Choosing a Pad Controller

In the last article we thoroughly examined the available types of MIDI keyboards and characteristics of the devices we rated as the most interesting. Next, we will consider another kind of gear, no less important in musical production and compiling of live sets - pad controllers.
Compared to keyboard controllers, pad controllers are generally more diverse. They could be single-function compact devices as well as large controllers fully integrated with your DAW.

Let's closely examine which MIDI devices are currently available in the market.


1. Define your budget. MIDI keyboards may cost from several tens to several hundreds of US Dollars. If, from the beginning, you define your maximum price tag that you can afford when choosing a controller, you will significantly narrow down the number of options to consider.

2. What are your goals? Depending on the goals you pursue, your choice may be different. You need to clearly define what you need to make your work comfortable.

If it is crucial for you to mix the material using physical faders, then the knobs that replace physical faders in compact devices will not be the right choice for you. If you want to use pads to launch samples or create drum loops, then you need a controller with high-quality pads.

If you're in need of using various functionalities, then you probably need to buy several single- or dual-functionality devices instead of looking for an "all-in-one" device.

3. Number and size of pads. Depending on the purposes of using the pads, you'll have different options to think about. If you only need the pads to launch samples, clips or scenes of your live session, then small pads may well suit you.

If you plan to use the controller in live performances or for composing of drum lines, you'll need a device with larger pads. It's also advisable to try and foresee from the very beginning, how many pads you'll need. The number of pads on the controller should, of course, not be necessarily equal to the possible number of samples in your drum rack, because you can always navigate between drum rack pages using special buttons. But if it's important for you to be able to access all individual samples at any time, then you better consider the controllers with the 8x8 pad matrix.

4. Do you need a mobile or stationary version? There are situations in which you better choose a compact MIDI keyboard, for instance, when you work while traveling or have frequent and long gigs, if your home studio is a small place. Some touring musicians own 2 separate gear sets, i.e. a "home" set fully configured for convenient work, and a portable and light "travel" set.

5. Will you use the controller in live performances? The quality of device components and the overall assembly quality is, of course, important also if you work in a studio only. But, if you know that you'll need to constantly travel and pack/unpack the controller, then you'll definitely need to pay special attention to the device durability. It's also important if you often move from place to place and work on the stage, it's when the chances to occasionally hit or even drop the device are higher.

6. Compatibility with DAWs. These days, practically all the controllers on the market are working very well with the most popular workstations. But there are devices specially tailored for the use with certain DAWs. Therefore, if you are a dedicated user of a certain software, you definitely need to pay attention to this point on your checklist.

7. Which brand do you prefer? We intentionally put this item as the last one on the list, because if you're planning to buy your first controller, you can hardly have an objective opinion about any brand. But nevertheless, pay attention that each manufacturer follows its own distinctive trend. Some manufacturers closely cooperate with certain DAW developers, which ensures easy hardware setup and its perfect interaction with the software.

Now, let's go on and consider several options of MIDI controllers of different types and produce:

Ableton Push 2

This controller is designed to work with Ableton Live software. The 64 pads it has on board allow for playing compositions in real time, record series of musical fragments in session mode and adjust lengths of the loops, which all allow the controller to be used in live performances and while composing music in the studio. The pads may be used in various modes, when being backlit with different colors, they can be played as keys of a MIDI keyboard. Push has no any physical faders, but the pads may work as volume faders too.

All parts of the controller are manufactured using durable high-quality materials. Though its working panel is large enough, the device is fairly light and thin, which makes it an excellent option for touring.

Ableton engineers have created the device that is fully integrated with Ableton Live software, thus musicians can either create music or perform on stage without a single glance at a computer screen, where the device's large LED screen is of great assistance.
Main specifications:

○ 64 RGB-backlit pads (8x8 pad matrix)

○ 31 backlit buttons

○ 11 rotating knobs

○ Standalone operation: Yes

○ Other controls: 17cm multifunctional touchstrip

○ Powered via USB or 12 Volt DC power supply

○ Bundled software: Live 9 Intro Standard or Suite

○ Dimensions: 14.88 " x 11.96" x 1.65"

○ Weight: 2.7 kg

Akai Professional APC40 MKII

Compared to its original APC40 predecessor, the APC40 MKII has a more compact design. Ten reinforced channel faders, one crossfader and eight control knobs provide easy access to controlling of various parameters such as volume, panning, etc. Thanks to its integration with Ableton, this controller is an ideal choice for both studio use and live performances.

LED-backlit color pads made of a high quality material are designed to simulate Ableton Live sessions. Though it has so many controls, the APC40 MKII remains surprisingly compact and light which makes it one of the most suitable devices for touring.

All in all, it could become an excellent tool for you, if you are looking for a multifunctional music-making device suitable for arrangement and mixing.
Main specifications:

○ 40 RGB-backlit pads (5x8 pad matrix)

○ Buttons: 5 clip-launch buttons, 9 clip-stop buttons, 9 track selectors, 8 track control buttons, 8 device control buttons, 3 transport buttons, 3 assignable buttons and 4 soundbank selectors.

○ Knobs: 8 assignable knobs, 8 control buttons, 1 tempo knob

○ Other controls: 9 channel faders, 1 crossfader

○ Standalone operation: No

○ Powered via USB

○ Comes with Ableton Live Lite, Puremagnetik Effects Rack, Hybrid 3 synth by AIR Music Tech, SONiVOX Twist and Prime Loops packages

○ Dimensions: 16.7 "x 10" x 1.8"

○ Weight: 1.8 kg

Novation Launchpad Pro

This controller's interface is well understood intuitively and its integration with Ableton is very straightforward too. The device is built with excellent quality. Having fairly small size, it even has DAW control buttons on board. RGB-lit buttons and pads provide distinctive visual feedback in any lighting conditions. The quality of pads' material is superb and their response is excellent.

This controller is an excellent buy for those who are looking for a device customizable for both live performances and creating music in a studio.
Main specifications:

○ 64 RGB-backlit pads (8x8 pad matrix)

○ Buttons and knobs: 1 setting button, 32 RGB-backlit buttons

○ Standalone operation: Yes

○ Powered via USB or 12 Volt DC power supply. Available separately: camera connection kit or USB camera adapter

○ Connectivity: 1 USB connector, 2 MIDI connectors, 1 power supply connector

○ Comes with: Ableton Live Lite 9.5, Bass Station, V-Station and 4-GB soundbank and samples by Loopmasters

○ Dimensions: 10.3 "x 1.1" x 10.3"

○ Weight: 2.5 kg

IK Multimedia iRig Pads

It's a portable 16-pad MIDI controller designed for iOS devices, as well for Mac and PCs. The device is easily configurable and connectable to iPhone, iPad or iPod touch via the supplied cable. The compact and lightweight design makes iRig Pads one of the most easily portable devices. Despite its small size, it does have all the basic controls - two knobs, two buttons, one slider and one rotary encoder.

The pads are fairly responsive and sufficiently large. The controller itself is quite solid. Integration with Apple devices and PCs is quick and easy. This controller is an excellent option for those who work not only with desktop devices, but with mobile iOS devices too.
Main specifications:

○ 16 RGB-backlit pads (4x4 pad matrix).

○ Buttons: 2 buttons

○ Knobs: 2 MIDI controllers, 1 rotary encoder

○ Other controls: 1 MIDI programmable slider

○ Standalone operation: No

○ Powered via USB

○ Shipped with SampleTank 3 SE software

○ Dimensions: 7.5 "x 8.1" x 0.9"

○ Weight: 0,8 kg

ROLI Beatmaker Kit

After hugely successful entering the market of MIDI devices with their innovative keyboards, ROLI also switched to other types of controllers. The company offers its users not only out-of-box ready-to-use devices, but also prefabricated modular solutions. The modules are mounted and fixed inside a special magnetic casing from where any of the modules could be extracted for a separate use.

The Lightpad Block M touchpad works as a pad matrix unit whose entire surface can be used to either play loops, perform drum lines or manage effects. As for the Loop Block control unit, its main purposes are to activate recording, start audio playback and control the volume.

Roli BLOCKS Beatmaker Kit consists of two Lightpad Block M modules and two Live Block playback control modules. According to ROLI representatives, two Lightpad Block M blocks allow beat making to be much more convenient compared to ordinary pads.

To put it shortly, ROLI Beatmaker Kit is a relief for producers tired of the same boring conventional controllers.
Main specifications:

○ 2 LED-backlit Lightpad Ms panels

○ Live Block and Loop Block for DAW control

○ Customizable modular system

○ Powered via USB or 12 Volt DC power supply adaptor (included)

○ Comes with 100 free sounds, Equator, Ableton Live Lite, Tracktion Waveform and Strobe2 Player software

There is a huge number of other models and manufacturers, but if you understand which characteristics are the most crucial for you and determine your budget, your search can be narrowed from tens to just a few options. We do hope this article will help facilitate your search.

If you already have ready tracks, for which you want to receive a reward, then we are waiting for you on the ExpertMusic portal. We provide content for background music of different establishments, as well as for production: commercials, movies, YouTube-videos, games, etc.

Wishing you to collect your perfect live gear set!
ExpertMusic team.

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