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Best MIDI keyboard 2019: Pick the ideal keyboard for your home, studio or stage, from £36

Sequence your own tunes and make your PC make music with the best MIDI keyboards for every budget

Making music is a lot easier than it used to be. Every Apple computer, tablet and phone comes with a bundled copy of GarageBand, while Windows users can get stuck into professional-grade packages such as Cakewalk and Reaper without paying a penny.

Dragging notes into place with the mouse isn’t much fun, though, and touchscreens are distinctly lacking in tactile feedback. Whether you’re composing for fun or planning a stadium tour, a piano-style MIDI keyboard is what you need to transform your computer into a bona fide musical instrument. Here’s our pick of the best, along with a guide to what to look for in your perfect keyboard.

How to buy the right MIDI keyboard

First, let’s be sure that a MIDI keyboard is what you need. We’re talking about a keyboard that doesn’t make any noise on its own: rather, its keys, knobs and buttons send signals to a host computer and your digital audio workstation (DAW) software, which handles the business of generating the actual musical notes. If you want a standalone keyboard that makes its own sounds, that’s a different thing.

Still with us? Great. Broadly speaking, all MIDI keyboards do the same basic job, but if you want to get the one that’s right for your style, needs and budget, there are a few factors to think about.

How many keys do I need?

A piano has 88 keys, but most MIDI keyboards have fewer. They can still play the whole range of notes, but you may have to use an octave shift function to switch between the high and low registers.

If you’re tapping out single-note melodies, this is no problem and you’ll be fine with a small keyboard such as the M-Audio KeyStation Mini 32 below. If you want to play with two hands at once, you’ll probably want to look at 49-key or 61-key models. Often the same keyboard is available in a range of sizes, so you can weigh up the convenience of extra keys against your budget – and your portability requirements, if you’re planning to take your keyboard out to rehearsals and gigs.

What sort of keys should I look for?

Every MIDI keyboard should have velocity-sensitive keys. These detect whether you’re playing piano or forte, and tell your host software to play an appropriately gentle or strident sound. Some keyboards also support aftertouch, which lets you push down firmly on the key after it’s sounded to activate another effect, such as vibrato.

Weighted keys don’t affect the sound, but they can help you play expressively. Piano players may appreciate this, but an unweighted “synth action” has its advantages, too: it feels springy and nimble, and can greatly reduce the total weight of the keyboard. 

A final thing to consider is the size of the keys. Full-sized keys again feel more like playing a piano, but smaller keys let you squeeze more octaves into a compact unit. If you’re considering a mini-keyboard for live gigs, it’s worth trying it out in person before you buy. If the keys are too small for your hands, that could lead to a fumbling, uncomfortable performance.

What are assignable controls?

MIDI keyboards normally have a few standard controls, such as a pitch wheel and an optional sustain pedal. On top of this, there’s usually a selection of knobs and buttons that don’t have a fixed purpose: you can assign these to controls and functions in your host software, and use them to switch sounds, change effects settings or do whatever else you like.

For most of us, a handful of assignable controls is plenty – after all, there’s a limit to how much tweaking you’re likely to want to do in the middle of a performance. It can be handy to have a range of different types of control, though, such as pads to trigger samples, buttons to select instruments and knobs and sliders to adjust effects. And synth wizards may prefer to do their composition and instrument editing from directly in front of the keyboard, in which case a big range of buttons is very helpful.

Certain keyboards have dedicated transport controls too, so you can tell your software to skip to a certain part of your song, loop a section, record a new part and so forth without interrupting your workflow.

What connectors should I look for?

The standard five-pin MIDI out connector is still very common, but many modern keyboards also support USB, so you don’t need to invest in a dedicated MIDI interface for your computer or tablet. If your keyboard lacks a traditional MIDI output, you can’t connect it directly to other MIDI gear, such as an outboard tone generator or sampler – but that’s very unlikely to be a problem in this day and age.

Meanwhile, a foot-pedal connector lets you add an optional pedal, for piano-style sustain – or whatever other control you want to assign. If you fancy that, you can get a perfectly good pedal for as little as £14 (see, for example, the M-Audio SP-2. Some high-end keyboards even have two foot-pedal sockets for double the flexibility.

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The best MIDI keyboards you can buy in 2019

Behringer UMX610: The best MIDI keyboard for beginners

Price when reviewed: £114 | Buy now from Amazon

The UMX610 isn’t just a keyboard: the package includes a USB audio interface, a copy of the Tracktion DAW and a big collection of virtual instruments and effects. That affordable price, therefore, includes everything you need to turn your humble laptop into a home studio. 

The keyboard itself has 61 keys, which should be plenty unless you’re planning to give a Rachmaninov recital. They feel pretty plasticky, with no weighting nor aftertouch, but they’re full-sized and perfectly playable. And when you’re ready to get more hands-on with your performances, there are also eight assignable knobs and buttons, plus dedicated pitch and modulation wheels, a data-entry slider and octave shift controls. Round the back, you’ll find a socket for a foot pedal too, along with both USB and MIDI connectors. A fantastic package for beginners, with plenty of room to grow. 

Key specs – Keys: 61; Velocity-sensitive keys: Yes; Weighted keys: No; Aftertouch: No; Assignable knobs: 8, plus 1 slider; Assignable buttons: 8; Wheels: Pitch, modulation; Connectors: MIDI out, mini-USB, foot pedal; Dimensions: 99 x 21.5 x 9.7cm (WDH)

Roland A-500PRO: The best MIDI keyboard for live performers

Price when reviewed: £225 | Buy now from Amazon 

When you’re on stage, you can’t be fiddling around with your laptop every time you need to change a patch or an effect. The Roland A-500PRO ensures you don’t have to, with a huge bank of assignable controls of various types. They include nine dials, nine sliders and a bank of eight velocity-sensitive pads, which you can use to trigger drum sounds, loops and samples – or to initiate patch changes and even external lighting effects. Two foot pedal connectors, meanwhile, let you separately control hold and expression parameters, or whatever else you’ve chosen to assign them to.

The A-500PRO also features a transport console, which could be useful for controlling backing tracks on stage or for driving a DAW in the studio. Meanwhile, a two-line LCD display with a dedicated control knob and its own button bank makes it easy to check and tweak your settings.

While loaded with features, the A-500PRO is conveniently transportable, with a 49-key design that’s 84cm long in total and weighs a smidge under 4kg. With five-pin MIDI in and out connectors, it’ll integrate into more or less any setup, or you can connect it to a host over USB, in which case it’ll conveniently draw its power from that same cable. Bigger, pricier MIDI keyboards certainly exist, but unless you’re really pushing the limits of sonic experimentation, this one will do everything you need and more.

Key specs – Keys: 49; Velocity-sensitive keys: Yes; Weighted keys: No; Aftertouch: Yes; Assignable knobs: 9, plus 9 sliders; Assignable buttons: 13, plus 8 pads; Wheels: Pitch/modulation joystick; Connectors: MIDI in, MIDI out, USB, 2 x foot pedal; Dimensions: 84 x 25 x 9.1cm (WDH)

Nektar Impact LX88+L: The best MIDI keyboard for pianists

Price when reviewed: £221 | Buy now from Amazon

Electronic musicians may be accustomed to plastic keys, but for trained pianists a light, springy action can be a big turn-off. If that’s you, the Nektar Impact LX88+ will be right up your street. Its full-sized, semi-weighted keys don’t quite replicate the feel of a Steinway grand, but they’ll get you a lot closer to the expression you’re used to. Its 88-key range gives you the freedom to leap from the lowest notes to the tinkliest highs without having to mess around with octave shifting and it goes without saying that you can connect a sustain pedal, too.

This is much more than a piano controller, though. It’s also luxuriously equipped with a total of 26 assignable knobs, buttons and sliders, with pre-programmed support for most major DAWs. There are eight velocity-sensitive pads and dedicated transport controls. And when you’re not using that full seven-octave reach, you can split the keyboard into three separate MIDI layers – so you could, for example, play string pads with your left hand while picking out a piano part with your right and then hop up to the top octave for a synth solo.

If there’s a compromise, it’s portability. Thanks to its full complement of weighted keys, the Impact LX88+ tips the scales at a bit more than 8kg and has a sizeable 128cm footprint. It’s still a lot easier to cart around than a real piano, though – not to mention a lot cheaper.

Key specs – Keys: 88; Velocity-sensitive keys: Yes; Weighted keys: Yes; Aftertouch: No; Assignable knobs: 8, plus 8 sliders; Assignable buttons: 9, plus 8 pads; Wheels: Pitch, modulation; Connectors: MIDI out, USB, foot pedal; Dimensions: 128 x 28 x 8.9cm (WDH)

M-Audio KeyStation Mini 32: The best compact MIDI keyboard

Price when reviewed: £36 | Buy now from Amazon

If you’re looking for a neat little keyboard for tapping out synth parts and basslines into GarageBand, there are plenty of space-saving options to choose from. The KeyStation Mini 32 is our favourite because despite its dinky, desktop-friendly design – it’s just 42cm long and 10.5cm deep – its 32 keys span a generous two and a half octaves, meaning you don’t need to worry about running out of notes in the middle of a solo.

The trade-off is that, in place of proper pitch and modulation wheels, you get much less expressive push buttons. Still, there’s also an assignable knob and four control buttons, which can be used to record expression data and program changes. The Mini 32 also lacks a standard five-pin MIDI socket, with its sole physical connector a rather retro mini-USB port. Still, it’s super cheap, covers an impressive range and will easily slot into even the most modest bedroom studio.

Key specs – Keys: 32; Velocity-sensitive keys: Yes; Weighted keys: No; Aftertouch: No; Assignable knobs: 1; Assignable buttons: 4; Wheels: None (pitch and modulation buttons); Connectors: mini-USB; Dimensions: 42 x 2 x 10.5cm (WDH)

iRig Keys: The best MIDI keyboard for iPad

Price when reviewed: £110 | Buy now from Amazon 

The iPad is a popular tool for performance, thanks to its slick software, rock-solid stability and unbeatable portability. But if you’re taking yours on stage, you’ll want to partner it with a decent keyboard.

Enter the iRig Keys, a gig-friendly controller that gives you three full octaves of piano-sized keys, while remaining compact and very light – just 660g ­– so you can easily chuck it in a backpack next to your iPad. The controls strike a similarly smart balance: it’s not loaded with buttons and sliders, but a pair of programme change buttons let you step through patches and other settings on your host software, and there are a twisty data knob, pitch and modulation wheels and an input for a foot pedal.

The iRig Keys comes with a Lightning cable for direct connection to an iPad or iPhone and there’s no messing around with adapters, and free SampleTank and iGrand Piano software so you can start playing right away. It also supports USB, so you can use it with Android, Windows or macOS devices.

Key specs – Keys: 37; Velocity-sensitive keys: Yes; Weighted keys: No; Aftertouch: No; Assignable knobs: 1; Assignable buttons: 2; Wheels: Pitch, modulation; Connectors: Proprietary connector for Lightning/USB cable, foot pedal; Dimensions: 50 x 12 x 4cm (WDH)

Alesis Vortex Wireless 2: The best MIDI keyboard for 1980s kids

Price when reviewed: £203 | Buy now from Amazon 

Yes, it’s a keytar – but don’t write the Vortex Wireless 2 off as a gimmick. It gives you a spacious three octaves of velocity-sensitive, aftertouch-enabled keys, along with a set of controls located conveniently on the neck, so you can tweak as you play. As well as programme change buttons, those include octave and split controls, a pitch wheel, a sustain controller and a programmable touch-sensitive strip.

Meanwhile, above the keyboard, eight faders and eight pads ­– with custom RGB illumination – let you adjust parameters and trigger samples. Perhaps the most fun feature is a built-in accelerometer, which triggers a customisable response when you physically dip the neck downwards.

Another clever feature is given away by the name: this instrument connects wirelessly to your laptop via the provided USB adapter, and it can be powered by four AA batteries – so you can rock out to your heart’s content, without having to worry about tripping over cables. You also have conventional USB and MIDI connectors for studio use, and while the iPad isn’t officially supported, you can get it to work by plugging the wireless adapter into the Apple Camera Connection Kit.

Key specs – Keys: 37; Velocity-sensitive keys: Yes; Weighted keys: Yes; Aftertouch: No; Assignable knobs: 1, plus 8 sliders and touch-sensitive ribbon control; Assignable buttons: 4, plus 8 pads; Wheels: Pitch; Connectors: MIDI out, USB; Dimensions: 89 x 25 x 7.4cm (WDH)

Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49 MK2: The best MIDI keyboard for production pros

Price when reviewed: £469 | Buy now from Amazon 

Not that long ago, studio gurus invested in heavyweight workstation synths to produce their sonic masterpieces. Today, your host PC or Mac can handle the hard work – but there’s still a role for a keyboard that gives you the same degree of hands-on control.

The Komplete Kontrol is such a keyboard. It can drive a wide range of DAWs, including Maschine, Logic, Ableton Live and (believe it or not) GarageBand. It puts Komplete and NKS virtual instruments right at your fingertips, with a pair of colour displays and a set of buttons and knobs that let you browse and tweak plugin settings just as if you were controlling a real synthesiser or effects module.

There’s a generous complement of general MIDI controls, along with funky RGB LEDs above every key that give an instant indication of different zones and scales. The keys themselves are semi-weighted and support aftertouch, and there’s also a 61-key and 88-key versions for those expansive compositions.

While the price might seem high for a keyboard that doesn’t make any sound of its own, the Komplete Kontrol comes with a 45GB pack of virtual instruments, including the Massive synthesiser, DrumLab percussion suite, a classic upright piano and the official Rickenbacker 4003 bass module. Stack all that next to a high-end workstation and it’s actually one hell of a bargain.

Key specs – Keys: 49; Velocity-sensitive keys: Yes; Weighted keys: Yes; Aftertouch: Yes; Assignable knobs: 9; Assignable buttons: 8; Wheels: Pitch; Connectors: MIDI out, MIDI in, USB, 2 x foot pedal; Dimensions: 84 x 30 x 8.4cm (WDH)

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