Akai APC40 Ableton ControllerReview by: Tony Grund
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Plus, not only can this controller control Ableton Live, but because all the knobs, buttons and faders send Control Change data, it can also be used as a MIDI controller for your other gear and software. This will certainly become a permanent fixture in at least one of our studios.
In the APC40, Akai has released a solid piece of gear that not only feels great, but really works seamlessly with Live. The knobs are big and easy to grab, with LEDs ringing them to give you instant visual feedback for whatever parameter you’re controlling, and the faders are a good size for large fingers, too. Even on stage in a live situation, they are right there to be grabbed and pushed around, and with such an immense array of buttons, just about every aspect of Live can be controlled quickly and easily.
A Brief History
Because of Live’s easy-to-use interface, and the sheer power that it provides for twisting sounds on the fly, it gives users the ability to remix as they go. Then only real problem has been what to use to control it.
This has created a new subculture of people who may or may not have ever touched a turntable mixing set, and they have call themselves “controllerists” (after the term “turntable-ist” for the more traditional vinyl wizards). Controllerists are an elite group of musicians [Editor’s Note: Can we debate the right to call DJs musicians?] who, not satisfied with the hardware control options, have taken matters into their own hands by modifying current hardware to suit their needs, or, by creating completely new MIDI controllers from scratch, giving them control over all the parameters they need to remix music on stage. To learn more about one of the most well-known controllerists, check out Moldover.
Of course, this gives rise to some very cool boutique gear, but there are a few disadvantages for those of us who don’t have the engineering skills to build our own MIDI controllers: flexibility, price, and integration. First, custom-made MIDI controllers are usually built with a specific goal in mind, for one person’s style of playing. So a certain controller may be perfect for the person who made it, but may not work at all for someone else. This is a situation that arises a lot more with Live than with other sequencers because of its flexibility — it seems that everyone uses Live slightly differently, even to get the same results.
Second, while the gear is really cool, it is typically quite expensive. Most of the people making their controllers are musicians first, and hardware makers second. As you can probably imagine, it is not easy to make a MIDI controller. A friend of ours says he spent about three years designing and building one controller that has about 10 (very well-placed) knobs and switches on it. This would not make for cheap gear.
Third (and maybe most important), integration with Live is a one-way street. These controllers can tell Live what to do, but they can’t see what Live is doing. And they really need to.
As Live has grown in popularity, companies have started making gear designed to work with it. Most are based around a mixer layout and address the issue of mix control for effects and cross-fading. But very few controllers address Live’s unique ability to launch clips on the fly, which is why it is such a great performance tool.
Those of us who use Live were all wondering when it would happen: when would Ableton release a controller that addresses the needs of the average Live user, but keeps it within a price-point that most people can manage?
A Great Partnership
Akai built the hardware, but as mentioned above, the lines are blurred with the APC40 because although it is a hardware piece, it was designed in parternship with Ableton so that it would have complete integration with Live. This is important to note, because this integration is the main point which makes it so unique.
One look at the APC40 and you’ll immediately recognize that this product was made for Live: not just the large array of buttons, but close inspection will reveal Ableton-specific knob labels. But what you don’t see by looking at the APC40 itself is the real integration in the way that the controller talks to the software.
You can move the red box up and down by using the Bank Select buttons on the right (hold Shift to skip five down or eight to the right/left). Also, when you hold the Shift button, the Clip Launch buttons become a session overview, which allows you to skip easily to different clip locations. With a little practice, this becomes very quick and intuitive.
There is also a row of control buttons just above the faders. These allow you to mute, solo (or cue), and record-enable tracks on the fly.
So, immediately we see how the APC40 allows complete control over the clips in Live, which is something that other controllers on the market don’t do natively. If you need control over clips, there is nothing as comprehensive (or easy) as the APC40.
First of all, the faders obviously control the volume of each track. As mentioned above, the faders are nice and solid. Big enough to grab and move in a live situation, and resistant, without being too much so. Just like with the clip launch buttons, the faders can be moved left or right to control different tracks by using the Bank Select button.
Panning and sends are controlled with eight knobs in the upper right corner. Four buttons light up to let you know if the knobs are showing panning, or sends A, B, or C. One thing worth mentioning here is that all Akai knobs these days are 360 degree potentiometers. Current settings are indicated with LED lights around each knob. This means that when you switch between panning and the sends, or when you switch to different tracks with the Bank Select button, the LEDs immediately change to reflect the current settings.For editing effects and instruments there is a row of buttons called Track Selection. These let you select which track’s plug-ins you will edit with the “Device Control” knobs on the lower right. These knobs are interesting in that they control certain pre-assigned parameters in the native Live devices, and user-assignable parameters in third-party plug-ins. So, depending on which device you have selected (you can switch between devices using the arrow keys), the knobs will represent different edit points. Once again, handy LEDs illuminate to show what your settings are for that device.
The Overall Build
For DJs who plan on putting a lot of wear-and-tear on the cross-fader, it is important to note that the cross-fader is user-replaceable. There are a couple of screws on the bottom of the unit, which can easily be removed for the cross-fader to be switched out. What a fantastic attention to detail!
In the Studio/In the Field
First of all, as mentioned above, because of the size of the knobs and faders, it is easy to tweak this thing in all situations. Not to belabor the point, but for people with big hands, this is very important!
Also, because of all the illuninated pads and LEDs surrounding the knobs, it is extremely easy to see what you’re doing at all times. The few unlit buttons that do exist are laid out in such a way that it’s pretty easy to memorize where they are after just a few hours, so the lack of lights on them is a non-issue.
Keyboard Players and DJs
Inside Ableton Live, the cross-fader parameter can be set to different cross-fade curves, which means more flexibility for different types of users.
For keyboard players, this is an excellent addition to a live setup, as it makes life super easy for sequencing on the fly. Because of the lighted pads that show you where the audio clips are, you don’t need to keep looking at the computer to rearrange the sequence. You just need to make sure the correct group of clips is being controlled (the red box mentioned earlier shows this), and then follow the lights!
Plus, because of all the knobs and faders for sound control, soft-synths galore can be tweaked quickly. We can easily envision many scenarios that include a keyboard controller and a stand for the APC40 to sit right in front of it for easy access.
One more point that should be mentioned for keyboard players: there are two footswitch inputs on the back of the unit, which means that you do have some “hands-free” control here! Great news for all the keyboard shredders out there who still need to tweak something while their hands are occupied.
Because the APC40 is laid out and labeled extremely well, we were up and playing around for a while before we even touched the manual.
That said, the manual well written and explained everything in good detail. There are also plenty of resources from the software side of things in Ableton Live 8.Akai also has a great tip section on their website that deals with the APC40.
From Akai: http://www.akaipro.com/tipsjun09
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