The Launchpad has, well, landed and seems certain to become a ubiquitous tool for users of Ableton Live (Tape Op #72). It's a compact and lightweight USB MIDI interface organized around an 8x8 grid of 64 LED-backlit buttons, similar in design to the partially open-source Monome controller (#62). The grid design perfectly complements Live's Session view, and this integration is enhanced by the multicolor LED buttons - green for clips that are active/playing, amber for clips that are loaded but not playing, red for currently recording clips, and unlit buttons are empty clip slots. Additionally, the Launchpad has eight scene launch buttons to the right of the grid and eight navigation buttons above the grid. Two additional User pages allow for custom MIDI mapping, and a Mixer page offers access to available track controls like volume, pan, and send levels.
Our unit came with PC and Mac drivers plus a Launchpad edition of Live 8. (Note that the Launchpad works natively if you already own Live 8.) After installation of Novation USB drivers, I was able to set the Launchpad as my control surface in Live and begin playing around. Much like the Akai APC40, you use the Launchpad's directional arrow buttons to move through Live's session view. A red rectangle in Live changes position as you scroll, corresponding to the active clips on the Launchpad's grid. A neat shortcut feature helps to "zoom out" and gain perspective with larger sessions. With all the visual feedback the Launchpad has to offer, on occasion, I still found myself reaching for my P-Touch labeler to make a few tiny notes at the bottom of the button columns for reference.
The Launchpad buttons have a unique feel to them; they aren't as "immediate" feeling as, say, an MPC, but rather have an almost double-throw feel. They are easy to activate, but not too easy, which I grew to like as they never double-triggered clips or notes. They feel durable, and despite the light weight of the unit, you can really smack it without worrying about it shifting or slipping around; the thin, rubberized feet on the base keep it well anchored. The unit is thin and fits easily into a laptop bag.
I tested the unit in every stage of composition and recording, including a live performance. In all of these applications, the Launchpad performed flawlessly and gave me the perception that I was really using Live as an instrument. On stage, it was great to be able step away from the laptop screen and focus on improvisation; plus it's far more compelling to watch a musician actually doing something up there rather than looking like some shlub checking email.
Note that the Launchpad is not exclusively an Ableton Live controller; using the included Automap software, it is possible to map the buttons to almost any MIDI-capable software. And despite its similarity to my kit-built Monome, I found the Launchpad to be complementary rather than restrictive; the two are very different tools with unique strengths. Besides, the more flashing LED buttons, the better, right?
To a large extent, the Launchpad is one of the best values out there in terms of performance controllers for Live. It's dead simple to use yet deeply customizable, small, light, and affordable - and looks really cool on stage. If you're in the market for a dynamic and fun control surface, check it out.
by Alan Tubbs
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