MIDI connects your hands to your software, a vital tool needed for musicians to translate their compositions onto a computer. A MIDI controller should be your first hardware purchase for music production software like GarageBand and speeds up the writing of music via virtual MIDI instruments in your software.
They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from full-size keyboards with realistic feeling keys, to small units which pack additional pads, rotary faders and pitch and mod wheels.
They’re relatively inexpensive and are connected to any USB port, most need no installation and are auto-detected by software such as GarageBand.
- Top 4 Best MIDI Keyboards for GarageBand:
- Buyer’s Guide: How to Select the Best MIDI Keyboards for GarageBand
- Conclusion: What’s the Best MIDI Controller for GarageBand?
Top 4 Best MIDI Keyboards for GarageBand:
|Korg microKEY 25 (Editor's Choice)|
|M-Audio Oxygen 49 MKIV|
|Akai Professional MPK49|
|Novation Impulse 49|
Korg MicroKEY 25 Keyboard (Editor’s Choice)
Korg are famous for their slickly designed, innovative products. They also love making their stuff smaller and smaller, packing great tech into portable packages.
This keyboard is simple and high-quality, the keys themselves feel great and the item has a good weight to it, not heavy but not cheap. The 25 key version is easily carried, has one USB output and features Korg’s ‘NaturalTouch’ technology.
The keys feel good, not as good as some high-end MIDI instruments, but this is a $80 model.
The keyboard has a single joystick for both pitch and modulation, which replaces separate pitch and mod-wheels that feature on most MIDI keyboards. This is cool as you can operate both functions with your hand in the same position.
There’s an octave selector, and also an arpeggiator This takes a chord and turns it into an Arpeggio, a handy function that other MIDI controllers lack. It’s plug and play, no drivers required.
Overall it’s cheap, well-made and fits the bill for anyone looking for a basic MIDI controller which can be carried about.
M-Audio Oxygen 49 MKIV Keyboard
The M-Audio Oxygen series of MIDI controllers are well established and the series has continued to innovate with the MkIV range of products. They’re fairly bulky but pack extra features such as faders, pads, and other controls for your DAW.
They offer quite a flexible package for controlling GarageBand, but because M-Audio implemented a connection system called DirectLink, you will have to download a driver package from M-Audio to plug and play with full functionality.
For Ableton and Pro-tools, this is not necessary. M-Audio implemented this to ensure the controller would work perfectly with the DAW, as sometimes, more complex controllers that auto-map are mapped incorrectly.
Aside from the 49 keys, it has a lot of flashy bits and bobs, with 8 velocity-sensitive trigger pads, 8 assignable knobs and 9 assignable faders. It also has Play, Stop and Record buttons for controlling the transport functions on GarageBand.
This means you can control these basic functions without touching your PC or it’s keyboard.
The mod-wheels and pitch bend follow a classic design, and the keys are springy and responsive rather than realistic.
The Oxygen is a breath of fresh air in its feature set at the price point, but for Garageband, you do have to download drivers, which isn’t an issue but some would have liked to see this be made as a plug and play controller.
AKAI MPK49 Keyboard
Taking a big ramp up in price, the AKAI MPK49 is a pro level MIDI controller which excels in performance, build quality, functionality and features. It really is a beast of a controller, it’s difficult to know where to start!
Akai may hold the aces when it comes to MIDI and audio control, they developed the first MPC controllers that were at the heart of the hip-hop movement. Akai fits a good slice of the MPCs amazing beat-making power into the MPK with 12 real MPC drum pads.
If you’ve used an MPC you know these are a cut above the rest – they’re responsive, sensitive, and comfortable to use.
These have 4 layers, meaning there are 48 options for the pads in total. They come fully tricked out with MPC Swing which applies grooves to your percussion and drums.
Alongside this is all the mod-cons, 49 weighted keys with after-touch, that are particularly nice to play, and will satisfy pianists and keyboardists. 8 full-sized sliders with 3 controller banks for each for 24 sliders total, providing more than enough faders and sliders for controlling Garageband or any other DAW.
8 assignable backlit switches with 3 controller banks each for 24 switches total, for controlling as many on/off functions as you could possibly want to. So, 8 full-sized, 360-degree rotation pots, each with 3 banks for 24 pots total, for all manner of instruments and mixing control.
Some will look through the features on this and think, well, I’m never going to use all that! And that’s completely fair enough, it is overkill for most music production and if you’re just starting out with a DAW like Garageband then the AKAI is going to be a big beast to tame right off the bat.
That said, it is comprehensive and will stand the test of time, it really will see you through any audio production or performance journey with no problems or hick-ups.
The MPK will work plug and play to some extent with Garageband, but advanced functions will need to be custom mapped using a MIDI editor.
Novation 49 Impulse Keyboard
On the same tier as the MPK lies the Novation 49 Impulse. This is a legendary controller that really is battle hardened. It’s tried and tested, with all the functions you could need and puts up a good fight with the AKAI.
In fact, splitting them is like splitting hairs for the most part!
The Novation comes from a long line of successful MIDI controllers from Novation and comes with special auto-map software which is designed to take the headache out of mapping these advanced MIDI controllers to your software.
Its switch, fader and knob selection equals the MPK. There are 9 faders, 8 drum pads, 9 knobs and 8 switches. It’s the full deck of cards, with an LCD screen, semi-weighted keys and the drum pads feature the same functions as the AKAI.
Overall, the drum pad section is lacking when compared to the Akai, and the auto-map function works poorly with GaragebBand. It’s maybe a controller for further down the line, when it’s software is more refined.
Buyer’s Guide: How to Select the Best MIDI Keyboards for GarageBand
Remember, MIDI controllers don’t generate any sound themselves, but trigger them within your computer. This is why they’re affordable too, they’re just controllers, nothing more!
There are quite possibly thousands out there too, and it can be a confusing situation when you come to buy one. On the face of it, they’re simple devices which enable you to do very complex things if you wanted to.
You can trigger hundreds and thousands of functions in combination on a fully featured MIDI controller, or on portable models, just play the keys. The keyboard you need will depend on how many options you need, or whether you just need a simple device for recording notes.
When viewing MIDI controllers and keyboards you’ll instantly notice that there aren’t just keys:
These can control the effects parameters within your plug-ins as well as controls such as volume fades or panning. They enable you to trigger events during your performance.
Say you have a synth with a low-pass filter, you can use these rotary knobs to open and close the filter to create a wobble. You could pan your synth from left to right, or trigger a reverb or delay.
Many synths and plug-ins on GarageBand will auto-map relevant controls to these rotary faders. Give them a turn and see what happens!
These are like what you see on the Akai controllers from the ‘90s. Their primary use is in triggering whole loops, usually percussion, or triggering ‘one-shot’ samples, like a kick or a snare drum. These are great when you are operating multiple instruments within a session. You can play a lead melody on the keyboard whilst triggering percussive sounds with the pads.
These are often positioned next to the keyboard. There is, more often than not, a pitch bend wheel which bends pitches of your instruments. Often, you’ll find a mod-wheel too, it’s function is often auto-mapped to a synth where you have an assignable mod-wheel function. You can auto-map FX with this whilst recording a MIDI performance.
These are sliders that can be used for all manner of functions, like controlling faders whilst mixing a track, or controlling settings whilst recording a performance. Some synths will auto-map controls to these, be sure to experiment!
Getting a MIDI controller for GarageBand will really help you produce your music and be creative, providing these tools to help you express yourself during MIDI performances, and control the software when you’re just producing your track.
Don’t be afraid to try all the controls, as some will undoubtedly surprise you with their pre-mapped functions. You can obviously also map controls to anything you want!
This is usually easy too, you simply select the control you want to map, usually by holding a combination of keys and pressing on it, then you press the control on the controller and Voila! It’s mapped to that control for easy operation!
Conclusion: What’s the Best MIDI Controller for GarageBand?
GarageBand is great for sketching out ideas, recording, writing and editing music, but controlling its functions with MIDI keyboards like the Impulse and the MPK49 is arguably a little overkill.
That doesn’t mean they’re redundant purchases, they are some of the best-selling MIDI controllers ever, but it does mean they may be worth progressing onto rather than starting of on.
The KORG MicroKEY’s plug and play reliability makes it ideal for GarageBand, its functions work well and allow you to be more creative with the software and there won’t be any redundant controls like there would with more expensive MIDI controllers.
The Oxygen 49 fits suitably in the middle, it’s cheap and has a lot of controls. Its functionality with GarageBand is good and with DirectLink it should be easier to make use of its many controls.
Your choice will depend on whether you use GarageBand primarily for fun or for basic use, or whether you use it alongside other DAWs, or plan to move onto other DAWs. The Korg has the best profile for GarageBand users in this line-up.