Parent article: Home Recording Studio Setup
I want to provide some context for these MIDI controller recommendations.
We did MIDI keyboards in this article, but that felt a little too broad and not focused enough. At the same time all DAWs, and nearly all MIDI controllers function in more or less the same way. Even as we've narrowed our context to Ableton Live, most any MIDI controller with a USB connection will theoretically "work."
It stands to reason that narrowing a context to a particular type of DAW software, like Ableton, or a particular selection of MIDI keyboards could still be broadly applied to most scenarios.
At the same time, that doesn't mean we can't look for something a bit more fitted or ideal for a given situation.
In this case, that situation is the following:
- Ableton Live Software (we'll use the Lite version in this article)
- MIDI controller options ideal for Ableton
While most MIDI controllers will function with Ableton's software suite, we're looking for the options that will be the most ideally suited to it.
We'll show you what MIDI controllers Ableton recommends as well as provide our own assessment of Ableton Push 2, which is their own in-house MIDI controller that's tailored for Ableton Live users.
All the MIDI controller options for Ableton we mention meet the following criteria:
- Are natively-supported by Ableton Live
- Support the auto-mapping feature in Ableton Live
We'll cover the list of natively-supported MIDI devices, go over Ableton Push and then give you a few of our favorites from the natively-supported device list. Before we get into the MIDI controllers, let's chat about what Ableton Live actually is, what it's designed to do and how to set it up with your interface.
For those looking to dive deeper into this topic, our article on home recording setup covers it in a more broad sense.
If you want to skip straight to our recommendations, here's the list of our top four choices:
Best MIDI Controller Options for Ableton (top 4 picks)
Ableton Push 2
Novation Launchkey Mini
Novation Launchkey 49 MK3
Akai Ableton Controller
What is Ableton Live?
Ableton Live is one of the most popular music production software suites in existence, and also one of the most powerful. The full version of Ableton Live is capable of allowing you to produce musical ideas, turn them into entirely complete songs and even gives you the ability to perform those songs on stage.
If you want to try the software, you can download Ableton Live Lite, which is free to use and lets you get familiar with much of the software's core functionality.
Here's a look at the main user interface:
With a good MIDI controller, you can use a ton of the program's functionality without even having to look at your computer screen.
However, it may still be helpful for you to tinker with the main interface on your computer and get familiar with the program's capabilities before you go looking for a MIDI solution.
We'll look at MIDI controllers that are most ideally-suited to work with and manipulate this interface.
Ableton and MIDI Controller Connection Architecture
Connecting a MIDI controller to Ableton Live is going to be extremely simple in almost every case, regardless of your particular computer or MIDI controller.
Whether via Windows or Mac, you'll use a USB cable to connect your MIDI controller to your computer, which (depending on the controller you're using) will automatically be recognized by Ableton Live.
To hear the audio, we'd recommend adding a pair of studio monitors so that you don't have to rely on computer speakers.
You could opt for a decent pair of studio headphones as well.
In this picture they've got a mixer, keyboard and USB interface connected as well, though you don't necessarily need those things to use Ableton Live or hear the music you're creating.
The simplest option, at least for starters, is to use a pair of headphones going straight into your computer's headphone jack.
- Mac or Windows Computer
- Studio headphones or monitors (connected via the computer's audio jack)
- USB Audio Interface (optional)
Aside from Ableton Push, Ableton's own MIDI control pad, these are the best plug-and-play options to choose from. The following video shows how you can easily setup and get started with a MIDI controller in Ableton, via a simple USB connection.
Ableton also makes provision for other compatible devices, mentioning that any MIDI controller can be used for basic sending and receiving of instructions.
Yet, getting a device with native support for Ableton is far preferable.
If you know of other MIDI controllers or keyboards that support auto-mapping or function particularly well with Ableton Live, you can feel free to recommend them in the comments section below.
When we emailed Ableton to consult with them about their recommended MIDI controllers, this is what they sent back, courtesy of a fellow named Sean Galloway:
Initially, we didn't realize that Ableton offered their own MIDI controller, or that it is as powerful as Push turns out to be.
If you don't mind being without the keyboard segment of your MIDI controller, Push is probably your single best option if you're seeking out a controller that's most uniquely designed for the Ableton software.
You can browse some of Ableton Push's features and even see it in action on the product's home page.
Past and current versions of Ableton Push are available on Amazon as well.
One of Push's most popular selling points is that it saves you from having to even look at your computer, in most instances. Particularly with Push 2, you've got an RGB screen that allows you to see what you're controlling at all times, whether you're using pads, knobs or some other part of the physical interface.
I have been making music using a computer for over 25 years and Ableton Push is the first truly revolutionary thing I have seen in a long while. I did this in the first 30 minutes I used the device without looking at the computer screen once. - Adam Whaley
Adam Whaley demonstrating the power and functionality of Ableton Push.
While the interface does have a learning curve, its ability to save you time and get you away from the computer screen is clearly illustrated. There's a ton of functionality in this pad, allowing you to tweak and customize nearly anything you would do in the Ableton software.
The pads and controls are also really sleek and feel soft, yet responsive to the touch.
Scottie Dugan demonstrating the comfort and usability of Ableton Push 2.
Ableton also updates Push firmware along with Live software updates, so the two products are always synced up with respect to one another.
Ableton Push Architecture
Ableton designed the Push chasis to be thin and easy to transport, while putting a lot of time and attention into calibrating the controls, resulting in a sleek and smooth-feeling interface.
Using the controls and buttons with the new RGB display is oddly addictive and a perfect combination for the workflow involved with software-based music production.
The Ableton Push body measures about 12 inches top to bottom but only a scant 1.5 inches high.
If you're looking at used options, note that the original version of Ableton Push doesn't have the RGB display. We'd recommend staying away from those, though you're unlikely to run into them at this point.
Ableton Push 2 and subsequent software versions should be your target.
Setting Up Ableton Push 2
Note that Push 2 requires Ableton Live version 9.5, or later, in order to function properly. Assuming you've got Ableton Live or the Lite version, make sure it's updated to the most recent stable release.
Additionally, you'll want to make sure the following items are up to date:
- Operating system (Windows or Mac)
- Graphics card drivers
- Push display drivers (installs automatically upon connection)
Once everything is updated, connect Ableton Push to your computer via the provided USB cable and plug in the power cord. If everything is updated and connected properly you should be able to go into the Preferences section of Ableton and, under MIDI Sync, see "Ableton Push 2" listed in the input and output section, per the following screenshot:
Ableton Push 2 is now activated and capable of controlling the Ableton Live software. The setup process should be fairly quick and painless, right out of the box.
All the controls and functionality should be pre-mapped.
Better than the rest?
If your focus is getting something that is most closely-tailored to Ableton Live, their own MIDI controller makes the most logical sense. Moreover, Ableton Push 2 is just a well-designed and fantastic product in its own right, regardless of how friendly it might be to Ableton Live.
However, we do have experience with some of the other MIDI controllers in the natively-supported list from earlier, which allowed us to pick out a few of our favorites for Ableton users.
Other Options We Like the Most
Practically-speaking, many of these controllers function similarly to one another. But, we prefer to direct folks to the MIDI controllers that were made, like Push 2, with pre-mapped controls for Ableton Live already built in.
Aside from Push 2, there are a few MIDI controllers that were actually designed by other companies with Ableton Live in mind.
Assuming you have that as part of the core feature list, you should also consider the following:
- Piano keys: Does it come with them and, if so, how many?
- Price: How much do you want to spend on an external MIDI controller?
We've narrowed it down to three devices that we'd be most likely to recommend outside of the Push 2:
- Novation Launchkey Mini (25 key version)
- Novation Launchkey 49 (49 key version)
- Akai Professional APC20 Ableton Controller
All of these MIDI controllers explicitly state a compatibility with Ableton. The primary distinction between the Novation and Akai option is rather obvious, in that you're deciding between a controller with or without a keyboard.
Personally, we like the combination of Push 2 with the small Novation keyboard, just so you can have the feel of an actual piano if need be.
For piano players, or those who want to use Ableton Live in more of a performance environment, the 49-key Novation might be a better option.
As a pure substitute for the Push 2, the Akai Ableton Controller is your best bet. The primary attraction there is that it's a great deal cheaper, if not quite as functional as the Push 2.
Again, it's important to remind that most any MIDI controller can be mapped to work with Ableton, even if it's not natively-supported by the software. What we wanted to do in this article is give you an idea of what to look for and what controllers would make the most logical sense in terms of compatibility with the software. There's some subjectivity and preference involved, though we're pretty confident in recommending the Push 2 first, then the other three from Novation and Akia, depending on your particular situation.
Adding to the List
Do you have experience using a particular MIDI controller with Ableton Live that you swear by?
If so, drop us a note in the comments section below. We'll take a look and consider highlighting it in this post, so other folks can benefit from your insight and experience.
For any additional questions about Ableton Live, Ableton Push 2 or any of the other products mentioned, feel free to leave those in the comments section as well, or refer to some of the suggested resources below.