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Part 3: Section 1: MIDI controllers

Published: Wed September 20, 2006  News Feed

This article has been updated for Learn to Play Day 2012!

Long live software instruments! Gone are the days when you needed a stack of keyboards to create tunes, as everything can now be done inside your computer at the click of a mouse. However, do you really want to be playing all of that software with a mouse? Wouldn’t you rather be doing it all with a proper piano type keyboard? Eh? So doesn’t that mean a return to piles of keyboard again, the very thing that software replaced? No! All you need is one keyboard to control every soft instrument you own! So you’d better make sure it’s a good one, right? Yes, and fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your viewpoint, there are loads of different sorts to choose from so we will discuss all of them here. And if you already own a keyboard but need extra control, don’t worry, because in Section 2 we’ll be looking at some keyboardless controllers that will enhance your desktop music making no end…

Section 1: MIDI Keyboards

On the Dolphin site you can logically step through each of the keyboards available by size: from small, laptop friendly and very portable 25-key keyboards, right through to 88-note monster playing keyboards. Let’s have a look in more detail at each section…

Ideal for mobile musos – 25 to 32 keys

One of the side effects of the recent boom in computer music making has been the use of laptops. People can now make music anywhere: on the train, in the kitchen or in the park (although, it has to be said, the sight of someone actually doing it in these locations is rare!). Manufacturers quickly woke up to this idea and now produce a wide range of portable keyboards, usually with 25 keys. Most connect by USB and can be powered that way or by batteries.

M-Audio produce quite a few keyboards available in this size. They start off as simple MIDI keyboards and then develop with extra controls, added features (like an audio interface) and, at the top end of this range, even go wireless!

The Oxygen was the first M-Audio mobile keyboard. The Oxygen 25 3rd generation (£99) is an update of that keyboard and features eight assignable rotaries and six transport buttons. The Axiom 25 MK11 (£142.80) has semi-weighted keys and assignable aftertouch plus eight rubber pads for extra control flexibility. The Axion Pro 25 (£250) builds on the Axiom 25 but brings you TruTouch action, HyperControl MIDI mapping technology and other cutting-edge enhancements in a compact model.

Possibly the coolest looking MIDI keyboard is the Akai MPK Mini. This ultra-compact mini-keyboard has an impressive array of buttons, knobs and pads to provide "hands-on" performance production control no matter your location.

Novation have something for everyone here. Starting with the SL25 MKII (£249.99) you get a high quality semi-weighted keyboard with a full DAW and plug-in control surfae, that visually feeds back all control information to you. The ZeRO SL MKII (£199.99) is the first keyboard to provide automatic, instant and intelligent control of all major sequencers and all automatable plug-ins. The Impulse 25 (149.99 at the time of writing (RRP £199.99)) is a USB MIDI keyboard controller with semi-weighted keys with aftertouch, Autompa 4 control software and Multi-function drum pads

Korg have been releasing more controllers recently and have one of the cheapest in this category in the form of the nanoKEY2 (£39.99), with 25 velocity-sensing keys and advanced design for reliable recording. It’s a very neat and compact keyboard, ideal for iPad compatibility.

Still mobile but more keys – 37 notes


Between the 25-note keyboards and the more playable, larger models is a smaller range of 37-note keyboards. These still retain some portability, sometimes at the expense of key size, having smaller keys with less of an action. They are still very playable though and those extra keys could come in handy…

If you want cheap then you won’t pay much less for a keyboard than the Evolution EKeys 37 (£35.99). It might not feature much on the control side of things and does have mini keys but it is the cheapest keyboard out there.

The Korg MicroSAMPLER (£245) which serves up sampling with a powerful performance punch! Delivering multi-mode sampling, resampling and over-the-top-effects - and all under a fun-to-use intuitive interface.

M-Audio eKeys 37 (£45) is a very cheap, yet great software starter pack for home computer users

Great mid range keyboards – 49 keys


We’re starting to get into proper playing territory now as we step up to the mid range of controller keyboards: the 49-key category.

Novation dominate this section starting with the Impulse 49 (£249). Its a great pro qualiity USB MIDI keyboard controller with 49 semi weight keys and offers a broad range of control functionality including faders, knobs, buttons and back lit drum pads. The Novation SL49 Mk II combines a high quality semi-weighted keyboard with a full DAW and plug-in control surface, a giant 144-character LCD screen, 16 knobs, 8 faders and 32 assignable backlit LED buttons

There are, of course, several other 49-key keyboards which are nearly identical to those already discussed in the 25 and 37-note sections above (but with bigger keyboards). These include the M-Audio KeyRig (£71.48 and includes KeyRig software for the PC!), the Akai MPK49 (£242.69), the Roland A500 Pro (£225), the Akai SynthStation49

CME have a relatively new range of striking keyboards. The M-Key 49-Key USB Keyboard (£72) might well be one of the most cheapest keyboards discussed so far but it is packed full of and useful educational functions. CME U-Key (£143) with 64-voice MIDI sound module, PadStyle function, Game Mode, U-CTRL and full MIDI functions including SEQ transport with fast operation access.

Players keyboards – 61 notes


You really are talking ‘proper’ keyboards when you get to the 61-note category. There’s little need to use too much octave shifting to get the full range from these keyboards and they are suited to both players and non players alike. Of course portability is an issue so these are more suited to static set-ups and the stage so might not be every laptop user’s cup of tea.
Again there are several models here that are effectively the same as the 25 or 49-key models that we have already discussed, but with bigger keyboards so let’s just simply list them. Assume similar specs to their smaller brothers as detailed above…

The M-Audio Oxygen 61 (£142.99) and Axiom 61 (£229.99) are exactly the same controllers as those detailed in the 49-key section. Similarly the Novation SL61 MKII (£374) adds 12 notes to its 49 version as does the Akai MPK 61 USB (£379.67) expands the 25 and 37 key moadels.

The ultimate keyboard – 76 to 88 keys


At the top end of the MIDI controller keyboard scale are the largest 76 to 88-key keyboards. These have been designed for skilled players to get the best out of the software they are controlling (although that’s not to say that the rest of us can’t have a tinkle on them too!). They have full sized keys and often have full velocity sensitivity, a semi weighted or hammer action and aftertouch, so are well suited to playing some of the finer piano, organ and ‘real’ instrument software emulations. Of course they are that bit bigger, bulkier and more expensive but if you are a proper player and really want to get the most out of your computer set-up then these are the ones to go for.

The Akai MPK 88 Hammer-Action is a performace keyboard with MPC production controls, drawing on the MPK49 with its featured MPC pads. M-Audio Keystation 88 (£137) gives you the full range of a piano keyboard in a lightweight package.

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