Akai Professional and Ableton have co-developed a new comprehensive MIDI performance controller for use with Live versions 7 or 8 (Tape Op #72). The APC40 introduces a new breed of USB-MIDI devices (joined now by the just-announced Novation Launchpad) specifically designed with a proprietary hardware/software handshake enabling immediate tactile control over Ableton Live. For the average Live user, the APC40 induces undeniable gear-lust and effectively bridges the very wide gap between the performer and the parameter. Until now, this type of control has involved sometimes complex mapping and/or complex software go-betweens.
A good third of the control surface is taken up by the clip launch grid, an 8x5 grid of LED-lit buttons. The buttons feel similar to the Korg microKONTROL's pads but offer a greater range of feedback, with each pad having distinct colors representing the selected clip's state (loaded, playing, recording). The LEDs are bright, and the clip states are easy to distinguish, even in a well-lit room. The grid is advanced to neighboring clips via the MPC-like bank-select buttons; a corresponding red rectangle in Lives' session view indicates to the user which zone is currently selected. The grid, of course, bears a resemblance to the Monome (Tape Op #62), but unlike that open-source controller, it cannot be used (for instance) as a traditional step sequencer or to play melodies on a soft synth. Note that although the APC40 is not, in every respect, a closed system and can be made to function with other software (a number of interesting hacks have already surfaced online), it's definitely married to Live; this is the definition of purpose-built hardware.
In addition to the clip and scene launch pads, there are eight bankable channel controls, each with a fader, solo/cue, record, and track-enable buttons (also with thorough LED feedback). On the upper right of the APC40, there are eight rotary encoders for additional track controls (pan; sends A, B, C). Below these are eight other rotary encoders assigned to device control, again bankable up to 64 total parameters. These offer control over Lives' internal devices and plug-ins. They also automagically map to any selected third-party plug-in. However, my results in testing the device control knobs with various third-party plug-ins was met with sometimes confusing results; although the encoders are each surrounded with LED rings offering valuable feedback, I found it difficult with some third-party software instruments to discern exactly which parameter bank I was currently focused on. With complex software instruments featuring nearly a hundred assignable parameters like Arturia's CS-80V (Tape Op #57), I found I would have to twiddle a knob to discover where I had "landed" in the UI. A probable solution to this minor issue could have been the addition of a red rectangular indicator in the software interface (similar to that used in the session view), but it's likely a nightmare to code, given the disparate nature of VST and AU interfaces.
The build quality of the APC40 is comparable to other MIDI controllers at its price point, but there are a few exceptional differences in detail. For example, the knobs have a high-quality, silky smooth feel; Akai didn't skimp on the encoders! The faders are nice as well, and the cross-fader is easily user-replaceable. The unit stays put on a tabletop, even against high activity, and overall it feels solid and durable. It does have a significant footprint at roughly 17" wide and 13" deep, so tossing it in an average laptop bag is challenging. Note too that all of those LEDs come at a price; USB bus power doesn't cut it, and the supplied power cable is a necessity.
On the whole, the experience of using the APC40 is really a joy; it's actually quite inspiring to have such a focused set of controls at your fingertips, especially when they are laid out in a way that directly complements the software being controlled. I found myself having a more instinctive, almost visceral approach to Live using the APC40; it feels like it should, as if you are actually playing an instrument. And of course, with Live, you are. But with the APC40, there's a perception of touch and dynamics, which should be the real goal of any controller hardware -eliminating any barriers between performer and performance. ($399 street; www.apc40.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.