With the hundreds of MIDI drum controllers on the market today, finding one that works best for Ableton can be a huge pain. Compared to other DAWs like Pro Tools, Logic, Reason, etc., Ableton has a different workflow. Best Midi Keyboards & Controllers for Ableton Live (Overview) These keyboards (and controller) offer the best experience for Ableton users with a range of requirements: Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII Novation Launchkey 61 MKII.
We are having a look at the best MIDI keyboards available in 2021 and giving our thoughts on what we consider to be our top 10.
To help you choose we have included small MIDI keyboard reviews with each one along with our pros and cons.
Let’s get started!
Here are the best MIDI keyboard controllers 2021:
- AKAI MPK Mini MkII – A Personal Favorite
- M-Audio Hammer 88 – Best Weighted Keys
- Arturia KeyLab Essential 61 – Best All-Rounder
- NI Komplete Kontrol S88 MkII – Best All-Rounder (Runner-Up)
- Akai MPK Road 88 – Best for Touring/Gigging
- Novation Launchkey 49 MkII – Best for Ableton Users
- M-Audio Keystation 49 MkIII – Best Beginner Controller
- Roli Seaboard Block – Best Alternative Choice
- Studiologic Numa Compact 2x – Best Hybrid
- Alesis V61 – Best Budget Controller
Akai MPK Mini MkII – A Personal Favorite
Since the first version of the MPK Mini, it has been one of the most popular MIDI controllers on the market. Despite its small stature, this little MIDI keyboard is a producers dream.
The main selling point of the MPK Mini MkII is the authentic Akai MPC drum pads. There are 8 pads that can be used for triggering drums, samples, or patterns. Samples can be assigned to bank A or bank B meaning you effectively have the use of 16 pads (8 at a time) and you can switch between banks instantly during a performance.
The MPK Mini MkII comes with 25 velocity-sensitive mini-keys with octave up/down functionality. While 25 keys don’t exactly provide a huge range it’s more than enough to lay down chords and lead lines.
There are 8 assignable knobs that allow you to edit parameters like cut-off, resonance, etc, in real-time. Some other nice performance features are a powerful arpeggiator and a note repeat trigger. Instead of a wheel, Akai has opted for a thumbstick to control pitch bend and modulation which is very intuitive.
Like most Akai controllers you get a pretty good software bundle with the MPK Mini MkII that includes MPC Essentials, Sonivox Wobble, and Air Music Tech’s Hybrid.
Between the included software you have some powerful production tools and some really high-end synth, bass, and piano sounds. All of it is brought together via Akai’s VIP 3.1 platform that makes accessing all of your plugins/VST’s a breeze.
This is top of our list because it’s the pound for pound champ of MIDI controllers. Despite its small stature, this is one of the best-selling and most versatile controllers available.
For a producer or beatmaker, the MPK Mini MkII is a powerhouse that lets you do just about everything in the studio, on the go, or on stage. Add in the included software and the value for money is undeniable.
M-Audio Hammer 88 – Best Weighted Keys
The Hammer 88 by M-Audio is an absolute monster of a MIDI keyboard controller. It’s also the most simple in our top 10 because it’s nothing more than 88 keys with fantastic a hammer action feel.
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What you get with the Hammer 88 is a truly realistic piano playing experience. It’s aimed at musicians who primarily play the piano but still want the option to control all of their VST’s.
This level of realism in the weight and action of the keys isn’t usually found in a MIDI controller so M-Audio is definitely filling a gap in the market here.
A master volume fader along with pitch bend and modulation wheels are the only onboard controls. The volume fader can be assigned to control other parameters of your plugin/VST so there is some versatility there.
As you’d expect from a keyboard with such a realistic piano feel, the Hammer 88 has 3 pedal inputs for sustain, soft, and expression for more realism.
So, it has no surprising features and not much versatility but it’s still one of our top-rated MIDI keyboards. If you are a pianist or composer who wants a realistic piano feel in a MIDI controller you won’t get better than this. It’s the best weighted MIDI keyboard on the market right now.
It’s great for studio work and live performance if you don’t mind something a little heavier than the average MIDI keyboard.
Ultimately, you are trading features and versatility for precision and realism. If you’re willing to make that trade the Hammer 88 is without a doubt one of the best MIDI controllers out there.
Arturia KeyLab Essential 61 – Best All-Rounder
The KeyLab Essentials series is a streamlined version of the successful KeyLab collection. The KeyLab Essential 61 is one of the slickest-looking MIDI keyboard controllers on our list.
This one is all about control, controlling as much as possible without leaving the keyboard. The aim is, of course, to increase your workflow and in music production that’s important.
The Keylab Essential 61has transport controls that work perfectly with all major DAW’s. It also has 9assignable faders and 9 assignable knobs which can control a huge amount ofparameters in real-time. This means less time clicking a mouse and more time atthe keyboard. The pitch bend and modulation wheels are also assignable.
There are also 8 very good backlit, velocity-sensitive pads – not quite MPC-quality but very good nonetheless. You can program entire tracks with keys, drums, samples and so on all from the KeyLab and this also makes it a very powerful live performance tool.
Arturia has added a Chord function that lets you trigger complex chords by pressing a single note, making composition much easier/faster.
Arturia tends to give pretty good software bundles with the Keylab range although the exact VST’s do vary from time to time. Currently, you get a copy of the Mini V synth and the stage 73 V electric piano.
This is just a high-quality MIDI controller in every sense. It’s well built, versatile, easy to use, and comes with some great VST’s. If you are looking for a keyboard to be the center of your studio setup then the KeyLab Essential 61 is for you.
Arturia says the KeyLab will have you spending far less time pointing and clicking at a computer and that’s definitely true. That control and workflow are why the KeyLab series has been some of the best-selling MIDI keyboard controllers for years now.
NI Komplete Kontrol S88 MkII – Best All-Rounder (Runner-Up)
In recent years Native Instruments has become a name that producers of all levels are very familiar with. Their virtual instruments are used everywhere, from bedroom demos to chart-topping hits.
It’s quite common for a producer/musician tot stick with a certain brand and if you are a NI plugin user then there’s no better partner than their Komplete Kontrol S88.
NI’s Komplete instruments are pre-mapped to the Kontrol S88 so there is no messing about to get set up. When you use your VST’s there are two color screens to help you find and select whatever you need quickly.
Each key can also be illuminated by RGB lights in various colors to show different split groups, etc. For example, if you have drums mapped to certain keys and synth sounds to others, drums could be purple and synths yellow. It’s not a feature that will make you buy this keyboard but it’s one of several small details that add up to make your work easier.
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It has 88 hammer-action keysXampp joomla. with a pretty convincing feel, the weight offers enough resistance to be expressive. The keys have aftertouch which tends to works best on semi-weighted or lighter keys but it’s still a nice feature to have.
There are transport controls that work with all major DAW’s, 8 assignable knobs and pitch bend/modulation wheels. Underneath the wheels, you will find a touch strip which can be very useful depending on the sound/instrument you are using.
The main issues with this keyboard are that as a realistic playing experience it’s not as good as the Hammer 88 and as an overall control center the KeyLab Essential tops it.
However, if you are an avid Native Instruments user then the ease of use for you will outweigh everything else. Quite a simple verdict on this one, if you primarily use NI plugins then buy this, if you don’t then look elsewhere.
Akai MPK Road 88 – Best for Touring/Gigging
Just launched earlier this year the Akai MPK Road 88 is the ultimate touring/gigging MIDI controller. The MPK Road 88 is actually built into a custom hard flight case so it’s travel-ready then just flip the lid and it’s ready for the stage.
It comes with Akai’s exclusive Model-A keybed which is probably somewhere between an acoustic piano and a Fender Rhodes, very nice for gigging.
As the name suggests it has 88 keys and they come with a very nice aftertouch feature that is really useful for organ and synth voices.
In terms of onboard features, it doesn’t have too many, there are pitch bend and modulation wheels, transpose buttons and a master volume. Akai has been very exact about what this keyboard is though, it’s a rugged, road-ready controller with a very realistic key action. It was never intended to be anything else.
It features a 4-output soundcard so you can route your virtual instruments to monitors, mixers, etc, simultaneously with no issues. On top of that, it comes ready with some first-class virtual instruments like AIR Music Tech DB-33, AIR Music Tech Velvet, and AIR Music Tech Mini Grand for Road 88.
This one is a no-brainer, if you gig often and you want to access your VST’s with a realistic feeling keyboard, this is the best on the list.
If you play more synths than pianos then you may want something with lighter keys. If you like to utilize pads and samples etc in live performance then it’s not the one, or if you want a realistic feel but primarily for home use then the M-Audio Hammer 88 is a better fit.
For a straight forward 88-key MIDI controller with a gorgeous key action for gigging you can’t top the MPK Road 88 with its Model-A keybed and built-in flight case.
Novation Launchkey 49 MkII – Best for Ableton Users
The Novation Launchkey 49 is similar to the M-Audio Keystation 49 in many ways, it’s unlikely to be the first choice if money is no object but it has to be on the list. We are looking at the 49-key version with 16 velocity-sensitive pads.
Novation are no strangers to drum pads so as expected they are pretty good quality here. The only complaint is that they are a little smaller than Akai’s MPC pads but it’s not a huge issue. That aside, the pads are responsive and you do get 16 so that a lot without having to switch banks, especially for a small keyboard.
Above the pads are 8 fully assignable knobs and rounding off the features are pitch bend and modulation wheels, transpose buttons and master volume.
Ableton Live Lite 9 is included with the Launchkey 49 and if you are an Ableton user already then a Novation controller is likely the way to go for you. Although the Launchkey works very well with other DAW’s, it was purpose-built for Ableton and integrates with it better than any other controller.
The Launchkey is for producers who make a lot of tracks and want that fast workflow, again, especially with Ableton. Also included in the bundle is Novation Bass Station software synth, Novation V-Station software synth, Addictive Keys, 4gb of content from Loopmasters and even some free keyboard lessons from Melodics.
The Launchkey 49 is a lower-priced MIDI controller so in all honesty, you can’t really go wrong with it. There are a few things that could be better, but there isn’t anything in particular that is bad about it.
If you want a cheaper MIDI controller with pads this is a good call because it has 16 rather than just 8 like most similar-sized controllers. If Ableton is your main DAW and you want something that you can get tracks going quickly with then you’ll be very happy with the Launchkey 49.
M-Audio Keystation 49 MkIII – Best Beginner Controller
Keystation controllers have been around for some time and you’ll never find a MIDI controller review article without one, or at least you shouldn’t. They aren’t widely regarded as high-end MIDI controllers but they offer great value for money which makes them hugely popular.
The Keystation 49 has 49 velocity-sensitive keys, nothing too fancy but they are full size and more than responsive enough. It’s not the most robust casing either but it’s light enough to take anywhere and it will survive a few bumps easily.
Now the good stuff, the Keystation 49 comes with transport controls that aren’t common in such a low price controller. Besides the transport controls, there are pitch bend and modulation wheels and a master volume, all of which are assignable.
The quality of the wheels isn’t great and don’t feel as precise as they could be but you have to keep everything in context.
By context, we mean think about what you get for your money. You get a very reliable MIDI controller from a trusted name, you get transport controls to integrate with your DAW and it’s light enough to travel easily.
The Keystation probably isn’t going to top any lists but it should always be there because anyone who has used MIDI keyboards for a while has most likely owned one at some stage and had no complaints.
You know exactly what you get with the Keystation, it’s never going to be seen as the best but it’s still one of the best-selling. The reason being that they are cheap, easy to use, and do everything you need to make music.
If you can’t make music with a Keystation then you probably don’t need all of those extra features anyway, this is a perfect starting point for any musician.
Roli Seaboard Block – Best Alternative Choice
This is a bit of an outside choice on our list. For anyone who isn’t yet familiar with the Roli Seaboard Block, it’s a soft pressure-sensitive surface with 24 raised keys which can be manipulated in various ways.
Roli calls this their 5 dimensions of touch – strike, press, glide, slide and lift. In simple non-technical terms, the keys are squishy.
The idea is that you shape your sound in a much more natural and intuitive way. Think of it like when you play with an orchestral VST, you instinctively wiggle your finger on the key expecting vibrato but nothing happens, with the Seaboard, it does. The included Equator software has many sounds that are just right for this.
Roli has a few different models, the Seaboard Block is the cheapest and smallest with 25 keys. However, there’s a twist, it’s called a block because you can build with it. Each side of the Seaboard block has little magnetic connectors that let you attach more Seaboard Blocks to extend the playing area or Roli Lightpad Bocks.
Some people think the Seaboard Block is a gimmick and more of a toy than a real instrument. The issue is that it can’t replace a regular keyboard, for piano/keys playing you need proper keys. Roli isn’t trying to replace the keyboard though, it’s a completely different thing.
Some keyboards have aftertouch so you can get a little vibrato or expression but aftertouch only does one thing at a time. With the Seaboard you can use vibrato, bend, modulation, cut-off, and more all from one fingertip.
As a producer, this is valuable time saved messing about inside effects or VST’s setting parameters after the fact when you could play it all as you need to in real-time.
After the initial weirdness of it, it actually starts to feel natural and extremely expressive, well worth having.
Studiologic Numa Compact 2x – Best Hybrid
The Numa Compact 2x is a hybrid, so it’s great as a MIDI controller but it also has some amazing onboard sounds so you can use it without a computer. Admittedly, for this reason, it may not be in everyone’s top 10 list but it shouldn’t be discounted just because it’s not only a MIDI keyboard.
It has 88 semi-weighted keys with aftertouch but even for a semi-weighted keyboard, it’s very lightweight indeed. So it’s easy to get to gigs or rehearsals without needing to take a laptop. The onboard sound engines have some stunning pianos, organs, and synths that sound great through the built-in speakers.
So, everything above is really just an added bonus because as a MIDI controller it has lot’s to offer too. There are 9 drawbars for the organ sound engine but they can be assigned to control parameters from either the onboard effects engine or your DAW/VST. It also has a very nice OLED display which is helpful on stage or at home.
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Studiologic has gone for joysticks rather than wheels when it comes to pitch bend and modulation, they are very accurate and responsive so that will be a personal preference issue.
It’s a hybrid but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a jack of all trades, master of none. The sound engines in this keyboard could match that of much more expensive instruments easily and it has all the MIDI capability that you need.
It may be an outside choice but having all the MIDI features and the option to play without a computer is well worth considering.
Alesis V61 – Best Budget Controller
The V61 from Alesis is exactly what you want if you are on a tight budget. It has 61 semi-weighted keys, they are pretty light but they are full size. The body itself is very slimline and not much broader than the keys themselves.
Despite being so slimline it still manages to fit in 8 pads located to the left of the keyboard. The pads are very good by any standard, responsive and well sized. Beside the pads there are 4 assignable knobs and a pitch bend and modulation wheel.
As far as performance goes, the keys are a bit too light but better than most you’d find in the price range. You would struggle to find a similarly priced keyboard with 61 keys and 8 pads so there can’t be too many complaints.
It’s not going to blow you away but the combination of 61 keys, 8 drum pads, and the low price make it our best budget MIDI controller.
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In conclusion, there are genuine reasons for buying every controller on this list. As always you should base your decision on which one suits your needs most.
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Think about your budget, your workspace, and what style you play most. Do that till you eliminate any unsuitable keyboards then you should be left with a smaller list to choose from.
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Hopefully, our small MIDI controller reviews can help you out, enjoy!
James is a writer and musician with a passion for audio production. He is a lover of all things tech, especially the latest keyboards, synths, DAW’s, virtual instruments, and effects plugins. Musical interests include jazz, funk, hip hop, blues, and rock.