AKAI APC40 Custom Control for Ableton Live

September 1, 2009
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0909 Akai APC40 main  

 

HANDS-ON

1. If you want a lot of buttons with your faders and knobs, you’ve come to the right place. Forty multicolored, backlit buttons indicate clip play/record status. Press them to trigger your audio and MIDI clips in Live.

2. Dedicated track select buttons work together with the Device Control section to quickly jump to parameters for instruments and effects.

3. Track Control gives you pan and A/B/C sends for eight tracks at a time, though that can be confusing if you want to control just one track.

4. Bank Select buttons let you control hundreds of clips in one Session, if you’re so inclined.

5. Dedicated buttons like Tap Tempo and MIDI Overdub make playing and editing much quicker.

 6. Device Control will map to the eight Macro settings in a Live Device, or the first eight parameters on a Device or plug-in.

7.Switch between Devices on a track with these dedicated buttons.

 

Since its unveiling in 2001, Ableton Live [version 8 reviewed last month] has always been something unique: a sequencing instrument with playable audio and (later) MIDI clips, and a realtime approach to control. That, however, has begged the question of how to control those parameters: In the studio or onstage, a mouse or trackpad can be unsatisfying. Live enthusiasts have responded with ingenious and varied adaptations of everything from runof- the-mill MIDI controllers to Nintendo Wii remotes and homebrewed hardware. But the Akai APC40 is the first controller to evolve from a direct collaboration with Ableton. The resulting hardware looks more like the on-screen Live interface than anything seen before. So, is this the controller for which Live users have been waiting?

HARDWARE DESIGN

The APC layout is dominated by an array of buttons, not unlike the grid on the cult-hit Monome controller (monome.org). Around this array are controls that cover track mixing functions, device parameters, and frequently-used software shortcuts. The single-rail faders feel reasonably smooth, the knobs feel terrific, and the buttons are responsive, combining in solid, durablefeeling hardware. You certainly wouldn’t suspect at first touch that it costs only $400, and for the amount of functions it has, it fits in a compact area. What you won’t find are hardware MIDI in and out ports: The APC40 is a computer-only controller. You also won’t find any onboard display; you’ll rely on your computer for that. Used in the dark, the APC looks great, with light-up feedback for most of the buttons, all of the triggers, and all of the encoders.

PLUG, PLAY, AND TRIGGER

The APC is the very definition of plug and play — that is, once you find a plug. All those lights and buttons use more power than USB can provide, so you need a separate AC adapter, which is included. The cord on it is quite short, so you may need an extension cord.

Once powered, though, APC40 setup is easy. If you already own Live, you can even skip the software installation process; the APC needs no drivers, and the disc is only necessary if you want to try the special Akai edition of Live Lite. Otherwise, just turn the hardware on, start Live, select the APC in Live’s Control Surface preferences, and you’re ready to go. The APC automatically maps to everything in your Session View without further intervention, with faders and encoders providing instant control of every parameter. That much we’ve seen before in technologies like Automap on the Novation ReMote series, and even in other applications like Propellerhead Reason. But the APC40 goes beyond earlier efforts, with interactive control of clips.

Anywhere you’ve got a clip in your Session View, the APC’s clip buttons light up amber. Press a button, it becomes green, and the clip begins playing. Hit dedicated buttons along the bottom of each column, and you stop all the clips in that track. Hit buttons along each row, and you’ll trigger a Scene (a row of Clips in your Session View). Arm a track — again via a dedicated button — and the button flashes red to indicate that you’re record-ready, changing to solid red once recording begins. You never run out of buttons, either, thanks to smart bank navigation. Bank buttons allow you to scroll through clips one row, one column, or set of columns and rows at a time. Press shift, and you can jump to a specific position. A red rectangle onscreen shows you which set of clips is selected in Live’s interface. Coupled with Live 8’s new screen zooming feature, your computer screen becomes a usable heads-up display.

All of this has been possible before, but only with painstaking creation of custom MIDI templates, and with neither the lightup feedback on the hardware nor the onscreen feedback in software. For clip enthusiasts, this is simply the best hardware interaction with Live yet. That said, it’s also cause for concern: even though all of this interaction happens over MIDI, Ableton has not indicated that any of these features will be available to other hardware. That seems to conflict with the very reason to standardize using MIDI in the first place. Also, if you swap between the APC and another controller for different tasks, you’ll get one set of feedback onscreen with the APC and another with other hardware.

The APC’s layout is more tailored to Live than anything seen before — even the boutique Faderfox series of controllers. There aren’t buttons for everything, but dedicated controls like MIDI Overdub, Record Quantization, the Clip/Track View toggle, and Tempo Nudge will be familiar to Live users. Track-by-track control can be a bit awkward: There are separate banks for Pan and A, B, and C sends, which then map to all eight selected tracks — physically opposite from the fader controls for the tracks. Device Control, in addition, is fantastic: The eight encoders on the bottom right automatically map to the first eight parameters of any device, and dedicated keys let you move from Device to Device, in a configuration especially useful with Device Racks. The only problem is, without LCDs on the hardware — as on the M-Audio Axiom Pro or Novation ReMote line — you’ll have to look at your computer screen to know what you’re controlling.

Got a lot of clips and tracks in one session? A red rectangle (around the group of tracks to the right) shows you which eight tracks -- and 40 clips -- are under the APC's control.

live8rectangle.jpg


MIDI CONTROL

Automatic control is great, but what if you don’t like the defaults? Overriding the default behavior is easy. Enable the MIDI Map in Live, and you can replace any assignment for any control on the APC, while leaving the dynamic assignments functioning perfectly — even for some of the clip triggering buttons if desired. The mappings will be saved with your Session, so you may want to create a template if you frequently use certain assignments.

Oddly, though, despite the fact that this is essentially a MIDI controller, it lacks a lot of the features you expect from even lowend MIDI hardware. Akai ships only a minimal “Quick Start” manual for the device. Breaking from tradition, there’s no MIDI implementation chart, even though the APC40 uses standard MIDI messages. [As of press time, we also couldn’t find extended documentation at Akai’s website. –Ed.] The APC40 also has one fixed set of MIDI messages it transmits and receives, with no editor and no alternative layouts. That’s already limiting even in Live, let alone other software. While the parameter assignments and clip selection are dynamic, you can’t set up multiple pages of your own controls as you can with conventional controllers. Outside of Live, the APC’s rigidity becomes a bigger problem. Bank selection of the top encoders no longer works, and you’re limited to the default assignments. (Fortunately, while Akai doesn’t document this feature, you can trigger light changes using simple MIDI messages.)

CONCLUSIONS

The APC40 is a thoughtfully laid-out device that echoes the best parts of Session View with the functions you’re most likely to use most often. If your Live workflow revolves around triggering clips, and you spend all your time in Live, it’ll be tough to find anything that can beat the APC40 — so long as you don’t mind looking at your computer screen to see what Device you’re controlling.

Not all Live users want to trigger clips; keyboardists and fans of MPCstyle velocity-sensitive pads will of course look at other forms of controllers. Because the APC40-wth-Live combo unlocks certain mappings and software features that aren’t provided to other MIDI devices, things can also get a bit kludgey if you use Live alongside other software. Still, the APC40 is a leap forward for Live users who are focused on Live’s Devices and clips. If this describes your workflow, it’s in a class by itself and an outstanding value.

PROS

Powerful clip control, even in big sets. Interactive light-up buttons and onscreen clip feedback. Clever shortcuts. Smart, mouse-free device mapping. Easy to override defaults in Live. Lots of control for the money.

CONS

No MIDI in/out ports. Short power cord. Lack of a built-in display can make device parameters confusing. No MIDI assignment editing or templates.

INFO

$599 list/approx. $399 street, akaipro.com

NEED TO KNOW

What is it? A dynamic MIDI controller built around the interface in Ableton Live, with control for MIDI and audio clips, tracks, views, and device parameters.

What’s with all those buttons? These are the best-yet view of the MIDI and audio clips in Ableton’s Session View, with feedback on which clips are available, which are playing, and which are recording.

Can I make my own MIDI assignments? Yes, by invoking the MIDI Map. You’ll lose the dynamic, automatic assignment of that button, encoder, or fader, but the rest of the layout will continue to work automatically.

Who’s this for — and who isn’t it for? The APC40 is primarily for Live users who work frequently with clips — in other words, it’s a hardware reflection of Live’s Session View. But that could make it useful for DJs, laptop musicians, and even people running theater sound cues from Live. It’s less likely to be useful if you regularly use other software or focus more on drum pads or keyboards as your main interface.

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