Ableton MIDI Controller: AKAI APC40 Ableton Performance Controller Review

Ableton MIDI Controller: AKAI APC40 Ableton Performance Controller Review
The NAMM has always been a place where a lot of excitement gathers and everything sort of goes into the public domain as soon as the news is released. So it came as a surprise to no one that the news of a new, ‘officially approved’ Ableton Live Controller would spread like absolute wildfire.
Since it was first announced at the 2009 NAMM, it has been the center of attraction within the community of Live users. Nothing has garnered so much attention from the Live users than the APC40. Not even the announcement of Cycling ’74 bringing the flexibility of Max/MSP to Live. Let’s face it, that one was a bit too technical to suit t he taste of the masses.
But this delectable offering from the MPC making people at Akai has caught everyone’s attention. So here we go, taking a headlong plunge in to the depths of the APC40 and see what it’s all about.
The APC40 brings back the ‘Live’ part into Ableton Live. It is a MIDI Controller, true but it is more than that. It is like an instrument that let’s you do whatever you want with it. It allows the user to harness everything that is Ableton Live. And that very statement should tell you how much potential it carries.
Let’s take a quick look at the main features: -
  • Every control on the damn this is customizable and that means every pot, slider and button
  • The clip launch button matrix with multicolor feedback is an absolute first in a consumer product. And it completely sells the product (else it is not very different from the MPD32).
  • Session overview
  • Mixer Section
  • Transport control
  • Track Selection and Device Control Encoders
  • Track Control
  • Tempo control
There’s a crossfader yes, but it is too darn close to the Stop, Play and Record buttons. So don’t expect to be busting out two click flares on this one.
And once the Max for Live is completely implemented, you can use the grid like a step sequencer (or anything else that you want actually!)
You might have had a lot of controllers before that claimed to ‘Plug ‘n Play’ but we know where those things went. You’d either spending way too much time figuring out what was going on or it wouldn’t work at all. Well, you will be glad to hear that with this baby, it is all about connecting the USB cable and firing up Live on your system. Once you’ve done that, you are all set to do whatever you want with it.
The two-way communication (apparently proprietary) between the APC40 and Live makes the controller reflect (almost) everything that is happening within the software and vice-versa. So the problem of not knowing what the heck is going on in there is gone now.
The controller is not hard to figure out at all and is actually very intuitive. Those who have been working with Ableton for a while now will not need the Quickstart manual at all. For those have started on Live only yesterday, there’s a handy manual that familiarizes you with the major areas of the controller, but that’s where it ends.

 The APC40 is very well laid out and made to reflect the session view as much as possible. So you have the clip launching button matrix and 8 faders corresponding to the columns. There is a 9th fader that represents the master line fader. So if you can get your head around the basics of Live, you will easily know what’s what on the APC40.
As is usual with Akai, the construction quality of the APC is really good. So it is safe to take it on several tours without needing to mollycoddle it. It has a metal chassis that instantly reminds of my own MPK49 from Akai. The side panels are rubber textured and have a solid and non-slip feel to them. With so many rubber buttons on thing you will really want to start messing around as soon as possible.

A lot of people have complained about the ‘plasticky’ feel of the knobs and they are justified in saying that. Rubberized knobs would’ve been a great idea because both the stage and the booth tend to get sweaty. There have also been complaints about the faders being too close together. But there is a flipside to this one where people are saying that they like being able to control two or more faders with one hand. So this one is a matter of personal choice it seems. However, all the controls are placed firmly within the circuit board and hence feel sturdy enough to take abuse.
The clip launching button matrix/grid has an 8x5 layout. The buttons have four states in total: -
Off – No clip present in the slot
Amber – Clip present but not playing
Green – Clip present and playing
Red – Recording.
All that is really intuitive, so no worrying about what means what. Once again, if you know live this will be a cinch to pickup. There’s a row of buttons directly below the grid. These are clip stop buttons, one dedicated button for each track. Beneath that is a row of track select buttons that choose which track is being controlled by the knobs on the APC. Tracks in Live are the vertical rows of clips that have a name or number assigned to them at the top.
Below these are three rows of half buttons. From top row to bottom, these toggle track mute, Solo/cue and Arm Record respectively.

Ableton Session view is called that for a reason. It has become the default choice for those who are developing interfaces for the live. This has already been proven by the likes of Ohm from Livid and Monome from the Monome Project. But the main complaint is about the layout of the knobs on the APC. Having such crucial controls as bank select, tempo nudge, shift and tap tempo in the middle of all that knob real estate is actually a bit cramped. Most people have taken issues with the ergonomics of the APC and that is mainly where the APC loses points. Some also have pointed out that it is a right hand oriented setup.
However, there is a large group of people who said that will just get used to the new setup after a few sessions with it. So for some it is not that big a deal and certainly not a deal breaker.
Regardless of the different things that people have to say about the layout, one thing has hooked them all – they all love the lighting around the knobs. These LED position indicators are simply great to look.
A lot of people (including me) would’ve liked to have some more buttons underneath the knobs to make the thing more customizable. Even though we can live with that, I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would put something like a crossfader so close to the transport controls! I mean really! One missed crossfade or cut and your entire set is ruined because you accidentally hit a transport button!
The multicolored LEDS were a great idea and I love the feedback they give out. The USB interface is great as well. The thing does not crash even when a lot is going on within the software. But since the only thing that is flowing through the USB is MIDI data, it cannot be too much for modern USB2.0 standards that are known to handle not only live MIDI but also live Audio quite well without failing. Just make sure that you have a good USB2.0 cable. Apparently there is a difference and I sure would not like to find out the hard way.

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So that covers everything that I wanted to say about the APC40. Should Akai want to bring out another version (and it really should) – they should concentrate more on the ergonomics and well – read these reviews! J
Catch you people later!

Oh, and here's the official description and a place to buy: -

Akai APC40 Ableton Performance Controller
Akai APC40 Ableton Performance Controller
The Akai APC40 Ableton Performance Controller is designed to be a powerful, intuitive controller for electronic-music performance artists, DJs, hip-hop producers and traditional musicians using Ableton Live on stage and in the studio. Virtual view The APC40 talks directly to Ableton Live and Live talks directly to the APC40. This exclusive bidirectional communication makes the Akai Professional APC40 an advanced controller that receives feedback from the software and displays it on its clip matrix of 40 triggers, and on LED rings surrounding each knob. The clip matrix gives you an instant view of clip status: what's loaded, what's playing, and what's being recorded. Each state displays on the matrix in a different color so you quickly get a picture of clip state. Shift your clip focus and get an overview of the clips you have loaded for your set. The Akai APC40 controller has 16 knobs, each surrounded by a ring of LEDs. These LED rings indicate the currently selected parameters' values, and make seeing your settings on dark stages a breeze. The APC40 controller's advanced visual feedback focuses your performing with focused more on the music and less on squinting at the computer screen. In fact, you might even forget that the computer is there. Premium controls Ableton selected Akai Professional as a partner because of its leadership position in great-feeling controllers that are rock solid, rugged, and precise. From the legendary MPC series that changed the way music is made to the industry-standard MPD and MPK controllers, Akai Professional is revered by musicians, DJs, and producers everywhere for creating the feel that powers their creativity. The APC40 is built with a rugged, metal chassis and slip-proof rubber detailing. Knobs and faders are solid and precise for pinpoint performance. It even features a high quality, replaceable crossfader.Creative control The Akai APC40 controller comes with a special edition of Ableton Live Lite so you can use it out of the box even if you're new to Live. There's also a free patch that upgrades full versions of Live so if you're already a Live user, you can take full advantage of the APC40. The APC40 has two banks of eight knobs. The first set controls Global parameters so you'll always have instant access to your main sends, pans, and other essentials. The second bank of eight knobs is dynamically reassigned to the Track you select. You can control eight track parameters at a time, and as you switch channels, the Track knobs follow your focus. You also get special clip-status views and feedback that only the APC40's matrix can display. The matrix is not limited to only 40 clips: you can scroll and shift, enabling access to an unlimited number of cells. The APC40 has a wide range of controllers. The eight Global knobs can access four banks of controls; the eight Track knobs control nine different track parameters each. This gives you a massive total of 72 controller

Special images courtesy antonio19 at photobucket -