Ableton Live has been gaining popularity as a DAW for some time now. While it was once known only among electronic producers and DJs, it has since become an industry standard across all genres of music.
One of Ableton Live's most appealing features is its clip-based "session" view, which sets it apart from other software. Furthermore, many MIDI controllers have taken advantage of this unique feature, providing real performance options for grid mode production.
Now, let's take a look at some of the best MIDI controllers for Ableton Live...
The 5 Best MIDI Controllers for Ableton
Table of Contents
- The 5 Best MIDI Controllers for Ableton
- Choosing the Right Ableton MIDI Controller
1. Akai Professional APC Key25 mk2
Akai has been a major player in beat-driven performance environments, such as Ableton. In fact, they made the first official Ableton proprietary controller, named Push, before the company redesigned it.
The Akai APC Key25 has a great visual representation of your "session" view, with colored backlit pads that represent what's in Ableton. Another killer function in Ableton is to launch a full "scene," which means all the clips in one row will start or stop together. This is where this controller really shines.
With a 40-button grid, it's a fantastic performance piece because it offers instant on-the-fly remote clip launching. It also has eight controller knobs to perform filter sweeps, LFO performances, modulate parameters, or anything else you might want.
It's probably the most comprehensive grid controller with an added keyboard in a small package.
This thing is a hit with live bands because you can mix it up while playing keys. And let's not forget that Akai always hooks us up with top-shelf keys that make synth players feel like they've hit the jackpot!
Perhaps the only downside is that adding so many tiny grid pads, it's not ideal for finger drumming on such small pads.
2. Novation Launchkey Mini Mk3
Novation has been crushing it in the electronic world for a while now. I totally remember owning their Supernova synth ages ago and loving it. Their foray into MIDI controllers has been a total win.
The Launchkey Mini Mk3 is already on its third go and it just keeps getting better. Instead of a cramped grid, they went with a bigger 16-pad grid that's backlit to show relevant info in Ableton.
By making the pads bigger, they gave you a sweet option to either launch clips or perform.
Personally, I love using Ableton Drum Racks for many of my sessions. They sound awesome with snappy envelopes and great responses. Novation totally nailed the MPC-type pad feel and even beat AKAI at their own game.
Another big plus is that they threw in touch strips on the left side. The reason that's so helpful is that, unlike knobs, you can really pull off dramatic sweeps and other tricks with two fingers.
That's amazing because sometimes when I do filter sweeps, I have to use both hands, one for cutoff and one for resonance. With the strips, I can do it even better with one hand. That frees me up to do other stuff.
It's awesome to use Live or in the studio for real-time performing. The fact that they also added an arpeggiator just makes this one a total champ.
3. Novation Launchkey 61 MK3
The Launchkey 61 Mk3 is the larger model in the Launchkey family. It features a 16-pad color-coded grid, which is similar to an MPC, as well as an 8-knob controller section similar to the Mini 25.
This keyboard is great for studio producers due to its larger 61-key keyboard. It is also suitable for live use, but it has one feature that is more geared toward production than performance: the sliders.
While other keyboards in the line have two touch strips that can act as faders, this one has nine sliders! It has more sliders than some dedicated standalone CC controllers on the market.
As someone who also composes for film and tv, I know the usefulness of sliders. Most orchestral libraries have MIDI learn functions for every single aspect of the interface. This can include mic positions, dynamics, bowing types, reverb returns, and more.
These days, no composer can realistically mock up orchestras without some form of CC slider controller. Therefore, this keyboard is perfect for that.
In addition, Novation has incorporated their typical arpeggiator and chord generator from other versions of their controllers. They have also added a function called "Mutate" that acts as a musical idea randomizer, which is great for inspiration.
Overall, this keyboard is a dream "main" controller for producers, composers, and songwriters.
4. Arturia KeyStep Pro 37 key controller
Arturia needs no introduction as they’ve been killing it with their analog emulation VSTs for over a decade now. They have also designed some impressive original synths that are popular among major producers.
I personally own their KeyStep Pro 37 and love it. However, its functions for Ableton are limited compared to other controllers because it lacks colored grid launch pads.
The reason for this is that Arturia wants the Keystep to be perceived as more than just an Ableton accessory; it's a great controller in its own right.
Where the Keystep really stands out is with its Eurorack CV outputs that can be used with modular gear, as well as its dual MIDI out to trigger drum machines. How does this relate to Ableton, you ask?
Well, Ableton is often used as an idea-capturing environment, particularly by producers. If you're interested in hardware and vintage gear, the Keystep is the perfect controller for you.
You can run its 4-track step sequencer to your outboard synths and record back all sorts of inspiring sounds. Then you can edit, loop, and save them as clips in Ableton, making it an incredibly inspiring way to start tracks.
Additionally, the Keystep has a 16-track drum sequencer that can trigger any drum machines you might have, making it a versatile tool for music production.
5. Novation Launchpad Pro Mk3
The Launchpad is a different kind of controller since it doesn't have a keyboard; therefore, it's specifically designed for Ableton Live use only.
Many of you have seen or even used Ableton Push 2 by now; this is the direct competitor. In many ways, it looks very similar. It has an 8x8 64-pad Matrix, much like Push, but it's much more compact.
In many ways, this is very appealing because it fits perfectly below a laptop. It is also streamlined to have some of the most advanced and important Ableton commands designated to their own buttons.
One such button is the capture MIDI button, which was barely implemented in the latest Ableton 11, which means this controller is really up-to-date!
It also has a crazy good bundle of software considering it's already attractively priced. You get a free version of Ableton Live Lite, synths from AAS, one amazing XLN Audio Addictive Keys instrument, and Softube effects.
For the die-hard Ableton user, the Launchpad Pro Mk3 is a truly dedicated controller. It also has velocity-enabled pads so you can finger drum, play chords, basslines, and much more without a keyboard.
For a band playing live that really needs to trigger a complex arrangement of their record stems, this is the way to go.
Choosing the Right Ableton MIDI Controller
There's no shortage of options when it comes to Ableton controllers, so how do we choose? Many of them offer similar bundles and keyboard sizes, so what is the crucial factor that can make a controller unique?
Of course, this is all very subjective. We all have different needs because we're all unique artists, aren't we?
Studio vs. Live
When deciding which tool to use, the first thing to consider is how you plan to use it. For instance, if you will be playing chords and melodies live, the Launchpad might not be the best option.
However, if you are an electronic rock band with punchy, Nine Inch Nails-like modular bass lines that you want to launch as loops, then the Launchpad would be perfect.
On the other hand, if you need to perform a lot of automation in the studio while recording, the Novation Launchkey 61 would be the most suitable choice. Obviously, it might not be the best choice if you're trying to use it on a super long flight across the pond unless you want to start a brawl.
This brings us to the next category.
Size and Features
As a synth player and pianist, the 25-key format is way too small for my taste. Sure, I can play each part as a different take, and I can probably lay down a funky bassline by switching the octave button, but that's not how I roll.
I get inspired by having two hands on the keys. So, the 37 or 61 key option would be for me. Heck, I've even gotten some super dope basslines from the launchpad. You'd be surprised how cool that thing is for unusual ideas.
Sometimes my piano training gets in the way, and I like the limitations of triggering more random ideas from pads. That's how HipHop started!
Also, I'm a knob tweaker by birth, so it has to have knobs. I need those filter sweeps in my life.
Genre Specific Factors
This is one of the most important factors when choosing the right controller. Ableton is a modern DAW. Yes, it mainly became known through the electronic and EDM communities, but it has gone way beyond that.
To give you an example, I was at an orchestral session the other day for a tv show, and I was asked to bring my Ableton controller because we were going to launch some clips under the orchestra! That's about as far from EDM as it gets.
I, therefore, see the Launchpad as a legitimate instrument on its own. I played Launchpad with the Orchestra. That should be an interesting credit.
For live bands that have drummers and bass players, I would go with the Akai APC. Chances are you won't be playing beats and triggering time-locked arpeggiators, so really you might use it more as a trigger for ear candy samples and synth tweaks.
For singer-songwriters, I would totally go with the Launchkey 61. Even if you're performing on an acoustic guitar and just triggering some looped ambient mood vibes, it might be cool to have the keys as an option.
Maybe you do a song on the piano for the end of the set. It’s nice to have options.
For most musicians, including myself, the choice ultimately depends on what's most important to our workflow. Personally, I require many knobs, sliders, and keys because I automate a lot of things in Ableton.
Others might use Ableton controllers primarily for arranging, in which case the grid version would be best.
In general, the Mini 25-key versions are the most versatile. I own one myself because it's so compact for traveling. Songwriters will certainly find the Launchkey and APC versions useful. When your flight is delayed, instead of wasting time scrolling through bad news, simply take out your controller and start working on a new idea.
I've always been a Pro Tools fan because I do a lot of mixing, but when Ableton came out, I was like, "Whoa, this is dope." The time-stretching feature was so easy to use, and I loved being able to test out tempos.
I used it a lot for dance remixes and could import the original vocal stems and have them instantly speed up with crystal-clear quality. After a few years of using it, I found myself starting ideas in Ableton when I was stuck. I would just throw in different loops and see where they took me.
Now, it's my go-to songwriting tool. The controllers are amazing because you can switch scenes on the fly to test out a verse breakdown with no beat or change keys on the fly during a bridge. It's like the missing link for songwriters in DAWs.
Man, I still remember the good old days before Ableton revolutionized the game. We were writing a song and the singer said, "Hey, can we do Chorus 2 without this but add this instead?" and we replied, "Yeah, no worries, just copy and paste, mute, duplicate tracks, add automation, and all that jazz." Give me 15 minutes. It's a total vibe-killer. We've all been in that situation before.
Now, with the Akai APC Mini25, which is about the size of your Sound on Sound magazine, you can switch entire sections with one finger just to "try things out." I mean, that's just insane.