In addition to being a private violin teacher, Alecia started writing music-related articles 3 years ago and has been enjoying this experience greatly. Loves quilting and scrapbooking in her free time.
Marcus has a vast experience in digital audio and sound design. Thanks to his knowledge, he actively helps musicians with technical problems, improving their audio quality and even promoting their tracks so that thousands of listeners could enjoy some really good music.
Last updated: May 17, 2021
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A MIDI keyboard controller is something that allows all computers and instruments in a music studio to communicate between them. However, if you don’t want your creativity to be locked in four walls, you have to think about getting the best travel MIDI keyboard.
Now when it comes to picking, you have to think about portability, so the first thing you need to consider is the dimensions and weight of the device. However, there is much more to it. It should also be self-contained and easy to use and connect. So, our choices were based on software integration and the quality of keyboard features such as type of keys, buttons, pads, and knobs. Likewise, MIDI keyboard keys are not made equal, and your style will determine whether you choose weighted, semi-weighted, or synth-action keys. We’ve covered all this intensively in a buying guide further down.
AKAI is the gold standard for many musicians, with the Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII being arguably the best travel MIDI keyboard on the market. It comes in a tiny package and small form factor that add to its portability. With dimensions of 15” x 10”, this MIDI keyboard is actually smaller than a standard 15.6” laptop. That means it can easily sneak into any standard backpack. Also, as one of the cheapest machines out there, it’s an absolute joy for amateurs as you get a great bang for the buck.
The build quality is amazing, with robust keys that are well put together, functional pads, and knobs that feel good to touch. The edges are smooth so as not to tear your backpack and you can choose from black, white, and red shades to match your style.
When it comes to performance, the MPK is above average. The synth-action keyboard has just three touch sensitivity settings, but we like its large and comfortable keys. This will do for studio use, enabling you to enter simple melodies and chords into your DAW, but not compose multiplex piano pieces. There are 8 programmable pads, which are velocity-sensitive, though some may find them quite small. This MIDI keyboard also comes with 8 programmable knobs, which are Q-link enabled so you can easily control filters, envelopes, and oscillators in your DAW.
The power supply is via USB and this makes it incredibly easy to use. Simply plug it in and launch your DAW. Its compatibility with most DAWs also makes it possible to plug and play. There’s even an MKII editor for using presets and making custom configurations.
A range of software is also available for this product, including Hybrid 3, SONiVOX wobble, MPC Essentials, and VIP 3.1. Overall, you’ll like the design and decent performance, perfect for studio use and making music on the go.
What makes it special?
Highly portable that it easily fits in a laptop bag
Comes with bundled software; MPC Essentials, VIP 3.1, etc.
8 velocity-sensitive pads
8 programmable knobs for tweaking or mixing synth effects
Mini keyboards are no doubt designed to fit in a backpack alongside a laptop, but the Akai Professional APC Key 25 is different because it’s the only live-specific unit around. This offering results from a collaboration of Akai and Ableton, thus the name APC (Ableton Performance Controller). The APC 25 is very compact and portable, with an all-plastic construction that’s robust enough to throw it around.
A USB port on the side allows you to connect your PC or Mac, and no drivers are required because it’s class-compliant. Moreover, this connection provides the power and MIDI, meaning you don’t need a power supply. It offers 25 synth-action mini keys, which are really good for melodies, simple chords, and basslines, but you won’t be playing sonatas on these ones. Although they’re small, they are properly designed and will let you enter clips precisely, ideal for beat-style or synth playing. Anything complex would be too much to ask of this MIDI keyboard.
The front panel includes the keyboard plus live controls. There are 25 keys, as the name suggests, in addition to many other potentiometers and buttons, all of which are customized to suit various needs. Most prominent are the 40 LED-backlit pads with fully customized colors. These can be activated to play certain samples or tracks with a single press.
There are 8 knobs, which are fully programmable in Ableton. These are useful in fading tracks in and out, shifting the pitch of any clip up or down, and controlling the intensity of a particular effect on any given track. You also get a sustain button that lets you obtain realistic piano effects. Last but not least, it comes with the revolutionary VIP 3.0 software that lets you manage your virtual instruments in a seamless way.
If you’re looking for a MIDI keyboard that offers multiple possibilities for creativity in both studio and live performance, the APC Key 25 is a great choice.
Why is it special?
Superb portable design to use on the go
Remarkable Live integration and requires no set up with Live
The Arturia MiniLab MkII is an essential device for musicians on the go and studios where space is at a premium. It looks stunning at first glance with its slim keys being a major selling point. The keys are actually designed that way for improved action – you don’t get that with many mini keyboards. One thing that pianists will appreciate is the availability of a sustain pedal, which is situated on the back of the back panel. Next to it is a USB port that lets you connect to a Mac or PC for power.
There are 8 drum pads with two banks, and that literally means you have 16 pads to play with. In addition, you get 16 knobs that are useful in mapping and programming your DAW. Moving on to the top left of the front panel you’ll find two-octave buttons plus two modulation strips (a pitch bend and modulation strip). Also available is a handy shift button that lets you choose MIDI presets and channels.
What’s more? It comes loaded with top-of-the-range software including ANALOG LAB LITE, Ableton Live Lite, and Grand Piano Model D. The former offers 500 of the best synth sounds, something that beginners will appreciate. The second allows you to record and produce your music. The third one is quite interesting, producing sounds similar to a real Steinway piano that you would find in grand concert halls. Add the velocity-sensitive keys into the mix and you’d be really playing music, rather than dabbling.
At 3.2 pounds, the MiniLab MKII ranks among the most lightweight MIDI keyboards available. Durability is also of important note here as the controller will be able to withstand regular travels. All in all, this Arturia is a great starting point for studio work or even on the road. Its range of sounds is a huge bonus.
This M-Audio Oxygen 25 IV is a popular choice for aspiring producers doing music from their home studios. As the title suggests, it’s a small, 25 key device with some nifty features and connects to your PC via USB.
One thing to note is that this MIDI controller is by no means a compact machine as it measures 20 x 10 inches (L x W). Contributing to this factor are the full-sized keys with the standard MOD and PITCH wheels on the left side. That makes it suitable for a studio setup where there’s space on the main desk or if there’s a side table for it to rest on.
However, in exchange for the size, the full-sized keys make the best feature of this unit. These ones feel so much better than mini-keys and the extra space between them give your fingers plenty of room to move around. They’re also very responsive and soft to touch, meaning you won’t have to exert too much pressure on them when playing.
Elsewhere, there are 8 drum pads that are rubbery, soft, and very comfortable to tap rhythms on. While you can change the octaves of these pads, it’s hard to program them to fit your DAW. In the event that the default pad sensitivity doesn’t work, however, you can easily change it within the MINI keyboard without using any special hardware.
In addition, you get 8 rotary knobs to do sound tweaking whether in the studio or during live performances. They feel standard and well-made, but don’t have adequate resistance when you turn them. As such, they compromise on feedback and may not be very accurate.
Lastly, the unit doesn’t come with bundled software, but it does offer straightforward integration with popular DAWs such as Ableton Live, Logic, and Pro Tools. Also important to mention are the transport buttons that allow you to control your DAW without a mouse.
What makes it special?
25 full-sized velocity-sensitive keys
8 assignable knobs for manipulating virtual instruments
With transport buttons to control your DAW without using a mouse
Integrates with popular DAWS; Ableton Live, Logic, Pro Tools, etc.
Powered by USB with plug and play support and USB-MIDI connectivity
Features sustain pedal input for additional creative control
Novation claims the Lauchkey Mini MK3 is their most compact and portable 25-key MIDI keyboard controller. There’s no question though, given its 13 x 6.8 x 1.6 dimensions; it’s smaller than a standard 15.6-inch laptop, so it will fit into any bag. It comes with nifty features including Ableton control, creative arpeggiator with 4 octaves of range, Fixed chord mode to trigger chords from notes, MIDI out, and multiple sounds, allowing you to make tracks anywhere.
In terms of software, the unit comes with Ableton Live Lite and since it’s designed to partner it, you’ll get deeper integration than previous versions. From clip and scene launch to track select and transport control, device macros, and great mixing support such as volume, mute and pan, there is a lot to navigate around a Live session. You also get Logic Pro support as well as support for the HUI protocol integrating with Pro Tools, Cubase, among other DAWS.
Getting started is simply a matter of connecting the controller to your PC or Mac via USB. The front panel is well designed with 25 mini keys but they’re perfectly playable. There are 8 rotary encoders plus pitch and modulation strips, as well as 16 RGB backlit pads that changes depending on the context and velocity sensitivity. While there’s no screen, everything is well labelled for easy use and you can always rely on Shift + function.
Overall, this a great little controller that can communicate with your MIDI hardware and computer, with excellent integration with Ableton Live. A sweet deal at just under $100.
Alesis offers a variety of MIDI keyboards and the V25 is one of their mid-level controllers. Weighing 3.8 pounds, this unit is relatively lightweight for most people to take on travel, though it’s on the heavier side compared to the majority of models in this post. To use the keyboard, all you to do is plug in to your PC and your DAW will detect it instantly. You may still have to find it among your MIDI network in the settings option.
The keys here are full-sized and velocity-sensitive, which is obviously what most producers want; most travel keyboards in this price range have tiny mini-keys. They also have a semi-weighted feel and a good response. Moving on to the drum pads, there are 8 of them that are backlit and velocity-sensitive. You can change the drum pads velocity curves by installing the V-Series Editor, allowing you to jump from 8 to 32 assignable pads.
You also get 4 knobs to enable you to control mixer settings or assign them to some parameters in your effects and plugins. They can even be assigned to any function utilizing the MIDI Learn function. These aren’t encoders with the ability to rotate 360 degrees but they have a decent 270-degree range. Worth mentioning is that they are impressively backlit, adding more aesthetic when playing in the dark.
Other controls include pitch and MOD wheels, which are a favorite with most people compared to buttons. Octave up and down buttons are a nice addition to the 25 keys, so you can achieve a higher range of notes if necessary. Lastly, the V25 comes with a good starter kit in the form of Ableton Live Lite 9 and Xpand!2 software, which integrate well with Ableton.
What makes it stand out?
Compact design that doesn’t take too much space on your desk
Full-sized, velocity-sensitive keys
8 backlit velocity-sensitive drum pads
4 rotary knobs to control mixer settings and effects
This Nektar Midi Controller IMPACT LX25+ is one of the popular MIDI keyboards for starters. A good selling point is its compatibility with iOS, which allows you to connect it to your iPad as well as use in Garage Band. These are neat functions especially for anyone using an iPad Pro as their computer for music production.
When it comes to functionality, expect this controller to be different from the “average” MIDI keyboards. Apart from 8 drum pads and 2 wheels, it has many more advanced features that novices will love. The knobs on this unit are designed to be used with mostly synth and bass. Four of them are set to adjust the oscillation tune, level and two modes, while the other four are to manipulate resonance, envelope amount, low-frequency oscillation and cutoff frequencies.
You’ll have to be patient to learn how to produce cool sounds with these knobs. While you may use its 5 user presets, understanding how sound generators work would be game-changing. A real cool feature to help you learn things is the “Pad Learn”, which allows you to select a pad, play the note you want on the keyboard and assignment is done.
The control panel is not only easy to use because everything is well-labeled, but also due to LED illumination around the pads. You’ll also find 6 dedicated transport buttons within reach and mapped to control Play, Record, Cycle, Rewind, Forward, and Stop. The MIDI controller software integration supports most of the popular DAWs including Cubase, FL Studio, Logic, Studio One, Nuendo, and more.
At 4 pounds, this MIDI controller is the heaviest model in our picks, but that’s still manageable to carry. All in all, the Impact LX25+ is really a breeze to use, thus a good one for beginners.
What are our favorite features?
Integrates seamlessly with all popular DAWs
Full-sized and velocity-sensitive keys which are perfect for learners
Includes transport controls so you can record melodies with a press of a button
Lots of pads, knobs and buttons to better control of your mix
One of the best-selling keyboard controllers in the world, the M-Audio Keystation Mini 32 MK3 lets you create and perform music with your PC or Mac.
It features 32 mini-sized velocity-sensitive keys plus comprehensive controls that widen the range of playable notes and improve your expressive possibilities. The controller has been designed to help you maximize your creativity while minimizing complication. You can utilize the volume knob, dedicated pitch-bend, and modulation buttons, and the fully-assignable octave up and down buttons to play and perform with your music software.
Speaking of software, the controller comes with Pro Tool | First M-Audio Edition, which will inspire you to create, record, and share your ideas across the world. The software features unlimited busses, offline bounce, elastic pitch and elastic time, and 1GB free cloud storage space for accessing your files from any PC anywhere that has an internet connection. Another ready-to-use software is the AIR Music Xpand!2, offering four active sound slots per patch. You get thousands of ready-to-play patches from this software.
One thing you’ll notice is that this unit is ultra-light at a mere 1 pound. It makes the perfect companion for traveling musicians who want to take control of music software during live sessions or for producers who are mindful of the footprint in their studios. The MIDI controller is USB-powered and supports USB-MIDI connectivity, allowing you to compose with audio apps on iOS devices.
Whether you’re looking to get started with the right MINI keyboard or you’re a seasoned professional seeking just the right controller, this one is for you.
What are its best features?
USB power and data provides single-cable convenience
Comes with Pro Tools and AIR Music software
Includes octave up and down buttons for extended range
With pitch bend and MOD buttons for added expression
Has 32 low-profile velocity-sensitive mini-keys
What could be improved?
Doesn’t work reliably on Windows 10
Things to Consider
Before you get your hands on any travel MIDI keyboard, you got to know the basics. This guide will take you through what you need to know when shopping for one.
What can be considered a travel MIDI keyboard controller?
MIDI keyboards come in all sizes but anything ideal for travel should be adequately compact and portable. A good one falls in the range of 15 to 20 inches in length, with small allowances south and north of these figures. Some models such as the Novation Launchkey Mini MK3 are decently sized to fit into a standard laptop bag alongside your laptop itself. In terms of weight, travel MIDI keyboards fall under 4 pounds and you can even ultra-light machines like the M-Audio Keystation Mini 32 MK3 at just 1 pound.
Now, MIDI keyboards should not be confused with piano keyboards. The latter actually produce sounds whereas the former is used for recording purposes. MIDI keyboards form part of the setup used in a typical music studio to produce music. Apart from keys, they constitute other buttons, wheels, and sliders for sending MIDI signals or commands over a MIDI 5-pin cable of USB to other musical instruments or computers connected and functioning on the same MIDI protocol.
Features to consider when choosing a MIDI keyboard
Choosing the best MIDI controller can be confusing, especially if you are a novice in music production. Below are the key aspects to consider when shopping for a good one.
Number and size of keys
The best portable MIDI keyboards have 25 keys, but you can find 32, 49, 61, and 88-key units. For the purpose of this post, however, we only covered 25 and 32-key MIDI controllers as these are the most portable. The number of keys determines how many octaves you can play with your controller. For instance, 25 keys spans over two octaves. These, however, are only good for playing short basslines and cannot play bass and treble lines at the same time.
Think about the size of the keys too. Weighted action MIDI keyboards nearly always have full-size keys similar to a piano. Semi-weighted keys come in various sizes from mini to full-size. The choice here depends on the skills of the user, space limitations, portability, and probably even the hand size of the player.
This refers to how the keys respond to your touch. There are three types of action:
Weighted hammer action – these closely imitate the feel of a traditional piano. This type is less common with MIDI keyboards and those that have it tend to be quite expensive.
Semi-weighted – they use a lightweight attached to the end of each key. This setup is ideal for most players because it allows traditional jamming as well as MIDI note entering. Many mid and high-end units provide this type of action.
Synth-action – these are spring-loaded but without integrated weight. As a result, they are easy to press down and they produce a swift response. Their lack of resistance, however, makes them poor for jamming.
Aftertouch is a brilliant way to add expressiveness to your playing because this feature sends extra messages to your DAW. It can help in emphasizing melodies and chords, but it’s something you don’t find in each MIDI controller out there. Aftertouch encompasses the volume swells, pitch bends, vibrato, and more. It comes to attention when punctured for an extended time period.
Inputs and Outputs
Almost every MIDI keyboard uses a USB output to transmit MIDI data, but other higher-end units include an array of outputs for versatility. One such output is the 5-pin MIDI DIN, which allows for connection to external synthesizers and music devices. This can be a really useful feature if you want the ability to play and modulate external devices.
MIDI controllers are also equipped with jacks for sustain or expression pedals. The former is perfect for achieving that realistic piano-style playing while the latter is idea for controlling and moderating variables of your choice. Both can enhance your playing.
Pads come in sets of 8 or more, are made of rubber, sensitive to velocity, and can bring realism and changes of patches to your beats. If you’re majorly into producing trap, hip-hop, electronic or such music that needs setting down a programmed beat, drum pads can bring so much creativity to your production.
Buttons, faders and knobs
Buttons could typically be assigned for accessing the menus, settings, octave up/down, MIDI information, transport, and transpose functions. Faders are basically for equalizer control and organ modulation. Knobs are also assignable to almost any function, ascribed majorly for endless encoding.
The best small MIDI keyboard is either bus-powered or battery-operated. The first one allows you to power the device from your laptop or PC via USB connection; no external power source required or long cables to carry around. However, larger MIDI keyboards may use an external power source – an AC adaptor.
Most MIDI keyboards will work straight out of the box with popular DAWs such as Ableton. From our list, these include the likes of Akai Professional APC Key 25, Alesis V25, and Novation Launchkey Mini MK3, which come with Ableton Live feature. Still, DAWs are made different so if you’re using particular software, it would be in your best interest to get a unit geared towards that software.
Some other software include FL Studio, GarageBand/Logic Pro X, and Cubase. The Launchkey Mini MK3 works with most of these.
What’s the best MIDI keyboard for my DAW?
It depends on the software you are accustomed to. Simply look at one that allows integration with your DAW and go with it, keeping in mind other factors mentioned above.
A MIDI controller is typically a keyboard with MIDI capabilities but without onboard sounds, therefore, no audio output. The only thing it does is as you play the keys, it sends MIDI messages to an external MIDI-capable sound module or equipment.
However, a standard keyboard has an internal sound generation engine plus audio output. It does not need extra equipment for it to work.
Key action refers to how a key responds to impact. The type of action you need depends on your playing style. If you just want to enter MIDI notes, choose the synth-action keys or semi-weighted keys. To achieve something similar to a real piano, pick fully-weighted keys for improved playability. If you want a balance of piano and MIDI capabilities, choose semi-weighted keys.
The old-school way of connecting a MIDI keyboard to an external device like PC or laptop is using a 5-pin DIN cable. However, this cable is slowly been eliminated by modern USB connection, which is accepted by nearly all computers and hardware.
The best travel MIDI keyboard will not only allow you to optimize your workflow together with your DAW but also remain handy to use on the road. The reason why we picked the Akai Professional MPK Mini MKII is that it does that very well and it cost very little to obtain. Moreover, Akai is an industry leader and so you can trust it lives up to the fame. The included arpeggiator and full-size sustain pedal input jack are also nice additions, allowing beginners to use the unit with confidence.
The Akai Professional APC Key 25 comes in second and would be the ideal option for experienced players. The inclusion of Ableton Live Lite, AIR Music Tech’s Hybrid 3, VIP3.0 and SONiVOX Twist software makes it such an irresistible device for both studio and live performance works.
If you need a cheap option, the Arturia MiniLab MKII 25 is the go-to gear to use on the road and in studio. This bus-powered unit features 16 encoders, built-in RGB lit pads, and two touch strips to control pitch and modulation, all wrapped in a compact and lightweight 25-key unit.
So, have you found your best travel MIDI keyboard controller? Have you used any of the above units before? Let us know your experiences.