Midi controllers work just like midi keyboards, but instead of keys, you control it via pads that you hit with sticks or with your fingers.
These controllers are used with virtual instruments in sequencing software to create beats and trigger samples and are often found in home recording studio setups.
In this article, we will dive deep into the key considerations when purchasing one of these midi pad controllers.
- Best Midi Pad Controllers: Product Guide
- What is a Midi Pad Controller?
- Buying Guide – Key Considerations
Best Midi Pad Controllers: Product Guide
Akai Professional MPD218
The Akai Professional MPD218 is a MIDI-over-USB pad controller that merges classic beat-making with cutting-edge computer-based music production.
For a start, the hardware is superb. It features 16 thick, fat, velocity-sensitive MPC pads for triggering drums, melodic samples, one-shots, effects, and basslines. You also get MPC-style controls, including their legendary ‘Note Repeat’ and ‘Full Level’ controls.
There are dedicated controls for three pad banks, too, that provide 48 assignable pads to control volume, pitch, and automation.
As for software, they really spoil you. You get their MPC Beats Software incorporating the finest parts of the legendary MPC workflow. You also get the SONIVOX drum suite, big bang drums, and cinematic percussion.
Finally, the Akai MPD218, at less than 5cm thick and weighing under 1kg, is ultra-portable. It’s compatible with Mac, PC, and iOS compatibility.
- Classic beat-making with seamless USB connectivity
- 16 thick, fat velocity-sensitive MPC pads
- Ships with their MPC Beats Software for those old-school MPC sounds and SONiVOX drum suite
- Superb value for money
- Backlit pads rather than fully lit, so it’s easy to see in a dark environment.
- Although 48 settings are attainable, switching between 3 banks is tricky mid-performance.
Native Instruments Maschine Mikro Mk3
The Maschine Mikro Mk3 is the compact version of Native Instrument’s MPC-inspired hybrid hardware/software beat production studio. Its bigger brother represented the pinnacle of their series to date (and midi controllers in general, let’s be honest), giving you the muscle of their high-end Studio product, with an audio interface and touch-strip thrown in for good measure.
The point of the Maschine Mk3 is to encourage ‘on the fly’ creative processes. The idea is to be able to create loops based on beats, samples, and melodies and then apply effects and so on. Indeed, it excels at sparking ideas and lets you layer loops (or ‘grooves’) quickly.
As you’d expect, the hardware is superb. The pads are supremely playable too and perfect for finger-drumming. It’s USB bus-powered, which is handy too, so no need to also rely on mains power.
- Superb for sparking ideas and getting them out fast.
- High-resolution pads are great for finger-drumming.
- No fold-out legs for angling it when seated at a desktop.
The Korg nanoPAD2 is a fun and easy-to-use controller that is suitable for creating melodies, harmonies, as well as beats and rhythms.
It has 16 velocity-sensitive pads and four switchable scenes to deliver 64 different pad assignments.
It also has an X/Y touchpad to control multiple synthesizer parameters, which, when used in conjunction with the ‘touch scale’ function, lets you intuitively play phrases on it (works a bit like a Kaossilator).
It’s very budget-friendly, light, and easy to use, so it will suit the creative musician who wants to have fun and establish new musical ideas on the go (its proportioned to fit perfectly in front of your laptop computer).
It will be less suited to those who need many sample options and superior controllability, as this is more of a competent all-rounder than a professional device.
- Works well for creating melodies and harmonies as well as beats.
- Works with Macs and PCs.
- The pads don’t light up.
- Lacks sample options and controllability
Alesis SamplePad Pro
The Alesis SamplePad Pro is an instrument that’s ready to play straight away, as it has 200 built-in sounds as well as the ability to trigger samples from your computer. There are ten full kits to choose from, and you can install additional sounds to the machine using an SD card.
There are eight velocity-sensitive pads, which are highlighted with blue light when in use, and there are also inputs to allow for additional ones. As well as this, the Alesis SamplePad Pro has inputs for foot pedals so that you can control your bass and hi-hat sounds with your feet as you would on a real kit.
This midi controller also has multiple outputs, including a headphone socket, and plugs into your computer via USB (although an AC adapter powers it). The instrument is compatible with both Windows and Mac.
It’s perfect for existing drummers, as the option to add foot pedals means you’re able to apply your drumming skills to it and incorporate it into your existing electronic kit.
It will be less suited to those who want something simple to get started with or for people who require something powered by USB.
- Able to add pedals to make this play like a real kit.
- Responsive and suited to being hit with sticks.
- Two hundred internal sounds are already included.
- Needs to be plugged into the mains.
- It’s suited mainly to those who already play drums.
- It’s a bit pricey.
Akai Professional LPD8
The Akai Professional LPD8 has 8 pads and 8 corresponding dials, which makes it easy to control and play with.
There’re also four banks in this interface to store settings and switch between them, which comes in useful when you need to have fast access to a particular kit or selection of samples.
It is bus-powered by USB, and the pads lit from behind, so it’s easy to see which ones are being used.
This compact and budget-friendly product comes with a free Reason download, making it perfect for those who’re just getting started and don’t have much money to spend.
Like the nanoPad, it will be less suited to those who require triggers with superior sensitivity and a large number of pads. Despite the ‘professional’ name, it’s less professional than some higher-end products.
- Eight corresponding dials for the eight pads make it very controllable and easy to use.
- Bus-powered by USB.
- Pads are highlighted rather than fully lit, so it’s easier to see in a dark environment.
- Switching the eight pads between their multiple functions is impractical on stage.
Ableton Push 2
The Ableton Push 2 has 64 pads, making it extremely well suited to electro musicians who are likely to need access to many samples at once.
You can slice, stretch, or shorten samples so that they always stay in time with your music. There’s also a built-in screen to access a vast bank of inbuilt sounds to assign to your pads, which are velocity-sensitive with aftertouch, so you can hold and manipulate samples after they’re triggered. There are also recording options built into the software to capture musical ideas as they’re born.
The Ableton Push 2 is perfect for electronic musicians who take the triggering, manipulating, and mixing of samples seriously.
It will be less suited to those who want a quick and easy way of achieving drum kit sounds.
- Sixty-four pads that light up make it easy to trigger multiple samples.
- Velocity-sensitive pads that have aftertouch with vibrato effects.
- Very expensive.
- Features could overwhelm someone new to midi controllers.
- It’s more suited to triggering multiple samples.
Arturia BeatStep Pro
The Arturia BeatStep Pro is more than just a midi controller.
This advanced hardware has 16 light-up, velocity, and pressure-sensitive pads, allowing you to save up to 16 projects. You also have 16 fully customizable dials.
There’s a tap tempo control, a drum fill generator, and an option to dequantize notes a little to give your music a more natural, random feel.
There are multiple-scale settings, so you can get creative with your melodies quickly and easily. These scales are transposable to all keys.
It can be used with Macs, PCs, and midi-compatible synthesizers, drum machines, and more, via its USB, Midi, and gate outputs. It has an internal drum sequencer and two melodic sequencers, which let you create beats and tunes with the hardware and even capture the velocity of the notes as you play them.
The Arturia BeatStep Pro is perfect for those who perform with drum machines, synths and VSTs live on stage. This device connects to them all and makes the performing process smoother, more exciting, and more fun. It’s also sturdy while slim enough to carry in your laptop case. It can be powered off your laptop, too, by USB.
- A large number of features and broad connectivity make it versatile, functional and creative.
- Includes a Kensington lock as an anti-theft device.
- Includes a randomizer.
- The enormous amount of features can be overwhelming to the beginner.
- The included USB lead is flimsy and short.
- It’s not that intuitive to use: you’ll need to read the manual.
The QueNeo 3D Multi-Touch Pad Controller is an extremely sensitive, modern Midi controller.
It has sixteen pads and nine touch-sensitive faders. Each of these reacts according to exactly where they’re touched (they even have different functions for each of the corners). When the pads and faders are in use, they light up in reds and greens. This makes the QuNeo a very visual tool that’s easy to see in darkened rooms.
The device is exactly the size of an iPad and is powered via USB. This makes it extremely portable, but it still feels solid and robust,
To connect with more old-fashioned Midi instruments, you will need an additional Midi expander, and there’re no audio inputs or outputs on this pad controller. It’s designed with portability and laptop connectivity in mind.
This will be well suited to electronic musicians or DJs who need to travel light but don’t want to sacrifice features or quality in doing so.
It will be less suited to musicians who might need audio outputs or who want to use the controller with Midi synths or similar. Although it’s possible to connect this to Midi synths, doing so requires additional hardware that’s sold separately.
- Small, lightweight and USB powered.
- Incredibly responsive pads to velocity and have multiple pressure points.
- It’s the same size as an iPad.
- No multiple outputs, so it’s less versatile than some of the other pad controllers.
- The touch sensitivity might not suit those who prefer knobs.
- The color scheme of the lights – reds and greens – might not be clear underneath disco/stage lights.
Novation Launchpad Pro
The Novation Launchpad Pro Grid Controller is a colorful, 64 pad controller.
The pads are velocity and pressure-sensitive and make beats that are expressive and natural-sounding. When you’re creating melodies, they automatically assign themselves to keys and modes to let you create fitting tunes easily. The notes which fit appropriately are highlighted, while the remaining chromatic notes stay accessible but are lit more dully.
As well as a USB connection, which powers the device, there are midi ports to connect it to older synths.
This device was built with Ableton in mind, and it comes with a copy of Ableton Live as well as a load of Loopmasters loops, to get you started creating electro-music immediately.
It’s well suited to electro musicians who perform live with Ableton and need something to trigger audio and video samples as well as to create tunes and beats.
It will be less suited to musicians who want something simple.
- Pads are incredibly colorful, multifunctional and sensitive.
- Comes with Ableton Live and a selection of Loopmasters loops to help you to get creative quickly.
- Use it to create light shows as well as music.
- It’s not all that intuitive to use: you’ll need to read the instructions and be tech-savvy.
- Although it’s compatible with various software, it’s most suited to Ableton.
- It’s a bit bulky compared to some of the other items here.
iK Multimedia iRig
As is suggested in the name, the iK Multimedia iRig is the only phone-friendly option here and connects with some Apple products (and is also compatible with PC).
It has 16 multicolored pads which are velocity-sensitive, two controllable midi knobs, two assignable pushbuttons, and a Midi controllable fader.
It also comes with software and a bank of sounds to get started with.
This hardware will suit those who are loyal to Apple and already use their products. It’s easy to get started when you use this as an addition to a small device you’re already comfortable with.
It will be less suited to those who want something for permanent use in the studio, as it’s designed with portability in mind and is made to work with handheld devices.
- Extremely portable and lightweight.
- Comes with software and a large number of samples to get started with.
- Pads are velocity-sensitive and light up according to how hard you’ve pressed them.
- Android devices aren’t supported.
- It doesn’t provide excellent value for money.
- The controller and the software take some getting used to if you’re new to making Midi music.
What is a Midi Pad Controller?
A midi pad controller is a midi interface (‘midi’ stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface) that sends data to trigger sounds.
These midi messages are sent to virtual instruments within the sequencing software you’re using (such as Reason, Ableton, or Cubase).
There is an infinite number of sounds you can trigger, either with sticks or with your fingers. These controllers work both on stage and in the studio.
Conveniently, many controllers have built-in sounds already so you don’t need to hook it up to any additional virtual instruments before you start creating beats.
Buying Guide – Key Considerations
Many controllers are USB-powered (also known as ‘bus-powered’). These devices don’t need an additional adapter and are a godsend for those who like to create beats as they travel.
If you’re unsure about whether there will always be a plug socket available as you work, this is an essential feature to look out for so that you can power your instrument from your (charged) device.
Non-USB powered ones will require a plug socket as they’re powered via an AC adapter. If you’re using the pad controller in the studio without a shortage of plug sockets, then this kind of power source will be just fine.
Number of Pads
Most of these products have velocity and pressure-sensitive pads that react according to how hard you hit them. If you hit it with some force, the sound will be louder; if you touch them lightly, the sound will be soft.
This gives you a dynamic range in your sounds and makes the sounds feel a bit more natural and authentic. This feature is essential for those who want to achieve realistic instrumental sounds.
The number of pads on controllers vary from 6 up to 64. How many do you need? More might immediately sound like a better option, but if you want to hit it with sticks, then six large ones might be more appropriate than lots of small ones.
If you require a large number of samples in a single session, 16 or more is likely to suit you the best.
Fully Lit or Partially Backlit Pads
Some of these controllers have pads that fully illuminate, thanks to an LED, while they’re in use. Others light up at the back. If you’re looking for a colorful experience, or need to be able to see what you’re doing in the dark easily, get some which light up with different colors.
If you think that this might be distracting, try partially backlit ones.