My evolution of the midi controllers in my home studio from 2013 to March 2020. This post is mainly about why I bought the gear I did (might have sold it/bought again, sold and bought again, but hung onto it, ultimately).
First, let’s start with my NI collection:
Native Instruments Maschine Studio
Bought initially for the color screens, as I had Maschine MK1 since late 2009 and loved it. These days, it’s used more as a control surface for Reaper (with tons of custom midi-mapping that I put months of work into). I sold my first Maschine Studios… and bought two more (a black and white one) in recent years, both for only $200 each. They’re totally worth it, for both Maschine, and as a MIDI control surface for Reaper. Bonus– it’s a killer controller for Ableton Live. So is the Maschine MK2, and Maschine JAM.
Native Instruments Maschine MK3
Bought in 2017. The color screens of the Maschine Studio, but without a power supply needed. HELL YES. Built-in audio interface? HELL YES. 4-way click-encoder that can rotate and also function as a joystick? HELL YES. Customizable MIDI maps, like all other Maschines? Hell yes. It goes everywhere I go. My favorite MIDI controller. The only thing that sucks about it is the Ableton Live integration is nowhere near as good as the MK2 or JAM. But besides that, it’s phenomenal.
Native Instruments Maschine JAM
Initially I dismissed it. Now I realize just how awesome it is. It is a fantastic addition to any Maschine, because of the step sequencing, pattern and scene playback (a-la Ableton)… and it still is a customizable MIDI controller, just like all other Maschines. And those glorious smart strips especially when performing in “Note” mode… my god, that’s fun. Only $300 new and comes with the full Maschine software? HELL YEAH. Get yourself a JAM and a used MK2 for $140, and you have the full Maschine thing for only $440. Worth it, entirely.
Native Instruments Maschine MK2
Came out the same time as the Maschine Studio. Full-color pads, and tactile “click” function buttons, as well as an upgraded click-encoder. Fantastic for Ableton Live (pre-Push 1). Completely customizable, MIDI-wise… (again, for me with Reaper). I own two black ones, and a white one. All bought used for only $140 each (all with software license transfers). Will never part with these. A perfect 4×4 drum pad controller, too. PERFECT… blows away anything Akai. No contest.
Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S25 MK1
The NI Komplete MK2 keyboards are a tad overpriced. I bought a used S25 MK1 for only $130. I bought another one for the same price a year later. A fantastic addition to the home studio, especially with the easy preset-browsing with the Komplete Kontrol plugin. Do you need the MK2 series? Not exactly if you have a Maschine Studio or Maschine MK3… any plugins that are NKS-compatible (such as Arturia’s Analog Lab 4, or V-Collection 7) will show up in your Maschine browser… even if you don’t own a Komplete Kontrol keyboard. Using Maschine as a plugin inside your favorite DAW, and using its built-in browser (even if you don’t need the pads for anything)…. win. Win. One downside? Needs a power supply, in addition to the USB cable. Not a deal-breaker.
Novation Launch Control XL
Still a fantastic MIDI controller for plugins. 24 knobs, 8 sliders, 16 assignable buttons. 8 user presets. Price not bad.
Novation Launch Control (original)
16 knobs. 8 assignable buttons. 8 user presets. TINY and usable. And usually affordable, used. I own two.
If I had a complaint about both, it would be that the buttons can only be assigned as a CC# or Midi Note… and ONLY as Toggle or Momentary (Gate). There is no “Trigger” mode (like in the Native Instruments MIDI assignments). I prefer Trigger. Button does only one thing when you press it (and release it). If Novation could release an update to the Launch Control editors and ADD that functionality, that would be incredibly awesome.
Originally something I HATED… bought new for $200 in 2010… again in 2019. Bought two for $40 each. Since Automap is less glitchy than ten years ago, and the free Automap Client is now Automap Pro (something you used to have to pay for)… it’s very, very nice. I’m not a huge fan of the encoders, but in general, this is a sincerely dope controller, and great for the price. If you don’t mind the Automap (and its initial bad reputation). If I had one complaint… I don’t really dig the diamond layout of the encoders. Prefer horizontal layout (the Nocturn 25 and Nocturn 49 keyboards have that).
Novation Launchpad Pro (MK2)
I initially dismissed this, too….. but then realized it could be used a step-sequencer with Ableton (using the free Launchpad Pro 95 script). Cool. And then Note/Scale mode. Sweet. Velocity-sensitive pads. User mode (not very usable, as no LED feedback)… but all those insanely useful dedicated buttons (that the Launchpad X which came out four years later) does NOT have…. and it can be used to control Bitwig and Reaper (using the DrivenByMoss script), in addition to Ableton Live. AND it doesn’t need a computer, to play desktop synths (or hardware synths without keys). Sweeeet. I’ll never sell mine.
Launchpad Mini MK3 / Launchpad X / Launchpad Pro MK3
Yeah, I have four different Launchpads! They each have their strengths and weaknesses. Bottom line? They’re all fun. Initially designed as an alternative to the Akai APC40 MK1, they quickly took on a life of their own in late 2019, and early 2020 when the MK3 lineup introduced custom MIDI maps. How useful did the Launchpads become (for users of DAWs in addition to Ableton)? In a word, very.
I immediately bought the Launchpad Mini MK3 (left) and Launchpad X (right) upon release. The Mini attracted me because of the RGB pads (as I always loved the Launchpad Mini, but hated the basic color scheme), and it also offered three custom MIDI modes. But, no velocity-sensitivity for the pads (no big deal). Its main strength is that it’s insanely portable and makes for a great clip and scene trigger pad, with Ableton (and Reaper, using Playtime). The Launchpad X on the other hand… velocity-sensitive pads, four custom MIDI maps… more dedicated controls for Ableton (sadly, no play/stop, like on Launchpad Pro MK3), and the Note mode, which can be used with anything (not just Ableton). The original Launchpad Pro and Launchpad X offer this universal functionality, which I absolutely love. It’s a lot of fun coming up with melodies when every pad is in a certain scale or key. Just wonderfully useful. A lot of people think, why bother buying a Launchpad X when the Launchpad Pro MK3 is out? Well, first… the price. The Launchpad X is $150 cheaper. And it has a lot of great features… and keep in mind, even if you bought both… you could use the Launchpad X as an additional 8×8 Session grid for Ableton… for 64 clips… without having to switch to Session View from Launchpad Pro MK3. Or, keep one of the Launchpads in Session View, and the other for live play (finger drumming or melodic instruments)… the options are truly endless.
Why the Launchpad Pro MK3? The eight custom MIDI maps. The internal step-sequencer with the savable projects/Sessions and “Print To Clip” (sends it right to Ableton). Chords mode. The up/down arrows (for navigating through later Scenes in Session View) are now located in a better place. It’s way thinner than the original Launchpad Pro. About the same thickness and size as the Launchpad X.
If I had any cons:
- the SHIFT button should have been at the bottom, for one-handed operation (for Undo/Redo, Click On/Off), etc.
- There should be a way to disable playback/stop of the internal Sequencer, when syncing to Ableton. This is an absolute must.
- The CLEAR button deletes entire clips in Ableton… not notes, like the original Launchpad Pro. They need to fix this in the near future.
Still love this, AND my Launchpad X. One can never own too many Launchpads.
Novation SL MKIII (61-key)
This is my favorite MIDI keyboard controller, ever. I sold my white Arturia Keylab 49 MK2 in favor of this board. Why? The 8 Tracks / Templates that can independently be assigned to any MIDI channel on the fly. The 16 velocity-sensitive drum pads (also assignable to any MIDI controller message). The assignable Zones. The 16 assignable buttons above the 8 assignable faders. The 2 banks of 8 assignable encoders above the screens. The color screens. Keys with aftertouch. The internal step-sequencer and the savable Sessions / Templates. Scale modes, the Arpeggiator. It needs some additional firmware upgrades, as some great functionality could still be added to make this thing AMAZING…. but my god, do I love it. It ticks all the boxes. It’s the main midi keyboard I practice on, and write with. I also bought an SL MKIII, 49-key when it was on sale for only $499. And yes, I’m still paying them off with 12-month payments (scored my SL61 for $599).
Novation Launchkey Mini MK3
I hated the other Launchkey Minis. One broke on me the first day (brand new). Another arrived flaky, after buying used. Took a chance on the Mini MK3, with its different design, and deeper Ableton integration (and those awesome velocity-sensitive and customizable pads). And the dope arpeggiator with Deviate / Mutate.
The most portable (and most powerful) keyboard controller I own. Lighter and thinner than the Minilab MK2 by Arturia… and just… lovely. With Ableton, it’s an absolute winner. With Reaper, the same. See the video at the bottom for awesomeness. If I had any cons: the arpeggiator is clunky because you have to go into different modes to change things, and the knobs are a little bit too annoying to use. Other than that, it’s dope. And yes, it can be used standalone, without a computer (see the video). 🙂
Behringer X-Touch Mini
The most handy midi controller out there. I got all of mine for $40 to $60 each. They now sell for $80 each. Still worth it.
LED rings! 8 endless click-encoders and a fader (2 banks!). 16 assignable buttons (2 banks!). Great feel and look. Fairly easy to program, using the X-Touch Editor (though it can be glitchy at times). Fantastic bang for the buck.
Arturia Minilab MK2 / Keystep / Beatstep / Beatstep Pro
The most useful controllers, in general. Insanely customizable (except Keystep, but that doesn’t matter). Beatstep is my favorite. 16 user presets and 17 assignable endless encoders. 16 assignable buttons (and/or drum pads). Wonderful controllers and a worthy investment. Bonus– the “Step” series can all be used without a computer… (you’ll see Keystep and Beatstep Pro in nearly all “improvised synth jam” videos on YouTube). Can’t wait for the Keystep Pro (coming next month).
Ableton Push 2
Yeah, I got bitten by the Push 2 bug (many, many people have). I don’t use it much (yet) but it’s really powerful and handy, when I’m in Ableton. There’s a little bit of lag here and there, but it really is the best controller for Live, especially when you want to go deep with it. The Launchpad Pro (with the Launchpad Pro 95 script) comes in a very, very close second. That, and the Maschine Jam (especially with the Haxor & Roxor Jam10 script).
I use my Push 2 mainly with Reaper, using the DrivenByMoss script (which offers Ableton-style step-sequencing in Reaper… super-duper handy for a lot of things).
Cons: shitty control of certain aspects of Ableton– most notably the Arrangement View. Shitty parameter mapping for 3rd-party synth plugins with Ableton (great mapping for the built-in Ableton instruments and effects, though). Absolutely atrocious Browser… too slow / too much scrolling/finding. Power supply needs to be plugged in to actually see the damn info on the screens (you can, without, but barely). A little confusing to get used to the muscle memory, and views (Session / Clip / etc)… I don’t really like the feel of the function buttons (most people do). I use the controller the least amount in my studio… but until I get more used to it, that might change.
I only use this with Ableton, using the Crossfire script (Isotonik Studios). Great controller for the price, and the Crossfire script really is awesome. I might use it with FL Studio 20 down the road… I don’t know.
Main point of this post-— I try to buy midi controllers used when and where possible, or when I buy new, I want more universal functionality. I can’t buy a midi controller unless I know it’s insanely configurable for multiple purposes. I try to buy wisely. You should do the same, if you’re as obsessed with this stuff, as I am.
total investment with everything listed on this page (including a brand-new Push 2): under $6,000. Not bad at all, all things considered. Each and every controller is useful… and often, multiple controllers in the same setup…. total win.
Hope this info helps you decide what is the best for you, depending on your needs.
Loopop’s 20-minute detailed review of the Novation Launchkey Mini MK3… (he is the best reviewer, EVER):