12 best controllers for Ableton Live

Ableton Live becomes exponentially more fun and feisty when you add a hardware controller, becoming much more hands-on and instrument-like. Here are our picks of the best Live controllers around.

ableton push 2

1Best Integration: Ableton Push 2

£599

The de facto controller for Live. Many pick up the Live/Push combo on day one of their musical mission. Push is available bundled with any of the three versions of Live. The truth is, you really need a clear reason not to use Push, it does such a thorough job out of the box. There’s zero setup time, then you’re armed to play instruments or launch clips with the pads, and use the knobs to tweak instrument and effect parameters.

We said: “This is a whole new, enjoyable experience – it’s what Push should have been in the first place, and it’s become something that I’m far more likely to use for composition. Push integrates with the updated Simpler instrument to create more of a hardware-sampling experience; from Push itself, you can browse and load samples into Simpler and view and interact with the waveforms.”

2Best Clip Launcher: Akai APC40 MkII

Akai APC40 MkII

£269

One of the most popular Live boxes around, the original APC40 was one of the first (if not the first) Live controllers on sale, and it’s still going strong. This update keeps it fresh and relevant, as long as you don’t need to play pads – these are clip-launchers only. The clip-launch buttons do a good job of reflecting your onscreen clip colours and it remains a relatively mobile package.

We said: “This is a good example of a follow-up release outdoing the original, as it answers most of the first incarnation’s gripes.

3Best Standalone: Akai Professional Force

£1,249

New and juicy, the Akai Force is a standalone sampling/synth/sequencer that does double-duty as a Push-style Live controller, putting the pads, knobs and touchscreen to good use; it’ll export projects as Live-friendly .als files, and built-in wifi allows Ableton Link support. It has independence when needed, integration when needed, and acts as your audio interface, too. This is the choice for anybody who ever wished for a standalone Live machine.

We said: “The Force is so enjoyable to use – I’d happily put it to work for song sketching, sampling, jamming and live sets. It’s a great prospect for anybody interested in creating or performing usingmusic hardware. Even if you’re a software diehard, this is another way to think about presenting live music, especially if you experience the occasional option paralysis that comes bundled free with every DAW.”

4Best In Studio: Editors Keys Wireless Keyboard

editors keys

£79

This offers computer-keyboard shortcuts on steroids, with a Mac/PC keyboard featuring colour-coded keys (printed, not stickers), with text and icons, to keep your workflow fast and organised. This keyboard will give your studio that ‘serious pro’ vibe – they just look very cool! Probably not something you’d use live, but you never know. There’s also a wired, backlit, version, for the night-time studio vampires among us.

We said: “I’ve been using Live a long time, so I’m pretty familiar with the keyboard shortcuts, but scanning over these keys is a good way to be reminded of ones that perhaps you don’t use so much. The most elegant commands and functions are the ones where you don’t need to use modifier keys at all to complete the instruction, so using Tab, Spacebar, and the top row of red Function keys, which toggle track activation, all feel snappy to use.”

5Best Keyboard: Novation SL MkIII

Novation SL MkIII

£539

This has to be the best Live keyboard controller around at the moment, with onboard eight-track sequencer, semi-weighted keys, aftertouch, and extra visual feedback from on-key RGB LEDs. Throw in faders, pads, CV and an arpeggiator, and it has you covered for most of your Ableton Live needs. However, it’ll also function as a very capable hub for your hardware rig, too – a real bonus. Available in 49 and 61 varieties.

We said: “Way back when I heard about SL MkIII, I thought I’d focus on the software-control side of it, as that is really where previous models in the SL range were focused, particularly with that AutoMap technology. However, what really comes out of this test is that SL MkIII is more about the hardware; well, more about your studio. Those Templates really do make controlling, sequencing and automating your studio a breeze, you might even – whisper – move away from your DAW and completely into the hard environment.”

6Best App: Zerodebug touchAble PRO

Zerodebug touchAble Pro

£28.99

We’ll allow just one app on this list, mainly because it’s the most fully featured Live controller out there. TouchAble PRO runs on iOS and Android and connects to your computer via wifI or cable, providing immediate control over every aspect of Live, and with a configurable interface, too!

We said: “TouchAble Pro is easy to configure, fast to use, and engages with the software like nothing else. Also, it doesn’t exclude the use of hardware controllers alongside it, such as Push or APC40, or whatever else you have. The Device control is outstanding, and the ability to view two modules together is the icing on the cake.

It’s not truly tactile, and using a glass surface for a controller isn’t for everybody, but other than that, I have no quibbles about this at all. This app is the reason I have an iPad Pro.”

7Best Mini Keys: Akai APC Key 25

apc key 25

£63

This is a very sweet controller for Live, combining keys, launch buttons, transport controls, and macro knobs into a small box that remains usable. Runs off USB power, and it’s plug and play – no drivers required. Includes Ableton Live Lite, and a bundle of other software, including AIR’s Hybrid 3 synth.

8Best DJ: DJ TechTools MIDI Fighter 3D

DJ TechTools MIDI Fighter 3D

$219

Ideal for the DJ, finger drummer, or just people with larger fingers, the MIDI Fighter 3D has 16 colour-configurable arcade buttons in four banks, USB power, and MIDI mapping from any of the three accelerometer axes. Also available – the MIDI Fighter 64, which loses the accelerometer, but adds more buttons!

9Best Guitar: Zivix Jamstik+ Smart Guitar

zivix jamstik

£210

In order to include some less-mainstream input options, we present the Jamstik – primarily sold as a guitar-teaching tool, but hey, it’s basically a wireless MIDI guitar! Use the strings and frets to trigger instruments or clips, and the built-in accelerometer for real-time control of effects parameters.

10Best Tactile Faders: Korg nanoKontrol2

korg nanokontrol2

£40

This manages to pack a lot of control into a petite package – defaulting to the time-honoured eight-tracks-plus-transport formula. Each track has a fader, three buttons and a knob, which is good going for a small footprint. Most importantly, it’s available in a choice of black or white.

11Best Simplicity: Novation Launch Control XL

£149

Sometimes a simple mixer-style MIDI control surface is all you need – anybody remember the legendary Evolution UC-33? Novation has been smart enough to embrace the philosophy with the Launch Control XL. Knobs, faders, and a few buttons – nothing flashy, but still incredibly useful, portable and good to have around.

12Best Value For Money: Novation Launchpad Pro

£259

The latest incarnation of the Launchpad range, which debuted in 2009, the Pro still works brilliantly well with clips and instruments in Live, but also as a standalone controller for other MIDI gear. However, it’s primarily a Live controller at heart, and a good sturdy mobile one at that.