The Complete Guide to the best MIDI Keyboard Controllers Under $200
When you want to make amazing music in a portable environment, there’s nothing that quite gets the job done like a MIDI keyboard controller. For a musician, this type of device provides the ideal way to assemble a compact music production system.
You need to be sure though that you choose a MIDI controller that will meet your needs, expectations of quality, and music-related preferences so that you get the most use and pleasure out of it.
I Shall Call Him… MIDI Me
If you are new to the MIDI market, a few of your first questions will likely be: 1) What is MIDI? and 2) How does the sound device work? Ahem, let us explain. Shagadelic, as Austin Powers would say.
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It is the universal standard by which keyboard controllers, software, computers, and multiple electronic musical instruments, called synthesizers, connect to use musical data.
Typically, a MIDI-enabled keyboard controller has a piano style user interface. It sends MIDI information via a USB cable to other devices connected to the same interface. The keyboard itself does not produce sound but instead sends the MIDI data to an electronic module (either a synthesizer or a computer) that reproduces the digital sounds.
When using the leading MIDI keyboards available today, the waveforms sound almost the same as classic analog musical instruments. The digital audio is often referred to as voices or timbres.
With the single keyboard, you can control several electronic instruments. Perhaps you use the lower controls as the drum machine and the upper register as a Moog synthesizer. Use the controller to send out messages of MIDI data to create the sounds you want to play, within DAW software, and through a mix of hardware.
What Makes A Good Controller?
Figure out how much space you have for the keyboard by using a tape measure. Doing so will right away limit the amount of controllers from which to choose, such as whether you will get one with 25, 37 or 49 keys. These are the typical sizes, although you can go bigger if you have the room.
Some controllers do offer smaller keys so you can fit more keys within a smaller sized model.
Keys in a MIDI keyboard controller can be weighted, semi-weighted or unweighted. The “weight” of the keys is added to simulate the different sounds that heavier keys make on a real piano. Compact models won’t typically have weight to them because usually you want to play them quickly.
However, when the keyboard size increases, it may seem “springy” to play them, so then most users opt for semi-weighted varieties to get both speed and depth of sound.
If the keyboard feels cheap when you touch it, you may not want to buy it. It’s mainly a subjective thing but important if you plan to use the gear for long jam sessions or take it on the road with you. Plus, if it’s flimsy and feels cheap, you probably won’t get as long of a lifespan out of it as a better quality one.
Also, check out the controller’s velocity sensitivity. The cheaper versions often won’t have this feature, so all notes have the same expression, which makes for limited abilities to build mood.
If you invest in a keyboard with velocity, then the harder you play it the more velocity you will get out of certain notes and you get good musical expression in your performance.
Performance Controllers: Knobs, Faders, Wheels, Drum Pads, And More
Tweak your sounds, alter DAW, and control the synths with knobs, faders, wheels, pads, and other controllers available on the MIDI devices. For example, you can combine a soft synth with a certain DAW version with the hands-on control you get in a quality controller. It’s in real time too, for a more authentic, analog feel than you get by simply clicking a mouse.
As for when you crave percussion, you might be satisfied with using only the keys to get it but some users want more and, therefore, choose velocity-sensing performance pads instead. Use the pads for drum and trigger loops; there are usually at least eight pads on the latest MIDI controller models. Some pads can even sense aftertouch (another option you may want to consider).
But remember, all of these controls take up valuable space on the top of your keyboard and also make the device heavy. So, keep in mind how much space you have for the keyboard, how portable you need it to be, and also your budget (the more options, the more moolah you will need to buy it, typically).
Top 5 Midi Keyboard Controllers
Below is an in-depth guide to the most popular MIDI keyboard controllers. The five models, in order of discussion, are Nektar Impact LX61 61 Note, Akai Professional MPK Mini MK2 25-Key, CME Xkey 25-Key Portable, M-Audio Oxygen 49 4, and Korg microKEY 37-Key USB MIDI controller.
This post focuses on finding you the best quality controllers for under $200. Here are the details on what each controller offers its users:
Nektar Impact LX61 61 Note
While the Impact also comes in 25, 49, and 88-key models, this review focuses on the 61 synth key version. The 61-key USB-MIDI keyboard controller comes with pre-mapped DAW configurations for Studio One, SONAR, Reason, Garageband, Logic X, and more. It has eight velocity-sensitive pads, eight encoders, nine faders, and full transport controls.
Pros & Cons
An awesome part of this controller is your ability to switch between instrument, mixer, and preset modes for a workflow that is so fast it blows your mind. The keys have a great feel to them too so you’re comfortable as you spend long hours at your music workstation. The mod wheel and keys are smooth and velvety, with a great feel to the knobs, performance pads, and faders too.
The MIDI controller is excellent value for the price point too at only $199. Lightweight and portable are two descriptions that many online reviewers use for this product, so it’s a great choice if you plan to be on the go with your keyboard.
As for the drawbacks, this controller is fairly basic in the visual feedback area. Also, it lacks any hardware MIDI ports, so that makes it difficult to set up external equipment that you may want to add to it.
In summary, if you like a “plug and play” experience for your music production, the Impact will appeal to you. It comes preset with DAW configurations so you won’t have to worry about the time-consuming process of inputting melodies and beats. Plus, you get more than just a 25-key version without breaking the bank.
Akai Professional MPK Mini MK2 25-Key
The Akai MPK mini is uber-compact, meant to take with you on the go. So, if you’re a traveling musician or want a desktop producer, then the MPK will be right up your alley. It has high functionality, whether you want to record, compose, or perform with virtual instruments. Its features allow for high levels of creativity too!
Pros & Cons
With the Akai MPK mini, you get all of the essentials you need to set up your musical foundation quickly and then expand on it. It’s a cinch to operate with the plug-and-play interface. Plus, you can adjust melodic lines easily, even when you want to make those lines more intricate ones. Enjoy unique features too, like its joystick and MPC Note Retreat. It even comes with a pro software bundle, including Hybrid 3, so you can get awesome new sounds whether you’re a musician or a producer. It is USB powered too.
Unfortunately, some parts of the Akai Professional MPK Mini MK2 25-key keyboard could use some tweaking. For example, several consumer reviews online spotlight the weakness of the pads; these users explain the pads have bad hit protection. Also, while the compact design of the MPK Mini is handy, its keys are not full size and not weighted, which can limit user experiences and give it a cheap feeling.
Therefore, if you want a compact keyboard controller that you can easily store, that runs via USB cable, and comes with basic features and software, then take a serious look at this Akai 25-key model. However, if you are looking for weighted keys with a deeper sound and don’t care about the size of the keyboard, then you will want to consider one of the other options we present here.
CME Xkey 25-Key
The Xkey 25-key musical keyboard from CME has Xcellent portability. With the ultra-slim 3.6mm edge and its lightweight body, you can easily tuck this keyboard in with your gear as you head out to a live performance. It has 25 standard-sized keys, as well as onboard buttons for modulation, pitch, octave, and the sustain pedal. The MIDI compact controller comes in a range of colors, from gold to neon blue.
Pros & Cons
Perhaps the best part of this MIDI-compliant keyboard is that it is compact yet comes with regular-sized keys! That’s pretty much unheard of in the industry as the trend is for smaller keyboards with downsized keys to accommodate mobile music-making. It is USB MIDI compliant and comes with professional velocity sensitivity.
Also, the MIDI keyboard is multifunctional; use it for studio recording, creative composition, or for playing live. This keyboard is compatible with your iPad, Mac, and PC, which is really convenient.
Unfortunately, to allow for the compact design with full-sized keys, the Xkey has had to do away with conventional controls for modulation and pitch bend. You still get these features but access them via pressure-sensitive pads instead. You won’t get the precision like you would with other keyboards’ more traditional style of knobs and sliders. Also, the keys feel similar to a computer keyboard, so if you prefer the feel of piano keys, then this difference may throw you off a bit, at least at first.
Overall, if you want a keyboard that you can use quickly and multi-task between studio creation and live playing, then this MIDI-compliant Xkey keyboard is a great choice. It is affordable too, especially considering its pro features; it retails at about $100. If you prefer knobs and sliders dedicated to modulation, pitch, and octave though then you’ll want a more traditional competitor keyboard than this one.
M-Audio Oxygen 49
For your mobile music needs, the compact Oxygen 49 USB MIDI controller is one heck of an innovator! The keyboard’s prime real estate on top contains eight assignable knobs, nine assignable drivers, a dedicated transport button, and more. It is highly useful for both performers and producers, particularly within its lower price range, and it is easy to use too.
Pros & Cons
As soon as you start using the Oxygen 49 from M-Audio, you will notice that the controllers are set up in a streamlined way so that you can take full control of your music session. Record and mix with high customization, thanks to the range of controllers. Enjoy the convenience too of DirectLink mode, which auto maps your controls to common DAW guidelines. You get the quality you expect from M-Audio, a pioneer of the MIDI keyboard controller, with a solid build and innovative software like Ignite that comes bundled with it.
A drawback is that there are only three velocity settings, so it is a pain to try to get the velocity curve right. Also, if you have limited room for storage, the dimensions of this keyboard may be too big for you. In this case, it would be preferable to go with a more compact model, such as the CME Xkey.
Therefore, if you want to mix and create new music, then you will likely appreciate the way you can customize the many knobs and drivers that come with this MIDI keyboard controller. You get a strong keyboard to pound on throughout your music sessions, even when they go long, and innovative software is included too. If you’re looking for quality velocity, though, you’ll find this 49-key controller is limited.
Korg MicroKEY 37-Key
This compact MIDI controller from Korg has 37 natural touch mini keys and is USB bus powered. It comes with both pitch and mod wheels, is velocity sensitive, and it has both octave shift and key transpose features. If you’re looking to complete your production setup, then this model may be the one for you. While there are 25 and 61 key versions, this review focuses on the 37-key controller.
Pros & Cons
The 37-key microKEY features natural touch keys that are also velocity sensitive. The keyboard is lightweight and ultra-compact, so just put it in your backpack as you head out to a live performance or a jamming session. You can express your creativity too with the pitch bend and modulation controllers, as well as the dedicated octave shift buttons.
It’s a plug-and-play device too, so it is easy to install when you want to crank out notes. Did we mention it comes with a USB cable and software editor too? At less than $100, that’s a sweet deal.
Of course, no product is perfect. The build on this MIDI controller, as with some other compact competitors, is a little flimsy. It could feel more stable, but then again it is a no-frills type of keyboard so you might be expecting too much from it. The keys lack a feeling of durability too, and the mini size can be taxing on those of us with bigger hands (on the other hand, some users do well with the Korg “waterfall-type” keyboard).
If you want to do more complicated production work than sampling and triggering drums, then you might look for an alternative that offers more than this basic MIDI. But, if you want a compact, lightweight keyboard that comes with all of the controllers you need for songwriting, then you are all set with this microKEY 37-key model.
Now you are armed with all of the information you need to make an educated decision as to which of the top five MIDI controllers are best for you. Keep in mind that all the models we reviewed here are meant for amateur musicians to use in the man cave or as compact gear that you can take with you on the go. Ultimately it is a personal choice because every musician or producer has different needs, skill levels, and expectations of the technology. But, overall, we do have a favorite here at Man Cave Master.
OK, let us explain. The Korg microKEY comes out as the leader in our eyes for a player who wants an all-rounded keyboard to take on the go or for basic playing right out of the box. The runner up is the Nektar, a solid workhorse that adapts to your playing style and has great DAWs integration.
So, why did the other three MIDI keyboard controllers come up short? Don’t get us wrong, they all still have quality features, depending on your needs. But we had to take the Akai MPK Mini MK2 out of the running for the top spot because of its weak pads and for only having 25 keys. As for the CME Xkey, it also has just 25 keys and makes a clicking sound that we couldn’t overlook in our review. The M-Audio Oxygen 49 is not compact in size, and its limited velocity was what ultimately kept it out of the top two positions.
There you have it, all of the information you need to pick the right MIDI keyboard controller for you. If you got value out of this review post, please share!
Not Ready For The Real Deal? Here Is Another Option:
IK Multimedia iRig KEYS
This iDevice gives you just about every type of iOS music peripheral that you can think of!
In compact form, the IK keyboard is core MIDI compliant and USB class compliant, for an easy plug-and-play device. Enjoy 37 velocity-sensitive mini keys that are powered easily by your iOS device, Mac, or PC USB, as well as pitch bend and mod wheels. Want to get it now?