A MIDI keyboard is becoming one of the most essential items in a modern home music studio. With more plugins, samples and loops available than ever before having an easy/ intuitive way to input them easily into the software on your laptop or computer is vital.
If you want to know all about MIDI, what it is? how does it work? Then you can read my detailed “Beginners Guide to MIDI”. But I will give a very brief overview now too.
A (Very) Brief Guide to MIDI
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It was invented back in the 1980s as a language that would essentially allow electronic instruments to talk to one another.
Once computers were more common in recording studios this same language, which is effectively a bunch of 1s and 0s, was used to create specialized MIDI instruments to send digital signals to a computer. So rather than playing a traditional instrument and using an audio interface to convert the audio signal to a digital signal that a computer can understand, MIDI skips this step and allowing us to input a digital signal directly.
The MIDI language can communicate which note is pressed, how hard it is pressed and many other things. You could, therefore, simply enter these values manually into your laptop and create a song just using your computer mouse and keyboard. But that isn’t very musical and it is often much easier to use a MIDI instrument to input these values and also gives a much more realistic result.
Enter the MIDI Keyboard:
The most common MIDI instrument is the MIDI keyboard. But this is simply because it is a nice familiar way to send the signals that many people can relate to. You also have MIDI drum kits, drum pads, control pads etc. There is no reason why someone couldn’t create a MIDI guitar or any other instrument (In fact, someone has: https://www.jamorigin.com).
A MIDI keyboard is not capable of producing any kind of audio signal like a traditional keyboard. You can try all you like to plug in headphones or speakers and you won’t hear anything.
Note: This is not always true the other way around, many modern digital synths are capable of sending creating both audio AND MIDI signals.
When you press down one of the keys it will send a digital signal to either another MIDI instrument or more likely your computer or laptop. This will communicate which key you pressed, how hard you pressed it and a number of other useful things.
Those numbers are stored in your DAW software and you can change the output to sound like anything from a piano to a flute to even your own voice if you wanted to.
What should I look for in my MIDI keyboard?
This is another topic I have written a dedicated article on (here). But again I will provide a brief summary here.
MIDI keyboards come in a variety of sizes, from full piano-sized 88 key options down to tiny 25 key options, with a variety of options in between.
How much space do you have in your studio?
In a home studio, space is often at a premium. You may be restricted to just a corner of your room and having a huge MIDI keyboard taking up your entire desk space can be annoying. Workflow is important when creating music and if a large keyboard keeps getting in your way as you reach over to your laptop, you are going to get annoyed.
Ask yourself what you will be using it for
On the other hand, if you go for one of the smaller options, such as a 25 key, then you have other limitations. The lack of keys will mean it is ok for playing a simple lead part with a few individual notes. But if you want to play simulate something like a real piano you won’t be able to play chords with the left hand and notes with the right hand as you would on a traditional full-sized piano.
So ask yourself what you will need it for and assess how much space you have first. I personally started with a tiny 25 key option. This was for a couple of reasons, firstly the low price and secondly, I wanted it to be super-portable to take with me to gigs or band practices. It was fine but I quickly outgrew it and got annoyed at the limitations the low number of keys had. I quickly ended up replacing it with a 49 key option which is perfect for my needs, not too large but big enough to be able to do most things I want to do.
Some MIDI keyboards, particularly the smaller models, will just have a keyboard and that is it. This is fine if all you want to do is add a few notes here or there but if you want to do more, many MIDI keyboards will come with a variety of other knobs and dials to improve workflow and make the music-making process even more enjoyable.
Weighted keys and Aftertouch
A traditional pianos keys have a certain ‘weight’ to them, caused by the mechanism of strings and hammers that must move every time you press a key. MIDI keyboards don’t need to make all these parts move as they are simply sending a digital signal. However, to make them feel similar to a real piano, some MIDI keyboards have weighted or at least semi-weighted keys to replicate this feeling. This is something to look for if you want to use the MIDI keyboard primarily for playing piano sounds or if you come from a piano playing background.
Aftertouch is a feature that allows MIDI data to continue being sent after the initial key strike. So this might allow you to apply some subtle effects such as vibrato, or to make the volume changes more natural and therefore more realistic.
Knobs, Dials and Sliders
These knobs and sliders can be programmed or ‘mapped’ within your DAW software to pretty much whatever you want. So you could use sliders to turn track volumes up and down or perhaps you could use a knob to control the level of reverb or delay. Basically the more you have available, the more you can program to do various things and it stops you from having to fiddle around as much with your computer mouse and keyboard.
Many MIDI keyboards come with a small number of drum pads in the top corner above the keys. This is handy if you fancy using MIDI to add some drums or other percussions.
You can simply play MIDI drums using the keys but it never feels quite right to me. Having a few pads to program and hit is much more similar to kitting actually drums and will feel like a much more intuitive way to add percussion to a track.
With drums, you will probably only need to program around 8 to 12 drum sounds at once and so just a small number of pads in the corner of the keyboard is perfect for most applications. This is a great way to save money and space when building a home studio on a budget as you don’t have to buy another piece of equipment.
Integration with DAW software
Some MIDI keyboards are specially designed to work with a particular piece of DAW software. The Novation Launchkey, for example, is designed to work with Ableton Live and even comes with a ‘Lite’ version of the software in the box.
This doesn’t mean it won’t work with other DAW software such as ProTools or even free ones such as Garageband but it will just make it quicker to get started straight out of the box and programming it will be slightly easier.
So now you know what to look for let’s have a look at a few of my favorite options:
Top MIDI Keyboard Recommendations 2020
Best Option for Portability: Akai Professional LPK25
You may be really limited with space in your home studio or perhaps you like the idea of being able to fit your MIDI keyboard in a backpack or set up on the sofa in front of the TV. If that is the case the Akai LPK25 is a mini MIDI keyboard measuring a tiny 13 inches making it super light and portable.
Yes, this does mean you get fewer features and you certainly won’t be able to perform a piano concerto on it. But if you want to spend very little money and just want to add a few MIDI notes here and there, then this is a great option.
Best Budget Option for Keeping Things Simple: M Audio Keystation MK3 49 Key
If you are on a budget and you aren’t bothered about al the knobs, drum pads or sliders then the M: Audio Keystation range keeps things very simple by having just a keyboard and just a small number of buttons.
Not only does this minimize confusion and space but it also means the price is much lower than most other MIDI keyboards with the same number of keys.
A nice bonus feature that may or may not be useful is the traditional 5-pin MIDI output allowing it to be connected to older MIDI devices that don’t have USB connectivity.
Best 49 Key Budget Option With More Features: Arturia Keylab 49
I love Arturia’s equipment. Everything they make is always an amazing value considering the top quality of the product you get.
This 49 key MIDI keyboard comes packed with a great selection of sliders, dials and drum pads to allow a good amount of customization without being too overwhelming.
Best 61 Key Budget Option With More Features: Novation Launchkey MK2 61
I have owned and loved the MK1 version of this keyboard for around 5 years now and it is probably one of the most well-used pieces of equipment in my home studio.
- The keys are semi-weighted and so it feels natural to play and not too ‘toy-like’ as some budget models can do.
- It comes 16 backlit drum pads, easily enough for most requirements. The backlight is a very handy feature, particularly if you are thinking about using it to play live where you can often by on a dark stage.
- The dials are very handy for controlling track volumes within the DAW, basically making the MIDI keyboard double up as a partial mixer too.
- It doesn’t have too many knobs and therefore is not too big or confusing for the beginner.
Best Overall Option If Price Is No Concern: Akai MPK249
The Akai MPK269 basically combines all the features from all the keyboards mentioned above into one awesome machine.
- The semi-weighted full-size keys are designed to feel as close to those of a real piano as possible.
- 16 illuminating pads will allow you to easily compose drum tracks.
- Many sliders and knobs for programming all sorts of effects.