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MIDI Keyboard Buyer's Guide for Mac Users

As a popular destination for beginning computer musicians on the mac platform, one of the most common questions we see is "what keyboard should I use with my mac?" The answer to this question is different for each user, and for each context a user might find themselves in. Therefore, it is typically difficult to answer this sort of question in one or two paragraphs. And so, we have attempted to answer the question with many, many paragraphs, in the form of our "MIDI Keyboard Buyer's Guide for Mac Users."

Read on for our complete guide to finding the best MIDI keyboard for your mac setup. We'll cover the basic features to look for, the different categories of keyboards to explore, and we recommend several keyboards for each such category.
First, a bit on MIDI keyboard shopping basics. Every potential purchaser of a MIDI keyboard should know these things before proceeding.

(1) Synthesizer vs. Controller. The term "keyboard" is actually a fairly broad notion. It could mean anything from a 12 key MIDI input device to an actual full-length grand piano, depending on who you're talking to. When speaking of "MIDI Keyboards," one is generally referring either to a synthesizer or a controller. The difference between the two is that a synthesizer has the ability to make sound by itself, sometimes with the ability to perform that sound through internal speakers, and sometimes with only a line-out or headphone jack. Meanwhile, a "controller" is typically a reference to a keyboard that has no ability to make sounds by itself, and must be connected either to a computer or a sound module, a piece of equipment that can produce sounds but has no keys. The point is this: if you want your keyboard to have the capability of making sounds all by itself, without hooking it up to a computer, you want a synthesizer. If you only want to use your keyboard with your computer and a software synthesizer like that found in GarageBand, then a controller will be what you want. Generally speaking, a controller will be cheaper than a syntheszier having equal "keyboard features."

(2) Important Features to Look For. Most people believe that the experience of playing a real piano is the ultimate goal to simulate in electronic keyboards. Manufacturers have, over time, developed features which aim for this goal. Among them are:
  • Full sized keys. This feature simply means that the keys are the same size as those on a standard piano keyboard. In order to fit more keys in a smaller space, some keyboards will have smaller than full sized keys.
  • Weighted keys. This refers to keys that have been weighted to feel "heavy" or counterweighted, just as the keys feel on a real piano. Beyond this, some weighted keyboards have "hammer action" keys, which are weighted to simulate the feel which, in a real piano, comes from the key being connected to a hammer that strikes the strings inside a piano.
  • Graded keys. Graded keyboards are keyboards that behave like a real piano in that the higher octaves have a different sensitivity to touch than the lower octaves. On a real keyboard, the higher notes require a harder strike in order to make sound than do the lower notes.
  • Touch Sensitivity. This features refers to the keys on a keyboard responding differently to different levels of pressure or velocity applied to them. When you play softly, the keyboard triggers a low volume sound. When you play hard, the keyboard triggers a higher volume sound.
  • Aftertouch. On a real piano, the quickness or deftness with which your hand leaves the keyboard is reflected in the sound that is played. This feature is emulated in those keyboards with aftertouch capability.
  • 88 keys. Some MIDI keyboards have 88 keys, just like a real piano.

In addition to the above features, there are several others you will want to keep any open for when determining the best MIDI keyboard for your setup:
  • USB. These days, it's almost a foregone conclusion that a MIDI keybaord will be used with a personal computer. In the old days, it was possible that MIDI would be used only to connect one machine with another, and that a computer might not necessarily ever be involved in the chain. Nonetheless, only certain keyboards come with direct USB capability, and therefore can be plugged straight into your computer. If a keyboard only has MIDI inputs and outputs, you'll need an adapter to convert the MIDI I/O to USB. However, be careful that any keyboard with USB capability has USB drivers compatible with the Mac. Edirol and M-Audio are two keyboard manufacturers known to have good OS X compatible drivers for their USB keyboards.
  • Pitch bend/modulation wheels. On some keyboards you'll see either two "wheels" or a single joystick to the left of the keys. These controllers are used to control modulation and pitch of the sounds played with the keyboard. Most software and harware synthesizers can make use of the effects these controls have on the sound, including GarageBand.
  • Assignable controllers. These little doo-dads can come in several forms. Buttons, sliders, and rotary knobs are all types of assignable controllers common to certain MIDI keyboards. These controllers can be used with compatible programs to control various elements of your setup. For example, you can set a rotary knob to control pan for one of your tracks, or you can assign a slider to control volume for a track. Note that GarageBand support for assignable controllers is very limited. Therefore, if you are using only GarageBand, you probably should not spend much on this added feature.

Now, on to the keyboards. Both points one and two above can be used to make a few general categories of keyboards. Depending on what your needs are as a keyboard user, you will likely find that one of the categories we set out will fit your needs nicely. Then, within each of those categories, you should look for a keyboard that best suits your individual needs, including price, number of keys, and all-around feature set. The categories of keyboards are:
  1. Digital Pianos
  2. Full Sized Controllers
  3. Synthesizer Workstations
  4. Compact Controllers
  5. Personal Synthesizers
Now we will proceed to describe each of these categories in detail, and show you a number of recommended keyboards in each category. If you are deciding which keyboard will be best for you, you should read the category descriptions and see which sounds closest to something that fills your studio and recording needs.

Digital Pianos

Digital pianos are full-sized keyboards that have one simple goal: to feel and sound as close as possible to a real piano. Typically, digital pianos have awesome keyboard qualities like fully weighted, graded, hammer-action keys, but can make only a few sounds on their own, usually beautiful synthesized pianos, organs, and electric keyboards. A digital piano will have most of the features of similarly priced Full Sized Controllers (see below), but will have the aforementioned limited sounds (remember, controllers have no sounds). Digital pianos frequently come with high quality stands or cabinets that add to their aesthetics in circumstances where you might otherwise have a real piano. Finally, digital pianos frequently come with the ability not only to make sounds, but to produce the sound through built-in speakers and amplifiers.

Digital pianos are good for those who are used to playing only on a piano keyboard and would like an experience as close to that as possible. A digital piano cannot be moved around easily, as it is typically heavy and frequently attached to an also-heavy stand. Digital pianos will not have any of the sound modulation affects common with other types of keyboards, such as pitch bend, assignable knobs, faders, and switches, etc. If you have a digital piano, the most likely scenario for using it will be either to bring a laptop to it, or to have the keyboard stationed very close to your computer. Below are some digital pianos we recommend

Yamaha YDP223 88-Key Graded Hammer Piano with Bench ($1492.00). The YDP223 is on the upper end of the price scale for digital pianos, however it has some features that make it very attractive to certain types of users. If you are looking for something to replace as best as possible an actual keyboard, the YDP223 is your best bet. It comes with a built-in cabinet/stand that has all three traditional piano pedals (you would otherwise purchase these separately for keyboards that do not include them). As you would expect, the YDP223 comes with a full-size, graded hammer-action keyboard. In addition, the keyboard sports built in stereo speakers and amplifier, so it is ready to go out of the box. All told, its weights 112 pounds, so this rig is not one you'll be wanting to move around.

Yamaha P90 Digital Piano ($889.95). The P90 is truly a great value for the buck. It comes with nearly all of the features of the YDP223, except that it has no built-in stand, no speakers, and no pedals. What it does have are 88 graded hamer-action keys, a full complement of high quality piano sounds, and a nice but small collection of great reverb effects. The P90 also weighs comparitively little, so it makes a decent stage piano if you have to travel with something.

MAudio Pro 88 Stage Piano ($599.95). The Pro88 is the only non-Yamaha digital piano (we're Yamaha fans) in our keyboard guide, and for good reason. The Pro88 represents a sort of hybrid between the pure digital piano and a full sized controller. The Pro88 brings a full-sized, hammer-action keyboard and high quality piano sounds, but it also adds features more typically seen on controllers. Those features include pitch and modulation wheels, as well as a Mac-compatible USB port for direct hookup to any OS X audio program, including GarageBand and Logic. What's more, the Pro 88, like other MAudio products, offers a great bang for the buck at just under $600.

Full Sized Controllers

Full sized controllers are very similar to digital pianos in the characteristics of their keyboards, but controllers lack the ability to make any sounds whatsoever. Their only purpose in life is to take the input from your playing of keys and send it to some other device that can make sounds. That "other device" is either a computer or a sound module specifically made to create sounds. Most mac users who have purchased their computers in the last couple of years are fortunate enough to have, at the very least, the software instruments that come with GarageBand. GarageBand can take the input from a controller and play any of the software instruments present in GarageBand.

Full sized controllers, as opposed to other types of controllers, have the full 88 keys of a real piano, and it is almost always the case that they are fully weighted, touch sensitive keys. You might be asking yourself what the advantage of a full size controller over a digital keyboard is. Very simple: price. You pay a surprising amount for the ability of your keyboard to make its own sounds, and even more for the ability to play those sounds through built-in speakers. If you leave off those features, you can still have a very realistic feeling, high quality keyboard to play on, but at a fraction of the price of a digital piano. A full size controller is for you if you want the real piano feel, but are going to be using the keyboard exclusively with your computer or would like to purchase an add-on sound module (these modules, like all music equipment, are getting cheaper and cheaper). One final advantage of a full sized controller over a digital piano is that most controllers have advanced MIDI control features like pitch bend and modulation wheels, assignable controllers, etc. The full sized controllers we like are:

Studiologic by Fatar SL880PRO 88-Key Full-Size MIDI Controller ($399.95). Fatar has long been a standard in the MIDI world for reasonably priced, high quality controllers. The SL880Pro is no exception to this hard earned reputation. The price of just under $400 is significantly lower than any of digital pianos above, and yet you get 88 hammer-action weighted keys AND after touch as well as pitch bend and modulation wheels. You will probably not find a keyboard with more realistic piano-like behavior than this one. If you can live without the extra features a digital piano or synthesizer add and you're after the real piano playing experience, this is likely to be your best buy.

MAudio Keystation 88 ES 88-Key MIDI Controller ($249.95). They Keystation 88 ES is a great full-sized controller for the budget user. While the Keystation 88 ES does not have fully weighted keys (it's keys are "semi-weighted," which means they feel about half as heavy as real piano keys, but are not as light as ordinary synthesizer keys), they are touch sensitive and you get the full 88 keys of a real piano. In addition, you get the pitch bend and modulation wheels, as well as a built-in Mac OS X compatible USB interface (if you purchased a non-USB keyboard such as the Fatar SL880Pro above, you would need to spend extra for a MIDI-to-USB adapter).

Syntheszier Workstations

Synthesizer workstations differ from other keyboards in their highly advanced feature set that includes hundreds, if not thousounds, of high-quality and highly configurable soundbanks, advanced MIDI features including numerous assignable controllers used to control programs, and, perhaps most distinguishingly, advanced recording and sequencing features that allow a workstation to do much of what a computer MIDI squencing program would otherwise be required to do. Workstations are also almost always highly expandable, typically coming with built-in media drives for adding sounds and other capabilities through software add-ons. All of these features add up to a massively capable piece of equipment, as well as a massive price. Most users who are reading this guide probably will not be in the market for a workstation, however we offer some insight here so you know what's out there and what you might one day upgrade to.

Below are some workstations that have good reputations in the industry and offer feature sets exemplary of high-end workstation keyboards.

Korg Triton Le 76-Key Workstation ($1249.95). The Triton series by Korg has a fairly long (in computer music terms) history of excellence. Numerous Triton keyboards have come and gone, and nearly all of them are highly respected and widely used. Now, the Triton series is seeing a reduction in pricing as technology becomes more refined, and the 76-key Triton LE 76 is a good example of this. The Triton LE provides many of the great sounds that have made the Triton famous, along with some great effects, a 16-track sequencer, joystick controller, assignable knobs and switches, and a price tag well under that of its predecessors.

Korg Triton Studio 88-Key Workstation/Sampler ($3399.95). The Triton studio is the heavyweight champion of workstation synthesizers. It is the dream of many synthesizer players and has the specs to match. Not only does it have a fully weighted set of 88 full-sized keys, but it features state-of-the-art synthesizer technology including a built in sampler for creating your own high-quality synthesizer sounds, over 100 studio-quality effects, built-in audio inputs for adding external sounds to your mix, 16 track sequencer with a large touch-screen display, and a built in CD reader and burner. Holy crap!

Compact Controllers

Once again, "controllers" as distinguished from "synthesizers" have no ability to produce sounds on their own. They are simply mechanisms to tell another device (a computer or sound module) which notes to play and when/how. Previously, we looked at controllers that represented the full 88 keys on a standard piano, and generally had features making them very similar in touch and feel to an actual piano keyboard. However, controllers of all sorts are commonly used in music production, and many artists find a smaller, light weight MIDI keyboard controller to fit the bill much better than a larger, full size unit. A compact controller gives you portability and flexibility in your setup and can be a very handy tool. And, as you might expect, compact controllers can typically be had for a comparatively low price when compared to their full-sized counterparts.

Below we look at numerous recommended compact (or mid-sized) MIDI controller likely to be of interest to the Mac musician. Some of these may look familiar, as Apple has generally tried to push certain keyboards for use with GarageBand by making them available directly from the Apple store. We play no favorites based on what Apple thinks, however.

Edirol PCR30 32-Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller ($119.95). The PCR30 is the gold standard in compact keyboards, in our humble opinion. It's light, it's cheap, it has loads of features, and it works great with OS X and GarageBand. One thing to keep in mind with the PCR30 is that it has loads of assignable controllers: knobs, slides, dials, etc. Now, the thing with all of these assignable controllers is that they're great for certain programs, such as Reason or Live, however for a program like GarageBand, they aren't of much use (at least not as of Version 2.0.1, or not without some serious under-the-hood tinkering). This said, you may still want to pick up with PCR30 even if you only have GarageBand, because you may upgrade to a program with better support for all of the great assignable controls.

MAudio Keystation 49e 49-Key MIDI Controller ($99.95). The Keystation 49e from MAudio gives a great bang for the buck. It has another two octaves worth of keys over the PCR-30, and yet costs slightly less. The tradeoff is all of those assignable controllers we refer to above. However, you do still get pitch-bend and modulation wheels as well as a volume slider control. The Keystation 49e, like the PCR-30 comes with built-in USB connectivity that works just dandily with OS X.

MAudio Radium 49-Key USB MIDI Controller Keyboard ($149.95). The Radium 49 is a good cross between the two compact controllers above. It features the larger 49 keys, but also has many assignable controllers in the form of sliders and knobs. At $149.95, it's a bit less expensive than the competition. Like the other two units recommended in this category, it has out of the box USB support that works well with OS X and it's keys are full-sized, touch sensitive, unweighted keys.

MAudio O2 25-Key MIDI Controller with USB ($149.95). The MAudio 02 falls into a category of "sub-compact" controllers that offers supreme portability over a larger set of keys or more assignable controls. If you're looking to take your keyboard with you EVERYWHERE, then this little guy may be of interest to you. If not, you should probably stick with the larger controllers that will offer more flexibility in playing and controlling your audio applications.

Personal Synthesizers

The last category of keyboards we'll look at are frequently called "personal keyboards" in the marketplace. These keyboards are on the "consumer" side of things, rather than the pro or amateur musician side. These keyboards are frequently found in places like Wal-Mart or the Sears catalog. Before dismissing these keyboards, however, you should consider the extensive features they offer for a very minimal price. Most personal synthesizers offer an expansive collection of built-in sounds, basic sequencing capabilities, touch sensitive keys, learning utilities, built-in speakers, and of course, MIDI in/out. The ones we highlight below offer all of these features and quite a number more. Over the years, personal keyboards have grown more and more impressive in the quality of on-board sounds they brings. The pricing may very well suprise and attract you to consider one of these versatile units if you're purchasing your first keyboard. Just remember you'll most likely need a USB/MIDI adapter to hook them up to your Mac.

Yamaha PSRE303 61-Key MIDI Keyboard with Sequencer ($189.95). For under $200 (including free shipping), the PSR E303 gives a bevy of features for the beginning MIDI keyboard user. This unit features over 400 unique voices, 61 keys with touch sensitivity, basic effects, and a two-track sequencer for recording songs directly on the keyboard. This is probably the most affordable keyboard you'll find with a built-in sequencer. In addition, this unit comes with some of the accessories you might otherwise pay extra for (watch out for this with personal keyboards), namely, a power adapter, foot pedal, headphones, and an extended 2-year warranty.

Yamaha PSRE203 61-Key General MIDI Keyboard ($129.95). If you're looking for a keyboard similar to the PSR E303 above and on a tighter budget, you'll want to check out the younger brother of that model, the PSR E203. The E203 offers many of the same features, including 61 touch sensitive keys, but has just over 100 unique voices and no sequencer. If you're looking for something that has a basic, grand piano voice along with a General MIDI soundset, and don't need the bells and whistles of the PSR E303, the E203 is tough to beat. You'll be hard pressed to find a 61-key MIDI keyboard with built-in sounds and the ability to play them through speakers for less than this price point.

Yamaha PSR450 61-Key MIDI Keyboard ($129.95). The PSR 450 weighs out on the high end of the price spectrum for personal keyboards. However, in the high-value arena of this product group, that means a boatload of features. The PSR 450 has over 600 unique voices, including two special groups of voices featured only on Yamaha's higher-end personal keyboards: the "sweet voices," which are realistically modeled acoustic instruments such as saxes, flutes, and woodwinds, and the "cool voices," which are long-sampled electrically amplified voices such as electric piano, organ, and electric guitar. It's worth noting, however, that all of these great voices are of use to you only if you want to hear them through the built-in speakers or line out, or want to use them in your audio software by routing the keyboard's line out through your Mac's line in (in other words, this is an analog process that will not sound as good as playing a software instrument using the MIDI capabilities of the keyboard).

That's All!

We hope you find this guide to MIDI keyboards interesting and useful and wish all of our users the best of luck in finding the perfect keyboard. If you have questions, check out our highly active discussion forums for expert advice from our thousands of registered members. If you're still a little confused on the whole MIDI concept and want more basic information, check out our article, "MIDI Basics for Apple GarageBand Users." Also, if you're new to computer recording on your Mac and looking to get started with equipment other than a keyboard, such as a Mic, headphones, etc., check out our article, "MacJams.com Apple GarageBand Buyer's Guide."

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