Modern MIDI Controllers, a Comprehensive Guide

Controllers are ubiquitous pieces of studio hardware, but it wasn't always like that. At first, they were just a hard sell. A keyboard that doesn't make sounds? Right, and here's a guitar without any strings attached.

We have MIDI to thank if not for the invention then certainly for the development of controllers. At first, pretty much all they did was trigger a sound on a connected synth module. They dealt with notes, maybe some modulation or pitchbend, and, if you were lucky, velocity—in other words the ability to make the sound respond appropriately to how hard or soft you initiated the trigger (actually, technically, how fast you played it, hence the name).

One of the most significant developments of MIDI itself was to liberate the playing technique of a given instrument type from the resulting sound. Drummers, armed with drum pads, could play flute patches. Guitarists, with a MIDI guitar or pickup, could play sweeping strings. And so on.

What do controllers control?

Early controllers tended to just copy existing instruments: drum pads, wind controllers, guitar controllers, and of course keyboards. Understandable but conventional thinking. Now, however, we're beginning to see genuinely new types of controller—plus new types of control—that reflect new parameters like "animate" and "less boring," especially from the outer reaches of Eurorack synth modules.

Initially, controllers were indeed about as popular as a stringless guitar. But as instruments increasingly took up residency in DAWs, it became desirable to have better, more specific, but also more varied, and currently more intricate levels of control—not only over embedded instruments, but also over the DAWs themselves. This has now become standard.

Manufacturers soon understood that most of their customers worked alone. So, to help a typical situation where you were trying to play your keyboard and operate a DAW situated half way across the room, controllers needed to offer DAW controls as well.

At first these were pretty generic and basic, as in transport controls and simple track arming. But in time, manufacturers started to offer ever more sophisticated drivers and connectivity with DAWs, enabling pretty much everything to be run direct from a keyboard.

And, of course, controllers aren't just for recording and studio work. They can and do corral multiple hardware or software instruments for live performances, perhaps most sophisticatedly in conjunction with Ableton Live, and, ideally, with Max.

Controllers are now also expected to offer immediate, "fun" options—for use in both live and studio settings. These include all-important pads for triggering drum sounds, and processors such as arpeggiators that make you sound, well… like a music production wiz.

Watch our 2019 overview, "Which MIDI Controller Is Right for Me?"
Weighted keyboard controllers for piano

There's always going to be demand for a weighted-action, piano-style controller keyboard to play the best piano software instruments or plugins, like Pianoteq or Ivory. You can physically play piano parts on a light synth-action keyboard—but if you're a piano player, it feels horrible. At best, you'll chronically overplay.

Piano players really just need two things in a keyboard controller. First, the overall length, so you can play pianistically (meaning with two hands), and second, some form of individual key weight or resistance to make it feel like you're playing a piano mechanism. I don't believe five-octave weighted keyboards actually exist, and even six-octave models are only semi-weighted.

To get a decent action, you're pretty much locked into seven-octave instruments, which are both heavy and relatively expensive. The going price is mostly in excess of $1,000. Your best options include the Roland A-88MKII and Native Instruments Kontrol S88 MK3, both of which boast MIDI 2.0 (about which more later) and cost around $1,299 new, the Arturia Keylab 88 mkII, a little less pricey at $999 new, as well as StudioLogic's SL88 Studio and M-Audio's Hammer88, which will only set you back just $499 new. M-Audio also makes a more costly graded hammer-action model, the Hammer88 Pro. [Ed.: As with all music gear, you can find better prices when buying used versions of these MIDI controllers on Reverb.]

An instrument pianists might want to consider is the Yamaha MX88, which for $999 new offers a decent seven-octave weighted keyboard plus the sound engine of a Motif synthesizer that includes the Motif's Full Concert Grand piano.

You may even legitimately be able to forgo a fully weighted, seven-octave keyboard … in which case the world of semi-weighted keyboards opens up.

Semi-weighted keyboards

Semi-weighted, in my experience, is closer to synth action than full-weighted—but a good synth action, not one where your fingers run away from you. Leading the pack in value for money are Nektar's now six-years-old Impact LX88+ and Novation's Launchkey 88 MK3. Both offer direct control over a multiplicity of DAWs, along with knobs, sliders, and pads.

The Novation is an Ableton Live specialist but can accommodate other DAWs as well, and the Launchkey offers in-depth parameter-for-parameter control for everything except Ableton Live, for which it offers only basic control. Also worthy are the M-Audio Keystation 61 MK3 and 88 MK3.

The French manufacturer Arturia has made a name for producing a slew of controllers as well as a slew of hardware and software synths. Its Keylab 61 mkII is a solidly made semi-weighted keyboard, with both MIDI and CV ports plus pads, faders, and knobs.

Synth-action keyboard controllers

Perhaps you simply want a keyboard to control connected software instruments—from one-size-fits-all entities such as Spectrasonics' Keyscape to more specialist instruments like organs and synths. These are almost always best played on a light "synth-action" controller, and there are a thousand-and-one 61-note, 49-note, 37-note, and 25-note options to suit every budget.

There are several different keyboard sizes. Does size matter? A qualified yes. You can get used to mini keys, even if you have sausage fingers, but they're mainly "OK" when playing single notes, not so much with chords.

Confounding so many expectations, CME's Xkey is not only mini-key but also contact-key, in other words the individual keys have barely any travel or depth controller—and it feels… wonderful to play. Don't ask me how, it just does. Plus—and this might actually have something to do with it—it has "polyphonic" aftertouch.

Keyboard aftertouch is a useful feature. It means pressing down harder on a note that's already pressed down to initiate some form of modulation (vibrato, filter settings, pitch, and so on). Most commonly, when you add pressure to one note, any other note also being played will respond similarly. However, on keyboards offering "polyphonic" aftertouch, only the note with added pressure applied will modulate. This is well worth looking out for.

While almost all controllers can be configured to most popular DAWs, some give an extra in-depth control over a particular DAW—Novation Launchkey and Akai APCs with Ableton Live, Nektar to Bitwig, and so on. Also, "synth" controls such as note repeat and arpeggiator are disarmingly useful parameter additions.

Now, rather than do the almost impossible and list every model from every maker, I'm going to consider the leading manufacturers of light-action keyboard controllers, their current ranges, and what they specialize in.

Great synth-action options

Roland was early to all forms of controller, and the A-88 MKII was, I believe, the very first MIDI 2.0 instrument, released back in 2020. It mainly makes its own keybeds and (mainly) they're a joy to play.

Roland's all-round build quality is excellent and things don't tend to go wrong or fall off. But its controllers tend to be a bit menu-driven and mystifying—and I speak as one who has been mystified in the studio and on stage. Moving on from the A-88MK2, there's the 61-note A-800PRO, 49-note A-500PRO, and 32-note A-300PRO, all of which forgo MIDI 2.0 and are more conventional keyboards with pad/button/slider/knob additions.

A lot of keyboard players swear by Korg. They're dependable and solid and can be highly innovative. In recent times, Korg has been into USB-powered mini-key synths and controllers. Recently, though, it has reverted to its pro-player roots with the full-size-key Keystage range, which are MIDI 2.0 compliant, offer MPE, an audio interface, and controllers dedicated to Ableton Live.

Currently available in 61-key and 49-key models, these are not cheap, but they do represent the next generation of controllers, combining attractive instrument control (chord generation, gating, arpeggiation) with detailed DAW controllability, plus those future-proofing modern MIDI features of MIDI 2.0 and MPE.

The French company Arturia has produced a huge range of smaller controllers in addition to its flagship Keylab 88 Mk 3 model. The line is broad and innovative, from the sequencing specialists KeyStep Pro and Pro Chroma, aimed at Eurorack control, to models in the MicroLab, MiniLab, and KeyLab Essential ranges with varying keyboard size and length. Arturia's controllers tend to come bundled with a selection of its own software synth collections.

Native Instruments in Germany makes fine instrument software such as Kontakt, Massive, Reaktor, and Drumlab, but it has also produced somewhat pricey keyboard controllers for a while. Its latest range incudes two semi-weighted-keyboard 61-note and 49-note models. Like the flagship Kontrol S88, these are MIDI 2.0 controllers, and all use high quality Fatar keybeds. If you don't already have NI software and wish you did, the still higher-price-than-others S Series models are really starting to make sense.

Pretty much since the dawn of MIDI, Novation has been in the business of small synths and controllers. Its Launchkey series has stayed the course for a decade or more, albeit with occasional "mark" upgrades. It's similar to Nektar in that it offers keenly priced hardware with smart and innovative software. While the Launchkeys can configure to work with all the main DAWs, they are more tightly aligned with Ableton Live. In 2022 and '23, Novation came out with the FLkey range designed to work optimally with FL Studio DAW.

More great synth-action options

StudioLogic is well placed to make controller keyboards, because it's owned by Fatar, makers of keybeds for many of the world's keyboard manufacturers. The SL88 Studio is one of the most cost effective 88-note controllers on the market, and if you wanted to push the boat out a little further the SL88 Grand will give you a graded hammer-action. Along with the shorter-keyboard SL73, these controllers are particularly well suited to live as well as studio work, and they have innovative features such as three uniquely operable joysticks.

M-Audio has been steeped in MIDI and is most famous for its Oxygen keyboards, initially offering simple but solid keyboard controls but later enhanced in MK IV versions with assignable knobs, pads, and sliders as well as tight hardware/software integration with DAWs. The MK V models offer official (Ableton) Live connectivity. M-Audio also produces its keenly priced USB plug-and-play Keystation series.

In California, Nektar has a long, interesting history producing excellent value keyboard controllers, beginning with its glossy Panorama P4, launched in 2012. The company uses good quality Chinese keybeds, but what makes it stand out is the quality of software implementation when it comes to DAW control.

Nektar's LX range extends well beyond its weighted LX88 to include 61, 49, and 25-note versions, plus a Mini. All are bundled with Cherry Audio and Bitwig software, meaning tons of virtual synths and an eight-track recorder.

Akai's hip-hop-defining MPC sampling drum machines of the mid '80s continue to influence current Akai controller and keyboard thinking. Its Beats software is frequently bundled, and almost all instruments sport drum pads. The MPK249 comes with Ableton Live, while the APC Key 25 goes a step further, its five banks of eight pads pre-mapped as Ableton Live clip launchers. If you're beat making, the Akai range is a must-checkout.

MIDI 2.0 and MPE

MIDI is the gasoline that powers communication between most pieces of digital musical equipment—between hardware synthesizers; between DAWs and virtual instruments; and between controllers and digital sound generators, either hardware or virtual.

MIDI has been around since the early '80s, but MIDI 2.0, introduced in 2020, enables a number of new things—including higher resolution and better timing (two of the main complaints about MIDI 1.0 from modular), and bi-directional communication.

One of the powerful new features is MIDI Capability Enquiry, where two connected devices discover what they have in common for auto-configuration. And MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE) lets you simultaneously control multiple parameters (say volume, pitch, tone), much as happens in real life when a violinist plays a note louder … and it also gets brighter, plus they may add vibrato and so on.

In practice, all this means that controllers—and not just keyboard controllers—are going to be able to control sound humanistically and expressively, from new-sound synthesizers to emulations of acoustic instruments.

If the basket of goodies contained in the environs of MIDI 2.0 awake your freakish control instincts, BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) and Wireless MIDI are here to make your manipulations as clean and uncluttered as possible.

Cables—be they audio or MIDI—still tend to deliver a faster and higher bandwidth signal than wireless. But this is changing. The day is nigh when you can safely, freely, and with minimal latency roam about the stage or your living room while expressively playing a cutting-edge sound engine safely locked away in your phone, laptop, or possibly the cloud.

Drum and Percussion Controllers

Electronic drums became a thing back in 1981 when Simmons released the SDS-V, a set of hexagonal drum pads that connected to a sound module where highly electronic drum sounds were stored. The magic of MIDI, established two years later, not only unleashed the pads from the sound module, but also removed any requirement to have pads and sounds made by the same manufacturer.

If you're hoping to just pick up a set of pads and automatically trigger your favorite drum VST, however, you'll find it difficult or even impossible without a sound module that does the MIDI conversion. On the other hand, an electronic kit complete with its sound module can go on to trigger samples and VSTs with no problems.

Roland remains on top of a whole heap of electronic drum kits with their mighty TD V-Drums series. If you're just looking for pads you can whack with drumsticks—or your hands—your best bet is probably a tabletop device. Roland's Octapad (currently the SPD-30) defined this type of instrument. Like most others, the 30 comes with sounds built in, but it can trigger external sounds over MIDI, and it has a Phrase Loop section.The fancier SPD-SX PRO Sampling Pad can store your own samples.

Great drum controllers

KAT offers a legion of drum and percussion controllers that began in the late '80s with the malletKAT and the "mouse-eared" drumKAT. MalletKAT 8.5, the latest manifestation, isn't cheap, but if you're looking for tuned percussion—marimba and vibraphone—this is the way to go. KAT also makes the affordable KTMP1 drum pad for less than the cost of a carry case for the malletKAT.

Akai, meanwhile, still makes MPCs, but also the nice fat-padded MPD tabletop range—tailored to computer-based sounds—and canny little drum-pad controllers like the MPX8 Sample Pad Controller.

Wind Controllers

Wind controllers appeared with the first flush of products that took advantage of the original MIDI spec in 1983. Akai's EWI and EVI—sax-style and trumpet-style technique, respectively—were quickly taken up by professional wind players wanting to stay ahead of the pack, but few others.

The EWI has stayed the course and is now available as the EWI 5000, with built-in sounds and wireless audio; on-board MIDI connections are USB and 5-pin DIN Out. The slightly cheaper EWI SOLO only has USB MIDI but comes with sounds and an internal speaker.

The Berglund NuRAD and NuEVI are stylish instruments hand-made in Sweden that look like prototypes for an America's Cup boat. They are both modern and endorsed by the original EWI designer. Actually, they're not crazy expensive—not much more than Roland's Bluetooth flagship, the Aerophone Pro AE-30 Digital Wind Instrument. Yamaha used to make a few WX wind controllers, now discontinued, so you'll need to trawl Reverb for one.

The well-funded Chinese tech firm Robkoo released its Wind Synthesizer R1 in 2022 and followed up with the lower-price Clarii mini. Both have been well received in the MIDI/tech world, with good reason—they're powerful, modern MIDI controllers armed with Bluetooth MIDI, Motion Control, a range of different mouthpieces, a slick web/app backend, JamKoo, and a software synth engine, Qithesizer, specially tailored to wind synths.

Guitar Controllers

Guitar controllers have had a problematic history, because latency and mis-triggering are hard to fully overcome without an icy clean technique and realistic goals. Roland owned the pro market since the birth of MIDI, but recently it has limited its involvement to MIDI pickups like the GK-3 and 3B, which you can strap to a normal guitar or bass, and the GI-20 interface that converts electricity into MIDI.

The high-end Canadian guitar company Godin has built a 13-pin output into several of its models that connect to the Roland GR-55 guitar synth and, thereby, on to the wider world of MIDI in DAWs or plugin libraries.

In 2014, Zivix introduced its first Jamstik, and it was an interesting if quirky device, with rods in place of strings, connecting you to the world of MIDI. Now, Jamstik is a range of actual guitars with MIDI built in, and the latest is the JamStik Classic, which has not only good-as-it-gets tracking but also MPE.

Weird & Wonderful Controllers

One of the original promises of MIDI was that it would liberate musicians from a conventional keyboard, or in fact from any replication of a previous acoustic instrument. After all, the very nature of synthesis is open-ended in tone, texture, and timing. Today, in addition to a slew of oblong boxes with colored buttons, there are all manner of gestural and haptic devices and technologies to choose from.

Some controllers pretty much take control over your music by doing the thinking and execution for you. Irijule has claimed of its Theoryboard that you "can't play a wrong note." Hmmm. The Theoryboard is an oblong box filled with a matrix of multi-colored squares, in two halves, and what you press in the left-hand section—regardless of the logic of which button you hit—dictates what happens in the right. I'm sure it's fun. But if you take the learning completely out of the equation you might as well have a monkey play your Theoryboard, no?

Roger Linn's LinnStrument 128 is also a matrix of illuminated pads in an oblong box. But it's not just a smart controller device—it's highly creative and repays developing a playing technique. Each pad offers individual and continuous manipulation in X, Y, and Z axes, bringing to life MPE-enabled synthesis. With its microtonal pitch control between pitches, this is absolutely what MIDI promised at the outset.

Watch our 2018 look at "New School" MIDI controllers

Another creative outfit is Roli, in the UK. Its initial Seaboard might have had a challenging rubbery touch, but like the LinnStrument, Roli is all about extending the boundaries between musician and machine, hardware and software, and between notes of the scale, tonalities, and effects. Newer products like the modular BLOCKS and subsequent LUMI, while seeming to have rather less radical playing surfaces than their earlier instruments, nonetheless are future-thinking controller options.

Speaking of the future, Nashville-based Artiphon created waves almost a decade ago with its Instrument 1, a lovely looking proof-of-concept contraption that tapped into multiple articulations and playing techniques in music-making apps.

Antiphon's multi-discipline approach has been streamlined and distilled into two controllers with built-in synths. The grapefruit-shape and size Orba (and Orba 2) is a mixed bag of goodies that lets you "play" different types of sound complete with gestural control. Less toy-like, the Chorda is another all-in-one type instrument that includes haptic features such as gestural feedback and, impressively, onboard MIDI with MPE, and Bluetooth LE.

And Now…

Where does all this leave us, among all these controllers and their possibilities? We've come a long way since electronic drum pads and guitar synths, as MIDI lets almost anything become possible.

That could be single-application gestural widgets and gadgets. It could be micro-level control on a fully-fledged synthesizer like the Expressive E Osmose. Or it could be an essentially AI-style controller that puts you "in charge" of… actually, not very much—you just fork out the money to buy it and hope your friends are impressed.

Controllers have now completely broken free from their early roots as emulative devices. And whatever the word "control" or "controller" means to you, it's a fair bet someone has run it up the crowd-funding flagpole. It's a great time to be alive!

About the Author: Julian Colbeck played keyboards with Charlie, the Yes supergroup ABWH, and Steve Hackett. Currently he runs ASSR (Art & Science Of Sound Recording) with Alan Parsons. He has written many books on music tech, including the Keyfax buyers guides (1984–98) and ASSR: The Book (2014).

comments powered by Disqus

Reverb Gives

Your purchases help youth music programs get the gear they need to make music.

Carbon-Offset Shipping

Your purchases also help protect forests, including trees traditionally used to make instruments.

Oops, looks like you forgot something. Please check the fields highlighted in red.