Grid controllers are taking off. For musicians and DJs who trigger audio or video clips, a grid of backlit buttons makes more sense than a traditional keyboard. Plus, the blinky lights add to the stage show.
The Yamaha Tenori-On looks like a grid controller, but it’s actually a self-contained musical instrument. Closer to the dreams of experimental electronic musicians is the Monome, a bare box of buttons.
Livid’s Ohm64 aims to go further than the Monome in giving you hands-on control over your music. Its 8 x 8 button grid is supplemented by 16 knobs, eight sliders, a DJ crossfader, and 17 extra “off the grid” buttons that you can tap to trigger special events. The knobs and sliders feel solid and move smoothly. Livid also makes the less expensive Block ($399), which pairs an 8 x 8 button grid with eight smaller knobs and only two sliders.
Controlling Your Software
The sliders are long-throw, with about 2.25" of travel.
The Ohm64 transmits MIDI data—either note info or controller messages. What you do with the data is entirely up to you. Unlike most keyboard-based MIDI controllers, the Ohm64 has no onboard smarts, not even an LCD or a bank of preset memory locations. To program it, you run the free Ohm64 Editor software (see below). This is not a limitation, however, because the Ohm64 will always be tethered to a computer by a USB cable—it runs on USB power only, and doesn’t even have an AC adaptor jack.
The best way to take advantage of the Ohm64’s strengths is to use it with a program such as Ableton Live or Cycling ’74 Max/MSP. By assigning each button to trigger a different clip in Live, you gain tactile control over a whole bank of clips—you’ll want to assign the horizontal slider to Live’s crossfader. With Max or Pd (PureData, an open-source programming language popular with electronic music DIYers), you can go much, much further. For instance, you can change the knob and slider assignments on the fly while the music plays. If you have Max For Live, so much the better.
The knobs aren’t endless; they “pin” at five and seven o’clock. None of the knobs or sliders has a center detent, which makes them great for smooth moves like filter sweeps but less so for things with a “home” value, like pitchbend.
Livid just released an Ohm64 template for Propellerhead Reason. The Ohm64 is also widely used with NI Traktor and with trackers such as Renoise. Arkaos Grand VJ ships with an Ohm64 template. The LividStep sequencer for Max For Live is available as a free download from Livid’s website.
When you buy an Ohm64, you get a free copy of Livid’s Cell DNA video software, which otherwise sells for $149. For live shows, you may find this extremely useful, as it lets you trigger video clips directly from the Ohm. Installing the Ohm64 in my Windows 7 system was a no-brainer. The Ohm64 is USB class-compliant on Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux, which means there’s no driver—I plugged it in, Windows recognized it, and I was ready to go.
Buttons and Sliders
What’s not to like about a big bank of buttons? Well, maybe one or two things. The limitation of the Ohm64’s buttons is that they don’t sense finger velocity. Hitting a button transmits a note-on with a velocity of 64, and releasing the button sends a note-off. There’s no toggle mode in which tapping a button once sends a note-on and tapping it again sends the corresponding note-off. The absence of velocity sensing is no big deal if you primarily trigger clips in Live, but drum machine programmers may find it less desirable.
The Ohm64 Editor (Mac/PC) lets you assign each button outgoing and incoming MIDI messages: either notes or controllers. The pop-up edit window follows you around when you click on a graphic object, or trigger that object on the Ohm64 itself. DOWNLOAD IT HERE.
If you’re running Max or Pd, you can easily set up a patch in which one of the Ohm’s sliders changes the velocities of subsequent notes. A toggle mode would be almost as easy to program, as would more complex logic. For instance, you could set up a row of buttons so that seven of them send note-ons when pressed, but never send note-offs, while the eighth button does send note-offs for the other seven.
It’d be impossible for the Livid crew to imagine all the things users may want to do with the Ohm, so it makes sense that they leave it up to you to design your own software. But I can’t help wishing the button grid had a bit more onboard smarts—for example, if you want a button to light up, you have to send it a MIDI message from the computer.
The good news is, the Ohm doesn’t enforce any sort of rigid correlation between your fingers and the lights. You could set up a Max patch that would light a given button automatically to indicate that the button is armed and ready for a finger-tap. Or you could have the lights step across the rows in time with a multi-row step sequencer, with each row moving at a different speed. The bad news is, extra programming will usually be needed to get the buttons to light up. One exception is that if you’ve assigned buttons to trigger clips in Ableton Live, Live will transmit the corresponding MIDI notes back to the Ohm automatically, to show which clips are playing.
All the hardware controls transmit on the same MIDI channel. If you want to set up split or layered zones and transmit on several channels, you’ll need some kind of software to process the Ohm’s MIDI output— or to simply handle your channelizing and zoning on the receiving end, which most DAWs and multitimbral soft synths do these days.
Speaking of MIDI, the Ohm64 also has MIDI in and out jacks. You can use the Ohm as a MIDI interface to your computer, or control hardware modules directly from its panel.
In the Ohm64 Editor you choose either a note or controller message for each button; for knobs and sliders, you choose a controller or pitchbend. The MIDI inputs that light the buttons are normally the same as the outputs, but they don’t have to be. By switching off Safe Assign mode, you can assign any number of buttons to the same MIDI note if you want. A minor bug in version 1.07 causes the drop-down menu for each button’s output to always display “note,” even after you’ve switched that button to “controller.”
Other Editor commands let you view incoming MIDI messages, view a list of all current MIDI assignments, send the current state of the Editor to the Ohm, store it in the Ohm’s flash memory, and so on. For complex reconfiguration of the Ohm in performance, you can delve into its MIDI sys-ex implementation, which is documented on the Ohm64 Wiki at wiki.lividinstruments.com. No printed manual is shipped with the Ohm.
You can easily save and load various preset configurations using the software, but only one preset can reside in the Ohm64 at a given time; to switch presets, you need the Editor software. In Windows, this is a problem, as it’s not possible to run the Editor at the same time as your DAW. You have to program the Ohm first, then quit the Editor and launch the DAW. In Mac OS X, the two programs can both run at once.
The Ohm64 will appeal to you if you perform with Max/MSP, Live, Grand VJ, or other interactive software—and especially if you’re solidly in the DIY camp of customizing your setup by programming your own control assignments. Thanks to the knobs and sliders, it’s far more capable than buttons-only grid controllers, and far more flexible than controllers whose functionality is married to a particular app such as Live. It’s well-constructed, the price is reasonable, and the bright blue lights are bound to look sexy onstage. Before I send back the review unit, I’ll try programming some realtime interactive algorithms using QuteCsound. There may be some interesting possibilities there. . . .
EXTRA: Video tutorials on Livid's YouTube channel.
PROS: Combines a button grid with knobs and sliders. Horizontal crossfade slider. Attractive wooden body.
CONS: Buttons aren’t velocity sensitive, so use as drum pads is limited. No onboard preset memory. Slider and knob MIDI output is 7-bit, not 14-bit.
CONCEPT Highly programmable MIDI controller meant for DJs, VJs, and electronic/ experimental music performers.
CONNECTIONS USB plus 5-pin MIDI in and out jacks.
POWER SUPPLY USB only.
W x D x H 17.5" x 10.5" x 2".
WEIGHT 6.5 lbs.
PRICE: List: $599
Competing Grid Controllers
The main competition for the Ohm64 comes from the Novation Launchpad and the Akai APC20 and APC40. The APC40 (reviewed Sept. ’09) is in the same price range as the Ohm64. What these devices do that the Ohm64 doesn’t is automatically light up the buttons that correspond to loaded clips. The Ohm lights buttons when clips are playing, but doesn’t use different colors to show you which slots have loaded clips, and won’t page across from one bank of slots to another.
The Launchpad’s backlit buttons have three colors and three brightness levels each, but the Launchpad has no knobs or sliders. Columns of buttons can act as “faders” in Mixer mode, but of course you only get eight levels from full-on to full-off. The Launchpad sends and receives standard MIDI note-ons and -offs, and these are documented, so it can easily be used with other software.
The APC20 and APC40 are dedicated to Ableton Live. Though they send MIDI messages that, in theory, let you use them with other software, these messages are neither documented nor user-configurable. The APC20’s grid of clip launch buttons is only 8 x 5, but it can page through a larger Live set, as can the APC40.
Sadly, you can’t play Scrabble on any of them.