Why overpay to play?
While some choose to get by without one - particularly now that it's possible to use a pad controller as an instrument - for most people, a MIDI controller keyboard is still an essential part of a computer music making setup.
Fortunately, buying one no longer needs to represent a substantial financial investment. In this round-up, we’ve picked out 15 models that are available for under £100/$150 if you shop around. Indeed, some of them can be yours for considerably less than this.
At this price, you’re not going to get hammer-action keys or the ultimate in control, but you may be surprised at just how many features are available at this price. Sure, some of these products are keys-only affairs, but others give you pads, knobs, buttons and faders to work with, too.
Click on to find (in no particular order) everything from super-compact ‘boards to five-octave models that enable proper playing. Truly, there’s a budget MIDI controller keyboard out there for everyone.
If you're thinking of pushing the boat out, also check out our round-up of the best high-spec MIDI controller keyboards.
And don't miss...
You don't have to spend much too get a keyboard with full-size keys, drum pads, buttons and knobs these days. Alesis's V25 and V49 (not to be confused with the VI series) can both be had for well under £100 (you'll pay more for the V61) and have a 'squared-off' design that makes them look a little more contemporary than some of their rivals.
Also note that the sub-£50 V Mini is an option - this goes with mini keys and loses its bigger brothers' pitch and mod wheels, but still manages to pack in four knobs and four drum pads.
IK Multimedia iRig Keys
IK's iRig Keys range is a little confusing these days, but it can be explained quite succinctly.
As far as we understand it, the models with the white top panel are 'universal', in that they come with the cables required to work with Mac, PC, iOS and Android right out of the box, whereas the black models are billed as PC/Mac controllers but will also work with iOS and Android if you purchase the relevant adaptors/connection kits. Got it?
In each case, you can choose between 25- and 37-note mini-keyed options, and a 37-note model with full-size keys is offered as well. If you want knobs and pads you'll need to look elsewhere, but the iRigs play pretty well (particularly the ones with full-size keys) and are light and portable. The 37-note models come with pitch and mod wheels, too.
The GX49 (there’s also a 61-note model) is a straightforward controller that has the added benefit of some simple DAW control. Everything feels solid, and the pitchbend wheel has a nice/precise tension that makes it very accurate in use.
The keyboard has a nice amount of travel, and the well-balanced springy feel facilitates fast and accurate playing, both of synth lines and sounds that normally demand a weighted action (such as pianos).
DAW integration-wise, this controller does everything it promises. We registered on the Nektar site, downloaded the Apple integration template for Logic/GarageBand, restarted Logic and everything worked.
As a simple, no-nonsense controller, the Impact GX does the job effortlessly and reliably, and has just enough features for speeding up everyday tasks.
Those seeking something more feature-rich should turn their attention to the LX25 and LX49, which do the knob and pad thing as well (the LX61and LX88+ fall outside the price boundary of this round-up)
Korg MicroKEY-2/MicroKEY-2 Air
The second-generation range of Korg's MicroKEYS is sizeable, taking in 25-, 37-, 49- and 61-note models. What's more, each controller has a corresponding 'Air' model, which adds wireless operation via Bluetooth (providing your computer/tablet supports it, that is).
It's worth noting that we're talking mini keys all the way here (even on the larger models) but Korg's do play better than most. Not all of the MicroKEYS fall into our 'budget' price range, but you can get pretty good deals on most of them.
Samson Graphite 25
Samson's name isn't as readily associated with MIDI controllers as some of the other manufacturers on this list, but the Graphite's impressive specs ensure that it's definitely worth a closer look.
You get 25 semi-weighted keys with aftertouch; four velocity-sensitive pads - also with aftertouch; eight knobs; and a decent-sized LCD display that gives you visual feedback. Throw in pitch/mod wheels and both USB and standard MIDI ports and you've got a versatile yet compact keyboard that can be had for surprisingly little cash.
If you want to go even smaller, a slightly less well-spec'd mini-keyed version is also available, or you could spend more and get more control options and keys with the Graphite 49.
The Keystation range has four models in it, three of which fall into our 'affordable' price band.
The smallest of these is the 32-note Keystation Mini 32 (pictured above), a reasonably playable mini-key'd board that gives you a few more notes to jam on than some of its more compact rivals.
Then there are the Keystation 49 II and Keystation 61 II models, workhorse controllers that benefit from full-size keys, proper pitch and mod wheels and transport controls. The 61-note version's keys are semi-weighted, too.
If you just want a functional keyboard and aren't bothered about oodles of control, the Keystations are well worth a look.
Acorn Instruments MasterKey
The MasterKeys - there are 25-, 49- and 61-note versions - look about as conventional as they possibly could do. They feature lightweight but playable keys, pitch/mod wheels, four securely-fitted knobs, a volume slider and a 3-digit LED display. Assignments and other adjustments are made via the Edit button and presses of the keys.
Affordable and functional, these keyboards are well worth a look.
James Bond’s Q is known for his super-hi-tech gadgetry, but Alesis’s range of the same name (it contains 25-, 49- and 61-note models) dispenses with flashiness to provide a solid, back-to-basics experience.
The focus here is very much on playing as opposed to tweaking, though the pitch and mod wheels are assignable. The key action is reassuringly smooth, and users of external MIDI gear will be cheered by the inclusion of a 5-pin MIDI Output.
Behringer U-Control UMA25S
Behringer is renowned for producing products that give you a lot for your money, and you can’t argue with the value offered by the UMA25S.
This striking 25-note device not only sports 21 assignable controllers, but it’s also an audio interface. It even comes with a gig bag, strap and headset mic, so you can strap the thing on and bust some moves while you’re using it on stage (though this is entirely optional).
Arturia MiniLab mkII
Arturia recently refreshed its MiniLab portable MIDI controller, releasing a mkII version that's designed for those who are short on space or who want something portable that they can use to make music on the move.
Gone is the retro-styling of the original version, which is replaced by a clean-cut design. There are 25 velocity-sensitive slim keys, as well as eight RGB backlit performance pads and 16 rotaries, two of which are clickable. As before, pitch and mod wheels are substituted for touch strips.
The MiniLab mkII ships with a copy of Ableton Live Lite, while the Analog Lab Lite software gives you hundreds of sounds from Arturia's V Collection 5, which is definitely a draw. You also get UVI's Grand Piano Model D, a sampled version of a classic Steinway.
Looking sleek and slim, the Xkey's 2-octave keyboard is of the low-profile variety (a mere 16mm deep), yet still retains a decent amount of key travel, making it surprisingly playable. Perhaps the most notable feature, though, is polyphonic aftertouch, which means you can add an extra level of expression on a per-note basis (providing the instrument you're playing supports it).
On the downside, it's hard to use the pitchbend/modulation buttons with any degree of accuracy, but if you want a stylish, portable keyboard with full-size keys, this is a very attractive option.
Note that, if you want to stretch your budget there's a 37-note model, and CME is also preparing an Air version which offers wireless operation via Bluetooth.
Akai APC Key 25
As well as its 25 mini keys, the Ableton Live-friendly APC Key 25 also has a 5x8 grid of clip launching buttons, plus scene launch buttons and eight knobs. That's actually the same amount of clip control as you get with the APC40 mkII, though here we have fewer rotaries and no faders.
Compact enough to fit in a bag with a laptop, the APC Key 25 is a good choice for any Live user who wants an ultra-mobile performing and/or composing setup.
If you want to spend a bit more you could consider the 49- and 61-note models, but at the budget end of the market Novation can offer you MkII versions of its Launchkey Mini and Launchkey 25.
The mini is the baby of the Launchkey family, offering 25 mini keys, 16 velocity-sensitive pads (with three-colour RGB backlights), eight assignable knobs and seven function buttons. This is a healthy amount of control for such a small device.
The slightly pricier 25 goes with full-size synth-action keys and adds a few extra controls, including proper pitch and mod wheels.
Both keyboards integrate tightly with Ableton Live, so users of that DAW should pay particularly close attention.
Akai MPK Mini Mk2
We had quite a bit of time for the original MPK Mini, and the Mk2 version is cut from similar cloth.
Its 25 synth-action mini keys are augmented by eight 'MPC' pads with Note Repeat, and eight assignable knobs. In the absence of pitch/mod wheels you also get a 4-way thumbstick.
The arpeggiator is another noteworthy inclusion; in fact, the MPK Mini packs a fair bit into its compact frame, and the price is very reasonable.
M-Audio can rightly claim to have been innovators in the portable MIDI controller market - the original 25-note Oxygen is the first 2-octave keyboard we can ever recall getting our hands on.
We've now reached the fourth generation of Oxygens, the 25- and 49-note models of which can be picked up within our budget (there's a 61-note version, too). The smaller model gives you pads and knobs (eight of each) while the larger one also offers a bank of sliders for mixing purposes.
This simple-looking, 32-note mini keyboard might look a little underwhelming at first glance. However, the KeyStep packs in a surprising amount of functionality and an impressive number of well-designed features.
There's a USB connection, for hooking the controller up to a computer, MIDI In and Out ports and CV Pitch, Gate and Mod outputs. There are also mini-jack Sync In/Out ports, which will work with pulse clock devices, such as Korg's Volca range, or can send and receive DIN Sync messages via a (separately purchased) adaptor.
Arturia's MIDI Control Centre software allows for further configuration of the outputs, too, including setting the CV outputs to volts per octave or hertz per volt, and adjusting sync settings. A sustain pedal input and power input round off the connections.
Alongside its standard MIDI keyboard functions, the KeyStep also features a built-in polyphonic sequencer, arpeggiator and chord mode. The sequencer has an eight-pattern memory, which comes pre-loaded with patterns but can be overwritten by user input.
With this much functionality packed into a portable and convenient controller keyboard, all for less than £100, the KeyStep is easy to recommend.