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.
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
It’s not really accurate to call Maschine a pad controller; it ships with its own companion software, so it 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 the use of the Maschine controller is reliant on the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 favorite plugins or DAW elements. If you don’t need deep functionality and price or portability is important, this is a great option.
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.
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 touch strip 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.
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.
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; minimizing 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.
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.