Aside from the computer itself, a good MIDI controller keyboard is the centrepiece of any computer-based music production setup. The main creative interface between you and your software, it’s the primary component responsible for translating your ideas into musical reality. If your budget is tight, choosing a great cheap MIDI keyboard to suit your needs can be a minefield.
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Common questions include how many keys, what size and what extra features do I need? To aid in your quest for a quality budget MIDI controller keyboard, listed here you’ll find ten of the best available, all from major manufacturers like Akai, Alesis, Nektar and Arturia. Each one is ideal for beginner music makers or producers creating on the go. The most expensive option comes in just shy of $140/£115, while the cheapest is £44/$53, so there’s nothing here that will break the bank.
Which cheap MIDI keyboard should I buy?
MIDI keyboards fall into two main categories - the more portable devices with 25 keys and the larger, desk-based options with 49 or more keys. In the mini corner, for the sheer number of features crammed into such a light, compact footprint, MusicRadar’s choice is the Akai MPK Mini Mk2.
Meanwhile, champion of the larger keyboard controllers has to be M-Audio. If you’re in the market for a budget 5-octave MIDI controller, the Keystation 61 MK3 is an obvious contender, whereas for more features and fewer keys, we’d go for the Oxygen 49 Mk4.
Buying a cheap MIDI keyboard: advice
If you’re just starting out with keyboards, a smaller, 25-key MIDI controller should do just fine for inputting drum beats, simple bass and melody lines and basic chords. These have the advantage of being cheaper and more portable than their bigger cousins and take up a smaller footprint on your work surface. These days, mini keys are just as responsive and easy to play as full-size versions, but can be tricky if you suffer from ‘sausage finger syndrome’, in which case you might want to stick to full-size keys.
Number of keys
All of the best cheap MIDI keyboards featured here come with octave shift buttons, meaning that the full range of note pitches are accessible just by pressing a couple of buttons. That said, if you’re a more advanced player or want to learn how to play two-handed, and if you have the desk space, it’s better to go for a four octave (49-note) or five octave (61-note) keyboard.
If you want to play proper piano parts, a sustain pedal input is a must, but with a lot of producers now working ‘in-the-box’ on a single computer, you don’t necessarily need a traditional, 5-pin MIDI out unless you have some hardware MIDI synths to connect it to. All controllers here can be powered via the USB port.
Being able to control the transport of your DAW and adjust the parameters of your software instruments from your keyboard rather than your computer is always handy. Full DAW integration comes as a bonus if you’re on a budget, however it’s often the preserve of the more expensive end of the market.
Top cheap MIDI keyboards you can buy right now
As far as MIDI controller keyboards go, the Akai MPK Mini Mk2 is an oldie but goodie, still hanging in there at the top of the sales charts after five years, and for good reason.
Akai have pitched the MPK Mini Mk2 perfectly between breadth of features, portability, build quality and affordability. Standout features include the 4-way joystick for pitch bend and modulation, the built-in arpeggiator and note repeat functions, generous provision of knobs and fantastic-feeling MPC-style pads.
Whether you need a small, lightweight MIDI controller to slip into your laptop bag when on the move, or you want to experiment with controlling software instruments and plugins, the MPK Mini MK2 wraps everything up in an affordable, practical package.
If you’re someone who’s always making music on the move, a pint-sized MIDI controller keyboard that’ll fit in a laptop bag is an essential item. Nektar’s SE25 demonstrates firmly that features and playability needn’t be sacrificed for the sake of size and portability.
Only outpriced in the budget MIDI controller stakes by the ever-so-slightly cheaper Akai LPK25 (which doesn’t provide any form of DAW integration), Nektar’s new pocket powerhouse represents incredible value for money.
Where else can you get Nektar DAW integration for Bitwig, Cubase, Garageband, Logic, Nuendo, Digital Performer, Mixcraft, Reason, Reaper, Sonar and Studio One for a measly 44 quid?
If you’re looking for a cost-effective entry into Arturia’s Analog Lab suite of vintage analogue synth emulations, look no further than the MiniLab MkII MIDI controller.
Like all Arturia gear, the MiniLab MkII is a good-looking, well-built and functional MIDI controller, with those 16 encoders providing plenty of scope for tweaking the 500 Analog Lab virtual vintage synth presets it ships with - the encoders are automatically assigned to the most relevant parameters for each sound.
Weighing in at 1.5 kilos, its compact footprint means that it passes the laptop bag test easily, and while equally at home as the centrepiece of your studio, is obviously solidly built enough to withstand being hefted about from place to place.
Native Instruments’ Komplete Kontrol brand is an industry-leading range of software and hardware devices. The opportunity to buy into it at such a bargain price with the Komplete Kontrol M32 MIDI controller is therefore very tempting indeed.
The M32’s solid, slab-like profile just oozes quality, continuing the flat, black design signature of the rest of the NI range. The M32 sports more keys than most of its mini-keyed peers - 32 instead of 25 - spanning 2.5 octaves from F2 to C5
As a bonus, the bundled software includes Maschine Essentials, the entry-level version of NI’s acclaimed Maschine software. However, like the larger A-series keyboards, the M32 is also fully capable of controlling the full version of Maschine.
Developed for Ableton users, this outstanding cheap MIDI controller offers easy control for triggering clips and scenes. The clip record, launch and track select buttons work brilliantly right out of the box, and the eight rotary knobs map automatically to the most often-used parameters in the currently selected plugin or instrument.
Of course, the Launchkey Mini Mk2 isn’t exclusive to Ableton, as it plays perfectly nicely with other DAWs too, but if you’re a Live user, it undoubtedly represents the best solution at this price point.
If you’re after larger keys, a full-size, 25-key version - the Novation Launchkey 25 Mk2 - is available for the still-reasonable sum of around £110/$133.
If you need five octaves and can squeeze an extra few notes out of your budget, M-Audio’s venerable Keystation range of MIDI controllers offers this 61-key beauty for just a shade over the £100 mark.
The Mark 3 version listed here offers a full-size, semi-weighted five-octave board of the kind of quality you’d expect from M-Audio, plus the option to control your DAW’s transport via dedicated buttons.
There’s the usual trade-off between the number of keys versus breadth of features, but if you’re looking for sheer playability without all the bells and whistles, this is one of the best cheap MIDI keyboards out there, especially when you consider that there’s also an 88-key version available for around a measly £150.
Now in their fourth iteration, M-Audio’s Oxygen MIDI controllers have always been popular, all three versions (25, 49 and 61-key) offering a great compromise between features, key range and price.
Compared to the Keystation 61, with the 49 you may be losing an octave, but you’re gaining much more in terms of functionality. If hardware controls are more important to you than an expansive range of keys, the Oxygen 49 makes a great compromise.
With an impressive array of knobs, buttons and sliders, dedicated DAW transport controls and eight premium-feel drum pads, this compact yet powerful MIDI controller should have you covered and then some.
Korg’s MicroKey MIDI controller range has long been popular with musicians on the move. The MicroKey Air builds on the success of the original and adds wireless connectivity via Bluetooth for an even more portable solution.
The 37-note version shown here packs a decent 3-octave range into a slim profile for just 99 quid, although there are also 25, 49 and even 61-note versions available.
The Bluetooth feature is easy to set up and enables wireless connection to laptops, PC’s and even iOS devices. With an average of one hour of use per day, 2 AA batteries will allow around one month of operation.
The Alesis V49 MIDI controller offers a decent balance of full-size, firmly-sprung semi-weighted keys and assignable hardware controls for not much money, making it a great best cheap MIDI keyboard contender.
The build quality is impressively solid, and the downloadable V Editor software allows you to modify the feel of the keys should you need to.
The unusual layout with the pads to the left of the keyboard gives this controller a unique look and an ultra-slim profile that’s ideal for those with a shallow workspace. If you like to have a MIDI controller in front of your computer monitor on your desk, the Alesis V49 is well worth a look.
Finding a budget MIDI controller keyboard you can play properly with two hands can be something of a challenge. Luckily, German champions of the cash-strapped musician Thomann have you covered with their Swissonic brand.
The EasyKey 61 delivers an astonishingly playable, 5-octave, full-size keyboard with zero bells and whistles for a whisker under €100, currently around £90/$110 at the time of writing.
While admittedly short on extras, there’s USB bus power, a 5-pin MIDI out, a sustain pedal input, pitch bend and modulation wheels and 61 lovely full-size keys. So if all you really need is the ability to play two-handed parts with a minimum of fuss, the EasyKey 61 offers everything you need, and nothing you don’t.
About the author
Dave Clews has been making music with computers since the mid 1980’s. Following a 20-year career as a session programmer and keyboard player, he's now a freelance music technology writer, Computer Music magazine’s resident music theory columnist and the author of Avid Pro Tools Basics.