The new Push 3 is finally here! I've been an Ableton Live DAW [Tape Op #143] user since version 1, and was an early adopter of both of the first two generations of Push hardware, so I was eager to test the surprising spec and feature bumps of the 3rd-gen Push 3, Ableton's grid-based controller/interface/instrument.
The promise of Push as a platform has centered around its ability to mediate the music-making process between you and your computer. A tactile and responsive interface layer between the user and Ableton Live, Push offered direct hands-on control with visual feedback. With time, it became clear that control of Live was only the jumping-off point for Push as a platform. As it evolved with every new software update to Live, the Push 2 effectively sidelined the laptop and cleverly de-emphasized the need for a mouse, keyboard, or computer screen for most Session-based workflows. Although still tethered to the computer (with Live acting as the "brain"), Live/Push users could compose (and even edit) using only Push as the primary input to Live. Push 2 and Live version 9 (and up) was liberating from a composition and performance perspective, however you'd need Push, a laptop, and an external audio interface if you wanted to take this show on the road.
This highly-tethered approach has changed altogether with Push 3, which is offered in a full standalone version and a version without the standalone capabilities. We tested the standalone version of Push 3, which has a credit card-sized, Intel-based NUC (or Next Unit of Computing) processor with integrated Wi-Fi, 8 GB of RAM, an internal 256 GB SSD drive, and a built-in battery. The compelling approach Ableton took with the new Push is to allow users to upgrade the controller version to standalone, and conceivably, this modularity will enable existing standalone owners to swap out their existing Push guts for upgraded NUC cores in the near future as those technologies evolve. An interesting aside – the license for the NUC platform is non-exclusive, and other PC manufacturers like ASUS have already started manufacturing NUCs. This approach to the hardware means Push is user-repairable, upgradable, and somewhat future-proofed. As pricy as the Push is, knowing that I can keep it running and upgrade it for at least another solid five to ten years in my studio is reassuring.
So, yes, you can use Push 3 standalone on a beach or a plane sans laptop (note that the standalone version can also serve in the same capacity as the controller version when connected to a computer via USB-C). A version of Ableton Live runs under the hood on Linux via the standalone processor. Unbelievably, there's more: Push 3 has a built-in 24-bit 96 kHz audio interface with ADAT I/O. Yes, it can serve as a multitrack recorder or sampler, utilizing the incredibly intuitive sample-slicing and device conversion workflow central to Push 2 and Live version 9.5 (and above) – it's just that, now, Push 3 is truly an instrument of its own. Note that the version of Live running under the hood is not the same UX as the desktop version, and accessing ALL aspects of the Ableton Live desktop software experience while using Push in standalone mode isn't a reality. Notably, you can't access and edit the Arrangement View timeline, at least not as of the firmware and software versions I tested. I installed the latest beta builds of Live on the test Push I had, and these updates contained quite a few bug fixes during our testing period, so, like Push 2, I'm confident the new Push will continue to gain new features and functionality. It's worth pointing out that there isn't a "desktop mode" for the Linux system that Push is built on top of, nor would there be a need for one.
In standalone use, Push 3 behaves just like it does when tethered to a computer – you effectively have a battery-powered Live workstation with access to all your sets, stock effects, and instruments – even Max for Live patches. There is no third party VST or AU plug-in support while in standalone mode, but you can always freeze VST instrument or effects tracks on the desktop version of Live, then bring the set over to Push wirelessly through the Live browser (bi-directional drag and drop is supported when your desktop is connected to the same Wi-Fi network as Push).
I didn't miss my third party plug-ins, frankly – the stock effects and instruments included with Live's "Suite" edition (not included with the purchase of Push 3, by the way) continue to exceed my expectations. And the new pads combined with the MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) enabled instruments and drum racks are a wealth of virtually endless expressive capability. MPE is a relatively new addendum to the MIDI protocol that allows for greater creative expression when playing MIDI instruments. When implemented on a hyper-sensitive playing surface – such as the 64-pad grid of Push – MPE gives players fingertip access to new per-note/per-pad expressive dimensions. Each pad outputs independent control values for strike and release velocities, pressure (think aftertouch), left-right (X-axis), and top-bottom (Y-axis). All you need to know is that it makes composing and playing virtual instruments (particularly well-sampled acoustic instruments) incredibly realistic-sounding and adds insane new textural layers to tasks like drum or synth programming.
The hardware is roughly the same size and shares a similar control layout with Push 2, but the standalone version is significantly heavier, with a chunky heatsink on the bottom panel. The audio interface (2-in, 4-out over 1/4-inch jacks, with optical ADAT and MIDI I/O) runs up to 24-bit 96 kHz, with four CV/gate outputs that serve dual-purpose as footswitch jacks (TRS splitter cables are needed to access all four). Push is ready to simultaneously be the nerve center for a modular setup or MIDI rig. Note that the controller-only version of Push also comes with all of the audio interface and CV/gate/MIDI goodies.
I found the ADAT I/O to be a boon for my setup, as I could return from an unplugged backyard headphone session with Push and simply plug in two ADAT cables to instantly connect to my UA Apollo x8p rig [Tape Op #130] and listen through my monitors. For me, ADAT included the additional benefit of using my existing outboard gear as an External Instrument or External Audio Effect inserts within Push – I wasn't limited to just the stock I/O (or conversion). My hardware synths and compressors, preamps, etc. – the Push was happy working with everything. Playing a vintage Korg Mono/Poly synthesizer with the beautifully articulate pads into a Sampler track to be chopped up live into a Drum Rack with a send and return line to my pedalboard – all without a computer? C'mon, that made me cry nerd-tears of joy. One weird bug I encountered with the ADAT patching of my Apollo was that I couldn't get more than two audio inputs going for any sample rate above 48 kHz. Audio output up to 96 kHz was confirmed to work fine with the Apollo and Push, so I know it works; it must be something in the input config I've been unable to mend. I mentioned this to Ableton, and this is the first they've heard of this limitation, so again, it could be user error?
I did have a few petty user gripes, most of which could be addressed in future firmware or software updates. I'd love a more straightforward solution for converting MPE messages to MIDI. While there is an MPE-MIDI device insert, I didn't find it especially intuitive while in standalone mode. I did encounter bugs and random odd freezes early on, but these instances lessened with each over-the-air update to Push 3.
Generally, more editing features would be helpful in standalone mode. For example, in the Clip Editor, I couldn't find an option to select a range of notes I want to transpose (say, 2 bars out of an 8-bar loop) – just individual note-by-note selection options. Some level of access to the Arrangement mode would also be a game-changer – Ableton says they have that feature in mind for future updates. I can't wait!
The ~2-hour battery life varies depending on the complexity of your set, the screens and pad LED intensity, etc., so more power-saving options like a general "airplane mode" for standalone that turns off Wi-Fi and ADAT I/O if not in use would be a suitable mitigation for long trips away from a power outlet.
It feels like we've reached this nadir in the music hardware biz where we are no longer surprised by companies' decisions with iterations to their lineups. "Oh. Cool. You added more keys/knobs/lights to the thing?" From my perspective, this is NOT true of Ableton with the new Push 3 – not only did they assertively address the "Push 3 wish list" of every YouTube synth-fluencer out there, but they also built a compelling and endlessly surprising instrument that can sit quite confidently at the center of your studio for years to come. Yeah, Push 3 isn't cheap, but it represents a high degree of value to have that capacity for surprise and expressive connection to your whole studio at arms' reach. And running the full power of Live's Session view on the couch after walking away from the computer is just <chef's kiss>!