Bear with me here. As a musician and gear review writer, I've spent a great deal of time using a lot of "Music Stuff." Some stuff looks great, other stuff is highly functional, and some stuff is just fun to play with. Some instruments facilitate music-making with an almost terrifying ease, and others challenge you to master them, pushing you (ahem) to unlock their secrets and subtle nuances. Without sounding like a jackass, I want to try to convey just how rare it is when something comes along that hits all of those marks; it's a bit like finding a really good rhythm section who just happen to be super nice and work well together. Or, if you will, a singer who loads the bass amp and the drums into the van after the gig. Not impossible, no. But rare.
Music hardware - buttons, keys, knobs, etc. - is the abutment of many cross-functional disciplines, overlapping product engineering and design philosophies, research, materials, prototyping - the list goes on. And most, if not all, of the talent in these areas can be constrained by a cost-performance ratio which has been defined by market strategy far in advance of any actual work being done. So, again, when something great comes along like Push, I get kinda excited. Because it means that a team of really smart people thought long and hard about some really old problems, then built something that solved those problems - and went a little further.
So, what is Push? Well, it's not entirely new. The concept of an illuminated pad grid as an interactive controller for computer-based music-making has been executed well by many other products, like the Novation Launchpad [Tape Op #82 web-bonus], or the monome [#62] before that. Yes, Push is a hardware controller for Ableton Live [#95], and on the surface it may seem to share certain qualities with the controllers which have come before. It has 64 velocity and aftertouch sensitive pads that make pretty lights, etc. - but in spending a little time with it, it becomes apparent that this is the most well-designed and perfectly-executed solution for actually "playing" Live yet. Being a class-compliant device, it could potentially work with other software, but it really doesn't make sense in any other context; every aspect of the product design is carefully integrated with Live. But interestingly, rather than subsume itself into an existing model ("this button equals that button in the software, and the knob makes the thing do the thing" - yawn), or worse, try to mirror every aspect of the DAW environment, Push was built to be something fresh. It appears to have been created with the intent of introducing a new and wonderfully weird instrument, complete with its own limitations and quirks - and significantly, its own feel.
Before I get to that bit, the part which really does feel new, let me check some of the other "Music Stuff" boxes mentioned above and see how Push rates. First, it looks great; it's weighty (with a solid-metal chassis), matte black, and as minimalist as Live itself - generally very German. The pads, buttons, and encoders are, well, just flat out better than most other pad-based controllers on the market. The whole build feels extraordinarily high-quality, almost boutique. I believe my review unit had been through a few other grubby reviewers' hands before it got to the velvet-gloved hands of Tape Op HQ, because I only noticed one flaw - a few small scratches on the display strip - which indicated to me that frequent trips in and out of a laptop or gig bag might necessitate a soft, form-fitting case, or at least a bit of cut-to- fit screen protector, like ZAGG invisibleShield or similar. Ableton at one point appeared to have plans on selling a hard-shell slide-on case/stand, but I can't seem to find any reference to that on their website. We've already begun to see third-party Push accessories on the market, like dustcovers and the like.
Push is indeed highly functional; it is bus-powered (an included power supply can be used to brighten the LED output), plug-and-play, and could not be easier to work with out-of-the- box. There is no real set up, other than firing up Live 9 and attaching a USB cable. One thoughtful touch is the recessed power button near the USB port; if you have Push permanently wired up in your studio, you can turn it on and off as you would any other gear. Although all of the included instruments and effects, including Max for Live [Tape Op #76] plug-ins, can be natively browsed, edited, and controlled via Push's interface without looking at the computer, third-party plug-ins do not natively work with the Push browser (in its current version). To access and control third-party instruments or effects, it's best to create a Rack within Live for the plug-in; although slightly annoying to take the extra step for all your third-party plug-ins, this does offer you greater flexibility down the road when creating tracks from scratch via Push's browser.
Next, it goes without saying, but Push is fun to play; the pads, which Akai had a hand in engineering, feel great, and the highly-sensitive aftertouch, the ribbon controller, and the option to attach sustain and expression pedals to the back of the unit, all promote a great deal of dynamic control and variation over your playing. The real-time note entry methods and step sequencing options are instantly familiar, and the workflows are logical and comfortable. Using Push, one rarely has to mouse or even look at the computer.
The killer feature alluded to earlier, however - the aspect of this device which feels the most compelling and new - is Push's note entry layout for pitched instruments. When a pitched instrument, like a keyboard plug-in, is loaded to a track, Push's grid "folds" a grouping of keyboard notes into the 64 pads, with a different color representing the selected scale's root or key center. Depending on the scale you select, the layout adjusts by default to display only the notes in that particular key, or in Chromatic mode, all of the notes are displayed, with out-of-key notes dimmed. The Scales button allows for transposition of the grid to a comprehensive variety of scale selections. (Mixolydian Minimoog, anyone?) These various layouts allow for an important innovation - chords can be played using the same fingering across various keys. So, unlike a traditional piano keyboard, once you learn how to play, for instance, a triad on Push (just make a triangle with your fingertips), that same shape is used regardless of what key you've selected. As Christopher Willits pointed out in his Create video blog (www.youtube.com/user/christopherwillits), the potential here reaches beyond just the irresistible nature of improvisation and unique compositions that may emerge when playing Push; this could be a really cool method of teaching music theory. Triad = triangle, kids!
Clearly, a lot of thought went into the development of Push. Ableton told us that the project took 3.5 years from concept to end user. Two of those years were spent on design and prototyping, during which time they used Lego and a Livid Instruments builder kit to build out the basic functionality! As a platform, Push looks extremely encouraging. Even though it is relatively expensive when compared to other grid-based controllers on the market, like the Akai APC series, Ableton designed this device to be future-proof, especially in the usability sense; it's easily hacked with M4L and other tools. And unlike its less-expensive distant cousins, Push seems to reward disciplined practice in the same way that playing any real instrument would. The Notes mode interface requires some practice, especially if you're trained on a piano, but it is incredibly fun. I found myself coming back to Push each time gravitating to the Notes layout, and each time coming up with new ideas and even full compositions that I never would have with just a mouse, or really any other controller. It's the first controller that I would gladly take with me into a room full of "traditional" musicians and not feel at all expressively hindered, or technically limited.
Push doesn't do everything. For mixing or refining a composition, you may feel the need to move back into Live's Arrangement view and make use of that expanded canvas, or even pull out other dedicated controllers with faders, etc. But what it does do is deliver on the promise of Ableton's marketing of Push as an instrument for "making a song from scratch" - they nailed it. ($599 with Live Intro or if you already own Live 9, $948 with Live Standard, $1198 with Live Suite; www.ableton.com)