For musicians and producers who are working on the road, or those just starting to build or to pare down a studio workspace, portable, compact music keyboards and USB controllers are an increasingly popular option. And there are lots of options to be had: manufacturers like Korg and Arturia have come out with multiple compact keyboard options, many of which are available for less than $100.
But first, a few caveats:
- You don’t need to buy new: there are some good options on Reverb and eBay that might work better with your existing hardware or software options.
- There’s definitely a trade-off between price, compactness and robustness.
- Personal preferences play a big role too, from the style of keys to how many there are (which in turn changes how big, or how “compact,” a compact keyboard really is).
- And speaking of pads: there’s another whole article to be written about controllers like the Korg nanoPAD. Here we’re concerning ourselves primarily with keyboards, with piano-style keys – music keyboards and controllers that make the grade and won’t cost you much.
This is a really special design but one admittedly not for everyone. The keys on the Korg nanoKEY2 are the focus here, and rather than bunch them together, Korg has spread them out: there are 25 wide pad-like keys arranged in two rows along with six pre-programmed control buttons for pitch bending, sustain, octave shift and modulation. Altogether, it’s about the length of two pens placed end-to-end. Some of the special edition ones come in unique colors that might make for decent, inexpensive gifts for the music producer in your life. $49.99
Korg’s microKEY has a more traditional piano-style keybed than the nanoKEY. The microKEY actually has three variations: 25 key, 37 key and 61 key, which kind of rubbishes the whole concept here of a “compact” keyboard. There are four buttons as well as a joystick on the smallest 25 key model or pitch bend and modulation wheels on the mid-sized and smaller models. $76.00
Akai marketed their LPK25 compact keyboard as a “laptop USB midi controller,” which is a very, very creative way to pack more keywords into a phrase like “small keyboard.” It’s slightly more than a foot long and weighs about a pound, with a traditional keyboard layout with a count of 25 keys. This is a very bare-bones cousin of the Akai MPK series (which, with 88 keys, isn’t really compact by any practical meaning of the word). There is an arpeggitator, sustain, octave shift controls which use a similar square-button layout as the Korg nanoKEY. $49.00
M-Audio Keystation Mini32 MK3
M-Audio’s smallest controller features 32 keys, which are slightly minimized in a compromise to decrease its desktop footprint. The seven button layout is a bit different than the other models here and it also has a gigantic (relatively gigantic anyway) volume button on the top. $59.00
CME Xkey Mobile Keyboard
The CME Xkey has a unique form factor that makes it look and feel something like a Apple “chiclet” computer keyboard. This is probably intentional: some of the marketing materials are almost indistinguishable from Apple’s branding. Like the chiclet, it’s crafted out of aluminum rather than plastic, which makes it both more durable and lighter than most compact keyboards. This is compromised by the function keys, which also look like computer keyboard buttons arranged vertically to the left of the keybed. $99.00
Arturia’s clones are top notch and original products like the MicroLab feature innovative design that has clearly involved a good deal of thought and rigorous real-world testing. The MicroLab features recessed USB ports (which save another inch or two of desk space) and cords that wrap into the body when not in use. The pitch bending pads just feel larger than other models, and there’s also a rubberized body which makes it more durable than most of the keyboards listed here. Just out of our price range is another solid Arturia product, the KeyStep, which is more robust, larger and priced at about $40 more. $89.00
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