5 Best Beginner MIDI (Compact) Keyboards
Updated: Aug 14, 2020
For those of you who are interested in digital music production and would like to dip your toes into the world of creating music with your laptop, mobile phone or iPad, having a portable and affordable MIDI keyboard controller that you can throw in your bag and carry along anywhere is a great option. These days, prices of MIDI keyboards have dropped significantly with a few controllers going for under $100 USD and some even under $50 USD. However, these cheaper keyboards make up for the cost by compromising on the build quality and features available. This defeats the purpose of buying a MIDI controller in the first place.
In this article, I will be going through my list of 5 Best Beginner Portable MIDI Keyboards that are around the $100 USD price range. Prices for these controller keyboards vary from time to time, so do check out the links provided in this article for the latest prices.
MIDI Keyboard #1
The original Akai MPK mini was very popular with mobile music makers and many home desktop producers. After five years of user feedback, the new MPK Mini MKII carries on that popularity. It is ultra-compact, lightweight and travel friendly with 25 velocity sensitive synth action mini keys. In addition, the octave “up” and “down” buttons found on the MPK Mini MKII allows you to widen the keyboard range beyond the 25 notes. It also comes with a 4-way joystick (known as the thumb stick) that you can use to control the pitch bend and modulation. I would have preferred a separate individual wheel for pitch and modulation, but it still does the work, and it might not a deal breaker for most people. The MPK Mini MKII does come with 8 smooth, solid knobs for mixing and controlling your plug-in parameters, and 8 large backlit pads for playing drum beats. These pads can be expanded with an additional bank for another 8 pads, totalling up to 16 pads. There is also a handy "note repeat" button that is great for re-triggering beats if you need to. Moreover, there is an onboard arpeggiator with adjustable resolution range coupled with different modes, making it easy for you to create intricate melodic lines with your virtual instruments. You can also store and recall your presets with their 4 memory banks available. On the rear, you do get the usual sustain pedal input port, a USB port that allows you to charge, connect to your computer and you do not need additional power supply. It also requires no drivers for basic functionality.
However, you may want to note that the MPK Mini MKII have been known to have many complaints of their keys breaking off, but I personally have yet to experience this problem. Its key action isn’t outstanding as well, but it gets the job done. Furthermore, the software bundled with the Akai MPK Mini MKII is underwhelming as you do not get any DAW software such as Ableton Live or Cubase Elements to get you started. You would have to spend extra to purchase their software. Therefore, for music production with the Akai MPK Mini MKII, you will need your own DAW such as GarageBand or FL studios for any serious music work. However, Akai does throw in the AKAI VIP 3.1 software with the MIDI purchase which is great for layering and organising plug-ins for live playing. You get a handful of synth plug-ins which are really nothing to go crazy over, but it does get you started. The software installation process can also be daunting for someone who is less tech savvy.
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MIDI Keyboard #2
The second MIDI keyboard controller in my list is the recently released Novation LaunchKey Mini MKIII which aims to dethrone the Akai MPK Mini MKII. The previous generation Launchkey Mini lacked quite a number of critical features, but the Launchkey Mini MKIII has literally taken many of the shortcomings of the previous gen LaunchKey Mini, as well as that of the Akai MPK Mini, and improved on it. Similar to the Akai MPK Mini MKII, the 25 touch-sensitive keyed LaunchKey Mini MKIII is ultra-compact (3CM height) and thus, is super portable to bring around. The chassis feels solid and the 8 programmable and smooth rotary knobs are also well-spaced. There are also the octave "up" and "down" buttons, pitch and modulation strips on the left side of the keyboard, and their transport controls are conveniently located on the right side. The onboard arpeggiator is as well features as that of the Akai MPK Mini MKII and it comes with varying resolutions patterns and a multi-octave mode just like the Arturia MiniLab MKII which I will be discussing later on. The Novation’s Launchkey Mini MKIII also has a fixed chord mode and this allows you to preset a chord into a button and trigger massive chords with just a single finger note press. It also boasts of many great features that are way more valuable compared to other MIDIs at this price range. Firstly, it was designed with quite a number of Ableton Live (one of the most popular DAW for producers and live musicians) features such as the ability to perform device macro control, track select, record capture MIDI, clip and scene launch, stop/mute/solo, volume pan and send right out of the box. Novation also throws in Ableton Live lite and exclusive expressive strings library from Spitfire Labs, a tape deck emulator, as well as a delay reverb hybrid plug-in. You also get choose one of the four excellent piano and electric piano plugins from the addictive keys collection. Although it is designed for Ableton Live Lite users, scripts for Logic and Reason are available too. You can also use the controller with other DAW such as Pro Tools, Reba and Studio One via HUI protocols. On the back of the LaunchKey Mini, you get a sustain pedal input port, a Kensington security slot as well as a MIDI output for controlling external hardware. This is a feature that is rare in an ultra-portable MIDI keyboard, even more so at this price point.
However the keys on the LaunchKey Mini MKIII does feel a little lacking in response, feel pretty cheap and sounds quite noisy. Nonetheless, at this price point, the entire controller is considered to be very well-made. The RGB backlit velocity sensitive pads are also irritatingly bright and although it gives an assured response, they are a little bit too small. However, that is the sacrifice for a small form factor controller while squeezing in 16 pads.
To sum up this controller,
MIDI Keyboard #3
Launched in 2016, the Arturia MiniLab MKII is one of the most premium and outstanding build quality despite its age. The 25 better-built and touch-sensitive keys on the MIDI are larger than those found on the Akai and Novation and thus, it results in the MiniLab being about 30% larger which would be preferred by most keyboard and piano players. On the left side of the keyboard, you get 2 ribbon strips for modulation and pitch bend as well as 2 buttons for octave “up” and “down”. You also get the usual USB port and a sustain pedal input port on the rear of the controller. In addition, the biggest reason why anyone buys an Arturia is the bundled software that comes with the controller. You get the Ableton Live via their Ableton Live mode (although not as tightly integrated compared to the LaunchKey Mini MKIII), the Ableton Live lite starter DAW, and the full $49 USD version of the UVI grand piano model D which is a plug-in of the classic Steinway model D. These samples also have a very detailed, rich and evocative tone. Furthermore, The MiniLab’s hardware is also very tightly integrated with Arturia’s Analog lab software which contains 21 sound engines, and 550 presets. You can also browse various sounds, move between the categories, and adjust different parameters and bangs, just from the MiniLab controller alone, without ever having to touch your mouse or your laptop.
However, the plastic use on the fascia feels much thicker and rugged, and the baseplate is made from metal. This results in a heavier package and it's a little less travel friendly than the Novation and Akai. In addition, even though the MiniLab has a larger chassis, it only has 8 touch-sensitive RGB backlit pads instead of the 16 found on the Novation LaunchKey Mini. But, you do get to switch bangs and can control up to 16 pads for clips or drum sounds. There are also 16 rotary, endless knobs which I find better than those with a defined start and stop points like those on the Novation LaunchKey Mini MKIII. But, the knobs the speed of these knobs do lose out to those on the Novation, meaning you will need more knob-turn travel in order to modulate your parameters fast enough.
To sum up this controller,
MIDI Keyboard #4
The Native Instruments M32 shines not just by the hardware alone, but when it combines with Native Instruments' software. The buttons found on the M32 is largely catered to Native Instruments' Complete Control software. For example, you can use the large encoder knob to find, load and hear sounds and presets and once a sound is loaded, the eight rotary knobs have been pre-mapped to allow you to quickly modify the sound parameters on the software. The controller also comes with the Complete Control echo system with the complete NNKS instrument and effects, the Ableton Live 10 Lite, Logic, GarageBand, Cubase, NUENDO, Studio One, more than 6000 sounds from 10 gigabyte of samples, synth engines such as Monarch and Reaktor Prism, Scarbee, Kontact Play and Factory selections and machine essentials which makes it easy for beginners to produce music. More than the impressive benefits that comes with purchasing the controller, the M32 hardware itself boasts of 32 touch-sensitive mini keys which has 7 additional keys compared to the other controllers. These 7 keys, although adding length to the controller, are very helpful for those who are keyboard or piano players. As the width of the controller is the same as the rest, it still makes it a portable controller. They also feel similar to those found on the higher priced A-series by Native Instruments. The key response and key travel are better than those of the Akai MPK Mini and Novation LaunchKey Mini, and are not too noisy as well. It also boasts of the octave "up" and "down" buttons and the usual transport controls for your DAW. The M32 also has 100 skills and chord modes thats allows beginners to play complex chord progressions with a single press of a key. You also get the usual sustain pedal input port as well as a USB port for connecting to your computer. Even though the M32 is designed for portability, I have absolutely no issue using it in a studio desktop setup as well.
The biggest drawback of the M32 is that there are no touch pads. Every controller in this price range has between 8 to 16 pads, but the M32, being the most expensive one, has none. There is definitely space on the controller for 8 touch pads, but it seems like Native Instruments doesn't want to cannibalise their machine product line.You also get only touch strips for the modulation and pitch bend as they want to reduce weight, cost and size, but I personally would have preferred wheels for modulation and pitch bend. In addition, my left pinky often ends up hitting the modulation strips and considering that they are extremely responsive, it kind of affects my playing experience.
To sum up this controller,
MIDI Keyboard #5
The Nektar Impact LX25+ boasts of 25 full-sized, touch-sensitive synth action keys, 2 full-sized pitch bend and modulation wheel, the octave "up" and "down" buttons, 8 well-spaced rotary knobs, and 6 nice, solid and large transport controls. It also has 8 velocity sensitive touch pads which although smaller, but have better playability than those on the Akai MPK Mini MKII. Despite its bigger size, the Nektar Impact LX25+ is still pretty lightweight at just 4 pounds. The keys also makes it more comfortable to play with and reduce chances of making mistakes when playing. You can also do everything like play, pause, record, cycle, fast forward and rewind in your DAW without taking your hands off the controller. You also get the usual class compliant USB port and an assignable pedal input. The Nektar Impact LX25+ ships with bitwig eight track DAW software containing about 50 different instruments and it also has maps for Cubase, FL studios, GarageBand Logic, Reaper, Reason and Studio One.
However, some things to keep in mind is that the Nektar Impact LX25+ is the biggest MIDI keyboard controller and easily twice the size of the Akai MPK Mini, and the Arturia MiniLab. If you have limited desk space and will only occasionally bring out your MIDI controller, this can be a better choice for you. Moreover, if you use or prefer Ableton Live or Pro Tools, this controller isn't really the best for you as it has limited integrated options right out of the box for this to DAWs. Other than bitwig eight tracks, you don't really get much else. In this case, you are buying this controller more for the hardware capabilities, rather than any bundled software.
To sum up this controller,
All these MIDI controllers are pretty impressive, but they are still inherently different in terms of objectives and capabilities. I hope that this article has provided you with certain insights as to which MIDI Keyboard is the most suitable for you. Do note that the prices on this website are subject to changes and if you would like to check out the latest prices and information, do click on the links provided in the article.
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