Best Ableton Controller (Sep 2017)
I tested over two dozen MIDI controllers with Ableton and consulted dozens of practicing professional as well amateur musicians. In the end, I found that Ableton Push was unanimously the best Ableton controller in the market.
The five best rated Ableton controllers in my review were:
- Ableton Push
- Akai APC40 MKII
- Novation Launchpad Mini
- Akai APC Mini
- Livid Instruments Base II
For most musicians working with Ableton, Ableton Push is the perfect MIDI controller, especially if you already have a regular MIDI keyboard to complement its abilities. Ableton Push brings the keyboard from a strictly digital realm into a more physical, intuitive music creation environment.
You’ll find a definitive increase in creativity when you’re not limited to the “keyboard-screen-keyboard” DAW edit cycle.
Musicians who want something that can work with other DAWs or is more free-flowing than Push can opt for the tried and tested Akai MPC MKII. Unlike Push, it also has its own keys so you won’t have to buy a separate MIDI keyboard. It is also cheaper than Push which is why I recommend it for beginner musicians.
Read on to find out how I reviewed the best Ableton MIDI controllers and get a short buying guide.
My Top Picks for Ableton Controllers
Here are my top picks for the best Ableton controllers for different use cases:
Best budget controller for Ableton: Akai APC Mini.
The Mini version of the APC packs in a LOT into a tiny package. 64 pads, 16 buttons, 9 faders. You get a controller + mixer in a single package, all for under $100. Plus, there’s the Akai quality and durability.
You can also opt for the Akai APC 25 which removes the faders and gives you 25 keys instead. Great for writing melodies and chord progressions.
Most configurable Ableton controller: Novation Launchpad Mini
Out of the box, this isn’t the best choice. However, throw in the downloadable Launchpad95 drivers (link above) and the Launchpad Mini becomes a powerhouse. You can cycle through multiple modes to make the controller do virtually anything.
Best looking controller for Ableton: Livid Instruments Base II
The Base II is extremely well-crafted. The LED lit touch-sensitive faders look gorgeous (especially if you bring this baby out in the dark if you’re DJing). The 32 pads are highly configurable.
If you have the budget for it and don’t need something Ableton-specific, I’d say this should be your #1 pick.
Best overall controller for Ableton: Ableton Push
There's no doubt about it: if you want a proven, extremely configurable and well-integrated controller for Ableton, the Ableton Push should be your #1 choice. It works phenomenally well with Ableton and takes your music to a whole new level.
Let's look at all these controllers in more detail below.
About Your Reviewer
My name is Ryan and I’ve been making music since I was 16. I started with the early versions of Cubase and moved on up to Logic Pro before finally settling with Ableton.
In my last 12 years of music production, I’ve used virtually every mainstream keyboard you can imagine. Some I’ve owned personally. Others I’ve borrowed from friends - both amateurs and professionals.
I’ve adopted a new approach in this review. I’ve combined data and insight from three different sources:
- Features & Technical Data: Does the MIDI controller have the necessary features? Are the keys sturdy and responsive? Is the controller well built? Does it integrate nicely with Ableton?
- Personal Impressions: What I feel about the controller. This is entirely subjective and is based on both first and long-term impressions over hours of studio use. Think of it as a real-world confirmation of what the feature list promises.
- Survey Results: I surveyed actual producers (both amateur and professional) on leading forums and sub-reddits about their opinions on each product. I factored the survey results in my final review.
Ableton Controller Buying Guide
In this section, I'll give you a short overview of what I looked for in my Ableton review. I'll also share a few things you should know about buying a controller for Ableton.
Why (and when) should you buy an Ableton MIDI controller?
Let’s answer an important question first: who should buy an Ableton MIDI controller, and why?
If truth be told, you certainly don’t need a MIDI controller to make music with Ableton. I know perfectly competent musicians who get by with just a laptop, a mouse and a DAW.
But a MIDI controller does make music production easier and more intuitive. It brings abstract ideas into the real, physical world. You don’t have to hit a note, then use your mouse to change the pitch in Ableton; you can do it right on the MIDI instrument itself.
If you’re new to making music, here’s the purchase order I recommend:
- Digital Audio Workstation like Ableton, FL Studio, Logic Pro, etc.
- Studio monitor headphones like Sennheiser HD280. Skip the studio monitor speakers initially.
- MIDI Keyboard such as the M-Audio Keystation. You don’t need this to make music but it makes the process easier.
- MIDI Controller such as Ableton Push. Pick this over the MIDI keyboard if you don’t intent to write chords/melodies (works for some genres like hip-hop and neurobass).
Beyond this, you can go crazy with different synths (digital and physical), plugins and expensive monitors. But a DAW and headphones is all you really need to get started.
Feature considerations for Ableton controllers
How exactly did I come up with my list of top Ableton controllers?
Here’s what you should look for:
- Ableton compatibility: Since we’re dealing with Ableton here, working well with the software is of course a prerequisite. Nearly any controller will work with Ableton, of course, but some are specifically designed to take advantage of Ableton’s features.
- Pad quality: Controllers are usually defined by the quality of their pads. I like mine to be durable and have just the right feedback. You’ll realize the importance when you try to play a beat live on stage.
- Pad size: Some controllers, such as the Akai APC mini, have tiny pads. This might be okay if you’re fiddling around at home, but for any serious use, you’ll want large, easy to touch pads.
- Size and weight: When it comes to controllers, smaller is better. I use my controller (Ableton Push) in live performances. I don’t want to lug around a large, heavy box from show to show.
- Durability: The controller should be able to take a beating. You’ll be using it live so durability is a big priority.
- Build quality: Nothing will kill your creativity faster than a cheap, plasticky knob or a lightweight, zero-feedback slider. The controller should look and feel nice.
MIDI Controller or MIDI Keyboard?
First things first: what exactly is the difference between a MIDI keyboard and a MIDI controller?
I know that the two terms are often used interchangeably in the EDM scene, but there are fundamental differences between a MIDI keyboard and a MIDI controller:
A MIDI Keyboard has a keyboard up front and center. It might have some pads, knobs and sliders, but the focus is almost always the keyboard itself. Of course, it has no sound of its own (if it does, it's called a digital piano or synthesizer) - you will have to rely on your DAW for that.
The main purpose of a MIDI keyboard is to help you enter notes and play notes in your DAW.
This is a MIDI keyboard (Nektar Impact LX88):
A MIDI Controller, on the other hand, is designed primarily to control a DAW. It usually doesn't have a keyboard. If it does, the keyboard is hardly the primary focus; pads, knobs and sliders take center stage. It's common for MIDI controllers to have
The main purpose of a MIDI controller is to give you a tactile, physical way to control your DAW - launching clips, FX, etc.
This is a MIDI controller (Ableton Push):
Technically speaking, a MIDI controller can do everything that a MIDI keyboard can (and vice-versa). You can program your controller pads to play notes, just like a keyboard. And you can program a keyboard to launch clips and FX.
Where MIDI keyboards excel, however, is in letting you play chords and lead melodies. Their keyboards are usually better and easier to play than programming pads on a controller.
Conversely, MIDI controllers excel at giving you the full power and flexibility of your DAW at your fingertips. You can even switch off the laptop screen and make music entirely with the MIDI controller. If you're a DJ, you'll prefer controllers over keyboards.
To sum it up:
- Choose MIDI Keyboards if your primary focus is to play chords and melodies. You likely have some music knowledge, and your goal is to create your own music rather than be a DJ.
- Choose MIDI Controllers if your primary focus is to control your DAW without bothering with the laptop screen. DJs particularly enjoy working with controllers.
More often than not, you'll see MIDI keyboards with controller options such as 16+ pads, 8+ sliders, etc. built in.
In the next section, I'll show you my picks for the best Ableton controllers.
The 5 Best Ableton Controllers
Based on the criteria shared above, these are my picks for the best controllers for Ableton
1. Ableton Push
Before I started with EDM, I used to play the guitar. I’ve never had any official training, but if it has strings, I can probably play it - guitars, mandolins, ukuleles, you name it.
While I love the flexibility of electronic music, it does feel very artificial. You look at a screen, press a note, look at the screen again, and so on. The workflow doesn’t feel immediate and real.
This is the problem Ableton solves with Ableton Push. The company created this from the ground up to help you make music without even looking at your screen. You can close your laptop and make entire tracks with just the Push controller.
Think of Ableton Push as a physical extension of Ableton itself.
I absolutely love it. This is the single best Ableton controller on the market by a long shot. It brings back the sense of closeness and immediacy you only get with a physical instrument.
The 8x8 grid of pads feel very premium (befitting the price). At 6.6lbs, the instrument is heavy, but not so heavy to make carrying it around a problem. The close integration with Ableton makes using it delightfully easy.
For instance, suppose you want to lay down a melody. Conventionally, you’d either draw it in using your mouse or enter it using a MIDI keyboard.
Push gives you another option: by pressing a button, part of the 8x8 grid turns into a set of piano notes. Tap another button and you can change how these notes are arranged. You can even change the arrangement so that all the pads are in the same key (and you can change the key to major/minor/any other exotic scale).
This effectively means that you can start tapping away on Push to build your melody without ever hitting an off note.
What I like:
- Large, tactile pads with just the right feel.
- Small, reassuringly heavy form factor.
- Excellent integration with Ableton; can make an entire track without ever looking at the screen.
If you can afford it, Ableton Push is easily the best MIDI controller on the market by far. Look around at your local music store or Amazon and you can probably even score a deal on the Ableton+Push combo.
2. Akai APC40 MKII
The original Akai APC40 was launched in 2009 and quickly became a massive hit. As one of the first dedicated Ableton controllers, the APC40 pushed the envelope for what people could do with Ableton.
The APC40 MK2 is the updated version of that.
In terms of features, the MK2 doesn’t change much. Which is nice - you don’t fix what’s not broken.
What has changed is the form factor and weight. The APC40 was notoriously large and heavy. That wasn’t a problem back in 2009 when producers were still often performing live, but in the “I-make-music-in-my-pyjamas” days of 2017, the older APC40 MK1 felt too chunky.
The MK2 has reduced the form factor and weight by roughly a third. It also has a better layout for most buttons, especially the knobs. The 9x5 grid remains the highlight of the setup and you’ll use them extensively. The good part is that the grid is now color coded; it will play back the colors of your track.
Of course, as a dedicated Live controller, the Akai APC40 MK2 retains its close integration with Ableton (though it’s nowhere close to as nice as Ableton Push).
What I like:
- Compact and sleeker design is more user-friendly.
- Color coded pads.
- Large number of buttons, faders, etc. for controlling virtually any aspect of Ableton.
3. Novation Launchpad Mini
The original Novation Launchpad was one of my favorite controllers when it was launched. The Mini takes the same controller and “miniaturizes” it. Plus, there are a bunch of additional bells and whistles as well, such as:
- iOS compatibility (that is, you can plug it into your iPad)
- 64 launch pads
- 16 buttons
- Free Launchpad app with a bunch of samples
Now since we’re talking about Ableton, the iOS compatibility is largely irrelevant. Same with the free samples and Launchpad app - it’s not something that would appeal to any serious musician.
What will appeal to serious musicians is a tiny script hacked together by an enterprising individual - Launchpad95.
Launchpad95 is an alternate driver for Novation Launchpad. Installing this driver “opens up” the hardware, so to speak. You get complete control over each and every button and pad.
With the driver installed, you can use the controller in five different modes:
- Mixer mode: Use Launchpad’s pads and buttons to control volume, panning and operate two Sends channels.
- Standard mode: Use Launchpad to browse through and trigger clips - the most familiar mode for any Ableton Live musician.
- Drum step sequencer mode: This is enabled by Launchpad95 driver - it turns the Novation Launchpad Mini into a full-featured drum step sequencer.
- Instrument mode: Replaces the default ‘user mode’ and turns the controller into a full-featured instrument for making melodies.
- Scale edition mode: My favorite mode - turns the pads into a set of notes and scales. You can select the scale, key and mode. Very powerful for making chord progressions.
I’m honestly surprised Novation doesn’t give you all these features by default. Nevertheless, the script is free and really unlocks a great deal of flexibility and power. Highly recommend it for any Novation Launchpad customer.
In terms of build quality, the Launchpad Mini is adequate if not outstanding. It has a thick orange rubber bottom that gives it a tight grip. The plastic quality is good.
However, the pads feel a bit clicky. You might or might not prefer it based on your personal taste (I’m not a fan).
I like the Mini’s smaller form factor as compared to the original Launchpad. Though again, this is a personal preference.
Keep in mind that the Launchpad95 script works only with Ableton 9 onwards. This makes the Launchpad great for Ableton users, but not so great if you use FLStudio or Logic.
What I like:
- Launchpad95, a free script that gives you substantially more control and flexibility over the controller. Works only with Ableton.
- Smaller form factor is perfect for traveling.
- 64 pads and 16 buttons are more than adequate for any musician.
What if you want a more value-for-money option?
You'll love my next pick in that case.
4. Akai APC Mini
Is the Akai APC Mini the best Ableton controller on the market?
Not by a long shot.
But is the Akai APC Mini the best value for money Ableton controller on the market?
Here’s what you get with the APC Mini:
- 64 pads
- 16 buttons
- 8+1 faders
All of this packed into a tiny, tiny box.
Now agreed that the APC Mini’s pads are small and not for the fat-fingered. Also granted that the buttons feel a bit clunky. But when you get so much for just $99, you can’t really complain.
The build quality is familiar Akai - durable and sturdy. Nothing to complain here.
The faders are a nice touch. I know quite a few folks who used this as their first mixer and the results are pretty great. Besides the 8 faders, there is a 9th master fader as well.
Additionally, there is a ‘Shift” button that unlocks even more functions (a button can have two states - default and with shift held down).
The rest of the package is similar to the APC40 MKII, which is my second favorite Ableton controller after the Push.
My only problem is that the small pad size doesn’t fit into every workflow and style. If you use the controller to launch clips instead of using it as a sort of drum machine, you’ll be good. But if you need more responsiveness from your pads, look for larger pads.
I recommend this for someone who is on a budget, needs a lot of buttons to launch clips quickly, and needs the familiar Akai build quality and durability.
What I like:
- Lots of buttons and pads - 64 pads, 16 buttons, 8 faders.
- Faders turn the APC Mini into a bonafide mixer.
- Small form factor and familiar Akai build quality.
Akai, Novation - these are all established names in MIDI instruments.
So for my last pick, I've chosen a lesser known name.
5. Livid Instruments Base II
Livid isn’t as big a name in the MIDI world as Akai or Novation, but it has some surprisingly good controllers. The original Base I was a huge hit when it was launched in 2013 and racked up some rock solid reviews.
The Base II has the same build quality and good looks but a slightly larger footprint and more flexibility. I honestly would have ranked it much higher if it had any Ableton-specific features and was cheaper.
The Livid Instruments Base II is different from the rest of the controllers on this list because of its 9 touch-sensitive fader strips. It also has 8 capacitive touch buttons above the faders as well as 8 conventional silicone buttons.
Rounding up the setup is set of 32 pads. This is half of what Akai APC40 or Push offer. If you’re the kind of person who likes loading up a ton of clips, this might present a problem.
The Base II’s pads make very good use of color. By default, they will light up according to how hard you press them (light push = green, hard push = red).
However, you also get a browser-based pad editor which you can use to change the way the pads light up. For instance, you can configure the pad to show a particular color depending on which function of Ableton you’re triggering.
This configurability is missing from a lot of Ableton controllers on this list.
Overall, the Base II is a great choice if you have the budget. It is easily one of the best looking Ableton controllers on the market. It is also extremely durable and sturdy and will take a lot of punishment happily.
The only downside is the price (>$300) and limited pads (32).
What I like
- Attractive design, sturdy construction.
- Highly configurable pads.
- Touch-sensitive faders are a delight to use.
Which Ableton Controller Should You Buy?
To wrap it up, here are my top picks for the best Ableton controllers on the market based on your needs:
- Best all-around MIDI controller: Akai APC40 MKII
- Best MIDI controller for Ableton: Ableton Push
- Best value-for-money Ableton controller: Ableton APC Mini
- Most configurable Ableton controller: Novation Launchpad Mini
Thoughts, comments or questions on this article? Ask me in the comments below!