Audio gear manufacturers understand this, and as such there is no shortage of options out there. For a shopper just getting into music production it can be downright intimidating trying to find the right keyboard. To that end, we've done the leg work for you by wading through the sea of keys to find the best of what's available. For this first series we looked at keyboards for under 200 Euros—finding controllers suited to playing out live in cramped DJ booths, producing while travelling, or for those who are just looking for the most affordable unit out there.
Starting with the smallest and cheapest of the bunch, the Korg NanoKey brings a whole new meaning to portable, fitting 25 velocity-sensitive keys and six buttons into a unit 320 mm wide. The NanoKey and its siblings the NanoPad and NanoKontrol require so little power that they can all be run off of an unpowered USB hub connected to a laptop. In fact, the keyboard of a laptop is apparently where Korg took the design inspiration for keys for the Nano—so temper your expectations if you're expecting true synth key action.
The NanoKey's six function buttons open up a surprising amount of extra functionality. You can change the keyboard octave up and down—a pair of LEDs shows you where you are—and you can send pitchbend or modwheel signals from their respective buttons (i.e. the pitch bends for a configurable amount of time after the button is pushed). The last of the six buttons is labeled CC and it switches the keyboard from playing notes to sending control changes (CCs), which can be used to control software and hardware parameters. The CC numbers and the ranges transmitted by each key press are configurable from a software editor. Korg is about to release a new version of the NanoKey, which improves the key bed to be "modeled after a MacBook," but it appears that the useful CC mode is replaced by a sustain button, which may disappoint some.
Following on the tail of Korg's success with the NanoSeries controllers, Akai have now put their cards on the table with a few different affordable keyboard options—the smallest of which is the LPK 25, a minimalistic 25-key keyboard controller. At 339 mm, the LPK is slightly larger than the NanoKey, but that added size allows for larger, higher-quality keys. While not full-size, the keys are more along the lines of what you'd find on a MicroKorg—finding a good balance between playability and portability. In Akai's press materials, you'll often see the LPK conspicuously placed in front of a MacBook, and for good reason—it fits neatly on top of the keyboard of a 15-inch MacBook during a gig.
One of the LPK's most surprising features is a respectable onboard arpeggiator that can be programmed and controlled using the keys themselves in conjunction with the "program" button. The arpeggiator can be synchronized to either MIDI clock over USB or to the Akai's internal clock which is controllable by a tap tempo button. Aside from this surprisingly powerful arpeggiator, there is not much to the LPK outside of a sustain and octave shift buttons.
Those who prefer a bit more control than the NanoKey or the LPK25 may be interested in Akai's newest unit, the MPK Mini, which takes the LPK and adds eight illuminated drum pads and eight knobs (the same found on Akai's LPD8) above the keyboard. These pads and knobs can be configured to send out a variety of MIDI messages—both can send out CCs, but the pads can also accommodate notes and program changes. Like the NanoKey, both the LPK and the MPK Mini come bundled with a software editor that, while not as refined or pretty as Korg's version, allows you to edit the control parameters and save your work to one of four presets. These presets can then be called up from the unit itself using the program key which allows you to easily switch between a number of different applications or instruments.
If you like the idea of a portable rig but are more of a purist when it comes to key size and controls, you should check out Alesis' new entry into the world of portable MIDI keyboards, the Q25. When compared to the Akai units and the NanoKey, the Q25 looks much more like a standard MIDI controller, with 25 full-size keys and the pitchbend and modwheel controls that are standard on larger keyboards. Of course full-size keys mean more overall size, and as such the Q25's width comes in at around 482 mm, which is about the same size as standard rackmount audio gear. If you need a bigger range of keys to work with, Alesis also offers a four-octave version called the Q49 that can still be had for under 100 euros.
The Q25 and its bigger brother can both be run via USB bus power, but if you happen to have a compatible power adapter lying around, you can run the keyboard in standalone mode, using the standard MIDI out to control external hardware of your choice. This, plus the fact that both units come with an easily-upgradable copy of Ableton Live Lite, might make up for Alesis' choice not to include a software editor. If you're comfortable going old-school and programming things from the keyboard though, there is some real value to be had here.
If you're looking for a small keyboard with full-size keys, another option is the Behringer UMX250. While Behringer has earned a colorful reputation in the eyes of many in the audio production world through their hit-or-miss track record over the years, the UMX series certainly delivers quite a bit for the money. Not only do you get the two-octave keyboard with full-size keys, the UMX 250 also includes eight rotary controls, ten assignable switches, and the customary pitchbend/modwheel combo. As an added bonus, Behringer even includes a USB audio interface (the UCA222) with each keyboard.
Like the Alesis, the UMX250 has a physical MIDI out and can be run off a non-supplied power adapter, but unlike the Alesis the MIDI out is always available—even when running on USB bus power. Interestingly enough, the unit can even be run on three AA batteries. Perhaps the most useful thing about the Behringer is that both the UMX250 and the included UCA222 are class-compliant—which means if you've got an iPad, you've got a MIDI controller and an audio interface that will work out-of-the-box with most audio apps. While this is definitely a nice bonus, like the Alesis, Behringer does not include a software editor—so if you want to setup the UMX to control those iPad apps (most of which have non-configurable MIDI templates) you're going to need to break out the manual.
On the high end of the under 200 Euro spectrum you'll find the Nocturn 25 from Novation. The Nocturn keyboard range was introduced in late 2009 and features the same style of controls found on the original Nocturn unit, which consisted of a panel of eight LED-ringed knobs and eight illuminated buttons. The Nocturn 25 straightens out the staggered controls of the original and places them above a 25-key Fatar keyboard next to eight drum pads. While it's not the smallest of the bunch at 472 mm wide, the quality of the keyboard and rotary controls put it at the top of the class.
The Nocturn 25 relies heavily on Novation's Automap. (It's the only way to truly configure the messages sent by the controls.) Automap is a smart little piece of software that allows you to setup templates to control any plugin or DAW, and the fact that the knobs are touch-sensitive means that a transparent Automap window will pop up any time you grab a knob, showing you exactly what you're controlling. The Nocturn also has the extremely useful Speed Dial which allows you to control whatever your mouse happens to be hovering over. While it may not be the most portable or cheapest of the group, once you get a hang of Automap, there's no question that the Nocturn 25 is the most flexible.