If you don’t have the ability (or inclination) to record acoustic or electronic drums at home, MIDI drum pads are a good space-saving alternative. Also, many electronic genres rely on MIDI drum pads for recording tracks, sampling, and live performance. Today we’re checking out the most popular MIDI drum pads on the market, learning about the common features, and helping you decide which MIDI drum pad is the right choice for your home studio.
What are MIDI Drum Pads?
MIDI drum pads are a type of MIDI controller that are specifically designed to provide a tactile method of sequencing drums or other samples. Nearly every MIDI drum pad has 16 pads arranged in 4 rows of 4 pads, and most are touch-sensitive. They are typically lightweight, portable, and have a small footprint for ease of portability and storage. Most MIDI drum pads are powered via USB, making them ideal for use with laptops and in live setups.
What Features Should You Look for in MIDI Drum Pads?
Though there are a lot of features that most MIDI drum pads have in common, there are also many differences which lead to a wide variety of price points among them. Let’s take a look at these differences:
Drum Pad Types
Obviously MIDI drum pads have drum pads, but what kind of drum pads do they have? Are they touch-sensitive for sending velocity information to your DAW? Are they backlit for visual feedback, and do they have multi-colored backlights for an at-a-glance color-coded view of how they are mapped to a kit? Also, how many pads does it have, and how easy are they to map?
Faders, Rotary Encoders, and Transport Controls
Many MIDI drum pads are designed to act like a MIDI control surface in addition to their drum pad functions. To that end, many have knobs, rotary encoders, faders, transport controls, X-Y pads, DAW navigation controls, or other features commonly found in MIDI control surfaces.
Banks and Modes
MIDI drum pads are mapped to individual samples or loops in groups known as banks. A MIDI drum pad with three banks, for example, would have access to three unique mappings with a touch of a button. This is particularly useful for live situations where you can preload multiple banks of samples, then quickly change between banks for playing different combinations of samples.
Many MIDI drum pads also have modes like full velocity or note repeat that modify how the MIDI signal is sent. Full velocity disables touch sensitivity and makes each hit play at full volume, while note repeat allows for doubling or tripling notes.
The biggest single influence in the price of most MIDI drum pads is the bundled software. Many are packaged with sample libraries, DAWs, or entire software suites for sampling and virtual instrumentation that integrate with displays on the unit for easy control without picking up a mouse.
Some drum pads have a single USB connector for sending MIDI messages, while others act more like an audio interface and have microphone connections, MIDI ports, and headphone jacks. This kind of drum pad is suited not only for the home studio, but for portable or live applications as well.
Best MIDI Drum Pads Under $150
The MIDI drum pads in the lowest price range may not come with as much software or have as many bells and whistles, but they are all good for the main goal, which is getting the MIDI messages into the box reliably. Some do come with decent starting software and have some nifty control surface features that save some desktop space as well:
(Please note that since studio gear goes in and out of stock frequently due to high demand and low supply, prices can and will vary. If the listed price for an item doesn’t fall within the category I’ve placed it in, it’s likely because it’s out of stock. In that case, you may want to seek out another vendor, pick a different item, or wait until the one you want is back in stock.)
If space or budget are your primary concerns, take a look at this slim-line MIDI drum pad from KORG. The nanoPAD2 has no bundled software, but does have sixteen velocity-sensitive pads and a very nifty X-Y touchpad controller that is great for controlling synth oscillators or multiple controls at once. The X-Y pad also can be mapped to a scale using the scale buttons and played like an instrument in a particular key. Four switchable banks let you change pad assignments on the fly, and a built-in arpeggiator gives you note repeat options.
- Low-profile pad controller – excellent for playing or entering drum data
- Sixteen solid, responsive, and velocity-sensitive trigger pads
- Control multiple MIDI parameters via the X-Y Touchpad
AKAI Professional MPD218
I finally took the plunge into MIDI drum pads a few years back, and the MPD218 was the unit I chose. This drum pad from AKAI features sixteen touch-sensitive pads and six rotary encoders arranged into three banks each, as well as note repeat and full level buttons for extra performance options. Comes with a copy of Ableton Live Lite, SONiVOX Big Bang Universal Drums and Big Bang Cinematic Percussion, plus the AKAI MPC Essentials software (though admittedly I’ve hardly used any of them and stuck mostly with my preferred drum virtual instrument plugins thus far).
- Beat Production, Anywhere - Ultra-portable, feature-packed and USB powered pad controller with 16 thick fat MPC pads for triggering drums, melodic samples, effects and more
- Expandable Banks - Easily accessible dedicated controls for three pad banks provides a total of 48 assignable pads
- Assignable Control - 18 fully assignable 360-Degree potentiometers accessible via three banks for controlling DAW, virtual effect and virtual instrument parameters
- Feature Packed - MPC note repeat and full level controls for immersive expressive performances
- Comprehensive Software Suite Included - Ableton Live Lite, Sonivox Big Bang cinematic percussion and Big Bang universal drums
PreSonus’ ATOM has similar features to the AKAI unit, but adds RGB-backlit pads arranged in eight banks, and only has four rotary encoders. Also, the ATOM has a lot more function buttons for DAW transport and navigation in addition to the full level and note repeat options. Includes PreSonus’ Studio One Artist, which by itself retails for $99, and a copy of Ableton Live Lite.
- Tight integration with included studio One Artist and Ableton Live (live 10 Lite included) music production software gets your mind off the screen and back on the beat
- Produce, play virtual instruments, and trigger samples and loops with unsurpassed expressiveness and flexibility
- 16 full-size velocity- and pressure-sensitive, RGB LED pads
- Pressure switchable between polyphonic MIDI aftertouch, MONOPHONIC channel pressure, and cc messages
- 8 assignable pad banks
Novation Launchpad X
The Launchpad series from Novation is designed from the ground up for use with Ableton Live, so if you’re on a different DAW you can still use it as a basic MIDI controller but won’t be able to do any of the niftier functions like playing whole groups of samples with a single button unless you add other software or do a whole lot of intense MIDI mapping. That said, you’d be hard-pressed to find another MIDI drum pad setup with 64 velocity-sensitive RGB backlit drum pads at this price point, and it comes with a copy of Ableton Live Lite for using the Ableton-only functions. In addition, the Launchpad X has 16 other mappable buttons for navigation, transport, and other functions. Novation also makes the Launchpad Mini, which does not have touch-sensitive pads, or the Launchpad Pro, which for a few hundred more comes with track-level controls, double the banks, and MIDI ports for chaining to other gear.
- 64 RGB pads – Large RGB velocity- and pressure-sensitive pads give you a perfect reflection of your Ableton Live session, making it easier than ever to see your clips and play your instruments Expressively
- Ableton Live integration – quickly launch clips and scenes, never lose ideas with capture MIDI, and access performance controls like stop, solo, mute, record arm, volume, pan, and sends to dynamically control your music, no mouse needed
- Dynamic note and scale modes – enable you to effortlessly play perfectly in-key basslines, melodies, chords and leads. Launchpad x even knows when you’re drumming and shows your drum rack on the grid
- Four custom modes – use components to customise mappings and control anything MIDI easily from Launchpad x
- Get started easily – use our Interactive onboarding site to get all the software you want, and step-by-step video guides to get you set up with live and making music in minutes. Novation now offers a 3-Year Warranty on this and all other Novation products.
Best MIDI Drum Pads Under $300
As we step into the next pricing tier, these MIDI drum pads have more features for controlling your DAW and effects in addition to drum pad input:
Take the same features of the MPD218, add four faders and rotary encoders, RGB backlights on the pads, plus an extra bank, and you’ve got the MPD226. With all of these additional features plus transport and navigation controls, LCD display, and tap tempo, it could easily be used as both a drum pad and control surface for smaller projects.
- Pro Beat Production, Anywhere - Ultra-portable feature-packed pad controller with 16 Thick Fat RGB illuminated velocity and pressure sensitive MPC pads
- Expandable Banks - Easily accessible dedicated controls for 4 pad banks provides a total of 64 assignable pads
- Assignable Control - 4 assignable faders, 4 assignable Q-Link knobs and 4 assignable Q-Link buttons with a total of 36 assignable controls accessible via 3 banks
- Feature Packed - Classic MPC Note Repeat, MPC Swing, 16 Level, Full Level and Tap Tempo controls for immersive expressive performances
- Comprehensive Software Suite Included - Ableton Live Lite, Sonivox Big Bang cinematic percussion and Big Bang universal drums
Arturia BeatStep Pro
Arturia is a well-known name in the synth community, and their BeatStep Pro is the perfect marriage of newer digital gear standards and Eurorack-style synth setups. The 16 velocity-sensitive drum pads and 16 rotary encoders are just the beginning, as it also includes a complete drum machine setup with 16- to 64- step drum sequencer, two sequencer outputs, and eight drum gates for hooking up to external synth gear. If you have a Eurorack synth setup or are thinking about getting one in the future, this might be your best option for MIDI drum pads.
- 2 monophonic step sequencers
- Up to 64 steps per sequence
- Note, velocity and gate time settings per step
- 16-track drum sequencer (one track per pad)
- MIDI controller mode
Native Instruments Maschine Mikro MK3
Native Instruments’ Maschine series are designed from the ground up to act as multi-track samplers. Using the included Maschine Essentials software, you can chop and screw beats and samples directly from the unit for nailing down the perfect loops. It also has 16 touch-sensitive drum pads with RGB backlight and a whole lot of buttons. A friend of mine has a Mikro, and I was absolutely blown away by the software suite as well as the standalone functionality of this 16-pad unit. He wasn’t using it with a DAW, yet producing some very cool chop-and-screw beats from old records. Paired with a modern DAW, this thing is unstoppable.
- Compact, music production instrument that integrates powerful software with tactile, responsive hardware
- Four ways to input sound using the 16 pads – drum in pad mode, play melodies in Keyboard mode, create chord progressions in Chord mode, and program in a classic step-sequencer style from Step mode
- Software - use on its own or as a VST, Audio Unit, or AAX plug-in in all major DAWs (including Ableton Live, Pro Tools, Logic Pro, and FL Studio).An Internet connection and a graphics card which supports OpenGL 2.1 or higher are required to download and activate MASCHINE software. Once installed and activated, all products can be used offline
- 1.6 GB MASCHINE Factory Selection with samples, one-shots, loops, sample instruments, presets, patterns, drum kits, and songs
- Powered via USB 2.0. System Requirements- macOS 10.12, 10.13, 10.14 (latest update), Intel Core i5, 4 GB RAM. Windows 10 (latest Service Pack, 64-bit only), Intel Core i5 or equivalent CPU, 4GB RAM. USB 2.0 Port, 3 GB free disk space for Maschine Essentials (full Maschine software plus 1.6 GB Maschine Factory Selection), 1 GB free disk space for Massive, Monark and Reaktor Prism
Best MIDI Drum Pads Over $300
As we move along into the top price ranges for MIDI drum pads, these options aren’t just MIDI accessories, they’re also standalone units that can be used without a computer or any other gear:
Native Instruments Maschine MK3
The Mikro’s big brother, the Maschine MK3, comes with a huge LED color screen, nine rotary encoders, a ton of buttons, and the same chop-and-screw abilities. It also comes with a copy of Native Instruments KOMPLETE 11 Select, which is an enormous 25GB plugin suite full of virtual instruments. For the price tag, Native Instruments built in MIDI ports and line ins and outs that may be enough connectivity for EDM musicians or beat makers, alleviating the need to purchase a separate audio interface.
- Integrated hardware/software system includes sampler, arranger, mixer, FX, and more
- Includes 25 GB KOMPLETE 11 SELECT library featuring 25 pro-quality studio and creative FX
- Pro-grade, 96 kHz / 24-bit audio interface with 2 x 1/4” TRS line outputs, 2 x 1/4” TRS line inputs, 1/4” dynamic mic input, stereo headphone output, 1 x MIDI In, 1 x MIDI out; 1 x Footswitch
- Touch sensitive knobs for parameter tweaking. System requirements: Mac OS X 10.11 or macOS 10.12 (latest update), Intel Core i5, 2 GB RAM (4 GB recommended),Windows 7, 8, or 10 (latest Service Pack, 32/64-bit), Intel Core i5 or equivalent CPU, 2 GB RAM (4 GB recommended)
- Smart Strip for strumming notes, pitch bending sounds, performing with FX, and more.Crosstalk L/R : -96 dB
AKAI Professional MPC One
The AKAI MPC One is a standalone drum machine and sampler which can also be used as a MIDI drum pad. The huge 7″ LED touchscreen lets you craft complete beats and pull samples using the stereo inputs on the rear of the unit, or import samples from computer or USB thumb drive. The MPC One also has drum gate outputs and MIDI in and out for hooking up to external synth setups. Like the Maschine, it can be used as a simple audio interface for those who don’t want to buy a separate one.
- Beat Maker Essential - Standalone MPC, sampler, drum machine and MIDI controller (for the included MPC Software – Mac / PC) with the powerful MultiCore System from the MPC Live and MPC X
- Developed for the Modern Music Producer – 16 velocity sensitive RGB beat pads, 7” high-resolution multi-touch display, touch capacitive encoders and connectivity for USB MIDI keyboard controllers
- Connectivity - MIDI In / MIDI Out for control of synthesizers and drum machines; (2) line inputs for recording / sampling; (2) line outputs; headphone out; CV/Gate outputs for modular synth control
- On Demand Sound - Custom sample & loop library; exclusive standalone synth engines (Electric, Tubesynth and Bassline); premium AIR FX for mixing & mastering; network access for Splice Integration
- The MPC Experience – Compact desktop format; built in USB audio interface; USB Slots for thumb drives; SD card slot; MPC mainstays including Note Repeat, Full Level, 16 Levels and Transport Controls
Best MIDI Drum Pads for Home Studio – The Bottom Line
There it is, a list of the best MIDI drum pads for your home studio according to numerous reviews and input from our Home Studio Enthusiasts Facebook group. If you’re not sure which MIDI drum pads to go with, feel free to ask questions in the group, we’re here to help.
Prices and images automatically updated on 2020-10-23. Affiliate links and images from Amazon Product Advertising API.