In today’s article, we are covering the top 6 MIDI keyboards, also known as MIDI controllers. Although MIDI keyboards with 61 keys are great, they stand apart from the rest because they give enough space to play the arrangement with both hands without hitting the octave key and saving some space on your desk compared to 88 keys.
It’s essential to keep in mind the keyboard’s functions because of the producing aspect of the genre that you like to work on. Each model provides specific features for recording and playing purposes, depending on its controls. We have compared the models by means of the number of pads, size, weights, keybed feel, functionality, and software integration.
There are various points why a 61 keyboard is better than others. For instance, it gives you a “pro feel” compared to 25-keys. If you possess some knowledge of playing a regular piano, this would be a similar feel. In addition, because of their size, some of them have enhanced capabilities that go beyond the fundamental recording effects.
6 Best 61 Key MIDI Keyboards 2022 (On Any Budget)
1. Arturia KeyLab Essential 61
Arturia’s keyboard controllers are designed to function exclusively with their line of virtual instruments, although they can also be used as general-purpose MIDI devices. First of all, the build quality is well constructed. The keyboard weighs about 3.3kg, and it features a nice sleek symmetric design with rounded edges.
However, the front of the keyboard has controls such as eight pads, 61 keys, nine rotary controls, nine faders, chord mode, DAW controls, and many more utilities that a musician can implement. Moving on the back, it has a sustain pedal input, USB, and MIDI output.
Also, you can optionally add a PSU unit that can be used to power the keyboard without the PC. The keys on Arturia are full-size and velocity-sensitive, which means that the keys react quickly to the amount of speed and pressure applied to them.
The package includes software such as Ableton Live Lite, UVI Grand Piano Model D, and Arturia’s Analog Lab 2, which contains over 5000 synths of sounds already pre-configured.
You may even configure the keyboard to split in half so that you can play two sounds at once from the Analog Lab.
The Arturia has made a “lite” version of the whole KeyLab experience. Firstly, the keyboard is light, so it’s easy to transport and great for live performance. Secondly, they have placed the pitch bend and modulation wheel above the keys to save some space.
- Software implementation
While it’s generally used as a MIDI device, Arturia is geared for the ultimate compatibility between their VSTs and Ableton Live. The keyboard is equipped with industry-standard Mackie HUI data language, which gives direct access to the most frequently used commands in the recording software. Therefore, this helps keep you more focused on the production than the mouse and keyboard.
- Multiple mapping pages
Within KeyLab essentials, the pads are also used to switch between map settings. Each pad is configured to map settings for Analog Lab, DAW, or even six fully-customizable user maps, created on Arturia MIDI Control Center; this allows you to create your controller to your liking.
- Chord mode
A chord mode is a creative tool. It allows the users to use only one finger to play a chord of their choice. It’s excellent for playing harmonies on one hand while playing the melody on the other. In addition, you will be able to play the chords on the pads while playing the melody on the keys.
- MIDI output
Keyboard also works great as a standalone because when powered with a PSU unit instead via a USB port. In addition, the keyboard allows using the MIDI output to control outboard synths & modules. Nowadays, MIDI controllers usually are only powered via USB.
The Arturia’s keyboard is versatile, covered with many options, and provides a wide bank of quality synth sounds that can be unlocked later as full plugins. KeyLab Essential is one of the cheapest ways to get started. The small LCD screen is far more usable than the others. The LCD screen shows more than just MIDI information.
When used with Ableton, patch information and mappings are displayed, and the large rubber jog wheel in the center of the keyboard can be used to choose presets. The endless encoder knobs are fantastic, remembering and picking up parameters from the last time they were moved. Optionally the keyboard also works as a stand-alone.
The hardware end feels a little bit cheaper. The keyboard is missing an expression pedal which would be a nice additional feature. There are reports that the keybed felt “toylike” even though it has some resistance. Faders are too widely placed, which can be uncomfortable to use on live performance sets.
2. Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S61 MK2
Komplete Kontrol S61 MK2 comes in a stylish complete satin black finish. It’s preconfigured for all Komplete instruments, and it can control many instruments from leading third parties via Native Kontrol Standard(NKS). In the center of the keyboard are two high-resolution screens.
The new generation of this keyboard brings a new layout with many buttons that give direct access to key features. The eight rotary knobs are touch capacitive, which means while touching the knob, the screen will show the parameter details. The 61-key version uses industry-leading Fatars semi-weighted synth-action velocity-sensitive keybed with aftertouch.
- Light Guide
Above the keyboard, LED lights have been placed, it isn’t only cool, but it also has a purpose. Firstly, it has a scale mode that will light up LEDs for the specific scale you would like; in other words Light Guide shows you which keys are valid. Secondly, it’s also used as a light zones to indicate a specific type of sound on drum instruments(for example, red is kick, blue is hat). This feature is only compatible with the Komplete Kontrol plugin.
- Fatar Keybed
As mentioned before, the keyboard uses Fatars keys, one of the best. Keybed provides a smooth experience and enough resistance for you to truly pound the keys while still recovering quickly enough for synth-style repeats. The keyboard is also featuring full-size keys.
- Two High-Resolution Screens
The beautiful duals screen gives the impression of a premium feel. Also, they provide different things depending on whether you are using Komplete Kontrol or DAW. For example, the DAW window will show the mixer with panning options. The screen is controlled with a 4-direction encoder.
- Various Control Functions
4D push encoder is also being used for browsing through settings. Functions such as transport buttons (rec, play, stop), movement buttons, and octave controls are among the various control capabilities included on Komplete Kontrol S61 MK2. The Pitch bend and modulation wheel have an additional touch strip for more expression. The three-way pedal support is a plus.
The elegant design screams luxury and the keyboard action is excellent. It works with a wide range of NI and third-party plugin instruments and popular DAWs. Komplete Kontrol has provided a controller with fully mappable controls. The visual feedback from the screens and light makes the workflow even better.
Even though the keyboard doesn’t have faders for the mixing, the knobs can save the fader position according to the bank selected.
The keyboard and software are a perfect option for Multi-DAW users. It should work pretty seamlessly with any setup, and the fact you have some primary track navigation and transport controls mean you have a faster workflow in your project.
The controller doesn’t have faders and pads, which would be a great addition. Individually purchased NI plugins or third-party instruments aren’t supported by the Komplete Kontrol software.
The screen is missing the DAW mixer section, which could be a great addition. There are reports that the keys are a little bit noisier, and the build quality of the encoders. The key travel is long.
3. Novation Launchkey 61 MK3
Novation Launchkey 61 MK3 provides ultimate software integration with Ableton Live, and everything is automatically mapped. The keyboard provides 61 velocity-sensitive keys, nine faders, eight rotary knobs, 16 pads, a transport section buttons, an arpeggiator, a pitch wheel, and a modulation wheel. The keyboard’s back features connectivities such as USB, sustain pedal jack, and MIDI out. The pads are organized 8×2 grid, and they are also RGB programmed to provide some feedback.
The nine 45mm faders are great for mixing purposes. Although the pads have improved compared to the MK2 version, they provide more control dynamics because of their size and sensitivity.
On the software end, it’s additionally packed with Ableton Live 10 Lite, Serato Sample LE, Spitfire Audio LABS Expressive Strings, XLN Audio Addictive Keys, Klevgrand R0Verb and DAW Cassette, AAS Session Bundle.
- Software Implementation
The keyboard is designed to work with Ableton. All of the controls are assignable, and also via Mackie HUI, the keyboard can nicely integrate with other DAWs such as Logic, Reaper, Pro Tools, and Studio One. For example, you will be able to change the mixer parameter or launch clips and scenes.
- Scale mode
Scale mode allows users to play scales without any mistakes. It provides you to specify the root note and choose a scale or mode such as minor, major, Dorian, Mixolydian, Phrygian, harmonic minor, or pentatonic scales. The mode is excellent, especially for less-skilled players. It also can be combined with chord mode on pads.
- Chord Mode and Arpeggiator
Chord mode provides you with a way to play chords with only one finger. You will be able to choose between fixed, scale, or user-specified. The chords can be triggered either via pads or keys. For example, every pad becomes a chord, and the chord is organized into triads, sevenths, ninths, and sixths. In addition to that, you can also toggle the arpeggiator to play melodies.
- Custom Modes
The keyboard is also user-customizable. You will be able to program custom modes via Novation Component tools. You will be able to change pad colors, midi routing, knobs, faders, and buttons, and there is also a separate categ0ry for a sustain pedal. It allows you to prepare your controller for any concert or a studio.
The keyboard is well built straight out of the box. The faders and knobs aren’t wobbly anymore as in the previous version. By default, 45mm faders are preconfigured for volume control, the first eight faders are for the track, and the night is for the master track. With just pressing shift, the Launchkey can also provide many other mixing options controlled via knobs.
The arpeggiator has seven different modes of triggering the notes. The modes which can be used are Up, Down, Up/Down, Played, Random, Chord, and Mutate. Mutate mode can also be controlled via knobs, allowing the user to experiment with the patterns.
The keyboard integration with Logic Pro X works well. The controller is also capable of splitting controls to separate MIDI channels.
The keyboard doesn’t have an aftertouch. Also, the keys feel cheap as they feel super light. New starters might have difficulties setting everything up. It may bother you, but the screen is considerably small. USB-A to USB-C isn’t included in the box considering the product’s release date.
The transport button doesn’t light up, which isn’t a deal-breaker. There are no other bad reports on the keyboard functionality.
4. M-Audio Keystation 61 MK3
M-Audio Keystation 61 MK3 features 61 keys which are full-sized and semi-weighted. The keyboard has a minimalistic approach. It has only transport controls, one assignable fader, pitch, and modulation wheels. Physically on the back, it features MIDI out, USB in, sustains pedal jack, and optional PSU input.
The keyboard has an excellent slim, piano-looking design. Octave Up/Down is controlled with two buttons, with the status being signaled by the LEDs above the buttons.
First, one of the green LEDs goes out, then it turns yellow for another octave and then red for another octave (each in the corresponding direction). There is a shortcut by pressing both octave buttons; it will reset to the center.
- Advance (shift button)
The keyboard is designed to adjust simple settings with the advance button. However, when used with the keys, it provides access to more advanced MIDI parameters such as transpose and control changes. It’s also using the Mackie HUI for the DAW controls. This feature expands quite well the functionality of the keyboard.
- Full-Size Keys
Fully sized keys and semi-weighted is an excellent addition to this price. The keys have good action for both instrument and drumming purposes. The velocity sensitivity is exquisite, so you can also dynamically express yourself.
- Software included
M-Audio comes in with a bundle of nice software for beginners. Ableton Live and Pro Tools M-Audio are included; three AiR virtual instruments have been included Mini Grand, Velvet, and Xpand!2. Xpand!2 is a multitimbral plugin with four active slots per patch. The plugin is excellent for creating your instruments as it uses wavetable and FM synthesis for the playback.
- External Midi Function
M-Audio can function as a standalone because of the MIDI output and power input. Via MIDI output, it can control synthesizers and other MIDI sound modules. The MIDI output is the standard 5-pin DIN. It’s also instructed that the keyboard can function as a sequencer if used via MIDI output.
Keyboard itself is compact and light-weighted. Because of that, it’s excellent for live performance, and it can fit on any desk in the studio. Because of the midi output, it can work as a standalone. The keyboard doesn’t require additional software to change settings. Because everything is already mapped, this comes in handy for beginners.
Considering the price tag, the keys are semi-weighted. Therefore, everything is played evenly without any wobbles. In addition, the keyboard recognizes the polarity of the sustain pedal (opener or closer) and automatically adjusts itself accordingly. Lite versions of DAWs are included, which is great for beginners to start.
The keys are noisy, so the keyboard won’t be suitable for recording studios with microphones. Even though it’s designed with a minimalistic approach, the keyboard is missing rotary knobs on the keyboard, which could be fit. The USB and MIDI sockets aren’t active simultaneously, only the USB. So you have to turn MIDI on first.
There are also reports that the keyboard can’t set an operating mode in which both MIDI and USB are active simultaneously, only either or – and that’s not what the instructions say. Also, some users have complained that it isn’t just “plug and play” as advertised. The keyboard may also “flex” while you play.
Nektar Panorama P6 is a good-looking keyboard. It has 61 keys, 16 rotary knobs, nine faders, one mechanical fader, 12 pads, 28 switches, a TFT screen, a pitch bend, and a modulation wheel. On the back of the keyboard is placed sustain pedal jack, expression pedal jack, MIDI out, USB B for the power, USB micro for the mechanical fader, on/off switch.
The keyboard can make user-based QWERTY shortcuts. Panorama integrates perfectly with DAW such as Bitwig Studio, Cubase, Nuendo, Logic Pro, Reaper, and Reason. The mechanical fader is 100mm long, and the other ones are 45mm.
The quality of the build is solid even though it’s made out of plastic. Unfortunately, the Nektar Panorama P6 doesn’t include any software in the package.
- Mechanical Fader
The mechanical fader is motorized and can automatically shift between the selected current tracks. Since the fader is 100mm long, it replicates the master fader. The fader will also provide better precision because of its length. However, the fader won’t operate if the second USB micro isn’t used.
- 3.5 TFT Screen
The screen on Panorama P6 is interactive, and it can provide detailed information about the parameters you will tweak. For example, depending on the view mode screen can show information such as mixer from the DAW, parameters about the plugin that you tweak; everything is done in real-time. These features are compatible with the DAWs which were mentioned above.
- 12 Pads
Additionally, the pads also have two separate modes of play. Firstly, you can use the “Velocity Spread” mode for rich and consistent dynamics, which allows spreading one note across the pads with their fixed velocity. Secondly, there is also a “Scale Function” where you can play melodies on pads instead of on the keyboard, which will configure to the chosen scale.
- Transport Bar
The transport bar has six buttons extending via the shift button to 11 buttons. It provides commands such as Return to L, Forward to R, Undo, Click on/off, Record Mode, Cycle on/off, Back, Forward, Stop, Play, and Record. In addition, when pressing shift, it provides assignable midi commands or QWERTY shortcuts.
Nektar Panorama has an excellent integration system with DAWs. The mixer, Instruments, and Transport modes on the TFT screen are great. It’s minimalizing the need for a regular screen. When used with Bitwig, the keyboard can be used as a step sequencer. The ergonomic design allows using all of the features with ease.
The quality of the build is sturdy, and the keybed is semi-weighted which feels nice. The keyboard can be set up alongside other Panorama controllers, and all controls will act independently.
The reason is being listed as a deep integrated DAW, but the only controls are real-time parameter tweaking; there is no deep programming compared to the others. There are also reports that the device isn’t really as described as “plug and play”; you need to follow a set of instructions to configure it with your system. To the faders, you will need to get used to it because of its design.
Action is different between white and black keys. There is mechanical noise, especially on the white keys. Even though there is a mode for dynamics, pads may not be responsive. Sometimes there is a need for a forceful touch before the pad reacts. It isn’t a deal-breaker, but no free software has been included in the package for beginners.
The Akai MPK 261 provided features like 16 RGB configurable pads, 61 semi-weighted keys with aftertouch, and an LCD screen used for browsing through patches. Also, the keyboard can toggle QWERTY-style shortcuts.
This MIDI keyboard has eight control knobs, eight faders, eight illuminated switches, and easy assignment mapping. Besides that, in the package is also included a big software bundle. On the back, it features standard MIDI din output and USB MIDI.
This keyboard is one of the most straightforward controllers because of its design and robust build. Moreover, the keys are made for a more “comfort playing experience.”
- 4 x 4 Pads
Red, blue, and green RGB backlit pads are available on the MPK261. The brightness on the RGB is good as they come in handy for dark venues as it makes it easier to see what you are dealing with. There are 16 separate pads with four banks. The MPK 261 can assign 64 separate sounds or samples to the pads.
- Bundled Software
An extensive software bundle has been included in Akai MPK261. Ableton Lite Live, VIP, Hybrid 3, SONiVOX Twist 2.0, SONiVOX Eighty-Eight Ensemble, and the Akai Pro MPC Essentials are all available when you buy MPK261. The keyboard works great with the software as it automatically maps the parameters.
The user interface is user-friendly, and it works excellent. The LCD panel on the Akai MPK261 lets you pick and move among available presets. You can also utilize the screen to send keyboard commands to computers. In addition, the interface fits in perfectly with the keyboard’s overall fair layout of knobs, faders, and pads, which allows for quick access to all of the keyboard’s functions.
- iOS Compatibility
For increased versatility, iOS compatibility is also a bonus. Akai MPK 261 can connect to an iPad via the Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit, sold separately. This feature is excellent for gigs as you won’t need to use the laptop as your primary source.
Faders, in general, aren’t reliable; usually, they break easy. However, on this model, they seem pretty durable. Akai has done an outstanding job of producing keyboards that have stood the test of time. The keyboard is small and light even though it’s full metal.
It’s also quite sturdy for a MIDI keyboard. The backlight on the pads is working well, and they are bright enough when working in daylight.
The pads also respond well to the playing dynamics. It has extended features. The controller is also compatible with Akai VIP, allowing users to use all of the VSTs on a single platform. It provides an impressive software bundle that covers many sound diversities. The knobs are also having excellent resistance when turning them.
The price tag is too big. If you already have an MPK621, the upgrade won’t be worth it. The placement of the pitch wheel and modulation is a bit awkward because when it’s used, the accessibility of the far left keys is blocked. The keys aren’t the standard size; they are a little shorter, so you won’t be able to play expressively.
There are reports that recently, users have got a keyboard with an already faulty key or that the MIDI receptacle on the back of the keyboard feels extremely loose; it may break quite easily. In addition, the integration with Logic Pro X isn’t good as it should be, as claimed in the advertisements.
This article should help you narrow down your choice. As we can see, all of the keyboards strive to help with functionality and help you in various ways. Each of them has implemented its features. You can pick a model that fulfills your musical needs and fits your budget. Determining your needs and doing your research will go a long way.
MIDI keyboards, for sure, will improve your workflow. But, depending on your production style, you’ll have to ensure which features will enhance your workflow. For example, if you like to make beats for sure, you will need the pads.
In addition, software integration with the keyboard is essential as it can save you time mapping your preferred DAW. These keyboards have basic functions such as pitch bend, modulation wheel, octave key, and sustain jack.
Some of the keyboards are more focused on the live performance realm. It’s important to understand that each of them has its limitations. The best advice would be to head over to the local store and check how it feels under your hands.
Check our related readings as they can also help you with the choice even more.
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Ivan Nedic is a young producer and audio engineer based in Serbia. He has experience in providing live sound for the venues, audio post-production and also he produces various tracks mostly Psychedelic Trance. He is also known as Dicne (Ditchne in English).