8 of the best MIDI pad controllers
30th Oct 2012 | 16:33
We’ve all been there at some point. You need to program a drum part and all you have to hand is a MIDI keyboard - not the most suitable tool in the world for creating beats, especially if you’re more of a percussionist than a pianist.
A much more appealing proposition is to turn to the now-traditional format of trigger pads arranged in a 4x4 matrix, as originally popularised by the classic Akai MPC60. This layout allows you to place a standard kit of drum sounds in a more natural position under the fingers than a keyboard could ever manage, giving you a much more intuitive array of targets to aim at.
So while it won’t (and shouldn’t!) replace your conventional keyboard controller, adding a pad-based controller to your setup can reap significant rewards if you regularly need to program drums.
Not only that, but some controllers of this type take things further by 94 / COMPUTER MUSIC SPECIAL including their own proprietary sound library and software instruments, while others are more like percussion instruments in their own right.
When selecting a pad-based controller, there are certain things to look out for. A large enough array of pads and controls is first and foremost, and the pads need to be playable and responsive enough to cope with the powerful, expressive, multilayered sampled instruments that are available to us today. Controllers should be easy to configure, so that you can customise the layout of the pads to trigger your chosen soundset, and the convenience of a single USB connector, handling both MIDI data and power, should not be overlooked. For the purposes of this round-up, onboard sounds aren’t really a factor, as our assumption is that you’ll be triggering sounds from software instruments in your DAW. With all this in mind, then, here’s our pick of the current pad controller crop.
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Native Instruments Maschine Mikro
The cut-down sibling of Native Instruments’ full-size Maschine, Maschine Mikro represents quite exceptional value - particularly when you take into account that it comes complete with its own powerful step-sequencing DAW, as well as a 6GB sample library and copies of Komplete Elements and the acclaimed Massive synth.
The Maschine software also comes in AU, RTAS and VST plug-in formats, so that you can access the included content via a plug-in in your DAW; but the software also acts as a plug-in host itself, meaning that you can access all your third-party effects and sound sources from within it. Pretty clever stuff!
Being almost exactly the same width as a 13-inch laptop, the supremely portable Maschine Mikro controller is beautifully built and impressively solid, so you feel instantly reassured that it’s not going to fall apart the minute you start pounding on the pads.
The only real downside is the interface, which isn’t as intuitive as that of its larger brother - this is largely due to Maschine Mikro’s reliance on a single LCD screen rather than a pair of them, and far fewer controls.
Maschine Mikro isn’t just a superb performer as a standalone package, but thanks to the bundled Controller Editor application, it can also easily be configured to work as a generic control surface for your software of choice.
As hardware controllers go, its lack of encoders and sliders does let it down a little - regardless, the playability of the pads make it an ideal choice for inputting drums, so when judged on its ability to carry out that task alone, the mighty Mikro is a winner.
Billed as a hybrid drum machine Arturia’s Spark blends the conventional interface of an old-school drum machine, complete with TR-style step-input buttons, with a capable software instrument.
The hardware controller, primarily designed to be paired with the accompanying Spark software, is a handsome thing, bristling with knobs and buttons, and looks enough like a vintage drum machine to belie the fact that all of its sounds come from your computer rather than the unit itself.
Eight drum pads along the bottom edge can be switched between two banks for a total of 16 assignable triggers, although we’d much prefer there to just be 16 pads. Three rotary encoders per pad enable instant access to favourite parameters, while six more knobs and an X/Y controller adjust the filter, effects sends and mix for the currently selected pad.
In this guise, Spark excels as an old- school beatbox chock-full of quality sounds, but team it up with the MIDI Control Centre software that’s also included and the hardware module becomes a more generic MIDI controller, with a range of assignable pads, knobs and switches all made accessible.
Pitched at the higher end of the price spectrum, Spark is an intriguing mix of old and new - exactly the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from Arturia. It could be more than you need if you’re just after a controller, but if you have more lofty ambitions for it, the extra features, versatility and extensive sound library could well swing things in Spark’s favour.
If you like the idea of controlling your DAW using a miniature Akai MPC padset, the MPD range of USB MIDI controllers clearly deserves your utmost attention.
For the purposes of this round-up we’ll focus on the MPD26, which has 16 drum pads, laid out in a traditional 4x4 pattern, that can be switched between four banks to trigger a total of 64 different sounds. Six rotary knobs and six faders can also be assigned to send continuous controller data to your DAW.
The MPD26 features the exact same velocity- and pressure- sensitive pads as are used on the Akai MPC2500, so the overall feel is right on the money - great surface feel, great response. Solidly built, the MPD26 has an enviable pedigree, boasting the same core technologies that made the MPC range so successful. Not only does it feature the
essential Full Level and 16-Level buttons, but the note-repeat function even retains the classic MPC swing feel.
With a little tweaking, we were able to get the bank of transport buttons to operate the play, stop, fast forward, rewind and record functions in our test DAW (Logic Pro 9). This is a big bonus, as having transport control at your fingertips makes song navigation a satisfyingly hands-on experience while programming.
Six faders, six knobs and an effective total of 64 pads will probably be enough for the average e user, but should you need more in the control department, the MPD32 is the next step up, featuring eight knobs, eight faders and eight switches. For all-round playability, quality, features and value for money though, the MPD26 is a standout choice.
Although at first glance the padKONTROL might appear to be one of the more rudimentary machines covered here, it does have one or two sizeable aces up its sleeve.
The pedal input for triggering kick drums or hi-hats is one of them, and the inclusion of the excellent X/Y pad from KORG’s Kaoss Pad is another, the X and Y axes being assignable to the parameters of your choice within your software.
Owing to its simple layout, the padKONTROL was one of the easiest devices reviewed here to set up and use. Although it comes with its own editor software, there’s certainly no obligation to install it - instead, you can just plug in a USB cable and start tapping away.
Power and data are handled by the USB cable, although there is a DC power socket on the side of the device in which to plug an optional mains power supply if your laptop battery doesn’t provide enough juice, or you want to draw power from the wall in order to lighten the load on a USB hub, say.
Assigning pads to trigger MIDI notes is simplicity itself - just hit the pad that you want to assign and turn the rotary encoder to change the note value. You can do this while hitting the pads to flick through notes and hear the sounds that you’re assigning, which really speeds things up if you don’t know off the top of your head which sounds are triggered by which notes in your software instrument.
An accomplished all-rounder from one of the biggest manufacturers in the business, the padKONTROL has been around since 2006, and this fact alone should be enough to instil confidence in prospective buyers.
Designed by Novation in collaboration with Ableton, the Launchpad’s primary intended function is as a hardware control surface for triggering clips in the latter’s ever-popular Live DAW. To that end, there’s a cut-down Launchpad edition of Live included in the box.
The unit is solid yet incredibly lightweight, and the flat, square form factor is appealing, with four extra-grippy feet preventing it from sliding around. A USB port on the top right-hand corner connects the Launchpad to your computer, handling data and power.
When partnered with Novation’s excellent Automap 4 software, the Launchpad becomes a universal controller capable of interacting with plug-ins in most current DAWs, and with its impressive array of 64 trigger pads, arranged in an 8x8 matrix, it almost makes you wish you had a few extra fingers.
Unfortunately the trigger pads aren’t velocity-sensitive, which makes them far from ideal for programming expressive patterns. Extra buttons along the top and the right-hand side that handle page and mode selection when used with Live become additional trigger pads when used with Automap, and note numbers can be reassigned fairly easily using the software’s Mapping Editor page.
Ultimately, although the Launchpad works brilliantly as an extension of Live, the impressive number of pads that it features just isn’t enough to make up for its shortcomings as a generic controller for use with other applications.
If you’re not using Live, or just want it for programming beats, it’s probably best to look elsewhere, as this is really intended to be a clip launcher - a job, we should add, at which it excels.
Alesis Performance Pad Pro
Along with the Roland Octapad, the Alesis Performance Pad Pro is one of the only two units featured in our round-up that you can actually hit with drumsticks.
Featuring eight large trigger pads arranged in a 4x2 formation, the Performance Pad comes with a built-in library of 500 kit sounds that can be piped out to a PA system or recorder, and a stereo minijack input for hooking up an MP3 player to play along to.
Unusually, however, MIDI output is served up through a five-pin MIDI DIN socket - unlike all the other devices covered in these pages, there’s no USB connector for easy hookup to a Mac or PC DAW, so you’ll need to connect it via an external MIDI interface.
The Performance Pad Pro is built as sturdily as you’d expect for something that was designed to be hit with sticks, but unlike the Octapad, the pads aren’t raised much above the surface - as a result, the shiny black plastic edge trim can be quite vulnerable to marks and scuffs when your enthusiasm gets the better of your talent.
The velocity-sensitive pads aren’t quite as sensitive as we would like, with light taps from the sticks producing nothing but silence, and soft sounds only emerging at mid velocities. There also doesn’t seem to be a way to adjust the sensitivity of the pads beyond the three preset soft, medium and hard velocity curves, or eight fixed velocity levels.
All in all, then, the Performance Pad Pro is a decent enough choice if you want to really make some noise, but it’s far better suited for the stage than the studio.
Roland Octapad SPD-30
The Roland Octapad has been with us since 1985, when the original PAD-8 version made its debut.
Several generations later, this latest SPD-30 model combines the traditional eight-pad, stick-friendly layout with a plethora of onboard sounds and effects, an audio input and a phrase looper. It’s equipped with both standard MIDI ports and a USB connector, and you can also plug in a USB memory stick for increased storage.
The SPD-30 is mains-powered via an included power supply, and the only other thing in the box is a printed instruction manual. Other manufacturers take note: this comprehensive and informative tome is a veritable breath of fresh air compared to the afterthoughts that come with some of the other units covered here.
In use, the V-Drum-derived pads are supremely bouncy and wonderful to play, and are large enough to provide decent targets. The unit is also equipped with five inputs for optional external trigger devices, such as kick pedals and snare, hi-hat and cymbal pads.
Assigning note numbers to the pads once you’ve hooked the SPD-30 up to your DAW is a simple task, thanks to the large, bright LCD display and ample navigation controls. You just hit a pad and turn a knob to set the note number that the pad transmits to your software, and there are enough pad sensitivity options to satisfy even the fussiest percussionist.
There may be no assignable knobs or faders, but if you’ve ever waved a drumstick in anger, this thing will induce a grin from ear to ear. It’s simply fantastic.
By far the smallest of the units in this round-up, the PAD-One has 12 backlit silicon pads rather than the conventional 16, allowing it a shorter, ingot-shaped footprint.
In a nod to Akai, there are four available pad banks, bringing the effective total pad count up to an impressive 48. The pads have a satisfyingly rubbery feel, and are tactile, bouncy and responsive. Illuminated green when at rest, each pad flashes orange when hit to indicate the transmission of MIDI data.
The PAD-One is a breeze to set up, requiring merely the connection of a USB cable for power and MIDI data. The only other connectors are a six-pin MIDI Out port and a socket for an optional DC mains power supply. Assigning note numbers to pads took us seconds to figure out, with no consultation of the documentation required. Just press the Edit button, hit a pad and scroll to the desired MIDI note number.
The anodised metal finish gives the PAD-One a solid, durable appearance, perfectly matching the current crop of MacBook laptops. Sadly, however, the encoder knob feels a little bit cheap, and the miniature Edit button is disappointingly peg-like. The X/Y pad, used to control the rate and velocity of the roll function, feels equally bargain-basement, and we found it a bit imprecise.
These minor niggles aside, we rather like this chunky little unit as a compact and cost-effective way of squeezing 48 pads onto a congested desktop.