That initial piece was constrained to the keyboards that could be bought new for less than 200 euros, and as such featured mostly smaller, more mobile units designed for touring or producing on the go. When it comes time to shop for a keyboard for a studio environment, however, most likely you're going to be looking for something with a higher build quality, a larger octave range, and most likely some way of controlling your DAW. To that end, for this follow-up we increased the budget to 1000 euros and looked for the best of the best when it comes to the heart of many studios—the master MIDI keyboard.
The first on this list is the brand most people (especially in the US) associate with MIDI keyboards. M-Audio has been in the game for nearly a decade, starting with the ubiquitous Oxygen 25 back in 2002. Introduced in 2009, the Axiom Pro line is the newest generation of M-Audio's MIDI lineup, and has quite a few new tricks up its sleeve.
Behind its rather unusual white exterior (a bold choice) lies a surprisingly sophisticated controller that allows for two-way communication between most major DAWs via its HyperControl Technology. Believe it or not, this actually allows for more out-of-the-box integrated control over DAWs like Logic, Cubase, and Ableton Live than you can find with more established platforms like Novation's Automap.
For example, when using HyperControl within Logic you can actually load and control Logic's internal effects from the Axiom Pro keyboard itself. In Ableton Live, almost every internal device has been mapped in some sort of fashion as well. You can even configure HyperControl to send computer keyboard macros, which can be helpful for program functions that can't be MIDI mapped. For more information on HyperControl compatibility with your DAW of choice, M-Audio has published documentation on their website which spells out the options for the major platforms out there.
When the Axiom Pro line was announced, it drew immediate comparisons to Novation's firmly established Remote SL family of MIDI keyboards. The Remote SL is the high end of the Novation line, with an eye-popping 56 knobs, faders and buttons sitting above a high-quality Fatar keybed. As evidenced by the MKII tag, this is the second generation of the Remote SL family. The differences from the first are noticeable, with the MKII giving up one LCD screen in order to gain touch-sensitive controls and LED feedback for the endless knobs.
The touch-sensitivity of the controls is a pretty big positive, as it works in concert with Novation's renowned Automap software—which pops into view when you touch a control to show you what parameter it currently has assigned. Since the previous piece in March, Novation has released version 4 of Automap. Among these updates are a new streamlined setup process and more options to allow you to configure the level of GUI feedback shown for control changes.
The Remote SL has two advantages over the Axiom Pro: The Automap software makes doing on-the-fly assignments much easier than HyperControl, thanks to the touch-sensitivity and the way that it can wrap plugins. Also, the Remote SL is better at controlling external hardware without the aid of a computer, thanks to its LCD display and template storage system.
If you're a fan of the legendary Akai MPC hardware sampler design with the square pad matrix, you should take a look at the Akai MPK 88. It has the same 4x4 pad layout as a real MPC (with true MPC pads) and a pretty full complement of knobs, faders and buttons. In addition to the pads, the MPK separates itself further from its competition with support for many of the original MPC features, like Note Repeat, Swing, Full Level, 16-Level, Tap Tempo and Time Division. To accomplish many of these, the MPK is smart enough to speak the language of MIDI Clock—either acting as the clock master, or by synchronizing itself to the clock being sent from your DAW.
With its 88 keys, the MPK is the first of the MIDI keyboards considered thus far that could support the full range of notes required to play any piano piece. While this may seem overkill for many people, if you have a piano background you understand how important it is to have the freedom to roam across the octaves. The MPK 88 also takes things even further, as its keybed is fully weighted to recreate the same hammer action of a grand piano.
As it ships, the MPK is unfortunately chained to a computer. Akai does not ship the MP6-1 power adapter, so you're forced to power the MPK via USB initially. This is an unfortunate omission for one of the higher priced keyboards in our list, but with all of the other features baked in, we can't complain too much about an extra 30 euro purchase.
Speaking of weighted keys, if you happen to be Francesco Tristano, or if you are a serious pianist who needs a MIDI controller that responds as closely to the real thing as it gets, check out the Studiologic Numa. Every one of the 88 keys of this minimalistically-styled keyboard is composed of solid body material and is weighted to match a grand piano. To give you an idea of how serious they are about it, on a real piano, the keys at the top of the piano have a lighter action (require less of a push) than the keys at the bottom. That's a side effect of the mechanics of a piano, and is subtle enough that most keyboard manufacturers don't give it a second thought. The Numa's keyboard, however, has this response mechanism built in.
Things get even crazier when you start to get into the way Numa handles velocity curves. Velocity curves are a way for keyboards to adjust the range of power of the notes to compensate for the player's style. Normally MIDI keyboards don't support velocity curve choices, and the ones that do only allow for a handful of options. The Numa has its own velocity curve engine called You Play, which can learn a player's style and generate a custom velocity curve for them. These personalized shapes can then be saved in one of the 15 velocity curve slots.
Unfortunately, once you get past the magnificent keyboard, there's not much to the Numa. The mod wheel is hidden on the side for some strange reason, and some users have reported issues with the touch-sensitive controls. However, if you're looking for the most authentic piano-style keyboard you can buy for under 1000 euros, the Numa is it.
If you happen to be a guitarist who wants to get into recording and producing, or if you are shopping for an audio interface in addition to a MIDI keyboard, the Pod Studio KB37 created by the guitar pedal specialists at Line 6 could be the best choice. The KB37 is the only keyboard among the Pod Studio family of devices which are USB audio interfaces created for recording guitar and vocals. In addition to six inputs and two outputs, the KB37 has 37 full-sized keys, pitch and mod wheel, a handful of buttons and knobs, and a pair of VU meters to monitor your volume levels.
What makes the Pod Studio keyboard unique is the high quality onboard preamps which are made for recording guitar and vocals, and the Pod Farm software. The Pod Farm is a virtual amp simulation software suite that allows you to route different amps, cabs, effect pedals and mic preamps to achieve the right tone. The effect chains can then be saved as presets, and any audio running into the Pod Studio keyboard interface is instantly affected by the preset, with zero latency introduced. It achieves the zero latency monitoring by running at the driver level, rather than as a plugin in your DAW host. The downside to this is that the audio goes into the DAW post-effect, which means that adjustments to the Pod Farm effects after recording aren't possible. As an alternative, the Pod Farm plugin mode can be unlocked via an upgrade purchasable on the Line 6 website—however in this age of unlimited choices, some forced creative limitations could be a good thing.
The last MIDI keyboard on our list follows the same multi-functional approach of the KB37, and takes it even further. In addition to being a MIDI keyboard (of course) and an audio interface like the KB37, the Ultranova is also a very powerful synthesizer based around the well-loved Supernova II rack synth made popular in the early '00s.
The synthesis portion is based on a pretty robust 3-oscillator virtual analog style engine, which allows up to 18 note polyphony. There are 14 conventional waveforms and 36 wavetables, 14 filter types, 6 envelope generators, 3 LFOs and 5 simultaneous FX per voice. Also, Novation provides a software editor that can run as a plug-in in your DAW, similar to the Virus Control plugin for the Access Virus TI line of synths.
The reason we are including the Ultranova in this list is that in addition to this synth engine and the 2-in 4-out audio interface, it has the same touch-sensitive knob technology of the other Novation MIDI controllers. It's only logical, therefore that Novation has included a mode to convert the Ultranova into an Automap-enabled MIDI controller at the push of a button, with the touch-sensitive knobs being able to be assigned and control the parameters of a plugin or DAW.