Which MIDI keyboard to buy?

posted in: Gear, Production | 2

Hello and welcome back! Someone from my Twitter community asked if I could make a recommendation of the best and cheapest MIDI keyboard out there. I don’t want to answer this question right off the bat to be honest. Instead I want to help you help yourself choosing which MIDI keyboard to buy that actually suits your interests. I just don’t want to shout random products at you and say: ‘This is what you need because I say so’ in this case. I might give some examples for the different types of keyboards with no specific buying recommendation. So without further ado, let’s get into it.

For producers a MIDI keyboard has a very practical sense. Most use one not only to play and record chords and melodies but also to control certain parameters with buttons and knobs. Some also record drum patterns using a keyboard or use the pitch and mod wheels to further manipulate the sound they’re playing. So since there’s not only a creative aspect but also a practical purpose there are lots of criteria one should look out for when choosing which MIDI keyboard to buy.


What’s a MIDI keyboard?

Many will shake their head because to them this seems to be a question with an obvious answer to it. Others don’t exactly know what the difference between a typical keyboard and a MIDI keyboard might be. And this is nothing to be ashamed of! I was at that point myself to be honest.

In order to really learn how to differentiate between a normal keyboard and a MIDI one, you have to grasp the general concept of MIDI. So let me quickly try explain it to you.

MIDI

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It’s a global standard for realtime data exchange between different musical instruments. There’s some computer and math science stuff behind it but in short: MIDI is the standard that enables your instruments to communicate with each other and exchange information about notes, pitch and all kinds of other controls. If you press a note on a MIDI keyboard that’s connected with, say, your PC, it can provide information about which note is played and with which velocity you pressed it. If you then let your music production software pass that information on to a virtual instrument, you can play it with that very real MIDI keyboard you have in front of you. Said virtual instrument could be a software synthesizer or any virtual sound library (for example that of a violin ensemble).

So far so good. Now what’s the difference between this

Yamaha PSR F51
Yamaha PSR F51 | © 2020 Yamaha Corporation

and this?

Native Instruments Kontrol S49 MK2
Native Instruments Kontrol S49 MK2 | © 2020 Native Instruments GmbH

You can’t tell. That’s the thing with MIDI. What you can see in picture number one is a beginner keyboard which can’t send MIDI information to your PC. It puts out sound through its own speakers and that’s it. The keyboard in the second picture on the other hand is a MIDI keyboard/controller. Every key, every button, every knob on this device can put out information you can use to work on stuff in your music production software. Now you know that about these two products.

But to find out if any other device has the ability to send or receive MIDI information, you have to look into the data sheet for that particular model. It’s no big deal though, most retailers have a section specifically for MIDI controllers in their online stores and in the product description you can find everything you need to know about the product.


Hot questions

Now that we have that off the table we can get to the real deal. In the beginning I said that I want to help you help yourself finding out which MIDI keyboard to buy. What I mean by that is that you should know what you need as a musician. We’re going to break down the questions I think you should ask yourself in order to make the right decisions before buying something.


Are you a beatmaker?

If you focus on making beats when producing you always have to pay attention to the drums in some way. Because of that you might wanna choose a keyboard with additional drum pads to make recording drums easier. Also, if you’re just starting out your beats probably won’t be as musically complex. Having this in mind you might save money by choosing a product with fewer keys (eg. 25) and thus being able to afford more extra features like drum pads, a sequencer or even an arpeggiator!

Maybe you don’t even need a keyboard but instead a controller with pads and knobs only.

Akai MPD218
Akai MPD218 | © 2020 inMusic, Inc.

What genres do you work in?

I know that I will be generalizing a bit in the next few sentences, so please forgive me and don’t take any of the things I’ll say as offense. But obviously there are certain genres that usually span more octaves with their main instruments than others. If you’re a Techno producer for example you won’t need as many keys in most cases as a HipHop/RnB producer might do.

You should better focus more on features that will make sound design easier. Knobs for instance can in most cases be assigned to any parameter of your software synth which enables you to record live tweaking your sound, elevating your overall sound to a whole new level.

If you’re aiming for orchestral compositions (eg. game and film score) on the other hand, you might wanna choose a MIDI keyboard with more (and bigger!) keys. There are 61 or even 88 key-solutions which will surely please your needs. This also brings us to the next question you should ask yourself to find out which MIDI keyboard to buy.


Have you got any piano skills?

Pretty obvious but still: If you’ve had classical piano training or are just skilled enough you want to incorporate these abilities into your music! And trust me, most will miss the big keys and the four or five octaves very soon. This leaves you with a problem – the price of the keyboards. More keys usually account for higher costs. If you then also want to have extra features or a generally higher quality product you will have to pay more money as well.

The only chance to save money and don’t miss out on all the other advantages a MIDI keyboard brings would be to opt for a product of low quality or learn to cope with only two or three octaves when playing.


If not – are you looking to learn piano?

Say you don’t have sufficient piano skills – yet! Maybe you’re on your way to being a decent pianist. So don’t be a fool, have in mind what the future has to offer and don’t only make your choice based on your current abilities.


Are you producing on the go?

Some of us are real couch potatoes. Embodiments of a bedroom producer so to say. In that case you shouldn’t choose the smallest, lightest and most space-saving model out there. Put up with a model that takes up space and therefore enjoy more knobs, bigger keys and better build quality.

If you’re producing on the go from time to time though you’ll regret not considering size and weight of your MIDI keyboard. If you don’t consider these traits you will be more likely to choose to leave your tools at home rather than having a nice music making session outside due to the trouble the bulky tools cause when taking them with you.

For mobile use I have the Akai MPK Mini MK2*, which does a great job at being small and still useful.

Akai MPK Mini MK2 (which MIDI keyboard to buy?)
Akai MPK Mini MK2 and Pentaquin Mug size comparison

So remember to thoroughly search the data sheet of a product for weight and dimensions and make sure to compare! Because a keyboard looks sleek, doesn’t mean it’s not heavy as s***.


Sound nerd? Might as well go for a synth!

My first device with MIDI functionality was a Novation Mininova*, a digital hardware synth with it’s own oscillators, effects and much more. And to this date I’ve never regretted the decision of buying this item because I can always quickly design a sound or play around without it having to be connected to some software. As it’s USB-powered I can take it with me and supply it with juice via a powerbank if necessary. No computer, no VSTs needed!

Novation Mininova Top-Down View (Which MIDI keyboard to buy?)
My Mininova is still one of my favourite instruments

But especially for sound design reasons you might just want to buy a whole synthesizer instead of a simple MIDI keyboard. This really saves space and makes unique and quality sound design easier. And more fun!


What DAW do you use?

There are certain keyboards and controllers that are supposed to be used along with specific software. In fact notably many products that offer special features to control Ableton (along with your typical MIDI keyboard/controller features of course). Another example would the Native Instruments Kontrol* which comes with a bunch of NI software instruments.

Native Instruments Kontrol S49 MK2
I’ve used a Native Instruments Kontrol MK2 model once in a studio and really liked it | © 2020 Native Instruments GmbH

These devices specifically made for certain softwares are often of high quality and bring you more cool features for a relatively low price.


Made your choice?

As you can see there are many different things to look out for when choosing which MIDI keyboard to buy. After all there could be many suggestions and recommendations but with that many different products on the market and such variety to the different keyboards, it’s up to you to decide which one you’ll eventually choose.


I hope I could make choosing from that extremely big pool of products easier for you with todays guide. Let me know which keyboards you chose or maybe own already! Did you even choose to buy yourself a MIDI keyboard?

Thank you for reading, until next time and as always, make sure to check out the other blog episodes for more content about creativity and music production!



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All links marked with an asterisk (*) are so called Affiliate-Links. By clicking on such links Lars Grages, being administrator of this website, receives a comission from the particular vendor should a purchase be completed through clicking on one of said links. The final price for the customer is not affected by that progress.

2 Responses

  1. Rubi Rose
    | Reply

    Yay! Thank you! I own an Akai Fire and an Akai MPK mini. I’m going to make my next goal a full sized midi keyboard to learn piano. I wasn’t sure I should but you are right, I should keep the future in mind rather than just the present. Your blog is very helpful!!

    • Lars Grages
      | Reply

      That’s nice to hear! Glad to see my content really help you 🙂

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