What’s the Best MIDI Controller for Ableton Live?

MIDI controllers are the electronic instruments that have emerged to allow musicians to record MIDI data into DAWs, or Digital Audio Workstations. However, not all MIDI controllers are created equally, and not all DAWs are manufactured identically.

Ableton Live is one of the major DAW software options available for musicians and producers. First released in the early 2000s, Ableton seeks to provide users not only with a home production suite, but also a software for live performances. Designed with a user-friendly interface, Ableton allows for a seamless workflow that boasts a balance of versatility and efficiency. It is this balance that allows users to not only produce professional-quality compositions, but to also remix and reorganize in a live setting.

Below, please take a look at a variety of MIDI controllers that work with the Ableton Live software, as we will be discussing many of these instruments throughout this article today.

Akai MPK249Akai MPK249
arturia-keylab-49Arturia KeyLab 49 MKII
roland-a88Roland A-88
Novation Launchkey 61 MK3
Roland A49

Ableton’s Work Flow

What separates Ableton from other DAWs is its design around live performance, making it the perfect option for DJs. (Hence, the name Ableton LIVE).  From the very first time you open up the software, you will be introduced to the “Session View” of Ableton—a vertically laid-out visualization of your project. If you’re accustomed to other DAWs, this may be a jarring layout at first, since all other DAWs offer a horizontally organized presentation, with time representing the x-axis.

Ableton is also able to switch to this traditional DAW presentation, called the “Arrangement View.” However, once you get more comfortable with Ableton Live and its options for efficient editing, you will find yourself working within the “Session View” more often than you might originally think.

It’s important to know Abelton’s strengths in terms of recording before considering a MIDI controller. Abelton is designed mostly around MIDI input and MIDI editing (this is the software favored by most live DJs, so this makes sense). There are, of course, many options for audio recording, allowing for full production projects, but the workflow is built around the MIDI editing capabilities. Understanding how the MIDI editing functions are mapped within the software can help us make informed decisions about the best MIDI controller for Ableton.

Before we move forward, we encourage you to check out some of the best-selling MIDI controllers online, and then see how well they compare to the MIDI keyboards we discuss in a bit more depth later in this article.

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

Noteworthy Features

The Session View offers different clips that allow for MIDI input or Audio input. Within one of these MIDI columns, you tell the software the name of the MIDI device you’re using, drop in one of Ableton’s instruments, and you can start producing music. It’s very simple to boot up the software and begin note input quickly, which is great.

The Audio input works in very much the same way, except you don’t have to drag a virtual instrument from inside Ableton. You simply select your input device (whatever your audio interface is) and record. One of the great features of Ableton is that it can automatically take your audio information and time stretch it to fit the tempo of the project you’re working in. This allows for quick and seamless editing, especially in a live setting.

Some features added to Ableton Live 9 allow for greater versatility and quicker editing, which are essential characteristics in a live-editing environment. Being able to extract MIDI information from audio loops is one of the newest features that greatly enhances the editing environment of Ableton. If you have a drum loop that you want to edit, you can tell Ableton to analyze the audio data, transform it into MIDI data, and immediately begin editing it via MIDI functions.

This can also be done with a melodic loop, such as a monophonic piano line—simply click the option to “Convert Melody to New MIDI track,” and Ableton will analyze the pitch and rhythm of the audio and create a MIDI track with the correct pitch, rhythmic values, and velocity of every note, thus allowing for MIDI editing on the track.

Lastly, a similar feature can be applied to chord loops, such as strumming guitar—select “Convert Harmony to New MIDI Track” and Ableton will create a region with the correct stacked pitches, velocities, and rhythms, thus allowing you to go in and edit the MIDI data however you like.

MIDI Controllers

There is a growing variety of MIDI controllers on the market, each one offering something different or a variation of common features. Some controllers are primarily drum pads, while others simulate a digital piano. Everybody is different and will desire different features and editing capabilities in a MIDI controller. Different styles and genres will have different needs in terms of controller hardware. Here is a quick list of questions you should ask before purchasing a MIDI controller:

  1. What is your budget?
  2. How many keys do you need (if any)?
  3. Do you need drum pads?
  4. Does it need to be portable?
  5. Do you want many editing features at your fingertips?

Determining your budget is the essential first step in any purchase you make. MIDI Controllers can be priced as low as $150 or as high as $2000, so there is a great deal of flexibility in making a budget. Figure out what price is out of your range and narrow your search from there.

Some MIDI controllers are focused primarily on pads while others are focused on keys. Some of this comes down to personal preference and style, but it’s important to note that keys generally do a poor job of inputting velocity-accurate drums, and pads do a poor job of allowing for melodic or harmonic construction.

Figuring out what your needs are is essential. Some producers prefer to have controller that doubles as a full-sized digital piano. If you’re not entirely sure what is better for you, I would suggest seeking out a controller that offers both.

Portability is another important factor in selecting a MIDI controller. When it comes to finding the best controller for Ableton, portability is often better because it is a software geared towards the live performance, so many manufacturers of controllers for Ableton will emphasize that selling point.

If you’re an Ableton user, you will probably want to look at controllers that come with a variety of editing features that can be mapped to your controller. Ableton is very versatile and designed with live mixing and producing in mind, so controllers that best allow for seamless producing will work best.

Top Five Picks for Ableton Live

Ableton Push: It comes as no surprise that the best MIDI controller for Ableton is produced and manufactured by Ableton itself. This is an instrument that is designed with Ableton Live at its core. You can navigate the controller’s many pads, knobs, buttons, and sliders seamlessly, and the built-in screen allows you to navigate all of Ableton’s menus, VSTs, and other editing options.

This means you can produce, mix, and remix without even looking at your computer screen. This controller feels and functions as an instrumental extension of the Ableton software, which is the greatest compliment I can give to a MIDI controller. It is important to note that the Ableton Push does not contain any keys, so if that is a feature that is important to you, this may not be the controller for you.

M-Audio Oxygen MKIV: If keys are essential to the MIDI controller you use, the M-Audio Oxygen MKIV might be the perfect choice for you. Although not designed with Ableton specifically in mind, the Oxygen MKIV still allows for great control over your Ableton projects. It also contains some pads, so you can still utilize some advanced editing capabilities that you won’t get if you go with a controller that offers only keys.

AKAI APC40: This is another controller that doesn’t offer keys, but the versatility of the instrument is perfect for live performances. This instrument will be a delightful addition to your production setup whether you’re a live performer or strictly a studio producer. Different faders, knobs, and crossfader functions allow for great editing capabilities that are seamless and user-friendly.

AKAI APC Mini: Another controller from AKA, the APC Mini offers an 8×8 grid of buttons that, although not velocity-sensitive, still offer a great amount of editing control over your Ableton projects. This is another instrument designed with Ableton in mind, so it is wonderfully easy and responsive with the software. You can also get the APC Key 25 if you want a very similar controller that contains keys as well.

Novation Launchpad Pro: This controller from Novation is very similar to the Ableton Push, but it’s a bet smaller—which might be exactly what you need if you want something a bit more portable. It offers many of the same functions, although it doesn’t come with a screen to navigate Ableton menus.

Ableton is a great, versatile software that is best appreciated in a live setting (although, its studio composition and production offers whatever you need from a DAW as well). Finding the right MIDI controller depend on your specific needs, style, and studio setup.   

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