small synth and keyboard with headphones

Best Small Midi Controller for Film Composers

A midi controller is essential for the DIY film composer. You don’t need a huge studio (or huge budget) to add one to your toolkit. There are many small midi controllers that pack a ton of features into a small form factor. In this post, I review my favorites so you can pick the best one for your project.

(note: This post contains affiliate links, which means diyfilmcomposer.com may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements.)


Small Midi Controllers Reviewed

All of these small midi controllers have similar layouts and similar features. Most feature a two-octave keyboard, sample pads, and faders of some sort. But not all are created equal.

Akai Pro MPK Mini MkIIBest Sample Pads$117
M-Audio Oxygen 25 IVBest Overall$119
Alesis V25Best Keyboard$89
Arturia MiniLab MkIIBest Control Knobs$98
Worlde Tuna MiniBest Value$79
Roli SeaboardMost Expressive$279

note: all prices were current as of October 2019


Akai Pro MPK Mini MkII – $117

akai pro mpk mini
Akai Pro MPK Mini MkII

The Akai Pro MPK Mini MkII is awesome. It features a 25-key keyboard (two octaves) along with eight sample pads, eight assignable rotary faders, and a small joystick for expression control. There are also options for changing the octave range, pad banks, sensitivity, note repeat, tempo input, and an arpeggiator.

Pros

Akai is well-known for its hardware music controllers, and its pedigree shines through here. The sample pads are best in class – they had the best feel, and the sensitivity was familiar.

The rotary fader controls were small but comfortable, and the keyboard’s touch sensitivity was natural.

For my review on the Akai Fire midi controller, check out this post.

One of the unique features here is the joystick, which is assignable to any X-Y control in your DAW, and defaults to a pitch-bend control when playing a compatible virtual instrument (like a synth). I was skeptical at first, but the more I played around with it, the more I liked it.

Cons

The biggest drawback for me was the size of the keyboard. While I appreciated the compact size of the device, the feel of the keyboard suffered. The keys themselves are small and narrow, which takes some adjustment. The action of the keys also felt a little cheap and springy – not the worst in the group, but somewhat toy-like. After the quality feel of the pads and fader knobs, I was let down by the keyboard. As a film composer, I’m going to spend a lot of time on the keys, so this is an important consideration.

While it looks very cool (limited editions available in black and white), its diminuitive size, plastic case, and small keys made it feel more like a toy than many of the other midi controllers.

Verdict: Best Sample Pads

The Akai Pro MPK Mini MkII shines brightest with its sample pads. Akai’s long history of making the best MPC controllers is on display even in this affordable midi controller. They know sample pads, and do it better than anyone. Despite the small keyboard, the rest of the features more than make up for its shortcomings – and should be on your shortlist.


M-Audio Oxygen 25 IV – $119

M-Audio Oxygen 25 IV

The Oxygen has a two-octave touch-sensitive keyboard, eight pads, eight rotary faders, pitch bend and modulation wheels, as well as transport controls and one linear fader. M-Audio makes a lot of solid, affordable gear that is great for DIY composers and indie filmmakers – and the Oxygen continues that tradition.

Pros

The M-Audio Oxygen 25 just works. Their DirectLink software automatically routes the controls to your DAW’s controls, so you can plug it in, boot up your favorite software, and hit the ground running. The layout is simple and intuitive, and doesn’t fool around with extraneous features.

Transport controls are a HUGE feature for me. It’s a simple feature, yet not available in every small midi controller. Having play, stop, loop, and record available dead center on the controller simplifies the recording process and makes me more efficient. It’s the only midi controller on this list that has dedicated transport controls.

The keyboard here isn’t full-size, but close. This was comfortable for me to use, and I’m happy to have a slightly larger device in order to get larger keys.

Cons

M-Audio is a budget-conscious brand, and so the overall build quality feels a little cheap. The plastic case and some of the buttons don’t have the best tactile feel, and other reviewers have commented on the cheap feel of the pads.

While the keyboard is a nice form factor, the action isn’t the best. It feels like a cheap synth, and could be better. There have also been some users reporting issues with the touch sensitivity, requiring a manual re-mapping of the response curve.

The size of the device is larger than some of its competitors. The keys are larger than the Akai, the modulation/pitch wheel placement, and LCD display take up a lot of real estate. If you were hoping to toss this in your backpack and use it on the go, you’d need a larger bag and plenty of elbow room.

Verdict: Best All-Around

The M-Audio Oxygen 25 IV is a great all-around small midi controller. The number of assignable controls, key size, transport controls, and easy plug-and-play functionality make it the best generalist on the list.


Alesis V25 – $89

Alesis V25 small midi controller
Alesis V25

The Alesis V25 is an incredible value. It doesn’t feature as many bells and whistles as some of the other small midi controllers with only four rotary faders. But, it has eight sample pads, four assignable buttons, dedicated modulation and pitch wheels, and – most importantly – a two-octave full-size weighted keyboard.

Pros

There really is no denying the V25’s biggest selling point – the full-size square-front keys. Alesis managed to cram standard keys into a small midi controller, and I’ll be forever grateful for that. Maybe I have sausage fingers, or maybe I’m just used to playing a real piano (or both), but I felt most at home playing the keys on the Alesis.

The look and feel of the device can’t be denied either. It’s simple, stylish, and sleek, even though it’s wider than most other small midi controllers. The blue backlit controls and elegant design look great, and the build quality is top notch. It really stood out as the most high-end in terms of design and feel.

Cons

The mapping and touch sensitivity of the Alesis V25 does have some issues. While the M-Audio controller worked great out of the box with my DAW, the Alesis took some tweaking. There are firmware updates and utility software applications to map and change the touch sensitivity to your liking, but some users have reported needing to go into the settings just to make it useable.

The sample/drum pads here aren’t the best. They feel okay, but I had some issues with samples being double-triggered when recording cues.

There are only four rotary fader control knobs, and no transport controls. However, there are four assignable buttons that could be mapped to useful triggers.

Verdict – Best Keyboard

The Alesis V25 stakes its claim with its awesome keyboard. The benefit of full-size keys with touch sensitivity and a great feel can’t be overstated when you’re used to playing a piano or higher-end keyboard. The stylish look and feel is icing on the cake, and the price can’t be beat.


Arturia Minilab MkII – $99

arturia minilab mkii
Arturia Minilab MkII

The Arturia MiniLab MkII features a slim-key two-octave keyboard, eight sample pads, two capacitive pitch/modulation strips, and 16(!) rotary encoders, all for under $100.

Pros

The MiniLab stands out for its large array of rotary control knobs. It has four times as many as the Alesis V25! These encoders feel great and give you many options to tweak individual effects, controls, and filters. For me, this is a major plus when it comes to mixing a cue – I can mix the levels of 16 tracks at once, all from this small piece of kit.

The device is small, owing to the slim-design keyboard. This makes it portable, and gives you more room on a desk or in a small studio. Plus, the build quality is great, and feels like a substantial instrument.

Cons

While the rotary encoders feel great, they have one quality that ended up being a negative for me. There were no hard stops on the knobs, so you could spin them endlessly. What this meant in practice was that, if you have one assigned to a filter that goes from 0% to 100%, it’s impossible to hit 0 or 100 on the knob once you’ve started spinning it. Different DAWs have different settings for this, but just spinning and spinning meant a twist of the knob did unpredictable things.

The biggest drawback to this device was the keyboard: It was my least favorite out of all the small midi controllers. Again, I might be biased, but I am not a fan of the “slim-design” keys, which felt too small to be comfortable. In addition, the action on the keys was very springy. They had a lot of resistance, and snapped back quickly. When playing, this felt very unnatural, even for a budget-conscious midi controller.

Verdict – Best Control Knobs

The Arturia MiniLab MkII is best for those looking for a ton of rotary faders. Having 16 assignable knobs just puts this in a different class from the others. If you’re going to spend a lot of time working on the mix, or tweaking effects parameters in your film score cues, this is the midi controller for you.


Worlde Tuna Mini – $79

Worlde Tuna Mini

The Worlde Tuna Mini is the cheapest small midi controller in our review, but it’s full of features. Two octaves of keys, eight sample pads, eight rotary knobs, eight linear faders, and capacitive pitch an modulation controls. All wrapped in a decent form factor with faux wood accents by Vangoa, a Chinese company I had never heard of.

Pros

The biggest selling point here is value for money. It’s the cheapest small midi controller on our list, but packs more controls than many of the other controllers. And, the smaller keys keep the overall size down while retaining all these available features.

The combo of eight rotary AND eight linear faders makes this thing a beast for mixing and effects controls. Having just gushed about the Arturia’s plethora of fader knobs, all the same benefits come with the Tuna Mini.

Cons

The biggest con here is risk. Worlde is made by a Chinese company called Vangoa, and there is little to no documentation or customer service. The unit does not ship with any manual (although sometimes is does, according to other reviews), and necessary firmware updates and utility software have been distributed as a Google Drive link on the Amazon product Q&A page!

Reviews are mixed as far as build quality and reliability; for some, the touch sensitivity is poor and the button response degrade over time. For others, it works out of the box with zero issues.

So, there is some risk associated with purchasing the Tuna. You might get lucky, or you might strike out.

Verdict: Best Value

The Worlde Tuna Mini represents the best value for money here. For $79, you get a wide array of features at an impressively budget-friendly price. If you’re willing to roll the dice on a Chinese manufacturer with an unproven track record (and you get a quality unit), then it can’t be beat.


Roli Seaboard – $279

roli seaboard wireless midi keyboard
Roli Seaboard

One of these things is not like the other… The Roli Seaboard stands alone as a new take on what a midi controller can be. It has wireless connectivity, expandability, and touch sensitivity far beyond what is usually on offering in a midi controller. It responds to not only how hard you hit the keys, but also where you hit the keys, and how you move your fingers once you’re playing a note. About the only thing this has in common with the other small midi controllers is that you get a two-octave keyboard. Check out the demo video below to see it in action:

Pros

The obvious pro here is expressiveness. There are so many ways to change and shape the notes you are playing. You can really add a human performance element to virtual instruments in your film music. There are more ways to intuitively play instruments and change the sound of your score. The underlying functionality of the Seaboard opens up a new world of possibilities.

Couple that with expandability – you can add more Seaboards or several other controller modules to build the midi controller of your dreams.

Wireless connectivity can’t be discounted either. Cutting the cord can make this device more easily useable in more situations, such as while sitting on a plane, or nestling it between other gear on a crowded studio desk.

Cons

Compared to the other small midi controllers, it is much more expensive. It is small and compact like the others, but its price tag is more than double the next most expensive controller on the list.

While many controls are added into the keyboard sensitivity, there is a distinct lack of any other ways to control your music. No knobs, faders, buttons, wheels, or – most importantly, sample pads. This may not matter for everyone, but for me, I breath life into my score’s virtual percussion with midi sample pads.

You can add other touch-sensitive control modules (like sample pads), but these come at a cost. In general, it’s just more expensive to get the same functionality out of Roli devices.

Verdict – Most Expressive

Overall, the Roli Seaboard is an interesting idea, and ingenious design – all leading to the most expressive small midi controller. Despite its lack of diverse controls, the multi-touch functionality of the keyboard really adds a new dimension of sound shaping to your film music.


Conclusion

So, there you have it, the best small midi controllers on the market today, reviewed from the perspective of an indie film composer. Think about what features are most important to you, then see if one of these devices would help make you a better composer!

Akai Pro MPK Mini MkIIBest Sample Pads$117
M-Audio Oxygen 25 IVBest Overall$119
Alesis V25Best Keyboard$89
Arturia MiniLab MkIIBest Control Knobs$98
Worlde Tuna MiniBest Value$79
Roli SeaboardMost Expressive$279

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