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Last updated: July 01, 2021
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At a quick glance, a MIDI controller and a digital piano may seem like the same thing. However, the key MIDI controller is a device with piano or synth-style keys that has no sound generating capacity of its own. Instead, it is a device that transmits data, usually via a USB, to external sound modules. A digital piano, on the other hand, is built to replicate the experience of real acoustics of the grand piano but with portable features. MIDI controllers work with different numbers of keys with 61-key models being a current favorite. The best 61-key MIDI controller offers a number of advantages over its other 25, 32, 49 and 88 key models in terms of functionality and sound diversity that makes it an ideal choice for many musicians.
MIDI controllers are designed with niche functions in mind so aspects like the number of keys, pads, controllers, faders, sliders, and the overall dimensions together with its weight all factor in when you choose a controller for your musical needs. Based on feature availability, each model will offer specific functions for both performance and recording purposes.
Here we have put together a list of the nine best 61-key MIDI controllers that are current market favorites. These cater to a range of skills and levels so you can find one that’s your best fit. Our testers have spent time with these controllers and you can read their verdict in the individual product review. If you’re serious about making a purchase, then do read over our expert buying guide to get a general idea of what to look for in a quality 61-key MIDI controller.
The Launchkey series from Novation has been a game changer in the industry. This model comes with a class compliant design and 61 velocity-sensitive synth-style keys. All keys are full-sized and semi-weighted for an authentic experience.
The pads on this model feature 16 full colored RGB backlit velocity-sensitive drum pads and you also get eight knobs, nine sliders, and six dedicated transport controls on the control panel. The knobs can map to the parameters of the selected device and the sliders take on mixing duties. In fact, there are more than 50 hardware controls including knobs, faders, and rotary to maximize sound options.
The reflective RGB pads make navigation, playing, recording and performing a cinch without relying on the mouse whenever you want to change something.
The convenient Ableton Live integration is a highlight of this model along with Novation V Station synth, Loopmasters sample pack, and a few of their Novation apps. As such, you get a controller that comes with its own software suite. And one which is able to connect to almost any type of software.
In addition, you also get automapping that helps you save on time and invest more into your recording sessions.
This is a Nektar model that covers everything thoroughly. With 93 real-time controls, it is difficult to run short of options of any sort. The model fuses traditional feeling keys and contemporary control features into one unit.
It means that it has the potential to satisfy a larger audience. It can work well to please pianists with its weighted keys which remain authentic to the feel and shape of an acoustic piano. Otherwise, electronic musicians and keyboardists will applaud the host of controls on the interface, especially faders and pads. It is the perfect companion for the versatile musician who performs, records, DJs or samples.
The display on this unit delivers aesthetic value as well as impressive functionality that works well for both live performances and studio recording.
Despite everything on the interface, this unit does not compromise the quality of its keys or its overall build. If anything, users rate this unit highly for its sturdy build and superior playing feel.
The one point of concern for some users was the weighted keys with resistance on the black keys significantly higher than the white.
It is, overall, a perfect keyboard controller that can take your music to the next level. From the ultimate musical expression, you won’t regret investing in this Nektar model for the best value for your money.
Akai is a big name in the business and doesn’t deliver short of its reputation. This MPK261 model is no exception. There are six semi-weighted, synth-style velocity-sensitive keys with an Aftertouch feature. The interface also features 16 RGB illuminated velocity-sensitive pads and 24 assignable controllers.
The 16 pads come with four possible drum banks yielding a total of 64 various sounds which is more than anyone could ask for. This is beastly when it comes to live performances and DJing. You can also get a ten-octave range with octave up/down buttons or transposition.
Another large part of this package is the inclusion of powerful software with everything from Ableton Live Lite and Hybrid 3 to SONiVOX Twist 2.0 and SONiVOX Eighty-Eight Ensemble.
Boxed contents include the MPK 261, a USB cable port, a Quick Start guide and a Safety and Warranty manual.
Most of the concerns for this model come from the inconvenience of software integration. Other than being USB bus-powered, there is a lack of power options.
If you’re looking for a solidly built, professional controller to last you for a long time, you can bank on this Akai MIDI controller. You won’t be disappointed.
This model from M-Audio uses USB as its communication protocol along with traditional MIDI In and Out ports. There is a five-octave playing surface with 16 velocity-sensitive pads. The slider bank on this model comes with illuminated buttons below, and the screen on the left has more light and color to offer.
You can split the keyboard into four independent zones which works well for users who want to access multi plug-ins at the same time.
The X-Y pad is the standout control feature that is fully configurable so your chosen parameters can pair up to the X and Y axes. And without exception, the Code controller includes a full-sized keyboard with a synthesizer mechanics and an Aftertouch feature.
With all its versatile characteristics, this semi-weighted keyboard controller gives you the feel of a real instrument rather than a computer peripheral. This model is compatible with all major DAWs, plug-in instruments and effects. It ships out with an ultimate software package including Ableton Live Lite, Hybrid 3 and Air Music Technology’s Loom virtual synths.
Music aficionados have pointed out that the Code black model does not come with the setting indications per key whereas on the white version, the settings are labelled. Some people would like to see this on the black model as well.
The Alesis VI61comes packed with many features. Call it an upgrade or a bigger version of the Alesis V61 (coming up next) which has fewer drum pads and a few other components missing.
This model features the ever popular backlit drum pads conveniently positioned to the left of the unit, rather than above the keys so you can easily work with these without changing or crossing your hands while playing the pads and the keyboard simultaneously. The 16 velocity and pressure sensitive pads use multicolored LEDs so they can be color coded for specific uses.
In the top left corner, you will find pitch and modulation wheels being nicely resistant, and they won’t slip through your fingers even if you wind them fast. The upper panel provides 16 knobs and 48 buttons to have complete control over your sound parameters and DAW, right at the controller. With this number, you get an in-depth, customizable creation at your disposal.
The semi-weighted piano style velocity-sensitive keys come with an Aftertouch feature. All this is ideal for two-handed performing while yet remaining portable.
Some users experienced difficulty setting it up in the absence of comprehensive instructions, so had to get online for help. Other than this hiccup, given its wide range of features, it would not be unfair to say that with the Alesis VI61 you are getting more than what you are paying for.
Another Alesis entrant on the list, the Alesis V61 features full-sized velocity-sensitive keys with four rotaries, eight drum pads, and four buttons, all of which are assignable. The pads and controls light up well when powered. The eight pads are blue backlit and well responsive, as are the buttons. Likewise, the dials aren’t too loose nor tight and offer the users a smooth, uninterrupted action.
The keys aren’t weighted but responsive with plenty of sharp action to give you dynamic results. In fact, their semi-weighted nature strikes just the right balance between something that is entirely plastic and classical fully-weighted piano keys.
Overall, this is a practical rather than overly stylish controller. With a more basic number of assignable controls, the keyboard requires less surface area and makes for a quality compact unit suitable for beginners.
Going by users’ reviews, there have been some concerns about the velocity sensitivity with it being inconsistent from key to key. However, solutions recommended include downloading a firmware update from the manufacturer’s website and then resetting the velocity sensitivity. This seems to have resolved most of the complaints.
So, if you’re looking for a nice beginner controller being a space saver without sacrificing functionality and performance, then the Alesis V61 is an excellent place to start.
The Nectar Impact GX61 is a compact 61-key controller that provides multiple features at a price which is hard to beat. It has 61 full-sized velocity-sensitive keys that are easy to use. As are most other Nektar products, this model also features DAW integration to enhance your musical experience.
Despite being a compact design, this key controller delivers powerful functionality matching that of more comprehensive models.
The 61-note/5-octave keyboard comes with a modulation wheel, pitch-bend wheel, and footswitch socket. There are two-octave buttons that are color coded which enable the range to up or down octaves with LED changing colors.
The eight transport buttons intended for DAW control are at the core of this unit offering you essentials like transport activation or track navigation. You can also use the buttons to MIDI messages with any MIDI software not supported by Nektar DWA integration. This model has a class compliant MIDI driver so it will work with any iOS device. The setup is simple and user-friendly.
Given its weight of only six pounds, this is a lightweight unit. However, this feature could go either way with users as some felt that the controller was not built solidly enough.
When you use the Nektar Impact GX61, your controller becomes part of the system, and you don’t have to use your mouse consistently. You can enjoy the complete creative freedom to compose, perform at play all at the same time.
The Midiplus i61-keyboard controller is a deal not to be missed if you are on a budget. This key controller comes at a very affordable price with all the necessary features to get you started.
The computer’s USB port powers this controller, so there’s only one single cable to deal with. The unit itself is reasonably compact as compared to other 61-key products. Being a basic model, this controller makes no sound on its own and needs to be plugged into a computer or other MIDI equipment to run the software there.
It is a simple and accessible interface which might be just the thing to look for if you are new to using key controllers.
One concern you may have is the short length of the USB cable that comes with this unit. You might want to get a longer one. And although the keys are advertised as full-sized, they are in fact shorter than regular-sized keys. For anyone who plays on full-sized keys, working with this piece may take some getting used to. The unit doesn’t come with a manual, but you can get it online.
All in all, this is a great budget MIDI controller that offers satisfactory durability given its price, and that’s why it’s our budget pick on this list.
Compared to many other models, the Samson Carbon is a minimal key controller that gets the job done without too many bells and whistles.
It is a decently constructed keyboard controller that comes complete with the usual onboard tools of the trade including pitch wheel, modulation wheel, and data knob.
There are 61 semi-weighted synth-action velocity-sensitive keys, but, unfortunately, no pads. Also included are an assignable data encoder, volume slider and a three-digit, seven-segment LCD display showing all your actions in real time.
It is a portable unit which can use a laptop or an iPad for its operation and power supply. Users who have paired the controller with their iPad seem happy with the results, verifying that this unit does well what it advertises.
Keeping things simple, if you are looking for a place to begin, the Samson Carbon could just give you that starting point. We would recommend this product to newcomers or others who want to use it as a secondary controller.
Some users have reported concerns over key velocity settings. While some have commended the unit’s simplicity, the general consensus remains that it could do better with more control options.
Why is it special?
Integrated iPad stand
Compatible with your favorite iPad apps
What are the flaws?
Doesn’t have pads
Too few control options
Things to Consider
MIDI controllers can range from the basic such as those with just keys to others that have sliders and knobs to tweak your controls. The 61-key controller falls in between the most basic and highly advanced versions. There are lots of options to consider regarding controls and pads, weighted or semi-weighted keys, types of connections, and motorized controls. This guide is compiled to help you wade through these many details.
Who needs a 61-key MIDI controller?
Anyone looking to record techno music alone can suffice well with a 25-key controller. But if you are looking to expand into rock, jazz or songwriting, you will need more keys to play with. This is where the 61-key controller will come in handy. With this many keys, you get more sound diversity and the ability to enter more genres.
61-key MIDI controllers are a perfect blend of portability and functionality in one unit. Most models, including those on our list, are all-inclusive units that come with controls, pads and additional effects. Brands create these features by the type of music you want to record and give you a broad enough range of options without isolating you to deal with a huge machine.
Features to consider before buying a MIDI controller
Different makes and models may focus on various aspects of music recording, but you will still need to have the basic features that allow you to use the controller effectively. Here is a look at some of these basics:
Many comparisons and reviews made within MIDI controller models are based on the number of keys in each version. Most versions come with semi-weighted keys that provide a right balance of playability, dynamics, and portability. Semi-weighted keys fuse together the spring-loaded mechanism of synth actions with the inclusion of minimal weights connected to the keys. This results in keys that offer light to moderate resistance when pressed. It is most appealing to those who don’t want the high resistance of a weighted press. The Akai MPK261 and the Alesis VI61 are models worth considering if you want something with semi-weighted keys.
There are some 61-key controllers that come with weighted and full-sized keys. These typically cater to pianists and try to replicate the same action found on an acoustic piano. In these models, resistance comes from a small hammer located and attached by a level system near the key, rather than a spring.
Naturally, these will be heavier, bulkier and more expensive. Our recommended Nektar Panorama P6 is a model well suited to fit this bill.
Other than weight, key sensitivity and Aftertouch are other considerations. Velocity-sensitive keys measure the speed of the keys as you press them. Some offer multiple velocity curves to choose from, allowing you to personalize the feel of the keys.
Aftertouch is another feature that detects pressure applied to keys when they are held down. This is then converted into MIDI for controlling vibrato, volume and other parameters.
Since there are more mechanical components involved, the price for models with Aftertouch will also be more than others which don’t offer this feature. Our recommendations including M-Audio Code 61, Akai MPK261, Nektar Panorama P6, and Alesis VI61 all incorporate the Aftertouch feature.
Pads and controllers
The more control options a key controller offers, the more command you can have over your instrument. Many 61-key controllers offer numerous options including knobs, faders and drum pads that can customize your experience in your preferred genre of music.
You can also look for transport controls that enable you to play, rewind, fast forward and stop. This saves you the hassle of shifting back to your computer and prevents your train of thought from being disrupted. While smaller controller versions may minimize this feature, you will be able to find it on every 61-key model.
The downside is that they can be distracting, and may take more time to set up. Of, course, additions like these will also jack up the price. Take a look at the Nectar Panorama P6 to enjoy a full range of pads and controllers.
Most MIDI controllers operate with a few, top-selling composition software packs. You can check compatibility with top options like Ableton Live, Reason, Tracktor, Xpand!2 and Main Stage to name a few.
For a point of reference, Ableton Live works with most MIDI controllers, but do check for versions as all brands keep updating them.
Weight and dimensions
Weight and dimensions on a controller vary by brand and the added features included. However, the one common standard on all models is the number, size, and weight of its keys.
When it comes to 61-key controllers, you will find that most models come with semi-weighted synth-action keys. Some others may feature weighted and full-sized keys that will also bump up the price for the unit.
Controllers ranging from 25 to 88 keys can be anywhere from between under 20 inches to over 50 inches in length. The model you opt for should reflect your usage of the instrument and how much space you need to either place it in a permanent spot or to carry it around with you.
The 61-key version can typically weigh around the 6-15 pounds range. Because they do need to have a certain number of keys and knobs on the interface, dimensions will vary by models.
One of the additional features you may come across is Automapping. When you manually configure your key controller, you can personalize it better. However, the process can be very time-consuming. As such, automapping comes in handy where the unit automatically configures itself saving you setup time and allowing for plug and play functionality. You will want to look into mapping that works with your preferred software. If this is something you want on your controller, then consider the Novation Launchkey or the Nektar Panorama P6, both of which come outfitted with automapping.
Advantages and disadvantages of 61-key models
If you consider something smaller than the 61-key controller, you will not only be cutting on space but on functionality as well. With the 61-key version, you can expand your playing capabilities.
You may look for a 25-key controller as these are definitely more compact and portable. Compared to their larger versions, they are more budget-friendly and if you don’t need the full complement of keys, then you can do well with this key version. However, there will be serious limitations when it comes to playing options. If you record and need to play certain riffs, then an extended set of keys such as the 61-key version is what you should look for.
The 25-key version comes with only two octaves. If you’re looking for drums, fx sounds and similar effects, that will work fine. However, if you’re looking to work with melodies, then you may struggle. The 49-key version may help a bit more, but will still limit you whereas with 61-keys you could go in any direction.
The 49-key controller may please many musicians with its set of four octaves. They are definitely an improvement on their more compact 25-key versions regarding playability, and are still small enough to be portable without taking up a lot of space. However, if you’re looking for the full range, then the 61-key controller is the way to go. Of course, there are those who will tell you that anything less than an 88 key controller is a toy!
So, to strike a balance between the minimalist and the other end of the spectrum, the 61-key controller is a good option. With the 61 keys, you get an impressive five-octave range, and you also have the freedom to play with both hands. For anyone, who’s been used to playing with two hands at the same time, using the 49 keys can feel limiting. 61-keys, on the other hand, lets you create not only more but also larger zones as you play.
It is best to use software that comes with your MIDI as it will offer the most compatible features. Brands also offer software bundles to enhance performance. Certain models are compatible with different software not included in the purchase but do check compatibility first.
Any class compliant MIDI controller can connect to an iPad or iPhone using the Apple Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter. Get a CoreMIDI-compatible app such as Garage Band, Tabletop, NanoStudio, MusicStudio, or Thumbjam. Connect the USB cable to your key controller and the Lightning adapter. Plug the adapter into the iPad making sure that the app is launched before the connection. Tap some keys to check that power is getting to the instrument.
Basically, all those knobs and faders are for versatility. You need them for basis such as volume automation or modulation speed, but others will let you control your mixing and panning options as well as assist you with mixing your song without using a mouse.
So as you can see, a lot is going on in the MIDI key controller niche. You can pick a model that tailors to your musical needs and fits your budget restrictions as well. For a complete experience regardless of your skill level, consider our Editor’s Pick, the Novation Launchkey which is popular among musicians given its versatility. You can connect it to almost any type of software for the full recording experience.
If you want to take it up a notch, then take a careful look at the Nektar Panorama P6 with its all-inclusive features. This key controller is known for including as many controls as possible that you would need for recording. Plus, you get a realistic, piano-like feel with its weighted keys.
For a true performer on the stage, look no further than the Akai MPK261 with its vast array of sound possibilities and outstanding software integration. This is one of the best 61-key MIDI controllers you can take on tour with you.