A hardware controller is the key to getting the most out of your software instruments. Find out which is best for you with our definitive buyer’s guide. In need of a refresher? Check out our complete guide to controllers.
Akai APC Key 25
This small and incredibly cheap keyboard manages to cram a hell of a lot of controls into its tiny footprint. There’s a small keyboard, eight rotaries and loads of launch-pad buttons for Ableton Live.
We say: “A lot of people who use a Live controller will also have a MIDI keyboard connected, so with the Key 25, you’re killing two birds with one stone. Even though the keys are small, they’re still perfectly fine for synth melodies, basslines and beats.”
IK Multimedia iRig Keys Mini
Behold, IK’s mini-key controller. You thought the 37 Pro USB was small…
We say: “We had it triggering Gadget and Arturia’s iMini in no time. And it’s surprising how much we actually used it – as good as the iPad is at playing music, sometimes you do want the feedback from a proper keyboard, while playing it. While this is obviously not full sized and a little too plastic-y, it does a reasonable job.”
IK Multimedia iRig 37 Pro USB
A mini keyboard with maxi keys and probably the best playing you’ll get on a small keyboard. There are few other controls, though.
We say: “The keyboard isn’t top quality, but very playable. It’s good for the money and better than some models costing a lot more, or with smaller keys. ‘Players’ may be willing to forego mobile and just go big.”
Leap Motion Controller
This hand-held motion controller can detect hand movements, tilting of your wrist, finger movements and more. It plugs in via USB and by way of an app like Geco MIDI ($9.99), enables you to set a custom MIDI CC output.
We say: “Hands-free, multi-gestural control adding expression and something visually stimulating for any studio or live setup.”
Novation Launch Control
A USB MIDI controller with 16 rotaries and eight launch pads and little else, but it does the job and you can pick it up for less than 50 quid in some stores.
We say: “We found it to be a very useful addition – it will be the primary parameter and studio workflow controlling mechanism and it also works a treat with Ableton Live.”
Novation Launchpad Mini
Designed, like the Launchkey Mini, to also work with Novation’s Launch app, you’ll need an optional extra Camera Connection Kit, but again, this is a very well featured controller for the price.
We say: “Overall, our experience was a good one. It’s remarkably simple to use and undeniably fun, practical and intuitive, with plenty of options to satisfy your creativity. A wickedly fun mobile controller.”
Arturia Minilab MkII
Another tiny keyboard that manages to pack a lot in for the asking price.
We say: “With the Analog Lab Lite software, this is very usable. The build quality is not weapons-grade, but it’s solid enough. Plus, it feels better made than the Mk I, and a really great purchase for anyone lacking space or wanting to dip their toe in the world of DAWs, plug-ins and a matching hardware keyboard.”
This cut-down version of the previous controller will control and sequence pretty much anything you throw at it: analogue or digital.
We say: “An excellent little MIDI controller. For triggering in software it’s intuitive and fun to use, and it also works as a MIDI hardware trigger and sequencer, via its more old-school outputs. At this price, BeatStep is a great choice for anyone working with MIDI-triggered instruments, be they in hardware or software form.”
Novation Launchkey Mini
Fewer rotaries than Novation’s Launch Control, but twice the pads (which change colour to match those represented in the Launchkey app) and an added mini keyboard make this an attractive controller.
We say: “It is a superb creative tool, immense fun to play, offering a huge range of ideas with little physical space taken up in-studio and no mains powering required – all in all, one of the finest mobile instruments money can buy.”
Alesis VI Range
Price £99 to £219
Another range of controllers with three models: an entry level, compact 25-note; then a midrange 49-key and finally, a players’ 61-note. All the keyboards in the range feature velocity-sensitive, full-sized ‘square front’ keys. You also get four rotaries; eight drum pads and four buttons, all of which are assignable.
We say: “A great entry-level range, ideal for beginners or those who want a secondary mobile studio.”
Keyboards don’t come much more compact; and KeyStep even manages to cram in a few extra controllers in, too.
We say: “The huge connectivity, coupled with the sequencer/arpeggiator, makes KeyStep stand out. It feels weighty, but the keys don’t inspire quality-confidence; however, this is a MIDI controller for under £100, after all. The Arturia KeyStep is almost in the area of an impulse buy, to place right next to my Eurorack when I need a quick arpeggiator fix.
A bit of a bargain.”
It might not actually be a controller in name – it’s more an analogue and MIDI sequencer – but we think there’s enough going on with the SQ-1 to include it as a controller… simply because you can connect to so much – digital, analogue, app, you name it.
We say: “SQ-1 is not just a controller for the MS-20M, although it does make a great partner. Use it with your soft synths, or your hard synths, but make sure you use it.”
IK Multimedia iRig Pads
iRig Pads aims to be more compact and portable than most and is specifically aimed at the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch markets, plus laptop Mac and PC owners.
We say: “iRig Pads is a very flexible device as well as being highly portable (its depth is particularly and notably thin). It’s a compact, sturdy and portable unit, which makes a useful, tactile addition to your i-based studio.”
Price £119 to £280
Available in 24- or 49-key models, Tactile has a range of great launch controls, rotaries and sliders and works well with many DAWs out of the box. There are also Triton versions, with features from that great synth range.
We say: “It has great real-time options and superb DAW integration, and the software bundle includes Korg’s M1 Le software, EZdrummer Lite, Lounge Lizard Session and more. Taktile is a great package and performance tool – much more than a typical keyboard controller.”
The LX49+ is the latest in Nektar’s great range of controllers that aims to make DAW control as simple as possible. It features nine 30mm sliders, nine assignable buttons, six dedicated transport buttons, and eight velocity-sensitive pads with four-LED colour options.
We say: “You can set up the LX+ exactly how you want. This is a surprisingly deep controller for the price, with instant integration that can improve your workflow without wrappers or additional plug-ins getting in the way.”
Price Lightpad £169, Loop £69; Live £69
ROLI’s Blocks system isn’t strictly a controller – it’s more a system of touch-sensitive blocks that join together to make many and varied music-making systems. The real beauty is that you can also configure them to make the most beautiful and futuristic control system you’ve ever seen, too.
We say: “Control over software is where it gets interesting. To have the multitouch expression while playing your instruments in your DAW can add a level of control you won’t get with any other MIDI controllers.”
“If you use Ableton Live,” says Novation, “you need a Launchpad. Its 8×8 grid has become ubiquitous with the evolution of electronic music, letting you launch clips, play drum racks and control your mixer.” Developed with Ableton, it was one of the first controllers to properly interact with Live.
We say: “Launching Live clips with hardware has become an artform,with everyone joining the party, but Launchpad is slick and illuminating.”
Arturia Beatstep Pro
This is a controller, performance sequencer and composing tool in a single box. Its aim is to give you control over your instruments, and has an expansive selection of outputs, including several CVs for triggering and controlling modular synths.
We say: “Arturia has struck the right balance of features, build and price. It proves controllers can be fun and modular synths needn’t be the preserve of hardcore synthesis nuts.”
Keith McMillen QuNeo
QuNeo is a fantastic-looking controller at a great price. It features a 4×4 pad array, sliders, and rotary control, and ‘Smart Fabric sensors’ which sense pressure, position, and velocity.
We say: “With the QuNeo, it took us a while to start getting our heads around its huge amount of MIDI output. There’s a new level of control available through this device which we feel is the start of a new era in digital music control.”
IK Multimedia iRig Keys I/O
Price £200 to £300
This keyboard from IK is available in 25- or 49-key versions, with full-size keys and a smooth, velocity-sensitive, synth-action keyboard.
We say: “Boasting great portability, the iRig Keys I/O works with all iOS devices with a lightning port, so you can create from the word go. There’s also over $/€550 worth of IK software and apps, including the SampleTank 3 sound and groove workstation with over 5,000 sounds.”
Nektar Panorama P1
Another controller that’s dedicated to controlling DAWs straight out of the box and with ease. Nektar has now added pretty much every big name to its list of compatible software slaves.
We say: “The P1 works in two modes: as an instrument and as a mixer, each set up as a separate device. Once you’ve figured all this out, it’s fine – the Panorama P1 is a great controller with a good depth of features and programmability.”
Novation Launchpad Pro
Launchpad Pro is an updated Launchpad (although the original is still available on Novation’s website – hence the inclusion here). The Pro is a tad larger than the regular Launchpad, but it’s not hefty. Extras include velocity-sensitive full-colour RGB pads, hardware MIDI, mains power and an array of edit buttons.
We say: “Pro is a flexible, expressive, interface, for your clips, instruments, and just about everything else.”
Akai Advance series
Price £259 to £449
It’s one of the ranges of controllers (three sizes in this case) that attempts to get you using your computer screen less so you can concentrate on the playing and composing, and with its VIP software, it largely succeeds.
We say: “Overall, the bundle offers a very successful mix and integration of both software and hardware, and one that will have you turning from your computer to your hardware and, what’s more, using your ears to mix rather than your eyes.”
Akai APC40 Mk2
Another controller with launch pad buttons for Ableton Live, the APC40Mk2 certainly packs the controls and options into a sturdy but still compact footprint. It also addresses a few issues from the first incarnation of the machine.
We say: “We recommend all Akai APC40 MkI users to check the MkII out. It has a slimmer profile, slick crossgrading, and great colour matching to Ableton Live. It is a good example of a follow-up outdoing the original in many ways, and answers most MkI user’s gripes.”
Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S series
Price £299 to £539
The Komplete Kontrol S-Series set a new precedent of software and hardware integration, mapping loads of screen functions onto the keyboard.
We say: “We can finally let the computer do what it should be doing – computing! – and we can finally get on with what we should be doing: making music and playing music.”
Another new controller keyboard, this time from M-Audio. With a large colour screen and VIP software, it’s another keyboard trying to blur the lines between hardware and software and trying to help you move away from your computer screen to play and compose instead.
We say: “VIP is a great feature that really does help you mix with your ears rather than eyes as you stare at your screen.”
Icon QCon Pro
The QCon Pro is at the higher end of Icon’s product range. A comprehensive DAW controller, it has many features that not so long ago would only have been found on a much more expensive unit. It’s also built like a tank.
We say: “The ability to control a surpirsingly wide range of DAW functions remotely is really useful, the faders feel accurate and motorisation is a real bonus. It’s a USB DAW MIDI controller that works well and won’t blind you with science – a good way to get hands-on with your projects.”
A USB MIDI controller with 64 small and four large knobs, a large push-encoder, 11 buttons, and a small LCD display.
We say: “The PC44 is just a big surface with a ton of knobs – that’s fine by me. I can imagine keeping it on my desk, using it for music and video performances with software-only as well as hybrid hardware-software rigs. It doesn’t have the dancefloor pretty-light vibe of pad-based controllers, but that’s not what it’s about.”
Very much the daddy of controllers, not so much for its flexibility – it is for Ableton Live only – but for the way it integrates so seamlessly with that software. This is a practically essential purchase for Ableton users and it’s almost an instrument in itself.
We say: “This is a whole new, enjoyable experience with out-of-the-box functionality that nobody else can really match.”
Keith McMillen Instruments K-Mix
The first of two great units from Keith, the K-Mix is actually a standalone mixer, an interface, and a controller that works with Mac, Windows, iOS; and it has onboard effects to boot.
We say: “The K-Mix is absolutely worth the money. Mobile or small-studio producers who are tight for space and need a lot of features, with great audio, should check it out.”
ROLI Seaboard Rise range
Price £621 to £2,499
The RISE concept throws the concept of the keyboard – and controller – into the air and rearranges the pieces into a completely new form. With three models, you have three futuristic controllers to shape your sound in new ways. The Seaboard Block is a smaller version to join the Blocks range above.
We say: “For creating something unlike anything else out there, ROLI can only be applauded. RISE is solid, sleek, great value and sounds superb with the supplied Equator soft synth.”
Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88
We’ve separated the S88 from the rest of the Komplete Kontrol range, because it’s a different proposition.
We say: “It is pricey – a full £300 more than the 61 – but the keys will be attractive to ‘proper’ players. They are fully weighted and slightly heavy but far more responsive than the 61-note S Series.”