experience.

There are 32 compact, synth-action style keys, which means they’re smaller than average-sized keys. These keys aren't weighted, so you probably won't be playing a Beethoven masterpiece on this keyboard, but that isn't exactly what this MIDI keyboard is intended for. In contrast to using your computer’s keyboard as a MIDI note input device, or drawing MIDI notes into your DAW manually, the Komplete Kontrol M32 is a much more intuitive option. The simple yet effective keys let you write basic arrangements in a way that feels less like programming songs, and more like playing songs.

I made a distinct choice not to include a product with drum pads in this beginner category. Generally, I find that pads in the beginner price range feel cheap and require too much setup—I feel the same way about knobs. Although, the touch-sensitive knobs included on the Komplete Kontrol M32 are an exception. Native Instruments has done something small yet essential, integrating all the controls on the M32 with their included software.

The software that comes with this keyboard includes a copy of Ableton Live Lite, which is a decent DAW to start with, and a suite of Native Instruments products wrapped up in a package called Komplete Kontrol. Komplete Kontrol essentially provides you with all your Native Instruments sounds in one plugin, which is then directly controlled by the Kontrol M32 MIDI keyboard.

Simply touching one of the eight knobs will display its name and value on the OLED screen; in addition to the controls, the screen will also display the name of presets as you browse through them with the dedicated knob. Small quality of life things like the preset knob, touch-sensitive controls, OLED screen, and dedicated scale and arp buttons make this MIDI keyboard feel extremely functional.

When you pair all of these features with the software bundle, and the fact that the M32 is USB bus-powered, you end up with a MIDI keyboard that’s perfect for first time MIDI keyboard buyers.

2. Arturia MicroLab - Best For Portable Use ($89)

An image of the MicroLab MIDI keyboard.
Figure 2: The MicroLab MIDI keyboard.

If portability is what you need, then look no further than the Arturia MicroLab. Arturia has crafted something that few companies dare attempt these days—a simple product. When looking at the MicroLab, you may not assume much, but there are a lot of desirable qualities packed into this cost-effective MIDI keyboard. For starters, it has a minimal form factor, paired with a USB cable that cleanly wraps around the body of the MIDI keyboard when not in use; this is one less cable to get tangled in your bags when traveling.

The MicroLab still offers enough features to get creative, although the number of available controls are minimal. There are touch strips for pitch control, modulation control, and alternatively, preset browsing. Above the touch strips, there are four buttons that allow you to provide expression to your arrangements. These buttons include octave switchers, a Shift button, and a Hold button. The Hold button sustain notes when playing, and the Shift buttons lets you access the secondary functions of the MIDI controller. For example, you can use the Shift button to toggle the Hold button into Chord mode, which allows you to play chords with a single key. The Shift button also turns the touch strips into preset browsers.

This MIDI keyboard comes with a substantial software bundle to help get you going if you need a little creative inspiration, or if you want some assistance getting started in general. The DAW that comes with the Arturia MicroLab is Bitwig Studio 8-Track; this is a limited version of Bitwig Studio, but if you don’t already own a DAW, it will come in handy. Arturia has also bundled in their own Analog Lab Lite software, providing you with over 600 synth and keyboard sounds. In addition to the vast collection of sounds provided by Bitwig and Arturia, you get the UVI Grand Piano Model D. This well-crafted piano sampler is sure to fill that grand-piano-sized hole in your sound library.

Although the MicroLab is my pick when it comes to a portable MIDI keyboard, another product from Arturia called the MiniLab is a close second. It’s a slightly bigger, more expensive option, but it does offer more functionality. All the features of the MicroLab carry over, but upgrading to the MiniLab nets you 8 pressure and velocity-sensitive pads and 16 multi-function encoders. Whichever option you choose, both MIDI controllers are highly-functional and offer fantastic software pairings.

3. Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49 - Best Software Integration ($669)

An image of the Komplete Kontrol S49 MIDI keyboard.
Figure 3: The Komplete Kontrol S49 MIDI keyboard.

The Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S controller series caters to advanced producers invested in the Native Instruments ecosystem. If you already use products like Kontakt, Kontrol, Reaktor, and other Native Instruments software, then the Komplete Kontrol S49 is the perfect companion for your workstation—it has some of the tightest software integration around.

This MIDI keyboard comes packed with full-color displays that let you visualize a multitude of content, including mixer channels for Maschine or your DAW, your MIDI editor, a preset browser, and more. Eight touch-sensitive knobs resting under the screen provide plenty of contextual functionality like the ability to edit software settings. They can also act as macro controls, adjust the volume of mixer channels, allow you to browse presets, and arrange currently displayed windows. These high-quality knobs, in conjunction with the screen, provide a delightful and tactile experience that molds to whatever you’re working on at the moment.

Another notable feature is the LED lights that hover over the keys. Although LEDs are a simple feature, they’re incredibly beneficial. Like most features on the Kontrol S49 MIDI keyboard, these lights are contextual, so they light up over the keys within your chosen scale. They also light up in different colors to indicate various key zones, and more.

Included with this incredible MIDI keyboard is perhaps the best software bundle on this list. Purchasing the Komplete Kontrol S49 gets you Komplete 13 Select, carrying with it some of the heaviest hitting plugins in the industry like Massive, Kontakt Factory Selection, Solid Bus Comp, several expansions for Massive and Maschine, and plenty more. The Komplete Kontrol S49 is one of the most expensive products on this list, but if you’ve already invested in Native Instruments products or you’re looking for a powerhouse MIDI keyboard, the Komplete Kontrol S49 is an excellent option.

4. Novation SL MkIII - Widest Set of Features ($599)

An image of the SL MKIII MIDI keyboard.
Figure 4: The SL MKIII MIDI keyboard.

For producers who aren't too attached to any particular software ecosystem and want a MIDI keyboard with a lot of hardware features, the Novation SL MkIII is a fantastic solution. What’s remarkable about the SL MkIII is that you get many of the same features as the Native Instruments Kontrol S49 keyboard, but the functionality extends to the rest of your studio rather than being restrained to a particular group of plugins. MIDI keyboards this advanced are relatively new. In the past, MIDI controllers were mostly a studio accessory rather than the centerpiece. With that said, let's dive into what makes this product an excellent solution for producers with a vast collection of studio gear.

From transport controls for your DAW to complex step sequencing right at your fingertips, you can do it all without moving away from the SL MkIII. This keyboard features a USB port for DAW integration, five-pin MIDI in, out, and thru, multiple footswitch inputs, and control voltage outputs, mod outputs, gate outputs, and a clock output. You can connect modular synths to this MIDI keyboard and use the SL MKIII’s keys and knobs to control them.

The Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49 has deep software integration with minimal setup, but with the SL MKIII you can achieve a custom tailored production experience if you don’t mind setting up a few things yourself. This MIDI keyboard features five color LCD screens, displaying information from Ableton Live like macro controls. However, you can configure the MIDI keyboard to display custom parameters related to your connected hardware.

Companion software allows you to create and save custom mappings and store them within the keyboard. For example, you could make a template for your modular synth with knobs, buttons, faders, and screens set up exactly as you want them. Switching between templates on the fly is simple enough as well.

The SL MkIII has transport controls, eight faders, two banks of eight assignable buttons, eight encoder knobs, LED-lit keys, velocity-sensitive pads, and semi-weighted keys with polyphonic aftertouch, which can be assigned to anything. There are plenty of features and workflow possibilities that the SL MkIII delivers.

Above all, the most outstanding quality of this product is the internal sequencer. This onboard sequencer features eight tracks and eight patterns per track. In an interesting demo video from Novation, they showcase the ability to sequence a melody on the keyboard using sounds from Ableton Live.

Once you’re happy with the part, you can record the MIDI arrangement into Ableton Live precisely as it’s sequenced on the SL MkIII. The tactile control and all-in-one workflow is something incredibly unique to this keyboard. If you’re looking to marry your hardware and software into one seamless workstation, you should seek out Novation's SL MkIII.

5. PreSonus Atom SQ - Most Unique ($249)

An image of the Atom SQ MIDI keyboard.
Figure 5: The Atom SQ MIDI keyboard.

I had to find a way to bring up the PreSonus Atom SQ because it’s one of the most impressive products of the year, at least as far as MIDI keyboards go. Over the years, PreSonus has positioned Studio One as one of the big hitters in the DAW space, competing with the likes of Pro Tools, Logic, and Ableton Live for professional audio work and music creation.

Whether you’re writing and mixing records for The Weeknd, or figuring yourself out as an independent artist, you must keep creativity at the center of everything you do. The Atom SQ from PreSonus makes an earnest attempt at providing a creative, hands-on tool for Studio One users.

Atom SQ builds on the original Atom MIDI controller that PreSonus designed. The original Atom was a drum pad controller, and the Atom SQ comes out swinging with a very unique design. It provides a more traditional keyboard experience while offering some attractive new options such as step sequencing. With one-for-one integration, the Atom SQ can sequence drum parts directly into Studio One pattern clips.

You have total transport control if you’re using this product with Studio One, including undo, loop, count-in, and session save functions. Furthermore, rather than using your mouse to create new tracks, browse your instrument/effect library, and peruse presets, you can do all of that from the PreSonus Atom SQ. The 32 velocity and pressure-sensitive pads make note entry easy and expressive. Additionally, the touch strip and eight rotary encoders allow you to take expressive input beyond note entry and into the realm of parameter modulation.

The PreSonus Atom SQ is a must-have for Studio One users, but it also provides tight integration with Ableton Live, though not as much as PreSonus' own platform. Whichever DAW or workflow you choose, the Atom SQ provides pads that give you multiple input options, transport controls, session navigation, a color screen, and many more features, making this a small controller that packs a heavy punch.

If you need a MIDI keyboard for simple note input like the MicroLab, a professional studio centerpiece like the SL MkIII, or something in between like the Atom SQ, one of the options on this list is sure to suit your needs and budget. Many of your purchasing decisions will come down to the studio gear you currently own, the gear you want to upgrade to, and how well your MIDI keyboard integrates with your DAW. If you’re in the market for a DAW upgrade or you’re still trying to figure out which DAW is right for you, make sure to check out “4 of the Best DAWs for Music Production” to learn more.

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