Crafted from aluminum, this DIY controller puts some of the store-bought options to shame. Photo by the creator, Adam Dzak.

Years ago, when the phrase “controllerism” was still yet-to-be-coined and there was no official hardware for Ableton Live, DJ Sasha had one hell of a custom piece of kit. The Maven featured oversize, hard-to-disconnect plugs and beautiful metal hardware. Years later, it’d still make any Ableton user drool.

What’s a Live user to do? Stop drooling, and start building.

DIYer and musician Adam Dzak did just that. He created his own MIDI controller, constructed from aircraft-grade aluminum, and used Ableton Live scripting to tailor control to software. The result is something a bit like the APC40 made by Ableton and Akai, but with I think a really lovely layout and massively-nicer build quality. Adam is also blogging all of this as he goes, with the hopes of making the build details available to others who want to create the same object – or design their own.

Introducing Apollo 13

The surprise? The whole project cost just US$487 in parts. That’s not counting labor, of course, and there’s a lot of that, but even keeping parts cost that low on a one-off is a major achievement.

The parts:

$200 – pushbutton leds
$180 – the actual MIDI interface*
$20 – all faders (big and small)
$20 – a sheet of 6061 aluminum
$20 – a sheet of 16ga steel
$11 – knobs
$10 – nylon stand offs and matching screws
$10 – all resistors
$8 – various wire
$5 – perf board
$3 – all diodes

And having used various options, the winner for assembling the controller – one I think is a fine choice for this application – is Livid’s Builder. He then builds a lot from scratch.

Of course, an easier solution would be to opt instead for Livid’s modular Elements product (more on that in a bit), but that eliminates the fun of having a truly custom layout and shell.

Of course, it has to light up. Photo courtesy the artist.

By the way, here’s what I said in 2005, rather casually; this certainly turned out to be true. What’s incredible is that there wasn’t much in the way of hardware at the time; a lot of people used gear like the M-Audio Oxygen8, though, then again, that still works reasonably well. What there was was the German-built, compact Faderfox – which still remains a competitive choice today. I wrote:

[The Maven] demonstrates how adding physical control can optimize working in Live for more active remixing. That’s a huge deal for those of us improvising whole musical sets with live instruments onstage. Sasha’s first out of the gate with this expensive custom job, but with new cheaper, plastic options for us poorer folks, you can bet this is a trend that will spread fast.

Also amusing: Sasha at the time lugged around a giant iMac G5, something you don’t have to do any more.

On reflection, the biggest change is that doing this sort of custom hardware is much more inexpensive than it was in 2005, owing to lots of custom shops (both locally and in China). And it’s also vastly better-documented and more accessible, via easier-to-use hardware platforms.

I absolutely adore this quote from Mythbusters’ Adam Savage, at the end:

“…maybe then I’ll achieve the end of this exercise, but really if we’re all going to be honest with ourselves I have to admit that achieving the end of the exercise was never the point of the exercise to begin with was it?”
– Adam Savage

Amen, brother.

Let us know if you get inspired by (the other) Adam’s work to try your own exercise in DIY controllers.

  • Adam Dzak
    • Peter Kirn

      Yep, brilliant.

  • Adam Dzak

    It’s worth adding, I too use an iMac. The cardboard they ship it in just isn’t durable though – had to build a wooden version.

    • Peter Kirn

      God, that’s beautiful. Is there a reason why you chose to use the iMac? (It certainly looks awesome – and I assume this box means you hide it under the stage?)

    • Adam Dzak

      Thanks! I put it together sometime around 2009 but it’s still my travel case to this day. I picked the iMac because no one else besides Apple really builds a PC like this. Plus as I said in the post, I’m a full time IT guy – the original intent of the purchase was to be equally skilled in Unix (MacOS) and Windows in my future career (i was a junior in college at the time). However, I installed Windows the day I got it and haven’t looked back.

      Finally – hide this thing under the stage? If anything it’s on display whenever I can play!

  • Jeffrey Collins

    I noticed i’m seeing all kinds of stuff on Adam’s page. Except where the headphone input is??? It’s kinda pointless to have a headphone volume, without the input for the actual headphones. Other than that. THIS IS FREAKING AWESOME! Thanks for sharing the info.

    • Adam Dzak

      The headphone input implies an internal sound card or something of the sorts on The Maven – yet I have a headphone knob on the board…this is solved with a USB sound card runs out of the computer with two outs, one for headphones and one for master out. Again, the Apollo doesn’t do any audio processing. It’s strictly a MIDI controller. That said, that knob (or any one of them on the board) could just as easily be assigned to another function.

      Then again, I suppose I could just put the USB sound card inside of the Apollo 13 and run two USB cords to it.

  • Mike Stannard

    How did you get the moveable clip launch matrix in Ableton (the adjustable red box that determines which clips your matrix is controlling)? Was that custom programming?

    • Adam Dzak

      Yes, it was custom programming that I’m going to delve into in a blogpost I’m shooting to have posted within the next 2 weeks. But, in the spirit of answering this question a bit more and attempting to stay brief….

      C:Program Files (x86)AbletonLive x.x.xResourcesMIDI Remote Scripts

      You will find ALL of the controllers Live lists in its selection of devices. These scripts are written in Python and always come in pairs. Copy a set out and open them up with notepad or something.

      I knew going into this that i was trying to copy APC40 functionality, so i found those files, opened them up, and spent the afternoon understanding them specifically – WHERE IS THAT RED BOX?!?! Fortunately several hours later, it started coming together. I have a hard .NET/C# slant to me, but programming is programming and this was just learning how python works. But I’m not the only one in search of this elusive function, others have done it as well and offer some interesting ways of breaking into this functionality for your own controller.

      If you are looking for some reading/internet searches, look for “ableton midi remote scripts” and the sorts.

      Stay tuned to my blog!