Best 88 Key Midi Controllers – Buying Guide & Reviews

88 key midi controllers offer the flexibility of using midi sounds in your compositions, with the melodic range and playability of a full-sized piano keyboard. Although many digital music producers opt for smaller midi keyboards, 88 key controllers are essential for those who want the option of using up to seven octaves in a single performance.

Arturia Keylab 49 midi controller

Some 88 key midi controllers feel like real pianos, with velocity-sensitive weighted keys, sustain pedals and soft pedals. Some lack these features, but still offer a piano’s range; sometimes with additional features like pitch shifters and modulation wheels (these midi keyboards are suitable for those who require the creative options of 88 keys, but don’t need them to feel necessarily piano-like). We review both these types in this article.

If you’re in a rush, here’s the products we review:

At a Glance: Our Choice of the Best 88 Key Midi Controllers on the Market

PREVIEW PRODUCT FEATURES

M-Audio 88 Keys 88 Keys Keystation 88

M-Audio Keystation 88 II
  • Expressive performance controls
  • 4 midi channels in one instrument
  • Lightweight
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Alesis Q88 | 88-Key USB/MIDI Keyboard Controller with Pitch & Mod Wheels

Alesis Q88
  • Velocity-sensitive keys
  • Sustain and volume pedal inputs
  • Pitch and modulation wheels
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Studiologic SL88 Studio Lightweight Midi Controller with 88-Key Hammer Action Keyboard

StudioLogic SL88
  • Keys are weighted with hammer-action
  • Four midi channels in one instrument
  • Aftertouch for additional control
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M-Audio Hammer 88 | 88-Key Hammer-Action USB MIDI Keyboard Controller

M-Audio Hammer 88
  • Hammer-action, weighted keys
  • Pitch shift and modulation wheels
  • Music sheet stand included for piano-style performances
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Nektar Impact LX88+

Nektar Impact LX88
  • Full-sized, velocity-sensitive keys
  • Automaps to most popular DAW software
  • Super lightweight
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Icon ICOK-IKEYBOARD8X iKeyboard 8X - 88-Key MIDI keyboard semi-weighted keys with single channel DAW controller

Icon ICOK iKeyboard8X
  • Pitch and modulation wheels
  • Velocity-sensitive keys
  • Extremely portable
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Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 Mk2 Keyboard

Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88
  • Fully weighted, hammer-action keys with aftertouch
  • Automaps to several DAWs
  • Bundled with software and instrument packages
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Kawai VPC1 Virtual Piano Controller

Kawai VPC1
  • Hammer-action weighted and full-size keys
  • 5-pin midi and USB output plus a 5-pin midi input
  • Comes with the VPC editor
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Arturia KeyLab 88 Hybrid 88-Key Controller

Arturia KeyLab 88
  • Hammer-action, velocity-sensitive keys with aftertouch
  • Loads of creative options and control
  • Connectors for sustain and expression pedals
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Roland A-88

Roland A-88
  • Hammer-action weighted keys
  • Connections for a sustain pedal and two assignable foot pedals
  • Lightweight and easy to transport.
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Ok, let’s get started. Here’s what we cover in this article. For maximum effect, I encourage you to read the whole thing to make sure you buy the right midi controller for your needs.

What is an 88 Key Midi Controller?

An 88 Key midi Controller is a keyboard-like instrument which is used to control DAW (digital audio workstation) software for recording music. They send midi signals to Cubase, Logic or whichever sequencing software you use, then the sound(s) you’ve allocated the keys to will be released via the software.

They can be set up to a variety of virtual instrument sounds, but controllers of this size are often used by pianists, to simulate grand pianos when they need something lightweight.

Some 88 key midi controllers have additional pads, so you can also use them to make beats. The best ones for pianists, though, tend to be those which focus on their weighted keys and pedal connectivity.

Benefits of 88 Key Midi Controllers

There are several key (excuse the pun) benefits to 88 Key midi controllers, which make them a popular purchase amongst pianists and creative producers alike.

Large Melodic Range

The large melodic range of an 88 key midi controller means that you have many creative options. As well as having the seven octaves a piano has, these controllers often have ‘octave’ buttons, which means that you can make the keys go even lower or even higher than those on a piano.

Having access to so many notes means that you can play piano parts in a way that’s impossible on a smaller midi keyboard.

Lightweight

Have you ever tried to move a piano?

These midi keyboards weigh a fraction of a piano’s weight, which makes them a popular choice for stage performances.

Unlike keyboards, which only have their set amount of sounds, midi keyboards are unlimited in the sounds they can create, so you can source and use the piano sound that suits your style the best.

Easy to Record

midi is also a lot easier to record than audio. It’s a lot easier to edit, too. The signals are sent to your sequencing software and then are immediately visible. You can press a ‘quantise’ button to immediately put any wayward notes in time, and you can change the sound of your piano at the click of a button.

You don’t need to worry about mic techniques, clipping volume or background noise when you record midi parts.

Buying Guide – What to Consider when Buying an 88 Key Midi Controller

There are a few things to consider when deciding which midi controller is right for you.

Key Size and Weight

The key size and weight will determine how piano-like your device is. If you’ve no desire to play it like a traditional piano, you might not mind if the keys are a little smaller. However, if you want to use a midi keyboard as a piano alternative, you’ll certainly need to look out for full sized keys.

Also, you’ll want them to be weighted.

Weighted Keys

There are four different kinds of keys you can get on an 88 key midi controller.

Not Weighted

Some midi controller have keys which aren’t weighted at all. These are fine for sending signals with, and are often still velocity-sensitive, but they don’t have the feel of a piano.

These are normally only found on lower end midi keyboards.

Semi-weighted

Semi-weighted keys are found on lower-mid range midi keyboards. They are controlled by springs and have a slightly piano-ey feel, but don’t quite feel the same. They do allow you to put some expression into your playing, though, in a way it’s difficult to manage with unweighted keys.

Hammer-action

Hammer-action keys are weighted keys which are weighted via a small hammer which is attached by a lever system to the key, somewhat replicating a piano’s system.

These are often found on mid-higher end midi keyboards and are a must for those who want anything like a piano feel.

Graded Hammer-action

Graded hammer-action is the superior kind of key weighting. This is when the keys are heavier towards the lower end and lighter as they progress. This is how it feels to play a real piano, and it will enable a really controlled, expressive performance.

It’s a must for those who want to emulate a piano on stage or in a recording.

Number of Zones

Some midi keyboards have different ‘zones’. These are sections of notes, which are assigned to your chosen sounds.

If you are likely to want different settings assigned to different note ranges, this can be really useful. Maybe you want your high notes to have an added reverb, but not your lower end notes?

Zones will allow you to achieve this.

Pitch and Modulation Wheels

Pitch and modulation wheels are commonly found on midi controllers.

The pitch wheel can be used to bend the pitch of your notes, which can lead to some really cool sounds and the fact that it’s a wheel means that it’s extremely flexible.

The modulation wheel is most commonly used to add vibrato to the note that’s being played. Like the pitch wheel, this is extremely flexible and can lead to some really cool, fun sounds.

Auto-Mapping

Auto-mapping is a very handy feature on 88 key midi controllers. It’s when the keys on your midi controller are automatically assigned to compatible software. This saves you having to set things up manually, and is a must for those who want to plug in and get going, right away.

Auto-mapping sometimes works with some software, but not others, so it’s important to check that your midi controller auto-maps with what you use.

Connectivity

Usually, we power midi controllers via USB into our laptops or PCs. However, as well as a USB connector, some of these keyboards also have midi ins and outs, so that you can attach additional midi instruments or devices.

Connectors for foot pedals are also something to look out for if you are likely to use sustain or softener pedals. Some midi keyboards also have assignable foot pedal connections.

Power Supply

If you want to power your midi controller via your laptop, make sure that it’s bus-powered. Some midi controllers require an additional mains socket, as they’re powered by an AC or DC adapter.

Of course, this isn’t a problem for some people, but a bus-powered instrument can come in really handy when you’re not sure about the mains supply situation (e.g. at a gig).

Extra Features You’ll Find on Some 88 Key Midi Controllers

There are some additional features that you can find on 88 Key midi controllers, which you may or may not find useful.

Aftertouch

Aftertouch allows midi data to be sent after a key is pressed. It can control vibrato, volume or whatever else you set it to, and can really give you an extra level of control in your keyboard playing.

This is a feature that’s most commonly found on the higher end midi keyboard controllers.

Ivory-feel Keys

Ivory-feel keys can also be found on higher end 88 key midi controllers.

These are aimed at pianists who want an authentic playing experience, and they enable just that.

You can expect ivory-feel keys to also be weighted and full sized.

Included Sheet Music Stands

Some 88 key midi controllers also include sheet music or iPad stands.

These can make life easier for those who need to read as they play, including classical musicians and session musicians. It’s not hugely common to find this, so if it’s something you’re going to require then look out for this feature.

Product Round Up and Mini Reviews

So, now you know what to look out for on an 88 key midi controller, let’s have a look at some of the best ones on the market. To make things easier for you, we’ve included some information about what kind of player each of these products is best suited to.

Best Budget 88 Key Midi Controllers

M-Audio Keystation 88 II

M-Audio 88 Keys 88 Keys Keystation 88

The M-Audio Keystation 88 II is a budget-friendly, lightweight product.

It has pitch and modulator wheels to enable expressive performances, as well as an octave key to give you more control over your range.

The keys are velocity-sensitive, though not weighted, and there are connectors for both sustain and expression pedals.

The Keystation 88 II has its own volume control and record, play and stop buttons.

It can be powered by either USB or using an adaptor, so you can choose which suits you best.

Who is this best suited for?

The Keystation 88 II will be suited to musicians on a budget who are new to making midi music and want a keyboard to make melodies on and/or to play chords on. As there are no pads on this controller, it will be less suited those who want to make midi beats as well as melodies.

PROS

  • It’s budget-friendly and lightweight.
  • There are pitch shift, modulation and octave controls which enable expressive performance.
  • There are 4 zones, so you have the creative options of 4 midi channels in one instrument.

CONS

  • Keys are only semi-weighted, so it won’t really feel like a piano.
  • The Ableton software it comes with is ‘lite’, so you’ll probably need to upgrade to the full version at some point.
  • The springs beneath the keys can be quite noisy.

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Alesis Q88

Alesis Q88 | 88-Key USB/MIDI Keyboard Controller with Pitch & Mod Wheels

The Alesis Q88 has semi-weighted, velocity-sensitive keys and modulation and pitch wheels. There are connectors for sustain and volume pedals and it can be powered by USB.

The Alesis Q88 is compatible with pretty much all DAW software, and it comes with Ableton Live Lite software, so you can get going straight away. It also doesn’t require drivers, making it extremely easy to get started with.

There are no pads on this keyboard and there are only volume and power buttons, so it’s not the most feature-heavy midi controller out there. However, it’s simple to use and has a modest look to it, which will fit well in any home studio.

Who is this best suited for?

It will be most suited to those who want to play and record at home, and who are new to DAW software. The Alesis Q88 will be less suited to pianists, due to its lack of weighted keys and/or additional features.

PROS

  • Keys are velocity-sensitive, so you can deliver an expressive performance.
  • There are pitch and modulation wheels, as well as octave up and down controls to give you excellent controllability.
  • There are sustain and volume pedal inputs.

CONS

  • Keys are only semi-weighted, so it won’t feel like you’re playing a piano.
  • The Ableton software it comes with is ‘lite’, so you’ll probably need to upgrade to the full version at some point.
  • It’s DC-powered, rather than bus-powered.

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Best Mid Price 88 Key Midi Controllers

StudioLogic SL88

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

The StudioLogic SL88 also has a simplistic look to it. It’s controls are three assignable joy sticks, then a small screen which is navigated through via a wheel dial. There are also three assignable function buttons.

There are hammer-action keys with aftertouch, so you can have full control over the expression of your playing. There are also 4 programmable zones, so you can edit the midi sounds differently throughout the keyboard’s range.

There are 4 programmable pedal connectors, and there’s a rail system which can be used in combination with a sheet music or laptop holder (not included).

A sustain pedal is included, as is the DC adapter by which the keyboard’s powered.

Who is this ideally suited for?

The StudioLogic SL88 will fit well in a recording studio, as it is robust, reliable and multi-functional. It will be less suited to musicians who want something to carry from gig to gig, as it’s pretty heavy and can take some time to learn how to control.

PROS

  • There are 4 zones, so you have the creative options of 4 midi channels in one instrument.
  • There are four programmable pedal connectors.
  • The keys are weighted with hammer-action, giving it the feel of a piano and there’s also aftertouch for additional control.

CONS

  • It’s powered by an AC adapter, rather than bus powered.
  • There are no pads.
  • There are no pitch or modulation wheels; instead these can be controlled by joysticks.

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M-Audio Hammer 88

M-Audio Hammer 88 | 88-Key Hammer-Action USB MIDI Keyboard Controller

The M-Audio Hammer 88 has hammer-action keys which give it the feel of a real piano. There’s also a music sheet stand included, so it’s excellent right away for those who perform classical or session piano performances.

There are pitch shift and modulation wheels to enable extra expression and creativity, though there is no aftertouch function on this keyboard.

It’s compatible with iOS via the Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit, and it comes with Ableton Live Lite, so you can get playing right away.

Who is this well suited for?

There are no pads or zones on this keyboard, so it might not suit those who want to get super-techy with their midi controllers. However, this is perfectly suited to pianists who perform in a variety of venues or in a variety of styles, and it includes some virtual instrument settings which sound like real pianos.

It has the option of being powered via USB or an external power supply.

PROS

  • Hammer-action, weighted keys give it the feel of a real piano.
  • There’s a music sheet stand included, which makes it great for piano-style performances or for playing by lead sheets.
  • Pitch shift and modulation wheels enable expressive performances.

CONS

  • There are no zones, so you’re limited to using one sound setup at a time.
  • There’s no display, so it can be less easy to control than other midi controllers.
  • Although the keys are hammer-action, there’s no aftertouch.

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Nektar Impact LX88

Nektar Impact LX88+

The Nektar Impact LX88 is an advanced midi controller with a mass of functions.

As well as the 88 velocity-sensitive keys, there are 8 pads, 9 assignable buttons and 9 faders. There are pitch bend and modulation wheels, transpose keys and the controller has 2 zones.

It’s compatible with most DAWs including Cubase, Logic, Reason and more and it adapts automatically to them all.

The Nektar Impact LX88 has a sustain pedal as well as a USB and midi output, and has an option DC connection.

Unfortunately, the keys are not weighted at all and there is no aftertouch, but for sending signals which are not necessarily piano-like, this is no problem.

Who is this best suited for?

It will suit digital composers who make electronic music and want a high amount of audio options at their fingertips. It will be less suited to pianists, due to the feel of the keys.

PROS

  • Keys are full-sized and velocity-sensitive, with editable velocity curves.
  • Automaps to most popular DAW software including Cubase and Ableton, with assignable knobs, faders, pads, footswitch jacks and transport controls.
  • It’s very light at only 18lbs.

CONS

  • Keys are only semi-weighted, so it won’t feel like you’re playing a piano.
  • There’s no bundled software.
  • There’s no aftertouch feature.

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Icon ICOK iKeyboard8X

Icon ICOK-IKEYBOARD8X iKeyboard 8X - 88-Key MIDI keyboard semi-weighted keys with single channel DAW controller

The Icon ICOK iKeyboard8X is a slim, lightweight controller with a robust metal casing.

There are pitch and modulation wheels, and the keys are velocity-sensitive. They aren’t hammer-action, and there’s no aftertouch, but the portability of this keyboard makes up for that.

There are 18 assignable LED buttons which are easy to use and easy to see, and the iKeyboard8X comes with iMap software to make it easy to map the device to various DAWs.

It has a sustain pedal connection and a midi and USB port. The iKeyboard8X is also bus-powered.

It is perfect for the musician who travels with his or her gear, and doesn’t want to sacrifice their music-making options for the sake of space and/or weight.

It will be less suited to those who want something with the most advanced midi controller features, as it’s quite modest with lack of faders, pads or zones.

PROS

  • It’s extremely portable and lightweight.
  • Keys are velocity-sensitive, so you can deliver an expressive performance.
  • There are pitch and modulation wheels, which give you controllability and creative options.

CONS

  • Keys are not weighted.
  • There are no faders, pads or zone options.
  • It doesn’t have aftertouch.

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Best High End 88 Key Midi Controllers

Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88

Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 Mk2 Keyboard

The Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 is an advanced controller with fully weighted, hammer-action keys and several built-in sound controls.

The keys also have aftertouch, so you can keep on controlling your signal after you’ve pushed the button. The built-in sound controls are buttons which adjust EQ, attack and release time and tone settings. This makes it one of the most hands-on devices, as you don’t need to click in your software to adjust this.

The Komplete Kontrol S88 also automaps to several DAWs, including KOMPLETE, Ableton Live and Cubase. This is great for those who want to plug in, get going and get creative.

Who is this perfectly suited for?

The Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 is suited to producers who use a variety of sequencing software.

Despite having fully weighted keys, it will be less suited to those looking for an authentic piano-like playing experience, due to its additional features and digital focus.

PROS

  • Fully weighted, hammer-action keys with aftertouch give you full control over your sound.
  • Automaps to several DAWs including KOMPLETE, Ableton Live and Cubase.
  • Comes with a number of extremely useful software bundles and instrument packages that are compatible with KOMPLETE software.

CONS

  • It’s pretty expensive.
  • KOMPLETE software isn’t compatible with external instruments.
  • It’s heavy and bulky.

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Kawai VPC1

Kawai VPC1 Virtual Piano Controller

The Kawai VPC1 offers a very piano-like playing experience. The full-size, hammer-action keys feel like ivory, and the included three pedals means that you can pretend you’re on a grand piano.

As well as this, it has midi input and outputs, as well as the USB, so you can connect it to other midi-compatible synths if you need a vintage sound.

It comes with the VPC editing software, which allows you to edit the touch curve and velocity of individual keys, giving you a superior level of control, and you can also choose whether you power the Kawai VPC1 by USB or AC.

There’s an included music rest, and this piano has the aesthetic of a grand piano.

Who is this well suited for?

Without a doubt, this is the most suited to those who love the look, feel and sound of a real piano. It will be less suited to digital producers, who want extra knobs, wheels and faders that this traditional-looking instrument doesn’t have.

PROS

  • Hammer-action weighted and full-size keys that feel like ivory, plus three pedals make this very akin to a piano playing experience.
  • Has a 5-pin midi and USB output plus a 5-pin midi input, so you can connect additional controllers.
  • Comes with the VPC editor, so you can edit the touch curve and velocity of individual keys.

CONS

  • There are no zones.
  • It’s pretty heavy – at 65lbs it’s not the most portable of instruments.
  • There are no DAW controls at all, so it’s mainly aimed at pianists rather than digital producers.

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Arturia KeyLab 88

Arturia KeyLab 88 Hybrid 88-Key Controller

The Arturia KeyLab 88 has hammer-action keys which are velocity-sensitive and have aftertouch.

There are also 16 pads, 9 faders, 12 rotary encoders and 10 assignable buttons. This controller really does give you control.

There are pitch and modulation wheels, to enable creative and expressive playing, and there’s an integrated sheet music / iPad stand so that you can perform with ease.

It comes with Analog Lab 2 software and Arturia Piano V, so you can get started right away, and there are midi, sustain pedal and USB connections. There’s also an adaptor input, as this keyboard is not bus-powered.

It has an additional shelf for a laptop or other instruments, and it has wooden sides which make it look at home in any studio.

Who is this best suited for?

It might be less suited to regular gigging, as it’s quite heavy and might be hard to find an appropriate case for.

PROS

  • Hammer-action keys which are velocity-sensitive and have aftertouch.
  • 9 faders, 12 rotary knobs and 16 pads give you loads of creative options and control.
  • There are connectors for sustain and expression pedals as well as an AUX foot switch connector.

CONS

  • It’s very expensive.
  • There are no split zones.
  • It’s powered by an adapter, rather than via USB.

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Roland A-88

Roland A-88

The Roland A-88 is another high-end option. It is extremely special as the only one in the list which has progressive hammer-action keys. They also feel like ivory, and there are connections for a sustain pedal and two assignable foot pedals. You can really make this play like a grand piano.

It has split keyboard options, so you can get creative with your sounds and it is lightweight and easy to transport or store away. There are assignable knobs and switches, as well as octave and transpose buttons to shift the range of your instrument.

It comes with an included sustain pedal and an AC adapter, although the keyboard can be bus-powered if you prefer.

Who is this best suited for?

It’s extremely easy to plug in and play the Roland A-88, making it perfect for those who want to play the piano at home but perhaps don’t have the space for a real one that would achieve their desired sound. It might be less suited to those who want to gig, as it doesn’t come in particularly sturdy casing.

PROS

  • It has progressive hammer-action weighted keys with an ivory-feel, so it’s very piano-like.
  • There are connections for a sustain pedal and two assignable foot pedals.
  • It’s lightweight and easy to transport.

CONS

  • It uses a lever rather than a wheel for modulation.
  • It requires installation of drivers to work.
  • It’s powered via an adapter, rather than bus-powered.

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So Which Should I Choose?

So, as you can see, each of these midi controllers has its own set of benefits.

If you’re looking for something that plays, sounds and even looks like a piano, the Kawai VPC1 offers the aesthetic, sound and feel that you’re looking for. If you want to take that authenticity of feel even further, the Roland A-88 takes it there, with the addition of graded hammer-action keys.

Digital producers might prefer something with the addition of pads and extra buttons, so will be better off looking at the Arturia KeyLab 88 or Nektar Impact LX88.

Those who want something that’s suited to the studio or home studio will do well with the Komplete Kontrol S88, Alesis Q88 or StudioLogic SL88. Out of these, the StudioLogic SL88 is the most piano-like.

If you’re looking for something slim and travel-friendly, the Icon ICOK iKeyboard8X is light and benefits from sturdy casing. If you want something that you can use in a wide variety of styles and surroundings, the M-Audio Hammer 88 is your best bet.

The M-Audio Keystation 88 is the most suited to beginners, due to its ease of use and the relatively low price.

Whichever one of these midi controllers you think is best for you, we hope that this has been helpful.

Happy Tinkling!

Image Credits:

Featured image source: John McArthur/ CC BY-SA 2.0

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