We run through ten of the best MIDI keyboards for dance music production.
Appearances can be deceptive. The Xkey is one of the smallest keyboards you’re ever likely to come across (and also the cheapest of our selections), but it’s a very capable little device. It’s a tiny, ultra-light keyboard but it features full-size keys – either 25 or 37 of them depending on which model you go for.
We love the minimal design, the MacBook-inspired aesthetics and above all the sheer portability. If you’re looking for a keyboard that can play a role in a minimal live setup as well as in the studio, this is a great starting point.
The MacBook is actually a pretty useful reference point for the Xkey. The aluminium finish is obviously inspired by Apple laptops, but the key action is also closer to a laptop keyboard than it is to a traditional piano action, which makes it feel quite different to most other controllers.
The Bluetooth-equipped Xkey Air is even more minimalist, dispensing with wires altogether, but you pay a premium both in terms of the price of the unit itself and the slightly higher latency that comes with wireless connectivity. On balance, we’d probably stick with the USB version.
Korg nanoKEY Studio
There are a few decent options if you’re looking for a micro-sized controller, but Korg’s nanoKEY Studio is definitely one of the best all-rounders. While it’s inevitable that you sacrifice the feel of a ‘proper’ keyboard when you go this small, the nanoKEY fits the brief perfectly for an affordable, portable option with a little bit of everything.
The two-octave keyboard covers the lion’s share of the surface area, but the nanoKEY also offers eight rotary controllers, a KAOSS-style XY touchpad and a small bank of eight pads. More impressively, there’s a real depth to the keyboard options thanks largely to the built-in arpeggiator.
Seeing as it’s capable of running on batteries and communicating via Bluetooth, the nanoKEY is one of the best portable options around. That also makes it ideal for use with iOS devices, without the need for a wired adaptor; it’s perfect with all Korg’s own apps, of course, but also compatible with third-party music apps. The Studio is a true mobile all-rounder.
Nektar Impact LX49+
Once you make the step up to full-size keys and more professional features, prices can escalate quickly. At the lower end of the range, Nektar’s Impact LX range shows that you can get a surprisingly good MIDI keyboard on a budget. There are more comprehensive options (such as the Panorama models) higher up the Nektar range, but the LX49+ is a great all-rounder for the money.
Other than the full-size keys, the main draw here is of course the fact that you also get pads, slider, rotary pots and transport controls. That makes it excellent value at this price point. Of course, the build quality and feel of the controls aren’t quite as good as you’d find on more expensive models, but they’re not a problem.
There’s only one significant downside: Nektar’s software support is strong in some cases, with neat automapping of device parameters in DAWs like Logic and Reason, but if you’re an Ableton Live user you’ll be disappointed. The keyboard still works perfectly well, but you’re not getting the full benefits of the integration other DAW users might be enjoying.
Novation LaunchKey 49 mkII
Specifically targeted at Ableton Live users, the LaunchKey is Novation’s keenly priced offering at this very competitive level of the controller market. Novation have got years of experience in making both keyboards and Ableton controllers, so a keyboard with heavily Ableton-focused controller features built in makes a lot of sense. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of the company’s more expensive Impulse or SL keyboards, but it’s a solid choice for Ableton users.
The LaunchKey offers a pretty standard setup of keys, sliders, rotaries and pads, but the latter are LaunchPad-inspired RGB units which integrate very smoothly with Ableton for clip launching. Even at its £174.99 RRP, the Launchkey is fairly good value. In practice, you’ll easily find it for a street price of around £140, making it a great value option for Ableton users.
Arturia KeyLab Essential 49
If it seems a bit like we’re cheating on this one, hear us out. The KeyLab Essential is a bundle of synth software and hardware controller, effectively an refined version of the original KeyLab 49 from 2013. Yes, you get a synth package as part of the deal, but let’s consider that a bonus. We wouldn’t be including the KeyLab if the keyboard itself didn’t stack up as a valid option in its own right. Luckily, it is.
Like the Impact LX, the KeyLab does a little bit of everything: 49 keys in this case (there’s also a 61-key version), eight pads, transport controls, rotaries and sliders.
Then there’s the software side of things. For your money, you get a serious package of software. The main draw is Arturia’s own Analog Lab synth bundle, featuring 17 instruments and over 6,000 sounds from the V Collection package. There’s also a version of Ableton’s entry-level Live Lite, plus a very good piano synth in the form of UVI’s Grand Piano Model D. All together, that’s enough to get you started making music.
$299 + $35 overlay
The Sensel Morph is without doubt the most unusual option on our list. Initially appearing as a Kickstarter project back in 2015, receiving overwhelming support to the tune of $442,648, the Morph has now gone into full production.
It’s a keyboard unlike any other here, largely because it’s not just a keyboard. The unique thing about the Morph setup is that the pressure-sensitive, multi-touch technology at its heart can be adapted to a number of uses courtesy of overlays which allow it to morph (hence the name) into controllers for tasks like video editing, gaming and drawing. For music, the main choices are a generic “music production” option (pads, ribbon strips, etc), a drum pad overlay and the piano-style keyboard (you can buy the whole lot in the form of the Music Maker’s Bundle).
It’s the keyboard we’re most interested in here, and the result is a highly expressive controller thanks to the Morph’s ability to track multiple movements and pressure changes for each finger.
In practice it’s actually a little like a hybrid of two of our other selections here, combining a slim, stylish and low-profile design of the CME XKey with the multi-expressive approach of the Roli Seaboard. Definitely a forward-thinking design and a neat option even as a second controller alongside a larger keyboard.
Roli Seabord Block
ROLI’s Seaboard range is unlike anything else on the market.
The flagship Seaboard Grand Stage (£2,799.95) is the top-of-the-range option, but unless you really need the full 61-key setup, the best value is to be had lower down the range, either in the form of the entry-level Seaboard Block or the slightly more expensive Seaboard Rise models (from £699.95 for the 25-key version).
The Seaboards are some of just a few keyboards on the market with polyphonic aftertouch, meaning you can control the expression of each note independently. That works well with Roli’s own Equator synth plugin, but you can also set it up to work with other synth plugins and hardware synth modules which support it.
The Block is our pick simply because it offers 90% of the fun of the Grand Stage for 10% of the price: you sacrifice some of the bells and whistles that you’d find on the Rise, but you still get to reap the benefits of the five-dimensional touch-sensitive keywaves.
At the bottom end of the market, the difference from one product to the next tends to be obvious: spend a little more money and you might add a few features or step up from micro keys to full-size. Once you get past a certain point, the differences get a bit harder to spot. Most brands tend to stick to a fairly standard formula of full-size synth action keys, mod wheels, rotaries, sliders and pads. Some focus more on integration with particular software, but most are designed to play nicely with all the main DAWs and plugins. What you might not realise until you try a more expensive model in person is that the build quality tends to increase substantially when you reach the mid-range point where M-Audio’s CTRL 49 sits.
The CTRL might not blow you away with unique features, but it’s a class act, with the clear and bright screen providing feedback on plugin parameters thanks to VIP integration.
There’s a decent bundle of software included, but at this price that’s probably not your main focus. What you get for your money is a well thought out, dependable controller that’s sturdy enough to handle live use as well as studio applications.
Studiologic SL73 Studio
You’ve probably played a Studiologic keyboard at some point without realising it. Or at least, you’ve probably played a keyboard made by the Italian brand’s parent company, Fatar, founded as an organ manufacturer in 1956 and going on to produce the keybeds used in controllers by countless other brands.
The company’s Sledge 2.0 is one of our favourite synths of recent years, but we’re interested in controllers here so the pick of Studiologic’s range is the SL73 Studio, a premium controller with a top quality keybed and not a lot else. There’s a TFT display, a few buttons and a single knob to access the keyboard’s functions (which can also be accessed via a software editor) but the message is clear: you buy the SL for its keyboard feel, not because of any gimmicky additional features.
Despite that keyboard focus, the SL’s modulation setup also deserves a mention. The SL series eschews traditional pitch bend levers or mod wheels in favour of an assignable bank of three XY joysticks. The first is spring-loaded in both directions, the second is spring-loaded in the X-axis only, and the third is free-moving in both directions. It makes a lot of sense in practice, allowing you to pick the most suitable option for parameters which should spring back to a default setting when you let go (pitch bend, vibrato, etc) and those which should stay where you leave them (filter cutoff, resonance, etc).
The SL73 is a throwback in many respects. Other companies would have shoehorned in a few sliders, rotary encoders and drum pads without a second thought, but Studiologic stick to the basics: an excellent keyboard, designed with players in mind. Ultimately, that’s all many of us really want.
NI Komplete Kontrol S49
Whereas a lot of controllers feel like they’ve been built down to a price, NI’s Komplete Kontrol S has always seemed like a premium option. You would be forgiven for assuming that the name means it’s targeted at users of the company’s flagship Komplete software package – and you’d be right that the two products work very well together – but the Kontrol can be used with any DAW or virtual instruments.
We went behind the scenes at Native Instruments for an insight into the design and development of the Komplete Kontrol, and you can see just how extensive the thought process was behind the keyboard. Integration with NI’s own software is flawless as expected, but it’s impressive just how well the NKS control standard also works with other developers’ software.
All of this would be missing the point if the keyboard itself wasn’t up to scratch, but it’s a real winner: exceptional build quality, typically understated looks and some beautifully thought-out touches such as the light guide above the keys or the delightfully expressive (and surprisingly versatile) modulation ribbons. Yes, it’s expensive, but you get what you pay for in this case.