8 Best Budget MIDI Controllers in 2020

We're back to coax out some inexpensive DAW remotes to crown as the 8 best budget MIDI controllers in 2020.

There's an extensive range of options when it comes to MIDI controls, as they come in a variety of forms with different tactile manual functionality. It can be challenging to know what to look for, so we have provided a detailed buyer's guide below to go with our MIDI controller reviews.

Adding to the complex capabilities on offer, a smaller budget limitation can make the task of finding your ideal controller all the more daunting. Let's have a look at some budget-friendly contenders and see what they bring to the table.

1.  Korg nanoKONTROL2 Slim-Line USB Control Surface

Our starter option is one of the most streamlined pieces of kit on the market. The Kontrol 2 Slim-line USB Control Surface from Korg has been downsized to offer everything you need in a compact format.

With its smaller size, the Kontrol 2 is now a little more cluttered. But once you have the functionality down, you'll find that it's not only easy-to-use, but it's also a smart space-saving remote solution.

The Kontrol 2 presents eight channels with a set of dedicated transport controls, and Korg has tailored it to be compatible with the majority of DAWs.

Each channel has a knob, a fader, and three switches to control your panning. Other buttons include the volume, mute, and solo.

It's bus-powered and uses an efficient one dual-function connection point for the power and MIDI signal sending. You can map it however you like for use with a software synthesizer, etc.

Pros:
+ 8 channels.
+ Good DAW remote.
+ Affordable.

Why We Liked It - The Kontrol 2 is not as hands-on as some MIDI controllers. There is no real instrumental functionality. You can control all aspects of your DAW remotely and assign your own limits. It has a portable, compact foot-print.

2.  Novation Launchkey 49 Mk2 USB Keyboard Controller for Ableton Live

 

The Novation Launchkey Mk2 is a smaller model. Although it has been developed for use with Ableton Live, perfectly mapping with instant recognition of its parameters, it's widely compatible with all major DAWs.

It presents a sensible solution for those who need a MIDI piano for their home studio set-up but are shopping on a lower budget.

The Launchkey Mk2 is a traditional MIDI controller with a keyboard and piano at its heart. It serves up 49 velocity-sensitive keys, which give users artistic-license to perform with dynamics.

In addition to the keys, there are 16 velocity-sensitive RGB pads to handle your drum patterns, eight knobs to fine-tune a range of parameters, eight channel sliders, and dedicated navigation controls.

The keys also have a pitch-bend and modulation wheel to use during recordings.

This Launchkey is well-manufactured, bus-powered, and has connections to hook up an extra sustain pedal if you fancy.

Pros:
+ Keys, pads, knobs, sliders, and wheels.
+ Well-made.
+ Great value for money.

Why We Liked It - The Launchkey Mk2 gives users freedom, and can handle practically any application if the price is on the higher side. If you're shopping on a budget, Novation make a 25 key version that still provides the pads, navigation, and wheels. The only thing missing is the separate sliders, as they've been downsized to one - they need channel selecting to use.

3.  Arturia KeyStep Controller Sequencer

Next up, we have the Arturia KeyStep Controller Sequencer, a polyphonic, piano-key style, step-controller, which is great for handling your MIDI sequencing needs.

It features 32 streamlined keys that allow for polyphonic step sequencing. The keys can be transposed up and down the octave.

This sequencer has two separate modes of play; one is for chords, and the other is a built-in arpeggio function. There are eight different settings to choose from, including incremental, up, down, and random.

It offers pitch-bend and modulation control in the form of two responsive touchpad ribbons. On top of that, you get your all-important navigation and transport buttons to control your DAW remotely.

It has a CV/Gate output (mod, gate, pitch) for an analog hook-up, MIDI in and out, as well as synchronized input and output options. However, it requires a power adapter, which you can buy separately.

Pros:
+ Polyphonic step-sequencer.
+ 32 keys.
+ Built-in arpeggiator.
+ Versatile I/O.

Why We Liked It - The Arturia KeyStep Controller is a well-manufactured, advanced step-sequencer. It has a lot of functions, and the arpeggio settings are fun and have a real scope.

4.  Arturia MiniLab MkII 25 Slim-Key Controller

The MiniLab MkII Slim-Key is another budget MIDI controller from Arturia well worth a look at. Being compact, this is another highly portable option for those on the go with pop-up production requirements.

It features 25 highly responsive mini keys that record playing styles accurately. They are subject to two capacitive touch sensors, which can modulate notes, as well as pitch-bend.

The 16 rotary encoders are fully assignable. You can use two of them as click switches. There are 16 pressure pads which are velocity-sensitive and separated into two banks of 8 for sequencing use. They are RGB backlit and provide visual cues during use.

The sequencer comes with several presets, and with 21 fully mapped Keyboard instruments. It has a complimentary copy of Ableton Live Lite and Analog Lab Lite, both of which include 500 synthesized sounds. There is also a free grand piano VST (UVI Grand Piano).

Pros:
+ Keys, pads, rotary dials, capacitive touchpads.
+ Fully assignable.
+ Free software.

Why We Liked It - The Arturia KeyStep Controller Sequencer may be compact, but it presents a lot to manipulate. It also sells with a bundle of software, which adds good value to the product for the outlay.

5.  Korg Midi Controller (NANOKEY-ST)

Now for another alternative compact controller for a portable solution - this one runs on 2 AAA batteries.

The Korg Midi Controller is incredibly lightweight and has an easy to navigate layout. You can use it wired (USB) or run it without via its Bluetooth connectivity, making it one of our iPad/iOS compatible options.

The layout consists of a contemporary 25-key keyboard that allows for easy step-by-step recording. The keys illuminate during use with their back-lighting to make the process fool-proof. They're programmed with a unique Scale Guide function that highlights recommended scale notes, making it ideal for beginners, or for those with little music theory knowledge.

The keys are clunkier than some of the more traditional models we've talked about. They're hardier for durability purposes. Some users dislike the audible sound they give off, but we don't think they detract from the sought-after capabilities of the product.

At the center is a large touch-pad for one finger synthesizer control. The Korg Midi Controller also has soft velocity-sensitive pads, and eight fully assignable knobs, versatile enough for any DAW plug-in application or even DJ performance use.

Pros:
+ Highly portable.
+ Mixed mediums.
+ iOS compatible.

Why We Liked It - The Korg Midi Controller is well-constructed, we don't have any issues with the hardened buttons. As it's a modern model, it takes a little getting used to, but is perfectly fit for function. It comes with a mixed bag of mediums within its array of controllers, and there's even a code to unlock a couple of Korg Gadget LE app extras, which is pretty sweet.

6.  Novation Launch Control XL MIDI USB Ableton Live Controller

Another innovative option from Novation is the Launch Control XL which seamlessly integrates with Ableton Live. Once again it's full-assignable, rendering it widely compatible.

This is a bus-powered model, which installs instantly without a driver. It is also iOS compatible.

The color-coded layout is easy to use, featuring 16 multi-colored buttons, along with key mixer controls.

There are 24 rotary pots with 300-degree motion, allowing for fine tweaking. Each pot has a multi-color indicator LED, and you can tailor the color mapping. Everything can be customized.

There are eight added fader-style controls for navigation and eight extra assignable pads in addition to the 16 primary sets.

While it can function as a stand-alone product, the Korg Midi Controller is designed with link-up use in mind. Once paired to Novation's Launchpad S, it gives absolute freedom of control, allowing you to trigger clips, use entire drum-racks, and combine extra units for a mega-expansion.

Pros:
+ Good pot adjustability.
+ Range of mediums.
+ iOS compatible.

Why We Liked It - The Korg Midi Controller is another versatile piece of kit that gives users many ways to control their audio production.

7.  Akai Professional MPK Mini Play

Next we have a product from Akai, which makes for a jam-packed compact solution. The Mini Play's traditional design features 25 velocity-sensitive keyboard synth-action keys.

With a built-in set of speaks, it works as a standalone device, allowing you to toy with an idea when the mood strikes. It has 128 sampled sounds and ten on-board drum-kits to choose from. It has a headphone output and works with batteries.

In addition to its keyboard core, it has two banks of MPC-style pads, providing 16 total triggers. They have note repeat and full-level functionality.

There are also two banks of dials as well, which offer eight total effects adjustments that can be mapped to your DAW. In the stand-alone mode, they are predesignated to act as chorus, reverb, filter, EQ, and envelope controls.

The Mini Play is now retailing with a range of software goodies such as Splice, Loopcloud, and Serato Studio.

Pros:
+ Good mixture of controls.
+ Works without hookup.
+ Extensive built-in library of sample sounds

Why We Liked It - We like that The Mini Play K has stand-alone capabilities. It's good for songwriters who like to jam to get their creative juices flowing.

8. Nektar, 49-Key (Impact GX49)

Finally, here's an option from Nektar, developed for use with their software, but not exclusively.

It's a well-crafted 49 key generic MIDI controller, making it perfect for beginners who are after authenticity.

The keys have a fuller form, and the key-bed is calibrated in a sophisticated way to stay true to the characteristics of the players' style.

This allows users to select between 4 different velocity settings; three, which are preset, and one which you can tailor. The keys can be transposed, and there are two wheels for modulation and pitch-bending.

The Nektar has eight transport and navigation buttons, as well as a large dial that allows it to remote control your DAW via the Nektar integration software. There's a port for a foot-operated switch or pedal. Furthermore, this is another bus-powered option. It has wide compatibility and works with Windows, OSX, Linux, and iOS devices.

Pros:
+ 49 well-calibrated, velocity-sensitive keys.
+ Transport and navigation controls.
+ Widely compatible.

Why We Liked It - It's a well-engineered MIDI controller that retails accessibly, and offers fully assignable freedom in a traditional, no-fuss format.

Budget MIDI Controller Buyers Guide

This week's guide is a little more concise, but we aim to answer a few of your most pressing FAQs to help you sniff-out what to set your sights on.

What to Look For in a Budget MIDI Controller?

What you should look for in a MIDI controller is dependent on your needs and work-style. Sliders work well, as they translate easily for raising and lowering the amount of any factor, but some people prefer a rotary option instead.

Those who are familiar with pianos and keyboards will probably prefer a traditional MIDI controller over a modern trigger pad option, although both are easy once you get the hang of them.

There are a few questions you should ask yourself when you're shopping for a MIDI controller.

Is This Unit USB Bus-Powered?

Bus-powered MIDI controllers are an easy addition for a small home studio set-up. If you work with a DAW on a PC or Mac, then Bus-powered controllers make the most sense. However, bus-power does have its limitations, and you will want to ensure you have a higher-output USB connection.

Will This Controller Work With my Phone?

If you write on the go or use a lot of apps, then you will probably need an iOS-compatible MIDI controller.

We've done our best to highlight those that are capable of today's shortlist.

App-based VST and Effects racks are starting to compete with their PC and Mac-based counterparts in recent years, so iOS compatibility may be something to consider.

Is a Power Unit Required?

This ties into the USB question we've already covered, but it bears repeating as you'd be surprised by how many models sell their power cables separately. We've made sure to give you a heads-up with today's top picks.

Is the Keyboard Velocity Sensitive?

We would argue that both keyboard and pad velocity response is probably one of the most important specs to look for. Producing digital music has the risk of sounding too synthetic.

This is because when a musician plays, they play with expression. These dynamics are difficult to reproduce without the response a velocity-sensitive trigger can give.

Software Accessories

Lastly, most MIDI remote controls will sell with a few bonus software goodies, but our advice is to research what you're getting, as some software will add significant value to the product, whereas another might be filler, which you won't end up using.

Are Budget MIDI Controllers Reliable?

As with most consumer electronics, you get what you pay for, but there are a large number of MIDI controllers on the market, accessible price-levels that are reliable.

You shouldn't expect too much below the hundred-dollar mark. Some might offer velocity-sensitive triggers, but the accuracy of the sensitivity won't be on par with a pricier set.

If your budget can stretch to the $150-$200, then there are some impressive models and great deals to be had in terms of software accessories.

There are two different routes for a budget MIDI controller. Some have sacrificed construction to cut costs, which is not good. Given that you'll be using your controller in a physical way to control your DAW, you'll want some longevity.

The buttons are going to be the most likely parts to break, as with any electronic device. This is because they receive the most wear and tear. You need to look for a durable model made with quality materials.

The other way to cut costs is to reduce the circuitry and functions. While there are many complex MIDI remote options on the market, the map-assignable nature of MIDI devices, and your DAWs, means that you can function on far fewer controls than you might think.

Conclusion

What to go for boils down to a balance of personal preference and, of course, the task at hand. Beat-makers and musicians will have a whole different set of parameters prioritized when it comes to the controls, with one probably favoring pads, and the other preferring traditional keys.

The tactile qualities that different mediums offer give a physical reality to the DAW navigation, but it's important to consider your needs if your funds are low.

A solidly constructed mini MIDI keyboard, with some navigation buttons and an assignable, will give you pretty good access to the bare necessities. You should be sensible and choose the bare-bones over controllers with all the bells and whistles, as these are often poorly constructed.

Whatever your controller requirements, we hope that today's reviews and guide section will have given you some insight and a nudge in the right direction.

Expert Tip

If you plan on making music from scratch and want a sensible, low-cost solution, we highly recommend the Akai MPK miniplay model. It fits the bill as a great standalone with a lot of scopes.

Did you Know

The first MIDI controllers were invented in the early 1980's. They began as synthesizers and moved rapidly into step-sequencing. The first Universal protocol MIDI device was conceived in 1983.

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