Akai Professional APC40 Ableton Live Controller

Ableton Live is something of a dichotomy. For live performance and remixing it provides the best possible software interface…which is seriously constrained by the worst possible hardware interface…a screen and a mouse. And if that’s not bad enough, running Live on a laptop, on stage, makes it look more like you’re surfing the web than performing. The answer is a control surface that frees you from the prison of the computer and lets you play ‘Live’. Although there are plenty of these around, until recently, none were optimal or optimised for working with Live. However, Akai Professional’s dedicated Live controller, the APC40, changes this.

First Impressions

My initial impression, when unboxing the APC40, was one of (pleasant) surprise. Both the pictures I had seen of it and my experience of other control surfaces to date, had me expecting a smaller, flimsier, plasticy unit. What I got was a nicely proportioned (about the width and twice the depth of a computer keyboard), solidly constructed (metal with rubberised ends) piece of hardware that looks like it can stand up to some serious abuse…which is exactly what it is likely to get on the road and it is clear that in designing it, Akai have paid as much attention to where it is going to be used as to how. Although this metal construction makes the APC40 heavier than it looks, it’s a small price to pay for such ruggedness.

Setup

There ain’t none! Really. The APC40 has been designed, in partnership with Ableton, to work with Live 8 (and 7) straight out of the box. As a result there are no drivers to install, you simply plug it into your computer (via USB, there’s no MIDI sockets), select it as the control surface in Live’s preferences and…that’s it!

Control

Being a Live controller, a substantial part of the APC40 is, unsurprisingly, taken up with a (8×5) grid of clip launch buttons. Live makes it easy to see which of these buttons launches which clip by automatically placing a red rectangle around a corresponding 8×5 grid of clips on screen. Pressing one of the APC40’s four ‘bank select’ buttons moves this rectangle one clip in any direction and holding down the adjacent shift button whilst doing so moves it by a bank of five vertical and eight horizontal clips at a time. In practice, I found this to be the wrong way round and wish there was a simple way to switch this behaviour so that, by default, the bank select button actually moves everything by…a bank!

The clip launch buttons have four states – unlit (no clip), orange (unlaunched clip), green (launched i.e. currently playing clip) and red (recording). Pressing an unlit clip button will (provided the track is armed) turn it red and start it recording. Pressing an orange button either makes it blink orange as it prepares to turn green and play, or turn green and play straight away (depending upon how the current song is configured). Each button is about the size of an average fingertip, with enough space either size for the larger than average fingertips.

Below the clip launch grid is a row of stop clip buttons, to its right, a column of scene launch buttons and where they intersect, a stop all clips button. Below the clip stop row is a row of track selection buttons (1-8 and master) that give focus to a track, a row of 8 track activator buttons, a row of 8 solo/cue buttons (which turn blue when pressed, making it easy to see what is soloed) and a row of 8 record arm buttons. To the right of these is a cue level knob and beneath all of this are 9 faders (8 tracks and a master). The tensioning of the these faders is spot on and they work in almost perfect harmony with Live’s on screen faders. I say almost perfect because, for some strange reason, Live does not utilise their full throw, leaving a small amount of play at either end.

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