Whether you’re a world-class music producer or a bedroom beatmaker, a midi keyboard is an essential piece of equipment. If you want to lay down note sequences, melodies, and chords easily and intuitively, a MIDI keyboard is exactly what you need.
MIDI keyboards are available in many different shapes and sizes, from the smallest 25-key mini keyboard to humongous 88-key models. But the most common varieties by far are 25- and 49-key models.
Which one is right for you based on your musical needs and personal preferences? Read on to find out!
What is a MIDI controller?
Before we go into the differences between 25-key and 49-key MIDI controllers, it might be helpful to define what a MIDI keyboard is.
“MIDI” stands for “Musical Instrument Digital Interface”. In its simplest form, a MIDI controller is a keyboard that sends MIDI signals to connected devices to produce sounds. Connecting a MIDI keyboard to a hardware synthesizer or a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) allows producers to play and record note information and other MIDI data.
MIDI setups such as those described above are potentially more powerful and versatile than traditional keyboards. They can be used with many different devices and instruments, making it possible to produce sounds of considerable depth and range.
Many standard keyboards do have some MIDI functionality built-in. These keyboards allow you to play external devices, as you would with MIDI controllers, along with their onboard sounds.
Related: The 5 Best MIDI Keyboards for Your Home Studio in 2021
What is the difference between a 25-key and a 49-key MIDI keyboard?
The most obvious difference is the number of keys. But there are some other differences that–although less obvious–may be just as important.
Knobs and sliders. The larger surface area of 49-key keyboards allows for more features apart from the keys. Many have drum pads, programmable buttons, sliders, and other controls that may not fit on 25-key models.
Form factor. 25-key MIDI keyboards are considerably smaller than 49-key keyboards. This makes them more portable and better suited to working in a small space or a crowded studio with multiple controllers and synthesizers.
Key size. Many smaller keyboards have mini keys or flat mini keys, which are even smaller than mini keys. Although the smaller key size cuts down on space requirements, they may be more challenging to play if you have big fingers.
Cost. The more keys there are, the higher the cost. 49-key controllers typically cost more than 25-key models.
Octaves. A 25-key keyboard covers a range of two octaves. This is usually sufficient for playing basslines and single-voice melodies. But if you need to record complex piano pieces, you will quickly come across the limitations of 25 keys. Although 49-key keyboards aren’t exactly expansive, the four octaves they cover will be adequate for most playing and recording applications.
How important is feel when choosing a MIDI keyboard?
The feel of a musical instrument is crucial, and MIDI keyboards are no exception. The action is an important concern whether you choose a 25-key or a 49-key model. Keyboards are usually characterized as having synth action, semi-weighted action, or hammer action.
Synth-action keyboards use springs and are unweighted. This results in a quicker feel requiring a lighter touch. If the keyboard isn’t your primary instrument and you’re only looking to add some MIDI functionality to your setup, this is perfect for you.
Semi-weighted action is a good middle-ground for piano players and studio musicians. These keyboards are more weighted than synth-action keyboards but still allow for quick playing.
Hammer action keys are fully weighted and ideal for piano players. They provide similar resistance to an actual piano and are best for playing electric or acoustic piano pieces.
Consider going for a keyboard that has aftertouch. Commonly seen in higher-end keyboards, this feature allows for more expressive performances and additional control by pressing down harder on the keys.
With aftertouch, you could add vibrato to a string patch, for example, or have a filter open up slowly. Keyboards that have aftertouch per key even let you produce different effects with each keypress.
Related: The Best Chromebook For Music Production For Beginners
Is a 25- or 49-key MIDI controller enough?
Experienced producers and musicians probably already have one or more keyboards in their arsenal. Most are therefore looking for MIDI controllers that add extra functionality in the studio.
On the other hand, beginners may be looking for a MIDI controller to serve as their primary keyboard instrument. Therefore, they may need a more fully-featured keyboard than a musician or producer with a studio full of keyboards.
If your primary aim is creating basslines and simple chord progressions, a 25-key model should be sufficient for your needs. If you need to play and record more complex progressions and melodies, you may want to look into a 49-key model instead.
Consider your playing style and preferences. If you are a traditional player who uses both hands simultaneously, a 25-key MIDI keyboard will probably leave you frustrated. If that is the case, you would be better off with a 49-key model.
Should I choose a 25-key or a 49-key MIDI keyboard?
Choose the 25-key MIDI keyboard for:
- Loops and samples
- Simple chord progressions
- Basslines, leads, and riffs
- Form factor
Choose the 49-key MIDI keyboard for:
- A traditional keyboard setup
- Two-handed performance
- Orchestral arrangements
- More control
As you can see, 25-key and 49-key MIDI controllers each have their advantages and disadvantages. Only you can determine which is best suited for your needs. Of course, you could consider purchasing both types as well if you can afford to. Doing so will give you the portability of a smaller 25-key model and the versatility and added features of a 49-key model.