Best Pad, Knob or Slider MIDI Controller
A piano or synth keyboard is not always the best tool for the job. There’s a whole lot more you can control over MIDI than just notes. Maybe you want to release your inner groove and start banging out some percussion, maybe you want to start twisting sound by pulling on knobs and sliders. Many of these controls find themselves onto MIDI keyboard controllers. (Check out our article on the best MIDI keyboard controllers if you want something with piano keys attached.) But for something more focused, there are a handful of pad, knob, slider and control surface MIDI controllers out there that give your hands tactile control over your virtual production environment. So, get ready for some serious finger drumming with our roundup of the best MIDI pad and knob controllers.
The Ableton Live factor
One piece of software that will come up a lot in this round-up is Ableton Live. It’s one of the most popular DAWs for loop-based production and live performance and so is perfect for hands-on control. Many pad controllers are designed either with Ableton Live in mind or as the sole focus, although most will enable you to control whatever you like when assigned to MIDI controls. There’s much to be gained in having a device tailored for particular software rather than just offering generic control and that tends to be what we find.
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Novation has always innovated in areas of MIDI control. The original Launchpad was released in 2009 as a dedicated controller for Ableton Live and more recently the Launchpad MK2 has arrived, along with the enhanced Launchpad Pro 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.
The Launchpad Mini can do everything the Launchpad can do but in a smaller footprint. It loses the RGB nature of the pads, dropping back to the yellow, green and red of the original Launchpad. Otherwise, it’s a smaller and cheaper option.
The Launchpad Pro takes things to a different level. It builds on the Launchpad features by adding velocity sensitivity to the pads to enable a more complete controlling and performing experience. Launchpad Pro becomes an instrument in Note Mode. It switches between layouts for drums or instruments, giving chromatic or custom scales so you never miss a note. You can create an entire expressive performance, melody, chords, and percussion, all from the Launchpad Pro without having to touch a mouse or dig deep into Ableton Live. The external MIDI connection also means you can start controlling other MIDI gear outside of the Ableton eco-system.
You can create an entire expressive performance, melody, chords and percussion, all from the Launchpad Pro without having to touch a mouse or dig deep into Ableton Live. The external MIDI connection also means you can start controlling other MIDI gear outside of the Ableton eco-system.
Akai APC40 MKII
Staying with Ableton Live controls, we have Akai, who has produced one of the most complete hardware interfaces for Live in the shape of the APC40. The MKII refines this controller into one of the perfect companions to Ableton’s performance software.
Unlike the Launchpad, the APC40 aims to pull together more aspects of Live into the hands-on experience. The 5 x 8 grid offers RGB clip-launching buttons for your session view. Color coded to your clips and with the directional arrows, it’s a breeze to navigate around a larger project. With the APC40 you’re not trying to multi-purpose everything; you have dedicated controls for all aspects of Live. The faders give you instant control over volume, including the master channel. Send buttons, solo buttons and record arm are all there for each track. At the top, the 8 knobs can be easily assigned to pan or send amounts or anything else you want to control. The additional 8 knobs at the side are automatically mapped to control whatever device you have selected in Live. And the assignable A/B crossfader gives you dynamic mixing on the fly.
Where the APC40 MKII excels is in the control of your session. The Launchpad perhaps offers more opportunity for creative input but nothing gives the comprehensive view and hands-on support of the APC40.
Street Price: $99 (at time of writing)
This is 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, 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.
In addition to 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 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.
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.
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 Maschine can be an integrated part of whatever music production software you like to use.
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 and 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. The pads are bigger, more sensitive and brightly lit and there’s a control strip for quick performance tweaks. This hardware has matured into a real production system.
Joué Modular MIDI Controller
Street Price: $300 (at time of writing)
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 you 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.
Focused and multi-functional
It’s a time of change for the MIDI controller. While most basic MIDI control can be found on MIDI keyboards, the role of the pads, knobs and sliders controller seems to be evolving. On one side you have the focus of hardware dedicated to Ableton Live or Maschine, while on the other, people are crying out for something more creative. Joué is one of a number of products looking to offer more expression and adaptable control than the usual box of knobs. It’s definitely an interesting time for MIDI controllers.
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