I should imagine there comes a point in every contemporary composers career where a larger MIDI master keyboard is required, for me that day came this week. I had been flirting with the idea of upgrading for some time, but what with the vast volume of products available on the market and just sheer size of a full format keyboard in general, I found myself trawling through the internet and never really coming to any sort of conclusion on what the best solution would be.

I had been using the M-Audio Oxygen 49 for the past two years and found the assignable faders and pots very useful, especially when working with sound design and electronic based composition. The synth action keys on the other hand and general lack of them were beginning to frustrate me.

Most modern orchestral sample libraries contain patches called ‘key-switches’, essentially this enables the composer to change the articulation of the loaded instrument during the performance at the touch of a piano note; These notes are usually placed outside the playable range of the instrument. In other words, should the composer be using a solo cello for example, using a key-switched patch would provide the ability to switch between a sustained and pizzicato note articulation at the touch of key instead of having to move to a different track with the pizzicato articulation loaded in order to play that part of the composition. This makes playing ‘live’ much more of a possibility and is a great way of adding realism to your sampled instruments. I found that using a 49 key MIDI controller made using these patches very difficult to use as I had to hit the octave button down on the keyboard every time I wanted to change articulation, a frustration which is no longer an issue with an 88 key controller.

I had three controllers in mind, Originally I wanted to go with with the ‘M-Audio Oxygen 88’, which in terms of looks it is exactly the same as the 49 but with a better build quality and hammer graded piano keys, so essentially it would be like having a piano on my table. I then stumbled upon the ‘Studiologic VMK-188’ which again was a full weighed 88 key MIDI controller but contained ‘aftertouch’, which is another function found in sample libraries in which the composer can depress the key further after a note has been triggered to modulate the sound in various ways, adding vibrato to a violin note for example, it contained pots and faders similar to the Oxygen and benefitted from a better build quality. Finally, I had seen the ‘M-Audio Keystation 88es’, this keyboard was by far the cheapest, it has semi-weighted keys and did not contain any assignable pots or faders or aftertouch.

So which keyboard did I choose? Well I was sold on the Studiologic, all the reviews I had read regarding the keyboard manufacturers “Fatar” were good, I wanted a fully weighted platform and they keyboard had the aftertouch function as well as the faders and pots I had enjoyed using on the Oxygen 49. Upon measuring my workstation however, it was evident that the keyboard was far too large in width, the same applied to the Oxygen 88, so I’m the end I purchased the Keystation which does not contain fully weighted keys, aftertouch or the faders and pots, but had very good reviews in terms of feel, size and quality.

Impressions? Well I must admit, I had my doubts, M-Audio have have a very bad reputation in the past for making cheap products which as rumor has it, either don’t work very well or are very entry level in terms of quality. Upon arrival, I was still skeptical while unboxing the product as I did not know what to expect, I then touched the keys! Personally, I am very impressed and happy with my choice, I think that since Avid (makers of Pro Tools, Sibelius, Media Composer and many other industry standard products) have taken over M-Audio, the general quality has improved maybe? I see no evidence of this “shoddy” reputation within this product or my old Oxygen 49 for that matter. The keys to me feel great, I really like the semi weighted action as I can trigger drums, synth notes and fast performances with easy, something I fear would have been difficult with a fully weighted, hammer grade piano action, but still benefit from a more ridged feel when writing piano pieces. The size of the keyboard is perfect for me and sits on my table nicely, it contain a volume level (which seems to be assigned to the plugins output level), mod wheel, the standard pitch bend as well as octave keys which seem a little redundant on a full octave keyboard. I have started using iPad more in terms of modulating MIDI perimeters within Logic and Pro Tools and so far, am not missing the faders and pots. I am using my new keyboard as a compositional tool exclusively.

In conclusion, if you are looking for a MIDI keyboard on a budget and do not have the space for a full format, fully weighted controller, I see no reason why the Keystation 88es will not work for your needs, perhaps a professional piano player, or someone who learnt to play the piano using weighted keys will struggle adapting to a semi weighted format, but I believe you will adapt quickly and perhaps find fully weighted keys tricky to use in terms of programming quick notes, such as drums, or fast violin passages.

EDIT: 10/01/2014 - On using this keyboard for just over a year now, I will admit that the velocity sensitivity is not too great, to get to 127 I find myself having to hit the key hard and I playing soft velocities difficult resulting in a lot of MIDI editing of certain performances, especially piano and percussion. It still serves its purpose and has got me through various projects and compositions, but I would like to upgrade soon to gain more expression in my performances. My main issues is the sheer size of most 88 key products, if someone could develop a keyboard of similar size that contains better weighted and more expressive keys, I’d be happy!