This little device looks destined for the stratosphere.
Text: Anthony Touma
Ableton controllers will be jostling in the marketplace like AFL footballers in 2010, and over this pack of knobs, faders and sliders, Novation is poised to take the screamer. Offering a clever and simple solution that will likely satisfy Live users in a whole new way, the Launchpad has well and truly arrived, bringing with it a classy, minimal and extremely innovative approach.
Describing the layout of this little gem is best achieved by simply asking you, the reader, to look at the photo. Here, you’ll notice a matrix of 64 rubber pads making up the vast majority of the Launchpad’s surface. These are used to do everything from launch clips and control volume, to manipulating pan and send levels – which we’ll discuss in greater detail in a moment – while across the top and down one side are another 16 round buttons, the vertical eight of which are fixed in their functionality, while the horizontals handle scene launching and various mixer section controls, depending on the mode you’re dialled into.
The entire unit is backlit in a similar way to another Live controller, the Akai APC-40, with colour-coded pads providing clear information about which project clips are loaded and their relative status. The buttons are made of a firm rubber material which feels sturdy when pressed; the pads themselves being very responsive and easily triggered, whether tapped on a corner or smack in the middle. The exoskeleton of the unit is made of hard plastic, with four thin rubber pads underneath providing slip-free placement on any reasonably horizontal surface. All this comes in a neat and decidedly thin package (24 x 24 x 2cm), suitable for even the most modest of backpacks. Simply put, it’s tiny!
LAUNCHING – SIMPLE AS 10, 9, 8…
Kicking things off with the Launchpad is a piece of cake. The unit comes with a standard USB driver CD with a simple ‘three-click’ install procedure that’s navigable regardless of your blood alcohol reading. It also comes with a ‘Launchpad Edition’ of Ableton Live 8.0.6 (the minimum supported version of Live) to get you going – assuming you don’t have the program already. There’s even a USB cable with a right-angle connector at the Launchpad end of proceedings that ensures the cable tucks neatly out of the way. It’s also USB powered so there’s no need for a wall-wart, making the unit even more portable.
The Launchpad is a powerful and creative yet wickedly simple device. Given the controller was developed in conjunction with Ableton (à la the Akai APC-40), the Launchpad provides a similar red border around scenes and the mixer section – within Live’s session view – to clearly indicate the controller’s current focus. In conjunction with these visual indicators, the Launchpad operates in one of four main modes: Session, Mixer or one of two customisable User modes.
In Session mode, 56 square pads are each assigned to a clip in Ableton Live (seven clips per channel across eight channels). Each pad is backlit and indicates its clip status: an amber light denotes a loaded clip, a green light indicates the clip is playing, while a red light shows the clip is recording. The remaining bottom row of eight pads act as ‘stop clip’ buttons for each channel. Navigating beyond the first eight channels, or further down the page beyond the first seven clips, is simply a matter of pushing one of the four scroll buttons – left, right, up or down – at the top-left of the unit. Using the Launchpad in Session mode feels as familiar as well-worn shoes, given its similarities with the padded section of the APC-40, even though it’s a lot smaller and more direct than the Akai in the absence of any knobs and faders. Having nothing but clip buttons in front of you makes performing very palpable.
In Mixer mode, the nitty gritty of what Launchpad can do really starts to reveal itself. By pressing the Mixer button on the top right, the unit shifts into a different dimension, turning itself into a more traditional mixer, where the 64 pads control the signal in strips. In Mixer mode, the bottom four rows become solo, mute, arm and stop controls (across eight channels at a time), while the top four rows act as reset buttons for sends, pans and volume for each channel. This gives you handy access to the mixer controls at the simple press of a button. In this mode, the round horizontal buttons allow you to access ‘pages’ to control various other aspects of the mixer. Each of these pages operates by treating a vertical row of pads as a quasi-fader. Using each row of pads allows you to increase or decrease effects, volume and pan levels depending on the page you’re in. There are two send pages – A and B – which allow you to control FX level sends (indicated by red lights), while the pan page allows you to control pan from the centre by selecting pads either up or down (for left/right panning). These are backlit in yellow. The volume page allows you to control volume by pushing pads from the bottom up. These are lit green.
This very new approach to mixer and application control works well in the real world. However, becoming accustomed to switching through pages does take a bit of getting used to, given that virtually every button on the controller performs a different function depending on the mode you’re in. It’s easy to see how one could adapt to this way of working though; some diligent formatting of your projects in Live to suit the layout and logic of Launchpad would quickly minimise the complication.
What is perhaps most frustrating about the design is that the volume controls are stepped. When increasing the volume by one pad, a noticeable volume boost is triggered on the mixer, and this occurs instantly with no ramping up or down between levels. After some searching online I didn’t find any mention or solution to this, but it’s still early days on this front I presume. This shortcoming doesn’t make the Launchpad a tool for precise control of levels, panning and FX, but in terms of performance, it’s easy enough to control clip gains in Live prior to performance anyway, to ensure this isn’t a problem. Aside from that, I didn’t find myself longing for encoders much, but each user’s ‘fader envy quotient’ will differ depending on how you’ve grown accustomed to performing with Ableton in the past.
There are two User modes on the Launchpad, accessible by pressing either User 1 or User 2 buttons, again along the top row of horizontal buttons. These are customisable modes that allow you to assign the pads to any instrument or effect you like. By default, User mode 1 controls the Drum Rack, which shows off how easily Launchpad can act as a drum controller straight out of the wrapper. The downside is that the unit doesn’t have velocity sensitive pads. This can be partially circumvented by using the Ableton plug-in Velocity, which allows users to at least set a different fixed MIDI velocity for the pads. In terms of playing drums this isn’t perhaps a big issue – although some might beg to differ on that – but with more expressive synths, for instance, it’s far from ideal. Having said that, the Launchpad comes in at an extremely appealing price point, delivering amazing bang for buck, so in that context this limitation is easily forgiven.
LAUNCHING A SALVO
The ability to connect up to six Launchpads through a USB hub is something I can’t imagine many people doing, but it is theoretically possible, according to Novation. This would allow you to have extensive control over your entire session on stage – provided the table you’re set up on is wide enough! Using so many controllers is probably excessive for most and I would more realistically envisage having perhaps two running simultaneously (one in Session mode and one in Mixer mode would be the ideal setup for most Live rock stars). The Launchpad would also make an excellent accompaniment to your existing setup if you were simply after more pads for your rig. The Launchpad also comes with Novation’s Automap software, which can be downloaded from the Novation site for free and allows the Launchpad to be used as a standard MIDI controller. Every button on the unit (72 altogether) can be customised for use with your DAW application of choice.
GO WITH THROTTLE UP
With a recommended retail of $299 (expect to pay less than this in reality), the Novation Launchpad arrives in a league of its own, with an excellent concept and respectable build quality. I’d imagine many users already committed to a more elaborate unit like the APC-40 or über pimp Ohm64 [reviewed later this issue] will consider buying the Launchpad just to have in their gig bags as a backup. Its functionality alone is enough to satisfy most experienced users, while remaining inviting to beginners fresh to the Ableton Live experience. Throw two into the mix and you’ll have a ton of Live control for mere pennies.