The Ableton controller race is hotting up — so how does the latest contender, the Akai APC20, compare to the competition?
The biggest change in the world of Ableton Live over the last year is probably the arrival of dedicated grid‑based hardware controllers. Live has been able to use MIDI control surfaces for a while, but since so many musicians spend much of their time in Live's grid‑oriented session view, a controller which presents that grid as a physical interface has an obvious appeal, especially for live performance.
Akai were first to the line with their APC40 (reviewed in SOS September 2009), a table‑top device offering a grid of illuminated buttons along with a fader‑equipped mixer section and a dedicated panel of rotary encoders for controlling device parameters: all in all, a one‑stop shop for controlling practically everything you need to in a Live set. Novation followed with their Launchpad (SOS December 2009), a much smaller and more minimal button grid offering a bigger matrix area — eight rows rather than five — but no physical faders, knobs or encoders of any kind. The Launchpad is a lot smaller, and appreciably cheaper, than the APC40, so now Akai are back with the APC20, which they describe as a "Compact Professional Ableton Controller”.
The APC20 is certainly smaller than the APC40, and now qualifies as backpack‑sized. (People making such claims about the APC40 must have unusually large backpacks.) It's still thicker than the rather svelte Launchpad, and deeper, front to back, due to the fader area, but is now in the same ballpark in terms of table space. Perhaps more importantly, the APC20 comes in at a much lower price than the APC40, bringing it close to the Launchpad in cost as well as size. Accordingly, as well as comparing the APC20 to its big brother, we're going to do a few comparisons with the Launchpad, since potential buyers will probably be looking at both devices. We'll assume some familiarity with the APC40 and Launchpad in this review, and concentrate mainly on the features unique to the APC20.
At first glance, the APC20 looks like an APC40 with the right‑hand side sawn off. While the session grid and track controls have survived virtually unchanged, the track control panel (pan settings and effects send levels) and the device control panel have gone, together with the crossfader and a bunch of dedicated quick‑access buttons. A quick glance at the rear panel reveals that the footswitch inputs are also absent.
Some features have, unsurprisingly, vanished, alongside their dedicated controls: the APC20 has no device control functions at all. Other features have been rolled into the existing controls, making them multi-functional, so there's been a minor outbreak of multi-coloured text labelling on the top panel, and prospective APC20 users should prepare to use the Shift key more often than they would with the APC40.
It is a great shame that device control is completely absent from the APC20. The transport and grid navigation functions are still present, but are provided by doubling up the functions of the track selection buttons — you'll have to hold Shift to select tracks. Having the grid navigation buttons in a row rather than a dedicated cluster is a bit disconcerting, but easy enough to get used to. The tempo control functions are gone, as is the metronome switch, and if you want to control Live's crossfader, you'll have to do it with old‑fashioned MIDI Controller assignment.
The APC20 has the same track control layout as the APC40: eight faders are topped with buttons for track activation, solo/cue and record arm, and there's a dedicated master fader and cue level knob. However, the pan and effects send level controls are now mapped onto the track faders as well, which are shared across multiple modes (or if you prefer, pages) of functions; the record arm buttons also act as a mode selector.
The APC20 sports a couple of features not found on the APC40. (Neither is hardware‑related, so it's possible that the APC40 could acquire these features through a firmware upgrade.) There is a 'Note Mode', which flips the grid buttons into a chromatic keyboard configuration that's useful for working with Live's drum racks, although the buttons are not velocity sensitive. There are also additional function pages for the faders, allowing them to operate as three independent banks of ordinary MIDI faders.
Both of these additional features enable the APC20 to behave — at least partially — as a generic MIDI controller, alongside its tightly integrated role as a purpose‑designed Ableton Live controller. You will need to go into Live's preferences and enable the APC20 for track or remote MIDI input (depending on whether you want to play notes or assign buttons or faders to Live's controls) as well as enabling it in the dedicated Control Surface section.
Having seen how the APC20 relates to the APC40, let's have a look at how it compares to the Launchpad. It is possible to use an APC and a Launchpad side by side in the same Live Set, either overlapping a common portion of the Session, or aimed at different areas of the clip or scene space. (I have yet to see two musicians gigging with a controller each, connected to the same Live Session, although there's no reason why it shouldn't work.) Where possible, an update made on one controller will be reflected on all the others.
An immediate distinction between the devices is that the APC requires a power adaptor, whereas the Launchpad is USB bus‑powered, so if you're into laptop battery‑powered action on the road, the Launchpad is your only option.
Even though they are different sizes (8x5 on the APC, 8x8 on the Launchpad), the button grids on the two devices operate virtually identically, with the same LED cues for clip and scene control — mercifully, since if Akai and Novation had gone their own ways in interface design, the result would have been rather chaotic. The APC's buttons are smaller and firmer to the touch than the Launchpad's, but I didn't feel a strong preference for either.
Both devices support the zoomed‑out Session Overview mode (where one button represents an entire grid of clip slots), but the APC covers less ground because its grids are only five rows high and you are only presented with five rows of buttons to switch between them. On discovering this, I was about to launch into something of a rant about the APC's limited selection range (25 scenes is, in my opinion, too few for a decent live set, especially if the Launchpad can access 64), but some experimentation reveals that scene launch buttons provide top‑level selection between consecutive Session Overview pages. This is documented in the Ableton Live manual but not mentioned in the quick start guide that comes with the APC. This 'overview overview' boosts the APC's potential selection range to 125 rows — a little short of the Launchpad's 512, but enough for an evening's entertainment.
The screen above shows Live's session view complete with grid markers for the APC20 (blue) and the Launchpad (orange). Both devices appear to encompass the Master Track, although this really just indicates the ability to launch complete scenes: only the APC provides Master Track volume control. The APC's marker can encompass the return tracks, as shown (the return tracks are always mapped immediately to the right of the ordinary tracks on the device), whereas the Launchpad has no access to the return tracks.
The Launchpad implements 'virtual' knobs and faders via a set of mixer pages, where a column of buttons acts as a linear selection control. This is rather crude in terms of resolution — the minimum incremental change in track level is 6dB, for example — but the feedback is highly visual and immediate. The APC20 has good, smooth, solid‑feeling faders, although they are commandeered into a large number of distinct roles. The APC20 does allow access to three send channels, whereas the Launchpad only provides pages for two. Sends and returns aside, the two devices basically provide the same track controls, albeit in different ways and with different accuracy and feedback. Both have strengths and compromises, and any choice between them basically comes down to personal preference.
If your working method revolves around eight‑channel mixing, and you don't need hands‑on control of instrument and effect parameters, the APC20 does pretty much what it says on the tin. The controls are solid and well laid out, clip and scene launching is as easy as it gets, and the chromatic note mode is a nice bonus for musicians who spend most of their lives inside drum racks.
Move beyond the eight‑track limit, or start working heavily with effects sends, and you'll begin to run into trouble. Since the faders aren't motorised, they'll be in the wrong place as soon as you start scrolling beyond the first eight tracks (bearing in mind that the return tracks are included in this total), or want to work with pan settings or send levels. To be fair, any non‑motorised controller will have this problem — including the APC40, which has the scrolling issue even though its faders are single‑function — but the scrolling in addition to the necessary multi-functionality of the faders makes the issue especially acute. Needless to say, the Launchpad, for all the limitations of its low‑resolution fader interface, always shows settings as they are.
Live provides a bit of help with its Takeover Modes for fader chasing, but personally I would probably work round this problem by putting the APC20's faders into User Mode, treating them as plain MIDI faders and mapping them manually; but if you're willing to lose the tight integration with Live then any number of MIDI control surfaces would provide the same kind of mapping.
If you already have an APC40, the addition of an APC20, with the devices ganged into a single 16‑channel unit, makes more sense, although you'd have to be sure you were happy with the way this combination might handle sends, returns and devices for all channels.
I'll note in passing that there appear to be some minor bugs in the device's behaviour when Live launches: the transport control and track enable LEDs don't always refresh to the correct state. This does just seem to be an initialisation issue, and everything works fine once up and running; I'd be surprised if Akai and/or Ableton didn't fix this minor niggle quickly.
The APC20 is a compact and well-constructed controller for Ableton Live. It does what it does well, and comes in at a price point that should appeal to those who consider the APC40 too expensive, or the Launchpad too lacking in dedicated mixer controls. The APC20 also has some useful features not found on its larger cousin, though the mapping of multiple pages of functions onto its faders is an issue unless you're perfectly happy with what Live provides in terms of control takeover and chasing. As it stands, the APC20 probably gives its best as an add‑on to a rig already sporting an APC40.
Akai are keen to point out that Live supports multiple APC devices at once, in what it refers to as Combination Mode. An APC20 can thus be added to a setup that already has an APC40, in which case the devices configure themselves for 16-track operation (and the APC20's specific track select button and fader modes are apparently disabled). I didn't have access to an APC40 to test this out, and the documentation is threadbare, to say the least, so it's not clear how this track assignment interacts with grid navigation, or whether you can use two APCs independently instead.