We round up the best hardware controllers for your studio
No matter what type of music you make or what DAW you use, it’s very likely you’re going to need a MIDI controller. A MIDI controller is a piece of hardware that mimics an instrument, mixing console or drum pad device. It sends messages when you press a key, turn a knob or hit a pad and the software reacts.
Years ago, you’d have to assign every knob and fader to the parameter you wanted it to control but these days, more and more, software and hardware manufacturers are teaming up to create bespoke controllers for individual pieces of software. It makes things a lot easier, and allows you stay creative and in the flow, rather than fiddling around with MIDI messages.
With that in mind we’re rounding up the best all-rounder controllers to get you started – extra points for automatically controlling certain software or coming with some bundled goodies.
Though they started out designing high quality virtual versions of famous synths, Arturia have since started building some very impressive hardware including a range of analogue synths and drum machines. Their Keylab range is equally high quality, built like a tank, with a great keybed for anyone who’s used to a real piano. It also features pads, faders and knobs, transport control for your DAW and comes with a cut-down version of their virtual synth package.
Starting at £175, it’s a bit more expensive than other 49-key controllers but the built quality and software included are all pro. Great choice if you’re not tied to one DAW, play keys and need a lot of synth tones. If you’re on a budget, try their MiniLab range.
Novations SL range was always a popular choice as an all-rounder, but with the MKIII they’ve knocked it out of the park, adding some modern and versatile features to make one of the best options for anyone looking for a studio centrepiece. The MKIII adds some extra cool functions like step sequencing, multiple screens for easy-to-access tweaking, direct CV outputs for controlling modular or analogue gear without a computer and a new keybed for better playability. It also connects directly to most main DAWs for instant control.
For all those features though, it’s gonna cost you – the 49-key edition comes in at a whopping £539.99. Only recommended if you’re running a lot of hardware too, but if you did take the plunge you won’t regret it.
Used by everyone from Hans Zimmer to Pharrell, ROLI’s innovative flexible and touch-sensitive interfaces have revolutionized the industry. Until recently though, most mere mortals were priced out of the game. Now, their Seaboard Block brings the sponge-like keys to the masses.
What makes the Seaboard unique is its multi-touch interface, meaning gestures like sliding your fingers up a key once it’s pressed down will change the sound. Every aspect of the ‘keys’ are adjustable, so you can get ultra-realistic guitar sounds, all the way up to out-of-this-world warbles and abstract synth performances. It also comes with their custom-built and epic-sounding synth Cypher2.
While it might not be suitable for traditional keyboardists, if you’re more a sound designer or electronic musician, the versatility the ROLI range offer is second to none. Expect to pay about £550 for the privilege.
After the launch of Native Instruments’ Komplete Kontrol keyboard and its distinct ‘Light Guide’, a price point followed that disappointed some users. They wanted the instant control the KK range offered, but not at the price NI had in mind. Enter the A-Range, a cutdown version of the KK series, but with a wallet-friendly price.
For as little as £119 for the 25-key version, NI power-users can enjoy direct control over Kontakt, Mashchine and the rest of the Komplete range. The keybed isn’t quite as nice as the KK series and the Light Guide is gone, but it comes with software that’s worth almost twice the cost of the keyboard when bought separately, including Monark, Prism and Maschine Essentials. Not a bad start if you’re kitting out your new studio.
Another budget option from IK, the iRig Pro is the full-size version of their portable series designed for us with iOS and mobile devices as well as Mac and PC. It doesn’t come with much software but is a good option if you need full-size keys but also wanna throw it in a backpack for use on the go. There are some basic controls for changing presets and volume, but it’s a stripped-back affair. If you’re a big user of apps for music-making it’s a great solution for mobile and studio work.
Although devices like NI Maschine and Ableton Push 2 are built specifically for one piece of software, you usually need an all-rounder when starting out. Whether you’re a keys player, or more of a tinkerer, you’ll have different requirements. Either way, one of these controllers will fit all styles, skill levels and budgets.