It’s a harsh reality for plenty of home-based recording studios that space a scarce commodity. Many is the part-time engineer who shares a computer desk with other family members, tasked will paying bills or doing homework. Even when you have exclusive use, there’s plenty of gear competing for limited square inches of desktop.
MIDI keyboard controllers have proven their worth and the validity of the MIDI protocol over 30-plus years. It rarely matters if you’re a keyboard player or not. With two index fingers, you can use a MIDI keyboard to easily sketch out a kick and snare pattern.
Basic knowledge of triads gives you the ability to add synth and string pads, and if you’re fluent with piano, you’ve got conveniently located access to a huge array of virtual instruments requiring just an open USB port and a modest purchase.
That’s where our seven players come in. Since we’re talking mini MIDI controllers, think a step down from a desktop unit. These guys are sized to fit in a backpack, along with your laptop. Want to record an album from the summit of the mountain you’re camped out on? These are your keys. Let’s get to it.
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The iRig Keys Pro is a heck of a success story. When first released, its connectivity was impressive, boasting USB and other mobile device support. First impressions of the Keys Pro were of a lightweight plastic keyboard that had many eyebrows raised about its durability. Years later, these things keep on churning out the hits, betraying no sign of its age, still looking startlingly new. It did, however, feature full-size keys, making its footprint a bit bigger than a truly portable mini keyboard controller.
The Keys 2 Mini is a two-octave baby version of the 37-key Keys Pro, and it drops the pitch and mod wheels as well as the damper pedal input in addition to the third octave. Otherwise, the connectivity remains, and there’s even some expanded capabilities over the Keys Pro.
Standard USB connection is, of course a piece of cake. You can also build a recording rig around your smartphone or tablet, as the Keys 2 Mini connects to iPhones and iPads as well as to many Android devices. Newer Apple devices with no headphone jack? No problem, the Keys 2 Midi has a standard TRS 3.5mm audio jack, giving you what Apple didn’t.
As with the Keys Pro, the Keys 2 Mini is a bus powered device, but depending how you connect, you may be able to use a USB power supply or battery pack to reduce the drain on your controlled device. This keyboard ships with Lightning, USB-A, USB-C cables as well as a 2.5mm MIDI In/Out cable with a MIDI adapter. This doesn’t cover all possible connection options, so you may need to purchase additional connectors.
All models in the Keys 2 series feature the controls present on the earlier Keys series, with the addition of a data wheel and four assignable rotary knobs. With these, plus the additional bank select button, you can save and recall up to 8 custom setups.
The included software bundle features IK Multimedia’s Sample Tank 4 SE, so you have access to over 2,000 instruments and sounds without even considering what virtual instruments you may already have. It also unlocks a variety of free instrument apps for both iOS and Android systems.
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French music software developer Arturia, perhaps best known for their Analog Labs series, also has a foot firmly planted in the hardware domain, and the MiniLab Mk II is their mini keyboard MID controller offering. A 25-key device like the Keys 2 Mini, the MiniLab Mk II also includes 16 rotary encoders (encoders 1 and 9 are also clickable) and 8 velocity and pressure sensitive pads.
And while dropping pitch and mod wheels to save space is forgivable, Arturia adds this capability back in the form of touch strips, a move that seems perfectly in keeping with the mini controller ethos. Arturia also preserves the sustain pedal jack, a nice touch for those who depend on a little footwork.
The rotary encoders and pads are configurable, and you’ve got room to store 8 user presets. If you’re wondering what to do with 16 rotary encoders, look into your digital audio workstation’s (DAW) MIDI Learn capabilities. If you have plugins that you use all the time, it’s worth setting up some presets to reduce your keyboard-and-mouse editing duties. The 8 pads supply two banks. They’re backlit with three color LEDs, and if you’re more comfortable tapping out beats on pads, well, you’re all set.
It’s not surprising that Arturia’s Analog Lan Lite is bundled with the MiniLab Mk II. The UVI Model D Steinway grand piano is somewhat more unexpected. The included access for Ableton Live Lite rounds up the out of the box experience. This is a keyboard that seems perfectly matched to the Live DAW, particularly if you’re looking for a compact package.
The only place that the MiniLab Mk II falls short of the Keys 2 Mini is in connectivity. Arturia provides a single USB-B connector, so you’ll need other cables and some creativity for connect with some other devices. However, the MiniLab Mk II is bus powered and USB class compliant, so just plug it in to a computer or laptop and you’re ready to go.
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Some people are all about the bells and whistles and they love digging into MIDI specs to extend the capabilities of their gear, hardware and software. Others simply don’t want to know. MIDI implementation charts are an invitation to Narcolepsy Island, population: snooze…
If you’re the sort who looked at the MiniLab Mk II and wondered how much those 16 encoders were going to cost you, you’re going to appreciate the M-Audio Keystation MK3. It’s the only one of our top mini MIDI controller selections with 32 keys. That’s right, three full octaves in a mini keyboard controller. This is keys in a box with few other controls, but those controls spin some remarkable versatility, all in a controller available for $60 on the street.
Like the other controllers featured here, the Keystation Mini 32 Mk3 is bus powered through a USB mini-B connector. It’s plug-and-play and it’s tiny. While this keyboard supports iOS devices with Lightning connectors, you’ll need to purchase a Lightning to USB Camera adapter or similar to take advantage of this interaction.
The Keystation Mini 32 MK3 has a volume knob and four main buttons which configure the device, in conjunction with the note keys, a typical arrangement for MIDI keyboard controllers. This keyboard also uses three buttons to approximate pitch and mod wheel capability. It’s not as intuitive as wheels, but once you’re accustomed to its quirks you can incorporate these into your work.
M-Audio was part of Avid Technology from 2004 to 2012. Avid is the company behind Pro Tools, the ubiquitous professional DAW platform, so it’s not surprising that the Keystation Mini 32 MK3 features a version of Pro Tools First in its software offerings. AIR Music Tech’s Xpand!2 virtual instrument plugin rounds out the software bundle. If you need a two-handed mini keyboard, then this is your go-to.
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What we haven’t seen from a mini controller yet is any sort of display. While you can set up presets and alter settings on all of these devices, there’s no visible feedback about any changes. The MPK Mini MK3 doesn’t give you a huge screen, but the OLED display is clear and easy to read, much like a mid-level fitness wearable.
Akai answers the pitch and modulation question with a four-way joystick. There are eight performance pads and eight endless rotary controls, all user configurable. There’s a sustain pedal jack and of course the MPK Mini MK3 is USB class compliant for plug and play and bus powered, par for the course on our list.
Where the MPK steps up is its built-in arpeggiator with tempo tap button, a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that addition that’s a natural for techno and electronic styles. However, there’s still another step up. The MPK Mini MK3 provides you with a production starter kit that is certainly no afterthought software bundle.
The DAW included isn’t a lite version of one of the big names. It’s MPC Beats, a proprietary DAW designed around Akai’s MPC series workflow. On top of that, there’s six virtual instruments, 1,500 sounds available through download and 2 GB of sound content.
So, the MPK Mini MK3covers all the bases and then some, and its red and black trim gives an upscale, serious device vibe in a tiny, well-designed package. Sometimes, mini devices have a little bit of a credibility gap, their diminutive size creating an inadvertent “toy” vibe. The MPK is petite, but it’s a serious petite. That won’t make your tracks sound better, but it’s an intangible that certainly doesn’t hurt.
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Like the MPK Mini, the Launchkey 25 MK3 from Novation also incorporates a small display. Not as technically “hip” as the Akai, the 16 x 2-character screen gets the job done and it’s easy enough to read. There’s a full complement of 16 velocity sensitive performance pads, laid out in two rows of 8 pads.
Along with the 25 mini keys, the Launchkey 25 includes 8 rotary knobs, pitch and mod wheels, and a selection of switching buttons for various functions, including a four-button transport control section. There’s a sustain pedal jack and 5-pin DIN MIDI connector as well as the USB port.
If you’re an Ableton Live user looking for the perfect match in a controller, you’ll want to scan the Launchkey 25 closely. Those switching buttons are there specifically for Live integration. This is a plug and play Live controller and it’s no surprise that the accompanying software bundle features Live 10 Lite, along with Serato Sample LE, XLN Audio Addictive Keys, Klevgrand ROVerb and DAW Cassette, AAS Session bundle, and Spitfire Audio LABS Expressive Strings. There’s also a 2-month membership to Splice Sounds as well as access to Novation’s Sound Collective. As well as support for Live, Launchkey 25 is also fully integrated with Reason and Logic, and it supports any other DAW platform that accepts Mackie’s HUI protocol, though it may take some tweaking to get the control you want out of the extra buttons.
This is the MK3 version, so you can expect more sensitive trigger pads, which are also bigger than the previous generation. The MIDI DIN connection, also new, allows the connection of external MIDI hardware, a big versatility expansion. Scale and Chord modes simplify music theory for the novice player, turning the MK3 into a device where wrong notes are banished. The Arpeggiator and Mutate functions bring further versatility, making the Launchkey a music creation device on top of its status as a mini MIDI controller.
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There’s a decided lack of room for extras on the Alesis. If it feels like the V25 is all keys on first impression, you’re not mistaken. Thick fingered keyboardists rejoice, them there are full-sized keys. Despite this, the V25 still qualifies as a mini controller, and it still manages to cove the basics, and then some.
You’ve got your pitch and mod wheels, 8 pressure and velocity sensitive performance pads, 4 assignable knobs (also illuminated, nice touch) and 4 assignable buttons. There’s a sustain pedal jack and a single USB type B connector.
The build of this keyboard is impressive. Since mini controllers are intended and most at-home with desktop use, they can be forgiven for being on the lightweight side. The V25 gives the impression that it could survive a spin in the real gigging world. That’s handy for a DJ with some keyboard skills or even for a conventional rock band that wants to add keyboard pads here and there.
Where the Alesis V25 fails to impress is with its software bundle. There’s no bundle, only an Alesis edition of Ableton Live Lite. At the time of writing, this was still version 9, and there’s no indication if an upgrade to version 10 is in the works. However, that’s it, no virtual instruments or loop bundles. That won’t be an issue for many users who already have these coming out their ears. However, if you’re starting from scratch, you may want to consider a controller with a few more extras. If you’re after a rock-solid keyboard controller build with full-size keys, the V25 is worth a look.
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The vibe of the Nectar Impact LX25+ is that of a keyboard workstation that got shrunk in the wash. Some of the keyboard layouts of our other contenders take liberties with design as a way of coping with the demands of a compact controller and its limited space for providing a range of features.
The iRig Keys 2 takes a minimal approach, while the Akai MPK Mini MKIII gets more creative and introduces alternate controllers. And while you’ll never mistake the Impact LX25+ for a full-size keyboard workstation from the likes of Roland, Yamaha, or Korg, it’s quite easy to recognize familial resemblances.
There’s a sense that everything is, well, in the right place. Pitch and mod wheels sit to the left of the keyboard, with octave and transposing buttons immediately above them. Backlit assignable performance pads are to the upper right, a seemingly logical place for beat data entry.
A fader, also assignable sits in the upper left, a natural spot for a control that’s often used for volume, and while the simple LED display breaks no new ground, it’s also logically placed next to the fader, above some setup and control buttons. Eight assignable rotary encoders sit at approximately the middle of the keyboard over a dedicated set of transport buttons. It’s all so… normal.
Some devices that are loaded with assignability like the Impact LX25+ bring with them the burden of programming all that flexibility. You don’t need a degree in MIDI with the Nektar, however. It’s equipped with intelligent mapping for a range of major DAWs, including Cubase, Logic Pro, FL Studio, Garageband and Studio One among others.
It’s also well-matched with Bitwig 8-Track, which comes with the device, a full-featured app except for its 8 tracks limitation. That is, however, the extent of the software bundle. However, when you add the fact that the Impact LX25+ includes full sized keys, the software shortcomings might be forgivable.
Contemporary MIDI controllers come in all sizes with extensive configurations and options. Limiting our list to the best of the mini versions of these controllers was a tough job, but the harder task is still in your hands. You’ve got to choose which is the best for your workflow. There’s no way to point you in any clearer direction. It’s up to you, but you can rest assured that you’re getting a quality controller when choosing any of those on this list.