First published on April.6, 2016 and last updated on October 25, 2018.
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.
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This is the 2018 update to our guide on 88-key controllers with a couple of significant changes since last year. Now that Doepfer is being sold directly from major retailers in the US, they have leapt into our recommended list with two entries! Our own 'leap of faith' in presenting what was then a brand new M-Audio Hammer 88 has been well and truly justified as after a year on the market it has solidly earned its way into our list of highest rated 88 key controllers.
And special props to the Kawai VPC1 which has now secured the top spot in our recommended list for the third year in a row, despite it being up against the more expensive Doepfer LMK4+ this year.
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 keybed, this October 2018 guide has what you need.
- 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.
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). ".
During 2018 there have been a few people who reported dissatisfaction with the semi-weighted keyboard not feeling as realistic as hammer action keys, but that criticism seems misplaced given that it's not marketed as having piano-like keys and synth players were typically quite happy with the keybed. Of more concern is a small number of reviewers who were unhappy with the velocity curves either not suiting their playing style or saying there were inconsistencies between the velocity sensitivity of different keys - this is something we see regularly on reviews of popular keyboards that are at the lower end of the price range.
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.
Here's a demo of the Impact LX88+ in action:
M-Audio Hammer 88
Last year we included the M-Audio Hammer 88 as a special option when it first came out even though we only had a handful of mostly incomplete reviews to analyze - the full software hadn't even been released at that time.
I'm very happy to see that our prediction that it might become a successful MIDI controller for M-Audio has been justified now that we have over 12 times more reviews to look at.
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.
Just to be clear, we're now saying that the M-Audio Hammer 88 has earned the Gearank stamp of approval!
- Keys: 88 velocity-sensitive hammer action weighted keys.
- 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..
Obviously the stand out feature is the hammer action keybed and this is the most popular feature discussed positively in forums and user reviews. In his review for Sound on Sound, Nick Magnus said, "I found the Hammer 88 playing experience enjoyable, with a pleasing action that belies its low price." When speaking to the build quality Jon Regenmay wrote in Electronic Musician, "It could be the centerpiece of a studio or live rig; it’s that well-constructed."
Some players, particularly those used to synth-action keys, found the transition to fully weighted keys to be a bit difficult often describing the keys as 'too heavy'. A small number of people also thought the keyboard was too heavy overall at 38.5 lbs.
This is easily the best value option for an 88 key controller with hammer action keys.
Here is a review from a pianist's perspective:
Studiologic SL88 Studio
Having 'Studio' in the name is a bit of a misnomer because this is widely used as a gigging keyboard and doesn't come with transport controls or all the pads and buttons usually associated with DAW controllers.
Unlike the heavier (and more expensive) SL88 Grand, Studiologic have designed the SL88 Studio to be lighter and more portable for easier use gigging as well as in the studio and this has helped it to win over many a gigging keyboardist looking for hammer action keys.
This has been achieved without sacrificing ruggedness as it has a metal case and special impact resistant synthetic end-caps to help protect it when transporting and setting up on stage.
- Keys: TP/100LR Fatar keybed with 88 weighted hammer action keys with velocity and aftertouch. Programmable sensitivity: Soft, Medium, Hard, Fixed. 6 Editable user velocity curves with SL Editor.
- Zones: Can send on up to 4 zones simultaneously.
- Pads: None.
- Controls:3 Programmable joysticks, rotating encoder with navigation controls and 3 function buttons. 2 x 1/4" switch + 1 x 1/4" continuous + 1 x 1/4" universal.
- Automap: No.
- Power: 9V DC power adapter which works with 100-240V mains power.
- Connectivity: 2 x 5-Pin MIDI out and USB MIDI (Type-A) + 1 x 5-Pin MIDI In.
- Dimensions: 41" (L) x 12.2" (D) x 4.9" (H).
- Weight: 25.3 Lbs.
- Bundled Software: Only the Mac and Windows compatible SL Editor as a free download.
- Compatibility: The exact OS versions aren't specified for Mac and Windows.
Most of the keyboardists who reviewed it were talking about using it for live performance and the most often cited positive was the build quality with the word 'rugged' coming up frequently and the Fatar keybed featured in that praise many times. In his review for ANR a couple of years ago, Andy Dollerson said, "The Studiologic SL88 studio controller is a fantastic weighted 88 note keyboard for the money. It’s a great attempt at providing the feel of a hammer weighted keyboard for about half the overall weight of other controllers."
A few players mentioned that the joysticks took some getting used to because the SL88 Studio uses these instead of the more traditional mod and pitch wheels.
If you don't need to control DAWs or if you need a solid gigging MIDI keyboard without spending too much money, then get yourself a Studiologic SL88 Studio.
Hear it in action:
Arturia KeyLab 88
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.
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.
Here's a good review by Matt Vanacoro from Ask.Audio:
Don't be too surprised if you haven't heard much about Doepfer before because they only recently started to be sold by major American retailers, but they are a highly respected brand from Germany.
The LMK2+ is Doepfer's 'low cost' option designed to be reasonably simple yet does what it does very well - it provides a robust portable instrument that has a surprisingly realistic feel according to many pianists who have played it.
It has 8 selectable velocity curves and it lets you set the velocity curves for the black and white keys separately.
- Keys: 88 graded hammer-action Fatar T88P/40GH keybed with velocity and monophonic channel aftertouch.
- Zones: 4 overlapping assignable zones - Aftertouch, Wheels, external Footswitches and Pedal can be turned on/off for each zone
- Pads: No.
- Controls: Pitchbend wheel, Assignable wheel.
- Automap: No.
- Power: 3-pin XLR AC power adapter included and USB bus power the USB host has to be able to supply 200mA).
- Connectivity: 5-Pin MIDI out and USB 2.0 MIDI (both send the same data). It also has a 1/4" jack for volume/sweep and a 1/4" jack for sustain/sostenuto..
- Dimensions: 58.27" (L) x 11.02" (W) x 4.72" (H).
- Weight: 52.9 lbs. (includes the flight case)
- Bundled Software: No.
- Compatibility: N/A.
By far the most praised feature is the keybed with many pianists talking about being very impressed with the action and sensitivity. The fact that you can set the velocity curves separately for the black and white keys was also appreciated. The quality of the flight case also generated many positive comments.
A small number of users complained about the lack of a proper screen for editing which is a fair complaint given that better screens have been available for more than a couple of decades.
If you want a solid keyboard with great playing feel but without all the bells and whistles then this might be for you.
This video demonstrates the old version which didn't have USB
Kawai VPC1 Virtual Piano Controller
This is the highest rated 88 key MIDI controller, now for the third year in a row!
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+.
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.
The following video review provides an excellent overview of the Kawai VPC1:
For Doepfer to have two entries in our recommended list speaks volumes for just how well regarded this brand is in their home country of Germany, in fact this controller is used by film composer Hans Zimmer.
The LMK4+ is a significant step up from the lower cost LMK2+ with adjustable aftertouch, 32 velocity curves, 8 zones with proportionally controllable volume and a much bigger, and I would say more practical, control panel.
To help you get the most out of the greater number of features, there is also a 3rd party freeware editor software by Michael Reukauff for Windows, however there doesn't seem to be English documentation for it.
- Keys: 88 graded hammer-action Fatar T88P/40GH keybed with velocity sensitivity and adjustable aftertouch.
- Zones: 8 overlapping assignable zones - Aftertouch (with assignable curves per zone), Wheels, external Footswitches and Pedal can be turned on/off for each zone
- Pads: No.
- Controls: Pitchbend wheel, Assignable whee, Rotary Knob, 2 Sliders, Pedals and Footswitches.
- Automap: No.
- Power: 3-pin XLR AC power adapter included and USB bus power (the USB host has to be able to supply 200mA).
- Connectivity: 2 x 5-Pin MIDI Out, 1 x 5-Pin MIDI In and USB 2.0 MIDI (USB sends the same data as MIDI 1). It also has a 1/4" jack for volume/sweep and a 1/4" jack for sustain/sostenuto..
- Dimensions: 61.81" (L) x 11.02" (W) x 4.72" (H).
- Weight: 52.9 lbs. (includes the flight case)
- Bundled Software: Downloadable 3rd party Editor.
- Compatibility: Windows for the freeware Editor.
Having the same keybed as the LMK2+ it also gets a lot of praise from pianists with one person saying it's 3 resistance levels for each third being superior to that of the more expensive Nord Piano 88. A couple of people simply said this is the best 88 key controller they've played.
There were no consistently reported negatives in user reviews.
If you want one of the best hammer action controllers that is also road tough, then this is for you.
This video demonstrates the previous version which didn't have USB:
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 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 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 13 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 highest rated options to recommend above. For more information about this process see How Gearank Works.