Technology has come a long way since the 90s, so for many people, a MIDI controller isn’t necessary for music production. Pad controllers are becoming ubiquitous now, putting a little pressure on the humble keyboard.
However, I still think that in 2017, you really do need a keyboard, and it’s still essential for the semi professional music setup.
Thanks to better technology and manufacturing, the price of a decent, entry level keyboard is still about the $200 mark. Just imagine how much $200 was back in the 90s and you’ll understand just how amazing this is!
For this review, I’ve hand picked 5 of the best budget keyboards out there. All cost less than $200, some quite a bit less.
First things first, please don’t expect funky features like hammer action keys or the best velocity control in the business. Technology has come a long way in 20 years but it’s not a miracle worker though!
M-Audio Oxygen 49
The M Audio has a decent spec for its price. The 49-key model is the one I reviewed; however, you can get 25 keys for $119 and a full on 61 key model for $229.00.
The 49-key model, sits in the sweet spot of our review price at $158.99, not bad at all!
With the M-Audio, you’ll get velocity sensitive keys, trigger pads for beat production, plus 9 fader adjustments to allow for mixing different tracks.
The keyboard will work with most DAW programs, Ableton Live, Logic Pro and Cubase are mentioned specifically – although I’ve heard that this keyboard will rock with GarageBand and Reason just as easily.
The M-Audio weighs in at 6.4 pounds, about right given the number of features it contains.
The first thing that’s great about the M-Audio, is the DirectLink feature. This allows your computer to pick up every switch, key and input on the keyboard without a driver. This backs up the idea that the M-Audio should just about work with any DAW out there.
The keys are okay; however, the velocity isn’t quite perfect and it sometimes takes a hard press to get the effect you want. Pads on the other hand were easy to play with the velocity working well. While I was slightly disappointed in the velocity of the keys, they did have a tactile feel and did a decent job.
The loop, play and record functions are situated right in the middle of the keyboard. This is exactly where they need to be and not something all manufacturers get right!
- A quality product that works well. DirectLink is a real benefit for setting up the device.
- Key velocity is sometimes a little off, they feel nice though.
M-Audio Keystation 88 Key
Another keyboard from M-Audio, this time operating right at the top of our review budget at $199. Other versions of this keyboard are also available, from a mini size of 32-keys at $60, right up to the 88-key version I’m testing.
The Keystation 88 offers a similar type of key to the 49 version above, yet with a far wider range. All keys are velocity sensitive and for my money seem a bit better than the Oxygen 49.
This keyboard also features a sustain pedal input, octave range buttons, plus pitch bend wheels.
Bundled with the Keystation also comes a basic version of Ableton Live.
The first thing I noticed, was a definite improvement in key velocity over the Oxygen. Perhaps this keyboard was a younger model with an update but I certainly felt a bit more in control using the Keystation.
It’s not well advertised on the M-Audio website, but the Keystation offers DirectLink too. This made the setup time super quick at 5 minutes.
The loop and play functions work well, and are easily located on the keyboard front. I could create some wicked bends on notes using the pitch controller and you don’t have to thump the velocity keys to get a good note.
The only issue I would have with the 88-key version, is the sheer size of the thing. Of course, if you’re in the market for an 88-key device you’ll probably expect this. For those who don’t quite get the size of this thing, look at a standard 88 keyboard in your local music shop – you might be surprised at the size!
Another problem is the build quality. It’s okay, yet there are other controllers I tested that feel better and look like a professional piece of equipment.
- Really good quality velocity keys and a generally nice feel about the keyboard.
- 88-key model is right up there at the top of our review budget.
Novation Launchkey 49 Keyboard
The Mark 2 version of Novation’s 49-key MIDI device and specifically designed for Ableton Live, it will also work with most other DAW programs.
It comes with a huge number of features, including pitch bend, mixing desk, pads and octave control.
It’s easy to get to grips with the Novation 49. The keys are solid and give a decent amount of velocity control. The pad controls are easy to use and the octave control is on point.
The looping and play functions are easily found on the right-hand side of the keyboard, whilst the pitch bend is on the left.
One issue I did have early on, was the keyboard's ability to freeze and make my DAW (Logic Pro) lock up. After a look on the Novation website for some support, I discovered a patch to sort out my specific issue. Sure, it’s better to have no problems at all; however, it’s reassuring to see that Novation are updating their keyboards and supporting customers.
The only negative aspect to the Novation I found were the keys. They’re not weighed at all, which is a funny feeling if you’re used to a weighted feel. This lack of a weighted feel really disappointed me after quite a happy day playing on the Novation. Even a semi weighted feel would have sweetened the deal in my view!
- Packed with features and easy to get into.
- Keys lack any weight to them.
Akai Professional APC 25
If you’re looking towards a smaller MIDI controller, then the 25-key Akai has your back. While it also comes in a 40-key and pad only version, the 25-key model is what I tested.
The Akai comes with 25-keys, 40 pads for playing synth notes, plus the all-important mixing knobs. What really impresses with the controller, is the fact it’s been designed for Ableton Live from the ground up. It’s able to pick up Ableton quickly, and integrate with the program perfectly, allowing you to get on with production.
The Akai is USB powered, as are most of the keyboards featured.
This little keyboard would be a perfect way for a beginner to get into music production. At $129.99, it’s extremely well priced and has the features to hook you from the word go.
As a 25-key controller, it’s compact in use and doesn’t take up much desk space. Of course, that’s at the expense of range; however, it really managed to pack a lot into a small frame!
Another positive from my time with the Akai, was the build quality. This little device is solid and really feels like the type of MIDI controller that will still be providing service for years to come. All the knobs, faders and keys have a nice feel to them, something I wasn’t expecting for $129!
Once again, the velocity wasn’t quite right on the Akai. The keys feel good with a decent weight, yet you need to push hard to get solid note from the device.
One of the cool things about this controller being so closely linked to Ableton, is the way you can map keys perfectly. Once you get comfortable with the Akai, you’ll have a huge degree of flexibility to play with the device and what it can do.
- Quality of build and seamless integration with Ableton Live.
- Key velocity is a little off.
Alesis V123 25 Key & Drum Controller
The Alesis V123 Is a handsome looking beast. Finished in black and without some of the garish coloring of the previous models, the Alesis looks like the kind of professional controller you should get in a studio!
You can pick up the Alesis V125 in 25, 49 and 61-key versions, and for this review, I picked what I believe to be the best of the bunch, the 25-key.
It offers 25 full sized and semi weighted keys, 16 pads you can program as you wish, plus a decent selection of fader, pitch control and mixing knobs.
Once again, USB powers the device and it works on most DAW programs, even Unix based ones like Ubuntu Studio.
The best thing about the Alesis V123, is the semi weighted keys. Of all the keyboards tested so far, none have matched the feel and quality of the Alesis. Sure, you won’t get hammer action, yet they have a nice feel which is sure to appeal to most people.
The drum pads work okay, a little stiff for my liking but that could well get better with use. It’s a shame really as the keys are fantastic and almost worth recommending the Alesis on alone!
Another bonus with the Alesis are the sheer number of mixing knobs to work with. There are 16 in total which should be more than enough for most purposes. The pitch control sliders work well too and I found myself getting some quality bends – possibly because the keys are so good.
Build quality is certainly good for a keyboard of this price. It’s on a par with the Akai and streets ahead of the M-Audio controllers.
As for the negatives, it’s all about the pads I’m afraid. If only they were a little less stiff out of the box and this keyboard would be a winner.
- A solid contender and well-built too.
- At the higher end of our price range, pads could have had a better feel.
After a few days playing, there really were only two contenders. The Akai Professional 25 and the Alesis 25. Oh dear, I’m about to recommend two keyboards with the same number of keys!
Okay, let’s clear this up. The Akai, with its build quality and ease of use, is probably your go to device if you’re going to be running Ableton. It’s so seamless when used with Ableton that you probably don’t want to consider anything else.
Of course, the only issue here is that I tested the 25-key model, and the highest on offer is the 40-key version. I’m not sure what to recommend if you need more keys, if I really had to recommend a 49-key plus device it would probably be the Novation, purely because it’s a brand I trust and the keyboard I tested was decent.
As for anyone who’s running Reason, Logic Pro or GarageBand, you need the Alesis V125 in your life right now, period! Build quality, key feel and integration were perfect and the price wasn’t bad either. Thankfully, the Alesis also comes in 49 and 61-key versions, and although I only looked at the 25-key model, I’m sure the user experience will be the same regardless.
If you’re wondering about price, then the Akai comes in at $129.99, whilst the Alesis will range depending on the number of keys. The 25-key model comes in at $179.00, whilst the 61-key version will be pushing the limits of this review at almost $270.
Hopefully, you can see that it’s perfectly possible to get a decent MIDI controller for well under $200. What’s more, you’ll get some awesome features for that price range, especially if your budget is right up at the higher end.