Best MIDI Controller for Your DAW

by | May 31, 2019 | Cool Music Finds | 0 comments

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The following is written by Sean Davis. Sean is a NYC-based producer with credits from Jason Derulo, Wallpaper., Wyner Gordon, Travis Garland, Jared Evan, Two Door Cinema Club, Minus the Bear, Eva Simons, and Ray-Ban. He mainly focuses on Pop, R&B, Pop Pock, and EDM.

There are plenty of think pieces and listacles on what the best MIDI controllers in each product category are, ranging from key size to price point. With a seemingly endless number of feature combinations and niche options, it might be time to stop looking for what is the best MIDI keyboard, and look for the best MIDI keyboard for your DAW. In this article we’ll run through the best option for each major DAW. For further reading you can check out our previous post titled: MIDI controller buying guide, this MIDI controller master list from Audio Assemble as well as this post from Output on choosing the right MIDI controller.

Best MIDI Controller for Cubase

Nektar Panorama T6

Since I first wrote about them back in 2017, Nektar has made a great name for themselves, and at the center of that success was the Panorama. Initially, I found their Panorama series a bit too knob and fader for my taste, but the quality and breadth of control the Panorama line lends itself to is magical for use with a DAW like Cubase.

Returning to form with the Panorama T6, Nektar has taken a note from M-Audio’s VIP and Native Instruments’ NKS format: the new semi-weighted offering offers “plugin level control.” Making use of the many tactile options, the T6 can control loading, controlling and editing plugins, all within the controller itself.

Just like its predecessor, the all-new T6 comes with drum pads, endless encoders, faders, and a screen. There are more encoders, there are faders, and it’s all encapsulated in a beautiful frame. There are over 90 real-time controls that can be accessed at any given time, which makes it the perfect mapping machine for any DAW. This keyboard controller is made for producers, pianists, and perfectionists, which begs the question, “Who makes a MIDI controller great?” and in time my answer may just be Nektar.

Features:

  • Keybed: Individually weighted full-sized semi-weighted keys with aftertouch to mimic the tension that springs would create in a real piano without being too heavy or fatiguing the users.
  • Pitch Bend / Modulation: Alive and well, pretty stylish and like everything else on this keyboard controller, assignable.
  • Pads: Though Nektar didn’t make it all the way to 16 pads, the 12 include meter velocity/strike and pressure. These 12 pads also have the added bonus of the choice of 7 different velocity curves, a “Velocity Spread” and a scale function, which allows users to input a chord progression to be mapped across the pads. There are also 10 LED buttons and another 28 assignable buttons available on Nektar’s T6.
  • Build: Boutique built with care.
  • Knobs: 16 encoders.
  • Faders: 9 faders, plus 1 motorized ALPS fader!
  • Pedal Inputs: Footswitch and Expression Pedal Inputs
  • Octaves: Yep.
  • Extra Features: A screen that shows you what your encoders are controlling and is mapped to whatever DAW you are using, and function keys allowing users to store up to 20 presets with access to over 1500 assigned controls. The motorized fader is an added bonus that no other controller has in its wheelhouse, and it is everything that a producer could ever need, simply because it also references your active channel and includes solo and mute buttons. Another special feature that no other company has is the interchangeable transport that goes far beyond its competitors with an added “Undo” button that can alternately be mapped to standard QWERTY macros… who thinks of that?

Best Keyboard Controller for Maschine

Akai  Kontrol Series

Native Instruments has been hitting it out of the park with it’s Maschine and Kontrol product lines, and now with their proprietary NKS format, the company has made strides like never before. Though the Maschine can work perfectly fine without a keyboard component, the Maschine software is a DAW just like any other, and pairing the keyed Kontrol MIDI controller, the right Maschine can take your productions to a whole new level. When pairing one of the Maschines with one of the Kontrol MIDI devices, users should opt for the full-featured Kontrol S series if they own a Maschine Mikro; inversely if someone owns the Maschine Studio or the full-sized MK3, the user should go for the slightly scaled back Kontrol A series. Both the Kontrol A and S series feature semi-weighted keys in their 49 and 61 key configurations, touch-sensitive encoders, a directional push encoder, Maschine control, DAW control, and more.

Kontrol A Features:

  • Keybed: Custom Native Instruments Best in Class semi-weighted keybed.
  • Screen: OLED for Quick Navigation
  • Bend / Modulation: Ergonomic design
  • Knobs: 8 touch-sensitive encoders, four-directional push encoder for one-handed navigation
  • Pedal Inputs: 1 mappable TRS input
  • Extra Features: DAW & Maschine Control, over 20 GBs of Content, Smart Play mapping allows your to map a keybed to stay in key or only to the white keys.

Kontrol S Features:

  • Keybed: Semi-weighted Fatar keybed with aftertouch and the NI light guide which helps you visually stay in key while you’re creating.
  • Screen: Two high-resolution color screens
  • Bend / Modulation: Ergonomic design
  • Knobs: 8 touch-sensitive encoders, four-directional push encoder for one-handed navigation
  • Pedal Inputs: 2 mappable TRS inputs
  • MIDI: In / Out, bus powered.
  • Extra Features: DAW & Maschine Control, over 20 GBs of Content

Best Controller for Logic Pro

Akai MPK2 49

Even though it’s well overdue for an upgrade, Akai’s MPK2 49 is still the best creator-focused controller for Logic Pro X users. Now paired with Akai’s VIP software for deep integration, the MPK2 is rugged enough to stand the test of time and still has enough latent features that were ahead of its time to make it a contender for all of its contemporaries. Not unsurprising, Akai has shifted its focus to the MPK Mini series, the best selling keyboard controller in the world, and it seems like its prosumer offerings are slowly dwindling as the MPK2 and Advance have been removed from the company’s website. But they also haven’t resurfaced in legacy products, so hopefully that’s a good sign of impending updates to the powehouses that Akai have built.

Features:

  • Keybed: Full-sized keys with split arp, and aftertouch enabled options.
  • Pitch Bend / Modulation: No longer back lit but still there.
  • Pads: 16 of Akai’s legendary velocity-sensitive MPC-styled drum pads, configured just like most of the drum controllers of today. On top of having better pads, the MPK2 includes Note Repeat, MPC Swing, Tap Tempo, MPC Full Level
  • Knobs: 8 Q-link encoders with 3 banks each.
  • Faders: They’re back, they’re sensitive, and they’re stylish and once again have the solos and mute functionality.
  • Pedal Inputs: Two Assignable Footswitch Jacks and an Expression Pedal Input.
  • Extra Features: What more could you really want other than a great software package, MPC Essentials, and a brand new comprehensive DAW transport controller.

Best Controller for Ableton

Novation SL MKIII 49

It took a lot of soul searching to decide how to split this away from being the Best Controller for Ableton Live, but I did from the standpoint of the power of the Novation SL. After a long hiatus and focus on other models, Novation has blessed the world of producers with the 3rd series of their flagship SL controller line. What makes the SL a better controller than its peers you may ask? Almost everything. What makes it better for Ableton? It has a built-in 8 track sequencer, OLED screens for off-screen control, trigger pads, and did I mention they made this WITH Ableton?

Features:

  • Sequencer: 8-track pattern-based sequencer
  • Keybed: Spring-actioned synth-style velocity-sensitive semi-weighted keys with velocity scaling
  • Pitch Bend / Modulation: Backlit for some reason
  • Pads: 16 velocity-sensitive RGB backlit trigger pads.
  • Buttons: 49 backlit switches
  • Build: An ergonomically slanted casing for ease of use for controls.
  • Knobs: 8 rotary knobs
  • Faders:  8 faders
  • Pedal Inputs: Sustain, Expression, Foot Switch
  • I/O: CV Pitch, Mod and Gate
  • MIDI: In / Out, Thru
  • Octaves: Both Up and Down with transpose function.
  • Extra Features: Arp, Scales, Modes and Zones
If you’re looking for something slightly less involved, look no further than Novations Launchkey 49

Novation Launchkey 49 MK2

With Novation being the leader in pushing Ableton performance functionality forward, it’s no surprise that they create the best controller for Ableton Live. The Novations Launch series has many iterations, best sellers and innovations, but Launchkey 49 is overall the best bang for your buck and the most versatile without becoming cumbersome. Featuring a streamlined version of its clip launcher, made famous by the Launchpad series, the Launchkey smartly places them in the same area drum pads would be found on other similar keyboard controllers so users can get double the use from the square triggers

Features:

  • Keybed: Synth-style velocity-sensitive keybeds which include key configurations
  • Pitch Bend / Modulation: Both present. Both fine.
  • Pads: 16 velocity-sensitive RGB backlit trigger pads.
  • Build: An ergonomically slanted casing for ease of use for controls.
  • Knobs: 8 knobs
  • Faders: 9 faders
  • Pedal Inputs: Sustain
  • Octaves: Both Up and Down with transpose function.
  • Extra Features: Full transport control, 2 multi-function programmable round buttons, 3 InControl buttons for DAW control, 4 GBs of Loopmasters content and Addictive Keys.

Best MIDI Controller for FL Studio

Akai Fire

It took literally 20 years, but someone finally made the perfect controller for FL Studio, and it’s no surprise that it was designed by the people who have cemented their place in the beatmaking history books, Akai. Beyond just being designed and qa’d by Akai’s expert hands, the Akai Fire was made in tandem with the Image-Line team, just as the Ableton Push was. Though this controller will be a large learning curve for pianists becoming producers, the Fire is designed specifically with FL users in mind. It includes an RBG backlit grid that mirrors FL’s iconic step sequencer. Aside from being highly familiar, the Fire includes individual note, drum, and performance modes

Features:

  • Pads: 4 x 16 pad matrix that includes RGB backlit velocity-sensitive pads
  • Pitch Bend / Modulation: Neither.
  • Build: An ergonomically slanted casing for ease of use for controls.
  • Knobs: 4 assignable encoders
  • Transport: Dedicated transport controls
  • Pedal Inputs: None
  • Octaves: Controlled by OLED display.
  • Extra Features: FL Studio Fire Edition with Lifetime free updates, multi-device mode, etc.

Best Controller for Pro Tools

Slate Raven MTi

Technically not REALLY a MIDI controller, but actually, a multi-touch screen paired with controllers, Slate’s Raven configuration puts every major ProTools control at your literal fingertips. Instead of keys, a multi-touch touch screen that can be paired with the Raven Core Station for analog monitoring made by famed engineer and drummer Steven Slate.  

Features:

  • Screens: Two 46″ screens for dual Edit & Mix window functions
    • Ability to use multiple machines and slave to the main studio computer and sync the other screens to other machines independently.
  • Raven 3.0: Customized control for every major DAW
  • Faders 3.0: Highly responsive multi-touch fader program that allows for exact fader control.
  • Raven Gestures: Simple gestures to major DAW controls.
  • The Raven Toolbar: The MTi’s on programmable on-demand transport is the world’s most useful tool for any ProTools user who has an array of favored functions that are a little hard to reach.
  • Slate Remote: Just as it sounds, the Slate Remote puts control back in your hands with a programmable remote that auto syncs to your session.
  • Slate Control: If you’re feeling more tactile, the Slate control is a physical analog monitoring system which features:
    • 7 Audio Inputs
    • 3 Speaker Outputs
    • Talk Back
    • And a host of other programmable features
Sean Davis

The following is written by Sean Davis. Sean is a NYC-based producer with credits from Jason Derulo, Wallpaper., Wyner Gordon, Travis Garland, Jared Evan, Two Door Cinema Club, Minus the Bear, Eva Simons, and Ray-Ban. He mainly focuses on Pop, R&B, Pop Pock, and EDM.

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