Why you need to belief us
I’ve 20 years of expertise reviewing AV merchandise, and at the moment I’m a contributing technical editor at Sound & Imaginative and prescient journal and a daily contributor to the SoundStage community of internet sites. I am additionally a drummer and electronic-music maker, so I’ve in depth familiarity with the instruments of the commerce, together with recording interfaces, MIDI controllers, and different gear for desktop studio environments.
For assist with the testing section for this information, I enlisted Denis Kitchen, a software program developer and musician with expertise performing and recording with synthesizers and MIDI controllers courting again to the 1980s. As a keyboard participant who commonly makes use of MIDI controllers as a part of his dwell efficiency rig, Kitchen introduced a useful hands-on perspective to the analysis.
Who should purchase a keyboard MIDI controller
Amateurs who wish to create their very own digital, rap, and dance music tracks on a pc will profit from a keyboard MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controller. Making music utilizing MIDI is simple. Apart from the controller, all it’s essential get began is a DAW (digital audio workstation) software program utility equivalent to Ableton Reside, Apple GarageBand, or Picture Line’s FL Studio. The controller sends instructions to the pc over a USB connection. These instructions then management numerous features of digital musical devices that run as plug-ins throughout the DAW software program, enjoying a piano notice mushy or loud, for instance, or triggering a drum beat.
Whereas accessible keyboard MIDI controller choices embrace 88-key fashions that cowl the identical octave vary as a full-size piano, most music makers choose working with compact, 25-key fashions that may match on a desktop. These sometimes embrace pads to faucet out beats, together with a set of rotary knobs to manage issues like quantity and pitch. Whereas 25-key fashions cowl solely a two-octave vary, they embrace controls to “shift” the notice vary to hit larger and decrease octaves. Not solely are they desktop-friendly, however most are additionally sufficiently small so that you can stow them in a backpack for straightforward transport.
Together with offering a compact, moveable choice for music creation, 25-key controllers are surprisingly reasonably priced. Many fashions can be found for $100 or much less, with $150 representing the high-end choice. In addition they sometimes come bundled with free software program, the worth of which might simply exceed that of the controller itself. Most controllers embrace a complimentary license for a Lite model of Ableton Reside, a preferred DAW that gives a loop-based platform for music composition. Many controllers additionally include free software program instrument plug-ins that present authentic-sounding emulations of every part from acoustic grand pianos to classic analog synthesizers.
It is tough to debate MIDI controllers and music-production software program with out spouting off technical jargon. Here is an inventory of widespread phrases that you will come throughout when studying in regards to the class.
MIDI: Musical Instrument Digital Interface is a connection and communication commonplace that allows computer systems, keyboards, and drum pads to convey details about notice loudness, pitch, and period backwards and forwards. DAW: A digital audio workstation is a bit of music-production software program for recording, modifying, and mixing audio and MIDI tracks. Digital instrument: Digital reproductions of musical devices, digital devices can vary from traditional analog synthesizers and drum machines to soundalikes of acoustic devices equivalent to piano, violin, and drums. A digital instrument can run as a stand-alone program or as a plug-in on a digital audio workstation utility. Synth-action: Sometimes utilized in synthesizer and a few MIDI controller keyboards, synth-action keys are spring-loaded to offer a lighter really feel than the weighted motion in piano keyboards. Whereas synth-action keys can serve to provide an acoustic piano sound, they’re optimized for taking part in different digital devices equivalent to synthesizers. Velocity: In MIDI, velocity determines the general loudness of a notice or beat. The MIDI velocity vary sometimes covers 127 steps, with the worth similar to the pressure with which you strike a key or pad. Rotary knob: You utilize this management on a MIDI keyboard to regulate parameters equivalent to loudness, or to “form” features of sounds on software program synthesizers by altering components equivalent to filters, oscillators, and the assault and maintain of notes. Rotary knobs may be both mounted, with a restricted vary of motion (like an ordinary quantity management with a zero to 10 vary), or infinite, with a management vary that varies relying on the software program. Pitch-bend wheel: With this management, you differ the pitch and period of the notes you play on a keyboard. Modulation wheel: This management varies the tone, vibrato, and different results of notes you play on a keyboard. Arpeggiator: Discovered on MIDI keyboards or synthesizers, an arpeggiator triggers a repeating sample of notes from a single notice or chord. Arpeggiators present a approach to create complex-sounding basslines and melodies by enjoying just a few notes. They sometimes additionally embrace controls to differ the velocity, sample, and octave vary of the notes performed. Automapping: This characteristic of MIDI controllers lets you affiliate, or “map,” the software program controls in DAWs equivalent to Ableton Reside, Apple GarageBand, or FL Studio to corresponding buttons, pads, and knobs on the MIDI controller. This allows you to, for instance, mute audio tracks by urgent a button or pad on the controller, or alter their stage utilizing a slider or rotary knob.
How we picked
To decide on the keyboard MIDI controllers that I’d name in to check, I first learn proprietor critiques on websites together with Amazon, Sweetwater, and Musician’s Good friend. I additionally scoured skilled critiques from magazines, web sites, and YouTube channels that specialised in protecting MIDI and digital music manufacturing. To pare the class down additional, I homed in on the next options:
25 synth-action keys A number of pads for drumming and triggering samples A number of rotary knobs for on-the-fly adjustment of software program instrument parameters Pitch-bend and modulation controls Buttons to manage DAW-software playback Preset configurations to manage in style DAW software program High quality of bundled software program
After making the choice to restrict our testing to controllers priced underneath $150, we settled on six fashions primarily based on the above checklist of most popular options: the Akai MPK Mini MkII, Alesis V25, Arturia MiniLab MkII, M-Audio Oxygen 25 MKIV, Nektar Affect LX25+, and Novation Launchkey Mini 25 MK2. The price for the controllers we examined at the moment ranges from $90 to $120—a discount when you think about each the performance and the free bundled software program that a few of the fashions present.
How we examined
To check the MIDI controllers, I used Ableton Reside 9 Lite working on a MacBook Professional. I additionally downloaded the software program instrument plug-ins included with every mannequin to get a way of their usefulness and worth. A free Lite model of Reside, a preferred loop-based DAW geared for dwell efficiency, comes commonplace with every of the controllers besides the Nektar Affect LX25+. (Nektar features a limited-track model of its personal DAW, Bitwig Studio, with that mannequin.) For that cause—and likewise as a result of I like utilizing Reside—it appeared a pure selection for the check, although I additionally used Apple GarageBand with the Nektar controller to check out its automapping characteristic.
Dividing up the testing gig—Denis Kitchen on the keyboards, me on the drum pads and basic controller options—we evaluated every mannequin by enjoying and recording music clips and banging out beats. As well as, Kitchen introduced a laptop computer working MainStage three, a live-performance companion module for Apple’s Logic Professional X, in order that he may check every controller’s capabilities utilizing that software program’s assortment of analog synthesizer patches.
The keyboard qualities that we examined for included playability, a parameter that took into consideration the burden and springiness of the keys when touched in addition to how straightforward it was to enter a melody to the recording software program. This was a specific concern for the ultracompact fashions with mini keys, a gaggle that included the Akai, Arturia, and Novation fashions. (The opposite three controllers all featured full-size keys.) One other concern was velocity, or the important thing’s ramp-up to most MIDI enter worth when pressed. In some instances, this parameter allowed changes for a extra pure really feel, both through a setup menu on the keyboard or by means of an accompanying software program app. Lastly for keyboards, we examined the efficiency and ergonomics of the controller’s pitch-bend and modulation controls.
The drum pad qualities we examined for included sensitivity and responsiveness—how straightforward it was to faucet out a natural-sounding vary of sentimental to loud drum sounds. General really feel was additionally a priority, for the reason that pads on some fashions had a distinctly tougher floor than on others. The pad dimension and format ended up being essential throughout our check: The small pad dimension and cramped association on some fashions made finger-drumming tough, whereas the bigger, extra well-spaced pads on others allow us to extra simply faucet out rolls and different fancy drum strikes.
We additionally took notice of options that made utilizing every controller simpler and extra intuitive. This included color-coded pad backlighting, buttons that automapped to corresponding software program controls and allowed you to function this system with out touching your laptop, and controls that allow you to configure options equivalent to an arpeggiator, or to change banks of samples assigned to a particular group of pads. Lastly, we checked out the rotary knobs on every unit, in search of qualities equivalent to robustness, resistance, and knob dimension and spacing.
Our decide: Arturia MiniLab MkII
The Arturia MiniLab MkII was a simple option to make as the perfect 25-key MIDI controller for most individuals. At simply over 12 inches huge and 8½ inches deep, it is compact sufficient to take a seat comfortably on desktops alongside a pc and different gear. With a heavy-duty case braced by a steel backside plate that provides heft and stability, its construct high quality is a number of notches above that of the opposite controllers in our check group. The Arturia’s uncluttered format, with well-spaced rotary knobs and pads and solely a minimal of additional controls, additionally makes it an approachable choice for electronic-music newbies, in addition to a good selection for superior musicians looking for a streamlined controller for dwell efficiency.
The MiniLab MkII could also be compact and primary in contrast with a few of the different controllers we checked out, however its options are well-chosen. With 16 rotary knobs, the Arturia mannequin affords twice as many controls because the competitors, letting you tweak extra parameters concurrently on DAWs and software program devices, equivalent to high- and low-pass filters (much like tone controls) and ranges. Its eight color-backlit velocity-sensitive pads are lined up within the middle of the controller, simply accessible for finger-drumming. A shift button permits you to swap between two banks, bringing the entire variety of pad assignments to 16.
Whereas the Arturia controller’s mini synth-action keys are tougher to play than full-size keys, Denis Kitchen discovered them to be responsive, with good key velocity proper out of the field, making it straightforward to get a pure vary of sentimental to loud sounds from pianos and different plug-in devices. The pads have been additionally responsive, offering a great really feel and an honest sufficient velocity for us to get dynamic results after we have been drumming.
The MiniLab MkII is configured to automap its controls to a variety of in style DAWs together with Ableton Reside, and it comes with a wonderful software program plug-in bundle consisting of Arturia’s Analog Lab Lite and UVI Grand Piano devices. Automapping permits you to browse presets for these devices utilizing the MiniLab MkII’s rotary knobs, which makes scrolling by means of and looking out the 500 accessible sound patches in Analog Lab Lite a breeze.
Different reviewers share our enthusiasm for the MiniLab MkII. Writing in Keyboard journal, Francis Prève notes: “As a reviewer, I’ve performed greater than my share of moveable controllers, and the MiniLab MkII’s mini keyboard feels higher than most of its rivals. I used to be instantly impressed by the motion, in addition to the rate conduct, particularly at the side of the included UVI Mannequin D Grand Piano.” Wrapping up an overwhelmingly optimistic overview of the MiniLab MkII, Ask.Audio’s Matt Vanacoro concludes, “[Once] you attempt it, absolutely anything else within the worth/construct class looks like a toy.” The general ranking on Amazon on the time of this writing was four.7 out of 5 stars throughout 19 critiques.
Flaws however not dealbreakers
Whereas we discovered the MiniLab MkII extremely playable for a compact controller with mini keys, severe keyboard gamers are prone to choose fashions with full-size keys. As well as, the response of Arturia’s capacitive pitch-bend and modulation management strips was sluggish in our testing, making them a less-than-ideal choice for dwell efficiency. Lastly, though the MiniLab MkII’s 16 rotary knobs are a welcome characteristic, some individuals may like a number of mounted knobs for features (equivalent to quantity) that they may wish to set to both finish of the vary by really feel, although that is a matter of private desire.
Runner-up: Nektar Affect LX25+
Sometimes priced about the identical as our principal decide, the Nektar Affect LX25+ has full-size keys that ought to attraction to seasoned keyboard gamers looking for a compact controller to make use of for dwell efficiency. Its complete MIDI characteristic set additionally makes it a great choice for individuals who wish to dive deep into configuring the controller.
To that finish, the Affect LX25+ options an LED show that gives visible suggestions such because the energetic keyboard octave vary throughout setup and configuration, which you’ll perform on the controller itself versus utilizing a separate software program utility after which porting the outcomes over. It additionally affords a full set of transport keys to manage DAW features equivalent to file, playback, and looping, so you do not have to shift backwards and forwards between the controller and your laptop when creating tracks.
The Nektar distinguished itself in our testing by means of its keyboard really feel—the keys had good motion and velocity proper out of the field. Its rubber-coated pitch and modulation wheels have been additionally straightforward to deal with and provided an honest stage of rigidity, making them a great choice for efficiency. Tapping out beats was a pleasure with this mannequin’s rubbery, responsive, comfortably spaced 1-inch pads on the top-right part of the controller.
Areas the place the Affect LX25+ got here up quick included its rotary knobs, which had a looser really feel and fewer resistance than these on the Arturia, M-Audio, and Alesis controllers. It additionally does not include a obtain code for Ableton Reside Lite, although Nektar does present a free copy of Bitwig Eight-Monitor, a full-featured DAW much like Ableton’s Reside. It is a newer piece of software program, so it is perhaps unfamiliar to individuals with some expertise, however it has a transparent format of features, and newbies should not have any extra problem moving into music making with this bundle than they might with extra venerable software program.
Automapping for Reside is not accessible whenever you first fireplace up the Nektar controller, although a doc on the corporate’s assist web site will information you thru configuration to be used with this system. Throughout my testing, I used to be in a position to make use of the Affect LX25+ to simply management many options of one other DAW, Apple’s GarageBand, with solely minimal setup.
Writing on MakeBeats101, the positioning’s chief reviewer Carlo houses in on the Nektar’s onboard MIDI changes, noting, “The controls is the place the Affect LX25+ actually shines. I’ve by no means used a keyboard which is as intuitive as this with regards to controlling your DAW out of your fingertips with out ever needing to succeed in to your mouse.” Final time we checked, the Affect LX25+ had earned an total ranking of four.Eight out of 5 stars throughout 24 critiques on Amazon.
Additionally nice: Akai MPK Mini MKII
The Akai MPK Mini MKII is an much more compact choice than the Arturia MiniLab MkII, and it affords a number of key options not discovered on that controller. The primary one is its set of enormous, 1⅛-inch drum pads—the identical dimension because the pads on the comparatively gargantuan M-Audio Oxygen 25. Not solely are the Akai’s pads large, however they’re additionally spaced huge sufficient to allow snug enjoying, they usually have a great really feel and responsiveness.
In our keyboard exams, the MPK Mini MKII’s pitch-bend and modulation thumb stick additionally labored surprisingly nicely, making this mannequin an honest choice for dwell efficiency, the place pitch-bend and modulation controls are essential for getting an genuine keyboard sound. The built-in arpeggiator permits you to faucet out repeating patterns shortly, so you’ll be able to effortlessly obtain a warbly Stranger Issues soundtrack impact.
Lastly, Akai bundles its controller with a formidable software program bundle, together with the Sonivox Wobble and Air Hybrid three plug-in devices, and Akai’s personal MPC Necessities DAW and MPK Mini MIDI Editor.
Whereas the MPK Mini MKII is a superb choice for making beats, its small keys—the smallest of any controller we examined—could make enjoying keyboard leads a problem, particularly if in case you have thick fingers. Its keys additionally had a stiff response in our exams (“Stiff as hell,” in line with Denis Kitchen), though the rate response was good out of the field. As well as, the Akai’s eight rotary knobs are small and considerably flimsy, providing little or no resistance when twisted.
A reviewer for The Wire Realm had a optimistic expertise testing the Akai, citing its typically good construct high quality and pad efficiency, which is “nice for what you pay for.” The reviewer additionally characterizes its thumb-stick management as being “nice to get some customized and considerably swingy, extra pure sounding pitch and modulation right down to your tracks.” At our final test, throughout 1,194 critiques, the MPK Mini MKII had an total ranking of three.9 stars out of 5 on Amazon.
The Novation Launchkey Mini 25 MK2 was created to be used with Ableton Reside, and it really works exceptionally nicely as a management interface when paired with that program. It offers you buttons designed particularly to navigate tracks and scenes in Reside, and the controller’s 16 pads can set off samples, with RGB backlighting to point standing suggestions. As an enter gadget or general-purpose MIDI controller, nevertheless, the Novation is much less helpful: In our exams, the keyboard motion proved simply marginally higher than that of the Akai MPK Mini MKII, and the tiny (¾-inch sq.), carefully spaced pads have been an ergonomic nightmare for drumming. On the plus aspect, the Launchkey Mini 25 MK2 comes bundled with Novation’s glorious V-Station and Bass-Station software program instrument plug-ins.
“An attention-grabbing train in minimalism” is how Denis Kitchen characterised the Alesis V25 after first having a go at it. By combining full-size keys with a stripped-down management set consisting of eight pads, 4 rotary knobs, and 4 programmable buttons, the V25 presents a clear format that some individuals will discover interesting. It is also the least costly mannequin we checked out. Throughout testing, nevertheless, we discovered the motion of the keys to be stiff in contrast with that of the Nektar and M-Audio controllers; the rate settings (which it’s essential configure utilizing an editor app in your laptop) have been additionally simply marginally acceptable, and the pitch-bend and modulation wheels have been small and awkwardly positioned. And whereas the V25’s construct high quality is usually sturdy, the underside was warped sufficient that our overview unit would not sit flat on a desk—an apparent quality-control subject.
The M-Audio Oxygen 25 MKIV has full-size keys and a characteristic set as in depth as that of the Nektar Affect LX25+. In our exams, the motion of the semi-weighted keys was responsive, and its rubber-coated rotary knobs offered a stable stage of resistance. The pitch-bend and modulation wheels on the M-Audio additionally work nicely for efficiency, although they lack the rubber coating and responsiveness of those on the Nektar. The Oxygen 25 MKIV’s out-of-the-box velocity proved overly aggressive, nevertheless, and we could not discover an alternate preset that offered satisfying dynamic vary when enjoying. Additionally, its pads had poor response, with sensitivity targeted primarily on the pad’s middle.
What to look ahead to
Since our final replace, a number of new MIDI controllers have caught our eye for consideration in our subsequent replace. The Korg NanoKey has dropped in worth, now coming in nicely underneath our worth cap. The Worlde Tuna Mini has a lovely design and a lower cost than most 25-key controllers. The Worlde Panda Mini is analogous, with a extra basic-looking design and missing the slider pitch-bend controls, however it’s a little cheaper.
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