Groove Production Controllers: Three Hardware Options for DJs and Producers

For DJs and producers looking to add some tactile hardware control to their laptop setups, there are plenty of great options from brands including Akai, Denon, Numark, Vestax, Novation, Pioneer, and more. Many of these controllers support a variety of DAWs, while others are either bundled with software or are only compatible with the offerings from a particular manufacturer.

Today, we're looking at three controllers from popular software manufacturers: Ableton Push, Native Instruments Maschine, and Arturia BeatStep Pro. All three present gateways into a wide world of production and performance, and we'll examine where each truly excels and with what type of workflow.

Ableton Push

This controller, designed by Ableton and based on Akai Professional’s pad engineering, essentially allows a user to play notes and chords with its 64 pads, equal to a full keyboard. In addition, beats can be sequenced with common MIDI parameters such as velocity and timing for looping or real-time performances. For those users looking for a musical experience without the knowledge of music theory, Push includes intuitive functionality such as scale layout with lights, allowing for both harmonic and melodic sequencing with the ability to edit, create note or timing changes, experiment with song structure, as well as rhythmic automation.

Push allows users to easily switch to their workflow to Ableton Live enabling arranging, editing, and exporting songs from Push to a computer. Live actually runs in the background, adding clip and scene data to the project (or a “set”). Live also provides a huge collection of software instruments and effects, many which are already optimized for Push. In addition, Push also integrates with Max for Live, the popular tool that allows users to build software devices (via Cycling ’74 Max). Users can also leverage plug-ins with the use of Live such as AudioUnits (AU) and VST.

Regarding hardware, Push makes use of eleven touch sensitive encoders and a four-line LCD display, which adapts to display the given parameters. While Push has a USB port for computer connectivity along with a power supply, foot switches can also be used with the device. Push weighs just over six pounds and fits into a backpack, allowing for easy transport. In all, Push is a sleek device and at $599, it includes a copy of Ableton Live to get users going out of the box.

Native Instruments Maschine

Maschine is considered a groove studio including production tools such as a sampler, arranger, and a mixer with effects and more. Sampling workflows include the ability to provide hands-on control of audio directly from the display screen by allowing to edit, slice, and shape on the fly. Automation, pitch bending, time stretching, and modulation are all easily accessible and intuitive to use. When it comes to arranging, velocity control, note repeat, and swing controls are available with the ability to color code sounds for sequencing using visual cues.

Like Ableton’s offering, Maschine integrates with NI’s Maschine 2 software and Komplete. Similarly, AudioUnits (AU) and VST plug-ins can be utilized with this workflow. Maschine works with “scenes”, a flexible collection of groups and patterns represents song structure transferred from hardware to software. Scenes are a critical component when using it for live performance. Maschine 2 is also a powerful mixer with volume, pan, mute, solo, aux send, and grouping controls, as well as signal routing. Maschine 2 also allows users to find and load Komplete instrument and effect presents, with the ability to automap key instrument or effect parameters to Maschine 2 for performance-ready functionality.

Maschine’s display includes a tag based browser, which allows for quick location of a project, sound, group, instrument, sample, or effect. Since Maschine has MIDI connectivity, it can easily integrate into a studio setup with a keyboard, DAW, or existing musical data (eg. Akai MPC programs). With 16 mutli-color pads, 8 endless rotary and 1 push encoder, as well as a weight of just over four pounds, Maschine is a sophisticated tool for any studio setup.

Arturia BeatStep Pro

The BeatStep Pro is a controller and sequencer with the ability to fit into an analog setup, digital or a blend of the two. The built-in transport allow for use of MIDI machine control messages to start/stop a DAW, whereas the preset and transposition link allows for connected sequencers to change at the same time. Swing, randomizer, and sequence controls are also accessible from the front panel, with the ability to set these items independently or globally.

The BeatStep Pro has several ports for a variety of connectivity, essentially allowing it to be compatible with any hardware or computer-based device. In addition, MIDI and USB ports support two-way communication between digital and analog environments. There are also two sets of sequencer CV outputs - one for pitch, velocity, and gate. Take advantage of drum sounds using MIDI or the eight drum outputs, allowing for use with a drum machine. The USB port allows for sync with a user’s favorite DAW.

The hardware included with the BeatStep Pro will enable any music maker’s creative palette. With 16 pressure sensitive pads, touch sensitive (push encoder) knobs, and 16 step buttons give users flexibility with sequencing and production. With three modes of operation including melodic sequencing, drum sequencing, and MIDI controller, the BeatStep Pro provides an independent display for each sequencer for visibility. In all, the BeatStop Pro is a powerful controller and sequencer built to last.

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