Whether you’re a guitarist writing drum patterns for your solo studio album or you’re an up-and-coming DJ, chances are you’ve heard of Ableton Live being described as one of the best digital audio workstations, or DAW for short.
It’s truly among the most versatile programs of its kind. Precisely because it’s so complex, albeit easy to use, that you won’t be able to get the most out of it without using an Ableton controller, or at least one that’s compatible with the software.
6 Best Ableton Controllers & MIDI Keyboards
Here are my two cents on the best Ableton controllers and why these models can outclass most of their competition.
Table of Contents
- 6 Best Ableton Controllers & MIDI Keyboards
- Why You Need an Ableton Controller
- Keyboard or No Keyboard?
- What to Look for in a Controller
This is the MKII iteration of the first dedicated midi controller developed for Ableton Live. It has a compact, slim profile; it’s light but also well-built and durable. This makes it great to use on the road as well as in the studio.
With the 5x8 clip-launch grid, it’s easy to track up to eight tracks in Ableton Live. It’s essentially a Live Session View for the controller.
I also noticed the multi-colored pads on the MKII. This makes the buttons more distinctive and easier to spot. They also correspond to the clip colors from Ableton Live, leaving users with even less room for error.
The pad’s feedback is highly responsive when it comes to color coding and showing the correct clip status. The controller also features eight channel faders and an equal number of device controls. Of course, the device is preprogrammed or premapped for Ableton Live so it’s ready to go out of the box.
The system requirements are nothing worth talking about. However, at a minimum, having an ASIO driver on your system is recommended if you want to avoid delays.
The Novation Launchpad X is an upgrade over the original Launchpad, which was an Ableton Live-ready controller. It’s characterized by its 8x8 grid of 64 backlit pads. The RGB lighting is on point and everything is configured to match the color of the pads in your Live Session view.
The Launchpad X now features velocity-sensitive pads, meaning that they respond to the amount of applied pressure, which was previously missing. It also features USB type-C port connectivity now, and comes with a USB type-C to USB type-A cable.
What’s interesting about the Launchpad X is that it also comes with a demo feature. You can use the interactive demo, Launchpad Arcade, to immediately start playing. This is a great feature for beginners to have.
Along with the demo, you obviously also have pads pre-mapped for drum samples, looping, arming tracks, volume control, and everything else you might need to start working on your unique tracks.
With each pad being assigned a unique clip slot from your Live Session view, the Launchpad X has a very light learning curve to it. Add to that the fact that it’s also among the cheapest controllers and it should become obvious why it is also considered one of the best midi controllers for Ableton.
If you want to stay true, or if you’re an Ableton purist by heart, then the Ableton Push 2 may make the most sense to you.
If there was ever an Ableton controller designed specifically for professional musicians, this might be the one. The Push 2 is ready to plug and play out of the box with Ableton Live 10. It does a great job of editing samples and it has great responsiveness even in complex workflows.
Its 8x8 grid is nothing you haven’t seen before. However, it’s the rest of the user panel that makes all the difference. With the Push 2, you can take full control of multiple tracks and do simultaneous editing, looping, and monitoring without having to remap the pad grid.
The built-in display gives an accurate display of what’s happening by showing various readouts like reverb, delay, FX, synths, modes, etc.
The only downside is that this midi controller doesn’t come cheap. All its features and superior sampling speed come at a price that many beginners may not be crazy about.
Some musicians or composers may need more than a traditional midi controller. Whether that’s the case for you or you simply don’t like the feel of a traditional controller, you may be in luck with the Novation Launchkey.
This is a USB keyboard controller that’s compatible with Ableton Live, among other software sequencers. It comes in three versions: the 25-key, 49-key, and 61-key models are available at difference price points, which should accommodate a wide range of users.
That being said, I prefer the 49-key controller as it seems to provide the best of both worlds while also having a balanced price. Along with the keys are also 16 RGB pads, eight control knobs, a dedicated navigation section, and multiple other control buttons.
There’s also support for a sustain pedal, but it is not included in the base package. The responsiveness and compatibility with Ableton Live Lite is very good. It may not seem like much for someone who uses Ableton Live 9 or 10 religiously, but it can still be a very nice change of pace. Especially given the versatility of the keyboard design and available scale.
Because Native Instruments has its own audio software, Guitar Rig, the company knows a thing or two about making high-quality controllers. This midi controller looks a lot like a mixer with an 8x8 grid and an additional 8-pad row.
Multi-track step-sequencing is one of the things the MASCHINE JAM excels at. It lets you work on up to nine sounds at the same time while also modifying up to eight parameters. The Smart Strips functionality will allow you to use both hands more efficiently on complex tracks.
While this device is not exactly premapped for Ableton Live, it does have a template selection feature. You can use that to switch to the Ableton Live template where you can then launch clips, play notes, modify effects, and control the output level among many more features.
The functionality is impressive, even though it’s not a pure Ableton Live controller.
6. Alesis V25
The Alesis V25 is another USB MIDI keyboard controller. It’s also perhaps your best bet for getting the most out of your Ableton Live with as little money as you can. The 25-key model gives you access to a 2x4 grid matrix, four control knobs, and two wheels for pitch and modulation.
What’s also nice is that all the buttons are configurable. You can create your most efficient setup by assigning Live Session clips to any of the four knobs or four buttons, while having the grid pad as your main playing area.
The 25 keyboard keys can give you a decent scale length, especially if you’re new to musical composition with software sequencers and synthesizers. Most likely, you will be using the 2x4 grid to create drum patterns. What’s really nice here, and unexpected at this price range, is the recognition of pressure and velocity.
This definitely will help you create realistic drums in your tracks and minimize the amount of editing and mixing that you have to do post recording.
Why You Need an Ableton Controller
Some would argue that having a controller that’s already been premapped for Ableton Live makes using the program too convenient to pass up. Others would argue that it’s the software’s potential as a live stage instrument that makes a controller mandatory.
Whichever way you look at it, a midi controller is essential if you plan on using any DAW software as a hobby or for a living. The premapped pads and buttons make it a lot easier to follow your work in Live Session mode.
Not only that, but it can also help speed up composition, mixing, and mastering times.
Keyboard or No Keyboard?
A personal preference for most, deciding whether to get a controller with a keyboard depends on what you need from a controller.
Unfortunately, there’s no right or wrong answer here. Some musicians and music producers prefer built-in keyboards while others don’t. One thing is for certain, having access to a keyboard will allow you to compose complex tracks.
But, at the end of the day, it will only make it slightly easier. You can still pair some controllers with a regular-sized keyboard or pair the keyboard with your Ableton software while also having the controller next to it.
As for most Ableton users, the synth-action keys seem to take precedent.
Having a keyboard certainly helps with music production, making writing melodies and chord progressions much easier.
On the other hand, you might want a keyboard for production, but not need one for live performance. In which case getting a controller without a keyboard, but that can easily connect with one is the best option.
If you do go with a built-in keyboard, then what do you look for with that? Do you only need a small 25-key keyboard, or will only a full-sized 88-key controller do?
For production, between 61 and 88 keys would probably be best, and a smaller keyboard for live performance.
There’s also the question of key weight. Synth-action keys are the most common. These are spring loaded, meaning they bounce back quickly, and they also offer little resistance.
For someone that isn’t used to playing piano or keyboard, synth-action keys would be the best choice.
If you’re used to piano keys, or synth-action keys feel a bit cheap, there are also semi-weighted keys.
Semi-weighted keys are more expensive, generally limited to 88-key keyboards, and dependent on the manufacturer.
What to Look for in a Controller
Regardless of whether you’re doing music production as a hobby or professionally, it’s an undeniable fact that a MIDI controller makes life a whole lot easier.
Choosing the right controller can be a challenge though, unless you know what you need the controller to do.
The most important consideration is how the controller affects your workflow.
The amount of control you have over your work, with knobs, faders, pads, buttons, etc., can drastically impact the way and speed at which you’re able to work and perform live.
The more control you have can also affect how much you can express yourself. One of the most frustrating things for any musician is not being able to properly express themselves and recreate what they hear in their head.
Not all knobs are made the same, however, and should be considered as well. Smaller or cheaper controllers might have knobs that are awkward to use, or are positioned to close to each other.
Software You Use
Having a MIDI controller designed for a specific DAW with premapped pads might be convenient if you only use one DAW for everything, but might be an issue with other DAWs.
Choosing a controller that can easily work with or is compatible with other software is important if you use different software for different purposes.
You might use Ableton Live for performances, but use Pro Tools for production because it offers functions and tools that make production easier.
Another thing to consider is futureproofing your controller. You might decide to switch over to another DAW in the future, and don’t want to be stuck with a controller that’s incompatible.
Ableton Live – Truly Made for Live Performances If You Have the Means to Control It
A MIDI controller will make all the difference in the world with any DAW software. Even more so when it comes to Ableton Live.
If you’re familiar with the software then you already know what you need from a MIDI controller. In which case, any of the models presented in this article will help you create your dream tracks with less effort and required pre-recording configurations.