The 7 Best 88 Key MIDI Controller: I Want Full Octaves Keyboard

best 88 key midi controller
MIDI has come a long way from cliche 1980s sound! It’s one of the most flexible music technologies out there, allowing producers and engineers to have an entire orchestra at their fingertips and home studio.
Simple MIDI controllers and drum pads have a lot to offer. But if you want the real musician’s experience and ultimate versatility, the best 88 key MIDI controller is a must-have!

Why 88 Keys?

Walk around any music store, and you’re bound to find a ton of unique MIDI controllers. Technically speaking, controllers can come in any shape or form! MIDI technology is nothing more than a messaging system, after all.

So why go with 88 keys?

Well, the most obvious reason is the key layout! These models have the same 88 keys as a full-sized piano. If you’re creating predominantly piano-based music, it’s a no-brainer.

But even if you’re doing something a bit more experimental, that full-size layout makes a huge difference. You’re getting a full seven octaves of notes. That alone opens up a world of possibilities for layering, zoning, and other creative techniques.

Plus, the 88 keys better simulate musical concepts than simple button triggers. If you’re a musician, you can easily visualize arpeggios, melodies, and more.

Ultimately, the keyboards are a fundamental tool in the studio. Whether you’re a seasoned pianist or not, it’s an essential tool for developing musical ideas. Pair the standard keyboard layout with MIDI’s versatility, and you have a recipe to create some musical magic!

Should I Get a MIDI or a Synth?

Before you even start looking for the best 88 key MIDI controller, you need to understand the difference between a MIDI device and a synth. People use the two terms interchangeably. However, they’re completely different!

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. As mentioned earlier, it’s like a messaging system! Whenever you press a key on a MIDI controller, it sends data to your computer to recreate the sound. The data includes all kinds of musical parameters. In addition to pitch, it might have information about dynamics, the amount of force you used to hit the key, and more.

All of that information usually goes into your Digital Audio Workstation or DAW. There, you can use plugins or virtual instruments to recreate the sound. MIDI is also great for notation.

The cool part about MIDI is that you’re only “recording” musical data. It’s not like recording an actual piano where the sound is the same across the board. With the MIDI standard, you can switch instruments with a few clicks! The data will recreate your melodies no matter what kind of virtual instrument or DAW you use.

Now, synths work a little differently. They’re very high-tech, too. But, the main difference is that synths produce their own unique sound. Much larger, synthesizers utilize oscillators, signal generators, and tons of unique manipulation tools to create a distinct sound.

You can connect a MIDI controller to a synth. The musical data will play back all the same! But, you can’t replicate virtual instruments with a synth. For this reason, it’s always better to start with a MIDI controller!

Our Top Picks of 7 Best 88 Key MIDI Controllers

MIDI controllers are a dime a dozen. But finding one that can bring your virtual instruments to life is easier said than done.

Here are the Best 88 Key MIDI Controllers to get you started on your production journey!

1. Best High-End:
Arturia KeyLab 88 Essential

Arturia KeyLab 88 Essential 88-Key MIDI Controller

Check out this beauty! From Arturia, this controller is the epitome of style and class. It’s a well-built system with a premium body and some well-placed control options.

You’re getting all the bells and whistles here! The keyboard is solidly built and features semi-weighted keys. They are all sensitive to velocity, allowing you to create nuanced music that sounds like it’s coming from a grand piano.

Up top, you’ll find several interesting extras. The keyboard has a small mixer control center in addition to the eight finger pads for percussive sounds. It comes with several faders and knobs, turning the keyboard into the ultimate control center.

Pros:

  • Sleek and modern design
  • Responsive finger pads
  • Convenient faders and knobs
  • Transport controls
  • Sensitive keys

Cons:

  • Doesn’t have in-depth timbre control

Key Features:

  • Full-size MIDI keyboard controller
  • Semi-weighted keys
  • USB and MIDI input

2. Best Fully-Weighted:
YAMAHA P71

YAMAHA P71 88-Key Weighted Action Digital Piano With Sustain Pedal And Power Supply

Yamaha is a powerhouse in the keyboard world! The P71 digital piano is one of the best weighted MIDI keyboard controller models out there.

The thing we like most is the graded hammer action. The keys are fully weighted to give you that realistic expression you need to make your music come to life. However, that’s not all. The keys are weighted differently based on which octave you play. Like a real grand piano, the lower end keys are much heavier than those on the top. This unique set makes dynamic playing a breeze!

In terms of MIDI control, this unit covers your bases. It has a USB interface for picking up MIDI messages. When you’re not using it for production, the external speakers make it a fantastic choice for performing.

Pros:

  • Great for performance
  • Easy to set up
  • Realistic graded hammer action
  • External speakers

Cons:

  • No pads or extra controllers

Key Features:

  • Digital piano with stereo sound
  • Comes with a power supply and sustain pedal
  • USB connection

3. Best Semi-Weighted:
Alesis Recital

Alesis Recital – 88 Key Digital Electric Piano / Keyboard with Semi Weighted Keys, Power Supply, Built-In Speakers and 5 Premium Voices

Here’s another digital piano worth considering. From Alesis Recital, this device focuses more on the performance side of things. There’s no denying that it’s built for musicians who need the ability to record and perform in one machine.

The MIDI system is fundamental. It has a USB interface for easy connection and wider DAW compatibility. There aren’t any fancy pads or control knobs. But, the controller picks up MIDI information all the same.

Best of all, the keys are semi-weighted. Thus, you’re getting more dynamic information for realistic production. The keys feel responsive enough to create tons of nuance in your music. However, it’s not over the top or uncomfortable for non-pianists to use.

Pros:

  • Keys feel tactile and responsive
  • Multiple output options
  • Solid stereo sound
  • Robust build
  • Decent practice features

Cons:

  • Geared towards performance

Key Features:

  • Digital piano
  • Five voices
  • USB interface
  • RCA outputs and headphone jack

4. Best for DAWs:
Native Instruments Mk2

Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 Mk2 Keyboard

If you’re ready to invest some big bucks into your music, the Mk2 controller has a lot to offer! Native Instruments makes the Mk2 controller in a few different configurations. The 88 key version is the cream of the crop.

It has a full-size keybed with 88 keys. But that’s not all! The controller has a ton of great extras up top. The first thing you’ll notice is the color screen. You can use it to tweak MIDI parameters, choose sounds, and more.

There are also transport controls for your DAW, a pitch wheel, and touch-sensitive knobs. All of these extra let you fine-tune your sound in seconds.

Pros:

  • Fully weighted keys
  • Beautiful high-resolution screen
  • Integrated transport control for DAW
  • Touch-sensitive knobs
  • Super flexible design

Cons:

  • Extra control features might not work for all DAWs

Key Features:

  • Full-size MIDI keyboard
  • USB and MIDI connections
  • Includes a small collection of virtual instrument samples
  • Weighted keys and aftertouch

5. Best Mixer Control:
Nektar IMPACT LX88+

Nektar, 88-Key (IMPACT LX88+)

From Nektar is this full-features MIDI controller. It’s an engineer’s dream, offering tons of DAW control right on the deck.

Like the previous model, this one is sporting some transport controls. You can hit the record button, rewind, and more without having to fiddle with your computer. You’re also getting several faders, knobs, and programmable buttons. Each additional feature puts mixer control at your fingertips, allowing your MIDI controller to double as a simple control surface.

During production, the keys will cover all your bases. But, you can also turn to the finger pads. They’re pretty large. Plus, they’re backlit and super responsive, which is always a good thing!

Pros:

  • Automatic mapping
  • Backlit pads
  • Smooth faders
  • Wide DAW compatibility
  • Integrated transport controls

Cons:

  • Keys can feel stiff

Key Features:

  • Full-size MIDI keyboard
  • Semi-weighted keys with four velocities
  • USB and MIDI out
  • Drum pads and control knobs

6. Best USB Connectivity:
M-Audio Hammer

M-Audio Hammer 88 | Premium 88-Key Hammer-Action USB/MIDI Keyboard Controller Including A Studio Grade Software Suite

Need something small and simple? Check out this model from M-Audio. It’s a surprisingly compact MIDI controller that fits nicely on a shallow desk. The keyboard is also lighter than most, making it a good choice for traveling producers or performers.

Despite its compact size, this controller has all the features you need. You have a full-size keybed. More importantly, it’s USB-powered.

The exciting thing about this model is that it is driverless class compliant. That means that most engineers and products can start using it without installing any complicated software. It’s a proper plug-and-play system.

Pros:

  • Easy to set up
  • Compatible with most DAWs
  • Clean and simple design
  • Smaller footprint

Cons:

  • Lacks additional control features

Key Features:

  • Full-size MIDI keyboard controller
  • Weighted keys
  • USB and MIDI out
  • Pitch and modulation wheels

7. Best for Portability:
Studiologic SL88

Studiologic SL88 Studio Lightweight Midi Controller with 88-Key Hammer Action Keyboard

If you’re traveling from one studio to the next, a portable MIDI controller like the SL88 from Studiologic is a must. Compared to a more straightforward controller, this model is a lot bigger. But in the realm of full-sized keyboard controllers, this is one of the best you can get.

It’s surprisingly lightweight, tipping the scales at about 30 pounds. The controller is also well-built. You can tell that Studiologic built it to withstand gigs and heavy travel.

Interestingly enough, the keyboard lacks external control features. Beyond the full-sized keybed, you’re only getting a few X/Y sticks. The limited design improves its durability, creating fewer parts that can become damaged on the road. While they look simple, those sticks are universally adaptable. You can manipulate sound parameters on the fly just like you could with complex knob arrays.

Pros:

  • Responsive keys
  • Good for gigging
  • Color display
  • Lightweight
  • Easy sound manipulation sticks

Cons:

  • Lacks additional control features

Key Features:

  • Full-size MIDI keyboard controller
  • Hammer action keys
  • 2 MIDI ports and USB
  • Weighs about 30 pounds

Connecting MIDI Keyboards to Your DAW

Connecting a MIDI controller is pretty straightforward. Many are plug-and-play devices that you can start using within minutes! However, there’s also a lot that can go wrong if you don’t do things right!

The first thing you should do is connect your keyboard to the PC using the appropriate cable. The best 88 key MIDI controllers utilize USB, which is powered and versatile. You might see proprietary 5-pin MIDI cables, too. But, you’ll need a secondary power source to use those keyboards.

If your controller has any special drivers, install them. Drivers are pieces of software code that allows your computer and DAW to understand the MIDI interface. Once you have the driver set up, you should be good to go!

Depending on your DAW, you might have to fiddle with some MIDI-specific settings. The setting varies from one DAW to the next. However, many will automatically recognize the keyboard once you open up any virtual instrument plugin or notation system.

What to Look for in the Best 88 Key MIDI Controller

MIDI controllers run the gamut in terms of features and controllers. Some units have nothing more than a keyboard layout, while others have tons of bells and whistles for ultimate control! To ensure you’re getting something that works for your creative process, here are some things to look for.

Weighted Keys and Hammer Action

If you want your music to sound realistic, you’ll need to look for the best weighted MIDI keyboard controller that money can buy. When the keys are weighted, it means that they feel like the keys on an acoustic piano. The keys are heavier, requiring more force.

Weighted keys are almost always paired with hammer action. It recreates the lever system that pianos use, providing a tactile response and resistance.

Why are these features important? Well, they allow you to play more dynamically. You can perform little nuances, which your MIDI controller will pick up and recreate with virtual instruments.

The best weighted MIDI keyboard controller will sound like you’re playing a grand piano in the best performance hall in the world! It’s what separates old, cliche MIDI from modern MIDI!

Power Supply

Another essential thing to think about is power!

The most convenient controllers will use USB connectors. USB harnesses power from your computer to keep the controller on. Now, if you use external synth modules or digital keyboards, you may need an external power supply. Controllers with the U-shaped 5-pin connector will require another source of power.

Keybeds

The keybed is the rail that sits below the keys. It acts as a stopper and buffer that controls the downward force.

It might not seem like a huge thing to worry about, but the quality of the keybed can impact the playing experience. Keybeds can change the keys’ tactile response and manipulate their weight, hammer action, and more.

The type of keybed you choose is all a matter of personal preference. Experienced pianists will already know what they like. But if you’re new to the world of MIDI, experiment a bit until you find something that feels nice under your fingers.

Pads and Other Control Features

The only thing that an 88 key MIDI controller has to have is a full-sized keyboard. However, these devices can have a lot more than just 88 buttons!

Many modern controllers have small drum pads and a host of other control features. The pads pick up the same information as the primary keys. But, they focus on percussive action instead. You can use your fingers to play virtual drums and get the organic sound you’re after. It’s much more useful than using the keyboard keys!

You will also see controls with things like motorized knobs, modification wheels, and more. We won’t get into the technical mumbo jumbo here, but those extra features will help you fine-tune your sound. They are always a welcome addition that can take your production capabilities to the next level.

Verdict

You really can’t go wrong with any of our recommended picks. Any one of them will take your production game to a new level.

That said, the clear winner of this roundup is the Arturia KeyLab. It’s one of the most well-rounded units on the market. The keyboard controller isn’t a simple digital piano like the models from Yamaha, Alesis, or Studiologic. It’s a full-fledged production center with all the bells and whistles you could ever need!

The controller has several ways to record MIDI information. Plus, you have faders, knobs, and programmable buttons to perfect every detail. While the keys are only semi-weighted, the velocity-sensitive design lets you get dynamic results either way.

Overall, the Arturia Keylab is one of the best 88 key MIDI controller keyborad options on the market because it checks off all the boxes. It has responsive keys and tons of ways to take control of your recording session. On top of all that, it looks great! What’s not to like? Try it out and see what you think!

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Giorgio P
Giorgio P
Music has always led the path and I’ve been following doubtlessly. After many years of recording in studios as a singer of a swing/cabaret band, I decided to create my own home recording studio and built a blog about it. It involves exactly the things I love the most which are writing, creating, and learning. And that’s why I called the blog Sounds Wow. It really does!