Originally published on April.6, 2016 and updated on August 2, 2017
This gear guide is sponsored by Sweetwater and you can click through to their website to read customer reviews, check prices, or make a purchase, however all of the recommendations below have been made by the Gearank team.
MIDI Keyboard Guides
We have a range:of helpful keyboard guides for you:
This is the 2017 update to our guide on 88-key controllers, and a few things have changed since we originally published it. The Nektar Impact LX88 has been superseded by the improved LX88+ but retains the original price, the M-Audio Keystation 88 MkII has had a reduction in ratings and has dropped off our recommended list (although we have the new M-Audio Hammer 88 presented below), and the Akai Professional MPK88 is no longer widely available.
So whether you're a pianist looking for something in the MIDI controller arena, or you're looking for a DAW controller and want a full sized bed, this updated guide has you covered.
- The Best 88 Key MIDI Controllers
- What To Consider When Buying An 88 Key MIDI Controller
The Best 88 Key MIDI Controller Keyboards
Nektar Impact LX88+
This is the successor to the popular LX88 which we previously recommended. It's light in terms of its weight, but full-featured in terms of its DAW controller functionality.
It provides deep DAW control including your virtual instruments. This upgraded version has standardized assignments for 100 popular VSTi' plugins.
And weighing in at only 18 pounds, it's certainly light enough to carry around fairly easily.
- Keys: 88 velocity-sensitive semi-weighted keys.
- 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.
Here's a demo of the Impact LX88+ in action:
As you can probably imagine, the LX88+ has received a lot of praise for its comparatively low price point while still having all the bells and whistles you'd expect from a full-featured DAW controller. In his review for Music Radar, Jon Musgrave said, "Despite the number of features, the LX88+ is reasonably compact ... light enough to be portable. What’s more the keys feel good and the mechanical noise is quite low (both factors that are often lacking in more affordable keyboards). ".
Wishing that it had better integration with Ableton Live came up a few times in verified customer reviews, but they were from people who had rated it 4 stars or higher - one person said it was possible to download the necessary integration. There were a couple customers at different retailers who cited shipping issues but nothing really major or that wasn't quickly rectified.
Although the semi-weighted keys may not be to the liking of traditional pianists, those who are looking primarily for a DAW controller will find this upgraded version an excellent addition to their recording setup.
Arturia KeyLab 88
During the 15 months since this guide was first published, the verified customer reviews for the KeyLab 88 have grown more positive, and this uptick in market sentiment has led to an improved Gearank score, and although it was left out back then, it's an easy recommendation to make now.
Arturia are famed for their hardware synths and the KeyLab 88 comes bundled with their Analog Lab software which includes 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 - in all there are over 5000 sounds. It also 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.
- Keys: 88 hammer-action Fatar keybed with velocity and aftertouch..
- Zones: No.
- Pads: 16 backlit pads with velocity and pressure sensitivity.
- Controls:2 clickable encoders, 6 transport switches, 1 modulation wheel, 1 pitch bend wheel, two banks of 10 encoders, two banks of 9 sliders, 1 volume encoder, 10 assignable switches..
- Automap: It automatically maps to KeyLab but you have to use the MIDI Learn feature for custom mapping.
- Power: Not specified.
- Connectivity: 5-Pin MIDI in & out and USB MIDI. It also has 1/4" jacks for sustain, expression, and aux footswitch pedals, and a 1/8" jack for a breath controller..
- Dimensions: 50.9" (L) x 13.7" (W) x 4.3" (H).
- Weight: 32.4 lbs.
- Bundled Software: Ableton Live Lite, Analog Lab, UVI Acoustic Grand Piano and Piano V.
- Compatibility: Windows 7 SP1 or later or Mac Os X 10.8 or later.
Here's a good review by Matt Vanacoro from Ask.Audio:
It has been praised by many experts and customers for its sturdy build and visual design, but the AutoLab software was the feature that gained the most positive feedback from users. It is also well regarded as a hardware synth controller - particularly with Aturia synths. In his review for Keyboard Magazine, Mitchell Sigman summed it up by describing it as, "A premium controller at a great price, with a ton of virtual instruments thrown in."
The Fatar keyboard got mixed reviews from acoustic pianists (although there were few complaints from synth players) - some thought it felt ok to them whilst others lamented that it didn't respond the same as a piano - but given that pianos don't have aftertouch, that's not entirely surprising
If you want to control Arturia synths, be they hardware or virtual, then this is definitely the way to go. Pianists will find it playable as is the case with many Fatar designed beds, but if you need a completely realistic piano action then you'll have to look at something like the Kawai VPC1 below.
Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88
As you might expect, Native Instruments have designed this to be the best controller for their range of Komplete software, however it can be used with other software, plugins and DAWs as well and many virtual instruments via their NKS protocol - take a look at the video below for more information.
This is the only keyboard in Native Instruments' S series that has fully weighted hammer action keys.
- Keys: 88 fully-weighted hammer action keys with aftertouch.
- Zones: Yes with configurable splits.
- Pads: No.
- Controls: 8 knobs and 2 1/4" TS jacks for expression and sustain pedals - you can use the expression jack for half-damper sustain pedals. 2 touch strips which you can use for modulation, pitchbend and more. It also has standard transport controls such as Play, Stop, Pause etc.
- Automap: All of Native Instruments KOMPLETE software, Ableton Live, Cubase, Nuendo, Logic.
- Power: Via the included power adapter.
- Connectivity: 5-pin MIDI In + 5-pin MIDI Out + USB.
- Dimensions: 54.69" (W) x 13.74" (D) x 4.96" (H).
- Weight: 34.75 lbs.
- Bundled Software: KOMPLETE KONTROL, KOMPLETE 10 and KOMPLETE 10 ULTIMATE software packages. Once your keyboard is registered online you also get emailed a $25 voucher to use on Native Instruments software.
- Compatibility: Mac OS X: OS X 10.9 or later and plugins - Stand-alone, VST 64-Bit, AU 64-Bit, AAX 64-Bit. Windows: 7 or later and plugins - Stand-alone, VST 32 & 64-Bit, AAX 32 & 64-Bit.
This video from Native Instruments explains all the major features and it's comparability with major software platforms other than their own:
Many customers praise the action of the keys including many who are pianists - some even said it feels like a piano. Several also commented on how good the documentation and setup process is. A few expert reviewers and customers commented on how useful the Light Guides are, in fact Francis Prève wrote in Keyboard Magazine that they're "one of Kontrol’s coolest and most meaningful innovations". The video contains has a quick demonstration of this feature.
One expert reviewer thought that a sustain pedal should have been included in the package. Daniel Griffiths from Future Music complained about the high cost in his Music Radar review, a sentiment that was echoed by some customers. There were some complaints about V 1.0 of the Komplete Kontrol Software, however I haven't seen the same complaints about the current version.
If you want a Native Instruments S series controller AND you want piano style action then this is the only option for you. If you want a general purpose MIDI controller to work with the DAWs listed above, then this is the highest rated 88-key option on the market for that purpose.
Kawai VPC1 Virtual Piano Controller
The Kawai VPC1 Virtual Piano Controller has been designed specifically for pianists who want a piano feel and action in a MIDI controller.
It provides only the controls found on a piano with 3 grand piano style pedals and a keybed which Kawai says "delivers the most realistic playing experience ever found in a MIDI controller".
- 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.
- 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:
As you can probably imagine, with such an expensive MIDI keyboard with such a high Gearank score, the vast majority of reviews from musicians and experts are all very positive. One comment that is often repeated is that the action is the closest to an acoustic piano of any MIDI controller they've played. Many reviewers compared it favorably to high-end digital pianos such as the Roland V-Piano - these reviewers included classically trained pianists. Several reviewers were also impressed with the quietness of the key action - there is a demonstration of this in the video above.
Although there were some negative comments there weren't any that were consistently reported. One person said that it was too big for gigging but no one else I could find had an issue with that. One person said the gaps between the keys were uneven on their unit but again no one else reported that problem. Two people said they didn't like the curve on the top surface because things might slide off, but as you can see from the video above not everyone has this problem.
If you're a pianist who wants a MIDI controller with an action very similar to an acoustic piano then this is definitely the best option for you.
This controller was released in June 2017 and at the time of publication was relatively untested, however it will be of interest for anyone looking for a cheap controller with weighted hammer action keys:
M-Audio Hammer 88
Let me start by saying that we don't usually recommend items without having a strong basis for doing so. We've made an exception in this case because this is the lowest priced 88-key controller that features weighted hammer action keys.
There were only a handful of people who had used and reviewed the Hammer 88 at the time of publication, and not all of its features had been independently reviewed, however the early reports are very positive about the feel of the keys, so although M-Audio's controllers haven't always been considered 'best in class', they may be onto a winner with their Hammer 88.
As expected, the keys are velocity sensitive but they don't have aftertouch. However you can use 3 pedals with it; sustain, soft, and expression - some players prefer pedal expression over aftertouch. It also has reassignable pitch and modulation wheels.
Early reports said the software editor wasn't available at first, however Hermann Bellanton from M-Audio has emailed me to say, "The editor is now available. Users should be able to download it from their accounts upon successful registration."
Just to be clear, the M-Audio Hammer 88 hasn't earned the Gearank stamp of approval just yet, so until we have more information about its performance under real-world conditions, take a look if you're interested and judge for yourself.
Here's the promotional video provided by M-Audio:
What 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 control different MIDI patches. 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 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
I looked at all the 88-key controllers widely available from US retailers and put 12 of them on the short list for detailed examination - you can see most of them in the Music Gear Database. I then collected reviews and feedback to look at from retailers, YouTube, major publications and forums - those data were also processed with the Gearank algorithm to produce the Gearank scores out of 100 for each one - over 1,200 sources were processed. Finally I selected the 5 highest rated options to recommend above. I included the Additional Option based purely on my own judgement after reading the few reviews that were available. For more information about this process see How Gearank Works.