Top 5 MIDI Controllers for producers on a budget

Posted by Esteban Miranda on

Today with TopMusicArts we bring you a quick review of the MIDI controllers that for us are the better of 2019, hoping to help you decide what´s best for you at the time of buying your next piece of gear. Always keeping in mind the price-quality ratio, to give you all a chance to save a few bucks, and avoid buying the wrong one for you. Also talking about our personal experiences with them, so you can have a different point of view as well.

First some fundamentals, MIDI controller is any hardware that generates and transmits Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) data to MIDI-enabled devices, to trigger sounds and control parameters of electronic music performance. MIDI controllers usually do not create or produce musical sounds by themselves. They need some type of device which the performer presses, strikes, blows or touches. This action generates MIDI data (e.g. notes played and their intensity), which can then be transmitted to a MIDI-compatible sound module (audio interface) using a MIDI (5-pin) or USB cable. That sound module, synthesizer, or your DAW, then produce the sound which is amplified through your speakers.

While the most common use of MIDI controllers is to trigger musical sounds and play musical instruments, MIDI controllers are also used to control other MIDI-compatible devices, such as stage lights, digital audio mixers, and complex guitar effects units.

There´s a lot of information going around the internet, a lot of different opinions about gear, sponsored reviews, and marketing that may sometimes confuse all of us producers at the time of choosing our next piece of equipment, especially those who are starting with Music Production. That´s why we´re going to go through some of the topics we recommend you to have in mind when you´re about to buy your new MIDI controller.

The Type

When we talk about MIDI controllers we can have different types, designed for many uses and has a variety of features built-in for certain uses. There are Instruments that also work as controllers, Sequencers, Samplers, Drum Machines, Electronic Drums, Pianos, and more. There sure are lots of different controllers more or fewer portables, with more or less features, but to make things simpler, we´re going sum them up into these categories:




DJ MIDI controllers, which have a lot of features meant to mix and do live performances, with features designed to help DJs mix music through a DJ software using knobs, encoders, jog wheels, faders, backlit buttons, touch strips, and other components, to have easier control of the software replacing the computer keyboard, the touchpad on a laptop, or the touchscreen on tablet.
They don´t mix audio signals like common DJ mixers, they send signals to your computer to tell the DJ software running how to mix the audio. Now many DJ controllers also have a built-in Audio Interface with 4 output channels (2 stereo outs), which allows you to preview music in headphones before playing it on the main output (PA). Most DJ controllers use the standard MIDI or HID protocols to communicate with the computer via USB. They emulate two Turntables and/or a DJ Mixer.
The big plus about them is that DJ controllers are much cheaper and portable than two turntables or CDJs plus a mixer.



DAW MIDI Controllers, these ones help you to keep your distance from the computer as the DJ controllers, such as the Ableton Push2, that claims to have the same options as the main window so you don´t need to turn to your computer every time. AKAI released an FL Studio based controller that share the same purpose, called AKAI FIRE.
Most of the MIDI keyboards are meant to be mapped or more compatible with one or more DAW. If you want a controller that can map all the knobs and sliders to the DAW automatically, and avoid a custom setup, you should go for the specific ones.
In between this category and the next we could include the PAD Controllers, that present the same options as the DAW controllers but more focused on finger drum recording.


Keyboard MIDI Controllers, since this is by far the most popular and versatile type, this is the type we´re going into detail and discussing which are the best. That doesn´t mean you can´t use an Ableton Push as a Drum pad, for example, but if you have drum pads and piano keys there´s a lot more stuff that you can create, and this helps a lot when you are producing music for many genres.
These are available in sizes that range from 25-key, 49-key, 61-key, to full-sized 88-key instruments. Some are keyboard-only controllers, though many include other features such as sliders, knobs, and wheels. Commonly, they have connections(plug) available for sustain and/or expression pedals. Most keyboard controllers offer the ability to split the playing area into "zones", which can be of any size you need and can overlap with each other. These zones can respond to a different MIDI Channel and a different set of performance controllers and can be set to play any desired range of notes. This allows a single playing surface to target a number of different devices.
MIDI capabilities can also be built into traditional keyboard instruments, such as Grand Pianos and Rhodes pianos (that often feature more octaves and piano-like keys).


The DAW you use

Most MIDI controllers are compatible with all the DAWs out there. And obviously, a DAW Controller will feature more Knobs and buttons can be reassigned than any Keyboard controller. But some of them are designed for particular software and If you don’t already have a DAW some controllers come with a free version. That may save you some money and help you start using new software.
Generally speaking, most MIDI controllers tend to be compatible with the majority of the most popular and widely used DAWs. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t double-check before you decide!

We recommend you to check if the DAW you’re used to, supports the mapping of all the knobs, buttons, keys, and faders of your potential new controller. For example, I had trouble with my Arturia Keylab DAW mapping, because I needed to set the max/min of my faders so they didn´t go over 0db. I contacted Arturia and they told me that the DAW mapping it’s a factory preset that the user is not able to customize.  And that wasn’t very convenient so be sure to take a quick look at the manuals before to avoid this kind of things!

The Keys


Depending on the use you are going planning to give to your controller, whether it´s for Live Performances, Beat Making, or Music Production in general, you need to think about the keys you need. They come in 25 to 88 key versions and the bigger they are the price too!
If you plan on using a MIDI controller for not much more than simply finger-drumming or simple beat-making, this factor may not be that crucial to you. However, if you care more about the piano/keyboard side of the controllers, and you are used to piano keys, you should definitely think about what suits you best. Here are your options:


Synth (fast) Action

This type of keys feels like you’re playing a synthesizer or an electronic organ. These are the most common to find and they´re definitely different than playing a real piano, but some musicians and producers just prefer the lightweight keys that don’t require that much force applied for them to be played. Faster styles of playing are definitely easier on this kind of keys.

Semi-Weighted Action

This type of keys stands in between the previously mentioned synth keys and the next. If you’re not really sure about what will suit you the best, these may be your best option.

Weighted Hammer Action

If you’re looking for a more realistic piano-like experience, weighted hammer action keys are the way to go. Have in mind that MIDI controllers offering this type of keys tend to be the most expensive!


While they are not considered as a type of keys in terms of the basic action, the Velocity-sensitive feature is definitely worth mentioning. Because it translates your intensity and introduces a layer of dynamics into the notes you are playing.

Your Budget


Maybe the most important thing to have in mind, because most of the times it´s our budget the one that dictates what we buy and from which brand. The same as with any piece of gear, the more money you spend, the better the quality, sound, and the more features you get. This, however, doesn’t mean that there aren’t budget-friendly MIDI controllers that present a good price-quality ratio. You should consider which one suits most of your needs the best, and compare its price to your budget. If it´s more expensive than what you count with but you are certain that it would help your workflow best, maybe you should wait, save up some more money, and get the device you´ve chosen. Because if you buy one that doesn’t really help you, or gives you troubles, it can turn to have a negative impact on your work.

We encourage you all to set your priorities, have in mind the most important specs and features, then choose accordingly. Buy the product you need, not the one they´re trying to sell you!



With all that being said, let’s take a look at the best MIDI controllers you can currently find on the market!




Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII



Listed with a price around $100 or less, as you can see, all of the other knobs, buttons, and pads are crammed in pretty tight, and you can notice that the guys from AKAI packed as much as they could into this small device. If you’re a traveling musician, or simply want something that you can easily pop in your backpack, the AKAI MPK Mini MKII may be a good option. The keys are noticeably smaller than the ones you probably encountered on bigger keyboards and this does take getting used to, especially if you have large fingers.
With synth-action keys, you can play crazy fast without getting too cramped or tired. However, this model doesn’t offer adjustable velocity curves, which definitely takes some dynamics out of your playing. The pads are noticeably better than the ones you can find in the previous version of this model, their thick rubber makes of playing them, a very comfortable experience, and they simply feel like they are very sturdy. The rotary knobs are, smaller than what you’d probably expect, but feel pretty solid.

General Specifications


  • 25 velocity-sensitive synth-action keys, with octave up and down buttons (to get the full melodic range).
  • Additional 1/4” (6.35mm) TS input for a sustain pedal.
  • 8 fully-assignable knobs for mixing, tweaking plug-ins and more.


Remarkable Specs


  • a unique onboard Arpeggiator for synth users and Note Repeat for trap-like drums.
  • a unique Thumb-stick (4-way joystick ) that that replace the standard Pitch and Modulation wheels for a single control.


Free software


  • Akai Pro MPC Essentials.
  • SONiVOX Wobble.
  • Hybrid 3 by AIR Music Tech.

This is the safe bet if you are looking for both quality and price. If the smaller keys and the lack of DAW controlling features aren’t a deal-breaker for you, the MPK Mini MKII may just be the best MIDI controller for your needs.

Not only this kind of devices save space, but they also feel very precise and intuitive to use. Let´s move on…




Simple but effective design, very portable and compact


Limited software included


Best drum pads feel


The keyboard can be small for users, especially if you are used to regular sized piano keys.


Great Price-quality value


Velocity settings are not adjustable



Novation Launchkey Mini 25 MK2



Listed also with a price of less than $100, Launchkey Mini focuses on the Ableton Live community. All the controls are automatically mapped and work as soon as you plug it in. With 16 backlit pads along the top, you can use to launch clips and play beats. They change their colors light to show you when clips are loaded, playing, and recording, which can prove to be very useful if you are used to Ableton Live session view. One row to launch clips, and one row to stop them.


General Specifications



  • 25 fast synth-action keys, with octave up and down buttons.
  • 16 RGB backlit velocity-sensitive Drum Pads.
  • 8 knobs, dedicated navigation and control buttons.

Remarkable Specs


  • Great for Ableton Live´s Scene view uses as a DAW controller.
  • Automatically fully mapped to Ableton Live.


Free software


  • Launchkey/Launchpad iPad apps
  • V-Station and Bass Station Soft Synths
  • Ableton Live Lite
  • XLN Audio Addictive Keys
  • Loopmasters Sample Pack (over 4GB)


A great option, but not for everyone. Clearly, we´d recommend the Launchkey Mini for Ableton Live users because of in Scene view it´s great for live looping and scene launching and much more.






Very handy if you are used to Ableton Live Scenes

Not sensitive keys nor sustain pedal jack


16 Backlit Pads

The keyboard can be small for users, especially if you are used to regular sized piano keys


A lot of free software (including a DAW)

It can be used with other DAWs, but it´s best exploited only with Ableton Live


Arturia MiniLab MkII 25



Listed with a price under $100 The MiniLab MkII is the follow-up version of the original MiniLab with improved and upgraded functions. It offers more than the usual MIDI features, functioning as a synthesizer when paired with Arturia's own Analog Lab software that has thousands of quality sounding presets.



General Specifications:


  • 25 velocity-sensitive keys, with octave up and down buttons.
  • 8 velocity & pressure-sensitive pads with RGB backlight (2 x Banks)
  • 16 rotary encoders (2 of them are clickable)
  • 2 touch sensors for its pitch bend and modulation control.
  • Additional 1/4” (6.35mm) TS input for a sustain pedal.

Remarkable Specs:


    • The most responsive and “realistic” keyboard experience in its category.
    • Analog Lab sure is a great sounding plugin, it sure comes in handy if you don´t want to install several vsts.

    Free software:


    • Ableton Live Lite.
    • UVI Grand Piano.
    • Analog Lab (with more than 6k preset sounds).


    If you are looking for a portable controller where the value outweighs the price, this is an excellent choice including a great plugin and a DAW.






    Great Keys and drum pads feel


    Pads tend to double-trigger notes if played too softly


    Simple but effective design, very portable and compact

    The keyboard can be small for users, especially if you are used to regular sized piano keys


    Best free Software (Analog Lab 3 and a DAW)


    The Mod and Pitch touch-pad are just not the same as a wheel



    Korg NanoKey2/NanoPad2/NanoKontrol2



    Listed between $50 and $70 (respectively) and unlike the mentioned so far, which combine keyboard and pads into one device, the Korg NanoKEY2NanoPAD2 and NanoKontrol2 are actually 3 separate devices designed to work together. We´re mentioning them because they are really popular and particular in the way they are designed, to serve a specific purpose, to save space, and to fit perfectly in front of your laptop computer.


    General Specifications


    • Advanced-design key bed 25 velocity-sensitive keys, with octave up and down buttons (NanoKey2).
    • Sustain button, ideal for piano parts (NanoKey2).
    • 16 solid, responsive, and velocity-sensitive Pads(NanoPad2).
    • Control of multiple MIDI parameters via the X-Y Touchpad (NanoPad2).
    • 8 Channels, each with three buttons, one fader, and one knob (NanoKontrol2).
    • Dedicated DAW Transport control section (NanoKontrol2).
    • They all support numerous DAW programs and DJ mixing software.

    Remarkable Specs

    • The NanoKontrol2 is especially popular with electronic musicians and is often used in combination with the NanoPad2 for percussion and the NanoKey2 as a synthesizer.



    Free software

    • Korg Kontrol Editor software




    If you like small, specific devices that sit perfectly, right in front of your laptop this may be your best choice.






    Simple but effective design, very portable and compact


    You need to buy 3 devices to have pads, keys and control your DAW


    You can map everything wherever you want in your DAW


    The keyboard can be hard to get used to, especially if you´re used to regular sized piano keys

    Great Price-quality value


    Not much free software


    Akai Professional MPK225



    Listed around $180 this one is the more expensive of our selection but the one more compact and feature-packed of them all. The MPK225 comes equipped with semi-weighted, full-size keys and piano-style key bed. A dynamic, expressive response thanks to MPK225’s velocity-sensitive key bed with aftertouch.


    General Specifications


    • 25 semi-weighted, full-size keys with pressure sensitivity.
    • 8 RGB-illuminated MPC-style pads (32 assignable via 4 banks).
    • 8 control knobs and 4 switches (24 knobs and 12 switches assignable via 3 banks).
    • (1) 1/4” (6.35mm) TRS expression pedal
    • (1) 1/4” (6.35mm) TS sustain pedal or footswitch input.
    • (1) 5-pin MIDI in.
    • (1) 5-pin MIDI out.


    Remarkable Specs

    • For a device this portable it packs a lot of professional quality features as their sensitive full-sized keys and MPC like Pads.
    • Tons of sounds and ways to save your own custom banks.


    Free software


    • Ableton Live Lite
    • Hybrid 3 & SONiVOX Twist
    • MPC Essentials
    • VIP Music Software


    This one is our Professional Music Producer recommendation, if you can afford to spend a few more bucks, you´ll end up having a great tool to work with.





    Professional Grade Keys and drum pads (backlit) feel


    The most expensive of our selection (but still considerable)


    It packs everything you need, very portable and compact

    Takes some time to get used to all the features and master the Akai software


    Built-in banks and DAW mapping



    Not recommended for beginners




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