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.
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.
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!
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.
This arrangement takes up the full depth and about two thirds of the width of the APC40. The remaining third is taken up by two banks of eight continuous rotary knobs, the former for ‘track control’, the latter for ‘device control’, a crossfader and some buttons. Beneath the track control knobs are four buttons labelled pan and send (a,b, & c respectively). Press one of these buttons and all 8 track control knobs perform that function, each knob being automatically mapped to one consecutive track, with pseudo total recall courtesy of the greed LEDs encircling them. I would prefer these knobs and buttons to be located in the APC40’s channel strips, as this would be in keeping with Live’s layout and is more logical to those of us used to mixing desks.
Beneath this section are the aforementioned bank select button and for DJs, a tap tempo button (which works very well) and plus and minus tempo nudge buttons (which offer the potential for integration into a deck based DJing setup, though they did give me mixed results).
Next down are the device control knobs which control the parameters of Live’s devices i.e. the Live instruments/effects inserted in a track (and which, like the track control knobs, are laid out in two rows of four). Having used the track selection buttons to give a track focus, you turn on/off and move between instruments/effects within a track using the left/right arrow buttons and device on/off button located beneath them. The device control knobs come pre mapped to the parameters of Live’s devices, which works fantastically well with devices offering less than 8 parameters…however, many offer more than 8 parameters and in these cases, the choice of parameters to which they are mapped can be a little random… added to which, neither Live nor the APC40 indicate which parameters are mapped to which knobs, turning this whole affair into a bit of a craps shoot… This is something that is in urgent need of remedy by way of a software update for Live that enables it to highlight mapped parameters indicating to which knobs they mapped.
Device control extends to third party plug-ins too. Although the APC40 doesn’t automatically map to them, it’s simple to do this yourself by clicking the configure button followed by the parameter you want to change and then twiddling the knob you want to use to use to change it with. Annoyingly though, manual mapping only appears to work on a local basis, so every time you use a fresh instance of a plug-in, you have to configure this instance from scratch. Perhaps Akai should license Novation’s Automap technology…and perhaps Ableton should include configure buttons in Live’s built in effects and instruments so that if you don’t like the way that the APC40 has them configured, it’s easy to change this.
Beneath all of this are clip/track and detail view buttons that toggle the display accordingly, record quantization, MIDI overdub, metronome, play stop and record buttons, which do what they say on the labels and a replaceable crossfader.
Round the Back
In addition to a power socket (for a wall wart unfortunately), power button and USB socket, there are two sockets to which foot switches can be connected, opening up even greater control possibilities.
Because the APC40 communicates bi-directionally with Live, all of the pads, knobs and sliders work exactly as you would expect them to, with absolutely no perceptible latency whatsoever. What’s more, they feel good to use and the visual feedback on offer makes it easy to see what’s going on (with the exception of Live’s devices) making the APC40 extremely intuitive to use. Anyone familiar with Live will feel instantly at home with the APC40.
Because the APC40 generates MIDI data over USB, it can double up as a control surface for any MIDI mappable software. I tried mapping it to Resolume Avenue, which turned out to be as easy as it was rewarding. The only fly in the ointment is that when controlling other software, the coloured lights in the APC40’s clip launch buttons do not work…at least not without some serious hackery, as Akai do not support third party usage or even provide the necessary information, which seems like a mistake. Nevertheless, even without the coloured lights, Live, Resolume Avenue & the Akai Professional APC40 are an extremely potent and heady combination!
Despite there being clip/track and detail view buttons, somewhat surprisingly there’s no dedicated button for switching between session and clip views. Although there’s a crossfader the A/B crossfader assignment buttons found in Live are not replicated on the APC40. However, the most glaring omissions must be that the APC40 offers no control of Live’s browser and no control over looping and other aspects of audio clips. Sadly, this means you are still reliant upon a mouse to access some of Live’s functionality.
The solution I’d like to see, in a future version, is the inclusion of a trackpad, which would address several of these omissions, completely remove the need for a mouse and provide direct control of the XY pads in Live’s (and third party) instruments & effects, which would, in turn, free up some of the knobs that are currently and somewhat unsatisfactorily assigned to replicating XY pad functionality. Placing the pan/send knobs and buttons in the ‘channel strips’, as previously discussed, would provide more than enough space for such a trackpad (be it laptop or chaos pad sized).
The Akai APC40 exceeded my expectations in every respect. As good as it looks in photos and videos, it’s not until you get up close and personal with it that you realise just how good it really is. Sure it’s not 100 per cent perfect, nothing is..except for me of course, but getting hung up upon what’s missing would be missing the point. The simple fact is that the APC40 liberates Live from your laptop, finally enabling it to fulfil its true potential as a live performance instrument and remix tool, thereby taking it to a whole new level. So until such time as Akai bring out an APC80, with a Novation Launchpad sized 8×8 grid, pans in the channel strips, a trackpad, more knobs (preferably with LED/LCD displays), some extra buttons and an APC60 expander to accompany it, the APC40 is simply the best Live controller there is and as such, an absolute must have for anyone using Live, be it in the studio or live!
More info: www.akaipro.com
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