This Keyboard Might Be Perfect for Serious Beginners

It’s big, it’s cheap, and it feels great

  • Novation’s Launchkey 88 has 88 weighted, velocity-sensitive keys. 
  • It costs just $400. 
  • A full-sized keyboard allows much more expression than smaller devices.
The Novation Launchkey 88


Short of somebody giving you an old piano that is miraculously still in tune, the best way to learn keys might be Novation's new Launchkey 88

Pretty much every cheap synthesizer comes with a keyboard attached, and if you walk into your local music gear store, you'll see a bunch of inexpensive MIDI keyboards that can be hooked up to a computer or iPad to play amazing software instruments. Those keyboards are fine for folks who just need something small and portable or don't care about much other than being able to enter notes into an app. But if you're serious about learning to actually play, you need more. 

"If you're a beginner who is making music in a DAW, make sure the keyboard has encoders and faders that are built-in. A beginner doesn't want to shell out a bunch of cash for dedicated faders and drum pads, for example. A midi controller with a nice key bed, built-in faders, encoders, and drum pads give you everything you need to create entire tracks in any Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)," singer-songwriter Matthew Scott Ragland told Lifewire via email.

Key Ingredients

There are a few features that keyboard players find essential. One is that the keys are big enough. Smaller keyboards often use narrow keys to fit more into the space available. Another is key feel. Keys can be weighted, so they feel like a piano rather than a toy. This weight should be combined with velocity sensitivity, so you can play louder by hitting harder. Without this, there is no way to add expression to your playing. 

And finally, you may want aftertouch, where the continued pressure on a key will affect the sound. In a MIDI keyboard, this parameter can be mapped to control all kinds of effects, from volume, to vibrato to pretty much anything your software can do. 

Novation's Launchkey 88 MIDI controller has a semi-weighted keyboard with adjustable velocity sensitivity, and it has—as the name makes clear—88 of them. That's a full-sized piano keyboard. 

And then there's the keybed. In a piano, this is the felt-lined bar that stops the keys when you play them instead of letting wood slam into wood. On modern MIDI keyboards, the keybed is what gives the instrument its feel, either cheap or good and responsive. 

"For me, I want a keyboard that is as close to a real piano as possible. A nice keybed pulls a better and more organic performance out of me. Anything I do on a keyboard is greatly benefitted by a nice feeling keybed. It's integral to the songwriting process to feel the responsiveness of the instrument. And that responsiveness is what weighted keys give you," says Ragland. 

But semi-weighted keys might not be the best option if you plan on actually playing a real piano in the future. 

"I'm personally a sucker for fully-weighted keys because I am a pianist first and a keyboardist second," studio and touring pianist and keyboardist Summer Swee-Singh told Lifewire via email. "If you learn on a semi-weighted instrument but then have to perform on a fully-weighted acoustic piano, that touch discrepancy for a beginner—especially for a young child—will very likely be tough to mitigate initially."

And here's the kicker: It's only $400. 

Closeup on the Novation Launchkey 88 keyboard.


More MIDI 

Now, if you want to learn piano, all you need is this, plus a copy of Apple’s free GarageBand app on your iPhone, which has some amazing piano instruments built-in. But even in that simple case, you will benefit from all the other bits and pieces on this keyboard. 

There are knobs and sliders for adjusting software instruments without having to look at the screen, plus 16 velocity-sensitive pads for playing drums, or similar duties, pitch and mod wheels, and transport controls for playing, stopping, and recording your DAW software, like GarageBand or Ableton Live. It also runs off USB power.

There are other 88-key keyboards that you can buy, of course, but this segment—full-sized keyboards—seems to be aimed at the mid to high end of the market, presumably because if you’re in the market for a huge 88-key monster, you’re not looking for a cheap and cheerful entry-level unit.

And yet, it’s that big 88-key canvas that might make all the difference for learners. If nothing else, that’s something you might bear in mind when shopping around, either for used or new keyboards.

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