The APC40''s backlit button matrix lets you manage 1,600 clips in banks of eight tracks by five scenes.
The Akai APC40 (Mac/Win, $399), dubbed the Ableton Performance Controller, is a wall-wart-powered USB control surface designed with Ableton for use with Live Versions 7 and 8 (see my review of Live 8 on page 48). It gives you hands-on access to clip and scene triggering, mixing, plug-in programming and Live's transport. Its layout mirrors Live's Session view, and because its buttons are backlit and its knobs are LED ringed, you can use it mostly, if not completely, without reference to your computer screen.
I tested the unit in both Live 7 and 8. Installation amounts to plugging in the power and USB cables, turning the unit on and launching Live. The manual says to enable the unit in Live's MIDI preferences, but in my case it was automatically detected and enabled.
The heart of the APC40 is its 8-track by five-scene Clip Launch button matrix. The buttons light up to show the status of their assigned clip slot: unlighted for empty, orange for not playing and green for playing. Mimicking Live's Session view, buttons down the right side of the matrix launch scenes, buttons along the bottom stop clips in individual tracks and the bottom-right-corner button stops all clips.
Pressing the Shift button momentarily toggles the matrix to Session Overview to let you move the matrix focus in eight-by-five banks. In that view, red buttons indicate banks with clips, green buttons indicate banks with playing clips and an orange button indicates the current bank. Pressing a button moves the focus, which gives you instant access to 40 8-by-5 banks (1,600 clips in all). You can also use four Bank Select buttons to move the focus by one track or scene or, by holding Shift, by one bank.
IN THE MIX
The mixing console below the matrix has mute, solo and record-arm buttons, along with level sliders. Of course, they shift focus with the matrix and their buttons are backlit to show their status.
The level sliders are not motorized for reasons of both cost and functionality. (You do a lot of bank changing when you use the APC40 for clip triggering.) I would have preferred LED-ringed knobs over sliders, but the lack of visual feedback is minor. If you set Live's Takeover mode preference to Value Scaling, you can still mix without any glitches. A ninth slider and the knob above it always control the master and cueing levels.
The right-hand third of the panel is devoted to the transport, mode and plug-in controls. At the top you'll find eight LED-ringed knobs for setting pan and effects send levels for the current eight tracks. Below these are the Shift and Bank Select buttons, a Tap Tempo button and Nudge buttons for momentarily increasing and decreasing the tempo — a Live hallmark feature.
The Device Control section below the buttons houses another eight LED-ringed knobs for adjusting plug-in settings on the selected track. An array of eight buttons lets you shift parameter focus in groups of eight, giving you access to 64 parameters for each plug-in. You also use these buttons for handy operations like selecting the target plug-in, turning plug-ins on and off and toggling various Live views. Finally, you get three transport buttons and a crossfade slider that Akai claims will stand up to brutal treatment and, just in case, is accessible from the bottom of the unit for easy replacement.
The first thing you'll notice about the 16.88×2.62×13.13-inch, 5.8-pound APC40 is that it is built like a Hummer. It's clearly designed to stand up to the abuse of live performance. Its profile is also ideal for desktop use — it fits nicely between monitor and computer keyboard, or, if like me you have a MIDI keyboard there, it's equally handy to the side.
The one thing lacking for use without your computer monitor is an LCD. Although the Session Overview mode of the button matrix gives you the big picture, there is no feedback for a single track or scene offset. More importantly, you have no indication of what plug-in parameter the Device Control section's knobs affect. But that is a small impediment that at worst forces you to organize your live performance setups more carefully. Both onstage and on the desktop, the APC40 is a Live user's dream control surface.
Value (1 through 5): 4