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...
1. 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
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.
2. Native Instruments Maschine Mk3
Best all-round controller for Maschine software
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
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.
3. Arturia BeatStep Pro
Best 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
BeatStep Pro 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.
4. 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
While the outgoing MPD32 looked utilitarian, the MPD232 looks much more inviting. The larger, flatter case is made from smooth black and red plastic and surrounding the screen (which is mainly 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).
5. Novation Launchpad Pro
Best affordable controller for Ableton Live
Launch price: $299/£275/€289 | Pad grid: 8x8 | Encoders: None | Faders: None | Screen: No | I/O: USB MIDI, MIDI in/out | Power: 12V DC, USB 5V
The Launchpad Pro isn't the be all and end all of Live controllers, but what it does, it does very well. It's not suited to precise mixing but it's intuitive and inspiring for creative purposes - allowing users to fluidly compose without being drawn away in order to jump between views or devices. It's brilliantly suited to live performance too, and we can see it becoming a centrepiece to a lot of musicians' stage set-ups. It's not as powerful as Push, but being more portable and cheaper it doesn't need to be. Its standalone MIDI capabilities give it a distinct edge too. In all, for the price, the Pro is one of the best controllers on the market.
6. 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
One of the main drivers behind the popularity of the original Base, the editor brings a high level of configurability - if you can control it with MIDI, you can control it with the Base II. It may take a little time and effort to set things up to your liking, though, depending on the complexity of your mappings. As updates go, then, with its enhanced pads, redesigned chassis and mains powering option, the Base II essentially amounts to more of the same, but better - a refinement rather than an overhaul.
7. 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
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.
8. 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
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.
9. Keith McMillen Instruments QuNeo
Slimmest 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
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.
10. 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
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.