The 13 best budget MIDI controller keyboards
20th Oct 2014 | 10:25
Why overpay to play?
While some choose to get by without one, for most people, a MIDI controller keyboard is an essential part of a computer music making setup.
Fortunately, buying one no longer needs to represent a substantial financial investment. In this round-up, we’ve picked out 13 models that are available for under £100/$150 if you shop around. Indeed, some of them can be yours for considerably less than this.
At this price, you’re not going to get hammer-action keys or the ultimate in control, but if you just want a keyboard that you can play and use to make the odd plug-in or DAW tweak, look no further.
Click on to find (in no particular order) everything from super-compact ‘boards to five-octave models that enable proper playing: there’s a budget MIDI controller keyboard out there for everyone.
Also bear in mind that M-Audio has just released the new version of the Oxygen 25, Akai has started shipping the mkII edition of the MPK Mini, and Alesis has its V series. All of these are available for less than £100/$150, though we haven't yet reviewed them.
M-Audio Keystation Mini 32
There are several 25-note mini-keyed controllers on the market, but the Keystation Mini 32’s extra seven notes make it that bit more playable.
You get a few assignable controls, too - a chunky knob and some buttons - and the whole thing is nicely styled.
The microKey began life as a 37-note product with mini keys, but is now a range that incorporates 25- and 61-note models as well (though the latter is slightly out of our ‘budget’ price range).
The fact that the keys are small means that this is never going to be player’s dream, but they’ve got a good ‘Natural Touch’ action and the two larger versions benefit from having proper pitch and mod wheels.
Acorn Instruments MasterKey
The MasterKeys - there are 25-, 49- and 61-note versions - look about as conventional as they possibly could do. They feature lightweight but playable keys, pitch/mod wheels, four securely-fitted knobs, a volume slider and a 3-digit LED display. Assignments and other adjustments are made via the Edit button and presses of the keys.
Affordable and functional, these keyboards are well worth a look.
James Bond’s Q is known for his super-hi-tech gadgetry, but Alesis’s range of the same name dispenses with flashiness to provide a solid, back-to-basics experience.
The focus here is very much on playing as opposed to tweaking, though the pitch and mod wheels are assignable. The key action is reassuringly smooth, and users of external MIDI gear will be cheered by the inclusion of a 5-pin MIDI Output.
Behringer U-Control UMA25S
Behringer is renowned for producing products that give you a lot for your money, and you can’t argue with the value offered by the UMA25S.
This striking 25-note device not only sports 21 assignable controllers, but it’s also an audio interface. It even comes with a gig bag, strap and headset mic, so you can strap the thing on and bust some moves while you’re using it on stage (though this is entirely optional).
Line 6 Mobile Keys 25
Like IK Multimedia’s iRig Keys, the Mobile Keys 25 can hook straight up to your iOS device without the need for any interface - very handy. What’s more, the keys are full-size, which will please those with chubby fingers.
Of course, the Mobile Keys can be used with your Mac or PC as well (there are USB and Mobile outputs) and there’s also a 49-note version. This, however, is just a little too pricey to be considered a ‘budget’ device.
IK Multimedia iRig Keys
Kicking off with a guitar recording interface, IK’s iRig range now includes just about every kind of iOS music making peripheral you can imagine. This is the controller keyboard.
Connecting directly to your iOS device, the 37 keys give you a reasonable amount of space to flex your creative muscles, though they are mini ones (a Pro version of the iRig Keys is also available should you want to go full size). It’ll work with your computer as well, and has a nice retro look going on.
Novation LaunchKey 25
The LaunchKey has three headline features that are intended to elevate it above the crowd: the introduction of Novation's popular Launchpad pads into the control surface; the new InControl auto-mapping system; and direct control of two purpose-built iPad apps.
At heart, though, it's a solid and dependable 25-note controller keyboard. The pots and sliders might feel slightly cheap, but taken as a whole, this is a very attractive package.
MiniLab is a 2-octave mini-key keyboard with no fewer than 16 dials and eight pads. Throw in four function buttons and two control strips (which substitute pitchbend and modulation wheels) and you quickly realise that it offers as many, if not more, control options than some keyboards that are twice the size.
The other part of the package is the Analog Lab software, which provides access to 5000 sounds accumulated from Arturia's flagship soft synths.
If you can live with the smaller keys, this is an excellent hybrid product that kills two birds with one stone.
SubZero SPC Mini Key and Pad MIDI Controller
The SPC has a slightly unusual design in that its 25 mini keys are raised above the level of the other controls (eight drum pads, four sliders, four rotaries and its control buttons). It almost looks like two controllers that have been stuck together.
If you can live with this quirk, this is a controller that offers an awful lot for the money. Assignments can be saved to the unit for fast recall, and for less than £50, you couldn't really ask for much more.
Looking sleek and slim, the Xkey's 2-octave keyboard is of the low-profile variety (a mere 16mm deep), yet still retains a decent amount of key travel, making it surprisingly playable. Perhaps the most notable feature, though, is polyphonic aftertouch, which means you can add an extra level of expression on a per-note basis (providing the instrument you're playing supports it).
On the downside, it's hard to use the pitchbend/modulation buttons with any degree of accuracy, but if you want a stylish, portable keyboard with full-size keys, this is a very attractive option.
Akai APC Key 25
As well as its 25 mini keys, the Ableton Live-friendly APC Key 25 also has a 5x8 grid of clip launching buttons, plus scene launch buttons and eight knobs. That's actually the same amount of clip control as you get with the APC40 mkII, though here we have fewer rotaries and no faders.
Compact enough to fit in a bag with a laptop, the APC Key 25 is a good choice for any Live user who wants an ultra-mobile performing and/or composing setup.
Novation LaunchKey Mini
The baby of Novation's LaunchKey family offers 25 mini keys, 16 velocity-sensitive pads (with three-colour RGB backlights), eight assignable knobs and seven function buttons. This is a healthy amount of input for such a small device.
Easy to set up with most major desktop DAWs, the LaunchKey Mini is also specifically designed to be iPad-friendly (providing you have a Camera Connection Kit). There's even a LaunchKey synth app that integrates tightly with the hardware. There's no pitch/mod control, but this is a good portable all-rounder.