The Best MIDI Pad Controllers

The Highest Rated MIDI Pad Controllers

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Making music has never been easier. The entire music production process has evolved to become more directly involved with creatives, sometimes circumventing the need for many technical to have know-how (though it still helps a lot!). Home studio setups are more accessible now; all you need is a computer, a mic and an audio interface at the bare minimum. Those that prefer the path of the electronic musician however, have other options.

A MIDI Pad controller augments this basic setup by enabling a whole new level of creative freedom by triggering clips, samples and phrases on the fly. An electronic music setup in itself feels more like a musical instrument. Many of these controllers are intuitively designed to get you making music as quickly and easily as possible.

With certain workflows, you can even replicate your music as a live performance, even enabling live remixes of material.

So, rather than be stuck clicking notes one by one, arranging tracks by copying and pasting, why not get a MIDI Pad Controller to take your creativity to the next level?

In this June 2021 edition, we have seen some of last years entries be superseded by new items. We have trimmed down our selection to ease option paralysis and give you more detailed descriptions for their specialties, pros, and cons to help you make the right decision, faster. We have chosen the highest rated products currently available plus a budget Honorable Mention for those who prefer using Ableton Live as their DAW.

The Best MIDI Pad Controllers

Author & Contributors

Raphael PulgarRaphael Pulgar

An audio engineer of nearly 20 years who specializes in rock and metal recordings, he also plays guitar and produces original music for his band and other content creators.

Akai Professional Fire

93
GEARANK

93 out of 100. Incorporating 900+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$119
Akai Professional Fire

FL Studio has been around for nearly two decades now starting with it's first incarnation as Fruity Loops back in the early 2000s.

Akai Professional introducing the Fire MIDI Pad controller is a long overdue hardware release that complements one of the most popular music production DAWs on the market.

The 4 x 16 layout matches perfectly with the step sequencer of FL Studio and up to 4 units can be linked to create an 8 x 32 grid.

Each sequence can be controlled to play in real time.

The Fire also has enough navigation controls for mouse-free operation.

Features:

  • Pads: 4 x 16 control matrix with velocity-sensitive RGB pads
  • Buttons: 15 x Navigation and Transport controls.
  • Knobs: 4 x Assignable, Touch-capacitive Knobs ,
  • Other: LCD display
  • Analog Inputs:None
  • Analog OutputsNone
  • Standalone Mode: No
  • Power: 15V DC power supply (included) / USB bus power
  • Connectivity: USB S
  • Compatibility: Windows 7 SP1 or later, OS X 10.11 or later, FL Studio 20.0.5 or later
  • Software Bundle: No Software included (controller only)
  • Dimensions: 12.44" x 6.55" x 1.69"
  • Weight: 1.68 lbs.

Pros

"Finally!" is the resounding cry of FL Studio users everywhere that bought the unit. After many years of coveting a dedicated controller for FL Studio, many users loved how fast it integrated into their workflow, enabling creative and performance optimizations they couldn't imagine before. The dedicated transport controls, multipurpose pads and navigation controls were praised by several users.

Cons

No velocity sensitivity. This was a massive deal-breaker for many who expected the pads to have this feature for drum programming.

Overall

While the controller is indeed a solid first effort into integrating with a well-loved DAW, It does have it's quirks. Get it if you are one of those that have been waiting for a controller for FL Studio and rely more on live arrangement, performance, and remixing. Look elsewhere if you're looking to primarily program beats.

Novation Launchpad X

93
GEARANK

93 out of 100. Incorporating 650+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$200
Novation Launchpad X Grid Controller

While having an "X" in the name of any product signifies it to be edgy or hip, we speculate that the Launchpad X's designation comes from the fact that it was launched in the 10th year that the Launchpad series has been in production.

The Launchpad X is slimmer, sleeker and more streamlined than it's predecessors.

In addition to the form factor, the Launchpad X now features velocity and pressure-sensitive pads. This adds new layers of expression to your performances beyond just triggering clips and samples.

It also carries over some features from it's more expensive siblings like note/scale modes feature.

Features:

  • Pads: 64 Velocity and Pressure Sensitive RGB pads
  • Buttons: 16 x Multi Purpose buttons for transport, clip control and settings.
  • Knobs: none
  • Other: none
  • Analog Inputs:none
  • Analog Outputsnone
  • Standalone Mode: no
  • Power: USB bus power
  • Connectivity: none
  • Compatibility: macOS 10.13 or later, iOS 9 or later , Windows 10 or later
  • Software Bundle: Klevgrand R0Verb and DAW Cassette, Softube Time and Tone bundle, and Sound Collective access and more
  • Dimensions: 9.48" x 9.48" x 0.68"
  • Weight: 5.9 lbs

Pros

One of the most praised features from owners has been the addition of velocity sensitive pads. They were able to be more creative with their compositions without switching back and forth with other controllers. Other than that, the integration with Ableton Live is still a 1:1 affair since the Launchpad series was designed for it.

Cons

Full integration is only with Ableton. Some negative reviews are from users who purchased the unit expected some level of compatibility with other software.

Overall

If Ableton Live is your DAW of choice, the Novation Launchpad X is the best piece of hardware to control it.

Akai Professional APC40 MKII

92
GEARANK

92 out of 100. Incorporating 850+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$299
Akai Professional APC40 MKII MIDI Pad Controller

The origin of the APC (Ableton Performance Controler) traces back to 2009 when Akai collaborated with the creators of Ableton Live to develop a hardware controller optimized for use with their DAW.

The hardware needed to be able to be used not just in the studio, but live performances as well. The APC40 MKII is the second iteration of the line.

The MKII update brought about a smaller footprint with optimizations in layout and performance such as a revised knob layout. Aesthetically, the clip launch grid gained RGB lighting for better distinction between clips.

The controller is rounded out by nine reinforced faders that control volume, pan and other parameters.

Eight channel control knobs enable easy access to control options.

Features:

  • Pads: 40 (5x8 matrix) clip-launch pads with RGB feedback
  • Buttons: 5 x Scene Launch Buttons, 9 x Clip Stop Buttons, 9 x Track Selector buttons, 8 x Track buttons, 8 x Device Control buttons, 3 x Transport Buttons, 3 x Assignable buttons, 4 x Bank Select buttons
  • Knobs: 8 x Assignable knobs, 8 x Control knobs, 1 x Tempo knob
  • Other Controls: 9 channel faders, 1 Crossfader
  • Analog Inputs: none
  • Analog Outputs none
  • Standalone Mode: No
  • Power: USB-powered
  • Connectivity: USB Slot, Footswitch Input, Kensington Lock Slot
  • Compatibility: Mac with Mac OS X 10.5, Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8 or 10
  • Software Bundle: Ableton Live Lite with Puremagnetik Effect Racks, Hybrid 3 by AIR Music Tech, SONiVOX Twist, Prime Loops sample packs, and Toolroom Records artist launch packs
  • Dimensions: 16.7" x 10" x 1.8"
  • Weight: 3.97 lbs

Pros

The MKII's pads and lighting flexibility take center stage as users' favorite update versus the original APC40. Being able to perform with immediate visual feedback when triggering clips as well as mixing and using effects without looking at the screen helps keeping improvised performances intuitive and free from distraction. In his Sound on Sound review, Simon Sherbourne said both performers and composers will appreciate this controller because of its user mode where you can utilize the user button to switch "the pots to generic MIDI controllers, allowing you to use Live’s MIDI Map mode to take control of any parameter. "

Cons

The plastic parts were noted to be flimsy and toy-like in feel. Some question the long term durability. Pads also do not have a velocity response and have to be tweaked in the DAW manually. For people who use DAWs other than Ableton, the pads need to be mapped manually.

Overall

If you're an Ableton Live user, the APC40 MKII was designed for the DAW and integrates fully with a lot of its features. Look elsewhere if you use different DAWs as integration is done manually for anything else.

Novation Launchpad Pro MK3

92
GEARANK

92 out of 100. Incorporating 250+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$350
Novation Launchpad Pro MK3 MIDI Pad Controller

The third iteration of Novation's Launchpad Pro series promises deeper Ableton Live integration, larger buttons and a slimmer overall profile.

New outer buttons add more flexibility with assignments while two MIDI outputs enable integration outside the box with your other hardware.

Novation also points out that the pads on the MK3 are their most responsive yet. This is important since Novation expanded the pads to be more than clip launchers. The Pads can be used as sample pads and even chromatic keys; this is where velocity sensitivity is important.

Features:

  • Pads: 64 Velocity and Pressure Sensitive RGB pads
  • Buttons: 40 x Multi Purpose buttons for transport, clip control and settings, 1 x shift, 1 x setup
  • Knobs: none
  • Other: none
  • Analog Inputs: 1 x 1/8" TRS Type A (in),
  • Analog Outputs 2 x 1/8" TRS Type A (out)
  • Standalone Mode: no
  • Power: USB bus power
  • Connectivity: none
  • Compatibility: macOS 10.13 or later, iOS 9 or later / Windows 10 or later
  • Software Bundle: Ableton Live Lite, AAS Session Bundle, XLN Addictive Keys, Softube Time and Tone Bundle, Novation Sound Collective
  • Dimensions: 10.55 x 10.55 x 0.71 inches
  • Weight: 3.96 lbs

Pros

Rather than a complete rework, Novation chose to make small, incremental improvements to the MK3. These improvements, however small, were noticed and welcomed by the community. Like its predecessors, it integrates seamlessly with Ableton Live with a few added bonuses like track select and capture. The MK3 still retains the open-source nature of the device's firmware and people have found that their "hacks" still work on the unit. Novation actually supports modifying some of the functions of the Launchpad Pro and even provides resources to tweak things under the hood. Many users were glad to see that the MK3 retains this functionality.

Cons

People are still wishing for a screen. With the built in complexities of the unit, coupled with user-made customizations, a screen would be on the top priority of future upgrades in an eventual MK4.

Overall

"Don't mess with a good formula" seems to be Novation's approach in this third iteration of their Launchpad Pro line. It still retains everything people love about it while adding a few bonuses and small improvements for an overall better experience.

Native Instruments Maschine MK3

96
GEARANK

96 out of 100. Incorporating 1150+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$649
Native Instruments Maschine MK3 MIDI Pad Controller

At publication time this was the Equal Highest Rated MIDI Pad Controller along with the Ableton Push 2.

The Maschine MK3 is Native Instruments' flagship MIDI Pad Controller and Software.

Major improvements over the previous iteration include a completely redone front end with bigger pads, a screen and a hi resolution interface.

I/O features include balanced stereo inputs and outputs, MIDI in and out, a microphone input with gain control, headphone output with gain control.

Features:

  • Pads: 16 Large Velocity Sensitive Backlit Pads (Linear Curve)
  • Buttons: 16 x Multi Purpose buttons, 21 x Function Buttons, 8 x Solo/Mute/Transport buttons, 13 x Pad function buttons
  • Knobs: 1 x Universal Multidirection Encoder Knob, 8 assignable encoder knobs with capacitive touch sensitivity
  • Other: 1 x Dual Touch Smart Strip, Dual high-resolution color displays
  • Analog Inputs:2 x 1/4" (line in), 1 x 1/4" (mic in)
  • Analog Outputs2 x 1/4" (line out), 1 x 1/4" (headphones)
  • Standalone Mode: Yes
  • Power: 15V DC power supply (included) / USB bus power
  • Connectivity: MIDI I/O, USB Slot, Kensington Lock Slot
  • Compatibility: Mac with Mac OS X 10.5, Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8 or 10
  • Software Bundle: 8GB built in sample library, 25 GB Komplete 11 Select library
  • Dimensions: 12.6" x 11.85" x 1.61"
  • Weight: 5.9 lbs

Pros

The Maschine Mk3 receives general praise from owners for it's updated workflow and playability. The resized pads and positioning of various functions make them easy to reach especially during live performances. Several people found the controller "Inspiring" and say it feels like you're playing a musical instrument instead of a piece of MIDI hardware.

Cons

Some users disliked the fact that additional sound packs have to be purchased separately given the price of the controller. Some people claimed to have gotten an "open box" unit that is unable to be registered. For this, the community suggests only buying from trusted retailers. While it has a mic in and functions as an audio interface, several reviewers felt like an XLR in with phantom power would have been better.

Overall

Native Instruments' Maschine is an ecosystem of hardware components and software. The MK3 version of the controller brings a lot to the table and integrates well with other hardware pieces you may already own. If you primarily produce using software from the Native Instruments catalog, the Maschine MK3 is the flagship.

Ableton Push 2

96
GEARANK

96 out of 100. Incorporating 1050+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$799
Ableton Push 2 MIDI Pad Controller

At publication time this was the Equal Highest Rated MIDI Pad Controller along with the Native Instruments Maschine MK3.

The Push 2 is unique in a sense that it is a hardware controller designed by Ableton to work with their Live DAW.

Its 64 velocity sensitive pads enable both playing in real time, step sequencing, and adjusting loop lengths, which makes the controller suitable for both live performances and studio use.

The pads also act similar to a MIDI keyboard where its multi-color lighting shows key intervals and scales.

As an upgrade of the Push 1, it showcases a bright, full-color, high-resolution screen display that lets you zoom in on specific details for warping and slicing samples.

It also includes a touch strip for pitch or modulation effect control.

Features:

  • Pads: 64 (8x8 grid) velocity pressure sensitive pads with RGB backlighting
  • Buttons: 31 x Navigation LEDs
  • Knobs: 11 x rotary encoder knobs
  • Standalone Mode: Yes
  • Other Controls: 17cm touch strip for pitch bend/scrolling
  • Power: USB Powered, 12V DC Power supply,
  • Connectivity: USB Slot, 2 x Pedal Inputs, Power Supply Connector, Kensington Lock
  • Compatibility: USB Class Compliant
  • Software Bundle: Quick Start Guide + Download version of Live 9 Intro Standard or Suite
  • Dimensions: 14.88" x 11.96" x 1.65"
  • Weight: 6.0 lbs

Pros

While designed specifically for use with Ableton's software, reviewers note that the Push 2 was just as easy to integrate with other gear like turnables, step sequencers and other outboard gear. Users note that the Push 2 is their standard for MIDI controllers especially for Ableton Live users. Many found it to be intuitive when it comes to step sequencing and programming synthesizers. In his Sound on Sound review, Nick Rothwell mentioned "the graphic display presents a lot more information at a glance, the display buttons contribute to a streamlined and flexible user experience, and the waveform visualisations open up a new world of audio improvisation and experimentation."

Cons

There is very little to list in terms of cons that don't fall under user error, failure from wear and tear where a unit has functioned fine for 2 years before it stopped working and compatibility issues with computers. The learning curve is reported to be quite steep as well and people who are new to using controller pads should be ready for it or start with a simpler device.

Overall

The Ableton Push is a top-of-the-line MIDI Pad Controller that does just about everything you want while being able to integrate into any rig as an accessory or centerpiece. While it does come with a steep learning curve associated with the complexity and range of features that it offers, users patient enough to learn its every function will be in for a rewarding experience.

Honorable Mention

Akai Professional APC Mini

90
GEARANK

90 out of 100. Incorporating 1600+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$99
Akai Professional APC Mini Pad Controller

The APC Mini earned a spot as an honorable mention in this list due to its status as a gateway MIDI Pad Controller for use with DAWs like Ableton.

In 2014, Akai released the APC Mini as the compact version of their APC40 MKII.

The 8x8 multi-color grid is used to launch clips and samples while providing visual feedback for live performance or remixing.

Tracks can be mixed with its dedicated channel faders, volume, pan, sends, and device control.

It's also compatible with most devices and is pre-mapped to Ableton Live once plugged into a computer.

Features:

  • Pads: 64 (8x8 grid) clip matrix with tri-color lighting
  • Buttons: 8 x Clip Stop buttons, 8 x Scene Launch buttons, 1 x Shift button
  • Other Controls: 8 x Faders + 1 x master fader
  • Standalone Mode: No
  • Power: USB powered
  • Connectivity: USB
  • Compatibility: Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8 or 10; Mac with Mac OS X 10.5 or later
  • Software Bundle: Ableton Live Lite, Hybrid 3 by AIR Music Tech, and Toolroom artist launch packs
  • Dimensions: 9.4” x 7.9” x 1.0”
  • Weight: 1.53 lbs

Pros

Reviewers praised this controller for its compact design and ease of use. Most of them found it easy to set-up with straightforward controls. The simple design allows for a more manageable learning curve for people new to Ableton Live. Several people noted that it gives them a smooth transition between composing, arranging and performing. While it automaps its buttons in Ableton, tweakers love the ability to easily reassign buttons and knobs.

Cons

Some Ableton users are bothered by its lack of session overview, which lets you navigate through your Live set quickly on Ableton without viewing the computer screen. A few note that it works best with Ableton and not many other DAWs. Most low scores were from a claimed lack of durability and the availability of software downloads.

Overall

If your DAW of choice is Ableton Live and feel it's a bit too early to spend more for more advanced controllers, the APC Mini is a great choice on a budget with its Ableton specific feature set. If you're looking to use other DAWs, it might take a little bit of mapping and tweaks under the hood.

Things To Consider When Buying A MIDI Pad Controller

 

Pads

Pads on most good controllers are velocity sensitive, for additional control look for ones that are also pressure sensitive - this allows for the same kind of expressiveness you get from keyboards with aftertouch. For additional performance feedback also look for controllers with back lit pads.

Essential Controls

Ideally, you want your controller to feel like an extension of your DAW. This makes your workflow more productive when you don't have to reach for your computer mouse or look at your computer screen too often. Most MIDI pad controllers come with buttons that have transport, tempo and other control/navigation functions. Some controllers also have knobs and faders for controlling effects and parameters of the mixer on your DAW in real-time.

Power Supply

Most controllers operate via USB bus power. This may be a concern when it comes to draining your device's battery. Some controllers have adapters for external power supply, especially for controllers than can be used as a standalone unit.

Software Compatibility

Manufacturers tend to provide an editor application with their controllers so you can customize things like MIDI mappings, and some also come bundled with a DAW. Most MIDI pad controllers work with most DAWs yet some are designed to integrate well with a particular DAW. Make sure you read the specifications to ensure any bundled software is compatible with your computer or tablet.

Size and Weight

Size usually correlates with the number of pads a controller has. If you want something easily portable to connect to your phone, tablet or laptop, then a smaller option with 8 (2 x 4) or 16 (4 x 4) pads would suffice. But if you prefer more functions and pads, most 64 (8 x 8) grid controllers are lightweight enough to carry around when used for live performances. At the end of the day, it depends on where and how are you planning to use your controller.

CV Equipped Hardware

CV stands for Control Voltage. Many old analog synths (and modern recreations of them) use CV as a controller signal in much the same way that modern gear often uses MIDI control or Expression Pedals to control a parameter - usually it's to control pitch on a hardware synthesizer. Make sure the specifications of the MIDI pad controller you are interested in has CV output if you want to control this type of hardware.

Best MIDI Pad Controller Selection Methodology

The first edition was published in 2017 and current edition was published on June 29, 2021.

We looked at all the highly rated MIDI Pads available from major online American retailers and short-listed 20 of them for further analysis - see the list in our Music Gear Database. We then gathered ratings and reviews from retailers, forums, YouTube, blogs and major music gear publications. A total of more than 17,000 sources (over 3 times more than the last edition's count) were then fed into the Gearank Algorithm to produce the customer satisfaction ratings out of 100 that we call the Gearank rating. Finally, we selected the highest rated options to recommend above and also used the information we collected to provide the reports above about what users and experts liked and didn't like about each one we recommend. For more information about our methods see How Gearank Works.

About the Author and Contributors

Here are the key people and sources involved in this guide's production - click on linked names for information about their music industry backgrounds.

Lead Author & Researcher

Raphael PulgarRaphael Pulgar

An audio engineer of nearly 20 years who specializes in rock and metal recordings, he also plays guitar and produces original music for his band and other content creators.

Aside from endlessly window shopping and watching hours of gear reviews for leisure, he enjoys playing competitive FPS games, MMORPGs and caring for his 5 cats. He is primarily influenced by guitarists like Kurt Ballou and Paul Gilbert. His favorite pieces of gear are his Ibanez RG550RFR, Orange Brent Hinds Terror amplifier and EQD Acapulco Gold fuzz.

Contributors

Alden Acosta: Product research.
Denise Azucena: Supplemental writing.
Jason Horton: Editing and Illustrating.

Media

Main/Top Image: By Gearank.com.

The individual product images were sourced from websites, promotional materials or supporting documentation provided by their respective manufacturers.

Comments

Publication of our June 2021

Publication of our June 2021 Edition resulted in the following model coming off the recommended list above, but you can still see our analysis of it: Reloop Neon.

I don't understand the logic

I don't understand the logic of removing the BeatStep Pro but leaving the BeatStep. I thought this was a list of 'the best' controllers; are you seriously saying the BeatStep is *better* than the Pro? It's cheaper, I guess . . . it gives you 33% of the capability for 40% of the cost.

What we are saying is that

What we are saying is that the BeatStep has higher ratings than the BeatStep Pro.

Gearank ratings are based on statistical analysis of the opinions given by large numbers of users and experts rather than product feature sets - you can read more about this in How Gearank Works which explains why a budget product can get higher ratings than a more advanced product with more features.

In this particular case the BeatStep Pro only missed out by 1 rating point on being selected - but we always have to make the cut somewhere and this was where the cutoff point was on this occasion - you can see the ratings for both BeatSteps here.