What is a MIDI controller and how do they work?

Picture of synthesizer keyboard with two hands playing keys

MIDI Controllers… What Are They? How do they work?

A MIDI controller is a hardware device that sends digital information via the MIDI format to another device. Usually, the term MIDI controller refers to a piano-style keyboard that doesn’t have any built-in sounds of its own – it’s sole purpose is to control other hardware or virtual instruments using the MIDI format. Notes played on the MIDI controller are converted to digital information and transmitted via a MIDI connection or USB connection to your computer or another MIDI device, which then plays the notes.

We highly recommend Novation Launchkey 49 MkII. It looks classy in a beautiful piano-black finish, it’s compact, yet has a full set of features including 16 trigger pads, 8 programmable knobs and transport controls for your DAW. Setting it up is hassle-free and it just works like it should.

Why do I need a MIDI Controller?

A MIDI controller enables you to quickly create ideas using the familiar piano keyboard layout and record them directly into your DAW. They are compact and portable too, so they don’t take up heaps of space on your desk – or you can take them with you to a gig without having to lug a massive keyboard or synth around. 

A MIDI controller provides you with a much better creative workflow than pointing and clicking with your mouse to create notes or tapping away on your computer keyboard. The keys on all modern MIDI controllers are velocity-sensitive enabling you to create dynamics by playing harder or softer – so you can capture a more authentic musical performance. 

Many MIDI controllers also have extra functions like built-in trigger pads for tapping in rhythm patterns, knobs for easily controlling effect parameters on the fly, and transport controls (play/pause, stop, record). 

How much does a MIDI controller cost?

A MIDI controller can cost as little as $50 for a basic 49 key controller, and can range up to $400-$500 or for a full piano size 88-key controller with weighted keys. As a general rule, a good quality controller that will be suitable for most setups will cost around $200 – $300.

As a trained pianist, I personally prefer 61 keys or 88 keys, as I find I run out of notes on the smaller size keyboards. I also prefer weighted or semi-weighed keys that feel more like a real piano to play on.

If you’re just looking to play in a few patterns on one hand then a smaller 49 key or even 25 key controller may be enough for you.

Things to think about when choosing a MIDI controller

As you would with any purchase, consider the factors listed below before you decide on the MIDI Controller that will best serve your needs.

  • Physical Size
  • Value for Money
  • Number of Keys
  • Feel and touch (weighted keys, sensitivity)
  • Controls and connectivity
  • Compatibility with your software
  • Design Aesthetics

Our Recommendations on the best MIDI Controller

To help you come up with a decision, we’ve rounded up seven MIDI controllers that have all the features you need without breaking the bank. 

M-Audio Oxygen 49 MkIV MIDI Controller Review

M Audio Oxygen 49 IV | 49 Key USB/MIDI Keyboard With 8 Trigger Pads & A Full Consignment of Production/Performance Ready Controls

The Oxygen 49 by M-Audio is jam-packed with features despite being insanely compact and super portable. It features 49 keys with velocity sensitivity, 8 trigger pads, 8 assignable knobs, 9 assignable faders, some extra programmable buttons, full transport controls and your standard pitch and modulation wheels. This MIDI controller is ‘plug and play’ using a USB cable, and requires no drivers to install. M-Audio’s Oxygen 49 also ships with a comprehensive software bundle including Pro Tools Lite, Eleven Lite, Ableton Live Lite, Twist, Eighty Eight Ensemble and Xpand!2.

The M-Audio Oxygen is compatible with widely-used DAWs. On the back it has a USB port, power switch and sustain pedal input.

M-Audio Oxygen 49 Features

  • 49 full-size velocity-sensitive keys
  • Onboard pitch and modulation wheels
  • 8 Velocity-sensitive trigger pads
  • 8 assignable knobs
  • 9 assignable faders
  • Built-in LCD screen showing parameter feedback
  • Dedicated octave up and down
  • Full transport controls for your DAW (Loop, Play, Stop, Record)   
  • Fully plug and play
  • USB powered
  • Automatically maps hardware controls to popular DAWs
  • Comes with an excellent production software package
  • Lightweight and compact
M Audio Oxygen 49 IV | 49 Key USB/MIDI Keyboard With 8 Trigger Pads & A Full Consignment of Production/Performance Ready Controls
  • Compact, ultra portable performance keyboard controller with 49 full size, synth action velocity sensitive keys and on board pitch bend and…
  • 8 velocity sensitive trigger pads for beat production and clip launching; 8 assignable knobs and 9 assignable faders for manipulating…
  • Dedicated octave up and down buttons increase the keyboard to the full melodic range and transport buttons let you control your daw without…

Akai MPK Mini Mk II MIDI Controller Review

Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII | 25 Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller With 8 Drum Pads and Pro Software Suite Included – Limited Edition Black Finish

Akai Professional’s MPK Mini MKII is even more portable than the Oxygen 49. With only 25 mini keys, it’s perfect for on-the-go musicians or desktop producers with limited space. It’s perfect for playing melodies, basslines or tapping in rhythm patterns. If you’re planning on playing with two hands, you’ll probably want to go up to a 49 key option!

The MPK Mini MKII looks great in the striking red, black and white color palette – it will certainly stand out on stage or in your studio. In fact, it’s available in 3 unique color schemes; standard white and black keys, an inverse color scheme – with the black and white notes swapped, and the third option: all black keys!

For its size, there are plenty of controls including 8 velocity-sensitive MPC-style trigger pads, 8 assignable knobs, an arpeggiator mode, octave control, and the unique 4-way thumbstick for pitch and modulation control. The one thing that’s missing is transport control – but I guess they ran out of space!

MPC provides a nice software bundle with the unit including Hybrid 3 software synth by Air Music Technology, Wobble by SONiVOX and Akai’s own MPC Essentials production package with a 1gb sample library. Unlike some other models we reviewed, there is no DAW software included with the MPK Mini MKII.

It’s a USB-powered plug and play device and is easy to configure. 

Akai MPK Mini MKII Features

  • 25 velocity-sensitive mini keys
  • 8 velocity-sensitive MPC style trigger pads
  • 8 fully assignable Q knobs
  • 4-way thumbstick for pitch and modulation
  • Built-in arpeggiator
  • USB powered and plug and play
  • A useful software synth and sample bundle
  • Ultra-compact for easy portability and live performances
  • Affordable

Alesis V49 Midi Controller Review

Alesis V49 - 49 Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller with 8 Backlit Pads, 4 Assignable Knobs and Buttons, Plus a Professional Software Suite Included

The Alesis V49 is a straightforward, compact MIDI controller. It has 49 full-sized velocity-sensitive keys, modulation and pitch wheels, four assignable knobs and buttons, and eight back-lit trigger pads. There are octave up and down buttons allowing you to easily access a full range of notes. Its slim design means it doesn’t take up lots of room on your design or in your live setup.

The Alesis V49 comes with a useful suite of software including ProTools | First Alesis Edition, Ableton Live Lite 9 and Eleven Lite, Xpand 2 virtual instrument software by Air Music Tech, plus the Mini Grand piano and the DB33 Hammond organ plugins.

Aesthetically, the V49 is simple with a mellow black and white color palette – but it doesn’t look cheap, it exudes a premium, classy elegance.

A few people have commented that the default key sensitivity is a bit unnatural and you need to re-configure it so it feels more accurate.

The V49 doesn’t have all the controls of some of the other models we looked at and perhaps is not quite as well-designed as say, the M-Audio Oxygen 49, but it’s still a good contender at an affordable price point.

Alesis V49 Midi Controller Features

  • 49 full-size velocity-sensitive keys 
  • Conveniently-sized for desktop or live performance
  • Bundled with a useful software bundle
  • Eight trigger pads
  • 4 assignable knobs
  • 4 assignable button
  • Octave up and down controls
  • Great value for the price
Alesis V49 - 49 Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller with 8 Backlit Pads, 4 Assignable Knobs and Buttons, Plus a Professional Software Suite Included
6,270 Reviews
Alesis V49 – 49 Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller with 8 Backlit Pads, 4 Assignable Knobs and Buttons, Plus a Professional Software Suite Included
  • MIDI Keyboard with 49 full-sized, velocity sensitive square-front keys, perfect for playing Virtual Instruments
  • 8 velocity- and pressure-sensitive backlit pads for beat production and clip launching
  • 4 assignable knobs and 4 assignable buttons interface with your music software. Seamless, visual feedback via illuminated buttons and knobs

M-Audio Keystation 49 MK3 MIDI Controller Review

M-Audio Keystation 49 MK3 - Synth Action 49 Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller with Assignable Controls, Pitch and Mod Wheels, and Software Included

If you’re looking for an affordable 49 key MIDI controller under $100 without any bells and whistles, the M-Audio Keystation 49 MK3 is a great option. The Keystation 49 MK3 has 49 functional full-sized keys that are velocity-sensitive with an authentic and natural feel.

Other controls on the unit include pitch and modulation wheels, octave up and down keys and a volume slider. There are also 3 simple transport controls – play, stop and record. The controls look and feel a bit cheap and basic but they get the job done.

Bundled with the M-Audio Keystation 49 MK3 is a very comprehensive software bundle including two DAW software options: ProTools First and Ableton Live Lite. It also includes Eleven Lite – a guitar processing and amp modeling plugin, Velvet, Hybrid 3, Loom, Vacuum Pro, Eighty Eight Ensemble, and the XPand 2 virtual instrument pack.

M-Audio Keystation 49 MK3 Specifications

  • 49 full-size velocity-sensitive keys
  • Pitch and Modulation wheels and octave up/down controls
  • Basic transport control, volume slider and assignable buttons for controlling parameters in your DAW or software instruments
  • A very comprehensive software bundle
  • Compact and lightweight design for portability and optimizing your workspace
  • Support for iOS devices
M-Audio Keystation 49 MK3 – Synth Action 49 Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller with Assignable Controls, Pitch and Mod Wheels, and Software Included
  • Ultimate Expression – 49 full-size velocity-sensitive keys provide a natural feel that captures every subtle nuance of your performance
  • Total Control – Volume fader, transport and directional buttons for easy control of your software, plus ergonomically-designed pitch and…
  • Immediate Creativity – Easy plug-and-play connection to your Mac or PC—no drivers or power supply required; compatible with iOS devices…

Nektar Impact LX49+ MIDI Controller Review

Nektar Impact LX 49+ USB MIDI Keyboard Controller

The Nectar Impact LX49+ is a classy-looking 49 key MIDI controller with a pretty full set of features for its size. The 49 full size, synth-action keys are velocity-sensitive with 4 different velocity curves to suit your playing style.

There are 26 other programmable controls, including 9 MIDI buttons, 9 assignable faders and 8 potentiometer knobs. There’s a good size LED display, octave and transpose buttons and the standard pitch and modulation wheels.

There are also 8 velocity-sensitive trigger pads with a nice soft touch. The pads can also double as programmable buttons if you prefer. The ‘pad learn’ function enables you to quickly assign the pad to any MIDI note just by tapping the pad then playing the desired note on the keyboard.

The LX49+ comes with a full set of 6 dedicated transport controls including Cycle, Rewind, Forward, Stop, Play and Record. You can also press the ‘shift’ key on the LX49+ to access 6 additional controls.

Nektar has gone the extra mile with their DAW compatibility, including control mapping for 11 major DAWs. Meaning the set-up process is simple and intuitive.

Nectar Impact LX49+ Features

  • Multiple DAW integrations
  • 8 assignable knobs, 9 faders, 9 midi buttons
  • 49 full-size piano-style keys
  • 8 trigger pads with ‘pad learn’ function
  • Pitch bend and modulation wheel
  • BUndled with Bitwig 8 Track DAW
  • iOS support
  • 6 Transport control buttons
  • USB output and full USB powering.
  • Sustain pedal control
Nektar Impact LX 49+ USB MIDI Keyboard Controller
  • POWERFUL CONTROL CENTER: Impact LX49+ features 26 programmable real-time controls: 9x 30mm faders, 9x MIDI buttons and 8x potentiometers….
  • PADS FOR BEATS AND GROOVES: The 8 pads are great to play. Dynamic and sensitive, they are ideally suited for finger drumming. Assign sounds…
  • NEKTAR DAW INTEGRATION: Nektar DAW Integration takes Impact LX+ way beyond the functionality normally offered by USB MIDI controller…

Arturia Keylab 49 Essential MIDI Controller Review

Arturia KeyLab Essential 49 - 49 Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller with Velocity Sensitive Synth Action Keys, 8 Drum Pads, 9 Faders, 9 Knobs and Analog Lab V Software Included

Arturia are known for their powerful synth and music production range. The Keylab 49 Essential brings their innovative design and engineering to a compact and portable MIDI controller.

The 49 high-quality velocity-sensitive keys have a smooth natural action. 

There are plenty of onboard controls including transpose, octave up and down and standard pitch and modulation wheels. The Keylab 49 Essential is the only MIDI controller that we looked at in this article that also includes a 5-pin MIDI output as well as USB. This makes the unit more versatile, enabling you to use it with hardware synths and sound modules as well as with a computer.

There are 8 velocity-sensitive trigger pads that are backlit to make them look pretty. There’s a full set of transport controls, 9 assignable faders and 9 assignable knobs. There’s a two-line LCD display so you can quickly see what preset you’re on and an Analog Lab remote, if you’re using Arturia’s Analog Lab software you can scroll through their presets directly on the Keylab 49. There are not quite as many MIDI buttons as some of the other units we looked at, but still, plenty to get the job done.

Bundled with the unit is a great software suite including Arturia’s own Analog Lab software with over 6,000 synth sounds, Ableton Live Lite and UVI Grand Piano.

The Keylab 49 Essential is plug and play and integrates easily to major DAW’s including Pro Tools, Logic Pro X, FL Studio, Bitwig, Cubase, Ableton Live, Digital Performer, and Studio One.

It’s a little heavier than some of the other 49 key MIDI controllers, but that’s not a big problem in our view. The design aesthetic is classy and modern in a clean white. 

Arturia Keylab 49 Essential MIDI Controller Features

  • 49 full-size Velocity-sensitive synth-action keys
  • 8 backlit trigger pads with velocity sensitivity
  • 9 assignable faders and 9 assignable knobs
  • Dedicated 5-pin MIDI out as well as USB control
  • 6 transport control buttons for your DAW
  • Dedicated pitch and modulation wheels
  • Built-in LCD screen showing parameter feedback 
  • Dedicated octave up and down
  • Fully plug and play
  • Comes with a useful software suite
  • Beautifully designed and engineered
Arturia KeyLab Essential 49 - 49 Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller with Velocity Sensitive Synth Action Keys, 8 Drum Pads, 9 Faders, 9 Knobs and Analog Lab V Software Included
746 Reviews
Arturia KeyLab Essential 49 – 49 Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller with Velocity Sensitive Synth Action Keys, 8 Drum Pads, 9 Faders, 9 Knobs and Analog Lab V Software Included
  • Software Included: Analog Lab V with 2000 synth sounds, Ableton Live Lite, and UVI Grand Piano model D
  • 49 key velocity sensitive keyboard with hybrid synth-piano feel
  • Controllers: 1 clickable encoder, 9 encoders, 9 30mm faders, 6 transport switches, 4 command switches, 1 modulation wheel, 1 pitch bend…

Novation Launchkey 49 MkII MIDI Controller Review

Novation Launchkey 49 USB Keyboard Controller for Ableton Live, 49-Note MK2 Version

Novation makes beautiful, cleverly designed MIDI controllers that are loved by performers and producers. Novation’s products integrate particularly well with Abelton Live but work well with other DAW software too.

The Launchkey 49 MKII by Novation stands out from other MIDI controllers with an impressive 16 RGB backlit trigger pads, where most others have only 8. The pads can cleverly change color to match the color of the clips they are assigned to in your DAW – an innovation that makes things just a little bit more intuitive for creating.

The full-size keys have a light touch to them with full velocity sensitivity so you can play with expression and create the dynamics to match your music.

We’ve already mentioned the 16 trigger pads with their pretty colors – there are also 8 assignable MIDI knobs, 9 faders and 9 buttons. In particular, the Launchkey 49 MKII works seamlessly with Abelton – the faders, knobs, buttons and pads automatically map to the mixer, devices and clip launchers. Novation integrates well with many popular DAWs too – so you can just plug and play and start creating.

The design aesthetic is classy and modern with a piano black surface on top and a unique teal underbelly. The Novation is one of the lighter 49 key controllers at only 9.04Lb.

Novation Launchkey 49 MkII MIDI Controller Features

  • 49 full size, synth-action, velocity-sensitive keys
  • 8 assignable MIDI knobs
  • 9 x 45mm assignable MIDI sliders 
  • 6 dedicated transport controls
  • Pitch bend and modulation wheels
  • 2 octave / transpose buttons
  • 7 segment 3 character LED display
  • 8 mute/solo buttons plus toggle button
  • 3 InControl buttons 
  • USB B 2.0 output 
  • Sustain pedal 1/4” jack socket
Novation Launchkey 49 USB Keyboard Controller for Ableton Live, 49-Note MK2 Version
  • MK2 version of Novation’s 49-note USB keyboard controller for Ableton Live
  • 16 velocity-sensitive RGB pads, 8 knobs, and dedicated navigation and control buttons
  • Software for Mac and PC and sustain pedal 1/4 inch jack socket,7 segment 3 character LED display,pitch bend and modulation wheels,16…

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the function of a MIDI controller?

MIDI controllers provide an affordable and convenient way to send a signal to another MIDI-capable device. You can record MIDI notes and trigger virtual instruments inside your computer, or control another MIDI device such as a synthesizer, sound module, or drum machine.

Are MIDI controllers necessary?

If you’re serious about producing music on a computer, sooner or later you’ll want to invest in a good MIDI controller, so you can create music that feels natural with expression and dynamics.

What should I look for in a MIDI controller?

Choose a MIDI controller that is nice to play with velocity-sensitive keys, ensure it has the controls you need with the right assignable knobs and faders for your workflow. It is also helpful if it is easy to set-up and integrate with your DAW.

Can I use a digital piano as a MIDI controller?

Yes, it is possible to use most digital pianos as MIDI controllers, as long as they have a 5-pin MIDI-out port or USB MIDI connection. Connect the MIDI output from the digital piano into an audio interface with MIDI capability and connect this to your computer. If your digital piano has a USB MIDI connection, you can connect straight into any computer with a USB port.

The downside of using a digital piano is that they are often more bulky and also don’t usually have the assignable faders, knobs and trigger pads that a dedicated MIDI controller has.

How do I fix MIDI controller latency?

MIDI controller latency issues can occur when the hardware and software configuration is not correctly set up. The most common reason for this is the audio buffer size is set too high on your audio playback engine. To fix this adjust the audio buffer size down to around 128 or 256.

Read the detailed explanation about MIDI controller latency and delay.

What is a MIDI controller? Conclusion

The seven MIDI controllers we looked at are some of the best-rated ones in the market today. They are all very good and we have no hesitation in recommending any of them. Here are a few tips to help you choose the right one for you.

If you’re just getting started, just want to play keys, and don’t need lots of other controls, the M-Audio Keystation 49 MK3 is a great option and comes in just under $100.

If your budget stretches a bit further and you want some extra controls in the form of assignable faders and knobs, a few extra dollars will get you the Oxygen 49 by M-Audio

If you’re working with Ableton Live and want a dedicated MIDI controller that operates seamlessly with your workflow, you can’t go past the  Novation Launchkey 49 MKII

If you want a super compact option and portability is important to you, the Akai MPK Mini MKII is a great option with an impressive set of features for its size!

If you’re working with hardware synths and want the ability to connect via a standard 5-pin MIDI port, the Keylab 49 Essential by Arturia is the only one in this article that has that functionality as well having all the other standard features that you would need.

Tim Wells

Hi I’m Tim Wells – an experienced session and live drummer, mixing engineer and all-around lover of music! I’ve been passionate about music from a young age and I’ve had the great privilege of creating and performing music all around the world. I've had the incredible experience of touring as a live drummer through over 10 countries, performing in festivals, clubs, street corners, churches and cafes in front of audiences anywhere between 8 and 8,000! I've also spent time in the recording studio as a session drummer, but also as a recording and mixing engineer.

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