The Best Ableton Controller: 6 Top Options for Every Producer
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Ableton is one of the most popular DAWs in the world, performing competently as both a sessions recording software and a live performance tool. To find the right Ableton controller, you need something that can balance this recording and performance aspect of the DAW. To help you out, we put together this guide to the best Ableton controller you can buy right now.
Ableton’s users are spoiled for choice when it comes to selecting controllers. Given its status as one of the world’s most popular DAWs, most controllers and keyboards work seamlessly with it. You can confidently buy virtually any MIDI instrument and be sure that it should work with Ableton right out of the box.
But some Ableton controllers perform better than others. Instead of complicated hacks and configuration files, some will give you complete control over the DAW as soon as you plug them in.
If you’re serious about using Ableton as your primary DAW, I encourage you to pick these “ready-to-use” controllers. For reference, here is my ranking of the best Ableton controllers in 2019:
- Best overall: Ableton Push 2
- Best for budget buyers: Akai Professional APC Mini
- Best keyboard: Nektar Panorama P4
- Best keyboard (budget): Akai MPK Mini Play
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. If you’re looking for the best general purpose standalone drum machine, read this article.
Update: An earlier version of this article mentioned the Livid Instruments Base II as a top recommendation. That controller has been pulled from the market and thus, doesn’t feature in our best-of list anymore.
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.
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 8×8 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.
And while the first iteration – Push 1 – was really, really good, the Push 2 makes things even better.
The New Push 2
The first thing you notice about the new Push 2 is that everything sits snugly to the chassis. The buttons don’t “pop” out anymore. It makes for a gorgeous, even minimalist silhouette.
Gone is the old, ugly screen. The new screen, despite being dim, is gorgeously high-resolution. You can actually see wave forms clearly on this one – perfect for setting loop markers.
Another new favorite feature is the button quality. The new buttons are flush with the surface and have a very satisfying ‘click’ when pressed.
The pad quality remains as good as the original Push. Of course, all pads and buttons are backlit. This thing in action is drop-dead stunning.
A new addition is a 17cm touchstrip which takes care of bending/scrolling duties. You get 31 LED dot markers for navigation. Along with the new screen, this elevates the Push 2 into a very beautiful instrument indeed.
Of course, price still remains a concern. Most casual users will find the Push 2 just too expensive. But if you’re serious about using Ableton as a performance DAW, or if you
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
- True plug-and-play performance with Ableton
- New high-resolution screen is beautiful as well as functional
Best Performance: 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 9×5 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.
Best for Portability: Novation Launchpad Mini MK3
Note: An earlier version of this article listed Novation Launchpad Mini MK2. Novation has since launched an updated version, the MK3.
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
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.
With the MK3 version of the Launchpad Mini, Novation has added these custom modes into the controller itself. So while you can still use Laucnhpad95, Novation now gives you substantial control over how you want to use the controller right out of the box.
Plus, for beginners, there is also an interactive onboarding site that lets you configure the controller easily.
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.
- Smaller form factor and sleeker design in the MK3 looks sharper than the MK2
- Three custom modes built-in with the MK3, eliminating the need for Launchpad95 script tinkering
- Robust Live integration
Best Budget Controller: Akai Pro 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.
Best Ableton Keyboard: Nektar Panorama P4
I'm not going to do a full-fledged list of my favorite MIDI keyboards for Ableton - you can pick any one of the top options from this article. Besides, there are no MIDI keyboards that integrate particularly well with Ableton. Anything from Akai, M-Audio, Nektar, or Novation will fit like a glove.
With that said, I do want to include two options for those of you looking for keyboard controllers for Ableton.
The first of the two is Nektar Panorama P4, the 49-key version of the elder sibling, P6.
The Panorama topped the charts in my "best MIDI keyboards" list. This is partly due to its extensive list of features, and partly because it is easily one of the most stunning keyboards on the market.
The keys are semi-weighted and are fantastically responsive. They don't have the janky spring action of normal synth keys and mimic the weight of an actual piano keyboard. The end result is a keyboard that's far more fun to play than it has any right to be.
Another feature I love is the motorized fader. It works seamlessly with Ableton and lets you create thoughtful automations.
In addition to the above, you also get full-fledged DAW controls, including extremely useful Mute and Solo buttons.
And of course, all the standard pad/fader/knob configurations are on display here as well. 12 pads, 16 encoders, 10 assignable LED buttons, and 9 faders.
If you're looking for an Ableton controller you can also enter notes on, the Nektar Panorama would make a stunning addition to your music desk.
What I like:
- Gorgeous design - white base with black keytops looks stunning
- Semi-weighted piano-style keys are a delight to play and use
- Full-range of controls - pads, faders, encoders
Best Ableton Keyboard (Budget): Akai Pro MPK Mini Play
What if you didn't have the budget for a Panorama P4, or even an Akai MPK249? What if you wanted a keyboard and a bunch of MIDI controls?
And what if you wanted your controller to also have built-in speakers so you could make music on the go without resorting to headphones?
That's exactly what the Akai MPK Mini Play offers.
Astute readers might know that the Akai MPK Mini MK2 regularly tops my lists for the best budget MIDI keyboard. You can even read my full review here to know what it's like.
The Mini Play is exactly the same as the Mini MK2 with one crucial difference: a small onboard speaker and built-in sounds.
That's right - you get a tiny speaker and 128 sounds built-in. This isn't a synthesizer; you can't manipulate sounds or create your own. It's just a small library meant to make it possible to play music without plugging the keyboard into your computer every time.
As someone who is often on the go and resents the effort needed to start the computer, launch Ableton, and open Serum before hitting a note, these built-in sounds and onboard speaker are a huge boon.
Of course, the rest of the features are nice as well. The keyboard has a nice, springy action, the pads have the trademark Akai tactile feel, and even the faders have decent heft.
Throw in the price tag and you can see why I rank it so highly.
A great option for anyone who wants a cheap Ableton controller to enter notes, tap out a few drum hits, and play music on the go.
What I like:
- On-board speaker and built-in sounds redefine "on-the-go" music production
- Great price
- Proven Akai performance and Ableton integration
Section II: How to Buy an Ableton Controller
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 it 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. And headphones are often dirt cheap - check out some of my top picks for studio headphones under $100.
What features to look for in 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 it, of course, but some are specifically designed to take advantage of Ableton’s features. Also keep in mind that Ableton recently updated to the latest Live 10 version. Some older models might not be as well-integrated with it.
- 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.
Also, if you're looking for an audio interface for Ableton, read this guide.
MIDI Controller or MIDI Keyboard?
One of the most common questions I get asked is: What's the difference between a MIDI keyboard and a MIDI controller?
This is actually the wrong question. What you should be asking is: what's the difference between a MIDI keyboard and a Pad controller.
The easiest way to understand it is with this diagram:
In other words, MIDI controller is the parent category. This is further divided into child category - MIDI keyboard contollers and Pad controllers. Every keyboard is a MIDI controller, just as every pad controller like Ableton Push is also a MIDI controller.
Back to basics now.
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 Pad Controller, on the other hand, is designed primarily to control a DAW with pads instead of keys. It usually doesn't even have a keyboard. If it does, the keyboard is hardly the primary focus; pads, knobs and sliders take center stage.
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 1):
Technically speaking, a pad 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, pad 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 Pad 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. I recommend these for most people who don't plan to perform live or need the immediate intuitiveness of a full-fledged pad controller. Something like the Akai MPK Mini MK2 can bring the best of both worlds together.
Over to You
That wraps up our guide to buying the best Ableton controller for your studio. There are plenty of options for everyone regardless of budget. Pick the Push 2 if you want performance, but if price is a concern, check out Akai's APC line.
For more recommendations and advice, don't hesitate to reach out to me here.
- Need an audio interface for Ableton? Here's our pick of the best Ableton audio interface
- Want a drum machine to accompany your DAW controller? Check out our drum machine roundup here
- If you want a keyboard, here's our guide to the best MIDI keyboards on the market right now