The best controllers to buy in 2021: 11 best MIDI controllers for music production

Your mouse and keyboard are good for firing up a DAW, now these tools let you control it.

MIDI controllers for music production 2021

If you stop to think about it, your typical keyboard and mouse setup doesn’t afford you any rotary dials to work with – not one. So, no matter how impressive the plug-in library you’ve amassed, you’re still going to be limited to controlling them with awkward mouse swipes, clicks and key pushes. This can easily result in missed opportunities of capturing a moment of spontaneous creativity.

Physical controls – faders, knobs, pads and everything in-between – help bring a certain immediacy to your production, essentially extending your physical self into the music-making process. And production controllers are, in essence, devices coated with things you can touch to affect the sound in your computer. Sounding rad already?

They can also save you money if you’ve already got the software to work with. For example, there are plenty of emulations of hardware synths and other outboard gear that will cost you a fraction of what their real-life counterparts would.

In this list, we’ll explore the best MIDI production controllers you can buy in 2021, from modest portable keyboards to expressive touch surfaces and others in-between. Bear in mind, that while some of these might seem designed for a particular DAW, they will usually be user-assignable too. Let’s dive in.

The 11 best production controllers to buy in 2021 at a glance:

  • Akai APC MKII
  • Novation Launch Control XL
  • Novation Launchpad Pro MK3
  • Behringer USB Controller X-Touch
  • Monogram Creative Console
  • Sensel Morph
  • PreSonus Atom
  • Akai MPK Mini MK3
  • Ableton Push 2
  • Studiologic Mixface
  • Expressive E Touché

Akai APC40 MKII

Akai APC MKII

The AKAI APC40 MKII is a reliable controller to keep on your desk, particularly if you plan to be working on Ableton Live. It offers nine faders, a five-by-eight clip launch matrix and plenty of knobs that correspond to what you’ll see onscreen.

Visual organisation features also let you colour code your clips with RGB lighting and change the scale of the grid. Plus, you’ll also get a free copy of Ableton Live Lite, two virtual synths, a collection of Puremagnetik effects and 5GB of samples and loops to get started.

In our review, we said: “There’s some clever revision going on with how Akai has approached the design of certain buttons. Buttons you really don’t want to accidentally trigger in the heat of a gig are recessed, while all other rubberised pads stand proud of the unit for easy access.”

Price: £185 / $299
Type: DAW Controller
Controls: 40 x pads, 8 x channel faders, 1 x master fader
Connectivity: USB Type-B (Bus powered)
Other Features: Includes Ableton Live Lite, Hybrid 3 by AIR, SONiVOX Twist, and more

Novation Launch Control XL

Novation Launch Control XL

The layout of the Novation Launch Control XL takes after the channel strips in Session View on Ableton Live, but it could actually serve to fill a crucial gap as your track controls for  Arrangement View.

Each of its eight channel strips consists of a fader, record arm button, as well as knobs for pan and A and B sends. These are all user-assignable, meaning you can repurpose each control to adjust a different parameter. There’re also user templates which let you save your assignments for working across multiple DAWs and devices.

Price: £115 / $159
Type: DAW Controller
Controls: 8 x faders, 24 x rotary knobs
Connectivity: USB Type-B (Bus powered)

Novation Launchpad Pro MK3

Novation Launchpad Pro MK3

The Launchpad Pro MK3 is a grid controller with talents suited for the studio and live. It features an eight-by-eight matrix of RGB backlit pads, surrounded by a row of utility buttons.

Novation also markets this as a companion to the Launch Control XL for a complete setup that handles both clip launching and channel strip manipulation. But if you do go standalone, there are also thoughtful features such as Volume mode, which lets you adjust your gain on the Launchpad Pro MK3 itself. What’s more, there’s a very fun onboard sequencer, Chord mode, and full compatibility with Logic’s Live Loops.

In our review, we said: “If you want to send MIDI notes and control messages to synths or drum machines, or VJ software, and you like the idea of a feature-loaded step sequencer, this is ideal for you.”

Price: £205 / $350
Type: Grid MIDI controller
Controls: 64 x pads, 32 x utility buttons
Connectivity: USB Type-C (Bus powered)
Other features: 32-step sequencer

Behringer USB controller X-Touch Mini

Behringer USB X-Touch Mini

Behringer’s X-Touch Mini is a minuscule controller that takes up a very small footprint in your setup – or it can be taken with you on the go. Its low-cost also makes it an excellent choice for beginners just dipping their toes into the world of MIDI manipulation.

The X-Touch Mini features eight rotary knobs, 16 backlit buttons, and a single slider. Along with MIDI compatibility, the X-Touch Mini is also designed to talk with devices using the Mackie Control Protocol.

Price: £38 / $69
Type: Compact MIDI controller
Controls: 8 x rotary knobs, 16 x buttons, 1 x fader
Connectivity: USB (Bus powered)
Other features: Compatible with Mackie Control Protocol

Monogram Creative Console

Monogram Creative Console

If you have a pretty good idea of the kinds of control you want on your setup – or perhaps are interested in experimenting with different layouts, then the modular Monogram Creative Console could be right up your alley. This customisable controller system boasts native compatibility with a plethora of different DAWs, and even other software such as Photoshop, Unreal SDK and more.

Excluding the Core module – which is essentially the “hub” in a setup – there are four different types of modules to choose from. The Knob, Slider and Keys modules respectively offer three of its namesake controls. But there’s also the Orbiter module, which consists of a pressure sensitive disc and endless ring dial.

The Modules come in three packages: Traveler, Studio and Master. You can also buy individual modules to mix and match your own setup.

Price: $399 (Traveler Console)
Type: Mini Modular MIDI Controller
Modules: 1 x Core, 1 x Dial, 1 x Slider, 1 x Essential Keys
Controls: 3 x faders, 3x rotary knobs, 3 x buttons
Connectivity: USB Type-C (Bus powered)
Other features: Monogram Creator App

Sensel Morph

Sensel Morph

The Sensel Morph proposes that, rather than having various different controllers for different purposes, a single pressure-sensitive tablet with swappable overlays can save you space, time and money dealing with another device.

There are drum pad, keyboard and music production overlays, as well as one that mimics the Buchla Thunder, an esoteric tactile control surface conceived in the late 80s. The Sensel Morph also features MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE) compatibility, which is quickly becoming a standard on many DAWs and virtual instruments. This can really add dynamism to both your music-making and mixing.

In our review, we said: “It has particular appeal for anyone who is mobile, as it could replace a number of hardware controller devices in a single swipe, and being particularly light will make it perfect to throw in the laptop bag, without the need for bulky power supplies.”

Price: £199 / $249 (Control surface only)
Type: Surface MIDI controller w/ swappable overlays
Controls: 20,000 pressure sensors
Connectivity: microUSB, Bluetooth LE

PreSonus Atom

The PreSonus Atom’s 16 full-sized pads – both velocity- and pressure-sensitive – make it well-suited for beat production. Being a PreSonus controller, you can expect the Atom to offer deep integration with Studio One, but it also plays well with other DAWs, requiring just a bit of setting up.

Beyond the matrix of pads, there are four endless rotaries and 10 buttons on both sides for a variety of options, ranging from accessing different banks to switching on Note Repeat and Full Level modes. The other controls are defaulted to navigating your DAW and controlling your transport, but can also be user-assigned.

In our review, we said: “Atom is a compact pad controller that is not only designed to control the obvious – beat production and performance is clearly a target market – but also the not so obvious. The unit features a basic one-octave keyboard configuration and can also control many DAW options, with (perhaps unsurprisingly) PreSonus’ own Studio One DAW being the tightest of integrations.”

Price: £99 / $150
Type: Grid MIDI Controller
Controls: 16 x pads, 4 x rotary knobs, 20 x utility controls
Connectivity: USB Type-B (Bus powered)

Akai MPK Mini MK 3

Akai MPK Mini MK3

Being one of the bestselling portable keyboard controllers out on the market, Akai’s MPK Mini needs no introduction. MK3, which launched last year, keeps the same features from previous incarnations, but significantly overhauls the keyboard, trigger pads and control knobs.

The two-octave keyboard is designed to be more responsive than its predecessors, while the eight backlit drum pads are drawn directly from Akai’s flagship MPC hardware. The eight knobs have also been swapped for endless rotaries, meaning they’ll line up with DAW and plug-in controls. Onboard, there’s also an arpeggiator, full level and note repeat modes, various quantization options and more.

In our review, we said: “The market is awash with compact controllers […] so there’s a lot of choice for those looking for such a solution. This latest incarnation of Akai’s MPK Mini ranks among the best of the bunch though, thanks to its high-quality pads, continuous rotary encoders and responsive keyboard.”

Price: £68 / $119
Type: Compact Keyboard MIDI Controller
Controls: 25-note keyboard, 8 x pads, 8 x rotary knobs
Connectivity: USB Type-B (Bus powered)
Other features: Onboard arpeggiator

Ableton Push 2

Ableton Push 2

There’s no contest when it comes to the best controller for Ableton Live: it’s Push. Banking on its deep integration with Live, the Push 2 aims to take you away from the computer and immerse you in the music-making experience. This means providing access to most of the DAWs functions directly on Push 2 itself , which Ableton has, for the most part, achieved.

In our review, we said: “This is a whole new, enjoyable experience and it’s something that we are 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.”

Price: £459 / $779 (Bundled with Live Intro)
Type: Ableton Live Controller
Controls: 64 x pads, 8 x rotary knobs, 1 x touch strip
Connectivity: USB Type-B
Power: 12v power supply

Studiologic SL Mixface

Studiologic Mixface

This compact controller brings a degree of control to your DAW and virtual instruments that always feels available when you need it. That’s in part due to the single button push to flit between DAW and MIDI Controller modes.

The SL Mixface’s controls include eight knobs, nine sliders, eight buttons, as well as transport controls and more. As well as being able to connect it via USB, it also includes Bluetooth for wireless operation.

This controller also features some sensible design features for integrating into your setup. A flip-out kickstand allows it to be positioned at a comfortable angle, and magnets on its underside allow you to plant it onto your master keyboard.

In our review, we said: “The ability to control certain software instruments in real time to provide layers of expression and interest is a very tempting prospect, especially if you’re using packages that really take advantage of this sort of technology.”

Price: £128 / $200
Type: DAW Controller
Controls: 8 x channel faders, 1 x master fader, 8 x rotary knobs, 1 x navigation knob
Connectivity: USB Type-A, USB Type Micro-B
Power: Bus powered, 3x AAA batteries

Expressive E Touché

Expressive E Touche

The Touché is a unique touch surface controller which you’re meant to rest your palm on to depress and lean it to its sides. This registers MIDI data which can be sent out to a DAW, virtual instrument or hardware instrument.

Programming the Touché happens through its companion Lié plug-in, which in itself is a software instrument, featuring some great sounds from UVI.

It’s quite a specific piece of kit and could inspire some interesting music-making. For example, you could operate it in tandem with a hardware synth, or even as a velocity controller for virtual orchestral instruments.

In our review, we said: “This device will really thrive in the live environment. It’s classy, easy to use (once you’ve got your head around it) and is a true ‘set and forget’-style device, until you need it to do something different, at which point, the included software is helpful.”

Price: £288 / $249
Type: Multidimensional MIDI Controller
Controls: 4 independent shifting parameters, control plat
Connectivity: USB (bus powered)
Other features: 200 factory sounds

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