LIVID INSTRUMENTS OHM64
In the case of this customisable controller, you can see the wood from the trees.
Text: Anthony Touma
DJs and producers taking to the stage with elaborate live performances are fast becoming the norm these days. With the rise of these new hybrid DJ/musicians, manufacturers are in a rush to play catch-up and supply them with new performance tools befitting their innovative working methods. The gamut of controllers is growing by the minute, each appearing better than the next, but as is often the case in this post-modern era, mass production and economies of scale tend to take precedence over good old-fashioned, handmade quality and individuality. Simply put, most of these new performance tools tend to look pretty ho-hum – bland and lightweight. So it was perhaps only a matter of time before someone stepped up to deliver a performance controller that could be individually configured and pimped to a performer’s delight. Like the rock star that insists on a Les Paul adorned with custom pickups and an amethyst pearl paint job, the Ohm64 is a well-endowed, handmade controller built by some adroit sonic cowboys in Austin, Texas who call themselves Livid Instruments.
The Ohm64 is a MIDI controller like no other. Designed for those looking to perform audio-visual feats on stage with style, the Ohm64 has a cool bag of tricks up its sleeve whether you’re using it for sound, video or lighting duties. The look of this dazzling controller alone is enough to get anyone curious, and in use it certainly displays some major appeal.
Looking at the Ohm64, the first thing that keeps coming to mind is the term ‘Neo Vintage’. The most obvious physical attribute of the unit is the wooden (yes, wooden) enclosure made from a light hardwood known as Jelutong. Livid offers the unit’s wooden carcass in three finishes: red, blue or lacquered – and will even supply it unfinished for the keen DIY’er who might want to adorn it with his or her own masterpiece.
As you can see from the picture above, the top of the controller is comprised of a whopping 8 x 8 grid of 64 backlit rubber pads, 16 rotary encoders, a horizontal cross-fader, and eight vertical faders. Under each of these faders is a single rubber pad, while a further set of six general-purpose pads appears on the top right. The faders and rotary encoders all feel excellent and solid to the touch. Unfortunately, the encoders don’t rotate through a full 360°, which is preferable for MIDI control – this would have iced the cake in terms of the unit’s functionality. A very light cross fader with a wooden handle also inhabits the traditional bottom-centre position and everything sits under a single sheet of thick laser-cut aluminium, backlit by blue LEDs. The whole unit comes in at around 45 x 27 x 5cm (and under 3kg). It’s certainly the right shape for a backpack and light enough not to weigh you down while on the run between gigs. The Ohm64 is also USB powered but deals with MIDI via the more traditional pair of DIN sockets; one for In, one for Out.
The Ohm64 comes with its own editing software comprised of a simple UI that mirrors the control surface, allowing for simple, user-friendly yet unprecedented MIDI assignment. The level of configurability is impressive. It can both send and receive MIDI and allow users to configure the controller down to CC parameter level. The unit can be fashioned into an instrument, a lighting controller or performance tool, and with a few simple tweaks through the software I was able to commit changes to the unit’s flash memory and have it behaving like a synth, using the rubber pads like keyboard keys or as a more classic drum machine.
Another very innovative step taken by the designers at Livid has been the decision to opt for Open Source software. The Open Source methodology ensures the actual code of the editing software is available to all. This allows users with programming knowledge to get right into the guts of the editor. It’s the first time I’ve seen this approach to MIDI editing software and it further attests to the customisation focus of the Ohm64. All things being equal, this approach will almost certainly spawn additional software contributions from musically inclined programmers worldwide. The controller is also intended for VJs and comes with another Livid-developed application called Cell DNA VJ, which allows VJs to launch clips and execute visual effects using the Ohm64. I’m not a VJ myself, but the program certainly sports a clean UI and its integration with the Ohm64 hardware is tight.
Obviously the layout of the Ohm64 has been predominantly pitched at Ableton Live users, making it familiar to use in this context right from the get-go. The pads are smaller than the more common drum pads found on Akai controllers, but they certainly have a similar feel. They’re responsive, sturdy, and look capable of withstanding abuse for years to come.
The grid buttons are labelled 1–64, allowing for users to dictate their own nomenclature via a numeric system. I initially customised my layout of the controller so the last column of vertical pads on the far right triggered scenes; faders were set to control volume and the pads under each of these faders were set for muting. With this configuration I got comfortable with the unit fairly quickly. One downside I did discover, however, was with the backlighting blue LEDs. Although blue is quite calming (even the intensity can be altered via the software), the use of different coloured lights to indicate program and controller states – as seen in the APC40 and Launchpad – is something I did miss a little. In a similar vein, the Ohm64 doesn’t provide the red bordering of Ableton Live itself to show you where your controller is in relation to the application. This limitation is understandable of course – it’s the trade-off of creating a controller that’s application non-specific as opposed to one that’s dedicated to a single program. These fairly trivial shortcomings aside, overall I found myself getting right into the Ohm64 and eventually falling in love with its quality.
Anyone who takes his or her Live gigging seriously and wants a unique controller should check out what the Ohm64 has to offer. It’s built with customisation in mind and the use of real wood is something scarcely seen in furniture these days let alone MIDI controllers. The omission of endless rotary encoders may deter some, but the quality will bring you much joy for many moons. Retailing in Australia for $899 (but no doubt selling for significantly less than that), the Ohm64 is in direct competition with the Akai APC40. In terms of its features the Ohm64 isn’t quite as tightly integrated with Ableton as the Akai, but it certainly excels in terms of build quality and its use with various other applications. This makes the Ohm64 a serious contender if you’re looking for a controller that will happily marry to your individual style.