The best midi controller

Adrian Wegenroth

If you don't have audio recording software but you want to quickly record an idea or part, consider getting a MIDI controller with a built-in step sequencer. The step sequencer lets you record a series of notes, which you can easily loop or edit. This is especially useful when quickly writing beats.

If you’re just getting started with music production and you’re not sure what kind of keyboard to get, a MIDI controller is the easiest way to record software synths and instruments in your digital-audio workstation. It’s also an efficient way to streamline your workflow as a keyboardist if you have more than one synthesizer or if you don’t have a lot of space in your studio.

No matter what your playing style or experience level is, there are a variety of MIDI controllers out there that will suit your needs. For example, if you’re a keyboardist who needs to multitask by triggering samples and drum patterns, the Arturia KeyLab 49 Essential Universal MIDI Controller is a great choice.

What to know before you buy a MIDI controller

How MIDI technology works

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. When you record MIDI from a keyboard or drum machine, the MIDI data does not contain audio, but rather the information about which notes are being played and at what volume, among other parameters. This information is communicated in a series of numbers from one to 127 using up to 16 separate channels. 

MIDI was first invented in 1983, and the first keyboard synthesizer with MIDI capabilities was the Sequential Circuits Prophet 600. In 2020, MIDI 2.0 was released, which is an upgraded protocol designed to make USB and Ethernet MIDI connections faster and more stable. 

Types of MIDI controller instruments

Most MIDI controllers are music keyboards with a number of keys ranging from 25 to 88, depending on the number of octaves (groups of eight keys). 

Some MIDI controllers are designed to be programmed more like a drum machine or sample trigger pad, and some might have a larger series of knobs or buttons that can all be assigned to different instruments or functions. In addition to music, MIDI controllers can also be used to control lighting or MIDI-equipped guitars.

Included music software

If you buy a MIDI controller or interface, sometimes it includes a basic version of MIDI and audio software such as Ableton or Pro Tools First, which is a more streamlined version of the full Pro Tools program.

MIDI controller features

Aftertouch, velocity sensitivity and weighted keyboards

Velocity is a measure of how hard a key on a keyboard is struck. The harder it is struck, the louder the volume. A keyboard with velocity sensitivity has keys that respond to the amount of pressure you’re using to play them, giving it more of a realistic feel. Aftertouch allows you to control various parameters of a note after the key is struck, such as vibrato or pitch bend, which can also add realism to your playing. Weighted keyboards have keyboard mechanisms that feel more like a real piano.

Programmable knobs, sliders and pads

Some MIDI controller keyboards have a separate section with programmable components. For example, you can assign certain parameters to each slider or knob, percussion sounds or samples to each pad.


Some MIDI controllers come with a stand or carrying case, and might also include software. If you’re planning to get more than one MIDI controller, you’ll want to get a MIDI interface. A MIDI interface is a hardware unit with multiple MIDI ports so you can connect all your instruments together.

MIDI controller cost 

MIDI controllers range in cost from roughly $40-$300, depending on the number of keys and whether it’s designed for professional studio use.

MIDI controller FAQ

I have an older MIDI controller with a 5-pin connector. Can I connect it via USB?

A. If you do not have a separate MIDI interface, there are a variety of adaptors that convert older MIDI connectors to USB. However, keep in mind that this will not upgrade the MIDI signal to MIDI 2.0.

Can I use my computer keyboard as a MIDI controller?

A. Some recording software, such as GarageBand for Mac OS X, allows you to use your computer keyboard as a digital keyboard. This can be useful if you’re out and about with a laptop and want to record a quick part, but it doesn’t give you the same features or capabilities as a MIDI controller keyboard.

Which MIDI controller should I get?

Best of the best MIDI controller

Arturia Keylab 49 Essential Controller Keyboard: available at Amazon

Our take: In addition to 49 keys, this lightweight, versatile controller also gives you Analog Lab software to create your own sounds and comes with a MIDI to USB cable, a sustain pedal and Ableton Live Lite music production software.

What we like: It has 16 velocity-sensitive drum pads. It has a 16-track sequencer. It has 5-pin MIDI connectors to control older synths.

What we dislike: Some users might find the price slightly high. The keys are not velocity-sensitive.

Best bang for your buck MIDI controller

Alesis Qmini Portable 32 Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller: available at Amazon

Our take: The affordable Alesis Qmini series comes in 32, 49 or 88 key configurations and includes Akai MPC beats as well as Pro Tools First production software.

What we like: It has velocity-sensitive semi-weighted keys. It has a transpose button to play higher or lower octaves. It works with iOS devices via the Lightning adapter. 

What we dislike: Some users find it tricky to program the TouchPads. Some users find that the iOS compatibility is limited in its features.

Honorable mention MIDI controller

Alesis VI25 25-Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller: available at Amazon

Our take: The Alesis VI series comes in 25, 49 and 61 key configurations and includes Ableton Live Lite production software. 

What we like: It has 24 assignable buttons, 16 velocity-sensitive pads and eight assignable knobs. Users find the backlight to be very bright and even. The semi-weighted keys have aftertouch. 

What we dislike: Some people find the drum pads to be too sensitive. Some users find that the keys squeak after a certain amount of use.

Adrian Wegenroth is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money.

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