A home studio without a MIDI keyboard controller is empty to us, especially if you’re using one of the best DAW out there in Ableton Live. It’s one of the most widely recognized music software in the business, and countless musicians we both know and larger ones we’ve read about use Ableton (Tame Impala, Flume, Skrillex, Calvin Harris to name a few). If you’re in the market for a MIDI keyboard either to upgrade to a new one or buy your first keyboard altogether, you’ve come to the right place. We found a few models to be the best MIDI keyboard for Ableton below.
Finding your best Ableton MIDI keyboard
When it comes to writing guides for specific software and certain music equipment, there are always a few details to keep in mind when decided why it’s best “for” a certain software. Usually if we’re asked by some of our readers about a software and gear combination, we’ll typically say “most will be fine, considering nowadays all gear is compatible with pretty much every software out there in this day and age”. However, depending on what you’re looking for, with Ableton Live it’s a completely different beast (when it comes to actual controllers at least, not just keyboards). This guide specifically is focused on keyboards so it doesn’t get too crazy, but they have actual “Ableton Controllers” (a lot with out keys and a bunch of buttons, knobs and encoders instead) that you may be interested in.
With that being said, let’s focus on our topic today — keys. When it comes to choosing a MIDI keyboard, it may seem a bit daunting at first. With any MIDI keyboard guide, we like to ask what your budget is. Keyboards can span across from 200$ all the way up to the thousands. The price will start to really get higher if you go for a higher key count, as well as the actual material the keys are “made” of. Most majority (and affordable) MIDI keyboards have something called “synth-action keys” which are a higher-grade plastic that are a bit “springy” that are similar to synthesizers. If you want to get a little more expensive, you can look into fully-weighted MIDI keyboards, which are extremely nice and mimic pianos keys.
Aside from key count and make, keep in mind the extra ‘controls’ you absolutely need. We say “need” because buying a keyboard with a bunch of encoders, knobs and buttons may sound cool and fun, but try to think if you’d actually use them. We personally don’t really care about any of that when we’re making something in the studio. Just the keys are fine. When performing live however, that’s a different story. We know a lot of people use Ableton for live use so if that’s what you fancy, be our guest.
Lastly, software packages are definitely a staple point of music equipment nowadays. We’ll tell what’s in each of these models so you can decide for yourself. Look out for sounds, FX or even other DAW (mostly trials). This may be a deciding factor because some keyboards come jam-packed with software that can justify a higher price-tag despite being a lower-quality MIDI keyboard, and vice-versa.
The best MIDI keyboards for Ableton Live
Akai APC Key 25
Up first as the best Ableton MIDI keyboard was the obvious choice due to the fact that Akai literally created this just for Ableton (we suppose it could work for other DAW, but not as perfectly here). This is their ‘key’ version of the APC Controllers they’ve created in partner with Ableton (you can check out their other APC controllers; however, none of the rest have keys but have many more Ableton-only buttons and features along with it). They do borrow about half of those ‘Ableton buttons’ and stick them at the top of this one, and you can use those for pretty much any type of control with Ableton. We personally appreciate putting some samples, sounds or even stabs so you can get to playing those triggers. It acts somewhat as a drum machine and you can see countless videos of APC players online — it’s amazing for both live or even studio use if you want to record real time, or even just jam with friends.
Some of our other favorite highlights of this one include a clip-launch matrix with tri-color displays, assignable knobs to map into Ableton (control of volume, sends, and more), octave up, down and sustain buttons, and of course, some decent synth-action keys (25 to be exact, they are however ‘mini’ and not full-sized but are still very playable in my opinion). The software includes Ableton Live Lite (in case you don’t have it yet?), Hybrid 3 by AIR, SONiVOX Twist, and ‘Toolroom’ artist packs. What steer some away are the size of the keys, but again it’s a pretty portable controller and can still get some decent playing on it. The sacrifice will be well worth all of the integration you’ll have with Ableton. If you do want some full-sized keys, we recommend a few later in this guide. Otherwise, the Akai APC Key 25 is the clear cut winner as the best MIDI keyboard for Ableton in our opinion.
M-Audio Axiom AIR Mini 32
Next we start getting into MIDI keyboards that aren’t necessarily “created for Ableton”, but still have features that are particular to Ableton-only hence the inclusion of them into this guide. M-Audio’s Axiom AIR Mini has an Ableton feature that caught our eyes — something called “HyperControl Mapping“. This is technology that can map out a lot of the common controls straight into some of the most popular music software, and in Ableton, we get controls such as volume, pan, virtual instrument/effect parameters, dedicated transport controls (hands-on to playback and recording controls as well as track navigation).
Aside from the important Ableton controls, this keyboard also has a few extra additives, such as 32 (yes mini once again) synth-action keys, 8 assignable drum pads (with two banks), 8 knobs, 3 transport controls, 5 navigation buttons, and some software (Ignite Music Software and VIP 3.0). The Axiom AIR Mini 32 nice pick as the best Ableton MIDI keyboard if you weren’t feeling the APC Key 25, wanted some more keys or more full-sized drum pads.
This is one of our favorite MIDI keyboard controllers in general, so when we get asked for recommendations regardless of DAW, this is going to be in the list. However we still have some Ableton integration here for those wanting some good control over the DAW but also full-sized keys (there are options here, you can either have a 25, 49 or 61). Let’s first chat Launchkey and Ableton control — it automatically can assign the faders, knobs, pads and buttons to help with live sessions, such as clip launching, device tweaking and other mixing controls in both Arrangement as well as Session views. So we have a lot of mapping here with Ableton, and even if you don’t want the automatic option you can customize it all yourself.
This is definitely the better buy here if you want a great combination of both a MIDI keyboard that’s full-sized with a beautiful build, and also some great control and ‘mapping’ of Ableton all into one device. It’s just a bit more expensive than the previous two Mini picks, however the options at different key sizes is great to tailor based on your needs (both style with a keyboard and of course, financially). Another one of our favorite picks as the best MIDI keyboard controller for Ableton — you just can’t go wrong with the Novation Launchkey.
Arturia KeyLab Essential
We recently wrote up our KeyLab Essential review and have begun to really love recommending this to readers for a few reasons. First off, there isn’t really any ‘mapping’ or ‘controls’ here for Ableton specifically, which is why this is and our next MIDI keyboard are for those who need something a little more ‘simple’ or have lower budgets. Arturia’s original KeyLab is a beast but this particular model takes away some of the extra features and gives us more of a raw MIDI keyboard with only the ‘essential’ features (hence the name).
For one, we have options in regards to key counts (49, 61 and 88), rotary knobs and faders, a DAW command center (transport controls yet again and yes they will work well with Ableton), 8 multi-purpose pads (assignable), an LCD display and more. Arturia makes high-quality builds so this isn’t a cheap MIDI keyboard for Ableton at all. It does have those transport controls for at least a little more of a workflow in Ableton but you’re not getting as crazy as the APC Key or Axiom AIR. The Keylab Essential is a fine pick as the best MIDI keyboard for Ableton if you’re fine without that many controls.
Last but not least we have to recommend something a bit minimal for those who literally just want a MIDI keyboard to play some sounds with. You aren’t getting any type of controls here but to be honest, we and many of ourselves sometimes just aren’t in the mood to have a toy that’s fun to push buttons and really just want one thing — to play on some keys! The Keystation is one of our favorite picks for any DAW, any type of musician or really any keyboard player who wants a simple yet effect MIDI keyboard solution.
This is our go-to when we start to explain to people what faders, knobs and buttons are and start to see them seem confused. Not only when it comes to playing style of level, but people who just don’t care. We love the M-Audio Keystation for anybody, especially Ableton users due to the simplistic yet effectiveness of the model.