However earlier than we get to the nitty-gritty, let’s be clear about what we’re taking a look at right here. For one, we’re solely contemplating keyboard-style controllers. Whereas pads are a bonus, we’ll be ignoring pad-only controllers just like the Novation Launchpad. (They seem to be a completely different beast.) We’re additionally centered on USB-MIDI controllers. My reasoning: I assume most of you might be working with a pc to some extent anyway, particularly whereas touring. So whereas having different connections is sweet, it is not important. However not having USB is a dealbreaker.
Should you’ve watched any synth movies on YouTube, you have almost certainly seen an Arturia KeyStep. We sang its praises right here on Engadget. Its keyboard feels worthy of a tool two or 3 times the worth. Plus it has a built-in arpeggiator, a sequencer and extra connectivity choices than you may presumably think about. Mainly, if there is a piece of substances on the market, the KeyStep can in all probability management it with out the necessity for a intermediary. It is moderately priced too, at solely $129.
However the KeyStep has a significant downside: It weighs a ton. All proper, it solely weighs three kilos, however that is nonetheless lots, comparatively talking. The one different keyboard I thought of together with that weighs extra is the a lot cherished Arturia MiniLab, which is available in at three.three kilos. However frankly, it is not practically small or gentle sufficient to hold round comfortably. The KeyStep can also be the longest controller I checked out. At 19 inches it is fairly onerous to stuff into most backpacks. Until you completely want the CV and MIDI ports and do not plan to tug it with you usually, you are in all probability higher off taking a look at Arturia’s latest providing, the MicroLab.
Purchase KeyStep on Amazon – $129
The MicroLab has the identical keybed because the KeyStep and MiniLab — which is to say, by far my favourite keybed of the bunch. It additionally weighs lower than two kilos, and whereas it is bigger than a number of the competitors at about 16.5 inches lengthy, it nonetheless suits in most luggage meant for 15-inch laptops. However what makes the MicroLab particular is the considerate design. There is a skinny rubber case round the entire thing that ought to assist shield it towards gentle bumps. It additionally doubles as a holster for the cable, which wraps securely across the keyboard so it is not floating round your bag. Oh, and that twine sits flush with the facet of the controller, so you do not have to fret about it getting in the best way of your different gear.
The MicroLab is fairly naked bones although. There is no maintain pedal enter, no arpeggiator, no knobs, no pads or transport controls, and solely USB for connectivity. But it surely’s the most cost effective keyboard on this checklist at $89, and it comes with a top-notch software program bundle, together with Arturia’s Analog Lab Lite and Bitwig Studio Eight-Observe. Should you simply need to have the ability to play the keys wherever you go and do not want a ton of bells and whistles, the MicroLab might be your finest wager.
Purchase MicroLab on Amazon – $89
Native Devices Komplete Kontrol M32
Native Devices’ (NI) controllers are the one ones which are even in the identical league as Arturia’s on the subject of the standard of the keybed. Earlier this yr the corporate launched its most transportable mannequin but, the Komplete Kontrol M32. It is the costliest of the lot at $139, however it’s additionally essentially the most solidly constructed (save for the KeyStep). It looks like one thing that belongs in an expert studio. The buttons have a satisfying click on, and the eight touch-sensitive knobs are by far the most effective on any controller on this roundup. And the navigation encoder is satisfyingly clicky. In case your major concern is the standard of the keyboard however the MicroLab is simply too minimal for you, the M32 is price contemplating.
Nevertheless, there are some drawbacks. For one, just like the KeyStep, it is barely transportable. At 18.7 inches lengthy and a pair of.three kilos it is among the many bigger and heavier controllers I thought of. It merely would not slot in my backpack, which is designed to carry a 15.6-inch laptop computer. It additionally gave me essentially the most bother throughout setup. In reality, it did not work with my Home windows 10 PC out of the field and required a firmware replace. Getting the transport controls to work with Ableton additionally took fairly a little bit of troubleshooting. But it surely does combine seamlessly with NI’s wonderful Komplete Kontrol software program. In reality, mainly all of Native Instrument’s software program is fairly nice. Large, Kontakt and Reactor are trade requirements, utilized by numerous professionals. So in order for you a controller constructed with these instruments in thoughts, M32 is your finest wager.
Purchase Komplete Kontrol M32 on Amazon – $139
Akai MPK Mini MkII
The one factor the M32 lacks, although, are pads. If these are essential for you, the Akai MPK Mini MkII must be close to the highest of your quick checklist. It has been my controller of alternative for the previous a number of years because of its best-in-class pads, built-in arpeggiator and an honest collection of controls. It has eight knobs and eight pads (the latter of that are mainly ripped straight from the corporate’s beloved MPC sequence), a maintain pedal port, observe repeat and a devoted, customizable MIDI CC mapping mode for the pads. That final half helps make up for the truth that there are not any transport controls to be discovered on the MPK.
The joystick can also be a singular and enjoyable solution to management pitch bends and modulation results. It is not fairly as dependable as devoted pitch and mod wheels, however it’s nonetheless enjoyable to make use of. The largest downside to the MPK, although, is construct high quality. Whereas the pads are second to none, the keybed and knobs are flimsy feeling and unsatisfying. They get the job finished, however you are by no means going to mistake it for a premium piece of music-making gear.
One fast observe: Don’t confuse the MPK Mini MkII with the MPK Mini Play. The Play has a speaker and built-in sounds and may be powered by AA batteries. You would possibly suppose this appears like a transparent winner. However in actuality it appears like a busted Tremendous Nintendo (and I do not imply that in a enjoyable chiptune means). Nearly all of the “devices” within the Mini Play are ineffective, and it sacrifices 4 management knobs so as to add an interface for looking them. Skip it.
Purchase MPK Mini mkII on Amazon – $119
Novation Launchkey Mini Mk3
If you’d like all of the controls that the M32 and MPK Mini provide and higher DAW integration, take into account the Launchkey Mini Mk3 from Novation. Frankly, that is in all probability the controller I will be carrying round most frequently any more. However that is virtually solely down to at least one factor: its seamless integration with my DAW of alternative, Ableton Reside. Along with having the ability to set off scenes and clips, there are useful shortcuts for controlling most of Reside’s interface proper from the Launchkey. The entrance panel has eight knobs, 16 pads and a strong collection of transport controls. Plus you get an honest software program bundle. It even has a TRS-MIDI jack, in case you wish to use it to manage synths. (That stated, you would possibly want a five-pin MIDI adapter to connect with older gear.)
The Launchkey has additionally stolen the arpeggiator crown from the MPK Mini. It gives a number of superior controls that help you manipulate the rhythm and gate, plus distinctive options known as “mutate” and “deviate” that introduce managed bursts of randomization to tweak your sample.
However as I warned on the high of this story, there isn’t any good controller. The Launchkey feels barely extra sturdy than the MPK, however not a lot. Its keyboard is the least satisfying to play. And whereas its knobs have a satisfying quantity of resistance, they’re awkwardly small. Plus, the pads listed below are significantly better suited to triggering clips in Ableton than finger drumming.
Purchase Launchkey Mini on Amazon – $110