The twenty-first century is a busy time to be alive. Between the internet and our increasingly interconnected world, people often find themselves moving around an awful lot.
Musicians are no different. Between gigs, lessons, collaborating, and countless other things, we often make music all over the place. Because of this, portable merchandise is extremely valuable.
Because MIDI keyboards work with computers, and many computers today are laptops, it makes sense that many are made with portability in mind. Some producers might travel a lot, while others work during their morning commutes.
Whatever your reason may be, below are some of the best portable MIDI keyboards in the market.
Smallest MIDI Keyboards - 7 Compact Controllers
Table of Contents
- Smallest MIDI Keyboards - 7 Compact Controllers
- Choosing a Portable MIDI Keyboard
1. Novation Launchkey Mini MK3
I have had the pleasure of testing out multiple Novation products, and I’ve always been impressed with their attention to detail. They have many Launchkey products of various sizes and prices, and each one feels solid and well-designed.
Of the five products in this article, I believe the Launchkey Mini is probably the best 25 key MIDI controller for most people.
Why? It’s simple; the keyboard is extremely lightweight, but still has more customizable options than the rest.
It’s smaller than one square foot, weighs less than one pound, yet TWENTY-FOUR of its thirty-six buttons are assignable (by “buttons,” I mean anything you press besides keys).
All sixteen pads feel responsive, while the encoders twist smoothly. And while you can map them however you want, they have default settings if you’re new to MIDI keyboards and just want to start jamming.
Besides its jam-packed and optimized features, I appreciate the Launchkey’s integration with Ableton. While I use Reaper, many of my buddies use Ableton for live performance and studio recording.
Whenever I plug it into my friend’s computer, it’s automatically set up and ready to go. The mapping makes sense, and is easy to understand.
If you use other DAWs though, it’s still simple to set up.
To be fair, I would mention that the keys themselves feel a bit flimsy because of the plastic used to make them. However, if looking for something incredibly lightweight with ample customization, the Launchkey is one of the best mini MIDI keyboards you could buy!
2. Akai Professional MPK Mini MK III
Akai is a well-respected and mainstay name in the world of music technology.
Their drum machines revolutionized hip-hop production, and they introduced backlit screens on portable recording devices back in the 1970s!
Admittedly, their keyboards aren’t as renowned as their other products, but they’re by no means bad. Akai’s MPK Mini includes an impressive eight pads and eight encoders, which are all assignable.
While not as numerous as Novation’s Launchkey, its sixteen customizable parameters will be plenty for many. The pads felt sturdy, yet remained incredibly responsive to finger drumming – an expected feature from a company renowned for drum machines.
The MPK Mini is slightly bigger than the Launchkey, and twice as heavy. However, it still fit comfortably in my backpack alongside my laptop.
Its software integration was also a plus for me. The included software has 1,500 sounds. As a budget musician I can always hunt down sounds myself, but getting that many sounds at one time definitely saves tons of time.
I thought the MPK Mini integrates with DAW software more smoothly than the Launchkey. I realized that, besides scrolling with my touchpad, I could interact with almost every DAW feature directly through the keyboard itself.
All factors considered, the MPK Mini seems slightly limited compared to the Launchkey. The joystick was also more of a hassle than traditional pitch/mod wheels and strips.
Because of those factors, I recommend the MPK Mini to people who value deep DAW integration and will use it exclusively on the go.
3. Nektar SE25
Some people want lots of knobs and buttons on their keyboards. Some just need a plain old keyboard.
For those of you in the latter group, the Nektar SE25 is a fantastic find!
It’s hard to beat a two-octave keyboard weighing less than a pound! My wife plays flute, and she can squeeze her flute case into anything. This keyboard is even smaller than that!
How did Nektar do this? They forwent encoders and pads completely. For many people that’s a dealbreaker. But as already mentioned, if you’re after a bare-bones keyboard, it’s a perfect match.
Second, they minimized essential settings to six buttons on the left and made each key work as a secondary parameter button.
You know how you can press SHIFT on a computer and enter a new character with the number buttons? The SE25 works the same way; you can press the S key and a corresponding key to select what you need.
Not only do I find this design clever, but it makes changing parameters very fast since everything is within reach without moving your hand. A small detail, but it helps efficiency!
For the purposes it serves, I found the SE25 one of the best portable MIDI keyboards out there. It was easy for me to understand, minimalist, and so efficient I forgot it was even there after a while.
Finally, you can’t beat the price point. Again, if all you need is a highly portable keyboard, the SE25 is well worth consideration.
4. Arturia MiniLab 3
MIDI controllers are great, there’s no doubt about that. Even a simple keyboard like the Nektar SE25 instantly makes you feel more connected to your music making.
However, sometimes hooking it up to a computer is a drag. Without that computer, you can’t do anything. I mean, they are called “controllers” for a reason, right?
Enter the Arturia MiniLab 3. It is a controller with all the traditional features. But it can also work alone without a computer!
As someone who tries to make music as organically as possible, I always jump on opportunities to record music without a screen. With 500 preloaded samples, I had a heyday experimenting with diverse sounds.
I like how the autonomy of the MiniLab encourages spontaneity. Once it’s in your backpack, you’re prepared to capture sudden ideas of inspiration.
The MiniLab has eight pads, eight encoders, and four faders. They all responded smoothly to manipulation.
When you do plug the MiniLab into a computer, it maps well with DAWs, and comes with excellent software. It has Analog Lab, which includes many sounds emulating my favorite synths like the Minimoog.
My one complaint about the MiniLab is its weight, which is both a blessing and a curse. As the sturdiest product in this article, it’s around three pounds.
It makes sense that increased durability means increased weight, so it’s a choice you’ll have to make. Overall, its autonomy, faders, and software make the MiniLab one of the best mini MIDI keyboards in the market today.
5. Alesis V25 MKII
The Alesis V25 MKII is for people wanting a quality keyboard as their top priority, but also want a few encoders and pads. It doesn’t have as many pads and encoders as the Launchkey or MPK Mini.
This isn’t good or bad, since it comes down to preference. I like to call the MKII the “minimalist” option among portable keyboards that include pads and encoders.
In comparison to the other mini MIDI keyboards listed (except for the Nektar SE25), I thought the MKII appeared less cluttered. While it’s a small detail, I’m often distracted by instruments with lots of buttons.
All encoders and pads are assignable, so they aren’t labeled. This makes it appear less cluttered. For beginners in the world of production, twelve parameters are a good place to start.
Unlike some of the aforementioned keyboards, the MKII includes two small pitch and modulation wheels. Some other keyboards use strips because they are less likely to be broken when traveling.
While a matter of preference, I prefer the tactile touch of wheels. By making them smaller on the MKII, Alesis still took measures to protect them on the move.
Unfortunately, the MKII weighs around four pounds! Part of this is for durability and body design, both of which I wonder if they could have been simpler.
After considering my experience with it, I would recommend the MKII to beginners who want a simple keyboard with some features, and don’t mind the extra weight.
6. Korg nanoKEY2
The Korg nanoKEY2 looks like some futuristic doomsday machine out of The Matrix! Even if you don’t buy it, you have to admit it looks awesome!
Because of its design, the nanoKEY2 serves a specific function, and that’s to input MIDI notes onto a computer.
Rather than using traditional keys, the nanoKEY2 uses plastic buttons arranged in two rows emulating black and white keys. At just over half a pound, it’s the lightest portable keyboard on this list. Plus, it’s the second smallest and most inexpensive.
You do have to be careful because it’s not the sturdiest keyboard I’ve tried. The keys are slippery, and reviewers warn they can pop out after months of use (they easily pop back in though).
I found I could still enter chords by playing all notes at once, and play simple melodic lines. It feels different, but since you’re not performing, it works.
Before you say the nanoKEY2 is pointless, hear me out. I think it’s one of the best portable MIDI keyboards for electronic musicians and composers. It doesn’t need to function like a performance machine.
I hung out with composition majors at university, and 99% of the time they just used keyboards to plug notes into Sibelius. The same goes for electronic musicians, who use DAWs similarly.
There’s more though! If you decide later that you wanted a keyboard with more features, you’re in luck. Korg made other similar products to be used together like a puzzle. They include ones with pads and faders.
At a similar price point, if you play your cards right, you can buy two Korg products for roughly the same price as a full-fledged keyboard (or cheaper). After all, if you’re not going to use all the features on a fancier keyboard, you don’t necessarily need it.
7. M-WAVE 25 Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller
M-WAVE is a smaller company, so its name isn’t as famous as names like Korg and Arturia. Despite this, their MIDI keyboard is impressive.
M-WAVE’s keyboard has the typical pads and encoders, but its wireless connectivity is its biggest selling point. On the move, less wires could easily make it one of the best portable MIDI keyboards.
To test out M-WAVE’s versatility, I connected it to my Windows computer, iPad, and Android phone. It worked with all of them using Bluetooth!
Bluetooth is great for more reasons than convenience. Often, in order to produce with iOS devices, users had to buy extra adapters. With built-in Bluetooth, I could avoid that hassle.
I did, however, find connecting to Windows a bit finicky. It was surprisingly difficult given that Windows is the most commonly used OS out there.
To accompany its wireless capabilities, the keyboard runs on batteries. I appreciate that M-WAVE was so dedicated to creating a fully functional wireless product.
So how does a product so focused on unique features measure up with the normal ones?
Fortunately, M-WAVE’s product still shines! Its eight encoders spin infinitely in both directions, and they turned with enough resistance to avoid turning too far. Its pads felt responsive to varying pressures.
The only complaint I have is the feel of the keys. While adequate, they’re a little flimsy, and the black keys slant at an odd angle.
Still, for a company you might not know, they definitely hold their own. Sometimes smaller companies can be a bit sketchy, but that’s not the case here.
Choosing a Portable MIDI Keyboard
Just like many other areas in life, the choices you have to make regarding music gear can be overwhelming. It’s exciting to read about all the features, but after a while it all blurs together into a big confusing mess.
Here are several tips to help you prioritize the features that matter most to you.
Factor 1: Size and Weight
It goes without saying that size and weight are some of the most important factors for a portable device. But how exactly do we decide what size and weight to look for?
First, understand that even though size and weight are important, compatibility with your computer and musical needs is more important. A pound of difference won’t matter if you want to trigger samples but don’t have any pads.
Second, consider what you’re using to transport it. Is it a backpack? Maybe a shoulder bag? Is it made of thick fabric or thin plastic? You’ll want to know how big your bag is, as well as a rough estimate of what else is going in it.
Third, if you’re traveling by plane, weight will be extremely important. If you put it in a carry-on or hand luggage, every pound is important. The standard carry-on weight is 15 pounds, and you’d be surprised at how much a single pound can make or break a trip!
Factor 2: Where Will You Use Your Keyboard?
This may not be as important as the other factors, but it will still influence your decisions. The social and physical surroundings of your environment will dictate how you use your keyboard.
For example, a city bus won’t have a table, but a train will. A public park will have more nosy bystanders than a friend’s backyard. And cities, for all their urban charm, will definitely be dirtier than houses and studios.
Whatever you choose, make sure you’re comfortable using your keyboard wherever you work.
Factor 3: How Will You Use Your Keyboard?
This factor is important for any musical gear in any situation, but the considerations are more focused for portable gear. Because portable gear is smaller and more compact, it is crucial that you know exactly how you intend to use every feature.
For example, if all you care about is plugging notes into a computer, the nanoKEY2 could be just what you need. If you are into sound design and synthesis, however, you will probably want knobs to tweak ADSR and filters.
Even live performance is important to consider. A two-octave keyboard might not be a good replacement for a full piano, but it certainly has great uses outside a traditional keyboard context.
Whatever you decide, make sure you have accounted for every key, button, encoder, or pad – or lack of them!
Factor 4: How is Your Keyboard Laid Out?
Your keyboard’s layout is a subtle thing that can make a big difference. It may not be as obvious as weight or features, but it can still affect how you approach your keyboard.
Every square inch of your keyboard is “prime real estate” for each feature. You want a layout that makes sense to you.
Some people may want the no-nonsense interface of the Alesis MKII, while others may want more labels like the Novation Launchkey. Others might be perfectly happy with the S-button and keys on the Nektar SE25.
Factor 5: How Much Do You Want to Customize?
Lastly, how much will you want to customize your DAW mapping and sounds?
If you have a lot of specific ideas that you want to bring to life, you may want something that is endlessly tweakable. If you’re a hobbyist, on the other hand, you might be perfectly happy with a plug-and-play model where you don’t have to set anything up.
Provided software is another factor to consider, as well as DAW specifications. Certain products, like the Arturia MiniLab, cater to people wanting quality samples. Others, like the Novation Launchkey, are made with Ableton users in mind.
There is no right or wrong answers here, but customization is where your production can really shine!
Back in the day, if you wanted to make great sounding music you had to be in a studio. Most of the time, getting in those studios required serious self-hustling and wads of cash.
Nowadays we are living in a golden age of production, where anyone can create music anywhere! Simply by reading this article, you are part of an exciting new future.
Not only can you be a producer, but you can find inspiration working anywhere you want! Hopefully this article gave you useful advice on how to choose a keyboard, and a jumpstart on finding the best portable MIDI keyboards on the market.