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Whether you’re a professional musician or a hobbyist with a love of music, there are a ton of tools for creating entire songs with nothing but your laptop. Using a mouse to draw patterns isn’t the most inspiring thing, though.
A MIDI controller lets you control virtual instruments with real keys or drum pads, making the experience more tactile. Some are meant to emulate the feel of a physical piano, while others feel like synths or even drum machines.
With a USB MIDI interface, you don’t even need any other equipment. Once you’ve found the best MIDI controller for you, just plug into your laptop and play.
Perhaps the most feature-packed controller on this list, the Akai Professional Advance 49 features 49 semi-weighted velocity and pressure-sensitive keys, and that’s just the start. It has pitch-bend and modulation wheels, eight backlit velocity and pressure-sensitive pads for drum work, and a host of assignable switches and control knobs. It’s also the only model on this list with a built-in LCD screen to provide feedback for plugin parameters.
The keyboard also comes with over 16GB of software to make the most of it. This includes Akai’s Virtual Instrument Player software, which works as a VST plugin to control other plugins. It can also work as a standalone virtual instrument player for your computer, letting you just jam.
If you’re looking for the features of a synth-style keyboard, but the key count of a piano, the Nektar Impact LX88+ might be the right choice for you. This model features 88 semi-weighted, velocity-sensitive keys with medium tension. It also features eight drum pads, eight control knobs, and nine faders.
If you want to take control of your digital audio workstation (DAW), this is one of the best options on this list. In case you don’t have a DAW already, this includes the Bigwig 8-Track DAW software. Nektar also provides software to help the Impact LX88+ integrate with existing DAW software like Cubase, Logic Pro X, and PreSonus Studio One.
3. Alesis VI61
Alesis has been a major name in digital instruments for a long time, and the Alesis VI61 shows why. With 61 full-sized, semi-weighted keys with aftertouch, this controller also thrives when it comes to customizability. It has a total of 16 assignable knobs and 48 assignable buttons, as well as 16 velocity-sensitive trigger pads for drums and samples.
The VI61 also comes with a nice bundle of software. You get Pro Tools First Alesis Edition, Ableton Live Lite 9, and Eleven Lite. For plugins, you also get the Mini Grand, DB-33, and Xpand!2 virtual instrument software by Air Music Tech.
You might recognize Arturia’s name from its analog synthesizers and drum machines. The company also makes MIDI controllers, and the Arturia KeyLab Essential 49 shows it isn’t playing around. This model has a 49-note keyboard, eight drum pads, nine control knobs, and nine faders.
The software bundle includes Ableton Live Lite and Analog Lab, which works either standalone or as a plugin. If you’re looking for aesthetics, this is also a very nice-looking model, with wood grain sides on a sleek white frame.
This may look like a standard MIDI keyboard, but it’s much more than that. The Korg nanoKEY Studio features 25 velocity-sensitive keys as well as eight pads. These keys light up to show the notes of a scale, so this is a great option if you’re looking to learn more about music.
The nanoKEY can connect via USB like the other models on this list, but it can also connect via Bluetooth. If you’re a laptop musician looking for something you can use without hauling cables everywhere, this alone may make the nanoKEY and attractive option.
If you’re looking for the maximum key count for the least amount of money and don’t care about optional features, this is a good option. The Midiplus X6 Mini features 61 weighted keys as well as pitch and modulation controls. These aren’t actually wheels, but are, in fact, capacitive touch controls.
The X6 Mini also features four customizable knobs. By default, these are assigned to volume, pan, expression, and reverb, but you can change any or all of them. This model is on the barebones side, but that might be exactly what you’re looking for.
What if you don’t need actual piano-style keys at all? If you’re looking for an interface that is closer to a hardware sampler or drum machine, take a look at the Akai Professional MPD218. Styled after Akai’s own MPC samplers, this model features 16 MPC-style backlit pads. With three banks, this gives you 48 assignable pads.
As for software, you get Ableton Live Lite and Akai Pro MPC Essentials. In addition to these, you also get SONiVOX Big Bang Cinematic Percussion and Big Bang Universal Drums virtual instrument plugins. You can control the software using the built-in six control knobs, which also feature three banks for a total of 18 assignable controls.
The smaller sibling of the other Nektar Impact model on this list, this one keeps most of the features but slims down the key count. The Nektar Impact LX25+ features 25 synth-action keys and eight backlit drum pads. It also keeps the eight control knobs found on the larger model but cuts the faders to a single master fader.
It still has the DAW control buttons found on the larger model and uses the same integration software. Like that model, the Impact LX25+ also includes Bitwig 8-Track DAW software to get you started.
If you like the idea of the MPD218 but don’t need that many controls, you might like the Akai Professional LPD8. This slimmed-down MIDI controller features eight backlit, velocity-sensitive pads and eight MPC Q-Link knobs.
There isn’t much here in the way of software, but you do get editor software for Mac and PC. As for compatibility, this controller will work with GarageBand, Logic, Sonar, Cubase, Ableton Live, and Pro Tools, among others.
The Best MIDI Controller for You
While there are more MIDI controllers available than you’d ever be able to try for yourself, there’s something to be said for a controller that is just for you. If you’re looking for something specific or just love DIY projects, you could always make a MIDI controller of your own.
This isn’t as difficult as you may imagine. All you need is an Arduino, a couple of other materials, and a few hours. Once you’re ready to get started, we can walk you through how to build your own Arduino-powered MIDI controller.