Review: Novation Launch Control XL

Tabletop MIDI mixer for live and beyond
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The Launch Control XL is a class-compliant USB MIDI controller designed to work with Ableton Live (though adaptable to any DAW or app) and to complement Novation’s Launchpad S button box. If there are any music software titles that are Too Big to Fail besides the ubiquitous Pro Tools, we’d have to include Ableton Live. The studio/stage DAW has a cottage industry of control hardware that would topple along with it, sending ripples of devastation through the gear world. Novation’s latest contribution to the Live-centric hardware pool, the Launch Control XL, fills another niche for Ableton devotees seeking their perfect controller setup.

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Compact and reasonably priced, yet bursting with control flexibility, the Launch Control XL is built around eight mixer-style channel strips, which can work all the tracks and track devices you have in a session. The controller shares the same footprint as the Novation Launchpad S 8x8 button pad for Ableton Live: Together, the two make a solid and portable one-two punch for performing, playing, and recording in Live.

The USB bus-powered controller will also work with any other MIDI class-compliant desktop software or iOS apps, the latter with the optional Camera Connection Kit. Launch Control XL comes with Ableton Live Lite, 1 GB of Loopmasters samples, and six Novation Effect Racks for Live, so you can get started right away.

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The Launch Control XL’s familiar mixer-style setup includes three rows of encoders with center-detents and accompanying LEDs. With the default Factory template for Live, the top two rows control the amounts for Send A and Send B, while the third row controls track panning. The 60mm track-volume faders exhibit a smooth fading action. One row of LED-backlit buttons at the bottom assigns the track in focus in the Live software, and the other row has three selectable modes for track Mute, Solo, and Record Arm. Send Select and Track Select arrow buttons let you scroll through and control as many Sends and Tracks as your Live session holds.

A crucial secondary layer of control lets you operate Live’s effect and instrument devices using the Launch Control XL. Hit the Device button, and the green Pan encoder LEDs turn red, letting you know they’re in Device mode and will control the first eight parameters of the currently selected track device. You can also scroll through all the multiple devices embedded in a track from the controller.

Use Launch Control XL’s editor software to assign MIDI Notes to the buttons and MIDI CC numbers to the knobs and faders. There are eight Factory and eight User templates (16 total) stored in the Launch Control XL. To change from the Ableton Live Factory defaults, hit the User button. Upon purchase, you can download and register the Launch Control XL Editor software, which lets you assign MIDI CC numbers for all of the controls (except the Template buttons), as well as MIDI Notes for the buttons. You can also create User templates using the MIDI Learn function in Live or in any other software that offers it.

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IN SITU

The Launch Control XL is very handy for everything you would do in Live—composing, recording, sound design, and live performance. The more you rely on using Send effects, the more value you’ll find in the Factory setup, but either way, navigating and controlling devices is a huge plus for this kind of controller. It’s particularly fast and easy if you make frequent use of the eight Macro controls for Live devices.

All the controls feel solid and provide a good grip. And although there is a lot packed into a small space, it doesn’t feel cramped (except, occasionally, when manipulating consecutive encoders in the same row).

While the Launch Control XL is in the best respect a WYSIWYG mixer controller for Ableton Live, its ability to navigate large sessions, control device parameters, switch among 16 onboard templates, and control iOS MIDI apps means that it has some pretty sweet extras under the hood. The result is a formidable DAW/controller setup for both studio and stage.

STRENGTHS
Good mix of Ableton Live mixer and device controls. Sixteen onboard template memories. MIDI class-compliant.

LIMITATIONS
Encoders don’t have LED feedback rings to pick up the parameter value where it left off and change it after the physical knob position passes over it.

Novation Launch Control XL:
$199.99 street
novationmusic.com

Markkus Rovito is a musician, DJ, and journalist based in San Francisco.