Native Instruments are one of the very best (and most established) companies when it comes to virtual instruments, so it always felt like it was only a matter of time until they came up with a truly optimised keyboard controller - and this came to fruition last year with the Kontrol S Series keyboards. At the core of the Kontrol S series is the 'NKS' - aka the Native Kontrol Standard, which enables seamless integration between instruments and controller. Needless to say that none of this would matter if the hardware wasn’t up to task, which is definitely not the case - this controller comes with fully-weighted keys, an acclaimed Fatar keybed (with aftertouch), two multi-function touch strips, eight top-quality encoders with an informative touch-strip, a transport control, assignable buttons, lights above the keyboard to indicate the many possible mappings, different play modes, and connectors for USB (Type-B) MIDI (In/Out), expression/sustain (2 x 1/4” TRS) and DC power. Since this is a Native Instruments product one might expect it to come with a good collection of virtual instruments - and that’s exactly the case! The Kontrol S series ships with Komplete Select, a library of eleven virtual instruments, ranging from acoustic pianos to cutting-edge synthesizers, organs and exotic African instruments - all with great sonics thanks to the Native Instruments pedigree. With an amazing build quality and so many great features it’s easy to understand why this controller is so widely recommended by our users, so make sure it’s on the top of your shopping list when you’re looking for your next keyboard. Available in 25, 49, 61 (with semi-weighted keys) & 88 (featured, fully-weighted keys) versions.
If any MIDI keyboard controller can be called a “classic” it’s the Novation SL MKII, which has been a recurrent choice among our members since its introduction in 2009. The SL MKII series has it all: a very responsive Fatar keybed, assignable aftertouch, eight encoders, velocity-sensitive trigger pads, eight sliders, X-Y pad/joystick and a 144-character screen to show all the assignments. It’s also equipped with Novation’s trademark Speed Dial, a special encoder that will control almost anything under your mouse cursor. Finally, the SL MKII is fully bus-powered via USB (Type B) and equipped with MIDI (In/Out/Thru), sustain/expression connectors (2 x 1/4”) and DC-input for computer-less use. Despite its great hardware feature set, much of the SL MKII’s power comes AutoMap, a software solution that automatically lays down AU/VST plug-ins parameters to the keyboard’s controllers. If you’re not really a fan of such “automated” approaches there’s no need to worry, as manually programming the SL MKII is quite straightforward both with the provided software or on the keyboard itself. A proven and reliable keyboard that won’t fail to deliver. Ships with 4GB of Loopmasters content and three instruments for Ableton Live. Available in 25, 49 and 61-key (featured) versions. Read our users reviews.
The ROLI Seaboard is one of the most innovative instrument designs in a long time. The Seaboards are powered by the “5D” concept that can be summarized as “strike - press - glide (horizontal) - slide (vertical) - lift”, a truly revolutionary concept that enables an entirely new way of playing a keyboard, allowing for an unprecedented level of expression. Such unique hardware demands a special sound engine, which is provided by the 'Equator' software, which brings a hefty number of sounds that are designed especially with the Seaboards’ unique features in mind. It also works as a VST/AU plug-in for seamless DAW integration, and a desktop app allows for easy parameter and MIDI CC assignments. Besides the Equator, there aren’t any other instruments taking advantage of everything the Seaboard has to offer just yet, but with ROLI’s recent acquisition of FXpansion the sound palette is bound to be expanded very soon - hopefully third-party developers will jump on the Seaboard at some point too. It's definitely a very interesting choice if you’re willing to break new ground, but if that’s a bit “too much” for you the Seaboards can also work as 'regular' controllers to control any virtual instrument or synthesizer - as long as they accept MIDI. Connections: Power/MIDI Output on USB (Type B), 1/4" TRS continuous pedal input, DC-input and Type-A USB for charging peripherals. Ships with custom-made carrying case. Available in 25 and 49-key (featured) versions. For those looking for more keys, check out the Seaboard Grand.
The Advance Series is AKAI’s latest proposition to the world of MIDI controllers and it tries to free us from the computer screen and all the often tiresome clicks that go along with their setup by implementing a 4.3” full-colored LCD display and a nifty software solution called “VIP” that integrates the Advance series keyboards with your favourite virtual instruments. At the heart of the VIP software is a robust tagging system that allows you to organize your patch library (which should be a lengthy one) so that synth presets and sounds can be easily accessed through the keyboard, which effectively allows you to stay focused on the keyboard rather than mousing around. VIP also offers parameter mapping and keyboard splits to accommodate a number of different performance scenarios. Needless to say the hardware is also a solid piece of equipment, with a sturdy build, eight big encoders, a very responsive keybed with aftertouch, velocity-sensitive trigger pads, generously sized modulation/pitch wheels, transport controls, navigation arrow keys, on board configurable arpeggiator and detented push-button encoder for easy navigation. Connections are provided on USB (Type-B), MIDI connectors (In/Out) and expression/sustain (2 x 1/4” TRS) and DC-input. The Advance Series also comes with a collection of sounds from the likes of AIR and Sonivox and it’s a great fit for any studio-loaded virtual-instrument. Available in 25, 49 (featured) or 61-key versions. Read our user reviews.
What happens when you combine a DAW controller and a MIDI keyboard? The folks at Nektar decided to address that question and their answer is the Panorama range of keyboards. These clever units presents everything one would expect from a MIDI keyboard controller, such as a great keybed with very responsive keys, eight encoders, eight sliders, modulation/pitch wheels, twelve pressure-sensitive trigger pads and over twenty assignable buttons, and they also incorporate features from Nektar’s DAW controller, including a 100mm touch-sensitive motorized fader, twelve keys for transport or assignable functions and an useful 3.5” color TFT display for parameter mapping. For ultimate ease-of-use it ships with templates for basically every major DAW there is, allowing instant control of mixer channels through the fader, general software functions and it also supports Propellerhead's ReWire for easy swapping between Propellerhead software (Reason) and a chained DAW. MIDI outputs are provided on USB Type-B and MIDI connectors and two 1/4" TRS are available for the assignable footswitch/expression pedals. There’s also a Micro-B USB connector to power the motorized fader or external devices. A great choice for saving some space at the studio or to tackle both keyboard and audio workstation controller fronts with a single piece of equipment. Available in 49 (featured) and 61-key versions. Read our users reviews of the P6.
If Apple ever made a MIDI keyboard it would probably look like the CME’s XKey range of controllers. This compact and very slick controller presents a very clean design with a chassis that resembles a Mac keyboard, presenting the keys slightly carved in a very slim aluminum body for superb portability. Despite its low footprint the XKey isn’t shy of features, it comes with velocity-sensitive keys with polyphonic aftertouch, regular push buttons for octave/sustain & pressure-sensitive buttons for modulation/pitch-bend. It’s fully bus-powered (requiring no external power supply) and further connections are provided through a clever breakout cable with dedicated connectors for the MIDI output and sustain/expression pedals inputs. And don’t worry - although its clearly inspired by Cupertino, it works on Mac, iOS and Windows, with all systems covered by its configuration app. If mobility is a must for you then make sure to give the Xkey a serious look. Available in 25 or 37 keys (featured) models.
It’s all about actual keyboard playing with the elegant Roland A-88 controller. Presenting a fully-weighted “Ivory Feel-G” keyboard and an uncluttered design, the A-88 has a strong focus on performance and on providing the user with a straightforward-to-use instrument that feels as realistic as possible. In addition to the stellar keybed, the A-88 comes with two assignable knobs, two switches, and Roland’s trademark D-BEAM pitch/modulation joystick. Buttons are provided for octave (up-down), transpose, dual/split functions and for integration with the INTEGRA7 Module or Jupiter 80/50 synthesizers. It’s also lightweight, bus-powered and works with Mac, Windows and also iOS, making it a very good choice for both studio and stage. Equipped with USB (Type-B), MIDI Output, Damper (1/4" TRS), Two foot-controllers (2 x 1/4" TRS) and DC power input.
Arturia’s Keystep isn’t your regular keyboard, and don’t let the diminutive size fool you - this is a controller with some serious capabilities. Besides a 32-note keyboard with velocity plus aftertouch this rather portable unit comes with a highly programmable arpeggiator and a polyphonic sequencer, enabling more than regular key playing and providing very effective tools for the modern producer. The Keystep also has transport controls and three knobs (Seq-Arp Mode, Time Division and Rate) to control the onboard arpeggiator/sequencer. Also equipped touch-sensitive performance control strips for modulation/pitch, tap tempo pad, octave up/down keys and a shift button that enables a second layer of controls. Keystep can control basically anything, with simultaneous MIDI, USB output (micro-B type) and control voltage (CV) outputs, which should be very useful to integrate the whole studio and even add a modular synthesizer to the mix. It’s fully class-compliant, bus powered and small enough to be taken almost anywhere. All in all it's an excellent controller with some unique features that make it a very interesting choice for electronic musicians and producers.
AKAI’s MPK range of keyboards are all about merging features of its iconic MPC units with the functionality of current controllers. The MPK88 is the top model in the series, presenting fully-weighted keys, a high quality keybed and it can control up to 72 parameters with its set of switches, sliders and encoders. At the centre are sixteen MPC-style pads with four different banks, enabling the triggering up to sixty four sounds with the option of running a built-in arpeggiator and MPC’s classic Note Swing, Note Repeat and Full Level functions. It’s also equipped with key-split, allowing for two sounds to be controlled simultaneously. Connections are provided on USB (Type-B) for computer/MIDI connection, MIDI Input/Output, and foot switches or expression pedals (3 x 1/4” TRS). The MPK88 can be bus-powered (DC-in is optional) and it’s fully class-compliant for wide compatibility. To sum up, it's a very solid workhorse controller for the modern producer. In case you don’t need or want this many keys and pads, AKAI also offers the MPK25, 49 or 61 models, which are also great choices that should reduce both footprint and cost.
If the Roland A-88 is focused on playing above everything else, the A-800PRO is made with the modern studio producer in mind and offers the usual mix of keys, trigger pads, faders, encoders and sliders. The A-800PRO is the result of a collaboration between Roland with Cakewalk, which hints at excellent hardware quality and robust software with which to drive it. Interestingly enough, this unit doesn’t house the connectors on the back side as is usually done - instead, it places them on the left panel for greater accessibility. This panel is equipped with USB (Type-B for MIDI Out, and a power supply), MIDI Input/Output, Hold/Expression pedals inputs (2 x 1/4” TRS), DC power input and two switches for power and MIDI merge. Assigning parameters should be easy with the provided editor app (Mac/Windows) that enables easy integration with both software instruments and DAWs. A great all-around controller and given the combined expertise of Roland and Cakewalk it should make a very reliable choice for any studio. Read our users reviews.
There's the list, with plenty of options to cater for most tastes, needs and pocketbooks. Despite some overlapping feature sets we can also see that there's a good diversity in controllers out there. Are you happy with what you have right now or on the hunt for a new controller? Anything you would like to see in terms of innovations? Please discuss!