10 Best: MIDI Drum Controllers
We pick ten of the best MIDI drum controllers on the market, with models from Native Instruments, Livid, M-Audio, Akai and more all making the cut.
While the past few years have seen a surge in the number of hardware drum machines (the best of which are covered in this handy list), there has been an equal increase in the number of MIDI controllers designed for sketching beats on. Despite these controllers having their roots in Akai’s classic MPC, the most recent developments were arguably kickstarted when Native Instruments introduced the Maschine back in 2009. Its seamless fusion of hardware and software was the solution computer-based beatmaking had been missing, offering the experience of a hardware drum machine for a fraction of the price.
Since then, the market has grown exponentially, with Livid, Ableton, Arturia and even Akai developing their own fusions of software and hardware, and others such as Livid and Keith McMillen developing touch-sensitive devices with a more open approach, letting the user tailor the controller to their own expressive needs. In this list we run down the 10 best options, from portable, affordable options, right through to fully featured units which can take pride of place at the heart of a home studio setup.
One of the most compact controllers in our top ten is Akai’s diminutive LPD8, which places MPC quality drum pads and controls inside an extremely portable package. Featuring eight light-up, velocity sensitive MPC-style pads, the LPD8 lends itself to the live performer or studio musician for whom space is at a premium, allowing for some surprisingly precise and dynamic performances. In addition to the pads themselves, the LPD8 features eight Q-Link knobs that can be assigned to almost any parameter in any software you choose to work with.
The LPD8’s extreme portability and flexibility is further demonstrated by the fact that it is powered from the USB bus from your Mac or PC without the need for cumbersome power adapters or troublesome drivers. The functionality of the controller can extended by making use of the editor software that ships with the unit, allowing you to save up to four presets for instant recall. In addition, program changes can be made mid-performance by using the appropriate function buttons. With the kind of form that slips comfortably inside a backpack with a laptop and room to spare, the LPD8 is ideal for those who like to make beats on the move.
|Power||USB Bus power|
|Controls||8 x velocity sensitive pads, 8 x assignable knobs|
|System Requirements (PC)||Windows XP or Vista, USB Port|
|System Requirements (Mac)||Mac OS X, USB Port|
|Software/Library||LPD8 editor software|
The padKontrol may not be the newest controller on this list, but Korg’s products are generally marked out by their longevity. With an XY pad, roll and flam functions for precise and realistic drum variations, customisable velocity curve, the padKontrol’s 16 fully customisable pads – made possible with the editing software – is surprisingly deep for such an affordable product, which is why it’s been around for several years now.
As well as the pads and XY control, there are two assignable knobs for added convenience and flexibility, and the USB-powered unit features standard MIDI I/O and a foot pedal port for full tactile control. Visual feedback is basic, coming in the form of a simple three digit display and basic LED illumination for the pads, but at the price you can’t expect much more. Mapping the unit is a simple operation with the editing software, but if you prefer you can simply load any of the presets for all of the most popular DAWs on the market as well as the software that the unit ships with. Together with the packaged software, the padKontrol is the perfect solution for someone just getting started in the world of production.
|Power||USB Bus power|
|Controls||16 x velocity and pressure sensitive pads, 6 x Q Link assignable faders, 6 x Q Link assignable knobs|
|System Requirements (PC)||M Windows XP or Windows 7, Intel Core 2 processor or greater, 1GB of RAM with 100 MB free hard disk space|
|System Requirements (Mac)||Mac OS X 10.2 or later|
|Software/Library||Editor/Library software, Superior Drummer, Ultimate Sound Bank, Sampletank II, Reason Adapted, Ableton Live Lite 4, Korg MDEX|
If you’re looking for something a little more basic than the MPC Renaissance, but still want the form factor of the classic MPC, then the MPD26 is worth a look. It may pack less features than the Renaissance, but the MPD26 still retains the familiar look of the classic MPC workstations, including six assignable faders and knobs, and 16 velocity and pressure sensitive pads. The pads have dual functionality when used in conjunction with the time division button and the note repeat function that are also found on the classic MPC machines – something especially useful in programming hi-hat or shaker patterns quickly.
As well as being plug and play over USB, there is standard MIDI I/O so you can incorporate a keyboard controller and an additional sound module if you wish. Further control of the pads is afforded by the addition of MPC-style full level and 16 level velocity staging, allowing for stable and accurate performances, while swing control can be applied to your productions by specifying the exact degree of timing your personalised swing requires. Although the pads don’t feature the backlit technology of more expensive controllers, there is a large display that allows you to keep your eye on parameters as you work. Despite being one of the more affordable options on our list, it will appeal to seasoned MPC users as well as those that are new to beat programming.
|Power||USB, 6V DC|
|Controls||16 x square pads (w/ XY function), 2 x rotary sensors, 9 x touch senstitive, switches|
|Display||Backlit, easy to read screen|
|Connections||USB, MIDI I/O|
|System Requirements (PC)||1.5 GHz Pentium 4 or Celeron compatible CPU or faster (multicore CPU recommended) / 1 GB RAM (2 GB recommended) / Windows 7, Windows Vista or Windows XP|
|System Requirements (Mac)||1.25 GHz G4/G5 or faster (Intel Mac recommended) / 1 GB RAM (2 GB recommended) / Mac OS X 10.4.11 (10.5 or later recommended)|
|Software/Library||Ableton Live Lite, Editor Librarian|
With a name like the QuNeo 3D, and a form that looks like a bespoke video game controller, you’d expect a controller that does things a little differently, and that’s what you get. Originally financed through Kickstarter back in 2012, the controller’s layout follows the classic MPC model with 16 performance pads, a touch strip cross fader, rotary style controls, faders and buttons. If you think the funky exterior is window dressing for a lack of innovation you’d be wrong, as the QuNeo 3D contains some inventive features that are of significant note. Each of the performance pads also doubles as an XY-style control, and this multi-zoned design comes into its own for other applications. For example, when using the QuNeo in a step sequence mode, the backlighting allows for two steps per pad. Every surface on the controller is both pressure sensitive and velocity sensitive, including all of the buttons and rotaries, and the design of the backlit LEDs allows some of the surfaces to double as VU meters for added visual feedback.
The QuNeo comes with scripts for popular platforms such as Serato Scratch Live, Traktor, and Mixxx as well as DAWs such as Reason, Logic and Ableton Live. This controller is the same size as an iPad, making it convenient for travelling with, and is also iOS compatible, with mappings available for both the Beatmaker and Korg iMS-20 apps. With a layout that includes a crossfader and plenty of buttons, as well as the innovative multi zoned pads, the QuNEo is a great all-rounder, and one of the most adaptable controllers on the market. For producers and even DJs who need a lightweight, portable controller with more expression than most others, the QuNeo comes highly recommended.
|Power||USB Bus Power|
|Controls||16 x velocity sensitive pads, 1 x XY pad, 2 x assignable pads|
|Display||Backlit, easy to read screen|
|Connections||USB, MIDI I/O|
|System Requirements (PC)||Windows XP or Windows 7, Intel Core 2 processor or greater, 1GB of RAM with 100 MB free hard disk space|
|System Requirements (Mac)||Intel Core 2 Duo 2.3 GHz or greater, Mac OS 10.5 or later, 100 MB free hard disk space|
Billed as a drum production workstation, the SparkLE from Arturia looks less like an MPC and more like a distant relative of the hugely popular Roland TR-808 drum machine. As opposed to a grid of 16 pads, the SparkLE features eight performance pads located along the bottom of the unit with 16 step sequence buttons directly above, making the SparkLE extremely intuitive to use with the included SparkLE software. The unit’s simplicity is mirrored in the software itself, which can be opened in stand alone mode or within your DAW of choice, making it a versatile addition to any setup. The hardware layout is perfectly represented in the software with only song toggle and swing controls not being accessible directly from the control unit itself.
The drum sounds come from a mixture of digital samples and physical modelling synthesis, with the option of incorporating your own drum samples if you wish. The workflow of the SparkLE is also fast and gratifying, with handy XY pad making for a great performance feature to manipulate the software’s effects. The XY pad manipulations can also be recorded as part of your pattern and there is even a tune mode that allows you to play melodic material using the step sequence buttons. However, as befits the SparkLE’s modest price point, it does lack a screen, meaning you will need to use your monitor for feedback, but with an unfussy layout and easy operation, the SparkLE is the ideal option for beginners.
|Power||USB Bus Power|
|Controls||1 x XY pad, 8 x pressure and velocity sensitive pads, 16 x step sequencer keys, 3 x assignable knobs, 1 x jog wheel|
|System Requirements (PC)||PC/Windows: 4 GB RAM; 2 GHz CPU (multiple core required)|
|System Requirements (Mac)||Mac (Intel only) : 4 GB RAM; 2 GHz CPU (multiple core required)|
An update of the classic Trigger Finger drum MIDI controller, the Trigger Finger Pro’s brushed aluminium exterior looks like the perfect marriage of classic MPC drum pads with 808 style step sequencing. It features everything that you need from a modern beat controller, including 16 RGB backlit pads with velocity and pressure sensitivity, assignable knobs and faders, a large display screen, and a built-in 64 step sequencer. M-Audio have also developed the Arsenal software to help manage the preset library and mapping templates, working stand alone or as a plug-in. The onboard step sequencer also works away from your computer and with the MIDI connections available on this unit; you can also sequence external synths and drum machines.
This USB powered controller also comes with a generous amount of added samples and software in the form of the AIR drum pack, Hybrid 3 synth and extensive samples. Finding itself in direct competition with more expensive hardware solutions such as the Maschine and the Push, it’s unsurprising that this new version is quite a leap in terms of both aesthetic and function. Having said that, it isn’t quite as high end as those units, but those looking for an affordable solution that offers a similar experience are advised to investigate the Trigger Finger Pro.
|Power||USB Bus power/6V DC|
|Controls||16 x pads, 4 x knobs, 4 x faders, 1 x push encoder, soft button|
|Display||Large digital display|
|Connections||USB MIDI Out|
|System Requirements (PC)||Core Duo or faster, 2 GB RAM, Windows 7 or higher, Available USB Port, Storage: Software install: 500 MB; Arsenal patches: 1GB per 1000 patches; Sound content: 8GB|
|System Requirements (Mac)||Core Duo or faster, 2 GB RAM, Mac OSX 10.7.5 or higher, Available USB Port, Storage: Software install: 500 MB; Arsenal patches: 1GB per 1000 patches; Sound content: 8GB|
|Software/Library||Arsenal, Prime Loops, Air Drums, Hybrid 3, Toolroom|
This dynamic controller comes from Livid, the bespoke MIDI controller brand that is based in Austin, Texas, who have been impressing with their flexible controllers for some years now. The Base II is the closest they have to a dedicated drum controller, though in reality its flexible and open layout would make it just as appropriate for sample triggering. The main control surface comes in the form of 32 pressure sensitive pads including backlit RGB visual feedback, nine touch strip faders (which are also note and velocity sensitive), eight momentary touch buttons and eight function buttons. The backlit RGB technology is reflected in the touch faders and buttons, not only the performance pads, making for good continuity throughout the entire unit. With an sturdy chassis, and dimensions and weight that allow it to be easily carried around in a bag next to your laptop, the Livid Base II offers a serious alternative for users that are in need of a controller that isn’t designed for any one specific DAW or software package.
One key advantage of the Base II is that it has no moving parts, meaning that there are no faders to replace or encoders and knobs to fall off, which give it an advantage in the durability stakes. As a USB powered MIDI controller, the Base II will also map to any software that supports MIDI learn, including Ableton Live, FL Studio, Bitwig and Traktor, as well as other software such as pro visual mixing packages like Arkaos Grand VJ and VDMX. The hardware also comes with an editor that allows you to customise your setup or even run scripts for well known platforms. As an updated version of the original Base controller, improvements in the button design, chassis and the addition of more convenient bank saving and MIDI message updating make this controller ideal for those who need a platform to suit very specific needs.
|Power||USB Bus power/6V DC|
|Controls||32 x pressure sensitive performance pads, 9 x touch strip faders, 8 x buttons, 8 function buttons (all RGB backlit)|
|Display||2 digit digital display|
|System Requirements (PC)||5 GB free disk space required. Minimum 1280 x 768 pixel screen resolution. Minimum 2 GB RAM, 8 GB recommended. Multicore CPU. Windows 7 or later. , 64-bit CPU Linux Ubuntu 12.04 or later, 64-bit CPU|
|System Requirements (Mac)||5 GB free disk space required. Minimum 1280 x 768 pixel screen resolution. Minimum 2 GB RAM, 8 GB recommended. Multicore CPU.Mac OS X 10.7 or later, 64-bit CPU|
With 64 velocity and pressure sensitive pads, and simple navigation buttons and knobs, this hardware controller for the ever popular Ableton digital audio workstation is arguably the tightest integration of hardware and software on the market, with the exception of perhaps the Native Instruments Maschine. Designed specifically for Ableton by Akai Professional – the manufacturers of the famed MPC hardware, the quality of the Push is perhaps the highest of all the units tested.
Featuring a classic step sequencer mode for fast pattern creation or real time recording, the multi-coloured backlit pads offer clear visual feedback as well as being ideal for sketching out beats on the fly. In addition, the hardware also features a revolutionary way of playing melodies and harmonies in any key or mode, while the pads can also be used to launching clips in the traditional manner. Unlike some grid style hardware which only allow the use of one mode at a time, the Push’s pads can be split into sections, allowing you to use it as a drum controller and play basslines or melodies at the same time. The hardware itself is designed to be as mobile as possible and it will fit into a backpack with your laptop, and is powered through the USB bus as well as featuring two assignable footswitch inputs for further convenience and flexibility. If you’re a seasoned Ableton user, there’s no better option than the Push.
|Power||USB Bus power/9V AC|
|Controls||64 x velocity and pressure sensitive pads, 11 x rotary encoders, 1 x touch strip|
|Display||4 line/72 character LCD|
|Connections||USB, 2 x footswitch ports|
|System Requirements (PC)||PC with Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7 or Windows 8; Multicore processor; 2 GB RAM; 1024×768 display|
|System Requirements (Mac)||Intel® Mac with Mac OS X 10.5 or later (6GB free disk space), DVD drive|
|Software/Library||Live 9 Intro|
Akai’s MPC series of workstations have attained a legendary status in music production circles, with its 16 pad layout becoming the standard performance setup for almost all modern drum controllers since it first hit the streets in 1988. As times have changed, so has the MPC’s reliance on an internal memory source, and the MPC Renaissance combines the classic hardware design with MPC software for your Mac or PC. Along with the highly responsive, multi-coloured backlit pads, there are 16 knobs, comprehensive transport controls, a large display and clearly labelled navigation controls, while there is also the possibility of sequencing 64 tracks directly from the control hardware.
Unlike many MIDI drum controllers, the MPC Renaissance includes a four-channel USB audio interface with a dual port USB hub featuring dual XLR/1/4” TRS combination inputs and an input specifically designed for a turntable. For those who might want to use the Renaissance as part of a wider setup, the versatile connection possibilities are complemented by a pair of MIDI inputs and four MIDI outputs. Classic MPC users will be glad to hear that the famous swing, note repeat and transport controls are all present on the new machine, along with a mode that simulates the sound of older MPC units such as the MPC60.
|Controls||16 x Backlit pads, 16 endless rotary knobs|
|Display||360×96 dot graphic LCD|
|Connections||Built-in sound card featuring 2 x MIDI in, 5 x MIDI out, 2 x 1/4″ footswitches, S/pdif out, 4 x 1/4″ TRS audio out, 2 x dual XLR/1/4″ in, 2 x phono in, 1 x 6.35mm headphone out, 1 x 2.5mm headphone out|
|System Requirements (PC)||2 GHz Pentium® 4 or Celeron® compatible CPU or faster (multicore CPU recommended) 2 GB RAM (4 GB recommended) Windows 7 (32 or 64-bit) DVD-ROM drive|
|System Requirements (Mac)||2 GB RAM (4 GB recommended) Mac OS X 10.6 or later DVD-ROM drive|
|Software/Library||MPC Renaissance software 128 sequences, 128 tracks per sequence, 960 pulses per 1/4 note, 4 x effects|
Since its release in 2009, the Native Instruments Maschine has become ubiquitous thanks to its high end hardware and professional integration with its accompanying software, becoming the go to solution for many wanting to make beats. Recent years have seen the software becoming closer to a standalone DAW in its own right, and the flagship Maschine Studio is the ultimate tool for those wanting to get the most out of Native Instruments’ rich software solutions. The impressive hardware includes 16 RGB coloured pads, a jog wheel, plenty of soft button controls and knobs, and two large colour displays that help you get full control over everything from waveforms, patterns, scenes, mixer levels and metering.
The Maschine software itself boasts a rock solid pattern based sequencer, advanced drum synthesis, high performance sampler as well as a full compliment of effects and instruments, as well as an 8GB library. As with most sequencers of this type, it is possible to finish productions in stand alone mode or by opening the Maschine software in your DAW of choice. Being a USB MIDI controller, it’s fully possible to map the controls of this hardware to any software you like, but if you are looking for a complete audio production solution, then not many come as comprehensive as Native Instruments Maschine, which was originally made to be a beat production tool. It’s perhaps this that offers the highest recommendation possible.
|Power||15V 1.2A USB|
|Controls||16 x high quality multi-color pads, 1 x jog wheel, 8 x endless rotary knobs, 58 buttons, 1 x volume knobs|
|Display||2 x large hi-res colour displays (480×272 pixels)|
|Connections||USB 2.0/3.0, 1 x MIDI in, 3 x MIDI out, 2 x footswitch inputs|
|System Requirements (PC)||Windows 7 or Windows 8 (latest Service Pack, 32/64-bit), Intel Core 2 Duo or AMD Athlon 64 X2, 2 GB RAM (4 GB recommended)|
|System Requirements (Mac)||Mac OS X 10.7, 10.8 or 10.9 (latest update), Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 GB RAM (4 GB recommended)|