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From finger drumming to controlling the DAW, the best MIDI pad controller will help you do more with your music.
Our Top Picks
Best for beginners: Akai MPD218
“The affordable MPD218 combines acceptable pads with excellent DAW integration in a beginner-friendly package”
Best overall: Akai MPD226
“Bigger and better than the MPD218, the 226 has some of the best pads around at an acceptable price tag”
Most versatile: PreSonus ATOM
“Great pads and plenty of solid integrations make this one of the most versatile offerings”
Best DAW controller: AKAI APC40MKII
“The huge assortment of rotary knobs, faders, and buttons make this an excellent DAW controller”
Most portable: Korg NanoPAD2
“Though the pads are not the best around, the tiny size makes this a portable champion.”
As you probably know, MIDI controllers can be largely divided into two categories:
- Keyboard controllers: These controllers are built around standard piano keybeds. Though most will have a few pads, faders and knobs, the primary function is to enter notes via the keyboard.
- Pad controllers: In these controllers, the pads are the stars of the show. Most don't include any piano keybeds at all. Some pad controllers might include faders, knobs and buttons, but the main attraction remains the (usually) large and responsive pads.
We're not talking about keyboard controllers in this guide, of course. This one is all about the PADS.
A pad is nothing but a responsive “button”. You can use it for anything – launching a clip, toggling a setting, finger drumming, etc.
Since the pad is the star of the show in pad controllers, you want something that's responsive, sensitive (but not too sensitive), well-built, and well-integrated with your favorite DAWs.
Our selection criteria also emphasized configurability. While we love a controller you can just plug in and start playing, we like to be able to change default control settings if needed.
Based on these criteria, let's take a closer look at our top picks for the best MIDI pad controllers you can buy right now.
The Best MIDI Pad Controller in 2020: Eight Top Options
Here are my picks for the best MIDI pad controllers for every budget and need:
Akai made three models in the MPD line, and this is the middle option. It is also one of the best MIDI pad controllers on the market, featuring a complete overhaul of its features. Therefore, it looks super modern and offers several advantages over the older models from the manufacturer. If you are an advanced user and the MD218 doesn't cut it for you, then you'll likely be relieved to use this model.
The pad is arguably the most essential part of a pad controller; therefore, much of the focus should be on it. Well, from our testing, these are excellent. Akai listened to the views of users, and instead of trying to improve the pad section of previous models, have decided on a complete overhaul. Therefore, this unit's pad section features never before seen parts. The sensitivity is astounding, and the pressure-sensitivity is as good as we have ever tried. With these pads, it is possible to customize after-touch information and control different parameters of devices that are connected to the Akai Professional MPD226.
Among the several features of the Akai Professional MPD226 are the back-lit feature and the ability to change the color. Additionally, this can be customized to whatever set-up you want. This ability makes playing more fun and allows you to play even in the dark.
While the sensitivity is excellent, it can be altered. This is something that isn't usually found on all pad controllers.
The control section of the Akai Professional MPD226 is excellent. The knobs, buttons, and faders are easy to assign. One important feature here is that these controls are set far from the pad section. Therefore, they will not get in the way of your playing.
The software package is another excellent feature of this model. It contains Ableton Live Lite, MPC Essentials, and several other software.
Lastly, the editor software is impeccable. It allows you so many customization options.
What I don’t like
As with the 218 models, the pads are dust sensitive. They are dust magnets which detract from the appearance.
Best for Beginners: Akai MPD218
There are several MIDI pad controllers on the market today, and one problem that many users have with them is the ease of use. The Akai mpd218 addresses this issue and is the best for beginners. It is an entry-level model and the smallest of the MPD2-series of the brand. While it is the smallest and the best for beginners, that doesn't mean that it is not worthwhile. It is an excellent model, and we will discuss why.
First of all, the design of this model is quite impressive. It comes with all the parts solidly constructed. Hence, the pads are thick and solid. They are also velocity and pressure-sensitive for the best effect. Unlike previous layouts, the layout of this model is impressive and designed for easy use.
Some of the new design features include up to six knobs and 16 preset slots.
The pad section is amazing. They feel really great when hit and offer some of the best sensitivity of pads that I have tested. Even without making any adjustments, you can feel the greatness of the pas sensitivity on this model.
Another notable feature of this unit is the free software package. Akai has included the ‘MPC Essentials' suite to the package. This is incredibly helpful when you are making beats and music. There is also Ableton Live Lite that comes with it. This software is particularly useful for beginners. There is also other useful software that serves as excellent starting points for anyone interested in finger drumming.
The library in the Akai mpd218 contains a large collection of samples. From our research, it holds approximately up to 27GB of samples across different music genres.
Another reason why we like this unit is the software editor. Unlike that found in previous versions from Akai, the software editor of the Akai mpd218 is so easy to use and understand. It lets you do plenty of things, including changing parameters for different knobs and pads simultaneously.
Overall, the Akai mpd218 is an excellent model for everyone, whether you are a beginner or not.
What I don't like
The pad surfaces attract dust like moths to a flame. After playing for some hours, you can see where your hands have been. Another downside is the inability to change velocity sensitivity from within the software or hardware.
Most Portable: Korg NanoPAD2
Korg's nanoSeries pioneered the concept of super-compact MIDI controllers before other brands adopted it and incorporated it into their products. With the Korg NanoPAD2, Korg shows that while they might be old, they are still in touch with their audience and customer base. The Korg NanoPAD2 is part of the nanoSeries 2. All three models in the line up are USB-powered MIDI devices. Hence, they are literally plug-and-play devices.
Korg has taken several good things found in older models and modified them to give a slightly better device. Some of the buttons have been replaced, while others have been added. Using the X-Y pad, you can send notes and control note length. Therefore, it allows you to play different patterns. Using other keys, you can easily access notes and scales.
The pads on the Korg NanoPAD2 are impressive. During our testing, we observed that the 16 velocity-sensitive pads give an impressive response as your fingers glide over them. Thus, you enjoy a device that almost feels alive in your hands. By changing between the scenes, you can customize it up to 64 sections.
A notable feature is the USB power. With a USB cable connected to a computer, you have a fast music production system ready to follow you wherever you go.
With decent new functionality and the addition of features, you have a model that will provide loads of fun for you.
What I don't like
While Korg has done a good job bringing plenty of useful features, we are disappointed that several other features have been jettisoned. It would have been better if Korg expanded on the already great features instead of overhauling the whole thing.
Best for Controlling DAWs (Beginners): AKAI APC Mini
First impressions matter, and we are impressed with what we see with the AKAI Professional APC Mini. It comes with several interesting features that we believe many will love, especially beginners to DAW controllers.
It comes with an 8 by 8 grid with three color pads. It also comes with several control buttons and a well-located shift key. You also have up to nine low profile faders.
The placement of the Shift key is significant because it allows you to use several of the secondary functions one-handed. You, therefore, enjoy using the device even more. We observed that the nine faders are short, for some too short. However, I still liked them because they offer the opportunity for rapid changes.
As a USB powered model, you can plug and play without having to download or install complicated drivers. There is Ableton Live that gives you several customization options. The Hybrid 3 software has proved to be fantastic, and there is a selection of samples from the Toolroom record. When you consider the relatively low price of the device, this is a good value buy.
In use, I found this to be remarkably comfortable. The software worked seamlessly, and the lights are bright enough, even in low-light conditions.
What I don't like
Although the software is decent on the AKAI Professional APC Mini, there is no Twist synth included in the software bundle. It is rather disappointing, and we hope future iterations of the AKAI Professional APC Mini come with this.
Best for Controlling DAWs (Advanced): AKAI APC40MKII
Akai has been on the scene for a long time, and the APC40 model was a revolutionary model. However, it can't keep up with some of the new features required, and Akai has addressed this with the AKAI Professional APC40MKII. It comes as an update to an already excellent DAW controller, and the features are simply stunning.
At first glance, it is easy to conclude that the changes made by Akai are purely aesthetic. However, upon closer consideration of the features, it is clear that a lot of things have also changed under the hood.
First, it comes with a low profile and stealthy design that looks really classy. The all-black casing forms a classy contrast to the lights.
Importantly, the control surface has been rearranged in important places. For instance, while the device control knobs are still where they used to be, the other buttons like the send knobs are now above the track faders.
The AKAI Professional APC40MKII has also added USB power, so you don't need to plug this into mains any longer.
Inside the package, you'll find useful accessories like a USB cord and registration for the software bundle. The body now includes a foot pedal jack and Kensington lock slot.
The main changes, though, lie with the pads. Instead of the dull members found in the old version, the AKAI Professional APC40MKII now comes with a colorful pad with beautiful rectangles. It greatly improves usability.
What I don't like
If you are thinking of tapping in drum beats, then think again. The pads are not velocity or pressure responsive.
Most Versatile: PreSonus ATOM
This is the latest pad controller from PreSonus. It comes in a sturdy, compact design that will allow you to use loads of applications. It is the most versatile option that we tested in the course of creating this list.
This model is very compact and will sit on your desktop without falling or sliding off because of the rubber feet at the bottom. Powered by USB, it is a very versatile option.
Among the features include ten buttons on both sides. These allow you to select from several options.
In use, you will likely love using this device with your different applications. You can put the PreSonus ATOM in different modes. Whether in the MIDI drum mode, MIDI keyboard mode, or the Mardi Gras mode, you can use the controller to create and produce effectively.
Overall, the integration with DAW is one of the best done on the market.
What I don't like
While it will work with other DAWS, the instructions are poor.
Best for Launching Clips: Novation Launchpad Mini [MK3]
The penultimate item in this roundup is a super-compact, entry-level controller with a relatively large number of pads.
It comes with USB connectivity and an impressive collection of pads. This model now has RGB color matching pads that offer you a correct representation of your Live Sessions. You also get a trio of Custom layouts.
Due to the compact form, it feels really lightweight; however, at no point does it feel flimsy. It offers a USB port and Kensington security slot to provide security. The MIDI output port comes in very handy and is a good addition.
That said, something that really caught our attention with this model is the compatibility with Ableton Live. The knobs and pads allow for plenty of customization options and transform the Novation Launchpad Mini MK3 into one of the best MIDI pad controllers on the market.
What I don't like
We like the overall design but were sorely disappointed that it doesn't have a TRS MIDI adapter.
Bonus: Best for FL Studio: Akai Professional Fire
If you use FL Studio, you might be rightly surprised that there are no dedicated MIDI controllers for the software. This is probably due to the plethora of plug-in tools, among other features. FL Studio is great, but it admittedly is not the easiest DAW to pair with your controls. That is why it is refreshing to find a MIDI controller that can handle the software better than anything preceding it. And that is what Akai Professional Fire offers you.
Akai Professional Fire comes with a design that is lightweight and designed with a small budget in mind. Nevertheless, it still manages to feel solid and well-constructed.
It comes with a 16 x 4 pad that connects to your computer via USB. The pads are specifically made to look like the step sequencer in FL Studio. Using this pad, you can control up to four channels simultaneously.
Apart from that, you get four rotary encoders, grid navigation buttons, and an OLED display, among others.
In use, we had so much fun with this unit. The aforementioned pads are a breeze to use and are responsive. It allows for mixing and adjusting levels as well. With the different pad modes, this is one of the best options in terms of functionality.
What I don't like
Well, if you are new to FL Studio, you might find it hard to learn how to use the device and the software. And it goes without saying that integrations with other DAWs are sketchy at best.
Over to You
The best MIDI pad controller can give you a great deal of intuitive control over your performance and production. From launching clips to tapping out drum patters, everything becomes easier with a good pad controller.
Hopefully, this guide will help you zero-in on the best option for your needs.
For more recommendations and advice, don't hesitate to reach out to me here.
Check our other MIDI controller recommendations
- The best MIDI keyboards by number of keys: 25, 49, 61, 88
- Our top recommended MIDI controllers for different DAWs: Ableton, FL Studio, Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase