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The best MIDI pad controllers 2021: the best beatmaking and sequencing hardware

The best MIDI pad controllers 2021: the best beatmaking and sequencing hardware
(Image credit: Future)

MIDI Pad controllers are no longer consigned to the bottom of the controller pile, behind the likes of the MIDI keyboard or even bespoke DAW controller. They now share equal billing in the studio and on stage, and we have rounded-up the best MIDI pad controllers right here.

They are an essential part of many a modern producer’s arsenal, with some even placing one at the centre of their setup, replacing the keyboard. Some – most notably Native Instruments' Maschine products – come with their own companion software, while others, such as Ableton's Live-friendly Push 2, are designed specifically for controlling a certain DAW.

Read more: NI Komplete Audio 2

No longer used simply for tapping out beats, or triggering clips and samples, today’s best pad controllers are practically instruments in their own right, enabling you to compose and record melodies, chords and basslines. Some also contain powerful sequencers, which can be used to trigger both your music software and other hardware.

Obviously, all of this is great news, especially if you’re not so comfortable when it comes to playing the keys, but which of the many MIDI pad controllers on sale today is right for you?

To help answer that, we have rounded up the best MIDI pad controllers so that you can see what’s available right now, and which one is suited to your needs. Let's take a look at them in closer detail, as well as considering what you'll need to keep in mind when choosing...

Buying the best MIDI pad controller for you

You might think that most MIDI pads controllers are the same – they’re just a bunch of pads that send out MIDI messages, right? – but there’s actually some major functional variations to consider. 

The first of these is whether or not you need velocity sensitivity, meaning whether or not the controllers pads can sense how hard you are pressing them. This is a must-have if you want expressive playing of melodic parts or drum grooves. However, if your priorities are step-sequencing and clip-launching, it’s probably a feature you can do without.

Another feature worth considering is back-lighting and customisable colour coding of the pads. This might seem like an aesthetic feature – something to make your controller look cool – but if you’re planning on using it live, the ability to colour code controls could be a lifesaver when you’re up on stage with moody or unpredictable lighting.

When choosing from among the best MIDI pad controllers, there’s a host of other options worth considering beyond the pads themselves too, including screens, faders, rotaries and more. As with buying any MIDI controller, the most effective way to approach things is to work out exactly what you want to achieve using your new controller, and then consider how each device will help you do this. 

The best MIDI pad controllers to buy now

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1. Native Instruments Maschine Mk3

The tightest controller-software setup on the market

Launch price: $599/£479/€569 | Pad grid: 4x4 | Encoders: 9 | Faders: Touchstrip | Screen: Yes | I/O: USB, 2 x 1/4” TRS line outputs, 2 x 1/4” TRS line inputs, 1/4” dynamic mic input, stereo headphone output, MIDI in/out, Footswitch | Power: 15v DC, USB 5V

Colour screens
Supremely playable pads
All-new audio interface
4D push encoder isn’t mixer-friendly

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. 

The new Mk3 model brings Maschine Studio’s flagship feature – its fabulous screens - to the mainstream model, taking a couple of cues from Maschine Jam, and updating the hardware in general terms. NI has taken the obvious step of building an audio interface into Maschine; a simple 2-in/4-out setup capable of recording and playback at up to 24-bit/96kHz quality. 

While use of the Maschine controller is reliant on use of the associated Maschine software, you’d be hard-pressed to find a tighter, more feature-rich hybrid system on the market right now. 

Read our full Native Instruments Maschine Mk3 review

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2. Arturia BeatStep Pro

The best MIDI pad controller for analogue hardware control

Launch price: $299/£185/€249 | Pad grid: 2x8 | Encoders: 20 | Faders: None | Screen: Yes | I/O: USB MIDI, 6x 1V/octave CV/Gate/Velo outs, 8x drum gate outs, Clock in/out, MIDI in/out | Power: USB 5V

Excellent build quality
Ergonomic layout
Fantastic performance device
A bit too compact for live use

The second choice in our best MIDI pad controller round-up is the BeatStep Pro, which 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. 

Perhaps the most obvious targets for BeatStep Pro's sequencers are hardware synths and samplers, but we had just as much fun controlling standalone music apps on our laptop. 

The same goes for plugins in a DAW, of course, and we can imagine many studio producers using it to create sequences on the fly that are subsequently recorded into their DAW for further editing. It can also send and receive MIDI clock, and so can act as either master or slave with almost anything.

Read our full Arturia BeatStep Pro review

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3. Ableton Push 2

Best high-end controller for Ableton Live

Launch price: $799/£499/€699 | Pad grid: 8x8 | Encoders: 11 | Faders: Touchstrip | Screen: Yes | I/O: USB, 2x pedal inputs | Power: 12v DC, USB 5V

Awesome build quality
Beautiful, effective screen
Fantastic sampling functionality
No Arrangement View editing

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.

Read our full Ableton Push 2 review

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Best MIDI pad controller: Novation Launchpad Pro Mk3

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Best MIDI pad controller_Novation Launchpad Pro Mk3: angle

(Image credit: Novation)
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Best MIDI pad controller: Novation Launchpad Pro Mk3

(Image credit: Novation)

4. Novation Launchpad Pro Mk3

The best MIDI pad controller for marrying Ableton Live and standalone hardware control

Launch price: $350/£300/€350 | Pad grid: 8x8 | Encoders: None | Faders: 8x ‘virtual’ faders | Screen: No | I/O: USB MIDI, MIDI in/out | Power: 12V DC, USB 5V

Full colour, velocity-sensitive pads
Independent polyphonic sequencer
Flexible custom modes
No screen or rotaries

The flagship of Novation’s distinctive ‘Launch’ range of grid-based Ableton Live controllers, the Launchpad Pro Mk3 is focussed around a grid of 64-velocity sensitive pads. These can be used for triggering Live’s Clips and Scenes, creating drum beats, adjusting mixer functions using ‘virtual’ faders and playing melodic lines using the controller’s Scale and Chord modes. 

While it's not as powerful as Live’s own Push 2, being more portable and cheaper it doesn't need to be. Its standalone MIDI capabilities give it a distinct edge, too. Version 3 adds a powerful standalone polyphonic sequencing mode, which can be used to control hardware without the need for connection to a computer (although it can, of course, be used with plugins too). 

In all, for the price, the Pro is one of the best MIDI pad controllers on the market. It's brilliantly suited to live performance too, and we can see it becoming a centrepiece to a lot of musicians' stage set-ups.

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5. Pioneer DJ Toraiz Squid Sequencer

A creative standalone sequencer that can handle all your gear

Launch price: $599/£549 | Pad grid: 4x4 | Encoders: 11 | Faders: N/A | Screen: Yes | I/O: MIDI I/O, USB, CV/Gate, Clock, Din Sync | Power: Mains-powered

Responsive, playable pads
Lots of knobs = good for live use
No Pro-DJ sync with Pioneer DJ CDJ units

Squid (derived from SeQUencer Inspirational Device) is a standalone 16-track polyphonic step sequencer, capable of outputting MIDI, CV, clock triggers and DIN sync. Its interface is focused around a grid of 16 backlit pads that can be played live or used to input sequencer steps. 

Each of the 16 tracks can be programmed with up to 64 patterns, each with a maximum of 64 steps. One of the great advantages of the Squid is how each track can be set up individually to sequence the output channel and device of your choice. 

In fact, there's a lot to love about it in general, particularly if you're already the kind of producer who likes to work with a lot of separate machines for sound generation. It opens the door to a world of bespoke sequencing options, with new features like Groove Bend and speed modulation putting a new spin on your step sequencing moves.

Read our full Pioneer DJ Toriaz Squid Sequencer review

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Novation Launchpad X

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Novation Launchpad X

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Novation Launchpad X

(Image credit: Future)

6. Novation Launchpad X

A powerful, compact Live MIDI pad controller

Launch price: $200/£180 | Pad grid: 8x8 | Encoders: N/A | Faders: 8 virtual faders | Screen: No | I/O: USB | Power: Bus-powered

Sleek, stylish and lightweight
Velocity sensitive pads
Powerful custom modes
No MIDI output on the hardware

The X in the name of this third-gen Launchpad marks a decade since Novation’s original 8x8 pad controller hit the market. There’s no doubt that, in that time, the Launchpad has proved hugely influential, inspiring the design of many other clip-launching MIDI controllers, providing the centrepiece of countless electronic live shows and founding a whole genre of YouTube mashup videos. 

This latest incarnation is as clear step up from its predecessors. Not only is it smaller and sleeker looking (though with larger pads) but it also adds velocity sensitivity, previously available only on the Launchpad Pro. 

This instantly makes this a far more expressive controller and, while the ‘virtual’ faders used for mixing are still no match for the real thing, this allows for cool, velocity-controlled manipulation of the speed at which level and parameter changes occur. The new custom modes are great for bespoke MIDI control too, and are a breeze to set up in Novation’s Components app.

Read our full Novation Launchpad X review

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7. ROLI Lightpad Block M

Best compact MPE controller

Launch price: $140/£190/€150 | Pad grid: Configurable up to 5x5 | Encoders: None | Faders: None | Screen: No | I/O: USB MIDI, Bluetooth connectivity | Power: Buss-powered

Improved playing surface feels great
Healthy selection of MPE tools
Looks more visually striking
Noise app remains fairly weak

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 M, a rectangular, rubber-topped control surface incorporating MPE technology so it can be played using a variety of expressive gestures. 

It's a slightly different animal to the rest of the controllers on this list, but now that it's compatible with a wider range of software, it's an intriguing option.

Read our full ROLI Lightpad Block M review

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8. Akai MPD 232

Best affordable MPC-style controller

Launch price: $299/£190/€299 | Pad grid: 4x4 | Encoders: 9 | Faders: 8 | Screen: Yes | I/O: USB MIDI, MIDI in/out | Power: 6V, USB 5V

Solid build
Excellent MPC-style pads
Power adapter not supplied
No footswitch

While the previous MPD32 looked utilitarian, the MPD232 looks more inviting. The larger, flatter case is made from smooth black and red plastic, and surrounding the screen (used for assigning MIDI data/CCs to the 72 assignable controls), the case morphs into shiny black perspex. (Unfortunately the same fingerprint and scratch-inviting type found on the recent Advance controllers and on Roland's JD-XA synth). 

In keeping with recent trends, there's a decent 32 step x 64 track sequencer onboard which adds a welcome new dimension to the MPD range (it can be MIDI-synchronised and used to control software instruments and/or external MIDI instruments).

Read our full Akai MPD232 review

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Best MIDI pad controller: Novation Launchpad Mini Mk3

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Novation Launchpad Mini mk3

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Novation Launchpad Mini mk3

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9. Novation Launchpad Mini Mk3

A slimmed-down and affordable Launch controller

Launch price: $110/£100 | Pad grid: 8x8 | Encoders: N/A | Faders: 8 virtual faders | Screen: No | I/O: USB | Power: Bus-powered

Sleek and affordable
Includes a custom user mode
No velocity
No native control of Live’s mixer

The smallest and most affordable member of Novation’s Launch range, the Launchpad Mini is a sleek, convenient controller for those who want control over Ableton Live’s clip launcher and basic mixer functions but don’t require the bells and whistles of the X or Pro. 

Compared directly to its mk2 predecessor, this latest Mini actually loses some functionality, such as the ability to easily control Live’s mixer and arm tracks for recording (although these functions can be set up as custom mappings). There’s no velocity either, so the pads are essentially on/off switches, although they are RGB backlit. 

The Mini Mk3 also gains a custom-mapped User mode, enabling you to create your own quick-access custom setup for controlling your favourite plugins or DAW elements. If you don’t need deep functionality and price or portability are important, this is a great option.

Read our full Novation Launchpad Mini Mk3 review

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10. IK Multimedia iRig Pads

Best affordable iOS controller

Launch price: $140/£130/€150 | Pad grid: 4x4 | Encoders: 3 | Faders: 1 | Screen: No | I/O: USB MIDI, iOS (32-pin, Lightning) | Power: Buss-powered

Easy to program
Perfect for iOS control
No external power
No display

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.

Read our IK Multimedia iRig Pads hands-on test

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11. Native Instruments Maschine Jam

Best for sequencing and track-building within Maschine

Launch price: $399/£319/€372 | Pad grid: 8x8 | Encoders: 1 | Faders: 8x touchstrips | Screen: no | I/O: USB, Footswitch | Power: Bus-powered

Wealth of step-sequencing modes
Overhauls the use of Maschine
Pop-up browser is a little clunky
Missing Maschine's deeper features

Maschine Jam provides a completely new way of interfacing with the Maschine software, which remains largely unchanged; one that neither supersedes nor replaces the original hardware, yet provides a very different user experience. 

It ditches the 16-pad format in favour of a grip of 64 smaller pads, which are backlit. Its other major addition is a bank of eight touchstrip faders that, broadly speaking, replace the eight Macro knobs of the original Maschine. 

It also does away with the built-in screens, the functionality of which is replaced by a number of pop-up windows that appear on the computer screen in response to button presses on the hardware. 

The main consequence of these changes is to move away from the sampler-style workflow of the original hardware towards one focused on 'performance' parameters, along with considerably deeper sequencing and arrangement capabilities.

Read our full Native Instruments Maschine Jam review

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12. Keith McMillen Instruments QuNeo

In our best MIDI pad controller guide, this is the top compact controller

Launch price: $140/£190/€150 | Pad grid: 4x4 | Encoders: 2x rotary pads | Faders: 9x touch strips | Screen: No | I/O: USB MIDI | Power: Bus-powered

Low profile, very portable
Uniquely sensitive pads
Multicolour LED feedback
Controls can be a hinderance

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.

Read our full Keith McMillen Instruments QuNeo review

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13. Native Instruments Maschine Mikro Mk3

NI’s most affordable Maschine ever

Launch price: $259/£199/€239 | Pad grid: 4x4 | Encoders: 1 | Faders: 1x touch strip | Screen: Yes | I/O: USB MIDI | Power: Bus-powered

Looks and feels great
Lacking parameter control rotaries

Last year’s Maschine Mk3, with its added interface and improved screens, did an impressive job of drawing user focus away from the computer, making it easier to select, edit and play sounds without referencing plugin UI. 

By drastically downsizing the hardware screen, this Maschine Mikro update actually pushes things in the opposite direction; minimising the amount of visual information that’s provided by the controller in favour of more space for hands-on control. While increased reliance on a computer screen might seem counter-intuitive, it actually does make a lot of sense.

Read our full Native Instruments Machine Mikro Mk3 review

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Nektar Aura

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Nektar Aura

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14. Nektar Aura

Best MIDI pad controller for a cross-platform Maschine alternative

Launch price: $350/£300 | Pad grid: 4x4 | Encoders: 8 | Faders: N/A | Screen: Yes | I/O: MIDI Out, USB, 2x footswitch | Power: Bus-powered

Solid mix of features
Control existing plugins and DAW
Lacks the pedigree of Maschine/Push

Aura is a MIDI controller that wears its influences on its sleeve. Looking at its interface and layout, there’s no hiding the inspiration that Nektar has clearly taken from NI’s Maschine. The look may be familiar, but this is more than a mere knockoff. 

Whereas Maschine is built to control its own specific application, Aura can control your existing library of plugin instruments and effects, hosted via its Nektarine 2.0 software. It promises tight control of all major DAWs too, as well as custom MIDI setups which can be used to manipulate your studio hardware via the controller’s MIDI output. 

There are plenty of handy sequencing tools included inspired by the likes of Maschine and Akai’s MPCs, such as a beat repeat mode, step accents, multiple trigger modes and more. In all, this looks like a good option for anyone who’s every been tempted by the Maschine format but doesn’t necessarily want to buy into the Native Instruments ecosystem.

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15. Livid Instruments Base II

Best customisable controller

Launch price: $299/£275/€289 | Pad grid: 4x8 | Encoders: None | Faders: 9x touchstrip | Screen: Yes | I/O: USB MIDI | Power: 12V DC, USB 5V

Compact and durable
Highly customisable
Pads feel and play really well
Takes a bit of effort to set up

If you're in the market for a durable and attractive pad controller that's highly customisable and can integrate with most if not all of your music software, the Base II is a fantastic solution. 

Situated above the pad matrix is an array of nine touch-sensitive fader strips and eight capacitive touch buttons, with a set of eight illuminated silicone push-buttons down the right-hand edge. As with the original Base, all of these controls are freely assignable. 

The thick, soft pads are highly responsive and default to step through a series of colours when played, depending on how hard you hit or press down on them. With its robust construction, versatility and open-endedness, Base II is a fine pad controller option.

Read our full Livid Instruments Base II review