MIDI keyboards come in all shapes and sizes. So a common question is ‘how many keys do I need?’
A midi-keyboard is an essential item in any modern day home recording studio. You’ve created some interesting sounds in your DAW perhaps and manually entering notes into your composition using the computer mouse and keyboard just isn’t going to cut it.
So these keyboards come in a variety of sizes and at a variety of costs to suit various different needs. I recommend that if you want to use it for piano that you invest in a MIDI keyboard with no less than 61 keys. But if you are using it for leads and bass 49 keys should be fine.
As the name suggests, a MIDI keyboard is a keyboard (designed in the style of a traditional piano), that is used to send MIDI signals/ commands via a USB or MIDI cable to another device such as a computer which is operating on the same protocol.
But why? Well read on and I will try and explain. Why this is a good amount of keys to have and why you might want to get more than you think. And why in some cases it may actually be a wise move to opt for less.
What are the different size options?
There is a huge range of key number options out there from a wide variety of brands. These range from some that have as few as 25 keys. Which believe me feels really, really small. All the way up to 88 key monsters that are the size of a full-size piano.
So including the two I’ve just mentioned. The most common MIDI keyboard categories are:
- 25 Key
- 32 Key
- 49 Key
- 61 Key
- 88 Key
But how many keys do I need?
What factors determine what I should go for?
Ok, so we will start with the most obvious factor and that is space.
Getting the biggest keyboard that is available on the market is great if you have a huge home studio to use. But not everyone is blessed with such a luxury. You may not wish to dedicate a large portion of your space to a MIDI keyboard.
Below is a rough idea of the approximate size of each of the keyboards, so you can start measuring up. Bear in mind the size of the keys can vary with some of the smaller keyboards not having full ‘piano-sized’ keys. But it should give you a rough idea.
- 25 Keys – Approximately 12.5 inches (31.7cm)
- 32 Keys – Approximately 17 inches (43.7cm)
- 49 Keys – Approximately 32 inches (81cm)
- 61 Keys – Approximately 39.5 inches (100cm)
- 88 Keys – Approximately 58.5 inches (145cm)
If you are just at the beginning of your home music studio journey. You may wish to leave some room for other instruments such as hardware synths, keyboards, amps and other bits. You don’t want to be frustrated later on that that you have dedicated half your available space to that MIDI keyboard. So keep that mind.
If you want to have it on your desk along with a computer keyboard, computer monitor and audio interface. You may be cursing the lack of space too. Constantly having to move things around and ruining your workflow.
There are some MIDI keyboards that have smaller keys so they can cram more octaves into less space. I would personally advise against these, unless you have very small hands. If you attempt to play chords or play notes in quick succession the chance for errors is much higher and may start to send you a bit mad.
Skill Level and musical requirements
Another factor to think about when you are deciding on how many keys your MIDI keyboard should have is your current (and potential) skill level.
If you don’t really consider yourself a piano or keyboard player. And are mainly going to use the MIDI keyboard for writing simple basslines or leads. Then the smaller keyboards 25 to 49 may be all you require.
When I started making music I was in this category. I was playing each note with the same finger let alone using chords or playing with both hands simultaneously. I therefore just had a small 32 key keyboard that I liked because it took up minimal space, was light and portable. It allowed me to play a simple riff and then move up and down octaves with the octave up and down buttons.
For a bassline, for example, you are very rarely going to find yourself covering more than two octaves. So for that, even the 25 key keyboard would suffice. Likewise, if you are wanting to make lead lines mimicking woodwind or brass, for example. Most of these instruments only cover 2 octaves and so yet again a small keyboard will be all you may need. At the extreme ends of the spectrum, these will just sound weird on a big keyboard.
On the other hand, if you are, or have ambitions to be, an accomplished pianist. Then you may wish to stretch all the way up to a full sized 88 key keyboard, allowing you to play piano pieces etc. If you want to compose anything with a piano, you want to be looking at 49 keys as an absolute minimum. But probably 61 or above to be honest.
A larger keyboard also lets you potentially map drums to one end and a synth sound to the other end of the keyboard. If that is something you might fancy doing when playing live.
If you are planning on using the MIDI keyboard in a live setting or are planning on it not being a permanent fixture in your home studio. You may want to go for a smaller keyboard.
Not only are the bigger keyboards more awkward to move from place to place. But they can weigh a considerable amount more too with the 88 key keyboards. Weighing around 17 pounds (8kg) with 25 key keyboards weighing mostly under 2 pounds (1kg).
So if you already have a lot of equipment, adding a large keyboard to the party may be something you regret. On the other hand, if it is staying glued to the spot in the studio then it won’t be a worry.
Your budget will, of course, have an impact on what size keyboard you can stretch too. It will come as no surprise that the larger the keyboard, usually the higher the price. Some of the smaller keyboards can be more expensive if they pack other features in. This could be drum pads or color display screens etc. But in most cases, a large 88 key keyboard will cost you much more than a 25 key mini one.
Other things to think about before purchasing
Are the keys weighted?
The subject of different key weightings is a complex one and I won’t go into too much detail here. But there are a couple of things you may want to bear in mind for choosing a MIDI keyboard. And words you are likely to see popping up in product descriptions.
What other features might be useful?
Some keyboards are very basic and come with just a simple USB connection. With very little in the way of other nobs, buttons and flashing lights. When you are first starting out this will save you money and also confusion.
But many keyboards now come with added extras to give you something more for your money. These extras may actually save you space and even cash in the long-term as they will mean you potentially won’t need to buy some other pieces of equipment. These include:
- Drum pads – Even some of the small keyboards have a space dedicated to a few drum pads. A nice little addition to save you having to buy a separate drum machine (at least for a little while)
- A variety of knobs and faders – These can allow you to fiddle around with settings within your DAW. Such as ASDR envelope settings without having to keep picking up the computer mouse.
- Pitch and modulation wheels – Allowing you to add live modulation or pitch bend effects as you play.
- A specific DAW controller – If you use Ableton live then some keyboards such as the AKAI Professional APC Key 25 have an Ableton live controller built in. This allows you to trigger different samples when playing live.
- A screen – Some keyboards now come with large and sometimes even color screens. These screens allow you to see what MIDI instrument and plug-ins you are running without even having to look at your computer screen.
So there are many things to take into account there. But there is no real correct, one size fits all, answer.
If you have a room as large as your large budget, then you may wish to go for a large keyboard. If you can afford it you may even fancy getting two! A large 88 key weighted keyboard to use for composing those piano parts and then a smaller semi-weighted keyboard for composing other parts…I’m getting carried away now.
On the other hand; if you are just starting out and you are struggling to fit everything into your studio as it is, then a smaller keyboard may fit the bill. As I said at the start, from experience of owning a variety of these things. I personally would save a little more money, clear a little bit more space and get at least 61 keys. This will allow you to do all sorts and will let you grow as a musician if you decide to work on your piano playing.