Buyers' Guide: Portable Keyboard Controllers - EMusician

Buyers' Guide: Portable Keyboard Controllers

Let's wade through the ever-expanding sea of compact MIDI ’boards
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Less than 15 years ago, there was really no such thing as a portable keyboard MIDI controller. The product segment was born, and flourished, along with the ability of continually more powerful and lighter laptop computers to support in-the-box music production with little more than some software and a plugged-in USB controller.

Now, with handheld iPads being powerful enough to support sophisticated synths and DAW apps, you can’t swing a cat by the tail without knocking a few controller mini keys loose. Mobile music making continues to take off—out of the studios and into the skies, tour buses, and hotel suites. Producers need a great compact MIDI keyboard to fit their mobile production needs. The following 30-plus portable keyboard controllers from a dozen companies represent just the best ones we could find worth mentioning.

While mini-key controllers and alternative key types like buttons and pads continue to proliferate, we also include full-size keyboards with 25 keys or fewer, which was the original portable controller configuration when M-Audio first dropped the Oxygen 25 in 2002. We’ve also excluded portable mini-key synthesizers. Everything here is a controller only, which keeps the prices relatively affordable; most products here cost well under $300, and many options are less than $100. Anything on the high end of that range has something onboard that makes it worth the extra cheese.

To keep things a little bit simpler in the product descriptions, keep in mind that all the keyboards here are USB bus-powered, as well as Mac/PC-compatible. Any additional compatibility— such as for mobile platforms—will be noted. Also, all prices quoted are common street prices. Now, prepare to get mobilized.

Akai Professional
Akaipro.com

MPK225Advance 25 With Akai, we can get the one truly unique—and also the most expensive—option of the whole roundup out of the way. The Advance 25 ($399) has 25 full-size, semi-weighted keys and comes with the crucial VIP software, which lets you browse the presets of, load, and host all of your VST instrument plug-ins. VIP also maps the plug-ins’ parameters to pages of the controller’s set of eight encoders, eight switches, and eight backlit pads. A full-color display on the controller shows the key features of the VIP software, such as the browser and assigned control parameters. The Advance 25 also has an onboard arpeggiator, MPC-style Note Repeat, and a DAW control mode with preset DAW templates. All these features set the Advance 25 on the bulky side of portable, at 19.2"x11.5"x3.4" and 6.8 lbs.

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The lower-priced MPK225 ($249) also has 25 full-size, semi-weighted keys and a similar size and control set to the Advance 25. Of course, the MPK225 does not include the Advance’s VIP software and color screen, but it does add iOS compatibility. (iPad connector not included.)

Akai presents you with three 25-mini key options. The most basic, the LPK25 ($69) has an arpeggiator but no extra controls and weighs only 0.9 lbs. The MPK Mini MkII $99 packs a generous eight backlit MPC-style pads, eight knobs, and Note Repeat/arpeggiator onto its little 1.7lb frame. The APC Key 25 ($129) targets Ableton Live users specifically with a 5x8 button Live Clip-launch matrix, other dedicated Live controls, and Live Lite software included.

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Alesis
Alesis.com

V25VI25 Alesis offers up two 25 full-sized key controllers, both of which have all-illuminated controls and black frames that will cut a lovely silhouette in the dark. The larger VI25 ($179) has a full set of 16 drum pads to the left. Above the keys, eight illuminated knobs and 24 buttons are arranged in eight channel-strip style columns. It also has transport buttons and full-size pitch-bend/mod wheels, and its keys are semi-weighted with aftertouch.

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On the other hand, the more stripped-down V25 ($89) has synth-action keys, and only eight backlit pads, four encoders, and four assignable buttons. The pitch-bend/mod wheels have also been sized down, and all that helps to give the V25 a shallower depth of just 9.6".

Arturia
Arturia.com

MiniLabKeyLab Both of Arturia’s portable keyboard controllers should come boxed in a treasure chest, because they harbor a trove of booty inside. Specifically, the Analog Lab plug-in that comes with Arturia’s MIDI keyboards culls more than 6,000 synth presets from the company’s lineup of 10 renowned vintage synth emulations in the Arturia V Collection: mini V, modular V, CS-80V, ARP 2600 V, Prophet V, Prophet VS, SEM V, Jupiter-8V, and Wurlitzer V. When loaded into Analog Lab, those sounds all have a curated selection of parameters mapped specifically to the keyboard controls you have available.

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On the KeyLab 25 ($249), that includes two banks of 10 encoders, nine sliders, 10 assignable switches, and of course the 25 full-size, semi-weighted keys with velocity and aftertouch. The Keylab’s rugged metal-with-wood-paneling construction adds some weight and depth to the 8.6 lb. unit, but it’s still portable at 18.3"x11.7"x2.8". The Keylab also has a 32-character LCD for helping to configure MIDI assignments, and on the back panel, a rare Breath control input.

The MiniLab ($99) 25 mini-key controller easily pays for itself with the included Analog Lab plugin. It also has 16 encoders for tweaking the Analog Lab synth presets and two bank memories for its eight backlit pads. The Minilab is iOS compatible with optional connector kit and weighs. 2.3 lbs.

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Keith McMillen Instruments
Keithmcmillen.com

K-BoardQuNexus Despite having completely different names, Keith McMillen Instruments’ QuNexus ($149) and K-Board ($79) do feel like two versions of the same product line. Both are tiny, weigh less than a pound, and yet are liquid-resistant and strangely near-indestructable. They both use 25 pad keys with three levels of expression: velocity, pressure, and “Tilt,” or location, which is aggignable to MIDI. They also both work with both iOS and Android devices. The main difference between the two is that the K-Board works over MIDI only, while the QuNexus works over MIDI, OSC, and CV for analog modules.

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Korg
Korg.com

microKEY 37nanoKEY 2Taktile-25 No one else brings the sheer variety of compact keyboard controllers that Korg currently does, and all of them are iOS compatible. Starting from the top down, the Taktile-25 ($99) is a tremendous value for a 25 full-size, semi-weighted key controller with an interesting and novel control set. For example, the eight backlit pads have a Chord Scale mode, where they trigger fill chords in your set scale. The Kaoss-style x-y touchpad also has Touch Scale mode, where you play melodies with a single touch based on your set scale and key, and there’s a secondary ribbon controller, as well. A built-in arpeggiator brings 50 preset patterns, and the Taktile- 25 has DAW presets for Ableton Live 9, Apple Logic Pro X, Avid Pro Tools 10 and other DAWs. With all this to touch, the board’s surface area has ballooned a little bit to 20.9"x11.4"x2.8", but it weighs only 5.5 lbs.

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Two lines of Korg keyboards—the microKEY and microKEY Air—are virtually identical, except that the microKEY Air controllers can function wirelessly over Bluetooth MIDI and can run off of two AA batteries. Both lines are also USB bus powered and both come in 25-, 37-, 49-, and 61-key versions, the largest mini-key configurations in our round-up. Street prices range from $75 to $149 for the microKEY, and $99 to $189 for the microKEY Air. Their weights range from 1.4 to 3.8 lbs.—all easy enough on your back when hauled around. While their controls are sparse, the 25-key versions use a pitch-bend/mod joystick, and the others have pitch-bend/mod wheels. You also get a bonus bundle with each one that only Korg can provide: the Korg Module LE iOS app, the Legacy Collection M1 plug-in, and several other instrument plug-ins.

The final Korg entry utilizes 25 button-style keys for the ultra-compact nanoKEY 2 ($49). These come in black or white and have buttons for Octave±, Pitch±, Mod and Sustain. They weigh only a half pound and measure 12.8"x3.3"x0.7".

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M-Audio
M-audio.com

Code 25Keystation Mini 32 For those who want to maintain a level of portability without sacrificing many features, the M-Audio Code 25 ($299) is a pretty wide load at 20.9"x10"x2.8", but it makes it worth the extra carriage. It has a full set of 16 multicolor-backlit drum pads, as well as an x-y axis touchpad, five fader/switch sets, and four encoders. It also features 25-full size semi-weighted keys and full-size pitch bend and mod wheels. All that, and it weighs about as much as the average laptop: 6.2 lbs.

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The OG portable MIDI keyboard from forever and a day ago is now in its fourth iteration. The straightforward Oxygen 25 Mk IV ($119) has 25 full-size keys, eight velocity-sensitive pads, eight knobs, a single fader, and transport controls. It automaps to several of the most popular DAWs and includes a Sonivox spectral morphing synth plug-in.

Both of M-Audio’s mini-key controllers have 32 keys rather than the more common 25 and are iOS-compatible. (iPad connector sold separately.) The most basic, the Keystation Mini 32 ($79) weighs only a pound and has basic pitch bend, modulation, and sustain buttons. The Axiom AIR Mini 32 ($99) adds eight encoders, eight trigger pads, transport controls, and automapping to popular DAWs.

Miselu C.24
Miselu.com

Miselu C.24 The one-of-a-kind Miselu C.24 ($129-$199) found plenty of love on Kickstarter to begin its life as a wireless MIDI keyboard for iOS/Mac (currently not available for Windows) that folds into a 10-inch iPad case and includes a protective felt sleeve. The 24 full-size keys provide a semi-weighted feel from anti-polarity magnets, velocity sensitivity, aftertouch, and two optical finger swipes for note sustain octave switching. The C.24’s internal battery lasts about 20 hours and is charged via USB. It doubles as an iPad stand, and a hardware expansion bay within the C.24 will accommodate future control modules.

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Nektar
Nektartech.com

Impact LX25 For a 25 full-size, semi-weighted key controller, the Impact LX25 ($99) weighs in fairly lightly at four pounds. Its controls comprise an expected variety: eight pads with four pad banks, eight encoders, six transport buttons, and a master fader. But the most attractive difference in the Impact LX25 doesn’t immediately pop out by looking at it. The controller includes very tight DAW integration technology for 10 of the most popular DAWs (not including Ableton Live and Avid Pro Tools), which was passed down from the more deluxe Nektar Panorama controllers. These DAW templates often include both Mixer and Instrument presets, helping make the most of the Impact LX25’s controls.

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Novation
Us.novationmusic.com

Launchkey 25Launchkey Mini Novation’s portable keyboard controllers all take Ableton Live integration into account. The 25 full-size semi-weighted key Impulse 25 ($199) has eight multicolor backlit pads that can act as Live Clip launchers and also can roll beats and trigger arpeggios. There are also eight knobs, transport controls, a single fader, and Automap 4 software under the hood that maps the Impulse 25 controls to all major DAWs and many popular plug-ins. The design of the Impulse 25 is not the most streamlined, making it among the most bulky of the portables profiled here at 20.7"x13"x3.9" and 7.7 lbs.

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The lighter-weight Launchkey 25 ($149) was designed for integrated control over Ableton Live 9 (it includes Live Lite 9) but also integrates with other major DAWs and works with iOS. Besides 25 full-size keys, it has eight encoders, a master fader, and 16 RGB LED pads for creating beats, launching clips, and controlling many other features of Ableton Live’s instruments, effects, and mixer.

The Launchkey Mini ($79) packs as many of the Launchkey 25’s features into a smaller package, with 25 mini keys, 16 tricolor pads with Ableton Live integration for triggering samples, clips, drums, and more. It also has eight encoders and the same InControl DAW mapping.

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Opho KeysOpho Keys
Playkeys.io

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Another unique compact keyboard controller came into being thanks to Kickstarter supporters. This one has 24 velocity-sensitive button keys, and proximity sensors read your gestures to transpose octaves and modulate parameters like pitch, sustain, or other mapped MIDI controls. The Opho Keys ($99) also works with iOS and Android apps compatible with CoreMIDI. You can also magnetically connect other Keys units together in order to build a larger keyboard, and each Keys has a battery life of up to eight hours.

Reloop
Reloop.com

KeyfadrKeypad Add Reloop’s Keyfadr ($99) and Keypad ($199) to the list of portable keyboard controllers with Ableton Live control baked in. However, these guys do it a little differently. The Keyfader has eight “channel strip” control sections, with fader buttons and encoders in each one. There’s also an internal arpeggiator, transport controls, and additional DAW integration with Bitwig Studio, Propellerhead Reason, and FL Studio integration.

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The Keypad in most ways echoes the Keyfadr. It also has 25 mini keys, and the same controls, except that it sandwiches in 16 full-size, velocity-sensitive drum pads in the middle of the front panel. These pads can work as an Ableton Live clip launcher or as note trigger pads, program change buttons, etc. These two rows of pads make the Keypad an odd-shaped keyboard at 11.2" wide, 12.6" deep, and 1.1" high, but it also has a unique feature set among all of these options.

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Samson
Samsontech.com

Graphite M32Graphite 25Graphite MD13 All four of the following portable keyboard controllers from Samson are plug-and-play ready for iOS if you supply your own Apple camera kit connector. Graphite 25 ($129) finds a sweet spot between portability and programmability. Its generous LCD screen lets you make MIDI assignments without the need for editor software for the many controls: four pads with two pad banks, transport controls, eight encoders, four switches, and master fader. With all that and 25 full-size, semi-weighted keys, the Graphite 25 still keeps its size under control at 18.1"x9.6"x2.4".

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Samson’s two small-keyed options both use touch strip pitch bend and modulation controls to save space. The 25-key Graphite M25 ($79) also adds four mini pads and eight knobs, while the Graphite M32 ($69) has 32 keys, but few other controls.

We decided to include the Samson Graphite MD13 ($59) on this list, because its 13 veloctiy- and pressure-sensitive pads are arranged in a chromatic keyboard style meant for importing notes and it has Oct± buttons. It also has six programmable encoders and a master fader, all situated on a 1lb. controller measuring 17.5"x4.5"x1.1"—one of the most portable of the these portables.

Time-Saving Cheat Sheet

Best for Ableton Live: Akai APC Key 25, Novation Launchkeys and Reloop Keypad
Best for CV control: Keith McMillen QuNexus
Best for Finger Drummers: Alesis VI25, M-Audio Code 25
Best for Ivory Ticklers: Korg microKEY 61 or microKEY Air 61
Love for Android OS : Keith McMillen QuNexus/K-Board, Opho Keys
Something Completely Different: Miselu C.24, Opho Keys
Wireless Connectivity: Korg microKEY Air, Miselu C.24