By far the most common type of MIDI controller in the production environment, the keyboard-style controller basically features an array of between 25 keys (2 octaves) and 88 keys (full piano array). Keyboard MIDI controllers are favorable in music production for obvious reasons: once a voice is programmed into the keyboard, it’s easy and intuitive to create melodies, bass lines, and chords by triggering different notes.
Even easy-to-use DAW programs like Dubturbo typically feature a virtual MIDI keyboard in their user interface. However, the difference between clicking the virtual keys versus physically pressing them on a keyboard is huge. You are seriously limited in the level of complexity you can create in a virtual keyboard, and if you have any experience playing the piano, you can appreciate how difficult it would be to do things like play in two different octaves simultaneously in a virtual keyboard interface.
The simplest keyboard style MIDI controllers have only keys, while other versions add features like programmable sliders, knobs, and switches to adjust things like tone, reverb, etc. on the fly.
The “feel” of your keyboard is an often overlooked issue when shopping for MIDI controllers. This sample from an article over at SweetWater.com explains the importance of understanding the keyboard action before you invest your hard earned cash in some brand new equipment.
A vital quality of any keyboard controller is the keyboard action – the manner in which the key responds to playing. You, the player, need to feel comfortable using the controller, whether live on stage or in your songwriting or recording studio. Don’t underestimate the impact of having a less-than-ideal keyboard on your creativity and productivity! The type of action you prefer is usually determined mostly by what you are accustomed to, and also by the particular style of music that you play, which may call for one type of action over another. You can choose from three basic keyboard action types:
Weighted Hammer Action
Many controllers have 88-note keyboards that replicate the mechanical action of a conventional piano keyboard. This is difficult to do because a controller has no strings or hammers. Manufacturers use different methods of applying weights and springs to mimic a piano’s action. Others add a hammer action to more closely replicate a true piano “feel.” If your primary instrument is piano, or if you compose a lot of piano-oriented music, the realism of a weighted hammer-action keyboard might be ideal for you.Semi-weighted ActionSimilar to a weighted action, but with less key resistance and a slightly springier release, semi-weighted actions are popular with some players. If you don’t need realistic piano response but don’t care for spring-loaded synth actions (see below), try a semi-weighted keyboard. The M-Audio Axiom 61 is a controller with a semi-weighted action and MIDI trigger pads, rotary encoders, and sliders.Synth ActionA synth-action keyboard, on the other hand, feels more like an electronic organ. The spring-loaded keys are light and capable of being moved very quickly. They also tend to return to their resting position much more quickly. This can be an important advantage when trying to play very fast parts such as lead lines or fast arpeggios. Many keyboard controllers come with synth-action keys. Synth-action keys are perfect for musicians who aren’t pianists by nature, such as guitarists wanting to add MIDI functionality to their setup.
Below we’ll walk you through the best keyboard-style MIDI controllers for dubstep producers out on the market today.
M Audio MIDI Controllers
- 49 keys
- Semi-weighted action
- 9 mixer-style faders and 8 programmable knobs
- Programmable trigger “tap” pads
- Auto-mapping technology – simple to set up
- USB bus powered
- MIDI in and out jacks
Semi-weighted action keys are FANTASTIC. Trigger pads are great for drum sequencing and performing, and eliminate the need to purchase a separate pad-style controller in the future. The sliders and rotary knobs allow you to control pretty much any parameter within your DAW software. This piece of equipment is a true all-in one MIDI controller, really great bang for your buck.
- Synth Action
- 8 assignable knobs, 9 assignable sliders
- Pro Tools compatible-extends industry-standard functionality
- USB bus powered – easy computer connectivity
The Oxygen is a MIDI controller in the classic sense. It has been around a while and easily integrates with Pro Tools and all the major DAW platforms. The main difference between this and the Axium, above, is that this one is missing weighted keys and the trigger pads, but hey, with an extra $100 in your pocket, who’s complaining?
M-Audio Oxygen on Amazon.com
AKAI MIDI Controllers
- 49-key, semi-weighted keyboard with aftertouch and full-sized keys
- 8 full-sized, 360 degree rotation pots, each with 3 banks for 24 pots total
- 12 genuine MPC pads with velocity and pressure sensitivity
- 8 full-sized sliders with 3 controller banks for each for 24 sliders total
- MMC/MIDI Start Stop transport buttons
- USB bus powered
- Custom LCD display
Top-of-the line all-in one MIDI controller (hence the price – you get what you pay for). Drum pads are higher quality than that of the M-Audio Axium, and you can feel the difference in their response. This MIDI controller is one of the best out there – theres nothing in your DAW software you wont be able to manipulate with this controller. AKAI also makes a 61 key version.
Korg has a great line of ultra-portable controllers, they’re great for simple setups for parties – you can literally DJ out of your backpack. They work fine for production too, although they don’t come with all the extra knobs, pads, and features you’ll find in the larger models listed above. Below are the keyboard controllers they offer (links to Amazon.com).
To sum it all up, for those looking for portability and low cost – go with the Korg NanoKey or Korg MicroKey – these are a great option if you want to show off at a party but don’t want to look like a tool carrying a huge professional controller. If you’re looking for something more medium sized, with knob and slider control and tap pads for studio production or performance, go with the Axiom 25. For a full sized keyboard and for those with deeper pockets, go all out with the AKAi MPK49 or M-Audio Axiom49. If your on a tight budget, and willing to deal with synth action keys and no tap pads, go for the classic M-Audio Oxygen.