Review: Novation Launchpad and Launchpad Pro

Two new pad grids on the scene
By MARKKUS ROVITO ,

Novation’s original Launchpad helped popularize the 8x8 pad grid, and it became a classic for Ableton Live users who performed with the software’s iconic Session view for multiple clip launching. Since then, Ableton itself unleashed the deluxe Push controller, with all the bells and whistles for controlling Live from a single device. Now Novation is back with a product-line refresh to make you fall in love with the Launchpad all over again.

Two new devices, the Launchpad MkII (aka the Launchpad RGB) and the Launchpad Pro, add RGB colored pads so they can exactly match the colors of your Session view clips in Live 9. (The older devices only had red, yellow, and green backlit pads.) They are also USB class-compliant, making them driverless for computer and iOS use. Finally, instead of having four rubber feet, their entire bottom panels are layered with rubber, so they really don’t budge from a tabletop when you’re working the pads.

Fig. 1. The Launchpad MkII, like the Launchpad Pro, adds full RGB backlit pads to match the color of your Session View clips exactly in Ableton Live 9. That’s about all the news for the Launchpad MkII, which is a nice improvement over the original for the same price(see Figure 1). The real revelation here, though, is the Launchpad Pro, which adds velocity-sensitive pads with Aftertouch, MIDI I/O with external power for controlling hardware gear, Note mode for playing instruments using a chromatic scale, two rows of highly valuable function buttons for Live 9, and lots of other details under the hood—for about half the price of Ableton’s Push (see Figure 2).


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LIVE AND DIRECT

Fig. 2. The Launchpad Pro’s pads now have velocity sensitivity and Aftertouch. New function buttons make recording and mixing in Ableton Live 9 much more mouse-free. Both the Launchpad MkII and Launchpad Pro come with Ableton Live Lite 9, so you can get started immediately. I tested both with Live 9 Suite: With the units powered on, launching Live 9 adds the Launchpads as Control Surfaces in Live’s MIDI Preferences right away and adds the blue outline around Live’s Session view tracks, which shows you the clips that are currently active on the Launchpad. You can move through those clips with the arrow keys on the hardware.

The Launchpad Pro has new Live mode keys at the top of the device: Session, Note, Device, and User. The Session mode lets you launch and stop clips and clip scenes just like the older Launchpads, except now the pad colors exactly match the colors on your screen. (When using USB power, the Launchpad Pro’s pads are slightly dimmer then when you use the included AC adapter.)

In the Live Note mode, the Launchpad Pro detects whether you’re using a Live Drum Rack or other type of instrument. For Drum Racks, you get a yellow pad for every Drum Rack slot with a sample in it—64 at a time—and you can scroll up and down to cover all 128 potential Drum Rack slots. For other instruments, Note mode lays out a chromatic scale of notes, with the root notes colored pink, the other notes in the scale colored blue; notes outside the scale are dark but still playable. The problem here is that you only get a C major chromatic scale to play, whereas other controllers with scale assist modes, such as the Push or the Native Instruments Kontrol S, offer all kinds of scales and keys. But since you’re using Live, one option is to drop the Pitch MIDI Effect on your track and dial in a scale that’s stepped up or down from C.

The Live Device mode treats the Launchpad Pro’s eight pad columns as faders for either the eight macro controls of a Live device on your current track, or for eight of the top device parameters when faders are not present. The left/right arrow keys shift focus to different devices in an instrument or effect rack.

I find these faders most useful when macro controls are assigned, so you know exactly what you’re going to get with them. Also, with the Launchpad Pro’s new velocity-sensitive pads, the fader moves are timed according to the velocity of the pad press. So, if you’re going from a zero value to the highest value, pressing the top pad of a column with high velocity executes the fade very fast—almost instantly. Pressing the pad at lower velocities progressively slows down the fade. That’s a welcome addition, because the older Launchpads were prone to jarringly stepped fades since there are only eight segments to split the values from low to high. And these progressive fades apply to every case that the Launchpad Pro’s pad columns are used as faders, whether in Live, other software, or for controlling external MIDI gear.

The final Live mode, User, is for mapping your own controls. However, if you use it in its default setup, it provides an alternative way to play instrument notes (mapped chromatically in ascending rows of four).

The new Note mode already goes a long way toward making the Launchpad Pro a next-level instrument for composing and playing music in Live, but the Pro’s two new rows of function and mixer buttons for Live go several steps further. On the left side, a set of recording/composition assists let you turn the metronome on/off; undo/ redo; delete clips, scenes, or drum notes; quantize/ record quantize; duplicate clips; double clip length; and start recording. Across the bottom, mixer buttons let you select tracks, record-arm tracks, mute or solo tracks, stop clips or clip scenes, and control track volume, panning, and effect-send amounts. All of those new functions, along with the Note and Session modes, mean that you can do a huge amount of recording in Live without resorting to the mouse. It’s easy to start by making a simple clip on a track, duplicate it, add to it, and then repeat until you have a whole composition’s worth of clips in each track.

MO’ MIDI, MO’ MIDI, MO’ MIDI

Fig. 3. Using external power, the Launchpad Pro can control external MIDI gear without the use of a computer. (Power and MIDI adapter cables are included.) Clearly, Ableton Live users are the target audience here, but many of those people also bounce around between software apps and work with hardware gear, and the Launchpad Pro has those cats covered, as well. It comes with 1/8"-to-MIDI DIN adapter cables for the minijack MIDI I/O ports, and it works in several MIDI modes for external gear or MIDI software (see Figure 3).

Holding the Setup button brings up color-coded options to help you quickly jump between using the Launchpad Pro for Live or for other purposes. The Setup page’s bottom two pad rows represent MIDI channels 1-16, and the top row selects different layouts to use the hardware as a standalone MIDI controller: Note, Drum, Fader and Programmer. The Note and Drum layouts are quite similar to the Live Note mode—a chromatic scale for playing instruments and a 64-pad drum grid, respectively. The Fader layout turns the columns into eight faders, while the Programmer layout lets advanced users design their own firmware for the Launchpad Pro, though it requires knowledge of the Programmer’s Reference Guide.

The Setup page is where you set Aftertouch to Off, Channel, or Polyphonic (the last requires compatible software or equipment); the Aftertouch threshold to one of three levels; and the velocity sensitivity to one of three levels or off (full velocity).

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CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF

The Launchpad Pro strikes a near-perfect balance between the smaller and less featured Launchpad MkII and the deluxe Ableton Push. It doesn’t have the displays, encoders, or touchstrip of the Push, nor does it have certain features of the Push like a step sequencer, arpeggiator, or scale and key selection for note input. I can’t wait for some enterprising programmers to take advantage of Novation’s open firmware API to add some of those software features. But to its benefit, the Launchpad Pro also doesn’t have the same size, weight, and price of the Push.

Despite two new rows of function buttons, the Launchpad Pro is still very compact and lightweight, yet its layout doesn’t feel cramped, and it’s definitely robust enough for road use. In fact, it is actually the ideal size, weight, and build for taking to gigs, on trips, or to a friend’s studio in a modest-sized laptop bag.

It also performed admirably. The only problems I had were occasional hardware freezes when working with Ableton Drum Racks, but a firmware refresh seemed to resolve that entirely.

While the flashiest updates to the Launchpad Pro—the RGB lights, as well as the ability to program cool light shows using incoming MIDI notes—look great, I was most impressed with the progression from the Launchpad as mostly a clip-launching, mixing, and drum-playback device to the Launchpad Pro being an extremely useful tool for all of the above plus composing and arranging instrument parts. The addition of velocity sensitivity, Aftertouch, Note mode, and many more dedicated Ableton Live function buttons make the Launchpad Pro a Swiss Army Knife for Live 9 production and performance while maintaining its portability and affordability.

When you factor in the near certainty that it will only get better with added functionality from the user community, Launchpad Pro looks like a sure winner for Live 9 aficionados.

STRENGTHS

Driverless operation. iOS compatibility. Full RGB LEDs. Rubber bottom surface. Velocity-sensitive pads with Aftertouch (Launchpad Pro). New Note mode (Launchpad Pro). External MIDI use added (Launchpad Pro). Open firmware API (Launchpad Pro).

LIMITATIONS

Instrument Note mode limited to C major chromatic scale; External MIDI use requires included cable adapters (Launchpad Pro). External power required to use iOS.

Novation Launchpad Pro $299 street
Launchpad MK2 $169 street
novationmusic.com

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