We’ve all been there at some point. You need to program a drum part and all you have to hand is a MIDI keyboard - not the most suitable tool in the world for creating beats, especially if you’re more of a percussionist than a pianist.
A much more appealing proposition is to turn to the now-traditional format of trigger pads arranged in a 4x4 matrix, as originally popularised by the classic Akai MPC60. This layout allows you to place a standard kit of drum sounds in a more natural position under the fingers than a keyboard could ever manage, giving you a much more intuitive array of targets to aim at.
So while it won’t (and shouldn’t!) replace your conventional keyboard controller, adding a pad-based controller to your setup can reap significant rewards if you regularly need to program drums.
Not only that, but some controllers of this type take things further by including their own proprietary sound library and software instruments, while others are more like percussion instruments in their own right.
When selecting a pad-based controller, there are certain things to look out for. A large enough array of pads and controls is first and foremost, and the pads need to be playable and responsive enough to cope with the powerful, expressive, multilayered sampled instruments that are available to us today. Controllers should be easy to configure, so that you can customise the layout of the pads to trigger your chosen soundset, and the convenience of a single USB connector, handling both MIDI data and power, should not be overlooked. For the purposes of this round-up, onboard sounds aren’t really a factor, as our assumption is that you’ll be triggering sounds from software instruments in your DAW. With all this in mind, then, here’s our pick of the current pad controller crop.
Native Instruments Maschine Studio
Maschine Studio and Maschine 2.0 are the latest hardware and software iterations of Native Instruments' famous 'Groove Production Studio' combo. While Maschine Studio now sits at the top of the controller lineup, the Maschine 2.0 software works with the entire range: Maschine, Maschine Mk II, Maschine Mikro and Maschine Studio.
Maschine 2.0 is a complete rewrite of the software, introducing a fresh, clean new look, a new audio engine with multicore support and plenty of workflow enhancements and new toys.The multicore support certainly hits the spot: a project pushing the CPU meter into the red on our i7 iMac in Maschine 1.8 barely tickled 40% in Maschine 2.0.
When it comes to the numbers, "unlimited" appears to be the new watchword, applying to Groups (used to be limited to eight), Scenes (64) and plugins (four per Group, three per Sound).
The main draw of Maschine Studio is that pair of gorgeous 480x272 resolution full- colour displays. Much of the time, these simply give you a prettier version of what you see on Maschine/Mikro's monochrome screens - but they also show a lot of extra stuff that their predecessors can't.
Our favourite new Maschine 2.0 feature is Drumsynths. These are a collection of five dedicated drum and percussion synth plugins (Kick, Snare, Hi-Hat, Tom and Percussion) that draw on a range of sound generation techniques (virtual analogue, physical modeling, etc).
The Maschine Studio is a big, spacious controller that gives off a profound impression of solidity and quality.
Billed as a hybrid drum machine, Arturia’s SparkLE blends the conventional interface of an old-school drum machine, complete with TR-style step-input buttons, with a capable software instrument.
This latest version houses a powerful sound engine fusing analogue and physical modeling with samples of electronic kits, acoustic drums and user sample import capability to a step sequencer driven by eight velocity/ pressure sensitive pads.
Said pads have 64 writeable patterns each with 64 steps available over four banks that can be chained to form arrangements in a similar way to an MPC or Maschine.
The hardware controller has been stripped down, aimed at travelling producers, live performers and those low on studio space.The buttons and eight square trigger pads are made of translucent rubber, feel good and are backlit just like the MPC studio and DSI Tempest.
Overall, a feeling of quality flows throughout the SparkLE and it's important considering its low price point. All in all, this is a powerful beat-making tool with functionality and sound quality way beyond its low price point.
Ableton Push is another Ableton/Akai collaboration, but it isn't an update to their previous APC. This is a different animal altogether, with an LCD display, velocity and pressure-sensitive pads and a sleeker, minimal, and ahem, less plasticky, design. So can it compete with the Launchpads, APCs, and Lemurs of the world?
Push looks good - low profile and like it means business. It's got a solid feel to it, weighing in at 2990g/6lbs, but stowed away in a backpack it feels fine and just within the limits of being an acceptable carry-round device.
At the heart of the unit are 64 pads. There are banks of buttons on three sides, a large LCD display at the top and nine knobs rounding things off. The text on the buttons is mostly unreadable in daylight, which is peculiar.
Press the Session button on Push and the pads light to show the colours and positions of clips in the set. Press the pads to launch clips and use the buttons at the right to launch Scenes - it's what you'd expect if you've come from using other controllers.
All very nice so far. Open a new Live set, however, and things get really interesting. It's possible to add tracks, as well as browse and load devices of all types, from Push. You can add Audio, MIDI, and return tracks although, as far as Push is concerned, audio tracks aren't that important; this is a programming machine.
Push bridges the gap between MIDI hardware sequencing of the past and modern music software while staying mobile and flexible.
This controller offers an intuitive workflow within sleek, minimal looks - plus an impressive depth of control over Live.
Akai MPC Element
If you like the idea of controlling your DAW using a miniature Akai MPC padset, the MPD range of USB MIDI controllers clearly deserves your utmost attention.
For the purposes of this round-up we’ll focus on the Akai MPC Element, which has been billed as "the most affordable MPC ever."
The Element has16 backlit, multicolour pads with pressure and velocity sensitivity, laid out in a traditional 4x4 pattern, that can be switched between eight banks.
It comes free with a download of MPC Essentials software, which works standalone or as a plugin and on both 32- and 64-bit systems. It comes with a 1GB sound library, and enables you to import samples and assign them to any pad. You can create up to eight pad banks, and each pad can be assigned four samples and four insert effects.
Featuring a compact design with anintegrated cover to protect control surface, the MPC Element is a USB-powered and affordable pad controller - and because it operates via standard MIDI, you can also use it to control MIDI music software you already own.
Although at first glance the padKONTROL might appear to be one of the more rudimentary machines covered here, it does have one or two sizeable aces up its sleeve.
The pedal input for triggering kick drums or hi-hats is one of them, and the inclusion of the excellent X/Y pad from KORG’s Kaoss Pad is another, the X and Y axes being assignable to the parameters of your choice within your software.
Owing to its simple layout, the padKONTROL was one of the easiest devices reviewed here to set up and use. Although it comes with its own editor software, there’s certainly no obligation to install it - instead, you can just plug in a USB cable and start tapping away.
Power and data are handled by the USB cable, although there is a DC power socket on the side of the device in which to plug an optional mains power supply if your laptop battery doesn’t provide enough juice, or you want to draw power from the wall in order to lighten the load on a USB hub, say.
Assigning pads to trigger MIDI notes is simplicity itself - just hit the pad that you want to assign and turn the rotary encoder to change the note value. You can do this while hitting the pads to flick through notes and hear the sounds that you’re assigning, which really speeds things up if you don’t know off the top of your head which sounds are triggered by which notes in your software instrument.
An accomplished all-rounder from one of the biggest manufacturers in the business, the padKONTROL has been around since 2006, and this fact alone should be enough to instil confidence in prospective buyers.
Novation Launchpad S
Designed by Novation in collaboration with Ableton, the Launchpad’s primary intended function is as a hardware control surface for triggering clips in the latter’s ever-popular Live DAW.
Launchpad S is the controller's latest incarnation, featuring brighter LEDs behind its 64 pads, a faster refresh rate and a plug-and-play option for use with an iPad, via Apple's Camera Connection Kit. The controller works natively with FL Studio too, and will ship with custom control overlays in the box.
Launchpad S is portable and fully bus-powered when hooked up to a USB cable. However, if it's a truly mobile Launchpad you're after, this year also saw the release of Novation Launchpad Mini, which takes the design of the full-sized Launchpad S and sticks it in a smaller, iPad-friendly case.
In fact, the Launchpad Mini integrates seamlessly with the Launchpad iPad app, while also offering direct control of Ableton Live and FL Studio 11 on desktop platforms. As on the standard Launchpad, you get 64 three-colour pads that can be used to trigger loops, samples and events or to control effects.
Native Instruments Maschine Mikro
The cut-down sibling of Native Instruments’ full-size Maschine, Maschine Mikro represents quite exceptional value - particularly when you take into account that it comes complete with Maschine 2.0, its own powerful step-sequencing DAW, as well as a 6GB sample library and copies of Komplete Elements and the acclaimed Massive synth.
The Maschine software also comes in AU, RTAS and VST plug-in formats, so that you can access the included content via a plug-in in your DAW; but the software also acts as a plug-in host itself, meaning that you can access all your third-party effects and sound sources from within it. Pretty clever stuff!
Being almost exactly the same width as a 13-inch laptop, the supremely portable Maschine Mikro controller is beautifully built and impressively solid, so you feel instantly reassured that it’s not going to fall apart the minute you start pounding on the pads.
The only real downside is the interface, which isn’t as intuitive as that of its larger brother - this is largely due to Maschine Mikro’s reliance on a single LCD screen rather than a pair of them, and far fewer controls.
Maschine Mikro isn’t just a superb performer as a standalone package, but thanks to the bundled Controller Editor application, it can also easily be configured to work as a generic control surface for your software of choice.
As hardware controllers go, its lack of encoders and sliders does let it down a little - regardless, the playability of the pads make it an ideal choice for inputting drums, so when judged on its ability to carry out that task alone, the mighty Mikro is a winner.
Alesis Performance Pad Pro
Along with the Roland Octapad, the Alesis Performance Pad Pro is one of the only two units featured in our round-up that you can actually hit with drumsticks.
Featuring eight large trigger pads arranged in a 4x2 formation, the Performance Pad comes with a built-in library of 500 kit sounds that can be piped out to a PA system or recorder, and a stereo minijack input for hooking up an MP3 player to play along to.
Unusually, however, MIDI output is served up through a five-pin MIDI DIN socket - unlike all the other devices covered in these pages, there’s no USB connector for easy hookup to a Mac or PC DAW, so you’ll need to connect it via an external MIDI interface.
The Performance Pad Pro is built as sturdily as you’d expect for something that was designed to be hit with sticks, but unlike the Octapad, the pads aren’t raised much above the surface - as a result, the shiny black plastic edge trim can be quite vulnerable to marks and scuffs when your enthusiasm gets the better of your talent.
The velocity-sensitive pads aren’t quite as sensitive as we would like, with light taps from the sticks producing nothing but silence, and soft sounds only emerging at mid velocities. There also doesn’t seem to be a way to adjust the sensitivity of the pads beyond the three preset soft, medium and hard velocity curves, or eight fixed velocity levels.
All in all, then, the Performance Pad Pro is a decent enough choice if you want to really make some noise, but it’s far better suited for the stage than the studio.
Roland Octapad SPD-30
The Roland Octapad has been with us since 1985, when the original PAD-8 version made its debut.
Several generations later, this latest SPD-30 model combines the traditional eight-pad, stick-friendly layout with a plethora of onboard sounds and effects, an audio input and a phrase looper. It’s equipped with both standard MIDI ports and a USB connector, and you can also plug in a USB memory stick for increased storage.
The SPD-30 is mains-powered via an included power supply, and the only other thing in the box is a printed instruction manual. Other manufacturers take note: this comprehensive and informative tome is a veritable breath of fresh air compared to the afterthoughts that come with some of the other units covered here.
In use, the V-Drum-derived pads are supremely bouncy and wonderful to play, and are large enough to provide decent targets. The unit is also equipped with five inputs for optional external trigger devices, such as kick pedals and snare, hi-hat and cymbal pads.
Assigning note numbers to the pads once you’ve hooked the SPD-30 up to your DAW is a simple task, thanks to the large, bright LCD display and ample navigation controls. You just hit a pad and turn a knob to set the note number that the pad transmits to your software, and there are enough pad sensitivity options to satisfy even the fussiest percussionist.
There may be no assignable knobs or faders, but if you’ve ever waved a drumstick in anger, this thing will induce a grin from ear to ear. It’s simply fantastic.
By far the smallest of the units in this round-up, the PAD-One has 12 backlit silicon pads rather than the conventional 16, allowing it a shorter, ingot-shaped footprint.
In a nod to Akai, there are four available pad banks, bringing the effective total pad count up to an impressive 48. The pads have a satisfyingly rubbery feel, and are tactile, bouncy and responsive. Illuminated green when at rest, each pad flashes orange when hit to indicate the transmission of MIDI data.
The PAD-One is a breeze to set up, requiring merely the connection of a USB cable for power and MIDI data. The only other connectors are a six-pin MIDI Out port and a socket for an optional DC mains power supply. Assigning note numbers to pads took us seconds to figure out, with no consultation of the documentation required. Just press the Edit button, hit a pad and scroll to the desired MIDI note number.
The anodised metal finish gives the PAD-One a solid, durable appearance, perfectly matching the current crop of MacBook laptops. Sadly, however, the encoder knob feels a little bit cheap, and the miniature Edit button is disappointingly peg-like. The X/Y pad, used to control the rate and velocity of the roll function, feels equally bargain-basement, and we found it a bit imprecise.
These minor niggles aside, we rather like this chunky little unit as a compact and cost-effective way of squeezing 48 pads onto a congested desktop.