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Get more control over your production with the best DAW controller for Ableton, FL Studio, Logic, and Pro Tools among other DAWs
Our Top Picks
Best for Ableton: Ableton Push 2
“Easily the best way to control, produce, and perform with Ableton. Takes Ableton to a whole new level”
Best for FL Studio: Akai Fire
“The only built-for-FL controller on the market. Perfectly compatible and delightful to use”
Best universal control surface: PreSonus FaderPort 16
“Great compatibility with most DAWs make the FaderPort a great control surface”
Best for Pro Tools: Avid S1
“From Avid's own stable, the S1 integrates easily into Pro Tools and gives you complete control over the DAW”
Most affordable: Korg nanoKONTROL2
“Tiny and affordable, this Korg is a great desktop accessory for controlling your DAW”
The term “DAW controller” is a little confusing. It can one of several things:
- A keyboard controller
- A MIDI controller
- A control surface
For the purpose of this article, my definition of “DAW controller” is pretty flexible. I've considered everything from keyboards to control surfaces. What matters is how much control it offers over the DAW.
For instance, if you wanted to control your DAW better, you'd want a dedicated control surface for Pro Tools. Pro Tools' poor third-party support and the complex needs of studio producers (where Pro Tools most finds its use) mean that a small controller (like the Korg listed above) won't suffice.
At the same time, if you were using Ableton, your best DAW controller would be a pad setup like Push 2. This is a hybrid performance/production/control tool that allows you to create and control music.
Keeping this in mind, let's take a closer look at the best DAW controller for popular DAWs and use cases below.
The Best DAW Controller for Every Need
Let's take a closer look at our favorite DAW controllers right now:
PreSonus FaderPort 16
The FaderPort 16 is a serious piece of hardware that gives you complete control over your DAW. It integrates neatly with most DAWs and is built like a tank. While it's not exactly a performance tool, if you run a studio, the FaderPort 16 will give you total control over your DAW of choice. For this reason, I've ranked it as the best DAW controller for most people.
As a sound engineer, mixing methodology is the Holy grail. There are so many opinions among sound engineers on the best way to set up a workflow. While some gravitate towards newer plugins and summing algorithms, there are still many others that will take working on a console over any other thing.
The PreSonus FaderPort 16 is a box that comes with plenty of useful features that any engineer will find useful. It is a control surface that helps you due to several useful features. While this is a useful surface control, it is important to note that there's no audio passing through the PreSonus FaderPort 16. Thus, it has no effect on your sound. It acts as a computer mouse would, although it is more sophisticated of course.
The PreSonus FaderPort 16 has a nice, useful layout that will be easy to use. The primary layout of this unit is built around the motorized faders. The motorized faders are excellent to use as they are big and touch-sensitive, you can also use them for a long throw.
Overall, using them gives a similar experience to what you'd get from using larger consoles. Apart from feeling great, these faders are very useful and make the PreSonus FaderPort 16 a versatile unit. You can use these as corollaries right within the DAW and use them to control many things, from pan, plugin, send, and other commands within the DAW.
Aside from the faders, you also have the Solo and Mute controls for every channel. This does evoke the feeling of using a console. The differences between the PreSonus FaderPort 16 and your regular console become more evident in the Select button. This button allows you to choose a channel and interact with other controls for it.
What I don't like
There are so many faders on the PreSonus FaderPort 16, and that makes it hard for any beginner.
Recommended for: The PreSonus FaderPort 16 is one of the best studio-quality options from PreSonus. It comes in a large interface that is similar to regular consoles and is a very good DAW controller. If you run a studio, the FaderPort 16 should be your top choice, though serious home producers can also find good use for it.
Best Budget DAW Controller: Akai Pro MIDImix
If the first unit that we reviewed above is too costly for you, then the Akai Pro MIDImix is an excellent alternative. It is an intelligent controller that comes with deep software integration and is one of the best models for DAW.
The Akai Pro MIDImix is one of the most portable and compact options among DAW controllers. It has a nice bank of faders, which manage not to feel cramped during use. Over the faders, you have a pair of button rows clearly labeled and delineated. If you are looking to mix with Ableton Live and similar software, then the Akai Pro MIDImix is a good choice.
The Akai brand is known for the high quality of its products, and the Akai Pro MIDImix is certainly no exception. It comes in a small, square shape that is simple and meets the needs of most producers. Akai might make some huge controllers, but it is good to see the brand veering into making smaller units.
Nevertheless, despite the lower price and smaller size, the durability is remarkable. It is one of the sturdiest units that we have tested. Other than the design of the unit as a whole, the smaller parts are also well-made. For instance, the faders and pots are shaped lower than what you'd usually find on a controller, and we had a really good time using them. If you will be traveling a lot or exposing the Akai Pro MIDImix to rough use, it is reassuring that these buttons will not suddenly get misplaced.
Additionally, we love the back-lit LED buttons that lie in the middle of the fader and pots. Overall, controls are sturdy, responsive, and tight on the Akai Pro MIDImix.
Now for the functionality. The Akai Pro MIDImix is one of the most functional DAW controllers that we have had the pleasure to use. Once you have the software installed, it is a breeze to use the unit. All the buttons are functional. The Send All button serves as a very useful way of resetting a mix and even restoring original placements.
Coming at such a low price, this will offer some of the best fun you have had in a long time. It is portable, sturdy, and very functional.
What I don't like
While it is an excellent and functional controller, we did not like that it seems completely directed at just using Ableton Live. Some more versatility would have been greatly appreciated.
Recommended for: If you are looking for a controller than helps you to get the most out of your DAW (especially Ableton) without spending plenty of money, then the Akai Pro MIDImix is an excellent option. I particularly recommend it for home studios who want the best DAW controller without spending hundreds of dollars.
Most Affordable/Portable: Korg nanoKONTROL2
If you are looking to enter the music mixing industry, you might find yourself overwhelmed by the professional-level controllers that your friends recommend. You might get lost amid the plethora of functions and possibilities. That is why you need a unit that is designed for newbies like you. Enter the Korg nanoKONTROL2. This excellent DAW controller is an entry-level model that eases you into the world of mixing and DAW.
While talent is great, you need good music products and essential devices like a MIDI controller. The Korg nanoKONTROL2 allows you to arrange your sounds and present them in the best format. In the world of controllers, some brands are more recognized than others, and the Korg brand is among these. The brand makes some of the best controllers money can buy. Therefore, an entry-level unit from the brand is a surprise.
The design of the 25-key Korg nanoKONTROL2 is excellent. While it is a budget unit, it comes in a nice design that looks more than its price. It sports a low profile and sleek design that makes it a beautiful option for anyone that is often on the road. Moreso, the Korg nanoKONTROL2 is a plug and play model. Therefore, whether you are using it at home or in a professional studio, you will enjoy using the model. Some of the design features that it comes with include eight channels and a transport control section.
When unboxed, the Korg nanoKONTROL2 comes with a few useful accessories, which is one gripe that we have with the unit. It does include the USB keyboard that you can connect to the computer.
The controls are all together and are easy to use. Apart from the eight channels, there are also three buttons, a knob, and a fader, all of which are within easy reach. With these, you can easily control the sound and other settings that you want.
In the context of the theme of this post, the Korg nanoKONTROL2 is one of the best DAW controllers. You can download Korg's very own Kontrol Editor at no extra cost.
It is pretty easy to use, and as a plug and play model, it is the best option for beginners.
What I don't like
As we said earlier, it does not have a large number of accessories. For example, there isn't a USB cable. It also lacks support for Pro Tools.
Recommended for: If you are a beginner, then this is the perfect fit for you. It is also good as a backup or portable controller for pros. The small size and even smaller price tag make it the best DAW controller for anyone on a budget.
Best Keyboard DAW Controller: Akai Pro MPK249
If you are conversant with DAW controllers, chances are really high that you have heard of the Akai Professional MPK249. It is one of the most popular options on the market, and the sheer specifications are enough to give you an inkling that this is one of the best in the business. If you are looking to become a professional in the industry, then this is certainly a controller that you should master. One of the reasons why it is so highly rated is that it comes in a keyboard design instead of the console form that others come in.
As the name implies, the Akai Professional MPK249 comes with 49 keys. This format is largely preferred by many as it gives the ‘keyboardy' feel. It is a perfect size that is neither too big to be portable or too small to feel cramped. Additionally, it comes with some of the best pads and overall build quality that you'll find on a keyboard controller.
It should be noted that the Akai Professional MPK249 is actually an upgrade on an older controller from the manufacturer. The result of the upgrade is a model that shows that Akai really pays attention to what users say. The older model had a clunky keyboard and pads. All of these are replaced with responsive, high-quality alternatives with this upgrade. Impressively, the keys are semi-weighted, something that isn't offered in almost any other option in this category.
Aside from all these physical changes, it comes with a revamped sound engine and plenty of bundled software ranging from MPC 2.0 to VIP 3.0.
Despite all the keys and knobs, it still is quite compact and portable. For a 49-key keyboard, it is surprisingly easy to lug around with you on gigs.
While appearance is great, what really matters is what is under the hood. Well, the performance is hands-down the best that you will get from a keyboard controller. The keys feel great, not only because they are semi-weighted, but also because of the Aftertouch feature.
The pads are also excellent. The Akai Professional MPK249 has up to 16 backlit pads. Knobs and faders give a satisfying resistance and will work with most DAWs on the market without needing plenty of configuration.
What I don't like
One downside is that the pads are slightly too small for big fingers. It weighs 13 pounds, which is quite heavy when compared to other rivals.
Recommended for: This is definitely made for intermediate to professional users. It's feature rich, powerful, and the keybed is among the best-in-class. If you want a DAW controller with a keyboard, then the MPK249 is easily the best DAW controller around right now.
Best for Ableton: Ableton Push 2
Push 2 from Ableton is the best DAW controller for Ableton software. It comes with near-perfect performance and build, which makes it one of the best DAW controllers you can spend your money on.
The design is simply beautiful. It comes as a 64-pad USB hardware controller primarily designed for Ableton Live. So, instead of having a MIDI control surface, Ableton has opted to have the Ableton Push 2 as a complete hardware controller.
While other units in the Push line of controllers had third-party manufacturers, the Push 2 is Ableton-made through and through. It has a solid build, with a low profile casing and a wide aluminum top surface. Previous iterations had rubberized plastic, but the Push 2 comes as a professional-looking, yet stunning controller.
Due to this design, you get better responsivity from the keys. You get an audible, solid click from pressing the buttons. Additionally, these buttons are backlit. Other design changes include the presence of a dual row of buttons above the screen, and the RGB LEDs integrated into the buttons.
One notable new feature is the bright, beautiful, full-resolution display. For us, though, the best thing about this new unit is the pads. The pads here are simply incredible to use. The lighting is better, the response is more consistent, and all the problems associated with the previous version's pads are all removed.
In use, the button layout makes everything so much easier to do. Among the performance upgrades is the ability to control AU plugins, check through the User library, and a form of text prediction.
What I don't like
It comes with some disappointments. For example, you do not have access to some controls with the Drum Rack Chains. You also cannot load samples straight into the track slots. And sadly, there still isn't any specific Arrangement View.
Recommended for: If you are focused on using Ableton Live, though, this is undoubtedly the best controller to use. It's not cheap, but the butter-smooth Ableton integration makes it an incredibly powerful performance and production tool.
Best for FL Studio: Akai Fire
FL Studio is a popular DAW, and unfortunately, while it is very versatile, it can be challenging finding a controller that is completely compatible with it. That is the beauty of the controller. It is the first controller that is made primarily to handle the FL Studio software.
Out of the box, this is a small, compact unit that is easy to plug and use. It is USB powered and needs to be connected to your computer to be used. Part of the appeal of the Akai Fire is the 4 x 16 grid of pads. These come with great response and can help you to control four channels at a time. Apart from the pads, it also comes with several other controls like the grid navigation buttons, a browser toggle, pattern select buttons, and more. You also get four useful modes.
All the pads are very responsive, as well. The lights make it easy to know when you have entered a step as it will light up in degrees.
Mixing is also great on the Akai Fire. You can use it for FL Studio's channel rack.
What I don't like
The Akai Fire allows you to adjust only one channel at a time.
Recommended for: If you use FL, the Akai Fire is easily the best DAW controller for you. It integrates exceptionally well with FL and is even designed in a way that mimics the FL setup.
Best for Pro Tools: Avid S1 Control Surface
At first glance, the Avid S1 certainly doesn't look like much. It manages to combine touchscreen goodness with impressive hardware tactile feedback to give a convenient to use the unit. It also supports different DAWs, especially Avid Pro Tools and is the best unit for that DAW.
The design is simple and compact. Avid S1 has just eight faders and encoders. Therefore, it appears smaller than competitors and has a lower range of functionality, right? Well, while it might be smaller than some competitors, the fact that the faders, knobs, and channels are all duplicates means that you have the ability to navigate as well as other models with more buttons. Thus, it is the best compact unit we have tried in this category.
Communication on the Avid S1 is handled by the EuCon protocol. This gives more control and bandwidth than controllers that use MIDI technology for communication.
The EuCon app is arguably the most important facet of setting up the device, and while it can be somewhat challenging to set up, once that is done, you can rest assured of enjoyable use.
What I don't like
The Avid S1 needs to be used with a tablet to function.
Recommended for: This unit is recommended for anyone who wants a fast controller that will speed up their workflow in Pro Tools. Since it's from Avid, it integrates with Pro Tools right out of the box. For serious producers who use Pro Tools as their default DAW, this is the best DAW controller on the market.
Over to You
It's a little difficult zeroing in on the best DAW controller. Some users might prioritize DAW control, while others prefer tighter control over their performance.
Hopefully this guide will help you zero-in on the right controller for you.
For more suggestions and recommendations, email us using this contact form.
Check our other recommendations
- Our favorite control surface for Logic Pro
- Our favorite Pro Tools control surface
- Our most recommended MIDI keyboards
- Akai Pro (Official website)
- Novation Music (Official website)
- Native Instruments (Official website)
- Numark (Official website)
- Avid (Official website)
- October 29, 2020: Article first published