Whether at a live performance or in the studio, jumping back and forth between the computer screen, audio interface, and other hardware can slow your flow.
The best practitioners of controllerism often use their DAW only as a base and work directly from their MIDI controllers to create seamless live performances and studio sessions from these MIDI-fueled beat machines and synth stations.
There are so many types of MIDI pad controller devices available today. But trying to collect every new piece of production gear that hits the shelves is not just expensive; it is also redundant.
This makes the humble MIDI pad controller one of the best and most affordable assets for your studio. We have put together a helpful buyer’s guide and a list of the 5 Best Midi Pad Controllers on the market.
6 Top Midi Pad Controllers: Buyer’s Guide
1. Akai Mpd 218
Akai’s MPD 218 is great in terms of functionality. In fact, this MIDI pad controller can compete with other controllers on our list that feature far more individual controls.
The Akai accomplishes this by providing a number of data banks. With 16 pads and 3 data banks, the Akai offers 48 pads and 18 knob controls.
The latter amount is second only to the Ableton Push 2, which itself cannot accomplish the needed controls quite as quickly.
It might be the combination of these iOS-compatible features while being priced affordably that makes this such a steal in terms of value.
This is since it’s still taking a surprising amount of time to see full implementation on similar products across the product market.
As with all values, the shoe must drop. In this regard, it comes from a surprising place considering Akai’s reputation: Pad encoding.
Put simply, the velocity of the MPD 218 is well beyond what most users expect. It can require many music producers to step their precision up just to be able to use the MIDI pad controller without hours of additional editing.
Essentially, the MPD 218 is noted for producing double notes from a single push. It also gives ghost notes from buttons that are next to the one pushed.
That is a surprising flaw since Akai prides itself on making some of the most responsive and accurate pads in the MIDI device market, regardless of the hardware design.
Another flaw is the absence of any true MIDI ports. This means that the MPD 218 can’t serve as a “true” MIDI device and will require a DAW to function.
- Compatible with iOS devices
- Has 6 Midi knobs and 16 pads, each with 3 data banks
- No transport controls
- Sensitive velocity can create double notes
- No MIDI ports, either in or out
2. Akai LPD 8
Akai is the main brand responsible for having popularized the MIDI pad controller device in the first place.
While they may not be the ones who manufactured the original product itself, they were the ones who started the pad-based controllers’ trend.
It was with their MPC line, used in many popular 1980s hip-hop songs, that Akai became known.
More recently though, Akai still takes a rather large slice of the MIDI device market. This is even though they have distinctly shifted from the top-tier market to the budding professional and consumer market.
Still, with a history in the industry, the LPD 8 seeks to follow its predecessors while filling a specific niche.
Specifically, the LPD 8 is the least expensive MIDI pad controller on our list, making it our best budget option.
It is important to keep in mind that coming in at nearly half the cost of its next closest competitor does mean you will have to expect a sacrifice in functionality.
Thankfully, that does not mean you need to expect the same for the quality of that function. The pads and knobs feel incredibly durable as they are of the same high quality that all Akai’s pads and encoders have.
The response is also excellent with both the velocity and precision of pads and knobs remaining consistent.
However, this MIDI pad controller does feature the fewest pads on our list, and the dual lines of knobs are not the easiest to use.
Moreover, there are no display or transport controls. The pad controller lights are also minimal and only in red. This means you will likely still have to refer to your DAW when using it.
At least, this stripped-down model is incredibly small and light. But its functional limitations may not be the best for live performances since you’ll still need another piece of hardware.
- Cheapest option
- Pads and knobs offer a solid feel and responsive action
- The fewest number of pads on our list
- The knob controller layout is a bit cramped
- No display and few lighted cues provide limited feedback
3. Arturia Beatstep Pro
Best For Live Use
Arturia may not have the same name-brand recognition as some of the other products on our list. That’s because it started out as a budget-friendly maker of digital workstations inspired by classic analog synthesizers.
However, their eventual collaboration with synth pioneer Robert Moog placed a premium on their quality. Fast forward to today, Arturia has entered the MIDI market in full swing while still servicing its vintage-minded branding.
The Beatstep and its companion, the Beatstep Pro model, were an attempt to branch out into pad controller markets. As such, you should expect a few growing pains with Arturia while they still figure out exactly what current music producers demand from their equipment.
These pains are most apparent when you consider that the Beatstep Pro offers amazing architecture with an absence of features, which are seen as givens in today’s MIDI pad controllers.
The most glaring omission in this regard is the inability to save sequences.
While it offers two sequencers and a separate drum sequencer, you cannot save and layer previously created sequences.
This means that any sequence you make will require a hefty amount of interaction with the mouse and keyboard side of your DAW. That’s exactly what MIDI pad controllers are supposed to alleviate!
All of this would potentially be overlooked if the Beatstep Pro did not also carry a heftier cost than similar products that already have this one basic and expected feature.
- Excellent build quality
- Encoders are extremely responsive
- Numerous input/output options
- Somewhat expensive
- Cannot save sequences for song production
- Monophonic sequencers limit hardware control options
4. Ableton Push 2
Best For Professional Use
If you’re familiar with MIDI pad controllers, then chances are you have already heard about the Ableton Push series. When comparing this model to its previous iteration, the differences are immediately apparent, though.
The number of differences between Push 1 and Push 2 mainly amounts to differences in appearance. However, this should not be taken as a shallow, superficial set of differences.
In fact, many of these changes are designed to either present more information in a readily digestible manner or allow using that information for increased workflow. For instance, the display of the Push 2 is impressive, to say the least.
At 40mm of high-resolution, it is a full 33% larger than the Push 1 and blows the rest of the competition on this list out of the water.
The 64 pads, each with a solid response and a full array of RGB lights, offer an easy visual representation of your various samples and sequences in real-time.
Combined with the 8 endless encoders, the Push 2 easily offers more controls than any other product on our list. Using these controls feels intuitive and changing them is effortless once you figure out how to do so.
But this is actually Ableton Push 2’s greatest downfall and is simply a consequence of its incredible capability, a double-edged sword if you will. Customizing Push 2 takes a great deal of time and familiarity with your DAW.
In another two-sides-to-every-coin issue, the Push 2 is designed exclusively for Ableton Live and demonstrates severe bias in that regard, making it less than ideal to use with other DAWs.
- Most expansive and detailed display on our list
- A good number of controls
- Easy to use, despite massive functionality
- The most expensive item on this list
- Doesn’t always play well with other DAWs
- Can be complicated to customize at first
5. Native Instruments Maschine Mikro Mk2
Best For Amateurs
Native Instruments has developed a fairly solid reputation in the MIDI music production market for a good reason. The brand consistently manufactures high-quality products with excellent features and responsiveness.
However, Native Instruments also often suffers from a similar issue as the Push 2. They really like to push their own proprietary software onto their users.
Case in point, the Maschine Mikro Mk2 provides you with pretty much everything you need to start making music right out of the box.
With 8 GB of included software (that you do have to download from the site and upload into the MIDI pad controller), you won’t need many plugins to start making music.
However, the Maschine requires you to integrate it with your DAW via a VST that does not always work as intended.
Aside from the fact that setup is time-consuming and often fraught with glitches, if not outright crashes that force you to start the process over, there are no knobs or sliders.
With only 16 pads, options for total control is lacking. You will have to use your mouse and keyboard more than intended when you purchased a MIDI pad controller.
Still, the Maschine does offer an impressive display. But just note that it is still far simpler and offers less information than the Push 2.
Moreover, the features that the Maschine offer can accommodate even experienced producers with 64 steps per sequence.
This does make up for the fewer analog controls as the breakdown of patterns, groups, and scenes allows for some truly impressive finished products in the hands of a skilled producer.
- Has one of the better displays on our list
- Has internal groove production software
- Features easily scale for every skill level
- Fairly expensive
- No knob or slider controls
- Exclusive to NI software
6. Novation Launchpad Mini
Novation is no stranger to the MIDI market and has arguably captured a wide swatch of beginners and budget consumers.
However, this is most certainly not the case for this MIDI pad controller as Novation seeks to strike a balance between features and price.
Specifically, the Novation is an incredibly complex MIDI pad controller to learn how to use. However, this is in a large part due to the nearly unparalleled level of customization that Novation offers.
Basically, if you want to customize all 80 of the buttons, you most definitely can. The only problem is that you are liable to spend days, if not weeks, figuring out how to do so.
Unfortunately, this problem is only exacerbated by the fact that the Novation features little to no documentation.
Considering that the brand often makes it a point to appeal to the beginner market, this is a distinct departure from that philosophy.
Launchpad Mini is definitely a MIDI pad controller more suited to those who already know how to program various types of MIDI hardware with numerous DAWs.
Though, that last fact may not even be all that relevant as the Novation does not actually play well with too many DAWs.
While it comes with a stripped-down version of Ableton Live 9 and can technically work with FL Studio as well, Ableton is the only reliable DAW to use with the Novation.
Moreover, the drivers for the Novation do not play well with Apple products either.
- Reasonably priced
- Has 64 pads for an incredible number of options
- Manually tweakable encoders for absolute control
- Not compatible with Apple products
- No option for documentation
What to Know About MIDI Pad Controllers
MIDI Drum Pad Controllers
With the ability to control your DAW with the press of a button, Midi drum pads of a controller are arguably the most important feature.
From a general perspective, the pads on Midi drum pad controllers should be large enough to easily differentiate them. They should also be firm enough to feel solid when pressed.
Ideally, the best Midi drum pads will be made out of some form of non-stick material.
This is especially relevant if you are performing live where the lights, heat from the hardware, and body heat from the audience can cause the temperature to spike.
Rubber is the most common, but a harder, textured plastic will often suffice for the best Midi pad controllers.
This quality will depend heavily on the type of music you produce.
If you play a more minimal style of music, like a fair variety of hip hop and some electronic genres, the total number of pads for your MIDI device controller will not weigh as heavily. In this case, 8 to 16 pads will be plenty.
However, some of the more maximal styles of hip hop and a wide variety of electronics will require a minimum of 16 pads. They can demand more than that, depending on the arrangement.
In that case, data banks can offer some leverage, but you may find that the 64 pads give you more range and creativity when creating tracks on your USB MIDI controller.
The action refers to how it feels when pressing the pads. This can range from anywhere from exceedingly stiff to fairly loose.
However, the industry standard for quality generally tends to err on the side of stiff over loose. That’s if for no other reason than durability.
Ultimately, the preference will likely boil down to your playing style. Music producers that have an animated or impassioned playing style will likely prefer a firmer pad action to account for their rougher pushes.
However, a more measured and precise player will often be fine with looser pad actions, potentially finding a stiffer action to feel a bit restrictive or unresponsive.
Similar to digital keybeds, the velocity of the pads refers to how the force of the push alters the voice assigned to the pad.
Essentially, the harder you push the pad, the louder the voice plays and vice versa. Unlike with the action, the velocity of the pads generally has a definitive scale of quality that transcends playing style.
Ultimately, the more points along the velocity curve that a pad can activate, the greater variety and nuance a music producer can introduce into their tracks.
In that case, the rougher players will likely not notice too much of a difference. But more measured players will most certainly appreciate the breadth of expression.
This quality bridges the gap between the hardware and the software.
While it is technically a component of the software in digital USB controllers, the encoders are still circuitry that reads the analog input and determines how that signal is expressed.
Once again, there is a clear spectrum of quality irrespective of playing style here. A quality encoder is unlikely to be noticed by someone unfamiliar with MIDI controllers.
A quality encoder will present as “business as usual.” It is when a MIDI device has bad encoders that you will notice them.
Specifically, the encoders will register the action incorrectly, which can manifest in a number of ways.
Keep in mind that encoders often refer to the knob controls, which can be confusing since they are different functions with the same term.
This feature may seem like a bit of fluff, but novices and veterans alike are liable to find it so convenient that its absence is striking.
Basically, this quality determines how the MIDI device responds with a visual light cue if any when the pads are pressed.
Depending on the complexity of your MIDI controller, this feature can manifest as a simple LED to acknowledge the pad has been pressed.
Or it can be a complex array of light bars making use of numerous pads to control DAW effects and numerous colors representing different sequences, samples, drum kits, and voices.
Generally, the more lighting options, the better. This is since it provides more information and control.
But this can also create a steeper learning curve when first figuring out how to use the MIDI controller.
While far more common among USB MIDI keybeds, aftertouch effects are beginning to make their way onto MIDI pads as well.
This feature activates a secondary effect on the pad after you have already pressed it. Once the initial effect activates, an additional press before releasing the pad will activate a secondary effect.
This is most commonly used to trigger an effect, like reverb or pitch bend, on a voice assigned to the pad.
While aftertouch can provide an additional degree of expressiveness to the voice in your track, MIDI pads are not always as reliable with the feature as, say, digital keybeds.
This refers to any set of features that allow the music producer to control the DAW or MIDI hardware that is not padded.
Some controls can be assigned to features or effects within the DAW, while others may simply be used to navigate the DAW itself without activating a feature or effect or providing a holistic control.
For instance, transport controls are used to determine the entire track itself and commonly include skip, find, start, stop, and record functions.
These work similarly to the same controls on playback devices, except they are used for the purpose of making music and increasing workflow.
However, the most common type of control beyond a pad are knobs, sliders, and buttons. These are often applied to voice volumes, EQs, and various effects.
Each of those controls has their own standards for quality, though the most important factors are durability and encoders.
For not pressure-sensitive pads, this functions mostly as an on/off action.
However, knobs and sliders can be far more fickle in terms of their encoder quality. This is especially relevant to sliders if your MIDI pads are smaller than average.
This quality can cover a whole host of features, but it generally refers to how well the MIDI controller manipulates and controls the DAW as well as any software packages it may bundle with it.
The latter feature often refers to VSTs, proprietary plugins, various DAWs, and different MIDI development functions.
Ultimately, the more software bundled may not always be the best depending on what other types of software you already use.
For example, some controllers that come with DAW bundles may not be as easy to map onto alternative DAWs.
Moreover, they may not always make full use of an alternative DAW’s features or complicate customization.
While other pad controllers will ostensibly claim to be compatible with a wide variety of the most popular DAWs, this does not always come out in practice.
Specifically, a MIDI controller with a pre-bundled DAW is liable to have been made for use with that DAW to the preference of others.
A common occurrence is for a USB MIDI controller to bundle Ableton Live, one of the most popular DAWs on the market today.
However, users of other popular DAWs, like Cubase or Propellerhead’s Reason, may find that MIDI pads do not automatically map to the DAW and may not even be recognized by it.
This quality often has two components to consider: Auto-mapping and Customization.
While various types of MIDI controllers used to have serious issues with auto-mapping, not creating an intuitive or ergonomic layout, those issues are largely a problem of the past.
However, custom mapping still rears its head as a pain for many users depending on the MIDI controller selected.
While there is some factor in terms of the controller’s complexity of possible functions that come into play here, sometimes the MIDI controller simply is difficult to program.
This is similar to encoders in away. If it works properly, you will not even notice it is working at all.
Essentially, drivers provide the software necessary for the hardware hosting the DAW, whether a PC, laptop, or smart device, to recognize the MIDI controller.
Unfortunately, there is no real “standard” for drivers, and each company pretty much stands on its own.
When judging a MIDI pads controller’s drivers, two factors stand out: Updates and Backward Compatibility.
How quickly does a company update the controller’s drivers as technology and software continue to progress? Moreover, how does old software or hardware support the MIDI controller?
Ease of Use
The idea of sheer physical manipulation can also come into play here. For instance, controller knobs can utilize a variety of degree limitations in terms of actually manipulating them.
Combined with the encoders, this can make those controls harder or easier to use. Still, one of the most common elements of ease of use for a MIDI controller will relate to its layout.
Of course, this will often hinge more on playing style or familiarity than any objective measure, but there are still a few qualities that layout can demonstrate which affect the MIDI drum pad controller’s ease of use.
One of the most obvious qualities of layout involves groupings and space. In this instance, groupings refer to how similar controls are arranged.
For instance, knobs are often arranged in a line, while pads are generally arranged in a box. Because the pads are push-activated, they do not necessarily interfere with each other.
However, were knobs arranged in a box formation, manipulating more than one at a time could prove awkward and impede workflow.
More so than MIDI keyboards, a MIDI controller is often transported from one place to another. Whether it is a studio, a home, or a venue for a live performance, it has to be portable.
This is in a large part because controllers are often smaller and more compact in general while still providing a wealth of functionality.
However, this will always be a push/pull consideration. Essentially, the more robust MIDI pad drum machines will often necessitate a large design.
Moreover, better quality controllers with more functions often include more internal components making them heavier.
Ultimately, striking a balance between the dimensions and weight of a MIDI controller will come down to the user.
If you generally produce music in a single location, then bigger is better.
If you regularly play live shows, you may want a smaller, lighter model.
Keep in mind that the dimensions of MIDI drum pad controllers will also often affect the layout and ease of use.
Different setups, levels of skill and experience, and intended use will drastically alter which one of these MIDI pad controllers is right for you.
For instance, if you are well-versed in the art of controllerism, the Ableton Push 2 is arguably one of the best MIDI pad controllers on our list.
This is since it allows you to connect to your DAW and then ignore it completely while producing music.
But we personally think that the winner is the Akai Mpd 218.
It’s an all-in-one Midi drum pad controller that meets the needs of both the newbie to the advanced beat makers. It’s also good for music producers who’ll need it for the stage and studio since it’s reasonably priced.
Plus, it offers a solid feel and flow of its grandfather, the MPC 60 (and the MPC one).
April 10, 2022 – minor content edits