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)
- 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?)
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:
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.
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.
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)
- 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.
Interview with Gerhard Behles [suffice to say, we have some other questions!]