Ableton LIve is a unique Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) that features two modes of music production (session and arrangement view) and offers a variety of ways to control the parameters within the software. To make the most out of these features and enhance your creative workflow, it’s important to have the right MIDI controller that’s tightly integrated with these parameters in Ableton Live.
What Is A MIDI Controller?
A MIDI controller is a physical device used to communicate (generally over USB) with your DAW such as Ableton Live so you can do things like play your virtual instruments and control knobs, faders and buttons in the GUI. It can come in many sizes and forms, most commonly as piano/synth keys and drum pads. While there are no sounds built into most MIDI controllers you'll find MIDI functionality across a range of gear that does produce sound (like synthesizers and groove boxes).
What To Look For
In a market saturated with MIDI controllers it can be hard to find the right one. How do you decide what’s best for you, especially as an Ableton Live user? There are many considerations when deciding what controller to get:
- Size of MIDI controller - Do you want something you can take with you on the go that easily fits in your backpack or do you want a bigger controller with more physical space to fit things like a screen/display?
- Number of components - how many keys, pads, knobs, buttons and other components would you like to have? Do you value a physical pitch bend and modulation wheel as opposed to a touch one?
- Quality and type of components - do the keys feel cheap and are they weighted? How sensitive are the pads and do they have a good feel to them when finger drumming? Do you prefer endless rotary encoders or fixed position knobs?
- Controls and host integration - how well does the MIDI controller communicate with the DAW that you use? Does it just control basic transport functions (play, stop, record) or is there deeper functionality (recording/launching clips)? This is usually the deal-breaker for me when picking a controller to use with a DAW.
My Best Picks
After many years producing with Ableton Live I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with MIDI controllers of all different shapes and sizes for various applications in my bedroom, in studio, on stage, and even outside sitting in a park. I’ve listed my recommendations below and their best use cases. This is NOT a review article but I do express my preferences and pro’s/con’s of each controller.
1. Push 2 by Ableton [Best Integrated Controller]
This is the flagship MIDI controller for Ableton Live and is the most tightly integrated out of the list. It allows you to control virtually every parameter within the DAW and shines best when you are using it with Live's stock devices to create your ideas. What I love about the Ableton Push 2 is that I can produce an entire track without once touching or looking at my computer.
One of my most used features that's unique to the Push 2 is sample chopping with Simpler. The visual element and responsiveness of the knobs adds an MPC-style feel when cutting up the file. Having 64 pads allows you to do create very interesting combinations when you're working with a long file.
My other favourite features of this MIDI controller include scale modes (allows me to quickly come up with melodies that I wouldn't be able to play on the keyboard) and drum/melody sequencing (a creative way to input drums and melodies). Overall, this is the must-have MIDI controller for any serious users looking to get the most out of Ableton Live.
- Flawless Integration with nearly every aspect of Ableton Live
- Beautiful display that shows detailed info especially when using Live's devices
- Quality build, great pads and buttons
- Create an entire track without having to look at computer screen
- Most expensive
- Heavy and not truly portable
- No keyboard
- Can be bus powered but needs power adapter to see display clearly
- Can sometimes be a bit laggy
Learn more: https://www.ableton.com/en/push/
2. SL Mk3 by Novation [Best Keyboard Controller]
This might be the best high-end keyboard option for Ableton Live. The onboard eight-track sequencer, keyboard lighting and various scale/arp/zone modes are all great, unique features on this MIDI controller.
The five colour LCD screens give you full parameter feedback, allowing you to see everything you are controlling without having to look at your computer screen (great for device macros). The pitch and modulation wheels also change colour to show what track you're working on, which is a nice touch.
The abundance of faders, buttons and knobs make it very easy for you to navigate around Ableton Live's track settings, as you get dedicated mute and arm buttons for each track. The pads are also super useful as you when used with Drum Rack as the pad colours reflect those in the Drum Rack and scrolling through the 127 pads is a breeze.
Lastly, those who are into outboard gear are in for a treat as this MIDI controller comes with two sets of CV outputs and host of other MIDI connections. With all the versatility and control, this is makes for a great option as a studio centrepiece for the Ableton Live user.
- Quality build, expressive keys
- Abundance of controls
- Detailed displays, great visual cues from lights
- Comprehensive connectivity
- On-board sequencer
- Scale and Arp modes
- Includes a great collection of free software
- Fairly expensive for a MIDI keyboard
- Doesn't come in a smaller size than 49 keys
- No chord mode (featured in their other keyboard lineup)
Learn more: https://novationmusic.com/en/keys/sl-mkiii
3. Launchpad X by Novation [Best Pad Controller]
Novation's Launchpad lineup (Mini, X and Pro) is the third iteration of the legendary 2009 Launchpad that changed the way pad controllers were used with Ableton Live. This decade-long refinement process has resulted in many features that enhance user workflow when it came to production and live performance.
Of the three versions, I find the Launchpad X to be the best companion to Ableton Live as it perfectly balances features, price and portability. While the Mini is easier to carry around, its pads suffer from not having velocity sensitivity and polyphonic aftertouch (a nice touch for playing instruments that support it). The Mini also lacks essential features like capture MIDI, scale and extra custom modes that come with the X.
While the Pro version does have all the features of the X and more, I find it being in an odd middle ground between the X and the Ableton Push 2. Even with all the added features of the Pro I gravitate towards my Push 2 for the extra integration with Ableton Live or would find myself using a mouse because its faster to do so.
- Custom modes allow you to program the pads however you want
- Expressive pads with velocity and aftertouch
- 64 pads in a reasonable form factor
- Intelligent "note mode" will adjust pad layout if you're on instrument or drum rack
- Various scale modes and keyboard mode to let you play 4 octaves
- Includes a great collection of free software
- While you can make fairly precise adjustments it still doesn't replicate the feeling of a fader or knob
- Limited to 2 sends
- Lacks additional features found in the Pro and Ableton Push 2
Learn more: https://novationmusic.com/en/launch/launchpad-x
4. Launchkey Series by Novation [Best Value Controller]
This is the MIDI controller I currently recommend all Ableton Live users to get if you want the best bang for your buck. It's a watered down version of the aforementioned Novation SL Mk3 lineup but still packs a punch with its unique feature set and tight integration with Ableton Live.
One of my favourite features is the new chord mode exclusive to this controller only. There are three inspiring chord modes that allow you to trigger chords with one finger and get ideas going instantly. It even comes with a "user mode" that lets you save specific chords into a designated pads!
Another favourite feature is the new arp modes and its built-in "Mutate" and "Deviate" functions. which add another layer of creativity that you wouldn't find in a traditional arp device or plugin.
- Comes in 25/32/49/61 keys
- Best Ableton Live integration for this price point
- Instant inspiration with the various scale/chord/arp modes
- Not expensive
- Includes a great collection of free software
- No aftertouch
- No endless encoders
- Keyboard feels a bit cheap
Learn more: https://novationmusic.com/en/keys/launchkey
5. APC Mk2 by Akai [Best Live Performance]
Photo cred: phantomdynamics.com
If you are want tactile control and integration with Ableton Live's session view then look no further than the Akai APC Mk2. This MIDI controller is optimized for clip launching with its 5x8 clip-launch matrix and parameter control (9 channel faders, 8 control knobs, and 8 device controls).
I like that this MIDI controller has dedicated buttons that allow you to quickly navigate various modes for your control knobs (sends, pans and user) and do other things like "device lock" and "device on/off". The "nudge" buttons are also a nice touch and are especially useful when trying to stay in time with another DJ setup.
- Assignable A/B cross-fader
- Portable and light
- Abundance of faders, knobs and pads to control Ableton Live
- Not very useful for arrangement view
- No display
- Pads are not great for finger drumming
Learn more: https://www.akaipro.com/apc40
6. ATOM SQ by Presonus [Best Compact Controller]
This compact MIDI controller by Presonus was made primarily for StudioOne but has some thoughtful integrations for Ableton Live that make it a worthy companion to have on the go.
Its unique, staggered 32-pad layout allows you to effectively do finger drumming and play melodies without feeling out of place. It also features scale and velocity modes to add more expression and creativity to your performance. Some other nice touches include a LCD screen, the ability to assign the touch strip as the A/B cross fader and do essential clip launching functions with the pads.
In combination with the 8 endless encoders, this is a unique MIDI controller that offers a bit of everything in a very small footprint. While there are other options like the Launchkey Mini or Akai APC 25, none offer the flexibility, functionality or creativity found in the ATOM SQ.
- Scale and continuous modes allow you to play melodies in several octaves
- Unique layout of staggered pads and knobs for multi-purpose use
- LCD screen to see what scale modes and helps with making other adjustments
- Easily switch between octaves with bank buttons
- Limited integration with Ableton Live
- Expensive compared to other controllers with this form factor
Learn more: https://www.presonus.com/products/ATOM-SQ
7. Touchable Pro by Zerodebug [Best App Controller]
Formerly known as Touchable 3, this app/MIDI controller offers the deepest integration for Ableton Live outside of the Push 2. This app works on all smart devices (including iOS and Android) and is centred around 6 modules (Session, Mixer, Device, XY Pad, Keys, Editor). These modules give full wireless control over Live's parameters and you can choose to customize the combination of these modules however you please in split screen mode.
What I love most is that this app does a great job of mimicking the layout and graphics of Ableton Live's stock devices. The Simpler on the iPad actually feels like the Simpler on your computer with all the knobs and parameters being where they're suppose to be. The graphics on more complex devices like Echo and Wavetable are also retained in Touchable Pro and fairly responsive when you change their respective parameters (delay time for Echo and wave position on Wavetable).
At $29.99 USD it's an absolute no-brainer to add Touchable Pro to your arsenal of MIDI controllers (assuming you have a smartphone or tablet). The ability to link up multiple Touchable devices will add some spice to both your live rig (multitude of clip triggering and performance features) and home studio setups.
- Multi-device support (iOS, Android, Windows)
- Ultra-low latency
- Deepest integration with Ableton Live outside of the Push 2
- Fully customizable modules to create your own layouts and templates
- Not the best looking graphics
- Graphics and text can feel a bit cluttered at times
- Adjusting knobs and faders on a touchscreen just doesn't compare to the real thing
Learn more: https://zerodebug.com/#/touchable