Choosing The Right MIDI Keyboard Controller

Choosing A MIDI Keyboard ControllerA very common question, which is the best MIDI keyboard controller? The answer will depend very much on your own circumstances.

If you’re just starting out, and are contemplating buying a digital piano or keyboard of some kind, then it can be difficult to know where to start. The right answer depends on three things: your budget; physical space; and some thought about what it is you want to do with the keyboard when you’ve got it. For instance, do you want to learn the piano, or play personal keyboard, or do you want to use the keyboard to interact with software?

If you are not sure, the cheapest option is to simply buy a controller keyboard. It may seem alien to invest in a keyboard that makes no sound of its own, but it will then enable you to use any music software, and will get you up and running for a very low cost.

A MIDI controller keyboard acts in a very similar way to the typewriter keyboard you have attached to your PC. It transmits messages when you press the keys: messages like which note you pressed, how hard you pressed it, how long you held it down. This information is then used to drive the music software. You will hear sounds, but these sounds are made by the synthesiser in your sound card, or by other sound modules if you have them installed. Because controller keyboards make no sound of their own, they are relatively inexpensive – and they have the added benefit of being small in size.

For most people, space is a real consideration. If you are just starting out, then a 4-octave controller keyboard will be perfectly adequate in the short term, and can easily be placed on a table or stand directly in front of the PC. You can buy inexpensive add-ons like a foot switch to give your controller keyboard a sustain pedal action, just like a piano.

If you know you really want to play or learn the piano without having to turn on your computer then buying a digital piano may be for you instead. Digital pianos still take up relatively little space, and of course can be used without even having to switch your PC on. They generally have high quality piano sounds along with other functionality, and high quality keyboardswith excellent response. You can still use the digital piano for your computer music, as they all come equipped with MIDI input and output for this purpose. These are the nearest to owning a real piano – but of course are much cheaper and smaller than the real thing.

Personal keyboards are also popular, and have many inbuilt additional features such as banks of sounds, rhythm and accompaniment options, recording facilities and so on. If you know you want to go down this route, then there is a wealth of fabulous instruments to choose from. The added advantage is, like the digital piano, they can be used without the computer, and they have the added benefit of being transportable if you want to play with other people.

Here is a list of all the different things to consider when trying to choose the best MIDI keyboard for you right now.

Number of keys?

MIDI Keyboards come in all sizes. 25-key, 37-key, 49-key and so on. Your budget or available space might dictate which midi keyboard you buy because you have to go small. Or if you are not a keyboard player then you may find that 25 keys are perfectly adequate for entering bass lines, basic chords and drum lines. There is almost always an octave shift button so you can move up and down the note range. I would say that if you are a keyboard player, and size is not a problem, then you might be frustrated if you go for less than 49 keys. That said, other than the convenience of having more notes available without shifting there is no disadvantage to a smaller sized keyboard.

  • 49 key controllers are excellent for entering music and basic or intermediate keyboard learning. They don’t require a lot of space and are quite inexpensive. They will certainly take you up to Grade 3 standard without any problem
  • Larger keyboards are essential if you plan on learning advanced piano techniques or are used to playing on a full size keyboard
  • For composing and sequencing, maybe the number of keys are not so important as the availability of a range of controllers such as knobs and sliders to get more hands-on control of the software control panels

 Controller or keyboard or piano?

  • A controller doesn’t create any sound on its own – it uses the sounds in your computer or sound module. The advantages of controllers are their price and the fact that you can upgrade your sound card or software in future without having to buy a new keyboard
  • A personal keyboard doesn’t require a computer or sound module to create sound. Some will also include speakers. Keyboards are generally more expensive than controllers, but they can be used as an instrument on their own.
  • If you really want to play the piano, and have it available without turning on the computer, then a digital piano is also a great option. They all come equipped with MIDI ports to connect up to your PC. The only disadvantage might be the physical set up you can achieve as digital pianos are larger than keyboards, which may make it tricky to site them right next to your computer workstation though if you are planning to use a laptop or ipad then this won’t be such an issue.

Touch sensitive or weighted action?

  • Touch sensitive keyboards will play louder or softer according to the velocity of your playing (how hard you play)
  • Weighted action keyboards imitate the action of a real piano – these keyboards are usually heavier and more expensive. Choose a weighted action keyboard if you want to be as close to real piano action as possible
  • Most MIDI keyboards are velocity sensitive, so you can play different notes louder and quieter. But there are one or two that don’t have this feature so double check. More sophisticated keyboards will allow control over the level of velocity too, with others you won’t be able to change it on the hardware so you may have to adjust settings to your liking in the software.
  • Not all keyboards have after-touch, which might be a feature you would want for certain instrument voices in software. Check if this is important to you
  • The most expensive will also have some kind of hammer action and this will feel like a real piano, but this comes at a cost.

 Full Size or Mini Keys?

Just be aware when deciding which MIDI keyboard that while many have full piano-sized keys, many more have mini keys. This does not make any difference to the functionality of the keyboard, and mini-keys can be a great space saver, but some people find the smaller keys are just too fiddly. If you want to make music on the go, then a small mini keyboard you can stuff in your rucsack with your laptop or iPad is ideal, but if you are going to be bedroom-based then think about whether you might prefer full size.

Physical Size

Always compare weight and dimensions, just to make sure the keyboard will fit in the space you have assigned. Some of our top end keyboards are fairly hefty. This means they are really robust and solid, with a quality feel, but if you want something light that you can move around easily then weight might be something you have to consider.

Extra control: Faders, Knobs and Pads

You can use a MIDI Keyboard for more than just note entry. Many also have a range of faders and controller knobs for operating virtual controls, and some have pads as well to trigger samples and drums. If you are only thinking about notation and basic melody input the straight MIDI keyboards will do just fine, but if you want to use soft synths the extra flexibility of more controller options might be invaluable. That said, you may decide at a later stage that you need a second MIDI controller you can run alongside your keyboard so don’t worry too much. You can easily run more than one controller in the future.

MIDI Out Port?

Many keyboards are now USB-only. This is fine if you only ever want to use them hooked up to your computer to control software. But if you can ever envisage a time when you will use the keyboard as a controller for other hardware synths then you will need a MIDI out port to make the connection.

iPad/Tablet Friendly?

Some keyboards have been designed from the outset to work perfectly with an iPad as well as conventional PCs, Macs and Laptops like the Samson Graphite 49 USB MIDI Controller shown above. The IK-Multimedia iKeys, the Keystation Mini, the Focusrite Novation range, and the Axiom Air MINI all spring to mind immediately. If you think you would like to connect to your iPad then take into consideration which MIDI keyboard might be most suitable before purchase.

Software Included?

Definitely worth thinking about when deciding which MIDI keyboard to go for! If you have narrowed your options down to a choice of 2 or 3 keyboards, then taking into account the software they ship with makes sense. For example the Samson keyboards come with Native Instruments Komplete Elements – worth about $50 on its own – which makes their keyboards exceptional value. If you are a guitarist then the Guitar Rig software in that package is absolutely superb. The M-Audio keyboards all come with Ignite Music Creation Software from Air Technologies, so you can create complete arrangements out of the box as a complete beginner. More advanced users might be drawn to the Ableton Live Lite that comes with the Alesis Controller Keyboards and the higher end M-Audio Controllers. If this is your first home studio purchase then that software bundle could be your first route in to music making on your computer.

On board Sounds?

If you are using the keyboard solely as a controller it is very unlikely you will want to go the additional expense and size to have onboard sounds. However if you want this purchase to double up as a standalone keyboard too, then you will find 99.9% of keyboards have MIDI onboard so can also be used as a controller.

Pedal Inputs?

Most standard sized keyboards have at least a sustain port so you can use a sustain pedal. Do double-check if this is important to you. Many of the mini keyboards don’t have the room for a sustain port. Some have sustain buttons instead if you want to use that effect. The same applies to Expression Pedal input. It is not universal so if you want it add it to your pre-purchase checklist.

The Best MIDI Controller?

Well, I hope I have given you a few things to think about when you are ready to decide which is the best MIDI keyboard for you to buy. I have also compiled a quick list of the 10 Best Selling MIDI Keyboards and Controllers on Amazon right now so you can hopefully take a look and compare them with the above criteria in mind.

Best Selling MIDI Controllers

Over To You!

If you have any questions or comments, please post them below. We will do our best to answer them, we really want to help you find the best studio equipment so YOU can make the right choice and get up and running quickly. Look forward to hearing from you!

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    • Jane Sherratt says

      Not entirely sure I understand your question. Many Yamaha keyboards will connect directly to computer via straight USB – check the manual. If not, then to make a MIDI connection you should get yourself a USB-MIDI interface (don’t go for the Midisport Uno as it is not compatible with Yamaha PSR keyboards. Any other branded one should do the job)

  1. Alain says


    I was searching for some info about the difference between a piano and a controller in regard to computer music creation. Your site was quite helpful.

  2. Aadam says

    I would like to begin playing the piano and have a pretty high end computer.
    In terms of piano, I had experience when I was much younger. I actually play the harp, but would like to begin the piano again, but one that would be able to plug into my computer. Would you have any recommendations, I’m looking for one at an affordable price?

  3. phil says

    Hi Jane, I was wondering if I could pick your brain. I want to buy a gift for a friend. In her younger days, she used to compete in piano competitions.

    She is looking to get back into it playing for pleasure now, but using something electronic that would best simulate using a real piano, without the mass and something that reasonable in budget. I was wondering if you could recommend anything.

    • Jane Sherratt says

      Hi Phil, difficult to recommend without any budget. For someone who wants to get something that approximates to a real piano you will want something with at least 61 keys and good hammer action if possible. If your budget is very stretched, then at least semi-weighted keys. I personally have an entry level Korg digital piano which is fantastic for the money, it has quite a natural action. I’d go for something that had built-in piano sound and that would work stand alone rather than a controller keyboard. Hope that helps you narrow down your search!

  4. DayVirus says

    I am a total newbee. . I just got a old cybercound 3.0 I believe. I dont know how to hook it up to my macbook pro. I have searched online for any info or drivers> I couldnt find much info? The keyboard only has ONE midi cable. I thought that usually there was a in and a out for MIDI. I could be wrong but again I’m very new. Thank you in advance for advice. If I do need more equipment would it be a MIDI controller> or a MIDI converter type of thing>

    Thank you

    • Jane Sherratt says

      Hi Steven
      If the keyboard has a standard MIDI port then you should be able to connect it up using a USB-MIDI cable (such as the Roland UM-ONE or the Alesis MidiLink). These cables have MIDI in and out, but if your keyboard only has the one port then you can just connect that one port up, it should work, and either of those interfaces will work with your Macbook Pro. This is a way round having a very outdated keyboard that doesn’t have up to date drivers and isn’t plug and play. Regards Jane

    • Jane Sherratt says

      There are lots of good programs out there with amazing virtual instruments. Many DAWs such as Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic come already with a great bank of instruments, then there are some excellent instrument players such as the Kontakt player from Native Instruments, or the Samplitude range. There are few listed here if you follow the link:

  5. Ron says

    I’m a complete beginner, my objective is to learn to read music and play keyboard (piano)
    within a budget of say 300 Canadian dollars to start, which i believe won’t cover a digital
    piano, but could cover a controller or electric keyboard. Would some combination like
    the following work: Casio LK-280 K3 Electric Keyboard, and eMedia Piano and Keyboard
    software ? I’m just not sure if the electric keyboard would work with the learning software
    on my high end windows 8.1 desktop?
    Thanks for any clarification.

    • Jane Sherratt says

      Hi, you should be able to make a MIDI connection from the Casio and use it with the eMedia software. Buying a keyboard rather than a controller has the added benefit that you can play it ‘standalone’ without having to put your computer on every time.

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