In 2020, there are more MIDI controllers and sequencers on the market than ever before. You’ll find keyboards, pads and other devices that look more like they belong in a sci-fi show than a studio.
Here, we present the best new MIDI controllers and sequencers of the year, as voted for by you, our esteemed users. First up, we have our worthy winner...
1. Arturia Keystep Pro
As its name suggests, Arturia's 2020 vote winner combined elements of its existing KeyStep and BeatStep Pro devices. Much like the latter of those, the KeyStep Pro is designed for use with both hardware and software, combining MIDI, USB and analogue CV/gate outputs, allowing for connection to hardware instruments, modular systems and plugins/DAWs simultaneously.
The 37-note keyboard is equipped with both velocity sensitivity and aftertouch. There are pitch and mod touchstrips placed to the left of the keyboard for extra expression, plus a sustain pedal input on the rear.
This is more than just a straight-up controller, though; there are four polyphonic sequencer tracks onboard, allowing the KeyStep Pro to take control of multiple instruments at once.
2. Akai MPK mini mk3
Akai claims that the MPK mini is “the world’s best-selling USB MIDI keyboard controller,” so it there was a lot riding on the release of the mk3. In our review, we called it a "very decent upgrade with genuinely pro features, that cements its position in the top handful of mini keyboard controllers available," and it seems many of you agreed, voting it to second spot in 2020.
Described as “a musical Swiss Army Knife,” this once again features 25 keys, though this time with a redesigned keybed that promises better dynamic expression and response. This is joined by eight MPC performance pads, eight endless rotary knobs and a 4-way joystick for pitch and modulation control.
Parameter feedback comes from an OLED display, while performance features include note repeat on the pads and a built-in arpeggiator. Bundled software comprises MPC Beats, Akai’s free beatmaking DAW (plus expansions) and Air Hybrid, Mini Grand and Velvet.
3. Novation Launchpad Pro Mk3
As before, this is great for working with Ableton Live: it offers dedicated controls for clip and scene launching, transport, quantising and duplicating, while access to the tap tempo, Print To Clip and Capture MIDI features is now onboard, too. There’s also a Chord Mode that lets you build and play chords straight from the grid.
But there’s more: Launchpad Pro now contains a powerful MIDI sequencer that can be used to drive both your plugins and hardware gear. Setups can be configured in Novation’s Components software, and there are eight Custom Modes to work with.
4. Arturia Keystep 37
The KeyStep 37 is the ‘middle child’ of the KeyStep MIDI keyboard range, sitting above the standard model but below the Pro variant, above. Think of it as the bottle of wine you’d choose on a first date in order to appear neither too flashy or too cheap.
Like its siblings, this is a MIDI keyboard with some significant extras. In this case, a sequencer and arpeggiator, chord performance tools - including a strum feature - scale quantisation and real-time MIDI controls.
It’s designed to encourage creativity and, as well as working with your computer, can also be used to control MIDI synths or CV and modular gear.
5. Novation Launchkey 37 mk3
Having introduced the third-generation of the Launchkey Mini MIDI keyboard in 2019, Novation has dropped the Launchkey MkIII range in 2020. There are four versions - these come with 25, 37 49 and 61 full-size keys respectively - each of which is laser-targeted at users of Ableton Live.
Novation says that it worked closely with Ableton to ensure the new Launchkey “provides deeper and more immediate access to Ableton Live’s controls than any other controller in its class”. You can activate Live’s Capture MIDI function with a dedicated button, for example, and there are track arm, quantise, click and loop controls. Drum Mode, meanwhile, puts you in control of your Drum Racks.
Other creative features include the Scale and Chord modes. The former transposes the keyboard to lock to your chosen scale, while the three Chord mode options enable you to trigger chords with one finger. There’s also an arpeggiator.
6. Arturia MicroLab
MicroLab is Arturia’s latest and smallest keyboard, and it joins an established stable of controller keyboards that includes popular models such as MiniLab MkII and KeyLab MkII.
With just 25 compact keys (they’re the same size as the MiniLab by the way) and a small number of controls to the left, MicroLab is designed primarily for portability, and at 0.77kg and just over 41cm long fits comfortably in a regular backpack.
7. Novation Launchpad Mini mk3
Novation’s Ableton Live Launchpad grid controllers have been massively popular and that success has spawned a number of updates and variants with differing price-tags.
At £100 the latest ‘mini’ incarnation (Mk3) is very affordable and continues the tradition of the Session View-ready 8x8 backlit launcher.