By Craig Anderton
At first, I thought that having only eight faders would be a deal-breaker for me. But it turns out you can gang up to six APC40 units together to control 48 channels of Live. While I don't have multiple units here to test that out, Ableton says it works, and they haven't steered me wrong yet.
The front panel is impressive: It has buttons crawling all over it like ants at a summer picnic, 9 faders, crossfader, transport controls, 8 knobs for track control, and 8 knobs for device control. It's a good size, being large enough to work your way around the controls without feeling like you need child-sized hands, but small (and light) enough to be portable. Also, note that communications between Live and the APC40 is for the most part bi-directional: For example, if you launch a clip in Live, its corresponding APC40 clip launch button will reflect that. Also, the knobs have LED "rings" around them that indicate their current setting in Live, and if you edit a control in Live, the knob rings reflect that as well.
The APC40 is a class-compliant USB device, so it requires no special drivers - with Windows I just plugged it in, clicked on the screens that offered to install the software automatically, and the APC40 was ready to go. You also need to set Preferences in Live (Fig. 1).
Rather than call up an existing project, I figured I'd just load some samples and try something new. For this project, I took a bunch of samples from a Left Field cut that I turned into some fun loops, and added a few other loops I'd used in some gigs several years ago.
15 minutes later, I remembered that I'm supposed to be writing a review, not just partying with Live. But I have to say the APC40 not only makes Ableton Live more fun than it already is, the operation is as obvious as spin at a White House press conference. Yes, the APC40 really does deserve the much-overused word "intuitive."
Everything is laid out like a hardware version of the Live GUI (Fig. 2): Five rows of Clip Launch buttons (colorless if no loop is loaded, green if a loop is loaded by not playing, and red if the loop is playing) with five corresponding Scene Launch buttons, Clip Stop buttons, a row of Track Selection buttons, and additional rows for Clip Activator, Solo/Cue, and Record Arm. At the bottom: Nine relatively short-throw faders (Fig. 3).
Any problems so far? At first, I thought the solo buttons made it difficult to select another solo button once one was already selected, but you can Shift-press to select multiple solo buttons. I was also very pleased to see that turning off one solo button turned them all off - important for the kind of performance gestures I do (although you still can't record Solo button presses in Live).
I also wondered what happened if you wanted to control more than five scenes or eight channels, but that's what the Bank Select buttons do: A small red "ring" appears on the screen to show which channels and scenes are currently being controlled (Fig. 4).
If you use multiple APC40 controllers, the rings are different colors so you can tell which unit is controlling which section of Live. And just when I was thinking it sure would be convenient to be able to "bank-switch" in groups of eight channels or five scenes, I tried the Shift-Bank button combination and it did exactly that - for example, if audio channels 1-8 are currently selected, and you go Shift-Bank right, you'll select channels 9-16. Scenes work similarly.
Bear in mind that so far, I never even looked at the documentation - probably a good thing, because I couldn't find anything other than the Quick Start, which doubles as an exercise in minimalism.
The only thing that concerns me is the faders. They seem a bit wobbly in their slots, which means that either a) they're kinda cheap and will fall apart over time, or b) they have enough "give" that they'll last a long time. On the other hand, they're comparable to the faders in other controllers and I haven't broken those, so...check back with me in a year, and assuming I can get together the bucks to buy one (or two!), I'll let you know the answer.
I did try to disassemble the APC40 to see what it would be like to replace the faders, but it's a good news/bad news situation: The bad news is that I never did disassemble it completely because it was taking too long, but the good news is that's because all the knobs are held on to the front panel with hex nuts - they don't just solder to a board, and protrude out a hole. That's very impressive, and a real boon to reliability.
Okay, so we can manage and launch clips, solo, change levels, etc. But there's more.
The eight Track Control knobs (Fig. 5) can change function depending on which of four switches you press: They can control either pan, send A, send B, or send C. (These are not affected by Bank switching, so if you use more than three sends, you won't be able to control them from the APC40.) As mentioned at the beginning, these have LED rings so if you change settings in Live, the APC40 controls will reflect those changes.
There are also eight Device Control knobs (Fig. 6) that control parameter plug-ins, whether Live plug-ins or (some) other formats. The tie-in with Live's audio effects, MIDI effects, and instruments is very good; four buttons underneath the knobs, which are normally used for navigation, select different "pages." For example, with the Filter Delay, the knobs initially control the top band; go Shift+Clip Track and you can control the middle band, while Shift+Device On/Off controls the lower band.
With VST effects, you can also use the device controls although the mapping is hit-or-miss - some controls are mapped, some aren't, depending on the effect. I couldn't get any VST instruments to respond, although Live's instruments work fine.
Those who use Cakewalk's ACT protocol will recognize some similarities - for example, the inconsistent mappings out of the box - but unlike ACT, the APC40 lacks the ability to arbitrarily assign Device Control knobs to device parameters on the fly, which is the main way I use ACT. It would be really cool if you could give a control in Live the focus, then hold down a button on the APC40 and assign any hardware control you wanted to it.
There's a crossfader, and in an example of extreme engineering coolness (Fig. 7), if you wear it out it's easily replaceable by opening up a little trap door underneath.
Bottom line is I love this thing. Yes, I would prefer moving automation faders - although I don't know if I'd be willing to pay the significant price increase that would entail. And aside from the issue of variable success when using Device Control knobs with non-Ableton effects (although to be fair, some work very well), the integration with Live itself is tighter than James Brown's rhythm section.
The only time I have to be a little careful with the controls is with the Solo/Cue, Activator, and Record Arm rows; they're fairly close together, so it's necessary to hit the buttons head-on. But this isn't a big deal at all - it took me about 10 minutes to get used to it and accommodate the spacing.
Readers of my articles know I'm a fan of control surfaces in general because of the extra expressiveness they allow with today's virtual instruments and processors. The APC40 gives that expressiveness, but it's also about control and flow, what with the clip and scene launch options. I heard that this box was in development for three and a half years, and I believe it: It's well thought-out on every level, and clearly the product of people who totally "get" Live.
If you perform with Ableton Live, you really need to check out the APC40. It will change the way you relate to the program, and give you the real-time tools to do more effective performances. Granted, Ableton's Push controller is now available (also manufacturered by Akai Professional), and it takes the concept of an Ableton Live controller even further - but for a price. The APC40 costs considerably less, but it still still delivers the goods for anyone who uses Live; and if you ever add the Push controller, you can still use the APC40 with it as a team.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.