It’s been eight years since Ableton Live introduced its signature screen layout for live performance: clips, scenes, sends, tracks, and devices. For the first time, a single controller combines all the basic elements of that Live set in a single hardware layout. Akai’s APC40 is a plug-and-play, driver-free hardware controller developed with Ableton.

The APC has certainly got enough buttons and knobs and faders to cover those Live features, but it also raises a couple of questions. One is, does one-size-fits-all work for Ableton Live? The other is, will Ableton open up the “exclusive bidirectional communication” used for clip status to other hardware – for those people who decide the APC40 isn’t perfect? (My guess on that: yes, it will, but no, Live still doesn’t make everything you want available available, APC aside.)

There’s plenty of reason to go dance in the streets on this announcement, but it’s worth asking those questions, too. Here’s a look at what I’ve been able to pick apart on the APC40 so far. Hopefully this will generate some more questions and thoughts, which I’ll take to my first hands-on experience with the device.

Note: This is one of three announcements we’re watching from Ableton; I’ll have the big picture (including one CDM-y bit of info regarding the APC40) at 3:30pm Eastern time, about six hours from now. No, I’m not especially thrilled about embargoes, either, but the folks going to that press conference are watching us on their iPhones as I write this, so it’d be a bit like me telling everyone that Bruce Willis’ character is already dead.

What it is:

  • Controllers for just about everything as far as clip launching and mixing
  • A dynamic interface for manipulating tracks and devices (controls assigned on the fly to what you need)
  • A plug-and-play device you don’t have to manually map or configure
  • Hackable with Max
  • Something every Live user will want to at least test drive

What it isn’t:

  • A velocity-sensitive sample playing device – you’ll probably still want a drum pad (and one would fit next to this very nicely!)
  • A tool for manipulating the insides of samples – there are still reasons to go beyond just triggering clips
  • Something with any kind of screen – you’ll need to use the Live screen for some visual feedback as to what you’re doing, as opposed to Novation’s Automap-equipped controllers and others (and it is possible to get that feedback from Live)

Predictions:

  • This device will become ubiquitous as long as the price is within reach
  • You’ll see open-source monome patches adapted to the APC40
  • People will use the APC40 for software other than Live (VJs?)

    Basic Specs

    Akai doesn’t actually list these yet, but I can count! The controls:

    • 72 controllers
    • Clip launch section: 8 x 5 = 40 clip slots, plus 5 scene launch buttons, with dedicated clip stop and stop all clip buttons. Scroll and shift for more than 40 clips; dedicated bank select and shift buttons.
    • Faders: 8 faders, 1 master fader, 1 horizontal crossfader
    • Dedicated track buttons: Record arm, solo/cue, and something called “activator” (Andreas Wetterberg suggests this just a track enable/disable, though I think it could also be related to what the Track Controls are controlling)
    • Headphone cue level encoder
    • 8 track control encoders: Switchable via dedicated buttons to pan, send A/B/C
    • 8 device control encoders: Control those Drum Racks, Instrument Racks, effects, plug-ins and the like with dedicated buttons to select and toggle devices, turn MIDI overdub on and off and toggle record quantization (thank you), toggle the metronome, switch between clip and track tabs, select detail view
    • Tap Tempo, Transport, Nudge +/- (note that it’s missing forward/reverse transport buttons, which could be inconvenient for conventional tracking, though that’s about the only thing I don’t see on this)
    • Interactive feedback: Buttons light up via a color scheme to show play status and record enable, and the encoders have rings of light around them to give you feedback. (Oddly, though, Akai says this means you can see the controller in the dark, except they didn’t light the crossfader or faders.)

    You don’t map these controls. They’re set up to use right out of the box. Plug it in, and you’re ready to go – no drivers required. (I assume you do may to open the Preferences dialog to enable the device, but beyond that, Akai says you’re good to go.) Don’t like any one of the mappings? You can edit them – though Akai and Ableton haven’t yet revealed how that editing will work, and it may not be as interactive as these default mappings; that’s another detail I’m looking into.

    The device itself:

    • Metal chassis
    • “Slip-proof” rubber detailing
    • Assignable footswitch inputs
    • Power supply (I’m hoping that it’s still bus-powered, though)
    • Optional “beer-proof” slip slipcovers and Burning Man Extreme Desert Protection Kit (okay, I made those last ones up – there’s an opportunity there for someone)

    Pricing/availability: Unknown at this point. We’ve heard from multiple sources that a very reasonable US$399 is expected to be the Akai list price, but that hasn’t been made public officially.

    By the way, having just said I don’t think “one size fits all,” I do love that Akai is being completely agnostic on genre. From their press release: “for electronic-music performance artists, DJs, hip-hop producers and traditional musicians.” Amen.

    Playing It: Even 72 Controls Isn’t Enough

    Now, you know that even though this thing is bestrewn with controls, it won’t be enough. But Akai and Ableton did make this device pretty dynamic, effectively allowing three kinds of play:

    Clip control

    Without a doubt, this looks like the best interface for controlling clips yet, if that’s your style of play. If your Live sets tend to have a bunch of clips for triggering loaded into Session View, you can finally trigger those from the same controller that you use for adjusting mixing and parameters.

    You have access to forty clips at a time, and the bank select and shift controls appear to be the facility that allows you to move to other ones. The boutique Faderfox line had previously come the closest to this mark with the LX2, a little box just for triggering clips, which – while Akai says this is “exclusive” – also had the ability to show clip status so you knew what was switched on. But I suspect people may prefer these pads, and it appears to also show record status, which is important.

    The problem with all of this is the problem with using clips as your main performance method. It’s tough to keep track of which clips are where. I wonder what kind of visual feedback the Live software will give you. Triggering clips means triggering them from the beginning, which can get a little musically stale. And you don’t have velocity control – for that, you’re better off with Live’s Drum Rack.

    So while this is great, I think I’d still want a conventional set of drum pads with velocity control; in fact, the two together could be a fantastic combination. The Korg padKONTROL is already popular with Live users; you could use it in place of Akai’s own MPD24, because with the controls on the APC40, the MPD24’s faders and knobs are overkill. Akai, of course, hopes you still use an MPC for this purpose, and I’ve seen people do that, but I’m happier in Liveland myself.

    Track control

    This part is pretty easy: you know what you want. You need the ability to adjust mix levels, the crossfader, effects levels, and pan, and trigger each track for cueing and recording. Where other controllers have usually fallen apart for Live is the effects sends and pan, because you would need a whole bunch of knobs. The solution from Akai: dynamically assign eight encoders. Since a lot of Live artists use effects sends for creative purposes, this should be just fantastic.

    Note that the one device that came closest to the arrangement of the MPC40 had exactly this problem. The Livid Ohm is a beautiful device – in fact, I might even argue the layout is more intuitive than on the MPC40. But it has only eight encoders for everything, which means there’s no easy way to get at multiple send levels.

    Device control

    This, though, is actually my favorite part of the device. Because Live Devices can all be mapped to eight macros, these eight encoders are actually the part of the device you may use the most. If you have samples loaded into Drum Racks, if you use Racks for effects extensively, if you use Racks for instruments, you can access all of that here. (And you can still play on a keyboard, pads, or whatever on your existing controller of choice, or a keytar.)

    It appears that in addition to the usual dynamic assignment from Live (that is, click the mouse and select a device), you can also use the buttons on the Akai to select devices. Since the US Ableton offices are around the corner from me, this will call for a hands-on – stay tuned.

    You can tell Ableton had a hand in designing this, because they knew that dedicated access to record quantization, MIDI overdub, and switching between views in Live was critical.

    What About Other Controllers? (No, it’s not a monome…)

    Live’s been around about eight years – that’s enough time for it to go to high school and college – and I don’t think there’s ever been a controller that’s been the bombshell this one has. So everything is perfect and every Live user will go get this, right? Not so fast.

    In those eight years, of course, Live users have prided themselves on being different from one another. And I don’t think the APC40 comes close to being the most beautiful Live controller. That honor, in my book, at least, would have to go to William Logo’s device, seen below. The APC may actual more functional, but it doesn’t have fantastic arcade buttons, and it’s aesthetically no match.

    Naturally, some of the alternative controllers that come to mind:

    • Pad controllers from M-Audio, Korg, and even Akai (and some, ahem, new options today at NAMM)
    • The Faderfox line, which can be combined as tiny portable modules
    • Little controller’s like Korg’s new nano line
    • Novation’s Automap-equipped ReMOTE line of keyboards/controllers
    • Livid’s Ohm, which has its own open-source, Max-based software for sample manipulation (pictured above)
    • monome
    • Many, many, many DIY controllers

    In various ways, none of these does what the APC does. But the love of variety may mean that even APC users look at these controllers as alternatives – and if the APC becomes ubiquitous, you score extra points bringing something unusual to a gig.

    Even as the APC was still a rumor on message forums and the like, I heard people claiming this would be a monome killer, which to me utterly misses the point. Physically, they’re totally different. The monome has no logo on it. The Akai has faders and encoders and dynamic assignment and does mix control, while the monome is almost religiously minimalist. The Akai has 40 clip buttons the monome has 64, or 128, or 256. The Akai is a conventional commodity piece of gear; the monome is a case study in eco-friendly, labor-friendly small production. Can’t actually get a monome? Well, that’s the point: it’s designed to be scarce. And the because the monome is open source, I expect that in 2009 it’ll actually be easy for the first time to just get a cloned piece of hardware you build yourself.

    That also doesn’t get to the fundamental difference between an APC and a monome, which is the software. The APC is designed to work effectively in one way – even if you customize it, the idea is still one control per function. The monome is more like a software screen: its minimalism allows it to be a blank canvas that can do anything, and you can even configure software to switch between pages of different functions. In fact, I don’t think people really “get” the monome until they see the software side, and the extraordinary patches assembled in Max/MSP.

    Now, I don’t think the APC40 is really designed as a blank canvas. But we do know that hacking it with Max is part of the plan – at least for Ableton and Cycling ‘74; see a brief mention of that in Akai’s interview with Ableton’s CEO Gerhard Behles and more on this later today.

    [I get to finally talk about the Ableton – Cycling ‘74 relationship in six hours, which will happen in this space.]

    So here’s my big, fundamental question. Akai claims that this is “exclusive bidirectional control.” As near as I can figure, that’s not actually true. The only instance appears to be bidirectional communication about clip status, which I haven’t seen in other devices. Even that would be a disastrous choice for “exclusivity” – I would hope that, once exposed for the Akai, other hardware could use this information, too. And I know that remains of utmost importance to Live performers.

    My guess is, that data actually is exposed to other devices and isn’t exclusive to the Akai, but – as always – Live users will find other parts of the tool that they’ll want to be able to control with hardware but can’t (yet).

    The desire to make Live into the “sequencing instrument” it wants to be (Ableton’s original tagline) is all about getting away from the screen and exposing the wonderful things Live does live to gear. The APC already looks to be the closest we’ve gotten that to a product. If, under the hood, Live is exposing more functionality to hardware, this is a perfect announcement. Either way, I don’t think the Live community will ever lose their hunger for getting more control, even with a shiny, new APC box at their ready.

    We’ll be looking more at the APC; I hope to get additional details from Ableton and Akai during NAMM, but expect really in-depth coverage and a hands-on after the show – and without the roar of a show floor in the background.

    Akai APC40 Product Page

    Interview with Gerhard Behles [suffice to say, we have some other questions!]

    • Angstrom

      The APC is designed to work effectively in one way – even if you customize it, the idea is still one control per function.

      I'm not breaking any agreement to say that this is not correct.

      Interview with Gerhard
      http://www.akaipro.com/content206638

      GB: It’s quite fortuitous for Live users that’s we’ve worked for Akai at this time, as it coincides with our product partnership with Cycling 74, Max for Live. Owners of the APC40 who also own Max for Live can change the way the APC40 controls Live, and completely customize their experience. This means things like step sequencers and drum rack support and other things that only feel right with hardware will now be available for people who own these two great products. The boundaries of what you can do with complete customization and hundreds of LEDs are infinite.

    • http://covops.org Andreas Wetterberg

      Fantastic prelim. writeup!

      < something called “activator” (no idea) <

      - that would be the track activator, aka "mute" buttons ;)

      The exclusivity would be in the sense that no other controllers are currently developed FOR this use – however:

      1) In a sense ANY programmable controller can be set up for this, at least sans blinkenlights.

      2) They're about to drop the Max for Live thing, which will, by design, open up Live to other forms of (ab-)use.

      Now, show of hands who's got a mancrush on the APC40?

    • http://www.moogmusic.com Liz Lang, Ben Hovey

      This looks sooooooo hottt! We just have enough time to wipe the drool off the floor before we get back to making Phatties….

    • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

      @Angstrom: indeed, I fixed that just after publishing. :D

      I still think from a design perspective, though, there's a difference. You look at the monome and you see that it isn't designed to do anything. The APC40 is already configured with certain purposes in mind. Each of those approaches has its advantages – one isn't better than the other. But they are different.

      Andreas, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that right now you can't get clip status from Live? Also, it looks like the APC has the ability to switch between devices, though you could assign that to a keystroke (I don't believe there's a MIDI or Mackie Control-style assignment).

      The Faderfox shows clip status, but it's not bidirectional by default – you have to use a special template.

      I might be wrong on these points, but they do seem exclusive, and I hope that a) we can make that work with other hardware and b) we get more control over Live parameters in general than we have traditionally.

    • Martin

      you can get clip status from live using a monome and the fantastic ap caled pages. i wonder how the faders will do on the apc? Probably one could male a monome-type thingy out of the apc? :)

    • bliss

      First question that came to my mind was if the pads were velocity-sensitive. Too bad they are not. After-touch would have been nice too. Still, it seems like a good controller. Though, were the flared sides necessary to the design?

    • http://www.gorehole.org/nostromo/ M-.-n

      @martin: yeah, that's my biggest hope. Since the APC is supposed to be "standard" i.e. no driver. It's gotta be a midi controller with a hackable (if not published) protocol. That's what gives me the hard one

      @peter: to me the lack of display is the beauty o it all. Watching Robert Henke doing live sets on monodeck with all screens off is utterly attractive. If this can mean seeing more electronic performancer without the glaring light of a laptop in their face, I'm all for it :)

    • Douch

      sorry , but don't get too excited with akai products. Those who bought a mpk49 or MPD32 know what i'm talking about. There is still a lot of bugs in those product ,and they have been released for almost a year…

      shame on you akai

    • http://www.sociallightsounds.com/ Tone

      prob wont be the only controller I use, but for live performance YES. I can spend more time making music that trying to figure out what my custom setup.

    • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

      @M-.-n but that's the point. Because there's no screen on the unit (even a couple-line display, as on the Novation), I think you will see laptop glare — you need the laptop for certain kinds of visual feedback.

      Now, I'm not sure that's so bad, actually. I don't mind seeing some laptop screen if the performance set is alive and dynamic. I think the issue isn't whether you're looking at a computer screen but whether you're *squinting* at a computer screen. And a lot of the interface in Live is very small.

      So I'm already a little disappointed in that omission. If you're selecting tracks and devices dynamically, it'd be great to look AT the APC and know which one was selected, as you can do on the Novation.

    • bliss

      The Bruce Willis comment went over my head…

    • Jammo

      Bruce Willis is dead ?????

    • dang

      @douch -I have an MPD32, and I havent found any bugs. what bugs are there that I havent seen?

    • RichardL

      Except for the session clip launch section of this device I don't see what's new here. What does this do that something like a ProjectMix IO or Mackie Control Universal doesn't do? And clip launch could be handled in a variety of other controllers. What am I missing here?

    • William

      Thanks for the mention again and honor of "most beautiful Live controller"!

      Even though I'm infatuated with my controller, the APC40 has definitely peaked my interest as a more fully fledged Live controller (especially for studio use).

      My only gripe so far is the lack of a few "one knob per function" knobs on the channels. Dynamic knobs are great and have their place, but personally nothing is more reassuring than a well placed static one. Besides that I think a major manufacturer may have finally "got it"….

    • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

      @RichardL: well, I think the clip launch is the point, the fact that that's on the device, and a couple of the other key macros (like MIDI overdub). It's not a revolution, but it is everything in one place …

      The only things missing, as people have noted:

      * something to tell you which device is active

      * even a single knob dedicated to each track (that means some fiddling to get at your sends)

      * velocity-sensitive pads (which would have let those be not only clip triggers but triggers for other things, as well)

      But assuming you've got, say, a padKONTROL for drums or a Novation keyboard for your synths, this brings together everything else in one box.

      And at some point, while customization is great, it's really, really impractical to show up at a gig with five controllers, or even three. ;)

    • cosmonaut

      Here's my two questions, will it fit on top of the laptop keyboard and does it have it's connection on the side?

      Either way it looks like a must have, but my biggest frustration with controllers is that almost all of them have connections on the back. Such a simple thing of moving them to the side would solve so many petty irritations about performing live.

    • http://www.myspace.com/myralfurmusic James Waterworth

      With the release of new monome units coming up this definitely gave me food for thought…

      I'm still going to go for the monome though.

      Although I haven't got my monome yet I've been looking through the max patches and other options available, trying to figure out how I'm going to integrate it into my setup.

      After looking around it seems the only options for what I want to do are programs such as Pages and 7UpLive that let you control multiple max patches or programs at once, Pauk displays this well in this video (http://vimeo.com/2707155?pg=embed&sec=2707155).

      After delving a little deeper it seems these programs had to be built in Java (or in a max patch using the js or jsui object) and kind of hack into the LiveAPI with some Python code to get all the clip status and track information.

      I've spent the last 2 days on the LiveAPI Forum (there's some very interesting conversations going on there at the moment), and reading through all the code for 7UpLive and Pages I could find.

      In the latest release of live 7.0.14 a new folder appeared in the Midi Remote Scripts Folder called _Framework, which seems to be the python code for these instant midi mappings this Akai controller uses, and hopefully what the new max patches will use.

      It's already all there available to be used with any device, bidirectional control, clip status, almost whatever u'd want it seems.

      Just need to know quite a bit of java and python, which unfortunately I don't.

      But with this max announcement coming up and my new monome to be delivered shortly, I hope, I'm going to get back to the LiveAPI forum, try to learn some more about Python and Java, and continue with my mission to build the most ridiculous monome application.

    • em ess

      I have to walk around my office the rest of the day with a stain on my shirt because when I saw this picture I spilled my soup before it reached my mouth.

    • http://unrecnow.com/blog marc

      "For the first time, a single controller combines all the basic elements of that Live set in a single hardware layout."

      wasn't it really the monodeck… then the monodeck II?

      ;)

    • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

      @marc: Well, if we're talking DIY controllers, all kinds of things have done this. This counts as the first commercial controller, though, with all of these features in one box.

    • http://www.myspace.com/liliththekitten lilith

      this is damn near perfect.

      no velocity does mean I'll have to get a PadKontrol or better an MPC to go with it.

      though I do like the creative misuse of midi controllers w/Live.

    • Emil

      Its look really great but it lacks a touchpad IMO. The really intresting question right now is the pricetag, I know it can't compete with the behringer BCF/BCR-series concerning the price but it would be a minor catastrophe if it would be set to fantasy-prices concerning the upgrade cost is only around 119 dollars.

    • Pingback: Create Digital Music » Ableton: You’ll Be Able to Customize Akai’s APC40 Using Max for Live

    • Pingback: links for 2009-01-15 | Nofi dot org

    • http://shailpik.at.tt shailpik

      Now this is what i call GOOD NEWS! Can't wait for the hands-on! Thanks CDM and Peter!

    • Micah

      I want to know how much this is?? Is this going to be some overprice gadget that costs more than the software and my computer combined??? or not????

      I mean this sounds fantastic… but I am not paying 1000 bucks for it…. that is the problem these days with these dedicated controllers… THEY COST MORE THAN MY COMPUTER AND SOFTWARE!!!!

    • audiodestruction

      sonic state said 399 usd. Any one else second that?

    • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

      Fine, I'll second US$399. That's not an official price, but it's what I've heard as the expected list from a number of independent sources. So don't expect exactly that number, but at the very least it should be that ballpark. It won't cost a grand. ;)

    • Micah

      OMG that would be freaking amazing…. !!!! Totally worth it!!! :) :)::):):) I hope this is around the price!!! :) OMG I am soo excited.. I was looking for dedicated controllers last night… and thank god I didn't order anything!!!

    • Micah

      PS peter.. Have i told you lately that I love you?? LOL… great info man.. I love you site.. I check it every day.. good work!!

      I am soo jealous of you right now!!! :) :)

    • Pingback: akai’s apc40 ableton live controller looks SICK | sneakmove

    • http://www.skratchworx.com Gizmo

      I got £399 with an April release.

    • Peter Kirn

      If it's 399 in GBP it's probably more than 399 in USD. So guess we had better wait on a real number.

    • Monaque

      I would prefer the Vestax VCM-600 WAYYYY better and more usable for ableton, and I cant understand am I the only one that thinks an ableton controller would really benefit from a touchpad so you dont have to touch your comp when youre playing, I cant figure out why no one has done this.

    • Monaque

      And its weird, its out in Japan, its even out in England and they dont even have a vestax distributor, but its no where to be seen in the US.

    • http://seguesound.com Dri

      Well Peter, you know I'm all over this! Get one to Australia for review and i will stick it upside the MPC and see how it goes in a gig.

    • http://seguesound.com Dri

      @ Monaque… the touchpad idea is nice but i would presume that opens a can of worms with drivers, hardware and OS. Most manufacturers are flat out making their gear work with everything as it is, without adding another layer of support for system devices above and beyond audio/midi. I could be wrong, and it would be a nifty feature, but im not sure we're going to see the likes of Akai and M-Audio leaping to the rescue any time soon.

    • gwenhwyfaer

      "Bruce Willis is dead ?????"

      Not dead, exactly. Just a little stiff.

      "If it’s 399 in GBP it’s probably more than 399 in USD."

      Given the recent performance of sterling, not for much longer…

    • Sean K

      I got a chance to work with this for about 30 minutes at namm today and I was really impressed. For $400 and the possibility of monome-like capability, it seems like an awesome deal. I barely looked at the computer screen after I learned what the controls were mapped to.

    • Pingback: Akai APC40 Ableton Live Controller

    • Pingback: AKAI APC40 ON NAMM09 | FEUN:33KHZ

    • http://www.lmd64.com Lmd64

      The launch date is April? This is definitely something I want, looks ideal for live performances.

    • mistermartin

      BUT" it needs a diffent software!!!!!!! it seems it does not run on Live 7 or 8, but on a modified Live version!!!!!

    • randomwanderer

      B&H shows a price of $399 with tax and free shipping…

    • Pingback: Create Digital Music » New Music Tech Round-Up: NAMM in a Nutshell on CDM

    • Pingback: Create Digital Music » What’s New From Ableton in Videos: Live, APC, Max for Live; Thoughts on Share

    • Pingback: Streaming Web Audio By Digital Music Servers

    • Pingback: Segwist » Twitter: Getting Your Ableton Fix In 140 Words

    • Matt

      Why isn't this device FIREWIRE??????? USB has latency issues!!!!!!

    • Xen Ochren

      Firewire is too easy to knock the connection out. I hate it. Gimme USB any day.

      Hey, one thing which really bores me about the MPK is that it again, like all other controllers, sticks to only 8 channels. only 8 channels of launch clips, and 8(9) lines of faders etc. I get the argument of simplicity and constraints being a good thing for creative stimulation and stuff, but I struggle to keep my songs below 16 tracks, let alone 8, and don't find banks easy to work with.

      also SOmething i couldnt figure out was if you could scroll ACROSS on the clip launch section, aswell as down. Across meaning a bank like setup where you could have more than 8 tracks. I guess the 256 monome is the closest i could get to this, being 16 across, other than using more than one APC40 at a time! I currently only own the MPK49. ANyone got any thoughts on this?

    • Xen Ochren

      woops sorry i meant the apc not the mpk in my first para.

    • dj ROLi

      I just bought this baby and mapped it to Traktor Pro. working with 4 decks has never been more creative and fun. This controller is SICK LIKE THE PLAGUE!!!!!…I love it!!!!