Ableton Live MIDI Controller Buying Guide

In this article, I’m going to discuss a bit how Ableton Live works, and then recommend and discuss in detail five MIDI controllers that work great with this very unique software.

Now, if you’re looking to get into a digital audio workstation that can allow you to record and perform simultaneously, you should really look no further than Ableton Live. There are three different levels of the software: Lite, Standard, and Suite.

Live is great because you can do more than you can in a lot of other digital audio workstations. Sampling sounds is easy to do with the sampler or simpler instrument, where as doing this in something like Pro Tools is usually manual, and you can’t map it to keys or pads.

Below, please take a look at our interactive table that allows you to compare some MIDI controllers that we will be discussing today against one another based on price, number of keys, rating and more.

Yamaha YDP-145

Yamaha YDP-165
Casio PX-870
Casio AP-460Casio AP-470
Yamaha YDP-184

Ableton Live Performance

The performance feature is pretty simple, while still being fairly advanced. Simply drag audio files into “scenes” that you can launch in time with each other and create music on the stage or anywhere you want. These scenes can be triggered using things like the Launchpad or the APC40, two MIDI controllers I’ll tell you more about later on.

Because Ableton is a great way to make and perform music, there are a lot of MIDI controllers that are built to maximize the experience. I’m going to tell you about five of them and then recommend the one that I think is best to you. All of these controllers also come with a copy of Ableton Live Lite so you can get started with your Ableton experience without having to pay extra.

So what’s a great MIDI controller for Ableton Live?  Well, let’s start with the Akai MPK249.

Akai MPK249

Akai is always production-minded and this 49 key MIDI keyboard is no exception. With Ableton, while you can always simply use your mouse or trackpad to click on everything, the more integrated your buttons, pads, sliders, and knobs are, the easier your workflow will be.

Ableton is, at its core, recording software, which means that you will need to understand the record, play, stop, and measure scrolling features on it. The great thing about the MPK249 is that each physical button can correspond with one of these functions. There are buttons for each of these functions and they’re easy to use.

In Ableton, you have the ability to use something called a drum rack. This is a grid of drum samples that you can play, either using the keys on the keyboard or pads. Typically, most people, myself included, prefer playing drums on pads. This keyboard comes with 16 pads that will automatically map when you select a drum rack, so you can play rhythms easily.

The knobs and faders can be assigned to mixing parameters like volume, or filters such as EQs or Ableton’s great auto filter, which I use all the time and would highly recommend.

If you choose to opt for a MIDI controller with keys, this is a great option. There are 49 velocity sensitive keys that are full sized and semi-weighted, so any playing style will feel pretty good.

The keys on Novation’s MIDI keyboards feel a little better, but those keyboards lack a few cool features the MPK249 has, such as the onboard arpeggiator, which will respond with Ableton Live and turn your instrument into a sequencer.

Before moving onto our second MIDI controller on this list, please take a moment to review some of the best-selling MIDI keyboards currently on sale online:

1) M-Audio Hammer 88
2) Arturia KeyStep Pro
3) Arturia KeyLab 49 MkII

Novation Launchpad Pro

Now, we will go from something that works well with Ableton to something that’s actually built for it. In fact, all of Novation’s products are best used with Ableton.

The Launchpad Pro doesn’t have a keyboard attached to it, but it has a lot of great features. It’s a 64-pad grid that is velocity sensitive and can be used for playing instruments, drums, and launching clips in Ableton.

If you look around the edge of the device, you might notice several buttons that are labeled. These are DAW (digital audio workstation) controls. You can perform necessary MIDI functions like quantizing notes, cutting and looping clips, duplicating tracks, and undoing mistakes.

It’s designed to take your hands off the computer and make the process of making music much more interactive. There’s a learning curve for sure, especially if you’re used to using a mouse and computer keyboard. But as you might notice, it’s designed to actually speed up workflow.

The pads turn the same color as the color of your track, which you can change within Ableton if you want. So for instance, some people like to make their kick drum tracks purple, snares blue, hi hats yellow, etc. This can be a useful way to identify your tracks without even looking at the screen.

Switch over to the mixing mode to adjust levels, and look to the bottom of the device to see your DAW recording function controls. Some people prefer a little more hands-on functions, in which case the Akai APC40 might be a better fit, because it has separate hands-on controls and you don’t have to scroll through menus.

The Launchpad also comes with Novation’s Bass Station plugin, so you can add great bass sounds to any song. Try switching over to the note mode to get an easier-to-play format so you can actually play notes on it. This is a great new feature. I have the old Launchpad S, which doesn’t have this and I needed to get a keyboard just to play chords.

Akai APC40

For some, the mixer aspect of a controller is really important. Focusing on leveling, selecting tracks quickly with a high level of organization, and still being able to use the controller as a controller for drums, notes, and other important MIDI sequencing information is all important.

If you like the idea of something a little more hands-on with a similar learning curve, you might like to try the APC40. It’s got 40 pads, eight sliders, including a master one, buttons for controlling the recording features, and buttons for controlling soloing, arming, and send tracks.

Ableton has a default of two return tracks, meaning you can bus effects to these tracks to save processing power and send multiple tracks to the same effect. It’s a useful option and the APC40 makes it really easy. However, if you have more than two return tracks, you’ll need to cycle through. This is a more advanced option, but it’s there if you need it, which is nice.

The pads feel great, although they’re a little narrow, and personally the Launchpad Pro’s pads feel a little better. But the Akai has some features the Launchpad doesn’t have, like the option to control the click track or tap the tempo. It also has encoder knobs to assign effects to. Like the Launchpad, it comes pre-mapped to Ableton so you don’t have to spend a lot of time configuring everything.

It’s worth noting that these types of controllers, the Launchpad, APC40, and the Push 2, are not always the best option if you’re tracking a lot of real-sounding instruments. They’re better for drums, loops, and individual samples, and often work better for mixing, but in a lot of ways, sometimes a regular keyboard is a better option for you. However, the APC40 is a powerful thing to have, and it has a lot of usefulness for the price, while not being quite as complete as something like the Push 2.

Novation Launchkey 49 MKII

I mentioned the issue of not having a keyboard if you’re relying heavily on real instruments, so I thought it would be appropriate to show you a keyboard, which is like the Launchpad, but geared more towards people who really prefer playing a piano.

The Launchkey 49 has light but sturdy keys, there are 49 of them in fact, which makes playing full piano parts easy and fun. It also has a bank of pads that are taken from the Launchpad, and can be used to do all of the things the Launchpad can. However, the control options are limited, and there are not buttons to duplicate, double, or quantize notes, for instance.

However, it does have InControl buttons which allow you to switch scenes and clips, and it comes with recording DAW controls, as well as some sliders and knobs, all of which feel great. There’s also a pitch and mod wheel, and there’s a post in the back to plug in with USB as well as a sustain pedal.

It’s got a great look, with a teal underbelly and a charcoal black finish. It’s not as small as some of the other desktop controllers like the Push 2, the APC40, or the Launchpad Pro, but it can still fit on most production desks. If you don’t have a production desk, trying picking up a keyboard stand and setting the keyboard off to the side. 

For me, I prefer this controller over the Launchpad Pro because I am already used to using the mouse to select clips and do normal editing functions. I also need a regular keyboard with real keys, and these ones feel great. There aren’t quite as many features on this keyboard than the MPK249, but some people don’t need those, and this one is a lot cheaper anyway.

Plus it still plays just as well. So I would say that for a non-pad oriented keyboard with real keys, this is the best MIDI keyboard for Ableton Live.

Ableton Push 2

Ableton Push 2 is one of the very few controllers actually designed and manufactured by Ableton itself. And who knows Ableton better than Ableton? This is a standalone controller that almost demands you take your hands off the computer.

It has a bright HD screen that allows you to do anything from select sounds, chop samples, warp tracks, and much more. There are high-velocity pads that allow you to either sequence notes or play them live. Here are some other specs you should know about it:

  • Modulation/Pitch Touchstrip
  • Record/Warp/Launch Controls
  • 2 Pedal Outputs
  • USB with Separate Power
  • Endless Encoders (Meaning they scroll all the way around)
  • Aluminum Shell

See the full list of specs here.

So, the great thing about this controller is that every conceivable function you’d normally use in Ableton is accessible on the Push 2. It’s sort of like the Native Instruments Maschine in this regard, but I personally like the application and aesthetic of this controller better. I think the buttons are easy to use, they make sense, and they whole workflow is awesome.

This will take some learning, but if you’re generally familiar with how music software works, then you’ll start to get it quick. If you’re very familiar with Ableton-specific terms, you’ll pick it up easily.

For instance, the grid buttons on the right hand side of the device allow you to quantize accordingly based on all of the standard Ableton rhythms to choose from. It’s super easy to use overall.

Out of the “pad” controllers, this one is by far the best. Why? Because of the screen. In fact, this screen is even simpler than when you normally edit audio in Ableton, and the knobs make it so easy to tweak things.

It’s a great controller and I would totally recommend it if you have the money. If you want a cheaper pad controller, go with the Launchpad Pro.

The only con I see on this pad controller is that it’s still tough to easily play notes. I suppose once you get the hang of it it becomes easier, but for me playing real keys will always make more sense.

My Personal Recommendation

With Ableton, there are unlimited possibilities, but the cool thing about your personal Ableton experience is that it can change based on the controller you use. My Ableton experience is more traditional with the Novation Launchkey, which I own, but I sometimes use my Launchpad S to change things up a bit.

So I’m going to make two recommendations out of these five: First, the Ableton Push 2, because of it’s seamless integration with the software.  Second, the Novation Launchkey 49, because it plays like butter and is really useful for traditional producers.

If you have the disposable income, get both of them. If not, go with the one that won’t break your bank account, as the difference in price is quite significant.

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