Technology is a wonderful thing, especially when it comes to music making. It automates dull tasks so we can focus on creation, and makes recording ideas fast and efficient.
However, it can also be distracting. Efficiency and diverse options can, ironically, overwhelm and distract us. Music production is no different.
Computers are excellent tools that provide opportunities for anyone to make music, but these same tools can also work against us. With the large selection of DAWs and instruments available, we often find ourselves caught in a “point and click” workflow that restricts creativity.
It might not seem problematic, but each time we take our hands off our instruments, we interrupt the vital creative process that fuels our music. To maintain an uninterrupted workflow, we need some way to seamlessly transition between playing, tweaking, and recording.
Selecting the right producer keyboard can mitigate interruptions, and often eliminate them completely! Imagine being able to play notes, press record, switch between tracks, and mix without ever looking at your screen!
Top 3 - Music Production Keyboards
With creative functionality and workflow in mind, I explore some of the best keyboards for producers below.
Best Keyboards for Producing Music
Table of Contents
- Best Keyboards for Producing Music
- Picking the Right Keyboard for Music Production
1. Akai Professional MPK Mini
Akai calls their Professional MPK Mini a “compact Swiss Army knife that can tackle any production task.” Considering how they packed its features so compactly for such a low price, it’s hard to argue with them.
After unpacking and toying around with it for a while, I was pleasantly surprised by what I could do with it. As expected, its eight velocity-sensitive pads felt responsive and resistant to wear and tear.
Akai is legendary for its MPC samplers, used by renowned producers like J Dilla and Kanye West. It is relatively rare to have eight pads on a keyboard of this size, so they definitely made a smart move here.
Speaking of its size, the MPK Mini is only two octaves, and the keys are lightweight and, well … mini.
If you have a background in piano playing, you’d be better off with a larger keyboard. But if you use your keyboard for triggering samples and plucking out MIDI melodies though, the MPK Mini is an excellent choice.
Furthermore, if you travel a lot, its size is a perk. I backpacked through Italy this past summer. If I’d bought one then, I know I would’ve had no problem hauling it everywhere!
The encoders turn indefinitely in both directions. When using a DAW, you won’t “run out of room” adjusting tracks and parameters.
Lastly, pitch and modulation wheels are replaced by a joystick. Some hate it, some love it. From my experience, the stick’s tension helps accuracy.
2. Novation Launchkey Mini MK3
At a price similar to the MPK Mini, the Launchkey Mini MK3’s unique features offer an intriguing alternative. Based on conversations with colleagues, its robust build slightly outranks the MPK Mini.
However, before choosing, you need to consider what meets your needs best.
The Launchkey is designed with Ableton (version 10 or higher) in mind. One of my best friends uses Ableton regularly for live gigs, and loves his Launchkey for this reason.
A guitarist by trade, he finds it very intuitive for his production needs. He has an intermediate-level knowledge of music technology, but found configuring it a breeze.
But besides DAW integration and durability, the Launchkey keeps other surprising features up its sleeve. Another friend of mine is an EDM artist specializing in hardware.
He has a Launchkey for its 1/8-inch jack for MIDI-to-hardware connections – a rare feature for producer keyboards of its price. It’s a perfect budget controller for his mad-scientist hardware collection!
Through jams with both, I’ve found the Launchkey to be an extremely versatile and easy-to-use keyboard, full of potential for a wide variety of contexts. If you love experimentation and analog equipment, it’s worth considering.
Of course, that’s not without drawbacks. While it does work with other DAWs, you may lose some perks if you don’t have Ableton.
Its encoders turn a full 360, but stop after that. A small detail, but if you enjoy endlessly tweaking filters and similar parameters like me, this could be a major drawback.
3. Arturia MiniLab 3
Much like Akai has done with hip-hop, Arturia has made an indelible mark on today’s electronic music. The MiniLab 3 is their budget controller, a combination of preloaded sound, sound design, DAW control, and hardware integration.
In college our composition lab used MiniLabs, and I played one for a friend’s recording. Any piano player who’s used miniature keyboards knows they can feel cheap.
However, I was surprised by how quiet and responsive the keys were. In fact, it was less distracting than some of my own full-sized electric keyboards!
Yes, the keys were small, but there’ve been small-keyed instruments long before electronic ones. I was still able to play two-handed improvisations that I was quite proud of.
If you play piano, but want a portable producer keyboard, this is your answer. Nothing can replace full-sized keys and wide ranges, but for what it is, it’s excellent!
Another positive quality that advertisers might not emphasize is its sturdy design. It’s built on a metal base, making for smoother transportation and stressless playing. Have you ever tried playing a keyboard that wiggles around because it’s so light? – No fun!
Unlike the previous keyboards, the MiniLab includes four faders alongside its pads and encoders. All controls turn smoothly without feeling cheap, contributing to the integrity of the product.
Besides DAW compatibility, the MiniLab comes with Analog Lab software, loaded with authentic audio for a bargain price. Anyone looking for smooth playing instruments and high-quality sounds should check the MiniLab out!
4. Alesis V49 MKII 49-key
The Alesis V49 MKII is one of the best keyboards for producers who like a mix of simplicity and customizability.
With eight pads and four encoders, it doesn’t have as many controls as other keyboards on this list. However, this will appeal to producers who don’t need many options, but want more playability from the keyboard itself.
When I was trying out the V49 at my local music shop, I found its keys sturdy and responsive to nuanced playing. In general, I’ve always been happy with the key actions Alesis models have.
At four octaves, I didn’t feel constrained using both hands. With the aforementioned keys, I didn’t feel like I was going to break them.
Using the Up/Down Octave buttons, I could “move” the four-octave range up and down the entire length of a full piano. After a while switching became second nature.
Almost every review I read online mentioned the V49’s minimalist design, praising how it’s conducive to an undistracted workflow. I happen to agree.
Why? First, because of the quality keyboard. Second, because of its uncluttered controls. All four encoders and eight pads are assignable. They’re labeled by number, but that’s it.
When you sit down to produce, I admit you’ll have to spend some time mapping up the MIDI signals. But once you’ve got a system that works, it becomes second nature. Rather than having a “bajillion” buttons staring at you, you only have 12 that work exactly how you want.
5. Nektar Impact LX49+
If you are after tactile touch and want to bring your DAW to life, then Nektar designed the perfect keyboard for you!
I like to think I’m an adventurous musician, both in what I play and listen to. I love Chopin as much as the sequenced electronics of Tangerine Dream.
However, at the end of the day, to be connected to what I play, I want to feel it. I want to feel the piano vibrate, bend strings, turn dials. Too often, DAWs rob producers of that hands-on element.
The Impact fixes this problem. With its organized faders, buttons, encoders, and pads, it turns your DAW into hardware.
Nektar provides drives for multiple DAWs that will automatically assign map for you. As a Radiohead fan, I used the Impact and my guitars to make a cover of “No Surprises” on Reaper.
I switched between tracks and adjusted volumes using the faders and buttons beneath them. I used the encoders to adjust parameters on a mellotron VST.
The result? By the end, I’d barely touched my mouse! I felt like I was playing a real mellotron and using a real mixer.
It’s worth noting the keys feel a little cheap. But personally, I find the DAW integration worth the sacrifice. After all, what’s not to like about pairing it with free VSTs emulating $1000+ equipment?
Sure, it won’t be the exact same. But when your creative workflow feels organic, you will enjoy the process much more.
6. M-Audio Oxygen Pro 49
The M-Audio Oxygen Pro 49 has all the features as the other keyboards, plus more! If you’re looking for as many tools as possible, the Oxygen Pro is perfect.
If everything else was a minivan, the Oxygen Pro is a Ferrari!
Of course, not everyone needs a Ferrari. But if you’re aspiring to be a top-notch producer, then it’s one of the best keyboards for producers you can buy.
The semi-weighted keys felt weighted, making its keys the most authentic feeling of all keyboards listed.
Any equipment intended for long-term use ought to be durable, and every ounce of the Oxygen’s 10 pounds felt tough and reliable. Every element of its design feels intentional.
All my colleagues and I could find something beneficial here.
Keyboardists will feel at home with its keys. Electronic producers will have a heyday assigning its 9 faders, 16 pads, and 8 encoders (are those numbers making you drool yet?) Hardware enthusiasts can pair it with whatever they want.
Basically, the Oxygen Pro will suit whatever needs you want. Honestly, most producers won’t need all its features. But for those serious enough to use it, treat it like an investment that will continue to deliver new features the more you use it.
However, I will end with a word of caution: from what I’ve heard, the Oxygen Pro is not user-friendly with its software and integration. It will be worth the money, but you will need to be patient setting it up.
Picking the Right Keyboard for Music Production
With the wealth of options included with the five keyboards above, let alone all the other options out there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and forget why you’re looking in the first place. At least, I know that’s the case for me.
As you decide what works best for you, here are some things to consider.
What Is Your Ideal Creative Workflow?
When you sit down to make a unique artistic statement, what inspires you to create? What music, movies, artwork, or books mean something to you? How do those ideas translate to the kind of music you want to make?
When you set up a workspace, you want everything to contribute to unhindered creative flow. As I said earlier, computers are notorious for being distracting.
While DAWs are wonderful necessities, we need a keyboard that lets us interact as smoothly as possible with our tracks and audio. Keeping these ideas in mind, what aspects of your current setup distract you the most?
Once you know the problems to fix, what keyboard features would help you eliminate those distractions?
How Much Playing Will You Do?
Some producers come from a piano background. Others don’t. Either way is fine, since your final product is an audio track and not performance.
But still, your creative process will be informed by how much actual playing you record and/or tweak.
If you are a pianist by trade and want something that feels authentic, you will probably want a four-octave keyboard. It will probably be more expensive, but will cause much less frustration.
If you don’t mind pecking around the keys, turning knobs, and using your mouse, a two-octave keyboard could be just fine.
How Will You Use Your Keyboard?
Now we get to the details. It is hard to recommend one exact keyboard, as each producer and their needs will be unique to their musical goals.
However, knowing the answers to the first two questions will significantly narrow down the choices you will need to make. If you know what octave range you want and the features that eliminate distractions, you can make informed decisions.
If you want to record live playing, the Arturia MiniLab 3 and Alesis V49 could be great choices.
If you want to minimize pointing and clicking, it’s hard to pass up the integration of the Nektar Impact.
If your music is sample heavy, then the pads on the Akai Professional MPK Mini would give you a great experience.
If you want tools that inspire new ideas, the Novation Launchkey and M-Audio Oxygen Pro’s novelty tools could help.
Do You Want Faders, Pads, or Encoder Dials?
Lastly, certain styles and preferences lean towards specific input. Pads are a necessity for finger drumming, while dials help shape synth-inspired audio. Faders are always a nice addition, especially if you want immediate access to volume and EQ.
Really, these choices come down to preference. However, they can greatly facilitate your workflow, so they deserve serious thought.
Like any other instrument, keyboard controllers act as an extension of an artist’s creative mind. Whatever you choose, you will be spending a lot of time with your keyboard, forming habits and ideas based on how you interact with it.
Take some time to decide for yourself which keyboard will fit your needs best. As always, enjoy brainstorming, get inspired, and always, ALWAYS have fun! 🙂