With the hundreds of MIDI drum controllers on the market today, finding one that works best for Ableton can be a huge pain.
Compared to other DAWs like Pro Tools, Logic, Reason, etc., Ableton has a different workflow. You’ll most likely end up using Ableton to trigger clips, mix live, and sequence different patterns, especially if you’re making electronic music.
Of course, you’ll be able to do this with many different controllers, though in the past decade, we’ve begun to see a market of products dedicated to Ableton’s environment.
There’s no doubt that Ableton’s software gives you, as a producer, the ability to take your mixes live, something that requires a proper control surface to get the most out of your live experience.
We’re going to give you the lowdown on some of our favorite hardware controllers for Ableton so that you can get to recording, mixing, performing, or whatever it is your heart desires!
What to Consider Before Purchasing an Ableton Controller
There are two things you’ll want to consider when looking at pads for your Ableton Controller:
Size and Quality
To cut down on size, some control surfaces on the market have begun manufacturing miniature pads on their devices. A popular example is the Akai APC mini.
While this can save you tons of space, you should consider that this could cut down on your accuracy when playing.
If you’re ever considering going out and performing live, you’ll want to have larger pads that are easier to play with.
As for the quality of your pads, you’ll want ones that are durable and have excellent feedback.
Most controller pads are made with high-quality rubber or silicone and are velocity-sensitive, though not all pads have equal feedback. Getting pads that are sensitive to pressure or have built-in aftertouch can be very helpful in adding expressiveness to your playing.
The portability of your Ableton controller will really come down to how many pads are onboard.
Want something that is portable that you can take with you on the go?
We recommend looking for small controllers with 2x4 or 4x4 setups or miniature pads.
Want something with a bit more functionality and versatility?
That’s when you should start looking into 8x8 controllers. The 8x8 controllers with full-sized MPC-style pads are much larger, though are far more flexible when you start getting into the world of serious production and live mixing.
Faders and Knobs
Most controllers come with at least a few knobs and faders for basic parameter editing. Obviously the more you have, the more parameters you’ll be able to control in real time. This can be extremely helpful if you’re using Ableton Live to DJ for example.
Imagine running one track and being able to filter it, throw it into delays and reverbs, and shift it in pitch, all in real time, without ever touching your computer keyboard. The more faders and knobs your device possesses, the more of an authentic ‘analog’ feel it will give you as you send MIDI information to Ableton.
Our 5 Recommended MIDI Controllers for Ableton
You’d probably be surprised to find out that many of your favorite DJs and electronic artists were instrumentalists to begin with. Zedd is a trained pianist, Flux Pavillion is a drummer, and Skrillex is a guitarist.
Playing live instruments differs so much from producing electronic music in that whatever you play feels authentic and organic. Ableton Push 2 aims to bring that feeling back into electronic music, and honestly, it does an incredible job. It’s essentially Ableton in a hardware instrument form.
Push 2 comes with an 8x8, large, high-quality grid of pads that can be used in a wide variety of ways.
Say you want to play a piano part. You can quickly turn your pad setup into a piano roll, experiment with different scales, and sequence/play melodies, all without ever drawing a single note into your MIDI clip. You also have a built-in LED strip to easily slice, play, or manipulate different samples, just as you would do with their simpler or sampler instrument in the DAW.
Bottom Line: If you can swallow the hefty price, there is no doubt that Ableton Push 2 is one of the best midi controllers for Ableton on the market today. Whether you’re playing live or want a more organic way of producing in the studio, we can’t recommend anything better.
If you were one of the early producers to buy the Akai APC40 (the first dedicated Ableton controller released almost 10 years ago), you might just find comfort and efficiency in the new version, the Akai APC40 MKII.
It works really well within Ableton Live, allowing you to easily playback clips within your sessions. Unfortunately, you do not have a step-sequencer, nor the ability to play with dynamics, as the pads aren’t velocity sensitive, though the unit is very effective for live triggering.
The RGB pads make it easy to monitor your clips and playback which can be very helpful when you’re playing in clubs and venues. There are also a large number of buttons, faders, and knobs, which can all easily be integrated with Ableton’s interface for maximum control. Unlike its predecessor, the MKII is much lighter, making it the perfect controller to take on the go with you.
Bottom Line: The Akai APC40 may not be the best controller in the world, but the fact that it has built-in Ableton integration and portability, makes it one of the best for the modern, on-the-go, Ableton producer.
While it isn’t the best Ableton controller on the market by any means, Akai gives you a lot for the small amount of money you spend to get ahold of their APC Mini.
With 64 pads, 16 buttons, and an 8+1 fader design (8 regular faders and 1 master fader), it’s hard to believe they packed all this into a tiny 1.5lb frame. Those who are familiar with Akai products will dig the overall build, as it is high-quality and durable.
Like the APC40, the Akai APC Mini is best for triggering and launching clips rather than actually creating music in real time. This is because it doesn’t have the kind of responsiveness necessary to create dynamic music, not to mention the pads are incredibly small. DJs will love the faders, as it essentially turns the APC Mini into a mixer for your Ableton Live sets.
Bottom Line: If you’re in the market for a budget Ableton controller that you can slip in your backpack and jet set around the world with, all at an affordable price, the APC Mini from Akai is one of the best.
The Novation Launchpad was such a big hit when it was released back in 2009 that the company decided to milk the success and build a miniature version of their renowned controller.
Therein came the Novation LaunchPad Mini, a controller with the same basic layout and features at a fraction of the size. With 64 launch pads and 16 buttons, you have quite a bit to work with here.
Pair that with LaunchPad95, a free, beautifully modified script for Ableton live, and you can utilize your launchpad to the fullest. With the driver installed, you get a wide array of ‘modes’ including mixer mode, standard mode, drum step sequencer mode, instrument mode, and scale edition mode. If you do end up getting the LaunchPad, we highly recommend exploring the driver’s possibilities.
The actual build quality of the device is pretty solid. The pads have somewhat of a plastic-y click to them, giving them quite a different feel when compared to classic MPC-style pads.
Bottom Line: If you’re all about portability, this is one of the best Ableton controllers out there. Without the installed driver mentioned above however, we probably wouldn’t put this on a top list (aka, the driver is a must-have).
Livid is a company that is still very much building a name for themselves, though their Base II Controller is certainly up in the ranks with the big players like Akai.
The Base II is incredibly durable with its aluminum build and comes with a ton of flexible features. Instead of faders, you get 9 touch-sensitive fader strips for a more futuristic feel, as well as 8 touch buttons and 8 basic silicone buttons.
As for the pads, you get 32 in all, each being pressure-sensitive with built-in aftertouch. The cool thing about the pads is that they change color the harder you press them, giving you a visual reference to your changes in velocity. You can easily use the dynamic controller mapping to connect to different functions within Live.
Bottom Line: While the Base II isn’t made specifically for Live, it integrates very well, looks sleek, and is built like a tank. If you’re looking for something portable with a futuristic design, definitely keep your eyes on the Base II.
We hope this guide has helped you to find the best controller for all of your Ableton needs. Always consider your primary use when buying a controller, as a DJ who is playing live will surely need something more geared towards performance than someone making beats in their bedroom.
Ableton Push 2 is no doubt the #1 controller for Ableton with the seamless integration and endless control options. It makes sense that Ableton would have the best controller for their own software.
That being said, there’s nothing wrong with getting another controller, especially if you’re on a budget or you use another DAW besides Ableton.
Controllers are like instruments and Ableton Controllers should be extensions of the software, providing you with a more efficient, physical workflow. Pick one up, and you’ll find that they open doors to a different side of music production that you may have never thought existed.