Beginner Guide to Studio Controllers

Once you get to a certain level of production, using a mouse is a major hassle. To optimise your workflow, you may consider grabbing a MIDI controller. While controllers rarely offer any additional functionality, they do free up a lot of time and make production much easier. By offering a tactile workflow, they allow you to control various parameters simultaneously, which cannot be achieved with a mouse. They also offer a much better feel for producers, by mimicking the industry standard mixers and control surfaces which are well above the average person's budget. This list offers insight into some of the different brands and types of controller so you don't have to trawl through pages of shop offers to see what you need.





MIDI controllers are typically devices which only control features in your DAW. They do not offer any sound generation or processing themselves. They will not generally work alone, and so before buying, I recommend you look up their compatibility with the DAW of your choice.

Step 1, before you even look online for a controller, is to address your needs. Controllers are designed to make your life easier and so figure out the bottlenecks in your workflow, and what could really boost your creativity.

Controllers are expensive and come with a lot of gadgets but most people only really need two or three features to get the best value for money. Consider your budget as well, controllers won't have any impact on the sound directly so it may be a better investment to get high-quality plugins instead.

If you are new to a DAW, a controller might seem the best option for hands-on learning your way around, but I recommend you learn the DAW first so you get a grasp of what you need - keyboard shortcuts are often customisable and can be a free way of getting many of the features an expensive controller offers.

So now, for those of you whom I haven't put off, and are ready to look into buying their first controller, read through this guide fully to see what there is to offer.

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Native Instruments Maschine Controllers

Made by Native Instruments, these controllers integrate especially well with NI software. If you use Maschine, you almost certainly have one already. For those of you looking to buy an NI controller, look out for the ones that come bundled with the software. Most will come with some form of Maschine and/or Komplete 11.

These controllers normally offer great value because of their build quality, functions, and the bundled software that comes along. I wrote a feature on taking advantage of this to save money on buying the software alone. Yes, that's right, it is often cheaper to buy the software with the hardware, than without.





Depending on the style of music you make, these controllers may or may not be for you. They work on a standard beat pad style process where you can record and sequence beats and sounds to build a song up. 

The exception to this is the Maschine Jam which works more like the Ableton workflow for performance triggering of scenes in the Maschine software.

For those of you who aren't a fan of the Maschine software or workflow, don't worry, they can also be set to MIDI mode and programmed to control any functions in your DAW. The savings they offer on Komplete also means that the controllers are worth buying, even just as a paperweight, to get hold of the mega collection that Komplete has to offer.

I often incorporate my Maschine Mikro into my DJing too, having mapped it to cues and loops in Serato. This is especially handy if you are using CDJs and your laptop, as most CDJs aren't kitted with all the functions of my main controller, the Denon MC7000.

Who would buy these:
  • Producers who want to get into beat making and performing. 
  • Producers who want to save on Komplete and Maschine Deals.
Who shouldn't buy these:
  • Producers who want a mixing control surface.
  • Producers who want to perform Ableton Live Sets.
  • Producers who don't need to buy Native Instrument's Software
Akai MPC Controllers

Much like Native Instruments, Akai has their own range of beat making controllers. These also integrate into their own studio software, MPC Software 2.0. There are a lot of similarities between the two and so a comparison is very much preferential.

The MPC controllers work in much the same way, and at a similar price, so picking might be a bit difficult. At the basic entry level, there is little to sway you either way, but for the higher end budgets, this is where the differences really show.

Akai's MPC range offers a much bigger selection of controllers with really standout features. The MPC Touch, for example, offers a touchscreen control, something that Native Instruments haven't incorporated yet. Higher up still, you have the option of standalone units such as the MPC Live and the MPC X. These are where they go beyond just controllers and are actually fully hardware studios that can produce music without a computer. 

This makes it a difficult choice if you are torn between MPCs and Maschine controllers. My advice is to decide whether you want the top quality software bundled with Native Instruments Gear, or the option to expand into fully standalone hardware with Akai's MPC gear.

  

Who would buy these:
  • Beat makers and finger drummers, particularly hip-hop genres.
  • Producers looking for standalone hardware production.
  • Producers in need of a high-quality pad controller.

Who shouldn't buy these:
  • Producers who want to use Native Instruments Software (better to save money by buying a Maschine Bundle).
  • Producers looking for a mixing surface.

Akai APC Controllers

Akai's controller range for Ableton Live is designed to tightly integrate into the Ableton workflow. This does mean that users of other DAWs may be put off, but they will still work fine provided your DAW has MIDI mapping. 

What I would say, however, is the feature-set and layout of these controllers may not be the most intuitive for non-Ableton users.

Where these controllers excel though, is the performance mode of Ableton. If you are a producer looking to enter the live performance scene, these will operate perfectly. Many pro performers have these controllers in their setup so you can trust their quality.

There is also a decent range of options for all budgets and requirements. From the APC Mini, which offers the scene triggering and volume control, to the APC40 Mk II which offers a full performance layout with knobs and additional controls. The APC Key 25 is a great option for combining the production and performance into one controller, but for those who already have a keyboard, less worthwhile.




As a producer who uses Ableton, the scene triggering at the fingertips is what you need. A mouse is a nightmare when drafting tracks as it can only trigger one scene at a time so investment into one of these might make your life a lot easier.

On the other hand, though, these controllers lend less use to the actual creation of sounds, working better with the mid-stage of production - arrangement, mixing, and jamming out pre-made ideas. Likewise, at the mixing stage, while they do have faders, they aren't motorised and so will not follow automation changes as the song progressed.

Who would buy these:
  • Ableton Producers who like using the performance mode for sketching and arranging their songs.
  • Ableton Performers who need a controller for their live sets.
  • Producers who need a lot of mappable buttons for their DAW, and who can remember what every button does.

Who shouldn't buy these:
  • Producers looking for an intuitive controller, in a DAW other than Ableton.
  • Beat makers and finger drummers.
  • Producers looking for a high-quality mixing surface.
Ableton Push Controller

If you are looking for an Ableton controller, consider looking no further than the Push 2. This controller is made by Ableton and is by far the most integrated controller for the software. It comes with a screen that follows the workflow and shows what you are doing so you can have your computer to the side for performances.

It offers the standard Ableton scene grid layout and has knobs for track sends, volumes, automation, etc. If you already own Ableton, sign in to their website and it will show you offers to buy the push with upgrades to Ableton Standard/Suite so you can save money on upgrading.

The Push 2 offers an updated interface from the discontinued Push and is the model worth buying because it is a much better hardware device. It comes with a Power Supply Unit, though can run on USB power alone if needed (screen brightness is reduced).

The Ableton Push 2 is arguably one of the best looking controllers of all time, with multicolour pads and display. It is quite large but this is essential as a front of studio/stage controller. You won't be laughed at for having a "toy" in your setup.

 


The knobs are rotary encoders, this is very useful for mixing as they do not have a max/minimum value and so can essentially recall any volume state as the track progresses, while not the traditional fader setup, these will work fine for most mixing cases, especially in a live situation. 

Who would buy these:
  • All Ableton Producers.
  • All Ableton Performers.
Who shouldn't buy these:
  • Producers looking for a controller, in a DAW other than Ableton.
Novation Controllers


Made popular by Youtube videos, the controllers by Novation are fantastic pad controllers for performance and production. Again, designed with Ableton in mind, they are particularly powerful for triggering scenes and clips. While these are a level below the Push 2, with no screen and a much smaller feature set, they are also significantly cheaper. Combine them with another cheap controller and you can get much of the same functionality as the Push 2, albeit, without the screen. 

  


The Launch Pads and Launch Control do have a much more plastic, toy-like look to them and so if the appearance of your setup is a concern, saving a bit more for the Push 2 might be worthwhile. For producers who are getting started though, these controllers have a lot to offer. They function in much the same way, so you are not losing out on the major control features.

For users of other DAWs, the interface may not be as well suited, but it is still mappable. You could map shortcuts, transport, track mutes/solos, and various other functions track by track to each column. 


Who would buy these:
  • Ableton Producers who like using the performance mode for sketching and arranging their songs.
  • Ableton Performers who need a controller for their live sets.
  • Producers who need a lot of mappable buttons for their DAW who can remember what every button does.
  • Budget-conservative users.

Who shouldn't buy these:
  • Producers looking for a high-quality mixing surface.

Korg NanoKontrol Controllers


At the cheaper end of the scale, Korg offers the NanoKontrol range of MIDI controllers. These are cheap and they get the job done. They are great for portability and adding a few hardware controls to your DAW setup.

If you are a beginner producer, these might be ideal for you as there is a controller to suit all needs. What must be said though, is that these controllers are small. If you are looking for long faders to accurately mix a track, then you will have to go elsewhere. Also, it shouldn't even need to be said that the faders are not motorised and so will not track any changes in the song. 

They do offer pads, knobs, and even sometimes XY pads, however, which can all be mapped to macros in synths and DAW features allowing you a great level of control. These are the ideal counterparts to a MIDI keyboard without any extra controls so you can get the maximum expression out of your synth sounds.





They also work great as a compact transport controller, to allow you to play, pause, and record at the touch of a button. This can be very handy for bedroom producers who may have a microphone or instrument ready to record out of reach of the computer, as recording can be triggered via the controller.

These controllers are also ideal outside the world of music production and can be used as a MIDI device to control software such as Photoshop, or even live-streaming programs. 

Who would buy these:
  • Producers at the lowest budget range looking for some additional control options.
  • Producers on the move who want a surface that is light and easy to travel with.
Who shouldn't buy these:
  • Producers looking for a high-quality controller.
  • Producers who want a mixing surface.


Icon Controllers


If you are looking for an interface that will help you mix your songs well, you want a mixing controller. One of the top brands for this is Icon. They are not as big as other names on the market but they create hardware at a reasonable cost compared to some of the bigger companies, namely, Avid.

What all the controllers in the next section are good for is their motorised faders, which will automatically move as the track volume in the DAW changes. This means that every fader is always in the correct place, reflecting the track volume in the song. 

This is the single most valuable component of a mixing controller as it allows accurate tracking and mixing control. The Icon range also offers touch-sensitive faders which means that just by touching them, the tracks are selected, even if you don't actually move the faders. 



These controllers work well with most DAWs and are compatible with the main control languages such as Mackie, and HUI for Pro-Tools.

The controllers are expandable with extra units which allow you to have more tracks available on the one desk, and can even be upgraded with a soundcard expansion to allow them to have monitoring capabilities.

Who would buy these:
  • Producers of any major DAW looking for a high-quality mixing surface.
  • Producers looking for a centrepiece of their studio.
  • Producers who want motorised faders.
Who shouldn't buy these:
  • Producers who want a controller for the first stages of production, eg laying out beats or melodies.
  • Producers looking for a hardware mixer (these are controllers so won't work without a computer).


Behringer Controllers


Behringer is a big name in the music industry at the moment, they offer really good priced hardware across many different "families" from synthesisers to mixers, to controllers. They are a large company and so support may be more available than from smaller manufacturers. 

Their mixing controllers are very good quality for the price offered and must not be confused with their actual mixers, however many of their mixers also work as controllers too. These controllers come with motorised faders and a range of other features depending on the model. For higher budgets, they might not be the first choice, but for mid-range to lower budgets, they will suit perfectly.




Price-wise, they are very comparable to the Icon controllers, and so choosing between the companies might involve outlining your workflow preferences.

Who would buy these:
  • Producers of any major DAW looking for a high-quality mixing surface.
  • Producers looking for a centrepiece of their studio.
  • Producers who want motorised faders.
Who shouldn't buy these:
  • Producers who want a controller for the first stages of production, eg laying out beats or melodies.
  • Producers looking for a hardware mixer (these are controllers so won't work without a computer).

Presonus FaderPort Controllers

Presonus mixing controllers are found in many studios across the world. They offer a wide range of control options, from the single motorised fader of the Faderport to the much larger control surfaces such as the Faderport 16.

These also come at a reasonable price, and with great reviews, the Faderport series may be one of your best bets.

In terms of features, they are very similar to the previous two, and so again, make sure to look at the layout and features that best put your workflow into a physical form.



Who would buy these:
  • Producers of any major DAW looking for a high-quality mixing surface.
  • Producers looking for a centrepiece of their studio.
  • Producers who want motorised faders.
Who shouldn't buy these:
  • Producers who want a controller for the first stages of production, eg laying out beats or melodies.
  • Producers looking for a hardware mixer (these are controllers so won't work without a computer).


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