Nektar Impact LX88+
- Semi-weighted keys don't feel like a real piano
- Tricky velocity curves take some getting used to
- Less straightforward integration with Ableton and Protools - manual mapping required
- Full-featured DAW controller while staying lightweight
- Excellent value for an 88-key controller with this many controls and pads
- Mechanical noise quite low for semi-weighted keys
The LX88+ may be light in terms of its weight and price, but it's a heavyweight in terms of its DAW controller functionality.
It provides deep DAW control including control over your virtual instruments. This upgraded version has standardized assignments for 100 popular VSTi plugins.
Sporting a plethora of mappable potentiometers, faders and buttons, this beast of a controller will never leave you lacking for control. Not to mention the 8 LED illuminated, multi-color velocity sensitive pads with curve options, note learn and 4 savable pad bank presets make this a multi-instrumentalist's dream. You just might be able to ditch your dedicated pad controller!
All this weighing in at only 18 pounds, it's certainly light enough to carry around fairly easily allowing you to take your keyboard controller centerpiece wherever you go - if need be.
The LX88+ has so far impressed me with its comparatively low price while still having all the bells and whistles you'd expect from a full-featured DAW controller - and it maps natively with most major DAWs too. Conspicuously lacking though is right-out-the-box integration for Ableton and Protools - 2 very popular DAWs indeed. It still works with these platforms but you'll have to do a bit of manual mapping to get them to play nice together.
Also, it's surprisingly light for all the features packed into it. What’s more is that the keys feel quite good and the mechanical noise is quite low (both factors that are often lacking in more affordable keyboards).
It's no surprise that the semi-weighted keyboard of the Impact LX88+ is no match for hammer action keys in terms of simulating an acoustic piano, but as more of a synth player, I'm quite happy with this keybed. Of more concern is the default velocity curves taking a bit of getting used to - although it comes with a generous 4 velocity curve options (and 3 fixed velocity options) it can be hard to get consistent velocity with these keys as I was consistently overshooting or undershooting my dynamics no matter which curve I chose.
Although the semi-weighted keys may not be to the liking of traditional pianists, those like myself who are looking primarily for a keyboard that doubles up as a DAW command center will find this an excellent addition to their recording setup. Get it if you're more used to using controllers with synth action keys. There are better options at higher price points if your priority is to have a more piano-like feel and response.
- Keys: 88 velocity-sensitive semi-weighted keys.
- Aftertouch: No
- Zones: Can send on up to 3 zones simultaneously.
- Pads: 8 velocity sensitive pads with 4 colors of LEDs sporting note learn and 4 velocity curves plus 3 fixed.
- Controls: 9 30mm faders, 9 assignable MIDI buttons 8 potentiometers, MOD and Pitch wheels, 6 dedicated transport buttons, 5 preset locations store control settings and Page button (for Nektar DAW Integration only).
- Automap: It maps to the following software: Bitwig, Cubase, Digital Performer, FL Studio, Garage Band, Logic, Reaper, Reason, Sonar and Studio One. A comprehensive list specifying mapping for each DAW can be found here.
- Power: USB bus power or optional AC adapter (not included).
- Connectivity: 5-Pin MIDI out and USB MIDI. It also has a MIDI assignable 1/4” TS jack foot switch input. It connects to the iPad via the optional Camera Connection Kit.
- Dimensions: 50.25" (L) x 11" (W) x 3.5" (H).
- Weight: 18 Lbs.
- Bundled Software: Bitwig 8-Track DAW.
- Compatibility: Mac OS X 10.7 or higher and Windows Vista, 7 & 8 or higher.
|Sound On Sound||Simon Sherbourne||90/100|
|bonedo (German)||Christian Frentzen||90/100|
Here's a demo of the Impact LX88+ in action:
M-Audio Hammer 88
- Slightly heavy
- Not much in terms of extra MIDI controls (knobs, faders or buttons)
- Great feeling hammer-action keys and solid overall build quality
- Great price for a hammer-action equipped keyboard controller
- Comes with a re-assignable volume fader, pitch wheel and modulation wheel
The Hammer 88 from M-Audio represents the best value way to get a hammer-action keybed.
Hammer-action keys are usually seen higher up in price but I have found the M-Audio Hammer 88's keys to be a great equivalent to acoustic pianos.
As expected, the keys are velocity sensitive... but they don't have aftertouch. M-Audio chose to reserve this feature for the pro version of the Hammer 88 along with some other bells and whistles such as a control panel (MIDI faders, buttons, pads and knobs) and a graded hammer action which means a heavier resistance on the low notes that gets progressively lighter as you go higher on the keyboard, much like a real acoustic piano.
But even with the release of the pro version (at around $300 more), the Hammer 88's value proposition remains intact - great feeling hammer-action keys at a great price and not much else to distract you from your playing.
Although taking a more minimalist approach by choosing to focus on providing a high quality key feel - it does come with some creature comforts such as the re-assignable volume fader, pitch and modulation wheels.
Even with aftertouch absent on this keyboard, you can still use 3 pedals with it; sustain, soft, and expression - the classically trained pianists I've worked with prefer this traditional pedal expression suite over aftertouch.
Obviously the stand out feature of this keyboard is the hammer-action keybed. The playing experience is authentic and pleasurable, and its tank-like build quality makes it even more of a bargain for what it is.
A compromise that has been made to accommodate the nice feeling hammer-action keys and sturdy build quality is that it is quite heavy at 38.5 lbs, although not as heavy as the hefty Kawai VPC1.
My senior colleagues here at Gearank predicted in an earlier edition of this guide that the Hammer 88 was on its way to becoming a classic. In the current market, and with M-Audio showing no signs of halting production and giving continuous updates to this keyboard, the Hammer 88 is easily the best value option for an 88 key controller with hammer-action keys.
For those more used to the feel of a real piano, this is a good pick for not that much money. I see this working especially well for teachers and students. If portability and weight is a concern, give this a shot and you may find that the feel is worth the compromise. If you need a ton of buttons, faders and other control niceties, you'll have to look elsewhere.
- Keys: 88 velocity-sensitive hammer action weighted keys.
- Aftertouch: No
- Zones: Can send on up to 4 zones simultaneously.
- Pads: None.
- Controls: Pitch bend, modulation, volume and ± button.
- Automap: No.
- Power: USB bus power or optional 9V DC 800mA adapter (not included).
- Connectivity: 5-Pin MIDI out and USB Type-B MIDI. It also has 3 1/4" inputs for Sustain, Soft and Expression pedals.
- Dimensions: 55.9" (L) x 11.9" (W) x 5" (H).
- Weight: 38.5 Lbs.
- Bundled Software: Ableton Live Lite, Mini Grand virtual piano, DB-33 Tonewheel Organ, Velvet virtual electronic piano, Eight-Eight Ensemble (a 9-foot CD327 Steinway piano emulation), Skoove (interactive piano lessons) and the Hammer 88 Preset Editor.
- Compatibility: OS X 10.8 or later. Windows 7 SP1 or later. It is Class Compliant so it works with the iPad via the Apple Camera Connection Kit..
|Sound On Sound||Nick Magnus||85/100|
Here is a review from a pianist's perspective:
Arturia KeyLab 88 MKII
- Keybed not the closest feeling to a real piano
- Highly generous amount of software instruments bundled in
- Aesthetically pleasing and reassuring build quality
- Several improvements over the previous version including the addition of CV/Gate connectivity, ability to connect five pedals and better DAW integration
- Copious amounts of faders, buttons, pads and knobs on tap while retaining a relatively light weight
The Keylab 88 MKII is the second iteration of the model and it carries over several loved features as well as the bundled Analog Lab software: virtual versions of synths such as the Mini V, Modular V, CS-80 V, ARP 2600 V, Jup-8 V, Prophet V, Prophet VS, SEM V, Matrix-12 V, Solina V, B-3 V, Vox Continental V, Farfisa V and more totaling over 5,000 available sounds.
It still comes bundled with UVI Acoustic Grand Piano which is a Steinway Model D Concert Grand model and Piano V which has 9 acoustic piano models.
What's new is in the layout and hardware with several improvements over the previous version, quite notably the addition of CV/Gate connectivity, provisions to connect a whopping five pedals to the keyboard (three more than the mark I) including sustain, expression, and three assignable pedals, and improved integration with popular DAWs.
Like its predecessor, the Keylab 88 MKII scores high marks with me for its sheer amount of software instruments bundled in and impressive "command center" of 9 faders and 9 rotary knobs. As a finger drummer, the 16 RGB-backlit performance pads almost make me want to ditch my MPC (but not really).
It's still compatible with many of Arturia's hardware synths as a controller. Other than that, the build quality is a step up over the previous version, the looks of this keyboard is just stunning with its wooden accents. Also, the new layout feels more intuitive to use. The included sheet music stand and integrated laptop shelf are also cool low-tech additions and have been implemented to my liking.
Though the Fatar TP/100LR keybed feels quite good, I still find it not the closest feeling to a real piano. I feel some compromises have been made in this department to keep its weight down.
The Keylab 88 MKII is a stellar command center keyboard with beautiful aesthetics and industry respected Fatar hammer-action keys. This is the best way to control Arturia's Analog Lab software and hardware synths. If you want a controller close enough to a piano in terms of feel without completely letting go of how modern MIDI controllers work (hello aftertouch), get it. If you're still left hankering for something more realistic in response, you might be best served by the Kawai VPC1.
- Keys: 88 note Fatar TP/100LR keybed
- Aftertouch: Yes
- Zones: No
- Pads: 16 RGB-backlit performance pads
- Controls: 9 clickable encoders, 6 transport switches, 10 DAW Command buttons, 1 modulation wheel, 1 pitch bend wheel, Octave/Chord/Transpose encoders, 3 Pad mode buttons, 9 multipurpose faders, 7 Transport buttons and 3 control buttons
- Automap: Automatically maps to KeyLab but you have to use the MIDI Learn feature for custom mapping.
- Power: External AC adapter
- Connectivity: 5-Pin MIDI in & out and USB MIDI. Pitch/Gate/Mod outputs, Aux 1/2/3 Pedal Inputs, Expression Pedal Input, Sustain Pedal Input, CV In
- Dimensions: 50.9" (L) x 12.7" (W) x 4.4" (H).
- Weight: 32.4 lbs.
- Bundled Software: Ableton Live Lite, Analog Lab Software
- Compatibility: OS X 10.11 or later, 64-bit/Windows 7 SP1 or later, 64-bit
|Strong Mocha||Thorsten Meyer||100/100|
|Sound On Sound||Simon Sherbourne||93/100|
Here is an overview of the controller:
Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 MK2
- No included pads nudges multi-instrumentalists to get a Maschine
- Beholden to Native Instrument's "walled garden" approach - control for many DAWs is a bit tedious to set up
- Best feeling (and the only hammer-weighted) keyboard controller for the Native Instruments ecosystem
- Comes with 16 premium NI instruments and effects
- Unmatched visual feedback in the form of 2 high resolution screens and light guides above the keys
- Included 5-Pin MIDI in & out feels like a bonus
The Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 MK2 is a specially designed piece of hardware that goes hand in hand with their KOMPLETE software and audio library. Don't let that fool you though, since the Komplete Kontrol S88 MK2 is still versatile enough to work with other software including DAWs in a pinch.
A cool feature are the 2 high-res color screens that allow you to browse sounds, tweak controls, and mix and edit your NKS projects – straight on the hardware.
Another is the light guide above the keys that can display lots of information on the fly such as scale, chord and key zones.
This keyboard also comes with KOMPLETE 13 SELECT, a free taste of KOMPLETE with16 premium instruments and effects, including The Gentleman, Massive, Monark, Hybrid Keys, and Raum.
Also, buying this keyboard gets you a discounted upgrade to KOMPLETE 13 or KOMPLETE 13 ULTIMATE if you choose to get deeper into the Native Instruments fold.
The Fatar hammer-weighted keybed adds great feel and response to the controller, and is tuned to feel weighty with a fast recovery for repeating synth lines.
Hardware integration via MIDI enables you to control synthesizers while having piano-esque feel.
This is the "pianoest-feeling" controller native (no pun intended) to the Native Instruments ecosystem. Having weighted keys adds to the expressiveness and dimension to the many wonderful software instruments in the NI lineup.
One gripe I have is the obvious exclusion of any kind of pads. It's hard to not think this is purposefully done by Native Instruments so you go buy an additional Maschine pad controller from them. Also, although fully-featured as a compositional and instrument suite, the Komplete Kontrol "walled garden" is in full effect here. You can integrate with most popular DAWs (NI lists Pro Tools, Bitwig Studio, Cubase/Nuendo, FL Studio, Ableton, Garageband, Logic Pro and Studio One on their website) but be ready to take a couple of extra steps for even just the basic functionality such as transport controls via the KOMPLETE KONTROL plug-in (VST, AU, AAX).
If your compositional workflow revolves around the Native Instruments ecosystem and you want a controller that feels convincingly close to a piano, there are no alternatives to the Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 MK2 for pure integration, control and feel.
- Keys: 88 Fully hammer-weighted, velocity sensitive Fatar Keys with aftertouch
- Aftertouch: Yes
- Pads: no
- Controls: Pitch bend, Mod Wheel, Touch Strip Controller, 4-directional push encoder, 8 Touch sensitive knobs
- Automap: All of Native Instruments KOMPLETE software, Ableton Live, Cubase, Nuendo, Logic
- Power: External AC adapter
- Connectivity: 5-Pin MIDI in & out and USB MIDI. 2 x 1/4" (sustain/expression, assignable)
- Dimensions: 54.7"" (L) x 13.6" (W) x 4.5" (H).
- Weight: 29.1 lbs..
- Bundled Software: Komplete Select, Komplete Kontrol (downloads)
- Compatibility: MacOS 10.12 or later, 64-bit/Windows 10 Anniversary Update or later, 64-bit
|Sound On Sound||Nick Magnus||84/100|
Here is a demo of the Komplete Kontrol S88 MK2:
Kawai VPC1 Virtual Piano Controller
- Heavy compared to other MIDI controllers
- No DAW control features
- Supreme wooden, simulated ivory-touch keybed that simulates grand piano feel with intricate physical mechanisms
- Comes with a three-pedal unit that includes a damper (with half-pedal support), soft and sostenuto
- Outstanding velocity curve presets approved by top piano software developers with granular customization via the included software
- Renowned, 95-year-perfected Kawai build quality and craftsmanship
The Kawai VPC1 Virtual Piano Controller has been designed specifically for concert pianists who want a grand piano feel and action in a MIDI controller.
Its ultra premium "RM3 Grand II action" keybed features grade-weighted hammers, simulated ivory surfaced wooden grand piano keys, a grand piano let-off/escapement function (that notch feeling you get when playing a grand piano very lightly), 3-sensors (1 sensor more than most premium MIDI controllers) for authentic dynamics and sensitivity and even counterweights to balance the weight of the hammers. That's a lot of mechanical intricacy for a digital instrument - they really pulled no stops with this keybed.
Along with 5 outstanding preset velocity curves approved by some of the top virtual piano software companies and more that can be loaded, the VPC1 allows you to edit individual key velocities and create your own touch curves with its included software for extra granular customization.
All this housed in a sleek aluminum, slab format case with a wide, table-like empty top surface perfect for placing other controllers, laptops, interfaces or any other stuff you might need to aid in your music creation.
Aftertouch? Forget about it. The VPC1 is all about piano realism and to that end comes with a triple pedal unit that includes a damper (with half-pedal support), soft and sostenuto.
The action is simply put, the closest to an acoustic piano of any MIDI controller I've ever played. This is expected from the brand that builds Boston Pianos for Steinway and Sons, the original purveyors of the 88-key standard back in the 1880's.
All this realism comes at a heavy cost - namely it's 65 pound bulk. Although nothing compared to the in-between 500 and 800 pounds of an upright piano (don't get me started with actual grands), you must really be a stickler for feel to lug this baby around. And since Kawai isn't really a software company, it should come to no surprise that this doesn't come with any virtual instruments. Factor in the best of the best piano software instruments in your budget if you're looking to buy this beast, anything less and you should probably get another MIDI controller as this would simply be overkill.
It's kind of cute that this tanky thing is able to be powered by USB bus power.
If you're a concert pianist who wants a MIDI controller with an action very similar to an acoustic grand piano, then this is definitely the best option for you. If budget, space and mobility aren't issues, or if you can't lug around an actual grand piano and absolutely need that kind of action, abandon all hesitation and get it. This is as piano as a MIDI device can get.
- Keys: 88 wooden keys with Ivory Touch key surfaces and RM3 Grand II Graded hammer weighting + counterweights - Triple-sensor key detection - Let-off simulation. You can see an interactive demonstration of the key action here.
- Aftertouch: No
- Zones: No.
- Pads: No.
- Controls: 3 grand piano pedals - Damper, Sostenuto and Soft.
- Automap: No.
- Power: USB bus powered (1.0 W) or .AC adapter powered (3.0 W) - both USB cable and power adapter are included.
- Connectivity: 5 pin MIDI in & 5 pin MIDI out + USB MIDI
- Dimensions: 54 ⅓" (W) x 16 ¾" (D) x 7 ⅓" (H).
- Weight: 65 lbs.
- Bundled Software: VPC Editor - this lets you edit touch curves, edit individual key velocities, and change MIDI routing with the settings stored in one of the VPC1s 5 internal memory slots.
- Compatibility: VPC Editor runs on Windows XP/Vista/7/8/10 and Mac OS X 10.8+.
The following video review provides an excellent overview of the Kawai VPC1:
Things To Consider When Buying An 88 Key MIDI Controller
Key Size, Weight & Action. Nearly all 88-key controllers currently available have full sized keys. Only some have hammer-action keys and weights that feel like an acoustic piano. If you're a pianist who's not used to synth-action or semi-weighted keys then you should select one with full weighted hammer-action keys.
Number of Zones. One of the features of full sized keyboards is that you can split them into multiple zones so that different zones send on different MIDI channels. For example you can do your best Ray Manzarek impersonation by splitting the keyboard so that your left hand is playing a bass synth while your right hand is playing an organ synth.
Transport Controls. If you will be controlling DAWs frequently then you'll speed up your work-flow by getting one with transport controls because these let you stop, play, record, pause etc. on your DAW without having to use a mouse or trackball.
Pads, Mod Wheels, Aftertouch, Motorized Controls. These features are important for computer based musicians but not necessary for pianists who primarily want to control virtual pianos.
Auto-Mapping. This is another feature very important to computer based musicians. If you're mainly going to be controlling DAWs, Plugins and other software then pay close attention to the specifications to see if the keyboard you want has auto-mapping for the software you use. If it doesn't have this feature then you'll have to manually set your assignable controllers such as knobs and pads.
Connectivity. Using MIDI over USB is only applicable when using your controller in conjunction with a computer, if you are going to be controlling other hardware directly without a computer then you must ensure your keyboard has a 5-pin MIDI Out port.
Power Supply. Although many can be powered directly via USB you will need an external power adapter if you're going to be controlling hardware sound modules or synths without a computer - you'll also need one if you intend to use your keyboard with an iPad.
Best 88 Key MIDI Controller Selection Methodology
The first edition was published in 2016 and the current edition was published on September 2, 2022.
We looked at all the 88-key MIDI controller keyboards widely available from US retailers and put 13 of them on the short list for producing ratings - you can see them in our Music Gear Database. We then collected reviews and feedback from retailers, YouTube, major publications and forums, and data that was used by the Gearank Algorithm to produce the Gearank Rating scores out of 100 for each one - over 3,300 sources were processed, an increase of 27% over the previous edition. Finally, we selected the highest rated options to recommend above. For more information about our methods see How Gearank Works.
About the Author and Contributors
Here are the key people and sources involved in this guide's production - click on linked names for information about their music industry backgrounds.
Lead Author & Researcher
I'm a drummer and former lead guitarist of the band Callalily, a platinum selling multi-awarded band from the Philippines. I also studied music for 6 years majoring in percussion and jazz studies with a minor in classical piano.
I studied music for 6 years majoring in percussion and jazz studies with a minor in classical piano. Although unable to complete due to an early start in my professional music career, my basic knowledge in piano has helped me arrange, produce and collaborate with some very accomplished local pianists in the contexts of musical theatre and contemporary pop music. 88-key MIDI controllers are the weapons of choice of the film composers and arrangers I have worked with and every professional studio should have one.
The videos have been embedded in accordance with YouTube's Terms of Service.
The individual product images were sourced from their respective manufacturers' websites, promotional materials or supporting documentation.