• Looking for a great laptop MIDI keyboard. What's a great buy?

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  • There are a lot of options. Looking for one to use at home, basic functions, inexpensive.

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    Question by kevin kelly
    05/05/2013

There are a quite a few laptop-oriented MIDI keyboards to choose from. It's hard to make a single recommendation because needs vary quite a bit based on your playing experience and the types of things you want to be able to do.

Korg, Akai, Alesis, Edirol (Roland), M-Audio, Novation and others all make a variety of MIDI keyboards (sometimes called keyboard controllers) that are well suited for use with a laptop. Portable keyboard controllers vary in price from $50 to about $400.

First of all, you need to decide how good of keyboard you want. Do you just want something similar to a computer's QWERTY keys that allows you to just press keys to trigger notes or do you want something closer to a piano feel? There is a quite a range available in the quality, size and weight of the keys and the presence of velocity sensitivity, aftertouch and such. If you have expectations in this area (such as experience playing piano) it's best to try the keyboard out before committing.

Second how large of a note range do you want? MIDI keyboards all allow you to adjust the octave range up and down the scale, but the number of keys on the keyboard will have a huge impact on the playability of the keyboard. On the other hand, obviously, this is a tradeoff with portability. Many laptop-oriented MIDI keyboards have 25 keys that allows a keyboard with two octaves of mini, but usable sized, keys to fit in a laptop bag.

A third concern is driver compatibility. Your best bet with respect to drivers is to find a keyboard that is "MIDI class-compliant". That means the device will work "plug-and-play" with most computers (Mac, Windows, Linux, iPad) without the need for special drivers. Special drivers from the vendor can add useful features. But there are often long, frustrating delays between new operating system versions and availability of updated MIDI drivers to support your keyboard with the new OS.

Another issue is power: many smaller MIDI keyboards are designed to operate off USB power and/or batteries and don't require a wall-wart AC power supply. If you are looking for a keyboard for truly mobile use, this is really important.

In addition to the note keys most MIDI keyboard controllers have additional buttons, pads, rocker switches, knobs and sliders for other uses such as pitch bend, modulation, sustain, drum/trigger pads and MIDI CC control functions. The mechanics and utility of these features will vary quite a lot from one keyboard to the next, but some sort of pitch bend and modulation controls are pretty much standard on any MIDI keyboard.

One last consideration is that just about any MIDI synthesizer will also function as a keyboard controller. Just to show how fuzzy this line is, some keyboard controllers throw in a synthesizer module with the rest of the electronics. So a small stand-alone synth will double as MIDI keyboard controller for many uses.

Answer by richardl
05/09/2013

richardl posted a very good overview of things to consider when talking about midi keyboards, but for recommendations for laptop midi keyboards, I will drop 1 model in the hopper that I have personal experience with. I'm assuming the keyboard needs to have some decent portability, and Kevin's stated requirements of basic functions, and inexpensive (ignoring the obvious that you should be able to use a portable keyboard at home, too).

The Korg nanoKEY2 is a very portable USB midi keyboard that can easily fit into a baggy jacket pocket, or be tucked into a backpack or messenger bag, taking up about the same volumetric space as a paperback. It has basic midi functionality, like Octave up and down, Pitch up and down, Sustain, and Modulation. Its 25 non traditional, pressure sensitive, keys feel more like PC keyboard buttons when pressed, and the black keys are off-set to keep from interfering with the white keys, but this oddity is made up for by the ability to, again, easily take this compact gadget anywhere. And, considering price, it can be had for about $50 new.

I don't have one, but the Akai LPK25 looks like it has a similar footprint to the nanoKEY2. The trade-off is that it loses some portability by having more traditional piano keys, which some may have no trouble using up some more bag or pocket space for. It is also priced at about $50 and I am looking at picking one up to try it out.

Answer by joshua
05/10/2013

I had the same question several months ago. I ended up buying an Akai Pro MPK Mini 25-key controller. If you're considering the LPK25, the MPK Mini is basically the LPK25 combined with the LPD8's pads in one chassis. I just mess around with midi and use the controller for projects, experimentation and noodling with various audio workstation packages like Reason and Ableton so I can't speak to how good the MPK is for serious users. I also don't travel with it much so portability pluses and minuses don't matter to me. But it is great for my purposes and having the controller and the pads all-in-one means I don't take up desk real estate with two different components. The MPK is $70 at Amazon and is well-reviewed on sites like musicradar.com.

Answer by johnzilla
05/11/2013
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