Is a mini MIDI controller worth it?

I’m speaking about compact MIDI controllers. The ones with smaller-than-usual keys. The type you can carry in your bag.

If you’re into music production and looking to buy a MIDI controller, you probably have wondered if a mini MIDI controller is worth buying.

They look fun, and it feels like you’ll be making a lot of music with them. Is that so?

In this post, we’ll explore the pros and cons of mini MIDI controllers. Check out the video to watch my take on them.

When to Say Yes

Before we start, know that everyone has different needs and experiences.

So take my advice with a pinch of salt. After all, whether to buy one comes back to you – and the reason you need a MIDI controller in the first place.

OK, so here’s when to say yes to mini MIDI controllers.

1. You want to make music on the go

Maybe you get good inspiration out of the studio. Perhaps you travel a lot and would like to keep your creative juices flowing.

Then yes, the biggest advantage of mini MIDI controllers is their portability. They are small enough to fit in a backpack and don’t weigh much.

Most MIDI controllers are bus-powered, meaning it drives power through USB from your laptop (I’m assuming you travel with a laptop). That means you can make music anywhere – at the café, the beach, the park.

2. You don’t have a lot of space

Mini MIDI controllers don’t take up a lot of space on your desk. If you have a small studio or limited space, then it’s an excellent option to consider.

Mini MIDI controllers are great as a second controller in your studio, where you place them directly on your desk, instead of on a keyboard stand, giving you instant reach to it – anytime you need to bang out some music.

Because the controller is so conveniently placed next to me, I’d had moments where I’d be working on my computer, get an inspiration and quickly just launch my DAW to record the idea – using the mini MIDI controller.

3. To use as a second MIDI controller

In my video above, I demonstrated using a second MIDI controller to control key switches.

Key switches are assigned to MIDI notes, which are used to change the articulation or rhythmic pattern of certain sample instruments.

Sample instrument makers like Native Instruments usually have key switches on some of their instrument patches. This is useful if you don’t have an 88-key controller with enough keys to play and control key switches.

Suppose you have a 49-key or 61-key MIDI controller as your main controller. So that’s where you play the main melody or chords. A mini MIDI controller then comes in as a secondary controller where you’d trigger the key switches.

4. You want a nice toy

Why buy something if you don’t need it – or if it’s just a toy?

Well, as it turns out, sometimes having a pattern interrupt in your daily workflow can give you the inspiration you need. It’s the same as when you bought a new pair of running shoes and became more motivated to go for runs.

So if getting an inexpensive, low-cost mini MIDI controller give you the motivation and inspiration to produce more music, I’d say go for it! Just remember that it shouldn’t be your main reason to buy extra gear.

When to Say No

1. You want to play expressively.

The problem with smaller keys on compact MIDI controllers is that it hinders you from playing expressively with feel and dynamics. Any serious musician will tell you that it’s harder to control dynamics on a mini MIDI controller.

As a result, you’d program music which are not as expressive, if you were to use a full-sized keyboard controller.

Try playing and programming an expressive classical piano riff using a mini MIDI controller. I’ll wait.

2. You want to play more than just leads or drums.

You’d probably be fine with programming drums, bass, and leads on a mini keyboard controller.

But what if you needed to program string arrangements or piano, which requires you to play multiple octaves? As a classically trained pianist, I have a habit of playing with both hands over a few octaves. I’d find myself getting annoyed just because I ran out of keys on a mini MIDI controller.

To top that, because of its form factor, some mini controllers also lack a sustain pedal input and use a ribbon controller instead of the good ol’ pitch bend and modulation wheel, which I also find limiting.

3. You want to save money

Many people will say that mini MIDI controllers are cheaper than their bigger, full-sized counterparts. But that’s only true for very few brands and models.

For example, the Novation Launchkey Mini retails at $109, whereas the M-Audio Keystation 49, a 49-key full-size MIDI controller with great touch response, retails at only $89. The Keystation doesn’t have any fancy – knobs or pads on it. But I assure you that you’ll produce more serious music with it.

4. You’ve got big hands (and fingers)

With smaller keys, it can be challenging to play chords and melodies accurately, especially if you have larger hands.

Many people are fine with the small keys, but in my experience, play on it too long and your finger dexterity and muscle memory playing on a proper keyboard will begin to suffer.

What if I’m a beginner?

I think the advice to get a mini MIDI controller as a beginner is bad advice. People who give this advice say it as though music production beginners are just testing the water and would never go deep with music production.

On the contrary, I don’t think beginners should go near a mini MIDI controller at all. Starting with one not only limits you, it also forms bad keyboard technique habits.

5 Mini MIDI Controllers I Recommend

Still want a mini MIDI controller after everything I’ve told you? Sigh. I’ll assume you’re getting one as something you’ll use when travelling – not as your main MIDI controller.

1. Akai MPK Mini MK3

The Akai MPK Mini is one of the most popular MIDI controllers available. It’s probably the best all-rounder in terms of affordability, ease of use and features.

You get 25 velocity-sensitive keys, eight backlit MPC-style pads, and eight assignable Q-Link knobs that you’d use to map to your DAW or synth controls. It also has a built-in arpeggiator and sustains pedal input.

2. Novation Launchkey Mini MK3

This is what I use – when I travel and have to make a bit of music or to host a music production class. The Launchkey Mini is made for us with Ableton Live – with its 16 velocity sensitive pads to trigger clips. But you can use it with any of your favorite DAWs.

I use it with Logic Pro. Setting it up to map to Logic was easy. There are also plenty of faders, sustain pedal input and a built-in arpeggiator, so playing with it gets quite fun.

3. Arturia MiniLab Mk3

The Arturia Minilab is not an affordable mini MIDI controller, but it sure looks swanky and futuristic. Use it outdoors, and I’ll bet you’ll get heads to turn.

Fitted with 25-keys, 8 velocity & pressure sensitive pads, 8 rotary encoders and 4 sliders, it’s a beast of a compact MIDI controller.

Plus, it’s fitted with lots of connectivity options from an input for sustain pedal, expression pedal or foot switch and a MIDI output to control external instruments.

4. Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol M32

What I like about Komplete Kontrol M32 is that it provides seamless control to your sample instruments and synths. That means, you’ll spend more time controlling from the controller, rather than having to reach for your mouse every time – like finding a great sound not by ferociously clicking away on your computer, but right from the controller.

Also, the additional 8 keys you get (the M32 has 32-keys), will offer better playability over compact controllers with only 25 keys.

On top of that, if you are a beginner, you’d love Smart Play – a feature that lets you play with different chords, scales, and arpeggios.

5. Korg microKEY

Want something simple?

Then the Korg microKEY (the AIR version has Bluetooth connectivity) would be a good bet. The microKEY is one of the very few compact MIDI controllers that is fitted with physical wheels for modulation and pitch bend.

Of all mini MIDI controllers I’ve tried, the microKEY offers the best velocity-sensitive keys with natural touch. Although the keys are still smaller than a standard keyboard, you get a much better playing feel on the microKEY.

Final thoughts

Mini MIDI controllers are fun to have. Markers advertise them as a gear that every music producer needs, but truth to be told, I wouldn’t miss my mini MIDI controller if it were to be stolen from me tomorrow.

Looking back, most of my best music work was produced on a full-sized MIDI controller. That itself should tell you a lot about whether mini MIDI controllers are worth buying.

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