5 Best MIDI Keyboard Controllers Under $500 – 2021 Edition

Here is the complete list of the best MIDI keyboard controllers under $500, for any producer:

  1. Alesis v161
  2. Novation Launchkey 49
  3. Arturia Keylab Essential 61
  4. Komplete Kontrol S49
  5. Panorama T6

1. Alesis V161 MIDI Keyboard

alesis v161 midi keyboard controller
image source: alesis

The Alesis V161 is the best value for money MIDI keyboard. It comes with an incredible amount of features & also looks like something straight out of star wars.

(which is pretty awesome & will look great with your LED mood lights)

It’s the best MIDI keyboard if you like touching knobs. And no – I don’t mean… That’s disgusting!

That’s because there’s just so many buttons featuring:

  • 61 semi-weighted, velocity sensitive keys
  • 16 backlit drum pads
  • 16 assignable knobs
  • 48 MIDI buttons
  • Pitch bend and modulation

Price Range (under 500): $199 – $250 (US)

The possibilities for mapping, customisation & live sound design are endless with the V161 & having so many options comes in handy more than you can imagine.

When you thought it stopped there, with the Alesis V161 you also get access to 5 free melodics lessons (to learn piano or finger drumming), a copy of Ableton Live Lite & more.

2. Novation Launchkey 49 MIDI Controller

novation launchkey 49 midi keyboard
image source: attackmag

If you’re an Ableton user, then look no further. This bad boy has been designed to fully integrate with Ableton’s functionality & make it feel like a piece of hardware and makes using Ableton as a live production tool an absolute dream. It also comes with a license of Ableton Live 10 Lite, that you can use your new, shiny button machine with out of the box.

The Novation Launchkey 49 features:

  • 49 semi-weighted, velocity sensitive keys
  • 16 mappable, backlit pads & MIDI controls
  • Scale, chord & Arpeggiator modes
  • Pitch and modulation controls
  • Step sequencing modes
  • 5 pin MIDI output
  • USB connectivity
  • Transport controls

Price range (under 500): $240 – $280

One of the coolest things about the Novation Launchkey is the sheer amount of software it comes with for under $300.

With the Launchkey, Novation have included not only a copy of Ableton Live 10 Lite, but access to Serato Sample (which has the legendary pitch n time algorithms for maximum audio quality). And, when you thought it stopped there, for purchasing a Launchkey, you’ll get access to 2 months of Splice Sounds and one of the best piano VSTs around, XLN Addictive keys.

(it’s so good, we included it in our best vst plugins of 2020 list)

To recap, here’s the software included with the Launchkey:

  • Ableton Live Lite (10)
  • Serato Sample
  • 2 months of Splice
  • XLN Addictive Keys

If you’re an Ableton user then the Launchkey is the best MIDI controller under $500 can buy you. My only gripe with it is the size of the pads, but it’s not really an issue if you don’t finger drum & aren’t a clumsy f*ck (like me).

3. Arturia Keylab Essential 61 MIDI Keyboard Controller

image source: arturia

Arturia make some of the best software and hardware about & the Keylab Essential 61 is a prime example of this.

The Keylab Essential 61 features:

  • 61 pro grade, fatar keybed keys
  • 9 rotary knobs
  • 9 faders
  • 8 backlit drum pads
  • Pitch bend and modulation
  • Transport controls
  • USB or DC power
  • Sustain pedal input
  • MIDI out

Street price (under 500): $250 – $300

But that’s not the main reason the Keylab 61 is so great. With the Keylab you get access to Arturia’s incredible software package, Analog Lab (worth $199).And, you guessed it, the controller has been designed to integrate perfectly with each software synth – making it feel more like a hardware synth.

Analog Lab gives you access to over 7000 sounds from 17 legendary hardware synths.

Which means you can play the likes of a CS-80, JUNO and loads of other classic emulations of analog beauts.

It also includes an incredible piece of Grand Piano software, & finding good sounding piano samples is hard, especially if you’re on a budget.

4. Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49 MIDI Keyboard

The Komplete Kontrol S49 is the most expensive midi keyboard on this list, but is well worth the money.

The Komplete Kontrol S49 features:

  • 49 semi-weighted, backlit keys with aftertouch
  • 7 assignable knobs (used to control komplete select software)
  • 2 high-res colour screens for browsing & tweaking sounds
  • MIDI buttons & knobs used for controlling software
  • Pitch bend and modulation
  • Intuitive light guide
  • Transport controls

Price range (under 500): $400 – $500 (US)

One of the greatest things about the S49, is that it’s not just a MIDI controller.

With every purchase of a Komplete Kontrol S49, you get Komplete 12 Select, which includes:

  • 4 flagship synthesisers
  • Over 7000 sounds
  • 45GB of instruments & effects
  • 11 sample instruments in Kontakt
  • 4 effects plugins

That’s over $1345 worth of Native Instruments software included with your MIDI keyboard. And all of it is built to work seamlessly with the S49 – making it feel more like a hardware synth than a USB MIDI keyboard.

Another thing I want to mention is the light guide, that will take you from your dark path and lead you to seek forgiveness from the holy one, Skrillex.

Other than looking extra cool, it’s extremely useful for production, learning theory & playing the right notes.

With the backlit keys, the light guide helps you to see which notes you can play within a certain key. This can be mapped to chords, scales, greek modes and a whole other range of options.

5. Nektar Panorama T6 MIDI Controller

nektar panorama t6 midi keyboard
image source: gear4music

Last but not least, is the Nektar Panorama T6.

The only reason we’ve put this so far down the list, is that it’s the most expensive MIDI keyboard controller on this list and will be out of most people’s budget, but it’s god damn incredible.

The Nektar Panorama T6 features everything you’d expect to find in a MIDI keyboard, but goes above an beyond with its user experience.

It uses special ‘grab’ technology to integrate perfectly with any DAW of your choice & automatically map to the settings of different VST instruments you’re using.

That means, with the T6 MIDI controller, you could switch between an instance of Serum & another VST instrument, and whichever you were using, the faders, knobs and other MIDI buttons would map to the VST you were using.

There are tonnes of already, pre-mapped instruments built into the MIDI keyboard’s memory, but if you’re using an extremely obscure VST you got from Bandcamp – don’t worry!

You can still map your controller exactly how you’d like and save the preset mapping.

The Nektar Panorama features:

  • 61 synth action keys with aftertouch
  • 9 midi controller faders
  • 8 assignable MIDI buttons
  • 8 drum pads with pressure control
  • Built in arp, gate & chord trigger
  • Screen to browse patches
  • Pitch bend and modulation
  • Pad repeat options
  • Button transport bar
  • USB connectivity
  • MIDI output
  • Foot switch & expression pedal jacks

Street price (under 500): $300 – $400

If you want a piece of hardware that’s going to take you out of the computer & allow you to be more physical with your music, then this is a fantastic choice!

One of the drawbacks is that it doesn’t come with any of the software that the others do, which is a shame – but the pre-mapped instruments make up for that.

What is a MIDI Keyboard Controller Used For?

If you’re new to music production, you’re probably wondering what the hell a MIDI keyboard controller is & what it’s used for.

Let me explain…

MIDI stands for musical instrument digital interface, and came out in 1982.

Originally MIDI was used to connect to synthesisers, drum machines sync function to stay in time (in live situations), or (more recently) to control old keyboards that have no USB ports.

(it’s hard to believe there was a time where USBs didn’t exist, I know)

Nowadays MIDI keyboard controllers are usually hooked up to your computer via USB & powered the same way.

They can come in the form of drum pads, keyboards, faders & a load more.

So what’s a MIDI keyboard used for today?

MIDI keyboards can be used to control a wide variety of things inside your digital audio workstation.

For instance, you can use your MIDI keyboard knobs to map to a filter & control the filter by turning them. You could map your faders up to your faders in software & control the mix levels directly from your keyboard.

The most common thing that MIDI keyboards are used to do, is record and play notes inside your workstation’s piano roll.

The great thing about MIDI is the sheer amount of control it gives you over your DAW.

One thing that I don’t see many producers using is the ability to control different instrument sets through MIDI channels.

This is absolutely fantastic for on the fly switching between instruments & is great if you’re in a live situation and need to quickly switch from a string section to a warping bassline.

Most MIDI controllers also control what we call velocity.

This allows you to put feeling into your playing, by altering the volume dependent on how hard you hit the keys.

Velocity is controlled by a number from 0-127. 0 being not audible at all & 127 being the loudest it can possibly go.

It makes the MIDI controller feel more like a piano, an allows for a lot more expression in your music.

What’s The Best MIDI Keyboard Controller?

So now you know all about MIDI controllers, which is the best fit for you?

That’s a bit of a difficult question because…

When talking about best MIDI keyboards, determining which is the best for you really depends on your situation and what you actually need in the studio.

So ask yourself what kind of producer you are & how you think you’d use a MIDI keyboard controller to improve your workflow and make better music.

I’m a very hands on person & I don’t like being in the computer that much when I’m making bangers. I much prefer to have a controller that has a lot of parameter controls, pads & options for me to map to.

Regardless of this being a personal question, I’ve included some guidelines for:

  • Beginner
  • Intermediate
  • Advanced

This will help you to decide (based on your skill level) what the best controller is for you.

Starting with…

Beginner

novation launchkey 49 keyboard
image source: attackmag

For beginners it’s important to buy a keyboard that comes with a lot. If you’re new to production, keyboards that come with software can save you a whole bunch of cash!

(so now the only holes in your pockets are the ones from all those cigarettes you smoke)

25 keys just simply isn’t big enough & you’ll outgrow a smaller MIDI controller faster than a scene kid outgrows his goth phase.

25 keys is only 2 octaves of space & unless you’re a absolute don at the old trigger finger while playing notes, then it’s gonna be difficult to play interesting chords/synth lines.

Basically what I’m saying is:

It’s better to buy something that will last you longer, rather than having to go through the hassle of selling a controller down the line because you feel you need more key/knobs/pads.

For beginners I usually recommend M-Audio, but the Novation Launchkey has recently changed that recommendation.

The amount of software you get for the price range is more than enough to get you started. Also, the fact that you get XLN Addictive keys (a piano VST we featured in our best vst instruments list) is just madness.

To recap the Novation Launchkey 49 features:

  • 49 semi-weighted, velocity sensitive keys
  • 16 mappable, backlit pads & MIDI controls
  • Scale, chord & Arpeggiator modes
  • Pitch and modulation controls
  • Step sequencing modes
  • 5 pin MIDI output
  • USB connectivity
  • Transport controls

And comes with software like:

  • Ableton Live Lite (10)
  • Serato Sample
  • 2 months of Splice
  • XLN Addictive Keys

Intermediate

alesis v161 keyboard
image source: alesis

For intermediate producers, naturally you’re going to want something with more keys, pads & customisation.

I usually recommend the Alesis V161, simply because it is the cheapest controller, with the most MIDI buttons, parameter controls & customisation available for its price point.

As an intermediate producer, it’s less likely you’re going to need the extra software & you probably already have a bunch of VSTs you’ve bought that are just collecting dust.

For under $500 the Alesis V161 is definitely one of the best midi keyboards on the market for hands-on producers.

To recap, the Alesis V161 features:

  • 61 semi-weighted, velocity sensitive keys
  • 16 backlit drum pads
  • 16 assignable knobs
  • 48 MIDI buttons
  • Pitch bend and modulation

Price Range (under 500): $199 – $250 (US)

The Alesis V161 also comes with 5 free Melodics lessons, which are actually amazing if you’re looking to learn finger drumming rhythm, or you’re looking to sharpen your music theory knowledge.

There are lessons from incredible producers like Decap, Beats by J Black & more!

Advanced

arturia keylab essential
image source: arturia

For the advanced producer, this really depends on how good you are at the keys. If you are a keys player & you need a bigger range of keys – I’d personally go for something with the full 88 piano keys.

Personally, I play the piano (at an intermediate level) & I use a digital piano as my MIDI keyboard + to practise playing.

This is great for practising & getting the full experience of learning piano but I have noticed that, when there is some input lag, it’s much bigger using a digital, weighted key piano than using a MIDI keyboard.

I miss having a MIDI keyboard around to play around with inside my DAW, and often end up just drawing notes in instead of using my digital piano.

BUT

I can’t afford to purchase another piece of hardware just yet – so that’s going to have to wait for a while.

For that reason, I would recommend getting a MIDI keyboard for all your production recording purposes.

And I would go anywhere between 61-88 keys.

With all that considered, the Arturia Keylab Essential range is definitely the best choice for the Advanced music producer.

It comes with Arturia’s incredible Analog Lab software, which gives you over 7000 sounds to choose from & is a semi-weighted keybed – so it’s more useful + reactive to playing synth lines over a digital piano.

The Keylab Essential 61 MIDI controller features:

  • 61 pro grade, fatar keybed keys
  • 9 rotary knobs
  • 9 faders
  • 8 backlit drum pads
  • Pitch bend and modulation
  • Transport controls
  • USB or DC power
  • Sustain pedal input
  • MIDI out

Street price (under 500): $250 – $300

Are MIDI Controllers Worth It?

This is a question that entirely depends on who you are, and how you produce your music.

I know a lot of people who work better just by drawing notes in. But, on the flip side, I know a lot of people that can’t cope without a MIDI keyboard.

So I’m going to give my opinion to help you answer this question for yourself:

Personally, I need a MIDI keyboard to make music.

It helps me to visualise what key I am in or how to play certain chords/where melodies should go. In all honesty, if you are more of a hands on person & need something physical to work on – then a MIDI keyboard is worth its weight in gold.

Used alongside the MIDI piano roll, a MIDI keyboard can really bring your ideas to life in a quick & easy manner.

On top of that, having fader controls, MIDI buttons & rotary knobs is extremely useful when inputting automation & can give your music much more of a live feel – which is something that’s difficult to re-create digitally.

This is something I actually bought a drum pad for.

I can use samples I’ve created using my MIDI keyboard, map them to my drum pad & have a blast just playing around with them live.

Then I can use the MIDI buttons & controls to play in automation to bring my music to life a bit more. And… I can have a lot more fun doing it than just using the computer controls.

Music is about having fun & enjoying the process. If you enjoy it more, you get more into it, & the results you produce are better.

It’s all about streamlining that process of opening your DAW, to getting into full, creative flow. For me, using a MIDI keyboard and other hardware devices helps this massively.

It could help you too but, like I said, it depends whether you are a hands on person or not.

Final Thoughts

Here is the essential list of the best MIDI keyboard controllers under $500, updated for 2021:

  1. Alesis v161
  2. Novation Launchkey 49
  3. Arturia Keylab Essential 61
  4. Komplete Kontrol S49
  5. Panorama T6

Whether you’re beginner, intermediate or advanced – a MIDI keyboard controller is a welcome addition to your setup.

Using a MIDI keyboard controller can liven up your music production process & give a more natural feel to your tracks (which is hard to re-create digitally).

It also helps you to visualise things a bit easier

But, it can be hard to trawl through the massive amounts of products out there & actually find one that suits your needs.

In this article, I’ve made sure to include all budget ranges and skill levels – so you’re bound to find the perfect keyboard controller for your music making needs!