Ever seen a professional studio setup and wondered why someone with no music experience uses a keyboard? Don’t worry. This article will explain what MIDI keyboard controllers do, and why you need at least one of the best cheap MIDI controllers to make expressive music in a home studio.
6 Best Cheap MIDI Keyboard Controllers
Table of Contents
- 6 Best Cheap MIDI Keyboard Controllers
- Understanding the Number of Keys
- Drum Pads – Do You Need Them?
- How Many Features Do You Need?
- Compatibility Issues
- Key Action
- Why MIDI Keyboard Controllers and Not Other Alternatives?
The Akai MKII is one of the smallest and cheapest MIDI keyboards on the market. It has just 25 keys but also octave control that allows a greater melodic range.
I like that the keys have some velocity sensitivity. I also like the inclusion of eight drum pads and eight Q-link knobs. The knobs are adjustable so you can assign them to whatever instrument, action, or pattern you want.
MIDI, modulation, and pitch control are done via a four-way thumbstick. This controller is easy to use and allows you to be as creative as you want. The device’s built-in arpeggiator is also very cool as it will, among other things, allow you to switch between modes.
The drum pads are backlit and therefore more intuitive to use. The MKII comes with 1,400 sounds as well as production software which includes the Akai Pro MPC Essentials, Hybrid 3, and SONiVOX Wobble. Use it with any DAW you want and start making music right away.
2. Alesis V49
Although the Alexis V49 has a 49-key keyboard, it’s not as big as you think. It follows a beginner-friendly design and only features an additional four knobs, six buttons, eight backlit drum pads, and two modulation wheels for pitch and octave control.
The controller interface is positioned on the left side while the keyboard keys extend all the way to the far right. It’s a basic and intuitive setup, which should allow you to create beats much easier.
I like that everything has some backlighting, with the exception of the actual keyboard. The velocity sensitive keys are very responsive and work well in any DAW. This controller comes with Ableton Live Lite 9, DB 33, as well as the Xpand 2 software.
These aren’t the latest in terms of music production but it’s premium software nonetheless. Software that will boost the capabilities of the V9 and help you expand your creativity. Both the knobs and four of the buttons are also assignable, which should make using different DAWs much easier.
3. Akai LPK25
One of the smallest controllers, the Akai LKK25, is something you can use on both Mac and PC, and most importantly – on the road. This is a slim keyboard controller with velocity sensitive keys.
I like that you can get this in a wired as well as wireless model. The 25 keys offer a decent melodic range, once you factor in the octave shift buttons. In addition, the sustain button adds more expressiveness.
The device is Plug ’n’ Play ready and should work equally well with many DAWs such as Cubase, Ableton Live, ProTools, FruityLopps, and more.
Although this isn’t the most versatile in terms of sound creation and customization, I think it’s one of the best cheap keyboard controllers for beginners. It will allow you to play chords, bass lines, and many more instruments, and won’t intimidate you with a complex user interface.
25 keys and six buttons are all you get. The rest you’ll do from your DAW of choice. It doesn’t get easier than that.
One of the best cheap MIDI controllers is the Nektar Impact GX61. Granted, this is a big device that features 61 keys, but it’s still a good beginner model. That’s because apart from the keys, it doesn’t have too many other buttons to worry about.
Two modulation wheels are featured on the left side of the controller with eight other buttons on top. The interface itself is very simple and the single navigation knob makes things easy, especially if you don’t know your way around a keyboard controller.
However, pricing and intuitive interface aside, the GX61 is lacking some features. The most notable absence is that of drum pads. You’ll have to map your keys to create beats in your audio production software.
While this isn’t a make or break feature at this price range, some people will definitely feel the absence of pads more than others. That said, if you’re making the transition from a digital piano to a MIDI keyboard controller, you’ll feel more at home with the GX61.
The Oxygen 49 IV is a budget to midrange-priced USB/MIDI keyboard controller. It boasts a standard eight-pad configuration, nine faders, assignable knobs, and a large enough keyboard interface with 49 keys.
It has dedicated octave shift buttons for quick adjustments and improvements to the melodic range. It also features a smart automatic mapping algorithm that configures the device for popular DAWs such as Ableton, Cubase, Logic, and others.
A value production software package is also included, which is always nice. The on-board screen is small and doesn’t give very detailed readouts. This can be a bad thing when you’re working on complex stuff, but it can also make the controller less distracting.
All in all, this is a complete music production controller, with all the basic features and then some.
Another cheap MIDI keyboard with a somewhat beginner-friendly interface comes courtesy of Novation. The Launchkey MK2 controller has a more complex interface, but one that’s intuitive. I like the use of the 16 RGB drum pads, even though they’re considerably smaller than what you would expect.
These drum pads require some precision but will also allow you to transition to more complex music, once you get the hang of things. The 49-key keyboard interface offers a solid melodic range right off the bat. Plus, it doesn’t require much octave changing.
You’ll also notice dedicated buttons for control, navigation, as well as customizable knobs. Software is also included, such as the XLN Audio Addictive Keys and the Ableton Live Lite. Both solid plugins for beginner music producers and designers.
You should also know that this controller comes with nine sliders, a LED display, as well as controls for modulation and pitch. It offers all the essentials to take control of your DAW, while also offering plenty of versatility for a beginner controller.
Understanding the Number of Keys
The 25-key controllers are the most basic ones you can find. They can still offer a decent melodic range if your controller has octave shifting capabilities. But I usually recommend these only when portability is most important, or when you really can’t afford something bigger.
The 49-key model is perhaps the most popular. You can play with both hands, it’s not too big that it won’t fit on a regular desk, and the key responsiveness tends to be better.
The 61-key controllers can be beginner-friendly too, but they’re equally suitable for professional musicians. They make it much easier to play two-hand arrangements without keeping an eye on the octave button
There are of course 88-key models too. Some that will focus more on the piano part of the controller, and others that are also loaded with knobs, sliders, pads, and other features. But I would hardly recommend them to beginners because of the higher cost and complex and distracting interfaces.
Drum Pads – Do You Need Them?
Drum pads aren’t essential for music production. On many controllers, the absence of drum pads means that you can map some of your keys as drum pads and create your beats that way.
Is this an ideal setup? Not exactly. I wouldn’t call it professional but it can be somewhat beginner-friendly if you ask me. That’s because having fewer buttons to be aware of will allow you to understand how to use a MIDI controller a lot faster.
When you do get a controller with drum pads, here are some important aspects to keep in mind. First of all, the sensitivity has to be on point. If not, you’ll have to do plenty of editing to adjust the velocity. And this can take up plenty of time.
Another thing that can help a lot is RGB lighting. RGB lighting allows you to create RGB beats and sync certain lights with certain notes or patterns. This will greatly improve your productivity when you’re using a compatible, well-optimized DAW.
How Many Features Do You Need?
Ultimately, it depends on your style. At first, you may be tempted to work with your software and your controller equally. However, if your goal is to gradually progress to the point where you won’t be using your mouse and will rely mostly on your controller, then those extra bells and whistles will be important.
The more the controller has the less need you’ll have to make changes in your DAW, use your laptop’s keyboard, and so on.
This is one area where I already tried to help by offering you some well-established controllers to get you started. The market is saturated with USB/MIDI controllers. But, manufacturers sometimes exaggerate the compatibility of their devices with all DAW software in existence.
Even some of the models I picked may require additional tinkering on your part for optimized mapping and saving profiles. But that’s a risk you’ll have to accept when taking the budget-friendly route.
As controllers get more expensive their mapping algorithms get better too.
The key action is less important on a MIDI keyboard controller as opposed to on a digital piano. Keyboard controllers focus more on controlling your day, splicing music, creating beats, and less on piano compositions.
Therefore, the key action isn’t as important in terms of whether it’s weighted, semi-weighted, and so on. However, it’s important to have at least some velocity sensitivity. This will allow you to give some nuance to your notes and beats without having to manually adjust everything via your software.
Why MIDI Keyboard Controllers and Not Other Alternatives?
This is self-explanatory. While there are options such as dedicated drum pads, custom controllers, and many more, a keyboard controller is, in my opinion, the most complete option you have.
It doesn’t just let you create and launch beats, splice music, manipulate virtual instruments, and so on. It allows you to compose one-hand or two-hand arrangements directly, without having to go heavy with controllers and instruments on your workbench.
Simply put, it offers the best of both worlds. In the hands of a skilled producer, it can be the difference between making expressive music and bland songs. Once you know what you’re doing, you’ll find out that you don’t need massive controllers to do a professional job and create catchy tunes.
Get the Most Out of Your Own Creativity and DAW with the Best Controller
Never settle for average quality if you don’t have to. Even a capable budget MIDI keyboard can help expand your horizon creatively. What’s more, I don’t think I have to remind you how much a controller can enhance and speed up your productivity.
Whether you’re a beginner or already an established producer, having a controller in your home studio is just as important. Use the tips in this article to find the right fit for your creative style and favorite audio production software.