Novation''s compact Launchpad fits neatly beside a keyboard or other control surface and lets you access a variety of Ableton Live functions.
The Novation Launchpad ($199) is the second control surface designed in collaboration with Ableton primarily for use with Live. (You'll find a review of the first, the Akai APC40, in the July 2009 issue of EM, available at emusician.com.) About half the price of the APC40, the Launchpad differs significantly in both size and design philosophy. If you happen to own an APC40, don't stop reading — one or more Launchpads (you can run as many as six) would make an excellent addition to your rig.
The Launchpad comes with roughly 1 GB of loops in various styles from Loopmasters and Mike the Drummer (MTD). It also includes a fully functional but limited edition of Live, from which Ableton offers an upgrade path to the full version. If you already have Live installed, setting up the Launchpad is as simple as installing the driver from the included DVD, connecting the USB-powered unit, launching Live and selecting the Launchpad as a MIDI control surface in Live's preferences. The unit also supports Novation's Automap for use with other software, but I didn't test Automap operation for this review.
The 9.45×0.79×9.45-inch Launchpad is solely a button box. Sixty-four soft, drum-controller-style square pads take up most of its surface. Sixteen round buttons along the top and right sides select modes and trigger special functions. The right four buttons in the top row select among Launchpad's four modes: Session, User 1, User 2 and Mixer.
Session is the primary and undoubtedly the most used mode. Pads trigger clips in Live's Session view and light up to show each Session slot's status — dark for no clip, green for clip playing, amber for clip stopped and red for clip recording. My biggest complaint about the design is something that's conspicuously missing: a separate row of clip-stop buttons along with a stop-all-clips button. To perform those functions, you need to temporarily switch to Mixer mode.
In Session mode, the buttons in the right column launch Scenes. The left four buttons in the top row cursor through the Session view slot matrix. Holding the Session button changes the pad lighting to reflect the contents of eight-by-eight groups of slots. Pressing the cursor buttons then jumps the focus by eight slots at a time.
User 1 mode is intended for controlling Live's Drum Rack virtual instrument. In all modes, each pad sends a MIDI note-on message with velocity 127 when pressed and a MIDI note-off message with velocity 0 when released. In User 1 mode, the notes are passed through to the selected track and are mapped starting with C1 to align with typical Drum Rack layouts. The pads' lack of velocity sensitivity is a hindrance in some contexts, but this mode is still handy.
In User 2 mode, the pad notes are not passed through to tracks, but as in all the modes, you can use Live's MIDI-learn implementation to map them to any control. Live lets you map note ranges to incrementally control a single parameter; in User 2 mode, the pad rows are contiguously assigned to accommodate this so that you can set up rows or row segments to control knobs and faders. With Ableton and Cycling '74 Max for Live, you can also send commands to Launchpad to control each pad's lighting, among other things. (For more on Max for Live, see the review on p. 60 of this issue.)
Mixer mode is set up to control Live's mixer. Pressing the Mixer button activates a mix overview for the focused eight tracks. The top four pad rows indicate volume, pan, send A and send B status: dull green for the default value (0 dB for volume, for example); and bright green otherwise. Pressing a pad resets to the default value. The bottom four pad rows function as clip-stop and track-mute, track-solo and track-arm buttons. The top four right-column buttons turn the columns into bar-graph-style controls for volume, pan, send A and send B. Pressing the Mixer button returns you to the mix overview.
Once I became accustomed to the display protocol and to using pad rows or columns as bar-graph controllers, I found all the Launchpad modes useful. The mixer overview is a great quick-reset tool and visual aid, even when used with other control surfaces. It's nice to have a large array of drum pads rather than having to constantly switch banks. But most of all, being able to control 64 clip slots at a time and easily navigate through the entire Session view matrix is a huge improvement over mousing around or making your own fixed-map keyboard assignments.
Overall rating (1 through 5): 4