So you want to upgrade your music making arsenal and join in on the MIDI keyboard fun? This is one of the best ideas you’ve had since deciding to make music in general! MIDI keyboard controllers are becoming more of the norm as time goes on, especially with the continuing rise of digital setups, whether it’s for the home, semi-pro or professional studio. As we saw in our top 10 MIDI keyboard controllers article, there are numerous models and brands out there that offer very nice makes of keyboards to give us some options. But which one is best for those of us who are just starting out? What’s up with all of these knobs, encoders, faders, and crazy software bundles? Which one is best for beginners? Let’s take a look at a few choices.
Things to keep in mind for beginner MIDI controllers
- Your budget!
- Which extra features do you actually need?
- Do you want some software that comes along with it? Most come with bundles
- Find a keyboard that is easy to map with your software
- MIDI keyboards come in various different key counts. How many keys do you truly need?
Firstly, as always with beginner music gear, your budget is obviously important. To our avail, a lot of the popular brands offer simple, more basic solutions for beginners or those who don’t want any of the fancy additional functions or software. We’ve seen some very solid keyboards for beginners start around $100.
Although it does depend on the musician, we know many just starting out who try to steer away from keyboards that have numerous other assignable options, such as faders, knobs, buttons, thumb-sticks or pedal inputs…unless these pertain to you. If you are on the fence, we’d ultimately say go for it because learning how to use them only make your workflow better in the long run. These are all however extra features some keyboards justify their high price with at times. Although, we list a few that have some extra features that still come in an affordable price as well. We try to find the perfect middle ground of a keyboard without fancy stuff yet still provide a solid key-bed or pad-make at an affordable price.
Software bundles are becoming more popular with newer versions of MIDI keyboards. Some with digital audio workstations (check out that link if you need some software to start with) such as Ableton Live Lite, others with virtual instruments for sounds and effects plug-ins…but do you really need these? If you’re just starting out, you just may! Ableton is a great way to start if you’re looking for a software to make music with. If this is so, try to grab a keyboard that offers the bundle you’ll need — it’ll save you some money, especially if you’re starting to build your own studio and will need more gear later down the road.
MIDI mapping used to be a difficult task to get the hang of. Fortunately today, it has become so big that most programs map with controllers flawlessly. Some keyboards even come with their own ‘mapping’ software which makes the process even more smooth. If that’s a concern for you, we give you a few options of keyboards that provide this. Although, if you go with a model that doesn’t necessarily have an extra mapping feature, you will just have to do so through your digital audio workstation (DAW – the program for music making), which may take some learning, but it isn’t impossible. Most DAWs are completely fine with any piece of gear nowadays, unless the equipment is outdated (pre-2012).
Key counts are important to take into consideration. The most widespread forms of key counts come in either 25, 49, 61 or 88. This is again where personal preference comes in — how big of a keyboard player are you? Do you have enough space in your setup/desk? Many keyboarders will not go under 49-keys because they’re efficient in playing and need to use both hands. I’ve also heard of some saying 61 is the only way to go as it gives them an even bigger range for playing. An 88-key MIDI keyboard is rather rare, but it’s an option and some even swear by this because it is the default count for a piano. On the other hand, a 25-key keyboard is difficult to use both hands with, but if you want a smaller solution and can get away with it they are ideal for those looking to save money.
Here are some of our key-count specific guides:
- Best Mini MIDI Keyboard
- 25-key MIDI Keyboard
- 49-Key MIDI Keyboards
- 61-Key MIDI Keyboards
- 88-Key MIDI Keyboards
We recommend going with 49 if you’re a beginner — it’s not too overkill, is just enough to still allow you to play with two hands, and is typically within the medium price range of keyboard models. And the winner goes to…
Our pick for best MIDI keyboard for beginners:
The M-Audio Oxygen 49
After sifting through the beginner keyboards in the market, we went with something around the middle-tier of including the essential MIDI controller functions, the stability and build of the keyboard, as well as the overall price in general. This model also includes a nice little software bundle that isn’t too overkill. M-Audio music equipment is one of our favorite MIDI controller creators and their Oxygen model is in our opinion a great middle-ground to start if you are a MIDI beginner. Let’s take a look at the Oxygen in-depth.
Overall build and stability
The Oxygen’s key bed is rather nice for a retail price of $150. They aren’t necessarily the make of a real piano (called hammer action or graded hammer) or ‘Italian made’ like some of the other keyboards in the market claim (going for $500 or so retail), but they get the job done and will last you quite a few years as a long-term investment. For a beginner, they’re more than enough. The keys are ‘synth action‘, which means they are a bit springier than semi or full-weighted keys, but this is actually preferred by a lot of producers I know because the keys come back up quicker to allow for a faster playing of the sounds.
The Oxygen keyboard also features some nice trigger pads, which is never a bad thing. Even if you don’t plan on using them right away, it can be something you’d incorporate into your workflow down the road. There are 8 of them that you can assign sounds to via your software, typically used by many for drums, but I’ve experimented with other samples I’ve collected before. They are nice not only for recording a more ‘natural sounding’ drum beat but also to play around with and jam!
Other features and functions
Although they are a bit extra, it can never hurt to have some faders or buttons to use, even if it’s later down the road once you’ve gotten the hang of your controller. I remember when I first bought my first MIDI keyboard I was a bit daunted by all of the extra features and pretty much only used the pads and keys for a good year or two. Now I use everything (especially for live performances), but for $150 the Oxygen is great for providing these as a ‘just in case’. The 8 knobs included can be assigned for mixing, particularly certain effects for manipulation. You could assign a reverb effect to one knob and turn it up and down as you please for a particular track, etc. The 9 assignable faders are the same concept as the knobs, except you have the typical vertical up/down approach towards an assigned effect. These aren’t necessarily essential, but are merely pluses.
Lastly, the ‘transport controls’ the Oxygen offers helps make the assigning task between your keyboard and software a bit less of a headache. You can technically not even touch your mouse with the Oxygen — you just have to read some of the manual to learn how to do so. Otherwise, you’re still able to traditionally assign sounds to your keyboard through your software.
Software bundle included
What makes this MIDI keyboard also perfect for those of us starting out is their nice little software bundle. If you haven’t chosen a software to start learning to make your music yet, it comes with Ableton Live Lite (one of the most popular digital audio workstations out there!). We absolutely love this software and think it is great for not only beginners but for all levels of music creation and live performing — which makes it perfect for beginners because once you learn it, you’re set for a very long time as you progress your music making adventures.
Aside from Ableton Live, you’re also getting a nice little virtual instrument which provides sounds for the keyboard to play. You can download some free sounds around the internet, but for starting, their inclusion of SONiVOX Twist gives you some nice synth sounds to play with out of the box. We love the software bundle of the Oyxgen — just enough without sacrificing too much of the price of the controller.
The final word on our pick
All in all, the M-Audio Oxygen 49 MIDI keyboard is a perfect fit for beginners. We chose the 49-key count because it is the most popular. Feel free to check out the other versions if you want to save some money or think 49 may be too overboard. The Oxygen 25 keyboard and Oxygen 61 controller are also great options if you want a different key count.
Here’s a cool video demo of the Oxygen for some visual perspective.
Other options for beginner keyboard controllers
Although we were quite careful in our pick for the best beginner MIDI keyboard, we have some near-winners below which fall in different price ranges for you to take into consideration. Don’t forget to review our list we’ve included earlier in the article — pick what’s best for you, depending on your needs and budget.
This is a great starter MIDI keyboard at under $100. If you don’t necessarily need drum pads (although we still recommend getting them just in case and more as a ‘why not?’ type of question) on the controller, this is one to look at as it doesn’t have many additional features and gives you just the essentials. Just keep in mind that it’s only 25 keys and they are mini (smaller than normal sized keyboards). The keys are also velocity-sensitive to give the playing a more natural sound. It’s plug-and-play via USB which makes it extremely easy to sync up with your computer, regardless if you’re using PC or Mac. Has an octave up and down button to change the pitches of your sounds as well. A great, affordable MIDI keyboard.
A little lesser known among the top brands, this MIDI keyboard is a gem and very affordable at that. Offering only keys (albeit a rather nice key-bed for the price), you get the essentials for under $100. The keys are velocity sensitive as well, plug-and-play via USB, and it also includes a nice little touch with pitch and modulation wheels (assignable to warp sounds). Nothing much else with this one, but you’re getting a solid keyboard that’s very easy to setup and use without any drivers needed to install.
This is a step up from the LPK and is only around $30 more. What’s better about this keyboard is the inclusion of drum pads, a thumb-stick and a few encoders in case you need these functions (or you may end up learning how to use them down the road, so keep in mind!). The MPK’s are some of our favorite MIDI Keyboard controllers; however, this one is a bit more advanced. If you plan on becoming accustomed to some of the more additional features and think you may need it, we recommend grabbing this as a long-term investment. You first have the 25-keys (they are mini) and are synth-action as well, but it also comes with a thumb stick which allows you to do some pitch and modulation controls. It also has very nice quality drum pads, and “Q-Link” knobs which are also alternatives to tweaking plug-ins and effects from your software. Not to mention the pretty hefty software it comes with.You can read our full review of the Akai MPK Mini MkII for more info.
A different key count here at 37 — we like it because it’s in the middle of the popular 25 and 49 counts. The microKEY is great for beginners, offering mini keys with velocity sensitivity, is rather lightweight and USB-powered, has an octave up and down function as well as a ‘key transpose’ (puts the note into another key automatically), and lastly pitch bend and modulation wheels to boot. A nice alternative for around $100 retail to take a look at.
A bit nicer in terms of key build here. The Keystation has semi-weighted keys as opposed to mini keys previously stated in the list, so if you want a nicer simple keyboard without pads or a lot of extra functions we recommend going with this. You’ve also got the pitch bend and modulation wheels for dynamic play, ‘transport controls’ as seen in our original pick, as well as a sustain pedal input (a foot pedal you can plug into the keyboard for some extra dynamic, more natural sounding keys). It also comes with a nice virtual instrument called Eighty-Eight by SONiVOX, which has some nice piano sounds.