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Novation Launchpad ($249 MSRP, $200 street)

November 24, 2009

Launchpad is a matrix button controller that’s optimized for Ableton Live, and communicates bi-directionally with the program. It’s USB-powered, light, very portable, relatively rugged, and you can use up to six of them simultaneously with Live (although you’ll probably need a powered USB hub for that). Novation’s AutoMap protocol allows using Launchpad with other software—I’ve triggered columns and cells in Sonar 8.5’s Matrix View— but it’s clearly optimized for Live, and very plug-and-play.


Launchpad comes with Live 8 “Launchpad Edition” (a step above the average “lite” version of Live 7), and I was told that standard versions might need an update to work with Launchpad. However, when I installed the drivers and Launchpad version, it “saw” that I had the full Live 8 suite on my computer, and added Launchpad functionality to that while retaining all the features of the “big” version. If an update is needed, though, Ableton was involved in the Launchpad project so I’m sure they’ll be timely about it.

Within minutes after installation, I was triggering clips and mixing—this is definitely an “instant gratification” kinda box.


What?!? No faders? That’s right, no faders. But Novation has come up with a clever workaround.

The basic design involves multiple pages that take advantage of the 8 x 8 button matrix. The main page, called up by the Session button, is for clip and scene launching. An outline appears on Live’s Session view to show the matrix of clips controlled by Launchpad, but you can move this around either a row/column at a time, or jump eight rows or columns at a time, providing full access to all clips used in a project. There’s also a “zoom out” mode, where each pad represents an 8 x 8 matrix, making it easy to see where your clips are scattered about a big project.

Additional pages let the button matrix control mixer, pan, and send functions, and there are two “user” pages—one for using Max for Live features, one for triggering drums in drum racks (sort of like having four MPCs’ worth of buttons). Yes, Launchpad can be a realtime drum controller. Or, either one lets you control basically anything that Live can “Learn.”

As an example of how the buttons work, take mixing. When you enter mix mode, the top four rows of pads indicate whether the Volume, Pan, Send A, and Send B parameters are at their default settings; hitting a button returns to the default setting.

The bottom four rows have buttons for Clip Stop, Track On, Solo, and Arm—like the parameters in Live’s Session view. If you go deeper to the page controlling levels, each column of buttons chooses level for a particular track (up to eight at a time), with levels quantized to eight settings. That may not seem like enough, but having eight fixed, predictable settings has some advantages. There’s no fader that has to “grab” a setting before becoming active; just hit the button that corresponds to the level you want. Running your fingers up and down the buttons approximates fader motion, but while this is workable, it’s a bit awkward; the “pushbutton selection” option is much better.

Note that Launchpad makes good use of color. When mixing the pads are green, panning is yellow, and sends are red. It also uses color well for clip launching.


Given the price, some people are already talking about dedicating one Launchpad to clips and one to other pages. I’ve been using Launchpad with Akai’s APC40, and that’s definitely a “best of both worlds” situation—it’s a great combo that means I don’t have to lay out the bucks for two APC40s, which was going to be essential (most of my live performance projects use 16 tracks). They don’t conflict at all, and you can control separate matrices—or even overlap what they control.


This is one of those “you have to try it to believe it” boxes. On paper, it looks like not having faders would be a hassle, but it’s surprising how fast one adapts—playing with Launchpad is not unlike working with Yamaha’s extremely clever, but considerably more expensive, Tenori-On.

Speaking of more expensive, the APC40 certainly is; but it’s a more complete unit, with nine faders, plug-in mapping, 16 rotary encoders, userreplaceable crossfader, etc. However, Launchpad doesn’t feel like a cheap imitation, but stakes out its own innovative territory, and tackles the problem of controlling Live in a different way, based on a different kind of workflow that’s also valid.

If you play Live without a controller but then get one, you’ll wonder how you got along without it. Launchpad is great way to control Live without breaking the budget.

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