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.