Last Updated: January, 2017.
One of the questions by beginners is “what is the best MIDI controller for a beginner?” and “how to select the right beginner MIDI keyboard for making music” If you are just starting out, you may also want to know which software is appropriate to produce music with.
In those days when gear was extremely expensive, owning a mixer and turntables means you have to be committed if you want to become a DJ. If you are going to be spending so much on these equipment, you have to somehow commit yourself to the course.
Over the years, however, prices have tumbled. This is the period of software-based DJ technology and you can start making music with DJ controllers in no time. There are many software that will allow you to do that now.
Important Concepts to Know
One of the things you should consider while looking for beginner MIDI controller options is your budget. You have to first see if you like playing with them and how they respond to your touch. This is why it is often a great thing to try out things in a music shop and not rely totally on internet reviews when you are buying your item.
Another thing you want to consider is an old synth from the 90s. Compared to modern budget controller keyboard, you will be able to buy it cheaper. Moreover, they usually come with high quality keybeds and thus give you the ability to play with an old synth from the 90s. Though, if you are going to consider this option, you have to have the space and budget.
If these two are available, then there is no problem. The reason for this recommendation is that it is getting increasingly difficult to get good keybeds on most keyboards now. And it can be very difficult to get things like splits and aftertouch on a budget keyboard.
The disadvantages to this option is that they are often bulky and heavy, requires a separate MIDI interface to use with a computer and they are certainly going to need a power outlet. However, if what matters to you is to be able to play the device without a computer and get useful sound, then they are the best.
The MIDI Keyboard
The MIDI keyboard is a miniature controller with a piano roll. It is a beginner MIDI keyboard that is worth looking at if you are just starting out. There are many other keyboard types out there, however, this one is more suitable for a beginner. Most of the time, you will need to make MIDI notes on piano roll, this is why the MIDI keyboard is a good piece of equipment to start with. Also, it allows you to play melodies in your music.
The Sequence Pad
There are many sequence-styled controllers on the market, a great example is the Novation Launchpad. You can launch sound samples through this piece of software or use it to control Ableton Live. With a sequence pad, you can change volume, add effects, and other important things you want to do during music production.
There are no knobs and sliders on a sequence pad, so that you have limited controller over what you can do with it, unlike when you are using a MIDI controller. This is just an example of something you need to pay attention to while shopping for the best MIDI controller for beginners.
If you are new to music product, getting a multi-functional controller is a good step. This kind of tool will enable you to do all that you need to do all on one device. All-in-one devices can be bloated with too many features, however, they are one of the best you can invest in as a beginner.
A multi-function controller is a complete tool and will always be a good MIDI controller option for beginners because of the variety of functions, features and flexibility if offers. You can use faders, beat pads, keys, and many other features on it. This will make it easy for you to quickly learn all that you need to learn as a beginner.
Beginner Buying Tips
If you are just starting to learn how to play keyboard, your best bet is to go for a 49-key controller (4 octave). This will allow you to play with both hands. You may postpone buying a 25-key MIDI controller until you are more experienced.
However, if you are just looking at entering notes in a sequencer, then choosing the 25-key controller may be ideal at the initial stage. One of the best advice I can give you is that you should stay with companies that have been in this industry for decades and that knows how to make keyboards. This means you should be looking at brands like Yamaha, Novation, Fatar, Korg, Roland, and Akai.
These companies have been in the race for a very long time and they know what they are doing. M-Audio and other newer players in the industry are trying their best, but it’s much easier to stay with the best brands for your equipment when you are just dipping your toes in music production. Another very good place to look at is the used market and Craigslist is a great place to look.
Important Questions to Consider Before Buying a Keyboard
What’s your budget?
The very first thing you should consider before selecting a controller is how much you are willing to pay to buy one, especially if you are buying for the first time. There are many brands that offer basic and entry-level MIDI controllers for beginners without all the bells and whistles.
During my research into different MIDI controllers and keyboards, I have seen some of these items that cost less than $100 and some that are above that range. Therefore, your budget should determine your choice of MIDI controller.
What features do you need?
Although it all depends on your goal and aspiration, try to stay away from MIDI controllers that are full of assignable options like faders, pads, drum, etc. This is because they often cost more and often have longer learning curve, thus stifling your ability to learn fast. However, if all these features are pertinent to your work, there is no harm in getting a controller that comes with these features.
What software bundles do you need?
With newer versions of MIDI controllers coming out faster than ever, there are now several options of software bundles to choose from. Some of these items come with virtual instruments, plugins, and digital audio workstation.
If you are just starting out, you should look for a particular software to use and stick to it until you learn all the necessary details of making music with it. Ableton Live is a great software to start with if you are using a PC while the Logic Pro from Apple is the right one to start with if you are working from a Mac.
What is a MIDI Controller
A MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) allows you to play just one MIDI keyboard and trigger sounds from different samples and synthsizers. The MIDI controller was invented in the 1980s. Since then, it has become an industry standard musicians and performers for several decades. And today, it has become more useful than ever.
You can now play a MIDI controller and drive virtual instruments on your computer or iPad. You can now bring thousands of music to your doorstep with just a single MIDI controller and a Hard Drive full of samples.
Can you use a MIDI Controller in your Home Studio?
You can definitely use this in your home studio. Because of the variety of features on MIDI controllers, they can be very useful tool in your music creation arsenal. With a MIDI controller, you can monitor the performance of a single synthesizer and record MIDI data simultaneously.
In fact, you instantly switch to another sound when the current recording is done, thus be able to work faster and more efficiently. Most MIDI controllers work with DAW (Digital Audio Workstations) software that has sequencing tools that allow you to transpose, time-stretch, edit notes on a piano roll, and so on.
These tools can only be used when you have a MIDI keyboard controller and a USB cable to connect the keyboard to your computer. This connection enables you to record your performance.
How many keys do you need?
If you are okay with playing one-handed synth basses, you don’t need more than a 25-key MIDI controller. However, you need to buy either a 49-key, 61-key or 88-key midi controller if you are looking at a piano arrangement.
The most popular of these is the 49 key MIDI controllers. They have enough key that allows you to play with two hands while not taking too much desk space on your desk. Moreover, many compact MIDI controllers now exists that allows you to have access to the piano’s full 88-key range, thanks to the octave buttons that allows you to switch up and down.
What’s the difference between Weighted, Semi-Weighted, and Synth-Action Keys?
These terms all describe the action of the keys – the way to respond to your touch. The most similar to an acoustic piano is the Weighted keys. They are often more heavy and bulky and may require more force and finger independence to operate.
Synth-action keys offer less reaction and are often lighter than their Full-Weighted keys counterparts. They are mostly found on entry-level controllers and lightweight controllers. The Semi-weight keys on the other hand, often found on professional controller keyboards, fall in the middle as they are not too light or too heavy.
What Does Hammer action Mean?
There is a hammer mechanism that occurs on a typical acoustic piano. This is triggered by the press of a key where damper is lifted off the piano strings and a hammer is set to strike them. Hitting the keys harder makes the hammer hit harder at the strings, leading to a louder sound. Although there is no need for strings in a controller keyboard, the feature on a MIDI controller that manufacturers want to use to replicate that of the acoustic piano.
Not all keyboards come with the hammer action action feature though; it is only available in the higher end keyboards. Any keyboard with the hammer action feature mean that you have to press the keys harder when making lower notes and lighter when making higher notes.
What is escapement?
If you press a key on an acoustic piano slowly and lightly, you will discover that there is a resistance from the key. That resistance is brought about by the hammer that is hitting the strings. After hitting the strings, the hammer immediately retracts back to its original position and that is the point of sound – the retraction of the hammer to its position ready to strike again is the escape and what is referred to as escapement.
The escapement is what gives the acoustic piano its distinctive feel. Moreover, if you are used to playing piano, you will discover that a keyboard with this feature will feel the most natural to you than those that don’t have this feature.
What is after touch? And Do you need it?
After touch is what helps you add expression to your playing when you are playing organs, strings, synths, horns, or any other sound that you find interesting. If you are using a keyboard that has aftertouch features, you can trigger the aftertouch event by striking a key, hold down the notes, and apply more pressure.
If you are a classical pianist, aftertouch might not be very useful to you. However, if you are a synth player, you need it to control the nice expressive effects without having recourse to a modulation wheel or joystick. This feature is often only found in higher-end controllers. However, once you start using it, you will find it very addictive.
What are performance pads? Do you need them?
Performance pads are useful for laying down beats and launching loops. They are very useful for playing percussion sounds and they feel more natural to use than the keyboard keys when triggering drum samples. Some MIDI controllers come with bank of 8, 12, or 16, and you can purchase a standalone model if you want to buy a controller that does not have them.
The Best MIDI Controllers for Beginners
What are the best MIDI controllers for beginners? There are many options you can choose from. However, some are just better than others in helping you achieve your aim. Although some people recommend starting with 49-Key controllers, it is by no means the rule of thumb. There are 25-key MIDI controllers that are worth their salt.
As a result of this, I will include the best in each category – starting from 25-key controllers to 61-key controllers.
25-Key MIDI Controllers
Akai APC Key 25
The Akai APC Key 25 is a compact MIDI controller with a sleek design and a beautifully designed backlight. It does not need a power cable to use it and will not take up too much space on your desk. It has a great resistance when pushed and the faders are equally sturdy and well designed. Moreover, the faders on it are indented so that you can use it on-the-go.
The only drawback is that it only has a three color grip and the arrow keys can only be pushed by a single track, however, with time, custom scripts will be available to address this problem. With less than $100, you can add this great device to your list of items.
Acorn Instruments Masterkey 25
For its price, the Acorn Instruments Maskerkey is a nice entry level MIDI controller for musicians and performers. However, it does not lack in features that are useful to the beginner. You can easily pack it in your backpack and travel with your laptop, which makes it easy to practice the keyboard on the go. It is easy to setup and is on the cheaper side going for a less than $70.
The CME Xkey features keys that don’t pivot, which means there is less movement when you are operating it. This therefore translates into greater speed and efficiency for the busy player. Unlike other controllers, the feel of the black keys is not different from those of the white keys therefore making for a smooth feel like the Korg.
The CME XKey comes with polyphonic aftertouch. This allows you to hold down the key, apply pressure, and the key will respond to the changes in pressure leading to different effect for each key held independently.
Behringer U-Control UMA 25S
When you are looking to buy a new controller and you are bubbling with lots of requirements, it becomes difficult to settle on a controller that satisfies all your requirement. With the UMA 25S however, the case is very different.
It has low weight and footprint, comes with easily programmed presets and small keyboard with assignable functions. It can be controlled easily and quickly with minimal programming and most importantly, it is reasonably priced.
If you are looking for a medium sized MIDI controller to use yourself and use as a tool to teach the kids, this is it. The Alesis Q25 Keyboard Controller works out of the box, easy to setup and compact so that it is easy to move around the house.
Moreover, it is not too small, has a simple interface with only basic features that will not distract the kids. Not only would it fit the bill – it is a budget MIDI controller – it is also very efficient and has been receiving glowing reviews all over.
Novation LaunchKey 25
If you are looking for a decent MIDI controller in the $200 range with sturdy and durable construction, the Novation LaunchKey 25 is one of the best you can get on the market. Although the knobs and sliders are on the flimsy side, they are well made and sure endure abuse and lots of long term usage.
Just like the keys found on the MicroKORG XL, the Korg MicroKey offers 25-mini keys that are very playable. If you are looking for a nice keyboard that you can use on the road or during your leisure period and lay down some tracks on the laptop while you are resting, the Korg MicroKey is the right option.
49-Key MIDI Controllers
M-Audio Keystation 49
With the M-Audio Keystation 49 MIDI controller, you don’t need any software installation to get it started. It works out of the box. In fact, you can have your first music created in few minutes after setting up. If you are using a Mac or other Apple products with it, you will like this tool because it comes in gray and white color.
It is light, durable, and will sit well on your desk. And for the price, you are definitely getting a deal on the M-Audio Keystation 49.
Samson Carbon 49
The prominent thing about the Samson Carbon 49 is that the velocity sensitivity for note off and note on are fairly consistent. This means that you can enjoy consistent dynamics when transitioning from lowest to the highest velocity.
Some customers have actually complained that the keyboard feel is not something to write home about, which also makes faster fingering almost impossible. With these and other limitations, many users have found it very useful and affordable – as it is under $100.
Alesis V49 is a simple plug and play device that gives you all the functionality you need in a 49-key controller. It is fully weighted keys, lightweight, and compact. Although it is quite expensive, if you are not worried about the price, its is a nice tool.
This is not just another MIDI controller to fill your desk with. It has a solid build and design that it should fit your desk perfectly even if you are going to use it in front of your monitor. The keyboard is solid and it’s a quality product. However, if you are a piano fanatic, this product may not be for you because the performance of the velocity is not impressive.
61-Key MIDI Controllers
Samson Carbon 61
The Samson Carbon 61 is a simple MIDI controller that will help you control synthesizers and other outboard gear in your studio, and that it does effectively. It does not require any MIDI interface or cables, just plug it and plug it to your system with the USB cable which comes in with it and start working.
It has well set keybed and they are quiet during operation. You can easily assign functions to different software, thanks to its assignable knob and sliders.
M-Audio Keystation 61
The M-Audio Keystation 61 is an elite MIDI controller for performers, musicians, and pro piano players. It comes with VSTi piano instrument, Ableton Live, and Eight Eight Ensemble so that you can start playing some sounds immediately after unboxing.
While the setup is smooth, some users have found that the keybed is not arranged in the proper manner to encourage proper technique. To enjoy this unit, you have to make lots of hand adjustments. However, if you are looking for a complete package, this M-Audio model will not disappoint.
Novation Launchkey 61
The strongest point of the Novation Launchkey 61 is its auto-mapping feature. It helps make your work flow smooth. It is solidly built, easy to setup, and works well with Ableton Live 9 and above. Not only is the keyboard lightweight, the knobs also feel nice and tight.
If you are a constant traveler, you will like this MIDI controller because it is svelte and easy to use. The keyboard is not the greatest when it comes to feel, but it makes up for that with good resistance from the knobs. The faders are equally designed well, although if you are looking for an MPC feel, you may be disappointed.
If you are looking for instruments for DJing, you may want to look at something like turntables or other DJ controllers. Since you are going to make music before presenting it to your audience, it makes sense to take care of this first.
With the help of this article, you should be able to get nice MIDI controllers that are easy to operate, versatile, small and lightweight. And most importantly, they are cheap. In fact, if you are a complete novice, you should not ignore this aspect if you really want to buy the best MIDI controller.