No passing pad
Whereas, in the past, a pad controller was very much a secondary thing - something that might have been built into your MIDI keyboard as a bonus or an extra device that was seen as a bit of a luxury - these days, many producers have one sitting right at the heart of their setup. No longer used simply for triggering samples and clips or tapping out beats, today’s best pad controllers are practically instruments in themselves, enabling you to compose and record basslines, melodies and chords.
All of which is great news, particularly if you’re not so hot when it comes to playing the keyboard, but which of the many pad controllers on the market should you buy?
We’ve rounded up the current offerings from the biggest players so you can see what’s available (manufacturers are listed in alphabetical order). Whatever your budget, there’s a pad controller out there for you, and we’re going to help you find it...
Ableton Push 2
As well as developing Live, the all-conquering production and performance DAW, Ableton also sells its own pad controller: Push 2.
This 64-pad grid is used to play and record melodic MIDI clips and Drum Rack beats, either 'live' or through an ingenious step sequencing system. Push 2 also facilitates browsing for devices, presets and sounds, which can be loaded onto tracks in Live, and controlled and automated using the eight rotary encoders, and even offers basic mixing operation.
In summary, Push 2 is quite simply the most powerful, wildly creative Ableton Live controller on the market, and a worthy purchase for those who use said software.
Akai has a whole raft of pad controllers that are divided up into different ranges. This can make choosing the right model for you a little confusing, so let’s try and explain things.
Most famously, there’s the MPC Line. Akai recently launched a couple of MPCs that can be used standalone, but other MPCs, such as the Touch, Studio and Renaissance, work in combination with the MPC Software.
The MPD controllers, meanwhile, are designed to be use with your existing DAW and plugins, and if it’s portability you’re after, you could go for the LPD8 (this is also available in a wireless configuration).
Finally, there are the APC controllers, which are designed to work with Ableton Live.
Arturia has two BeatStep products in its range, both of which can serve as both controllers and step sequencers.
The standard model offers 16 drum pads of the rubber MPC-type with LED backlighting. Above these are 16 rotary encoders. It has a USB socket as well as MIDI and CV/Gate outputs and can be used standalone or with a computer/iPad.
BeatStep Pro, meanwhile, features three independent step sequencers and a set of general purpose MIDI controllers. Two of the sequencers are monophonic, intended for riffs, basslines and the like, while the third is for sequencing up to 16 channels of drums. All three are programmed with 16 velocity-sensitive pads (with aftertouch), 16 step buttons and 16 rotary knobs.
Both products have their merits; the standard model is pretty affordable, while the Pro version will appeal if you want more sophisticated sequencing options.
IK Multimedia iRig Pads
The iRig Pads is an MPC-style pad controller aimed at iPad/iPhone/iPod touch musicians, but also fully compatible with Mac, PC and Android. It comprises 16 two-colour backlit pads (red and green, but mixable to orange, too), two knobs, a fader, two buttons and a push-button rotary encoder, all of which can be assigned to output a range of MIDI data.
The iRig Pad scores well in terms of playability, is pretty easy to program and sits comfortably alongside its acclaimed iRig stablemates. iOS musicians, in particular, should keep it in mind.
Korg’s padKontrol has been around since 2006, so is hardly state of the art, but it’s still a reasonable option if you want a simple pad controller that comes with the added bonus of an X/Y pad. There’s also a pedal input for triggering drums or hi-hats, and a software editor that lets you manage your control options.
If you want something you can throw in a bag and take anywhere, Korg also offers the nanoPad 2, a slimline controller that gives you 16 pads and, again, an X/Y touchpad.
Livid’s main pad controller is the Base II, a durable and attractive device that's highly customisable and can integrate with most if not all of your music software.
The 32 RGB LED backlit, velocity- and pressure-sensitive trigger pads are joined by nine touch-sensitive fader strips and eight capacitive touch buttons, with a set of eight illuminated silicone push-buttons down the right-hand edge rounding things off.
On a smaller scale, there’s the pocket-sized Minim. This features pressure-sensitive controls, 3D motion sensors and wireless connectivity.
Native Instruments Maschine
It’s not really accurate to call Maschine a pad controller; it ships with its own companion software, so is pretty much an instrument in itself. The workflow follows the classic MPC blueprint, and gives you a pad-based way of composing, arranging, mixing and performing.
NI recently announced a MK3 version of the standard Maschine, which comes with larger pads, two screens and a built-in audio interface. If you want something bigger, you could go for the chunky Maschine Studio, though it’s worth bearing in mind that this doesn’t have the audio I/O.
At the cheaper end of the scale are the portable Maschine Mikro and Maschine Jam, which puts a slightly different spin on the Maschine concept and is designed for those moments when you want to quickly capture and develop your ideas - either live or in the studio.
Whichever version you go for, you can be sure that you’re buying into a mature and very popular platform, and one that could change the way you make your music.
Novation’s 2009 Launchpad was one of the original grid controllers, and was designed very much with Ableton Live users in mind. Since then, the company has tweaked its winning formula, and now offers three Launchpad models, the standard version having been joined by Mini and Pro editions.
Each one gives you an 8x8 grid of 64 pads to work with, though the Mini’s are 3/4-size and aren’t RGB backlit. This smaller Launchpad has the advantage of being the most portable, though.
The Pro version adds such niceties as velocity- and pressure-sensitive pads and a Scale mode, making it the most suitable version if you want to play musical parts rather than just trigger clips.
All the Launchpads are pretty well regarded, though: it’s just a case of picking the one that best suits your requirements and budget.
Keith McMillen Instruments QuNeo
QuNeo is an LED-rich (251, actually) MIDI controller with 27 touch-based controls including pads, sliders, and rotary 'knobs'. It’s billed as a 3D multitouch pad controller; the point of difference is that the pads are sensitive to note-on, velocity, pressure and 'location' - the XY position of your finger on the pad.
Not everyone will fall in love with the QuNeo, but its feel and functionality are undeniably different to most of its rivals. Get your hands on it and see what you think.
ROLI Lightpad Block
Having announced its arrival with the keyboard-style Seaboard controllers, ROLI moved into more affordable territory with its iOS-centric Blocks range.
The centrepiece of this is the Lightpad Block, a rectangular, rubber-topped control surface incorporating MPE technology so it can be played using a variety of expressive gestures. However, despite only being available for a year, it’s already being superseded by the Lightpad Block M, which includes ‘microkeywaves’ (these were inspired by the keywaves on the Seaboard) and promises to offer more tactile feedback.
The Lightpad Block is a slightly different animal to the rest of the controllers on this list, but as it starts to become readily compatible with a wider range of software, it could become an intriguing option.