Entering the world of MIDI-based music-making can be a bit intimidating. You have a lot of technology to catch up on, plus a million choices to make in terms of what gear and software you’ll use — and likely a limited budget. Here’s the important thing to remember: Music comes from the person who makes it, regardless of what physical or digital means they use to transmit it. Don’t worry about making the wrong choice when thinking about MIDI controllers or software studios. Follow the stuff that looks the most interesting, start tapping on buttons and twisting knobs, and focus on the important work of making something good come out of the speakers.
Here are a handful of MIDI controllers that give you a great introduction to composing beats on your computer.
The Novation Launchpad is the minimalist companion to Ableton Live, one of the most popular Digital Audio Workstations (or DAWs). The main surface of the Novation Launchpad is a grid of 64 buttons which you can use to trigger loops, play instruments, or map effects and other parameters. It's an extremely versatile and compact piece of gear, but be advised that it's intended to be used exclusively with Ableton Live's production software.
Akai Professional MPD32
Akai's MPD32 series gives you the nuts and bolts of a keyboardless setup: 16 velocity-sensitive drum pads, plenty of faders and knobs to play with, and four banks of settings to get maximum use out of what's in front of you. If you're looking to recreate the MPC production experience with software and a fully customizable set of MIDI controls, the Akai MPD32 is for you.
Korg's nanoKEY2 will appeal to producers with a piano background looking for a durable controller that can be easily tossed in a backpack on-the-go. The Korg nanoKEY2 features a slim design and hard plastic casing, yet still offers excellent responsiveness and a surprisingly musical feel when played.
M-Audio Oxygen 49
Some producers do their best work when they're able to recreate their piano-playing experience on a full-sized keyboard. If that's you, check out M-Audio's Oxygen 49, a reliable and affordable MIDI keyboard the includes drum pads and assignable knobs. To add another octave of keys, upgrade to the Oxygen 61.
The Arturia MiniLab is the ultimate all-in-one MIDI controller that's compact enough to take with you wherever you go. You get two octaves of keys, eight drum pads, and 16 knobs in an exceptionally sturdy package. Plus, the Arturia MiniLab comes with software to get you up and running on synths that you can tweak with the controls at your fingertips. You can find other mini keyboards on the market, but probably none as just plain cool as the Arturia MiniLab.