The third generation of Ableton’s Push adds audio and MIDI interfacing and the option to go computer‑free with battery‑powered standalone operation.
Eight years on since its release, Push 2 didn’t seem to be slowing down. It was still the Session controller most Live users aspired to and it enjoyed ongoing updates and integrations with Live’s built‑in devices. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been years of speculation and anticipation about how different a next‑gen Push might be. And now we know: Push 3 is at the same time remarkably similar, and radically different to what came before.
Ableton have maintained Push 2’s form factor and core Live control workflow in Push 3. There are some welcome layout and button rethinks, but the headline new features are things that Push 2 simply couldn’t do. The least surprising is the inclusion of onboard I/O: Push is now an audio and MIDI interface as well as a controller. But who imagined that the pad grid, although due for an upgrade, would become a full‑on no‑kidding MPE controller? Oh, and Push can now be configured as a standalone workstation, running Live internally.
Push provides control of Ableton Live, offering Session view navigation and clip launching, note and drum playing and sequencing, and device/mix control. It can be used in different ways: at its simplest it can be a peripheral to manage a recording session or performance; but it can also be a hybrid physical instrument and drum machine. Workflows that have co‑evolved with Push, such as its sequencing and sample chopping, turn the Live/Push combo into a hands‑on workstation like MPC or Maschine: a focused hands‑on environment for composition and idea capture. It’s in this light — Push as workstation or instrument rather than glorified Launchpad — that the new additions make particular sense.
Push 3 looks like Push 2. It’s a touch bigger overall, but the pad grid, screen, track encoders and buttons follow the same design. Key visual differentiators are the all‑white grid, the replacement of the two leftmost encoders with larger knobs further down, and a jog wheel on the right. I’ve never liked the rubbery buttons on the Push 2, which sit flush with the surface of the device and feel a bit awkward to me. On Push 3, the buttons are harder and sit slightly proud of the surface. They still require a definite push to register rather than a tap, which can make moving around feel a bit plodding compared to other devices, but they are better. They’re also all delineated with raised ridges, which I think will aid accessibility for visually impaired users. The buttons have been reorganised, grouping recording functions to the left, edit functions in a cluster to the right, and so on.
The unit is an absolute tank. It’s incredibly solid, with a large metal heatsink on the bottom that doubles as an access panel for the standalone components. Consequently it’s heavy: the controller version slightly more so than Push 2, and the standalone nearly a kilo more. None of this is surprising given the additional hardware components.
Along the back panel are quarter‑inch headphone and main analogue output jacks, plus another two for inputs. The inputs are switched on screen between line, instrument and ‘high’ levels, with the latter adding digital gain to accommodate a dynamic mic. An interesting choice is the ADAT I/O. Ableton might have gone for expandability via USB audio interfaces (like MPC and Maschine), but this is actually a really clean and simple option.
Many of us have interfaces and mic pres with ADAT connectivity. I use a Ferrofish line/ADAT converter to run all my synths into my main audio interface. I can just connect one Lightpipe cable to hook up my synth rack directly to the Push, whether for standalone or computer operation. In standalone mode I also enjoyed being able to plug via ADAT into my studio’s Pro Tools‑based interface and have Live running as a hardware device alongside, sync’ed via Ableton Link over Wi‑Fi. Like ReWire reincarnated.
MIDI is catered for via a pair of 3.5mm TRS Type A ports. Then there’s a USB host port for directly connecting MIDI keyboards, controllers and synths. A hub can be employed here for up to six devices. I was able to connect my Retrokits MIDI interface to expand the MIDI port count. MIDI and audio device settings can now be managed directly from Push, whether in standalone or controller mode. Devices connected to the USB host port can be used in either mode, although standalone will ignore non‑MIDI peripherals like a mouse. Push also has CV outputs as an alternative mode for the foot pedal ports. This requires a TRS splitter to two mini‑jacks (not included), the same solution as on Elektron’s Analog Four. These appear to Push or your computer as another four audio outputs which you can freely send CV/gate signals to. In Live, or Push standalone, the CV Tools device manages this neatly. Yes, I did try sending audio out of these ports for giggles and it wasn’t nice.
Computer connection is now via USB‑C, which handles the control connection and computer access to the internal audio and MIDI interfaces. There’s no class‑compliant direct audio connectivity over USB in the standalone mode. Like Push 2, the controller version of Push 3 can be powered from the computer connection, with the screen dimmed. In the studio you’ll want to keep the unusually tidy power block connected. The standalone Push can run off its internal battery, whether in controller or independent modes. This provides about two or so hours of mains‑free jamming. Not a lot, but two hours more than any other device bar the MPC Live, and a great backup for gigging. I did discover that you can power and charge the standalone over USB‑C if you are using a high‑wattage power supply like the one that comes with a MacBook Pro. A direct USB connection to the computer doesn’t have enough oomph to keep it charged, although I did think it slowed down its battery use.
Let’s look at what’s new in terms of controlling Live, all of which is also relevant to the standalone option, which presents the same functionality. While the screen is the same there are new things it can do, some facilitated by the jog wheel. Chief among these is the Session Screen view: a direct representation of the 8x8 clip grid currently focused by the hardware. This feels much more connected to the Session workspace than coloured pads alone, not least because you can see clip names. Turning the jog wheel scrolls you up and down the grid and the view on the pads follows along. The wheel also has a left/right click action so you can navigate horizontally across the session and select tracks. Push‑click the wheel and the currently selected scene will launch. Tap the buttons above the screen to launch clips on individual tracks in the focused row. Alternatively you can select and launch single clips by Shift‑pressing from the wheel.
You can still nudge or page the main grid using the two cursor clusters. In fact, the screen and pad modes are not joined at the hip. The screen can be running the mixer or device controls while the pads manage the clip grid, just as with Push 2. (My feature request here is that the wheel still scroll the pad grid — it’s not doing anything else in this mode). But the huge workflow boost is that with clip/scene launching handled via the screen the pads are freed up to stay in Note/Drum mode. Along similar lines, one of my long‑term feature requests is implemented now: you can momentarily switch pad view by holding another mode, then flip back on release.
The screen’s Clip view now offers a layer of editing function beyond basic clip properties. Previously you could view a piano roll display but only interact with individual notes from the pad sequencer views. In Edit mode the jog wheel is used to select notes, which you can then manipulate with the encoders. You can delete notes, move notes by grid values or fine increments, change pitch, length, velocity, velocity range and probability. The selection method is to scan through notes with the wheel, tapping any you want to select. You can also Select/Deselect All. This works OK, but is not great for selecting a range of notes, or selecting all instances of a note, for example. No doubt this will be fine‑tuned in time.
For audio clips there are just two options for editing: you can define a Beat 1 position within the waveform and warp the new range to the grid, enough to tidy up a take or conform a sample or recording to the project tempo. You can’t warp within a clip or quantise transients, etc. There’s still no visual representation of clip modulations or automation on the Push, which is more of a limitation for standalone use. In Device Control view parameters are still marked as automated with a dot and you see the values change in real time.
The truth is I’ve not paid much attention to MPE until recently. My interest was sparked by Ableton’s recent efforts to upgrade all Live’s internal instruments with MPE capabilities — now we know why they did. MIDI Polyphonic Expression sneaks extra dimensions of per‑note performance control down your MIDI port. Push 2 already had polyphonic aftertouch: sensitivity to continuous pressure changes on multiple pads. Push 3’s grid is next level, with each pad essentially being an individual X/Y controller. Pads know where they’ve been hit, how hard you’re pushing them, and can sense your finger moving around on their surface.
Nearly all Live’s internal instruments can be modulated by these different interactions. Note, velocity and aftertouch were there before, and now we have Note Pitch Bend, Slide and Pressure. You can bend the pitch of a note and add vibrato by moving your finger left and right on a pad. Up/down movements on a pad send Slide modulation, which is typically used to modulate timbre. Pressure differs subtly from aftertouch and can free you from the constraint of velocity, allowing you to articulate attack and the onset of notes like bowed strings. As well as subtle pitch modulations around a note, you can slide your fingers left or right across multiple pads to glide across larger intervals. The grid interprets this as a continuous bend on the original note and doesn’t trigger new notes as you move between pads.
In Push 3’s settings you can choose whether notes start exactly in tune regardless of position (and then bend relative to the starting point) or respond to the horizontal position from the outset like a fretless stringed instrument. You can in fact set a tolerance zone in the centre to make it more or less easy to hit perfect notes. Likewise you can tweak the vertical range for Slide expression to suit your style and help avoid running into the next row. You can also turn note bending off altogether, and switch the grid to regular poly or mono aftertouch modes.
Live 11.3 comes with a set of MPE‑enhanced patches to experiment with, and most of the Init patches on the built‑in instruments respond by default. It’s a delight. Vibrato and bend on individual notes in a chord is a particular favourite. And while inevitably slipping into some Blade Runner, I found I had the grid constrained to the wrong key: no problem, you can break out and play accidentals at the edges of the pads.
A real showcase of what’s possible is the synth drum kit called simply Analog Kit. This is a kit built entirely of sounds programmed in the new Drift synth, making full use of MPE. Each sound responds differently depending on where you hit the pad as well as how hard. If you’re quick you can swipe in pitch mods. It’s absolutely alive. Note Repeat is lots of fun here, you can easily generate interesting hi‑hats and percussion, or clubby snare builds that morph in timbre, pitch and level.
Despite rumours to this effect, the biggest surprise has to be that Push 3 can be configured as a standalone instrument and workstation. Like MPC and Maschine+, this is powered by an internal processor running a special build of the software behind the scenes. In Push’s case this is an 11th‑gen Intel i3 with 8GB RAM. Modest, yes, in computer terms, but certainly more powerful than the obvious competition; and remember the Push’s processor is dedicated to one thing. Push 3 can be purchased with or without the standalone functionality. Later this year there will also be the option to buy an upgrade kit to add the standalone components to a Push 3 controller. The upgrade doesn’t need any special expertise and doesn’t affect the three‑year warranty.
Out of the box the standalone runs Live Intro, with the various instruments and devices available in that tier of Live (see the box for more on this). If you own Live Standard or Suite, you can log Push into your Wi‑Fi and authorise it directly with Ableton. This will lift the 16‑track limit and unlock all the built‑in devices that come with your software version, and any available sound and instrument packs you own will be available for direct download and installation.
Talking of which, Live Suite comes with over 70GB of soundware, which is no problem for the whopping 256GB SSD inside Push 3 standalone. Unusually there’s no SD card option, or even an option to move data over USB. This could be limiting in some situations, but Push 3 has a much better way, which is to use a Wi‑Fi link to exchange projects, samples, presets, and so on with Live desktop. Push shows up in the Places section of Live’s browser, where you can access the device’s library. You can even directly open a Project from the Push, and Live will pull the supporting files locally and open an identical version of the Set. Samples from your Packs will re‑link to your local copies. Sets can also be dropped from Live to the Push. When you do this Live suggests you Freeze any tracks with VST/AU plug‑ins and use the Collect Files function.
With onboard I/O and a standalone mode, one thing that you’re likely to be using Push for that feels new is recording.
Push in standalone mode is essentially the same experience as operating Live purely from the controller, with the same set of features and limitations. Let’s take a moment to look at the workflow for non‑Push/Live veterans, then consider how this compares to the full Live desktop experience. A fresh Push project presents you with Session view: each column is a track, with the pad grid representing slots that can contain MIDI or audio clips. Instruments can be added to MIDI tracks, and audio can be recorded or loaded into audio tracks.
Where Push 2 had a Browse button, the new unit has Add and Swap buttons, which both access your collection of instruments, effects and samples. Browser navigation is now aided by the jog wheel. The browser is still a bit basic compared to the graphical, searchable and tagged experiences on MPC and Maschine, and when you go to load a sample you get put into a big list of all audio files on the device (which doesn’t happen with Push 2). You can navigate back into the filing system but I’m putting it on the ‘room for improvement’ list.
As well as the Session layout, Push has a Notes mode where the pad grid transforms into a workspace for playing and sequencing instruments. A selection of note layout schemes are available for melodic instruments or external MIDI devices, and another set for drums. Melodic layouts include a half‑and‑half notes and step‑sequencing mode, or a piano‑roll sequencer. For drums you can fill the grid with sounds, but the most common scheme uses the bottom left quadrant for triggers, the top half for sequencing, and the bottom right for selecting different loop ranges within a longer sequence.
As well as the new clip launching view, the screen and encoders can be your mixer or your device control area. Live’s devices are nicely integrated with the screen, offering well designed layouts and animated graphics. And as we’ve already covered, the screen has a Clips view for making adjustments to your clips and their contents.
With onboard I/O and a standalone mode, one thing that you’re likely to be using Push for that feels new is recording. Thanks to the multi‑mode inputs you can plug a guitar or bass straight in, and Push provides a tuner device, which makes excellent use of the screen. If you have Live Suite you get the Amp and Cabinet devices to shape your tone, and various multi‑effect rack presets.
The other main workflow I tested was connecting a synth to the inputs for monitoring and recording, both sequencing from Push itself, or clocking devices with their own pattern playback. Like Live software, the standalone uses the External Instrument plug‑in to manage the routing of outgoing MIDI and incoming audio. This also gives you a timing offset to mitigate latency. With the default settings latency in this scenario was minimal, but you can squeeze it down further by dropping the audio buffer down to 64 or 32 samples.
MIDI (and CV) control of external synths benefits from the MPE pads where supported, but it’s not possible to control parameters via MIDI CC. In Live desktop, you need to use a suitable Max device for this, and the one I have didn’t work on Push. What does work in Push standalone are Freeze and Flatten. If you’ve got an external synth being sequenced from Push, you can Freeze clips and they will be automatically captured as audio. Flatten goes another step and turns the track into an audio track, a fantastically neat workflow.
While it’s remarkable that Push standalone has feature parity with Push as a controller, it does mean there are gaps. Anything that you would reach for the computer to do in controller mode is, well, out of reach when running standalone. The obvious case is access to the Arrangement. Like the Note app, Push is focused on Session workflow, with no linear tracks or inherent pattern chaining/song mode features. I was really hoping that Push standalone could work as a multitrack recorder for DAWless scenarios, or be able to provide a semi‑automated structure for a live performance.
Of course you can make recordings as long as you like, recording into single clips. But consider a typical workflow: you create a beat in Push using a series of scenes for different song sections. Now you want to record a vocal performance alongside this. If you try to record audio, as soon as you change scene the audio track will drop out of record. In Live desktop you could record the vocal into an Arrangement track, but even staying in the Session you’d have options. You could decouple the audio track from scene changes (remove clip stop) or you could enable the Start Recording on Scene Launch setting, which results in a continuous record pass split across scenes. Neither of these options is available in standalone.
There’s also no access to clip launch modes, follow actions, launch quantisation, etc. Follow actions, which let you choose an action that happens when a clip ends, would let you create chains. Push will in fact obey any of these settings for sets that you transfer from your computer. This gives you a way to build a live performance: pre‑building an arrangement from chained clips, and including single‑shot clips and legato unquantised clips for breakbeats and fills.
Interestingly, Live’s Arrangement is not absent in the Push, it’s just not accessible. This leaves open a hack for laying down an arrangement. The feature I most love in Live is that you can put its Arrangement (linear tracks workspace) into record, then perform a series of clip and scene launches in the Session, and all of this gets captured into the tracks. You can in fact still do this in Push standalone by Shift‑pressing the Record button. This is basically a one‑time deal as there’s no way to then play back what you did, but if you save and transfer the set to your computer your arrangement will be there.
Push 3 stands apart from its peers through sheer elegance of design and cohesiveness of workflow.
Push 3 stands apart from its peers through sheer elegance of design and cohesiveness of workflow. It may seem a minor thing but the ease with which you can move material back and forth between computer and hardware makes all the difference — the kind of difference between whether you use a bit of kit or not. It feels like a unified instrument rather than a science project. There are some gaps in the standalone functionality, things that were simple enough to achieve on the computer but now need hardware access. And as Ableton look at the ongoing development I really hope they implement Arrangement (as Akai eventually did on Force), or at least some way to combine linear recording alongside scene‑based song structure. Push’s primary focus has always been idea capture and jamming but I think it’s reasonable to expect arrangement and finishing to be within the scope of a premium standalone. Then Push really will be the one device to rule them all that I seem to always be chasing.
Anyway, transcending comparisons with the other standalone workstations is the MPE pad grid, and its interaction with the built‑in devices. I’ve gone from ‘meh’ about MPE to evangelical in the space of a couple of weeks. Regular old keyboards suddenly feel a bit stiff and lifeless; there’s no going back. Ableton have always framed Push as an instrument rather than a controller, and Push 3 realises that vision.
So how much can Push do without the computer? Firstly, in my testing with all the regular kinds of projects I have lying around, the Push 3 didn’t miss a beat. A lot of these had VST plug‑ins, which I needed to freeze, so I decided to run some tests with the native devices. There’s no CPU usage meter on the unit, so I had to just push it until it choked. With the default audio settings, I created a track running the Analog synth device and recorded a clip with an eight note chord playing continuously. I then duplicated the track to see what happened. (There was also a Reverb and Grain Delay plus Saturator on the Returns). Push was able to keep playing at 20 tracks (160 voices of Analog), with things becoming a bit sluggish. By 24 it was beginning to crackle and become unusable. My computer is a MacBook Pro M1 Max with 64GB RAM, and in the same test, using the Push interface with the same settings I maxed out towards 100 tracks. A harsh test as this computer is a beast, but I think it fared well. Also, on the Push standalone you can up the buffer size if you have a big project, and you can also freeze tracks.
Push 3 standalone fully supports all the built‑in devices in the three versions of Live. It doesn’t support VST/AU plug‑ins, but if you have Live Suite you can use Max For Live devices. Not everything works at the moment; some devices report that they are missing components they need in the system. There’s also no way for the Push to display any custom graphics, which are quite commonly used in Max especially for things like sequencers. However, any Max device that has Push Macros added by its creator (and that doesn’t use one of the missing resources) can be operated on the Push standalone. This includes many of the devices included with Live Suite, such as the excellent drum synth modules. My favourite granular sampler worked, but only with presets as you can’t currently load samples into the Max devices. Max will be one of the keys to making the Push 3 expandable, so I’m sure more devices will become compatible over time.
As a controller Push requires Live on your computer to function in any meaningful way. I did find that it will transmit MIDI (including MPE data) without Live running, but all the lights are out and there’s no way to change settings, scales or transposition. Push always comes with Live Intro, which as well as being on Push standalone can be installed on your computer. This gives you the means to control Push (and manage data on the standalone) even if you never plan to use Live desktop.
I’m guessing the majority of those investing in Push will already be Live users, or are planning to become so. If you have the standalone, Live Intro is fairly capable, especially if you’re mainly using it for sampling and drum machine duties. It also comes with a couple of extra utility devices: CV Tools and External Instrument, both of which are essential for connecting up with external hardware synths. But it’s rather limited in terms of other instruments, so you’re really going to want Suite to get all the extra devices and packs to load up that big drive.
- MPE instrument control.
- Clip/scene launching from the screen.
- Built‑in audio, MIDI, and host USB connectivity.
- It’s got a battery!
- No Arrangement access.
- No access to clip launch modes and actions.
- Comes with a premium price, and Live Standard/Suite is extra.
It’s a controller, it’s an instrument, it’s a workstation. I’ve got this far without saying ‘gamechanger’, but Push 3 really does set the new standard.
Controller version £879, standalone £1669. Upgrade kit £879 . Prices include VAT.
Controller version $999, standalone $1999. Upgrade Kit $1049.