Best Midi Controller For Mainstage: Three Brands Reviewed

Many of you have written me asking what my favorite keyboard to use with MainStage is, and I thought it was finally time to sit down and give a run-through my three favorite companies that make dedicated midi controllers: M-Audio, Akai, and Novation.

(Disclosure: I’ve used all of these brands, but I’ve never officially owned an Akai midi controller. Also, I was a conversation away from being endorsed by M-Audio about 5 years ago, which might bias me a bit more than the average user.)

Here’s my thoughts: 


What they do best: inexpensive, quality keyboards with lots of easily mappable faders, knobs, and sliders. 

What I didn’t like: needlessly bulky keyboard bodies. Knobs will occasionally break under demanding road conditions. 

Details: M-Audio makes amazing keyboards, and they definitely offer the most choices of any manufacturer on the market. At one point, I owned their 88 key hammer action Keystation Pro series, an Oxygen 61 and 49, and an amazing 25 note keyboard called the MidAir that offered the first wireless midi. 

All of the keyboards held up well, with the exception of knobs occasionally going bad from the wear and tear of shows every week (in their defense, I often used soft-shell cases instead of sturdy hardshell touring cases). 

Final verdict: the reason M-Audio sells more controllers than any other manufacturer is simple: they offer the most options at the best price point of any keyboard manufacturer, making it hard to say no to having at least one of their keyboards around the studio or stage. 


What they do best:  Akai offers sturdy keyboards with a stiffer action and lots of size options, and great feeling MPC-style pads. It’s easy to map controls in MainStage. Some keyboards include arpeggiators, which can come in handy for some users.

What I didn’t like: a little more expensive than other alternatives for what you get. 

Details: my experience with Akai has been great so far. The keyboard has a solid, heavier feel even with their synth action models, making it easy to play pianos and other instruments that require more exacting velocities. 

The knobs and sliders are big, and feel firm under your fingers, but may not be suited for drawbars where you’re pulling several at the same time.

Final verdict: I’ve only played Akai keyboards a half dozen times, but all of my experiences have been satisfying. The action improves my articulation subtlety on sensitive soft synth patches, and the knobs and sliders are fun to twist and wiggle. If you’ve got the cash, it’s worth taking a look at Akai. 


What they do best:  Novations offers great feeling lighter keyboards, tons of responsive knobs and faders including endless LED-circled rotary encoders, and amazing integration with DAWs via their free Automap software. Large LCD screen on keyboard gives feedback on which knob is sending which midi CC. Flexible midi routing on the back panel, and expression pedal inputs. 

What I didn’t like: Automap software doesn’t work with MainStage, making the keyboard less “smart” when working with MainStage (i.e. realtime feedback on the endless rotary of which parameter you’re controlling).

Details: Novation is the Rolls-Royce of midi controllers for a reason. I own their Remote SL series keyboard, and it boasts LED rings around the encoders that show in realtime where your onscreen controls are located, and there’s a generous LCD strip across the top of the keyboard, and simply touching a knob or fader brings up the controller’s Midi CC information and it’s current value. 

Sadly, their Automap software doesn’t work with MainStage, making the communication between MainStage and your keyboard one direction (i.e. you won’t see the name of the onscreen controls on the LCD strip like you would if you were using Logic Pro or Pro Tools).

Final verdict: If you’re planning on using your keyboard with many different DAWs as well as MainStage, this is definitely the most tightly integrated and easily programmable option on the market. If you run just MainStage, I might recommend looking elsewhere. 

What’s your favorite keyboard to use with MainStage? Post your responses below! 

This past weekend I used an Akai 61 key controller with my MainStage 3 rig for a women's conference in St. Louis. Loved the rest of the rig, too- there's nothing like vintage gear! 

This past weekend I used an Akai 61 key controller with my MainStage 3 rig for a women's conference in St. Louis. Loved the rest of the rig, too- there's nothing like vintage gear!