Maybe it’s a sign of my impending decline into senility, but I still think of Ableton Live as a newcomer to the audio sequencer application party. Despite it celebrating its ten-year anniversary, I have managed to completely ignore it until a few months ago when I had to sequence some pre-recorded parts at a live gig – I instantly fell in love with the software. So, it has been with some fervour that I have been investigating the two controllers that are currently on the market for Live: Akai’s APC40 (released back in the early summer) and Novation’s Launchpad (which arrived in October).
It would be unfair of me to draw a direct comparison between these two, as it’s clear that they appeal to different markets. There’s also quite a difference in price; the Akai typically costs around £379 incVAT, and the Launchpad comes in at a more streamlined £149. Instead, I’ll look at what each of these offers the Live user.
The Akai APC40
The Akai APC40 is an extremely rugged unit with a 430mm x 335mm metal chassis and a generous collection of controls. The clip launch grid is where most of the action happens; it represents tracks 1-8 horizontally and clips 1-5 for eachtrack vertically (making 40 clip controllers). If a clip is playing, its associated pad is green. Red means it is recording, while amber means a clip is present but not playing, and an unlit pad shows an empty slot. There are buttons to trigger an entire row of clips too. If you have more than eight tracks or more than five rows of clips, the SHIFT button allows you to bank around either across or down to access all your clips. Record Arm and Solo controls for each track act as you’d expect, and the Activation buttons for each track show which ones are not muted – rather like a mute button on a mixing console, but in reverse.
The rotary controls have illuminated outer rings to show current values, and one bank of eight is available for adjusting sends or pans for the eight tracks currently present on the clip pads – these shift with the pads when banking. The other eight rotaries allow you to directly access parameters on the currently selected device, and there are eight banks of possible controls, meaning you can access up to 64 parameters per device. In addition to the rotaries, there are eight buttons dedicated to the following Ableton functions: CLIP/TRACK view toggle; DEVICE On/Off; Previous and Next device selection buttons; DETAIL VIEW On/Off; REC QUANTIZATION On/Off; MIDI OVERDUB On/Off; and METRONOME On/Off.
Lastly, the crossfader works as you would expect, fading between whatever has been defined as crossfader assignments A and B in the software. There’s also a Cue Level control, which deals with the volume sent to the Cue Output, eight 45mm faders and a tap tempo button.
The Novation Launchpad
Novation’s Launchpad is a compact and lightweight unit, measuring just 240mm square and made of moulded plastic. It features an 8×8 grid of touch sensitive illuminating pads, which function and illuminate in exactly the same way as the Akai’s (showing clips as ready, recording, playing or empty). There are also scene launch buttons to trigger collections of clips together.
Although there are no faders or rotaries, Novation have equipped the Launchpad with a mixer mode that allows the pads to illustrate or control, and pan and send levels. The pads light up to give a bar graph representation of the mixer values and can be touched to change levels and values. Selecting different modes is quick and easy, and happens via the various scene launch buttons; multiple launchpads can be used together to expand controllability.
As I said earlier…
The two units are clearly aimed at different markets, so a head-to-head comparison is unfair. The Novation Launchpad offers easy access to the basic functionality of Live in a small footprint; it’s ideal for someone building up tracks, who doesn’t mind using the mouse and keyboard. It does solve the main issue of being able to cue up and launch multiple clips at once, which is the biggest challenge facing Live users and, although you can assign clips to keys of any MIDI keyboard, the illuminating buttons of either unit provide essential feedback. But, to anyone using Live as a performance instrument or their main software, it feels like Novation have left out too many features to be a serious contender.
The APC40 has been designed for the Ableton user who wants maximum interaction with the controller, and minimum reliance on a mouse. Both units use the same illuminating pad topology, but the APC’s rotary controls and faders give a precise level of control – the Launchpad gives a choice of only eight values when using the pads for pan or level control. For anyone wanting to play in realtime with the values of Ableton’s devices, such as tweaking filter resonance and cut-off (who wouldn’t!), the second bank of rotaries on the APC is great and means no mode switching if you also want to play with pan controls. There is simply no way of achieving this with the Launchpad, although it can work with other products in Novation’s range (such as the Nocturn) to deliver the crossfader functionality.
The strangest omission from the Launchpad is that there is no tap tempo button. You can, however, easily get Live to learn the function from any button; I used USER 1, which worked perfectly. But the ability to jiggle tempos is such a fundamental feature of the Ableton Live software, it seems almost incredible that any dedicated Live controller doesn’t have a button for tap tempo. The APC40 sports not only a dedicated tap button but also buttons to nudge the tempo up and down, which is perfect if you’re beat matching records.
Ableton Live has been crying out for a dedicated controller since it first arrived. The use of a controller leverages far more functionality out of the software than you can achieve with a mouse. Novation and Akai have each produced very able controllers that will appeal to different types of users – based largely on how much you intend to rely on a sole controller to do all your functions or whether you are happy to use a mix of additional controls and the occasional mouse interaction. But which ever you use, adding a controller will give your Ableton experience a new lease of life.
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