MIDI keyboards are kind of the ultimate home recording tool, despite how unassuming they may look. They’re a simple but essential bridge between computer and musician in every creative endeavor, from beat making to orchestral arranging and everywhere in between. The fact is, without a MIDI keyboard you’d be using a mouse to click your piano parts into that new song of yours note by note, and that’s a time consuming and decidedly uninspired way to make music.

The benefits to a keyboard controller don’t end there, though: many models even include onboard knobs and switches that add yet another layer of control and flexibility for users looking to tweak software synths and effects in real time. Any musician can benefit from the significant productivity and creativity boost that comes with a MIDI keyboard, and so long as you’ve got a USB port on your computer you too can experience the beauty of endless music software control right at your fingertips.

Velocity-sensitive: Alesis V49 Keyboard

Easily Switch Octaves

Square-front and piano-style. Amazon

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The Alesis V49 packs a ton of essentials into a stylish, square-edged form factor. It features four mappable knobs at the upper left for tweaking the sound of your instruments as you play. Directly below, its eight programmable velocity-sensitive drum pads offer the extended ability to trigger samples and play beats to accompany keyboard parts. This USB-compatible keyboard includes a suite of production software including Pro Tools Alesis Edition and Ableton Lite, but perhaps most exciting of all is its V49 Editor Software that enables quick and simple customizability of the keyboard’s MIDI commands from right on the computer screen.

Plug-and-play: Nektar Impact LX49+ Keyboard Controller

Everything In One Place

Pre-mapped to control your software. Amazon

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Nektar aimed to take the guesswork out of their customers’ equations when they designed the LX49+, because it’s a plug-and-play musician’s dream. Like the Alesis, the Nektar features a set of velocity-sensitive closed square keys that keep dust out of the keyboard’s internal construction and keep a very stylish and clean profile. Its control panel includes eight backlit pads, eight mappable knobs, transport controls, and modulation and pitch wheels. Tap the mixer button and its eight faders will automatically map to the first eight channels in your DAW so you can mix right on the keyboard, effectively eliminating the need for an external mixing surface and giving you that much more control over your mixes.

Most compact: M Audio Keystation 49 MK3

Grab-And-Go Option

Portable and space-saving. Amazon

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Our budget pick for the 49-key MIDI keyboard category bears the benefit of being not only affordable but also compact and touring-ready. The M-Audio Keystation is solidly built and it includes everything you need for software control in a no-frills package. Transport controls and navigation arrows live up top, and a volume fader and modulation wheels allow for a wide range of dynamic expression and performance execution. To sweeten the deal even further, M-Audio throws in a premium software bundle that includes two professional DAWs, three virtual instruments, two educational keyboard practice programs, and a 500-plus sample library.

Most user-friendly: Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49 Mk2 Keyboard

DAW Controls Built-In

The ‘Smart Play’ mode is a unique offering that lets this option think for you and allows you to play in any musical key using only the white keys. Amazon

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Native Instruments is an audio production gear manufacturer known for its innovative hardware and software alike. This keyboard controller, the Komplete Kontrol S49, sports a sleek and streamlined profile that belies its endless customizability. Digital audio workstation (DAW) controls, mappable knobs for controlling your software effects and synthesizers, and a bright OLED display live right on the top panel so you can keep tabs on what you’re doing as you work.