Some of the best MIDI pad controllers to get your fingers jamming
Anyone who has ever tapped a beat out on a table using their fingers knows it. Sometimes, that simple act of hitting something is all it takes to get the music flowing. We’re fortunate then that there is now a whole class of devices aimed at taking that basic action and making it the centre of your music-making experience.
MIDI pad controllers connect to your computer via USB, allowing you to control all manner of sounds and effects from a bank of pads. It’s simple to get started, intuitive and – best of all – great fun. Here’s a look at five of the best MIDI pad controllers around today:
- Native Instruments Maschine Mk3
- Ableton Push 2
- Native Instruments Maschine Jam
- Novation Launchpad Mini
- Akai LPD8 Laptop Pad Control
Native Instruments Maschine Mk3
Still, the daddy of the pad control scene, Native Instruments Maschine Mk3 brings together all the best elements of computer music production and performance into one sleek, user-friendly unit.
Maschine works with its complementary software package, also called Maschine. Working in tandem, the hardware and software give users access to all manner of exciting tools to play with.
Looking at the hardware; what you’re getting is a sturdy, well-built metal unit which acts as the point of interaction. It’s been designed in such a way that you could really not need to even touch your laptop. This is crucial as it encourages complete immersion in what you’re doing. No temptation to check your Facebook or watch cat videos.
Across the front of the unit, you’ll find 16 rubberised pads, which are the main point of contact. It’s with these that you’ll be playing, performing and selecting from the different options on offer. There are also two high-resolution screens with which you will navigate your way around the colossal library of sounds included with the Maschine software. It’s easy to get your head around and rewards players by making navigation and performance easier than it would ever be using a mouse and keyboard.
The included software is, in its own right, exceptionally well made. Along with the expected library of sounds and effects, there is a built-in sequencer, sampler and mixer. Using the sequencer and mixer, you can lay out loops you’ve recorded and craft them into complete songs. The sampler allows you to record music from an external source to be sliced and diced into something completely unique. It also works standalone, or as a plugin within your existing software setup.
For our money, Native Instruments Maschine is still the one to beat. It has everything you could need to get playing, and the software alone has enough tricks up its sleeve to excite even the most jaded beatmaker. Game over? Not quite…
Ableton Push 2
German-based software house Ableton saw how people were lapping up these new MIDI pad controllers and decided it wanted in. The result of this is Ableton Push 2 (there is Push 1, but this is the newer and better version…)
Push is similar to Maschine in many ways but differs when it comes to the software element. Whereas Maschine can be installed and work in tandem with most existing digital audio workstations (DAWs), Ableton only works to its full potential with its own proprietary software, Ableton Live. This would be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that Ableton Live is, for us, the most all-encompassing piece of music software out there.
So what we’ve got is a superbly well crafted, intricately engineered piece of hardware designed specifically to work with one piece of software. You could compare it to mobile phones in this respect; whereas the Android operating system works across a huge range of phones from different manufacturers, Apple has its own hardware and software. Both work together in perfect harmony.
The hardware caters for every nook and cranny in Live. You add tracks, add effects, record sequences, mix, automate and perform, all using only the Push hardware unit.
If you’re an existing user of Ableton Live, then Push is definitely worth checking out.
Native Instruments Maschine Jam
As an alternative to the big-daddy Maschine up there, Native Instruments Maschine Jam has a lot to offer the computer musician. It differs from the Maschine workflow in that it focuses more on performance and less on the standard Maschine’s APC-style sampling capability. So instead of the usual bank of 16 pads, users of Maschine Jam get 64 smaller pads, and a series of touch-sensitive faders at the bottom of the unit. Using this, the theory goes, it’s easier to integrate with the bundled Maschine software – which is ace, by the way – to create tracks quicker and perform more easily.
What’s cool, however, is that the two units are equally at home alone or working in parallel with each other. The best of both worlds.
Novation Launchpad Mini
Shortly after Akai launched its APC range, Novation went one step further. The now classic Novation Launchpad Mini differs from the Akai models in that, at first glance, all you get is a bank of pads. However the real magic comes in what the pads do.
Again using Ableton Live’s intuitive clip-launching system, users can perform, record, mix and add effects to their heart’s content. It also has a neat trick which enables it to control certain apps on your tablet device too, making it ideal for portable beat sessions.
Akai LPD8 Laptop Pad Control
Rounding off the list is a dinky little number, again from Akai. The Akai LPD8 is a laptop pad controller, which – as you can see – is tiny. Don’t let its small size put you off though. It has eight sturdy pads for firing off drum samples, for example, while the eight rotary knobs to the side are for mapping to control anything within your DAW.
It’s size and versatility make it perfect for throwing in a laptop bag so you will be making music as soon as inspiration hits.
MIDI pad controllers are a great way to get creating. They’re easy to use, quick to get the hang of and offer a way for even non-musically inclined users to get started. The five we’ve listed here will cater for all budgets and abilities. The fun starts when you get stuck in.
Journalist, PR and multimedia specialist. Write professionally on subjects ranging from musical instruments to industrial technology.