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Not every situation requires a piano keyboard.

You’re not always playing melodic parts or entering notes and so sometimes you might want something a bit more beat-friendly. You want to get your groove on with some pads and maybe start manipulating sound with some knobs and sliders.

Some of these controls find their way onto keyboard controllers but if you want it done right then it’s worth getting a MIDI controller that’s designed for the job. However, it doesn’t have to be square pads either. There are innovative ways to interact with your MIDI setup and DAW that perhaps you haven’t thought of. Ways to be more creative outside that tired old piano format.
 
None of these devices contain sound themselves so they are not drum machines or groove boxes. They are the controllers that will give you the best chance of banging out the most elegant of beats. So, get ready for some serious finger drumming with our round-up of the best MIDI pad and knob controllers.

Our picks for the best MIDI controllers:

  • Akai MPD232
  • Novation Launchpad
  • Arturia BeatStep
  • Native Instruments Maschine Mk3
  • Joué Modular MIDI Controller
  • Korg nanoPAD2
  • Ableton Push 2

What does a MIDI pad controller do?

A MIDI pad controller replaces a piano-style keyboard with velocity and pressure-sensitive pads to give you a more suitable approach to making beats and grooves with MIDI gear and software instruments.

What does MIDI stand for?

Music Instrument Digital Interface. But all you need to know is that it allows you to send performance information from a controller keyboard/pad into your computer or other MIDI gear to trigger or play sounds and control parameters of that instrument. MIDI information can be recorded, edited, and played back by a DAW or sequencer.

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What's the best drum pad MIDI controller?

The Akai MPD232 is the best drum pad controller with not only pads but sliders, knobs, and a sequencer, too, giving an overall fantastic MIDI controlling experience. And if you just want the pads, then try the MPD226 or MPD218 for a more focused feature set.

Best MIDI Controllers 2021

Akai MPD232

Akai are, of course, the inventors of the MPC pad-based sampler and so pretty much wrote the book on drum pad programming and sample triggering with your fingers.

The MPD232 gives you 16 thick and responsive backlit pads from the MPC series that have been refined over the decades to offer an unparalleled performance experience. They feel great under your fingers. The bounce, the velocity, the responsiveness are all top-notch and a pleasure to bang beats out on.

More than pads, the MPD232 blends in 8 slider controls and 8 knobs for mixer, DAW control, or taking over the parameters of your synths or samplers. It also has a 64-channel, 32-step performance sequencer so you can build tracks outside of your DAW in a more hands-on and improvised way.

This thing is feature-packed, immensely playable, and keeps you focused on the rhythm and creativity of your beats and tracks. And there are a few other options in the MPD2 range if you want to focus on the pads.

Street Price: $229
akaipro.com

Novation Launchpad

Novation have always innovated in areas of MIDI control. The original Launchpad was released in 2009 as a dedicated controller for Ableton Live. More recently the Launchpad MK3 has arrived along with the enhanced Launchpad Pro, the Launchpad X, and more petite Launchpad Mini.

All of them focus on providing an 8 x 8 grid of 64 pads designed to mirror the Session View in Ableton Live. Hit the pad to trigger the corresponding clip in Live or launch a whole scene. Launchpad is visual, tactile, and extremely configurable.

The Launchpad pads are all now lit with RGB LEDs. This means they can match the color of your clips, so you can see at a glance what clips are loaded. But triggering clips is only part of the story. Down the right side of Launchpad are the scene launch buttons. These double up as shortcuts to transform Launchpad’s grid into other functions.

You have volume controls, pan, effects sends, stop, mute, solo, and record arm. So, you can instantly move to mixing mid-performance, or drop out whole sections, solo a specific clip or start recording new clips with a touch of a button. Using the Ableton drum rack you can map the pads directly to the drum sounds and start playing.

The Launchpad Mini can do everything the Launchpad can do, but in a smaller footprint and for less money.

The Launchpad Pro and X take things to a different level. They build on the Launchpad features by adding velocity sensitivity to the pads to enable a more complete controlling and performing experience.

Launchpad Pro/X becomes an instrument in Note Mode. It switches between layouts for drums or instruments, giving chromatic or custom scales so that you never miss a note. You can create an entire expressive performance, melody, chords, and percussion, all from the Launchpad Pro or X without having to touch a mouse or dig deep into Ableton Live.

The Pro version has external MIDI connections and an onboard sequencer which also means that you can start controlling other MIDI gear outside of the Ableton eco-system.

All four give superb control over session clips in Ableton Live. They are instantly integrated and powered over USB (Launchpad Pro also comes with a power adapter) and come with Ableton Live Lite, just in case you don’t have Live already, and a bundle of other content.

Street Prices:
• Novation Launchpad Mini – $109.99
• Novation Launchpad Mk3 – $149.99
• Novation Launchpad X – $199.99
• Novation Launchpad Pro – $349.99
novationmusic.com

Arturia BeatStep

A perfectly formed little controller with 16 knobs, 16 pads, and nifty sequencer. It’s compact and rugged and would fit nicely into your laptop bag. Although, sure, you can launch clips in Ableton Live but it’s just as interested in playing drums in any DAW or tweaking the parameters of any synth in any software; it’s not fussy.

The backlit pads are velocity sensitive and so perfect for banging out those percussion performances. Along with MIDI note on/off messages the pads can also be configured to send MMC commands, program, and bank changes or serve as CC control buttons. The 16 encoders can all be mapped to control whatever you want over MIDI.

Along with all the MIDI control, you also have a sequencer mode. In this mode, the Beatstep becomes a surprisingly powerful 16 step sequencer. Each pad becomes a step, shining blue for activated steps. Each encoder becomes a pitch control over the corresponding step.

The Shift button provides access to some nice sequencer features, such as sequence direction, randomization, and clock divisions. The top row gives you a range of scales so that the encoders will always dial in the right notes. That makes coming up with a quick tune completely effortless.

The Beatstep doesn’t just have to work with software either. The MIDI output port can go straight into any external MIDI sound source. And if you have something a bit more modular then the CV and gate output puts your sequence directly into an oscillator.

If hardware sequencing is your thing then check out the BeatStep Pro which takes this element of the BeatStep so much further.

Street Price: $99
arturia.com

Native Instruments Maschine Mk3

The Maschine has just reached its third incarnation and brings with it the tightest software and hardware integration so far. It’s less of a controller, although it does control, and more of a production and performance system. Perhaps it should be part of our roundup of groove making machines, but Maschine has no sounds of its own, it’s purely dependent on software, and so is still a controller rather than a standalone groove box. These edges continue to get blurred.

What Maschine does best is connect you with the Maschine sequencing and pattern arranging software. The software can be run standalone or as a plug-in within any DAW. This means that whatever music production software you like to use Maschine can be an integrated part of that.

One of the key features of the new version centers around the twin full-color screens. In one mode it’s a browser of all installed Komplete and NKS compatible sounds and instruments. In another, it’s for sample trimming and editing. Another mode shows an overview of the software arrangement, and yet another produces mixing control in your DAW. Maschine doesn’t want you to miss a beat moving from creating, to editing, to mixing and arranging.

Instruments can be brought up at the touch of a button, so can effects and mixing facilities. The creation of patterns and performances is done through the 16 RGB lit velocity-sensitive pads, triggering samples or instrument sounds, or in another mode, triggering whole patterns and scenes.

Maschine now features a high-quality audio interface. There are line and microphone inputs for direct sampling straight into the computer. No longer any need to carry an audio interface around. The pads are bigger, more sensitive and brightly lit, there’s a control strip for quick performance tweaks. This hardware has matured into a real production system.

Street Price: $599
native-instruments.com

Joué Modular MIDI Controller

Joué aims to bring an innovative and evolving form of control to your software. Instead of being generic or focused on one specific take, Joué wants to bring your endless possibilities. It consists of a pressure-sensitive base made of wood and metal onto which you place “magic” controller modules. These modules can be anything.

Currently, there are piano keyboards, pads, vector controls, nodules and buttons, faders and strips — there’s even a fretboard. All made from this rubbery, material that transmits your movements and manipulations to the base for conversion to MIDI control data.

The Joué is split into three sections, so you can mix and match your configuration and build the controller of your dreams. It will work with anything: desktop or iOS, laptop, tablet and is even MPE (Multi-dimensional Polyphonic Expression) compliant.

Joué was funded earlier this year on Kickstarter and is still in development although general release is expected any time now. The price is likely to be around $300 depending on how many modules you want.

Street Price: $599
play-joue.com

Korg nanoPAD2

For the space and budget-conscious, check out the nanoPAD2 from Korg. You’ve got 16 pads squeezed into a very compact body and a simple interface to get you making beats as fast as possible.

It has 4 banks so you can map those pads to 64 different events to trigger and beat make all over the place. The pads are velocity-sensitive, dynamic-sensing, and responsive to give you a decent level of expression and possibility. There’s also a handy XY pad that can be mapped to other MIDI parameters to give you some real-time control over the controls that are most important to you.

Simple, easy, available in black or white, and will fit in your bag, it’s ready for beat making wherever you open your laptop or iPad.

Street Price: $74.99
korg.com

Sensel Morph

A similar idea to the Joué, the Sensel Morph offers a range of controller overlays to give you a complete MIDI controlled environment from a single controller. It can be a keyboard, it can be a bunch of drum pads, it can be session controller, or something quite different.

Morph is powered by a tablet-sized pressure pad filled with 20,000 sensors to feel and respond to every touch. That information is then translated into MIDI and MPE to offer a highly expressive creative controller. The overlays give you ready-made control environments — piano, drums, DAW control, and so on — but you can also create your own completely from scratch. You could design your own DJ controller, or sample wrangler, you can trigger events, turn knobs and dig into exactly what you want to control.

With pressure, position, and movement, the possibilities are as endless as your imagination. Sensel Morph starts at $299 for the base and a single overlay but there are all sorts of bundles available depending on what you want.

Street Price: $299
sensel.com

Ableton Push 2

More complex than most finger bashing pad machines, the Push 2 is designed as a playable instrument wedded to Ableton Live and operating every performance function within the software.

The pads can be used for finger drumming but they can also be a piano keyboard, a clip launcher, and address all sorts of parameters within the Live software. At the top you’ll get displays from the various devices and plugins you’re running and you can have direct control over them without having to look at your laptop.

Lots of other commands are available directly on the Push 2, like transport, looping, quantization, navigation, mixing, and device editing. It’s quite a complete package that is only going to do the business with Ableton Live. But if that’s your software of choice then there is no better controller out there.

Street Price: $799 or $1149 with Live software
ableton.com

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