To cut to the chase, our favorite is the M-Audio Keystation 88 MK3 MIDI Controller. It offers premium sound and performance at an accessible price.
There’s no doubt that Ableton Live is one of the most popular software for digital audio workstations. It’s an important tool for electric and hip hop music production.
With this in mind, get the best live controller to replicate a real instrument for performances.
But, which is the best controller, and how can you tell if one performs well or not?
This is the full list of the four best controllers for Ableton:
- M-Audio Keystation 88 MK3 MIDI Controller
- Akai Professional MPD218
- Akai Professional APC Key 25
- Ableton Push 2 Controller
Reviews of the 4 Best Controllers for Ableton
Best Ableton Controller
We’ve tipped this M-Audio controller as the overall best for Ableton, particularly since it’s great for music sequencing as it comes equipped with highly responsive controls. These include a volume fader and directional and transport buttons that help to accurately control software functions. This is especially helpful during live performances.
Since this controller is also a MIDI option, we can’t help but label it as the current best midi controller for Ableton.
The easy-to-use and powerful M-Audio Keystation 88 is best for playing virtual instruments through its 88 natural-feeling, speed-sensitive keys. This attribute is great because new users will have familiarity when using this device since the keys feel real.
Also, being plug-and-play means you don’t need drivers or a power supply for your PC or Mac. This is brilliant for novices, as finding the right drivers for Windows computers can be frustrating.
Despite its impressive features and performance, the keys are hard to use if your hands are quite big. This is despite the natural feel they have. The average hand length for adults ranges between 6.8 and 7.6 inches. If your hands are longer than that, consider them too big.
Be aware of the Mini 32’s portability, too. Although the plug-and-play aspect and light weight of 13.75 pounds are useful, it’s not easy to carry at 54.24 inches in length.
Best Drum Controller for Ableton
The MPD218 is a pad controller for finger drumming, offering an excellent alternative to MIDI keyboards. This is great for people who aren’t traditional musicians and don’t know how to play the keyboard.
We’ve included this product on our list because of its portability. It’s only 9.36 inches in length and weighs 1.65 pounds. This makes it small and light enough to carry in a bag, ensuring you can make your beats anywhere. Being USB powered is a plus, too—you don’t need an AC adapter.
For precise control, the MPD218 has 18 potentiometers, which are accessible through three banks and 48 assignable pads, which are also accessible through three banks. These features make it easy to control DAWs, virtual instruments and effects. Precise and accurate control will decrease your workflow time and creative effects in your beats.
Value is another great feature. At just under 100 dollars, you get a feature-packed controller from a reputable manufacturer AND the free Ableton Live Lite, which is worth 400 dollars.
The software package includes the company’s Pro MPC Essentials, too. When combined with the Live Lite, they make your music creation easier. This opens a wide range of editing and customization possibilities.
Note that this Ableton controller is the successor to the MPD18—one of the best-selling Ableton controllers on the market. Because of this, Akai has spent the better part of a decade gathering customer feedback. It used this data to create a cheap yet top-performing product to build on the MPD18’s success.
We consider the MP218 the better Ableton controller because of its thick, backlit and sensitive pads. Thick pads are easier to use and give a responsive feel, while backlit pads are easier to use when performing live in low light.
But, the pads’ high responsiveness is also an issue in being too sensitive if you touch one by accident. Additionally, their thickness and spacing make this Ableton controller a dust magnet.
Best All-in-One Controller
Want a MIDI keyboard and finger-drumming pad at the same time? The APC Key 25 is one to focus on. It has two sections: a 25-note keyboard and a 40-pad controller. These give you the creative freedom to switch from either controller type as you wish.
For instance, you may prefer the traditional mixing method a keyboard provides. But, you could also lean towards the modern, finger-drumming method. Whatever you feel is best for your music, you aren’t limited by equipment choice.
Note that the keyboard is responsive enough but isn’t the best on the market. Some customers have reported a delay. This doesn’t suit those who regularly use keyboard Ableton controllers. If you’re one of these, our top pick is a better option for you.
Even so, the 25 mini keys work together with octave and shift controls to ensure the device plays full melodic range. This is important because 25 keys don’t cover all the melodies and notes you’d expect from a keyboard. The controls ensure you can adjust the octave and play the entire melodic range.
When you want to switch to the pad controller, you have 40 pads that use tri-color lighting for visual feedback. They aren’t backlit like the previously reviewed model. But, the three-color feedback will ensure the pads are easy to use in the dark.
Additionally, you can determine clip status with this feedback. This is important when deciding which effects to use next in your performance.
Customers also like that it’s USB-powered for portability. It has eight control knobs that directly control modes and settings in Ableton. These make the product easy to use, even for beginners.
We recommend you only go for this controller if you want to specifically use Ableton Live, as it’s intentionally mapped for this software. This means the hardware controls match exactly with Ableton’s user interface.
Customers pick on how it performs badly with other DAWs. They take a long time to configure because they don’t have one-to-one integration.
In addition, this relatively cheap product doesn’t offer much build quality. The plastic shell seems very fragile and poorly made. This isn’t great for a portable device since you need to be confident in handling bumps and knocks from transportation.
Best Premium Controller
It’s not surprising that Ableton has made one of the most premium controllers for its own Ableton Live software. The seamless integration of hardware and software ensures it produces top-performing products, like this Push 2.
Everything about this product screams premium. For instance, the aluminum casing is different from the plastic we’ve seen from other products. This makes the product durable, reducing the chances of irreversible damage. In addition, well-made devices are more enjoyable to use.
Also, the Push 2 features 64 highly responsive and backlit pads. These provide a wide range of creative opportunities. The device also has an LED display that gives visual feedback without looking at your computer. This can help minimize clutter on your desk since you won’t need your computer to be directly in front of you.
Customers like how the workflow is more efficient with the encoders, offering precise control of instruments and devices. The reliable controls make the Push 2 the best Ableton controller for live performance.
It also comes with velocity-sensitive pads. These ensure a consistent audio output every time you press the pads.
This performance and quality does come with caveats, though—the largest being the price. With a retail price of over 1,000 dollars, the Push 2 is the most expensive product on our list. Most home producers will find this difficult to justify, especially since other controllers do the same job for less money.
With this in mind, Ableton controllers are only made for Ableton software. Unless you exclusively use Ableton DAWs, you should reconsider making the hefty investment in the Push 2.
How To Choose the Best Controllers for Ableton
Choosing a good live controller for Ableton doesn’t have to be difficult. You’ll determine the best controller for your needs if you follow the guideline below.
You can have a keyboard MIDI controller, a pad controller or a device with both properties, like the APC Key 25.
Depending on the type of music you produce, one type will be better-suited than another.
MIDI controllers have piano-like keys and are often used to create chords or melodies. Pad controllers create beats and techno sounds, making them popular in electronic music. But music doesn’t have to be categorized, and modern songs can contain unique techno sounds and classical chords.
If you like to combine tradition with the new, then a controller with both keyboard keys and pads is the best controller for you.
Number of Keys/Pads
The number of keys on your MIDI controller or the number of pads on your drum machine matter.
Ideally, the more, the merrier!
That’s because you get better customization options and can create unique melodies or beats with more options. But, this isn’t always the case because you may have budget or travel constraints.
If a device has more keys or pads, it’s usually more expensive and less portable. If budget isn’t an issue and you don’t have to carry your device around, then buy a controller with as many keys and pads as you can afford. But if these constraints play a huge role, then you must make some compromises.
Instead of looking for a key or pad number to determine portability, look at the product’s weight and dimensions. A product less than 15 pounds is light enough to carry around, but if it’s longer than 30 or so inches, then carrying it becomes very difficult.
Most devices come with Ableton Live Lite, which is a stripped-down version of Ableton Live. It’s sufficient to make great music, but you’ll want to upgrade the more advanced you get.
Look for devices mapped for Ableton Live. These are usually class-compliant and don’t require the installation of additional drivers. A great example of this is the Ableton Push 2.
Key and Pad Sensitivity
Key and pad responsiveness is important when performing live. That’s because inputs should be quickly processed to produce the desired sound. Velocity-sensitive pads are common, ensuring you get a consistent sound every time you press a pad.
The same applies to MIDI controllers’ keys. Manufacturers are usually honest about how responsive their devices are. But, buy products from reputable companies, like Ableton, Akai and M-Audio. These companies have little incentive to lie to their loyal customer bases.
Music production is more accessible than ever before, and there’s now little stopping you from creating your masterpiece.
From our list of four, the top pick and the best midi keyboard for Ableton is the M-Audio Keystation 88 MK3 MIDI Controller. Its 88 keys give creative freedom, and the premium software package will help you produce your best possible music.
Although, if you’re on a tight budget, go for the Akai Professional MPD218 as it’s still one of the best Ableton controllers. Or, if you need a truly versatile live controller, go for the Akai Professional APC Key 25.