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Ableton Push 2

Hardware Controller For Live
Published December 2015
By Nick Rothwell

Ableton Push 2Photo: Lee Mawdsley

Ableton have released major new versions of their two flagship products, Live and Push. Live is now at version 9.5, the point five signifying a revision which, while significant, is not seen as major enough to justify an upgrade fee, and so is free to owners of Live 9. Meanwhile, and more importantly, there is a new Push controller.

Most of this review will concentrate on the new device, but we’ll cover the improvements in Live 9.5 in passing. Obviously, Live 9 owners get the 9.5 improvements whether they own a Push 2 or not, but most are intended to exploit features of the new hardware.

The original Push came out three years ago, and is discontinued as of now, although for the record, it works perfectly well with Live 9.5, and there’s no indication that Ableton are going to drop support for it any time soon. I’ll use the terms Push 2 and Push 1 to differentiate the two controllers in this review, but officially, the new Push is, well, The Push. One difference is that there’s no Akai logo on the Push 2: Ableton have brought all their engineering in–house in the development of the new version.

A Big Push

Out of the box, the Push 2 comes with a universal power supply, a right–angled USB cable (which seems a slightly odd gesture, since the power connector that plugs in next to it sticks out straight), the usual warranty booklet, and what looks a bit like a CD Digipak. This put me temporarily into a mild panic about finding a functional CD drive until I discovered that it just contained a ‘getting started’ card and some stickers. All the necessary software support and documentation is included within Live 9.5.

As well as being more sensitive to touch, the Push 2’s pads are now better lit, with more consistent intensity. The flip side is that an external PSU is required.As well as being more sensitive to touch, the Push 2’s pads are now better lit, with more consistent intensity. The flip side is that an external PSU is required.Photo: Lee MawdsleyPhysically, the Push 2 isn’t massively different from the Push 1: it’s still a matt black rectangular slab, with rotary encoders and a large display above an eight–by–eight grid of silicone pads, flanked by labelled buttons. Since I own a Push 1, I set up both controllers side by side for comparison. The first thing that struck me about the Push 2 is that it cuts a low profile: the pads protrude less far from the casing than on the Push 1, although they have the same front–to–back depth, width and horizontal spacing; conversely, the touch strip is not as deeply set. The device’s buttons are practically flush with the faceplate, although the encoders appear largely unchanged apart from the removal of the base flanges featured in the original.

The Push 2 is slightly thinner than the Push 1, then, but is also noticeably deeper and wider; it might be tricky to fit a Push 2 into a flightcase measured for a Push 1, although padded DJ–style backpacks should be fine.

Prior to plugging in, the only other obvious difference between Push 1 and Push 2 is the layout of the controls. Many of the buttons have moved, as have the tempo and swing encoders, while a few buttons have been replaced or renamed. Where the Push 1 has two rows of narrow buttons directly below its display, the Push 2 has one row of ‘display buttons’ above and one below, reminiscent of the ‘soft button’ menu systems found on many keyboard instruments.

More Character

Setting up the Push 2 for use is as easy as you’d expect. Plug in the power supply, connect the USB cable to the computer, launch Live 9.5, and all systems are go. While the Push 2 will technically function on bus power without its own PSU, display and controls are very dim indeed — you could probably use it in a fully darkened room, but any light spill would completely wash it out.

Once up and running, the biggest improvement in the Push 2 is obvious. The main display is not only taller than that on the Push 1 (roughly 40mm top–to–bottom versus 30mm), but it also runs at much higher resolution. The Push 1 has an LCD which can show four rows of text, each split horizontally into four blocks of 17 characters, and the low–resolution pixels are sufficient for dot matrix–style alphanumeric text, plus simple graphics (block–style level and pan indicators, for example). The Push 2 totally changes the game: the display is high–resolution with a proportional font, rendered small enough to deliver eight lines of text. Horizontally, each of the eight ‘columns’ of the interface can show roughly 16 letters or numbers (depending on which ones they are), so character resolution is basically double that of the Push 1 in both directions. And, for the record, the Push 2 is at least partly Unicode–aware: a Live set I recently prepared for a Chinese client showed track names in actual Chinese characters, while the best my Push 1 could manage was a block of question marks.

The Push 2 has no problem displaying high–resolution pixel graphics, either. Many text labels are prefixed with small graphical icons, just like Live’s own browser view, and as we’ll see, device and mixer control panels are drawn graphically with icons, rotary visuals or animated level meters. And, by the way, the display is full colour, with text and graphics generally following the track or clip colours assigned within Live. One thing the display does not feature, though, is touch–sensitivity: interaction is via buttons, encoders and pads only. I’m not a big fan of touch-screens, which tend to be slow and low–resolution, so this is no great loss.

Because the display is TFT–based, it’s viewable from a wide angle, unlike the Push 1’s LCD, which effectively vanishes if you aren’t right in front of it. And more importantly, refresh is lightning–fast: text, numbers and controls (indeed, entire pages) update in the blink of an eye, and the Push 2 can smoothly scroll through device lists and parameter menus in a manner that the Push 1 can’t approach.

I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight

Display aside, most of the rest of the Push 2’s interface will be pretty familiar to users of the Push 1. The biggest difference in layout is the rearrangement of the selection and control buttons by the display: on the Push 1 these form two rows below the display, while on the Push 2, one row of buttons is above the display, one below. The manual refers to them all as ‘display buttons’, suggesting that they are generic, and they do indeed change function according to whatever labels are displayed alongside them in the display itself.Navigation and selection controls line the top and bottom of the display.Navigation and selection controls line the top and bottom of the display.Photo: Lee Mawdsley Like the other buttons, the display buttons are low–profile, and are ‘real’ buttons with a satisfying click, unlike the Push 1’s pad–like offerings. They are lit by multi–colour LEDs through narrow slits, and while the narrow lit area makes their indicated colour a little tricky to determine sometimes, the precise colour tone isn’t critical to operate the device.

The remaining buttons are mostly familiar. The left–hand side features the existing playback, recording and automation controls, some clip-editing buttons, and the Mute, Solo and Stop Clip buttons, which on the Push 1 are found to the lower right of the display. There’s also an intriguing new button labelled Convert, which we’ll look at later. On the right we find the controls involved with navigation, device browsing, playing and sequencing. Apart from the differing layout, the button functions are the same as on the Push 1, but some, such as changing pad layout and session navigation, have been remapped to make them more obvious.

All buttons are backlit, with two levels of intensity: full brightness means active or selected, while dimmed means inactive but selectable. When a button’s function is not appropriate for the current mode, the backlight is off, turning the button completely black. In the Push 1 review, I complained about not being able to clearly make out the different brightness levels, as most of the buttons generally glow in varying shades of muddy orange, but on the Push 2 white is the norm, with full and half brightness clearly distinct.The low–profile control buttons are now backlit in white, and much clearer than on Push 1. The Play, Record and Automate buttons become coloured when active.The low–profile control buttons are now backlit in white, and much clearer than on Push 1. The Play, Record and Automate buttons become coloured when active. What’s more, the Play, Record and Automate buttons are always at full intensity but flip between white (inactive) and either green or red (active), which is much clearer than the Push 1’s varying brightness. The touch–strip LEDs, now also white, are much clearer as well.

From The Top

Ableton have always seen Push primarily as a musical instrument, and to use it as such, you fire up a Live session, load a software instrument into a MIDI track, and start playing. Thus far, the procedure is the same in Push 1 and Push 2. At this stage, as an aside, I was pleased to discover that Live will happily drive a Push 1 and a Push 2 at the same time, working in the same Live set: changes made on one device are immediately visible on the other. This certainly made my life easier as a reviewer, and while it’s not clear that a two–Push setup is fantastically useful in practice, it’s good to see solid support for multiple devices in general, whether that means Push plus keyboard, Push plus some other clip launcher, or Push plus fader box.

Faced with a new Live set (which by default contains two MIDI tracks and two audio tracks), the Push 2 will start in Device Mode, presenting track names along the bottom of the display. In practically all modes (the most obvious exception is when using the browser), the Push 2 uses the last line of its display, and the display buttons below it, for track–related activity: selection, muting, soloing and stopping clips. The top row of the display, with its associated buttons, offers a more dynamic interface for editing devices and content.

Press Browse and the Push 2 displays a list of categories of device: User Files (which correspond to folders in Live’s Places browser), Sounds (instruments or racks arranged by type of sound), Drums (drum hits and racks), Instruments, Max For Live, Plug–ins (third–party VSTs or AUs), Packs and Current Project.A proportional font, wide columns and snappy response make browsing a  pleasure.A proportional font, wide columns and snappy response make browsing a pleasure. These are basically the same categories shown on a Push 1, but organised slightly differently. Within each category, you can drill down into folders and files, or devices and presets. While browsing, a soft button allows you to toggle preview on or off. This is useful, since previewing long audio or video files can cause the Push 2 to hang for a few seconds while the file is buffered — an option to not preview long files might be even better. Where the Push 1 shows device or file names in a fixed 15–character display slot, the Push 2 helpfully expands columns horizontally to show as much of each name as possible (for files and devices, at least, although not for folders). Combined with quick, smooth scrolling, this scheme makes navigation and selection fast and fluid.

In Step

With an instrument loaded into a MIDI track, the pads adopt a layout familiar from the Push 1: drum racks are mapped to a four–by–four block of pads, with the other pads primed for step sequencing unless you adopt the 64–pad playing mode. Other instruments or racks get the distinctive Push ‘keyboard’ layout where each pad is assigned to a note. Whereas the Push 1 adopts a single fixed colour scheme for the pads — yellow drum pads, or blue root keys in a grid of white for keyboards — the Push 2 does its best to reflect the selected colour for the track, so the inactive drum pads and the root key pads adopt the track colour. This is certainly useful if you know your track colours well enough for the pad colours to serve as a reminder of which track you’re about to play. Additionally, both for drums and normal instruments, notes displayed in the step-sequencer view are shown in the colour of the selected clip, overriding any track colour.In drum-programming mode, the drum grid adopts the colour of the track (purple), while the sequenced notes take after the current MIDI clip (orange).In drum-programming mode, the drum grid adopts the colour of the track (purple), while the sequenced notes take after the current MIDI clip (orange).

One thing that has always puzzled me about this kind of feature with colour–based controllers is how to differentiate track colour from whatever colour is used for background, highlighting or selection. How does a pad on the ‘white’ (non–root) part of a keyboard differ from a root pad when the track has been coloured white as well? Ableton seem to have a crafty answer to this whereby all the greyscale track colours are slightly tinted on the pads and buttons and in the Push display: white tracks are slightly yellowed, while dark grey tracks are tinted slightly blue. This way, greyscale on the Push 2 really does signify something specific, such as track muting, rather than reflecting a colour choice in Live itself. While it’s conceivable that track– and clip–specific pad colouring could have been implemented on the Push 1, I suspect it needs higher LED colour consistency than the original hardware could provide; ‘white’ pads on my Push 1 vary between a creamy white and a very pale pink, while colour variations on the Push 2 are almost unnoticeable.

A Soft Touch

Enough of the interface details: time to play. The Push 2 has a dedicated Setup button for setting up pad response, with a helpful graph showing sensitivity, gain and overall dynamics. The manual explains the parameters in depth, but basically there’s much more scope for personalising the pad response than with the Push 1’s simple threshold and velocity. I tend to play my Push 1 with the sensitivity ramped as high as it will go before it starts auto–triggering, so I did the same with the Push 2 and proceeded to play. To cut to the chase, the Push 2 is much more sensitive and responsive than the Push 1, and never seems to auto–trigger or suffer from stuck notes. While I’d probably describe the Push 1’s pads as pressure–sensitive, the Push 2 really feels as if it’s responding to touch. A little pressure is needed to trigger, but the Push 2 is effortless to play, whereas a bit of muscle was always needed with the Push 1. The Push 2 pads also lack the slightly sticky quality of the those on the Push 1 — I suspect the surfaces have been roughened slightly. The upshot is that the Push 2 actually feels like a keyboard: I found myself playing trills and glissandos that would be hard work or impossible on the Push 1. And one more thing which might clinch it for drummers is that latency when hitting pads seems much reduced on the Push 2.

Left To Your Own Devices

Live’s device structure is sophisticated: devices (instruments and effects) can be cascaded into chains, and then chains themselves can be layered in parallel to form racks. Racks themselves can be regarded as individual devices to be chained and racked, and so on. Even if you don’t dive into the machinery of chains and racks by choice, Live’s drum setups are all based around racks, with one device chain per note (ie. per pad on the Push). At times this can be difficult enough to follow in Live’s on–screen display, so making this structure explicit on a hardware controller is a bit of a challenge.

On the Push 1, the solution adopted is surprisingly simple: two buttons, called In and Out, are used alongside device names and the selection buttons along the bottom of the display. Columns in the display either list the device chains in a rack, or the devices in a chain. The In button moves deeper into the tree of devices, opening the selected rack or chain, while Out closes it and selects the parent. Just to speed things along, tapping pads for a drum track switches between chains in a drum rack.

The Push 2 loses the In and Out buttons, and uses display menus and buttons in a manner which I found utterly confusing until a lightbulb went on somewhere and it all started to made sense. If you think back to the way Live organises tracks for mixing, you’ll recall that device chains in a top–level rack (and that can mean individual drums) present their own ‘submixes’ as folded tracks in the Session or Arrangement. These inner tracks can be unfolded into view, or folded away again as desired. The Push 2 presents this folding interface on the bottom line of its display: if a track contains a rack, pressing its corresponding lower display button unfolds the track to the right, populating display columns with device chains and allocating display buttons as it goes. (Tracks further to the right are shifted along.) A thin line above the labels shows the extent of the parent track. This layout is exactly what Live shows on screen (in fact, Live’s window updates to mirror what happens on the Push), so the only excuse I have for being confused is that, on the Push 1, folding and unfolding is only partially supported (for actual tracks): racks can’t be unfolded at all.

Moving Around

So much for tracks. If you navigate between unfolded chains using the bottom part of the display, the top line and its buttons provide access to each chain’s devices, left–to–right. (For some reason, the names shown here are the types of device, for example Sampler or Operator, rather than the current program or preset names.) Click one of these top buttons to select the device and access its eight main parameters using the encoders; click the button again, and you’re in Edit mode, with the lower display buttons letting you navigate between multiple pages of parameters for a device. If the device is a rack, press and hold the top display button to bring up a clickable list of all the chains along the bottom. This is the step that initially eluded me: without it, you can’t navigate fully within racks.

Just to make things interesting, drum racks are displayed slightly differently along the top:Complicated drums: my ‘Two Kits’ track has two layered drum racks. I’ve unfolded the track at the bottom, while the top row shows rack, chain, drum pad, and chain for that pad, left–to–right.Complicated drums: my ‘Two Kits’ track has two layered drum racks. I’ve unfolded the track at the bottom, while the top row shows rack, chain, drum pad, and chain for that pad, left–to–right. the current chain (in other words, the current pad or note) is also given its own column at the top, between its parent rack and its constituent devices. If you want to set the choke group for the particular drum sound on this rack, that parameter is available here. I’d quite like to see a transpose parameter here as well, to change the MIDI note passed into the chain, but that parameter is on offer only in Live’s on–screen interface.

Navigation is assisted by small icons prefixing the labels in the display, which differentiate between normal racks, drum racks and individual drum pads, and the label and control colours also follow track and chain colours, which is a great help (although you have to set the colours up in Live first). I tried my best to stress the Push 2’s navigation system by creating deeply nested racks, but once I grasped the various button combinations I found I could move around inside racks and chains with ease.

As on the Push 1, devices themselves are presented as pages of parameters, which can be controlled by the Push’s encoders. Parameters are named across the top of the display using the second line of text, the first being in use for navigation between devices; pages are shown and selected at the bottom. On the Push 1, a device can have up to eight pages, each with up to eight parameters. The Push 2 isn’t limited to eight pages, since the outer display buttons at the bottom navigate left and right to bring other pages into view, and depending on the actual device, some parameters actually move between pages (such as oscillator selection in the Operator FM synth). Comparing the Push 1 and Push 2 side by side makes all too clear how many of a device’s parameters are completely missing on the Push 1; the Push 2 provides pretty much everything. (Ableton tell me that coverage is currently around 95 percent.)

In place of the Push 1’s cryptically abbreviated page and parameter names, numeric readouts and lo–res, bar–graph value indicators, the Push 2 provides long scrolling names and graphical indicators. Many parameters are generic, displaying a numeric or percentage value, and get shown with a rotary display, while others such as FM algorithm or filter type have proper graphical icons. (I was amused by the little icons of guitar amp cabinets when using the Amp audio effect.) In some cases, though, the text legend for a parameter value gets unhelpfully truncated, such as in Operator where LFO destinations ‘OSC Volume A’, ‘OSC Volume B’ and so on are all truncated to ‘OSC Vol’ — a simple fix would be to have the full text appear when the encoder is touched. Unlike on the Push 1, the parameter graphic indicators are always visible. And there’s another handy, if subtle, use of colour here: inactive parameters are shown in grey, rather than the track or chain colour. And in fact, entire devices can be activated or deactivated in place with the dedicated Mute button.

I was slightly disappointed that envelopes are just shown as generic sets of numeric parameters rather than graphically, as they are in Live itself; the display is certainly capable of animated graphics, and some kind of pop–up window could show an envelope shape while its encoders are being touched — or, even better, show envelope progress when notes are played. Perhaps this is something for a future software update.

On A Wave

The Push 2’s TFT display is clearly an improvement in terms of all–round usability over the alphanumeric LCD in the Push 1, but its higher resolution, colour, and ability to draw graphics really come to the fore when displaying waveforms. Where the Push 1 was a bold step for MIDI editing, the Push 2 takes on audio.

Load an audio loop into a Session clip, put the Push 2 into Clip mode, and the waveform immediately appears on the display.A view of a  clip’s waveform, showing parameters, plus start, end and loop markers. Colour–coding indicates the played, and looped, sections.A view of a clip’s waveform, showing parameters, plus start, end and loop markers. Colour–coding indicates the played, and looped, sections. This, alongside a collection of playback parameters, is the editing interface for the clip; the Push 1, by contrast, shows a handful of parameters, but no graphics. By default the entire clip is shown, but a zoom control allows you to focus on a smaller section of it. Again, colour is used to good effect: unused parts of the audio (those before the start location, or after any loop point) are greyed out, while the looped area itself is highlighted against a coloured background. Again, colours reflect those assigned in Live. A moving cursor shows the current playback position, just as in Live itself. And as The Push can be both in Clip mode for its display interface and Session mode for the pads, you can quickly switch between clips and see their waveforms immediately. However, the display only ever shows a mono waveform, never separate left/right waveforms.

Disappointingly, the Push 2 only provides limited access to a clip’s parameters: playback start/end, loop start/end, warping mode, transpose/detune and gain. You can’t turn warping on or off, and there’s no access to time-signature or groove settings, the nudge controls, or sample offset modulation. Ableton say that they want to add more parameters in software updates. As on the Push 1, locators can be moved by entire bars, or by 16th notes (by holding down Shift).

Slice Work

If, at this stage, you feel that some massive opportunity has been missed in terms of sample triggering and manipulation, fear not: the really cool enhancements are elsewhere. Live has long had two sample players: the fully fledged Sampler, an optional extra providing zoned multisampling and complex modulation, and the entry–level Simpler. The main functions of the latter always seemed to be to provide individual drum hits, or package up multisamples for users with no access to Sampler. With Live 9.5, Simpler has been beefed up for use with the Push 2, to provide some serious sample–slicing action.

For starters, Simpler now has audio warping built in: when this is enabled, samples play back at a constant rate regardless of the pitch they’re triggered at. Secondly, Simpler now has three modes. In addition to Classic for conventional sample playback (warped or not), there’s a monophonic One–Shot mode, where the triggered sample plays to the end or is gated while a key is held down, via an envelope, and a Slicing mode. It’s in Slicing mode where all the action happens, but adventurous sound designers should note that the Classic and One–Shot modes support portamento — which, if warping is enabled, stays in sync regardless of pitch.

Select Slice, and the sample is chopped up at transients. The Simpler instrument then turns into something resembling a drum rack, where each pad triggers sample playback from a different slice point.Simpler in Slicing mode, with the waveform display opened into Live’s main view area. Waveform segments flash as they are triggered, both in Live and on the Push 2.Simpler in Slicing mode, with the waveform display opened into Live’s main view area. Waveform segments flash as they are triggered, both in Live and on the Push 2. Unlike Live’s existing ‘Slice to new MIDI Track’ operation, slicing within Simpler is dynamic and non–destructive — take the Simpler back into Classic or One–Shot mode, and you can see that your entire sample is intact. In Slicing mode, the number of transients used for slicing can be varied dynamically: turn down the sensitivity control from the default value of 100 percent and detected transients start to disappear from the waveform display, with the set of valid notes shrinking in sympathy. Turn sensitivity back up and the transients (and notes) reappear. If Live hasn’t detected transients where you feel they should fall, you can reposition them by dragging on screen, or double–click to add and remove extra ones.

Predictably, this all gets to be a lot more interesting once the Push 2 is involved. The audio waveform display is at the heart of how the Push presents the Simpler’s parameters. Playback markers and triggered audio segments are shown on the display in real time, and there’s a nudge controlSimpler Slicing on the Push 2.Simpler Slicing on the Push 2. to move any transient point forwards or backwards. To really generate new musical ideas, though, start step sequencing the sliced audio. I found this to be an engaging way of coming up with some really novel rhythms, starting with a rather mundane drum clip and then completely reordering its slices, throwing in some looped automation on the fly to transpose the audio. (It’s not possible to individually set transposition on a slice–by–slice basis.) All slice settings are saved with the Live set, or as a Simpler preset, but there’s one trap to be wary of: change the threshold sensitivity, and any MIDI notes in clips will start triggering different slices.

Mixing

In basic terms, the Push 1 and the Push 2 provide similar access to Live’s mixer. The Push 1 has buttons labelled Track, Volume and Pan & Send, which switch it into various mixer overviews. The encoders can, as a set, be switched between volumes, pans and send levels, or can be mapped to all of these parameters for any specific track. The state control buttons under the display can be switched between track mutes, solos or ‘stop clip’ mode.

The Push 2 has a Mix button which accesses similar views. There are no separate buttons for volumes, pans and sends: the upper display buttons switch between these views instead. Press Mix again to view settings for a specific track. Mute and solo status is toggled for the currently selected track by pressing the Mute or Solo button. Multiple tracks can be muted — or soloed, if you have Solo Exclusive disabled in Live — by holding down Mute or Solo and clicking the relevant track display buttons.

As outlined earlier, rack chains can be unfolded in the Push 2’s display, just as they can in Live. It’s easy to end up with more tracks and chains than the Push can fit horizontally, but there are keys for scrolling left and right by single tracks or by pages. (The Push 1 supports mixer scrolling as well, but it’s a bit more fiddly.)

Muting and soloing can be applied to chains as well. This caused me a little confusion, since clicking a display button might select a track, might unfold (or fold) its chains, or might toggle its mute or solo status, depending on what’s currently selected or enabled. After a while I got used to it, again helped by colour cues from the display and buttons, but it took a little practice.

The biggest enhancement to the mixing interface is, again, in the display: the volume controls contain integral audio VU meters, with level and peak indication.Ableton Push 2 These work exactly as you’d expect: left and right channel levels are displayed live, with the actual ‘fader’ parameter setting shown graphically to the right, and a gain figure in dB below. In effect, the level controls precisely mimic their counterparts within Live, giving you level indication where you need it, at your fingertips. And since device chains can be unfolded on the Push 2, it’s possible to see and alter the audio level of individual chains as well.

Again, I have one or two niggles here, but they’re all minor. MIDI–only tracks still show audio volume controls, whereas in Live there’s a specific MIDI output indicator. The master output meters in Live turn completely red on overload, whereas those on the Push 2 just show red above the 0dB mark. And there’s a slight amount of latency on the metering compared to Live’s display, although not enough to be a problem.

The Rest Of Push 2

When it comes to existing functionality, everything that was already possible with Push 1 can be done on Push 2 without incident. Automation punch–in works in much the same way on both devices: on the Push 2, parameters which are automated usually (but not always!) have a small dot drawn beside them, much like the indicator in Live. Step and real–time sequencing are basically identical on Pushes 1 and 2, apart from track and clip colour highlighting on the Push 2’s pads. Session navigation and clip/scene launching are the same, except for some slightly different button presses to navigate between views. The mysterious Convert button, it turns out, is something new to speed up composing: at a push, it lets you turn audio clips into Simpler devices and Simplers into drum racks. In general, if you’re used to a Push 1, you’ll be able to find your way around most of the Push 2 without too much difficulty.

The Rest Of Live 9.5

The significant enhancement to Live 9.5, which isn’t directly related to the Push 2, is a new set of filter algorithms built in association with Cytomic, who are known for their analogue–modelled filter and compressor plug–ins. Instances of Simpler, Sampler, Operator and Auto Filter are equipped with the new filters. Open a legacy project, and the devices are activated with their old filter algorithms so as not to change the sound of an existing mix, but each device can be ‘upgraded’ using a button in its title bar to replace the old filters with new ones.

As a test, I ran two identical instances of Operator side by side within a rack, using chain select to fade between them, and then did the upgrade on one of them. Initially, the upgraded Operator used a filter type called Clean. This is presumably intended as a close match to the legacy version, and I noticed no difference in sound. Then I started trying out the alternative types. As well as a menu for low–pass, high–pass, band–pass and something called ‘Morph SVF’ (state–variable filter), there’s a selection of options which emulate various classic hardware circuits: OSR (hard clipping, derived from the OSCar), MS2 (soft clipping, based on a Korg design), SMP (a hybrid) and PRD (ladder circuit from the Moog Prodigy). The differences between old and new filters were most apparent when filter resonance was turned up, with MS2 in particular delivering a mellow, warm sound which really shouldn’t be coming out of a software–emulated FM synth! Adding some rather severe wave-shaping ahead of this filter got me some rather delicious animated harmonics. Again, the Push 2 really delivered here, providing quick and easy access to all the synthesis parameters, accompanied by some rather quirky icons for the different filter circuits.Ableton Push 2 By contrast, the Push 1 was not giving me access to much more than frequency and resonance.

When Push Comes To Shove

I was impressed with the Push 1 when it came out: it provides powerful step sequencing, creative punch–in automation and fingertip access to instruments and effects. But the Push 2 is leagues ahead, overcoming not only the failings I identified with the Push 1, but additional shortcomings I hadn’t really noticed it had. The super–sensitive pads transform the Push from grid controller into what I would consider a true keyboard instrument, the graphic display presents a lot more information at a glance, the display buttons contribute to a streamlined and flexible user experience, and the waveform visualisations open up a new world of audio improvisation and experimentation. And the addition of VU meters, and support for rack unfolding, turns the controller into a bona fide mixing surface. Everything about the Push 2 is bright, clean and responsive.

The real win for me, though, is the expanded access to devices. The Push 1 made a decent stab at providing an editing interface, but the Push 2 takes the process to the next level, giving you access to practically every device parameter, shown visually (or at least iconically) and immediately to hand, with snappy animated feedback. My gripes here really are minor: mainly, I’d like to see envelope shapes drawn when editing them. If I have any overall criticism of the Push 2, it’s that the navigation scheme struggles slightly to provide completely intuitive access to unfolded tracks, racks and device chains, especially when muting and soloing, but that’s nothing half an hour’s practice with a cup of coffee wouldn’t fix. I really am finding it difficult to find any significant drawback with this product: it absolutely deserves to be a winner.

Ableton’s Jesse Terry On Push 2 Ableton Push 2

The Product Manager in charge of developing the new Push 2 was Jesse Terry. We put some questions to him about the new controller...

The Push 1 was a game–changer for working with Live, and proved hugely popular. When did you decide that there needed to be a Push 2?

JT: I don’t think it was ever a question for us, as there was (and is) so much more we want to do to address music creation. Push’s new screen opens a lot of doors for us, and likely there is much more we can do to improve what it does. Push 1 is still a totally relevant and powerful tool for music creation, but the hardware and display limits us to what we can address in regards to working with samples, and how well we can keep you immersed in making music away from your computer screen. I suppose if Push 1 had failed, we may have had to rethink if a sequel was necessary, but it seems that our vision resonated with quite a few people.

The Push 1 was a joint venture with Akai, and you looked to them for engineering experience and support. Why did you decide to go it alone with the Push 2, and how did that work out?

JT: I can only say positive things about the people I worked with at Akai Professional, and in particular, the engineering expertise of Alex Souppa and Chris Nicolls helped to make Push 1 a reality. Working on hardware is a totally different beast than software, and while we knew roughly what we wanted out of Push 1, we really didn’t have the in–house expertise to build it, and we didn’t have the knowledge of what would or wouldn’t work, or what different components would cost. One thing we learned from them in particular was the time and energy it takes to make a product like Push — and for sure, those guys put in immense amounts of work to refine Push 1 and make it as good as it could be. We had (and have) a great relationship with Akai Professional, yet I think there is a limit to what we could fairly ask out of them to put into Push. They have their own range of really great products that they need to look after as well.

On the flipside, Push is our only hardware product. We had an idea of what we wanted out of Push 2, and we had an idea of what kinds of (reasonably expensive) components we wanted, and what levels of detail and focus we were going to need. We knew this would be a significant cost and resource investment, and in order for this to make sense, we had to do it on our own. We brought on a highly experienced Head of Hardware named Oliver Harms, who brought the expertise needed to help make this kind of a product.

The low–profile pads are a step–change in sensitivity and accuracy compared to the Push 1. Why did you decide this improvement was necessary, and what was involved in bringing it to fruition?

JT: From an end–user side, I’ve always wanted more sensitive pads. It’s one thing to bang on drums, but when you want to get subtle responses from a grand–piano preset, the pads need to be much more sensitive. We felt after some years with Push 1 that we wanted them softer and a bit smoother as well. Luckily, Oliver has a lot of experience making great pads, and he had some hardware ideas about how to make them more sensitive with less crosstalk and false triggers (which is usually a limiting factor on how sensitive you can make a pad). There is also quite a bit of work needed on the firmware side to have the pads feel right, and this is done by our longtime Ableton developer Ralf Suckow, who probably dreams of velocity graphs at this point. Trying out the first versions of Push 2 was a rewarding moment, like having my guitar set up by an expert luthier.

The most obvious interface improvement over the Push 1 is the high–resolution colour display. Sample manipulation aside, this delivers proportional fonts, icons and track/clip colours. Were these incidental benefits (from the decision to support waveforms), or did you want to revamp the entire interface right from the start?

JT: Showing audio waveforms was surely a driving aspect for getting this kind of display, but a major lesson from studying Push 1 users was that they often turned to their computer to browse for sounds, so we knew we wanted to improve there. We know that the computer is a cluttered and disconnected place that contains a smorgasbord of fonts, icons and graphics, and our goal was to provide a place with one consistent design language that could keep you focused on music making while showing only what you need to see to get music made. There is of course a lot more we hope to do to take advantage of the screen with future updates.

A lot of effort seems to have gone into the dynamic beat–slicing machinery, both in the Push 2 and within Live 9.5’s revamped Simpler instrument. Was this feature a design goal from the beginning? How did it come about?

JT: We wanted to focus on sampling for 9.5, as this is close to many of our hearts, and chopping up audio manually and automatically is a big part of this workflow. Many of us used workarounds before Live 9.5, but it was really frustrating. In particular, you had these amazing audio clips that can be played at any tempo, and you had a Simpler instrument where you could play samples with pads, and you had a means for slicing automatically, and a way to chop manually in arrangement view, but it felt like all these things were disconnected and didn’t follow a linear path as to how you might make a beat. We fixed that.

There’s a lot in the Push 2 which seems to be pushing the envelope in terms of resolution, responsiveness and latency. What were the biggest challenges in getting to a working product?

JT: There were many, many challenges but I would say perhaps one of the biggest for us was zooming in on a sample. Samplers and drum machines have lived and died by this simple aspect of sampling, and we felt like we wanted something better and faster than what is out there. It would take me a really long time to explain how exactly it works, but I think (and hope) that as a user of the product you don’t even notice it, as it just does what you want it to when you want it to.

What’s the story now for the Push 1? The hardware is going to be discontinued, but will there be ongoing support for it within Live?

JT: There will certainly be ongoing work on Push 1 and we want it to work well at what it does for a long time. We obviously can’t show something like a sample on the display due to the hardware limitations, but where we can we’ve added new features to it. For example, you can now load VSTs and AUs and your scale and key settings are remembered when you save a set, among other improvements.

Reuse & Recycle

As a nice philanthropic gesture, and an unusual incentive to upgrade, Ableton have announced a unique trade–in programme for Push 1 users wanting to make the move to Push 2. Registered Push 1 owners can buy the new controller with a 30-percent discount and Ableton will collect your Push 1, recondition it, and donate it along with a Live licence to a deserving educational institution. Everyone wins!

Published December 2015