6 Best USB/MIDI Keyboard Controllers for Studio Musicians

6 best usb/midi keyboard controllers for studio musicians - decibel peak

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With all the USB/MIDI keyboard controllers on the market, it’s difficult… Isn’t it?

Well, I’ve narrowed it down for you!

I’ll be starting with my own personal set of keys, the M-Audio Hammer 88 (read more about it HERE). It was the best option for me at the time, but it seems like there’ve been lots of newcomers in the past few years…

I’ll be recommending 6 of the best USB keyboard controllers I’m looking at right now.

If you have any questions, you can leave them at the end of this article.

For now, let’s start by pairing you with the best keyboard controller based on your specialty in the music industry.

Let’s get started…

M-Audio Hammer 88 – Best for Film Composers

As I said, the M-Audio Hammer 88 has been Decibel Peak’s keyboard of choice since 2019.

M-Audio Hammer 88 | Premium 88-Key Hammer-Action USB/MIDI Keyboard Controller Including A Studio Grade Software Suite

The only problem I’ve personally had with it was when I accidentally stepped on the USB cable and ripped out the USB-B port (completely my fault).

If you’re interested in learning how to repair a USB-B port on the M-Audio Hammer 88, let me know in the comments and I’ll make a dedicated article/video.

Other than that, the Hammer 88 has stood the test of time and is one solid piece of gear!

Here are the specs…

  • 88 Fully-Weighted Keys
  • Pitch Bend/Modulation Wheels
  • Assignable Volume Fader and +/- Buttons
  • 3x Pedal Inputs (Sustain, Soft, Expression)
  • MIDI Output
  • Bus-Powered (can also be externally powered with DC input)
  • Class-Compliant (no drivers required)

It was also the most affordable fully-weighted 88-key USB/MIDI keyboard controller at the time.

Well, that had a pitch bend and modulation wheel!

The only downside is that there aren’t many controls besides the wheels, volume fader and +/- buttons. I personally prefer the minimalist design.

It’s much more suitable for music composers.

However, the 3 pedal inputs make this USB/MIDI keyboard controller compete with the big boys… In fact, it’s one of the few keyboard controllers that allow you to have a sustain pedal, soft pedal AND expression pedal.

Believe me, that expression pedal definitely comes in handy with articulations!

The M-Audio Hammer 88 Preset Editor (included piece of software) allows you to customize the layout of your Hammer 88. It’s not 100% foolproof, but it’s got potential!

You can do things like split the keybed into 2-4 MIDI channels to control multiple instruments.

The software is actually much more complex than that, so let me know if you’d like me to show you the possibilities in another article/video by commenting.

For now, let’s move on to my next recommendation…

Arturia KeyLab 88 Essential – Best for Music Producers

For roughly the same price as the M-Audio Hammer 88, you have the Arturia KeyLab 88 Essential.

The only catch is that the keys AREN’T fully-weighted.

Arturia KeyLab 88 Essential 88-Key MIDI Controller

The feel is said to be a hybrid of a synth-piano feel, but it’s definitely not the same feel as the real thing. The Hammer 88 gets much closer, which is why it’s better for composers.

For music producers, the Arturia KeyLab 88 has MUCH more to offer…

  • 88 Semi-Weighted Keys (Synth-Piano Feel)
  • LCD Preset Selector (works with Analog Lab)
  • Pitch Bend/Modulation Wheels
  • 8x Velocity-Sensitive Drum Pads
  • 9x Faders/Knobs
  • 6x Transport Buttons
  • 1x Pedal Input (Sustain)
  • MIDI Output
  • Bus-Powered (can also be externally powered with DC input)
  • Class-Compliant (no drivers required)
  • Includes Arturia Analog Lab Software (6,500+ Synths and Keyboards)

If this USB/MIDI keyboard controller was available at the time, I would’ve definitely considered going with this instead. It’s still 100% velocity-sensitive.

In fact, fully-weighted keys can be quite difficult to play for extended hours!

I also think the additional functionality on the KeyLab 88 truly provides music producers with the DAW control they need.

From faders, to knobs, to pads, to transports, to buttons and presets… It’s got it ALL!

The only thing it doesn’t have is 3x pedal inputs.

In fact, it can only accept a sustain pedal… Does that mean no expression pedal? I’d have to say no (because sustain pedals use TS inputs and expression pedals use TRS inputs), but maybe someone has gotten a particular expression pedal to work?

Please let us know in the comments if you have any success stories!

That was somewhat of a dealbreaker for me, but it might not be for you. The MIDI output is nice to have, but the Analog Lab software is another huge plus.

The KeyLab 88 Essential works seamlessly with the software.

It also works with the Arturia V Collection which I use ALL THE TIME!

These are all reasons I’d still be interested in having a KeyLab 88, but now let’s talk about one last 88-key keyboard controller and this one is MUCH more affordable…

Alesis Q88 MKII – Best for All-Purpose

Once again, this USB/MIDI controller doesn’t have fully-weighted keys.

It’s also back to minimalism since the Alesis Q88 MKII’s got pretty much the same controls as the M-Audio Hammer 88.

Alesis Q88 MKII - 88 Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller with Full Size Velocity Sensitive Semi-Weighted Keys and Music Production Software Included

One of the main advantages of going with the Alesis Q88 MKII over the Arturia KeyLab 88 Essential is that it’s got a sustain pedal AND expression pedal input.

It’s also got an edge on the Hammer 88 because the Q88 MKII has transport buttons.

However, the fact that this USB/MIDI keyboard controller costs less than 300$ is what got it on my recommendation list.

Here’s everything it’s got to offer…

  • 88 Semi-Weighted Keys
  • Pitch Bend/Modulation Wheels
  • Assignable Volume Fader and +/- Buttons
  • Transport Buttons
  • 2x Pedal Inputs (Sustain, Expression)
  • MIDI Output
  • Bus-Powered (can also be externally powered with DC input)
  • Class-Compliant (no drivers required)

The Alesis Q88 MII is also much more lightweight and portable.

The M-Audio Hammer 88 is definitely the heaviest (and least portable) option on this list.

That being said, I think the Q88 MKII is better for music producers that travel a lot. It’s definitely got everything you need regardless of the genre you’re producing.

If you’ll be taking it with you everywhere, here’s a storage case you can use…

Alesis VI49 – Best for EDM Producers

Okay, we’re moving down to 49-key USB/MIDI keyboard controllers… The Alesis VI49!

Alesis VI49 - 49 Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller with, 16 Drum Pads, 12 Assignable Knobs, 36 Buttons and 5-Pin MIDI Out, Production Software Included

It’s still a pretty decently sized keyboard and the main reason I recommend it to EDM producers is that it has a 4×4 array of velocity-sensitive drum pads.

It’s also got 12 assignable knobs and 36 assignable buttons!

Here’s the full list of features…

  • 49 Semi-Weighted Keys
  • Pitch Bend/Modulation Wheels
  • 16x Velocity-Sensitive Drum Pads
  • 12x Assignable Knobs
  • 36x Assignable Buttons
  • 1x Pedal Inputs (Sustain)
  • MIDI Output
  • Bus-Powered (can also be externally powered with DC input)
  • Class-Compliant (no drivers required)

It’s one of the most affordable keyboard controllers on this list, but it’s also got some of the best features. The only compromise is the range!

For most music producers though, 88-key USB/MIDI keyboard controllers are too much.

That also makes the Alesis VI49 more portable if you travel in/out of the studio!

I also find that the pitch bend/modulation wheels are more luxurious than some of the 88-key keyboard controllers we looked at (except the Hammer 88, those are great)!

It’s got just as much functionality as the Arturia KeyLab Essential at approximately half the price.

That’s why I recommend it for EDM producers, but what about beatmakers?

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3 – Best for Beatmakers

Now we’re down to 25-key USB/MIDI keyboard controllers… The AKAI MPK Mini MK3!

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3 - 25 Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller With 8 Backlit Drum Pads, 8 Knobs and Music Production Software Included

This one’ll fit in your backpack and it’s extremely affordable.

However, AKAI spared no expense when it came to functionality and control surface. You’re essentially getting a synth/drum machine/tape recorder all-in-one.

The joystick has got to be one of my favourite features, but it’s also got an arpeggiator!

8 pads is also plenty! It might actually be easier to make beats on.

Here are some other pretty cool features…

  • 25 Semi-Weighted Keys
  • Joystick Modulation/Pitch Bend
  • Built-In Arpeggiator
  • 8x Assignable Knobs
  • 8x Velocity-Sensitive Drums Pads
  • 1x Pedal Inputs (Sustain)
  • Bus-Powered (can also be externally powered with DC input)
  • Class-Compliant (no drivers required)

If you think you can produce with 2 octaves, then I think you’ll be more than happy with the AKAI MPK Mini MK3. It’s got all the functionality an EDM producer needs.

Having one of these on the side, even if you’re using an 88-key USB/MIDI keyboard controller, gives you much more control over your DAW and software instruments.

I’m thinking of pairing one with my M-Audio Hammer 88 to compensate for its lack of possibilities when it comes to control surface.

If you’re looking for the most affordable all-around solution though, check out this last keyboard controller…

M-Audio Keystation Mini 32 MK3 – Best for Musicians on a Budget

We’re back up to 32-key USB/MIDI keyboard controllers, but the price is at its LOWEST.

The M-Audio Keystation Mini 32 MK3 is the most affordable keyboard on this list. It’s for the absolute minimalist because it only has the essentials…

  • 32 Semi-Weighted Keys
  • Pitch Bend/Modulation Wheels
  • Assignable Volume Fader and +/- Buttons
  • Transport Buttons
  • Sustain Button
  • Bus-Powered (can also be externally powered with DC input)
  • Class-Compliant (no drivers required)

This one would definitely fit in your gym bag!

It comes in 2nd if we’re talking about portability, but it’s definitely lacking some functionality. The transport buttons are great and it’s even got pitch bend/modulation wheels!

Although it’s not conventional, the Keystation Mini 32 MK3 has everything you need.

M Audio Keystation Mini 32 MK3 - Ultra Portable Mini USB MIDI Keyboard Controller With ProTools First, M Audio Edition and Xpand 2 by Air Music Tech

And yes, the keys are still velocity-sensitive, just like every other keyboard controller on this list.

I’d have it as an additional keyboard controller, just to have an extra channel and some added functionality, but it’s really just the essentials.

If you really want the lowest price though, the Keystation Mini MK3 is approximately half the cost of the Alesis VI49.

Maybe you can have multiple of these (like 2-4) to control multiple software instruments.

It could also be interesting for LIVE use, if that were the case!

Just keep in mind that the Mini 32 MK3 is the only keyboard controller on this list that DOESN’T have any pedal inputs.

Summary: 6 Best MIDI/USB Keyboard Controller for Music Production

Which one of these USB/MIDI keyboard controllers do you like the most?

Here’s a table I made that compares them all side-by-side…

M-Audio Hammer 88Arturia KeyLab 88 EssentialAlesis Q88 MKIIAlesis VI49AKAI MPK Mini MK3M-Audio Keystation Mini 32 MK3
Keys88-key fully-weighted88-key semi-weighted88-key semi-weighted49-key semi-weighted25-key semi-weighted32-key semi-weighted
Pitch Bend/Modulation WheelsYESYESYESYESYES (X/Y Joystick)YES
# of Drum PadsN/A8N/A168N/A
# of Faders191N/AN/A1
# of KnobsN/A9N/A128N/A
# of Buttons214236102
Transport ButtonsNOYESYESNONOYES
Pedal InputsSustain, Soft, ExpressionSustainSustain, ExpressionSustainSustainN/A
MIDI OutputYESYESYESYESNONO
Bus-PoweredYESYESYESYESYESYES
Class-CompliantYESYESYESYESYESYES

I still stand by the M-Audio Hammer 88, especially if you’ll be pairing it with another keyboard controller on the list (like the AKAI MPK Mini MK3).

It’s the only keyboard controller on this list that has 88 fully-weighted keys.

Well, at this price point anyway!

However, I truly believe that the Arturia KeyLab 88 Essential has its advantages. The keys really give you the best of both worlds.

Do you want to control multiple instruments? Just get a bunch of M-Audio Keystation Mini 32 MK3s because they’re so affordable and portable!

If you have any questions or would like me to talk about any other MIDI/USB keyboard controllers I haven’t talked about, just leave me a comment.

Thanks for reading, I hope that this article made your decision simpler!

Sources

https://m-audio.com/hammer88

https://www.arturia.com/products/hybrid-synths/keylab-essential-88/overview

https://www.alesis.com/products/view2/q88-mkii

https://www.alesis.com/products/view2/vi49

https://www.akaipro.com/mpk-mini-mk3

https://www.m-audio.com/keystation-mini32-mk3

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