Emu's Launch Pad provides a hardware control surface for the Orbit sound module, but can also be used with other MIDI gear. Paul Nagle finds out whether it's destined to become a springboard for many a successful mission...
When I first heard about the Emu Launch Pad, it was described as some kind of drum machine add‑on for the Orbit dance sound module (see review in SOS June '96) complete with velocity‑sensitive pads, MIDI sliders, and some cool ways of interacting with the Orbit's Beats mode (a simple, replay‑only drum sequencer mode, for those who haven't read the Orbit review). Now that the Launch Pad has arrived, I can tell you that it's actually a combination of MIDI control generator, MIDI clock source, MIDI Machine Control and sequencer transport buttons, and pretty versatile note trigger. It does feature velocity‑sensitive pads, as well as five sliders and a pitch wheel, and is intended to be placed in the MIDI chain between your main MIDI controller and the synth to be played, although this could be routed via a sequencer to record the output from the Launch Pad's sliders and other controls. The back panel features inputs for a MIDI switch and continuous controller pedal, plus MIDI In and Out. There's no Thru socket, since all incoming data is passed on unchanged, along with anything generated by the Launch Pad.
When the Launch Pad arrived with me, I was somewhat surprised by its compactness: just 325 x 195 x 40 mm, according to my trusty tape measure, but nevertheless solidly constructed, with a sexy curved metal front panel. A look through the slim 21‑page manual revealed no hidden depths (or dimensions, hence the aforementioned tape measure) so I plugged in the obligatory external adapter (supplied) and set about tapping and sliding.
For the purposes of this review, I used an Emu Orbit as my sound source, but most of the facilities discussed apply equally to any synth with a reasonable MIDI spec.
The drum pads are actually more like rather chunky computer keys, and are laid out in the form of a velocity‑sensitive, one‑octave, polyphonic keyboard (C3‑C4). The pads appear to be designed for single finger strikes rather than elaborate flams or trills, and are no substitute for dedicated drum pads. I didn't feel confident enough to really let rip (and I'm not exactly Arnold Schwarzenegger, except perhaps in my command of the English language), because if I dug in too hard around the middle of the scale I could feel the underlying circuit board bending slightly. Two transpose knobs are used to shift the pitch of the pads, either in 12‑semitone steps, or by a whopping nine octaves (five up and four down). A third knob controls the MIDI output channel, which is great for quickly sweeping through patches on each layer of a multitimbral synth. It's a pity that this MIDI selection doesn't affect incoming notes too: if you want to use a controller keyboard in conjunction with the Launch Pad, you must select MIDI channels on both devices to jump between voices in this manner. Channel selection affects all the Launch Pad's controls — including the sliders, switches, pads, and pitch wheel — except for the six transport trigger buttons.
With its five assignable sliders, a sprung pitch‑bender knob, inputs for both an on/off foot pedal and a continuous pedal, plus the cutely‑named 'Thumby' switch, the Launch Pad is a veritable Swiss army knife for whittling out a real‑time performance. This, of course, assumes that you have a synth capable of responding to such twiddling — such as the Orbit. An Orbit patch, for example, has four continuous controllers in its modulation matrix (including mod wheel), with each one routable to over 30 destinations. Sliders A‑D on the Launch Pad, by default, produce the first four MIDI control messages — logically enough. However, the mod wheel duplicates the factory setting for slider A, so I reset it to controller 7 (volume) which was far more useful. Typical applications for the footswitch and Thumby would be to produce on/off events such as sustain (hold) or portamento, but you can just as easily pick other controllers too, for more unusual effects. Volume and pan are good candidates, allowing you to make sounds jump instantly from mute to maximum level, or suddenly move between left and right speakers. Equally serviceable is the continuous pedal input, although I'd have liked the option to generate channel aftertouch with it — especially as this is one modulation source which Emu synths will respond to but which can't be generated at all by the Launch Pad.
All settings are remembered when the Launch Pad is turned off, but since customisation is so straightforward, you would probably re‑program on the fly most of the time. For the more cautious‑minded, all values can be transmitted via the MIDI output as system exclusive data and saved into your favourite sequencer. Reloading a configuration is as simple as playing the SysEx back again.
One of the most nifty features of Emu's Orbit is its Beats mode. For more information you should check out the review in June's SOS, but I'll just say here that the Launch Pad provides a quick method of stepping through the current beats, drum‑machine style, whilst adding impromptu whacks via the keys. By holding down the Thumby button and using the Inc/Dec buttons, you can globally transpose the Launch Pad's output; this command is recognised by the Orbit and is used to introduce variations into the current rhythm, making use of the cunning way in which the drums are mapped out. You need to activate Beats mode on the Orbit itself before it will accept clock information and start/stop commands from the Launch Pad. Resetting the tempo value to zero will stop clock transmission — its workable range is 30‑255 bpm. Stepping through patches as the rhythm drives along is fun, and it's easy to stray into some pretty quirky areas. The problem for me was that the Launch Pad didn't add any new dimensions to the Orbit in this respect, or allow me to achieve anything that I couldn't have produced with it and a drum machine or mother keyboard.
The Launch Pad provides a replica of a traditional tape recorder‑style transport for sequencer and MIDI Machine Control. I connected it to my VS880 hard disk recorder and it happily played, rewound, fast‑forwarded and returned to zero, all very smoothly. It's much more basic in its handling of sequencer controls, with only 'start from zero' and 'stop' being supported. I rather expected more sequencer control than this! With no discernible way of assigning tempo to the sliders, you must set the required tempo using the keypad and then hit the Enter button to activate it. To change tempo, type in the new rate and hit Enter again — a little long‑winded for my taste.
Toggling into Trigger mode, the transport keys become six latched note‑trigger buttons which you hit once for a note‑on event and a second time when you wish the note to stop. This would be useful for starting and stopping sample loops, sound effects or wavesequences from a Korg Wavestation; each button transmits on its own independent MIDI channel for further flexibility. You can jump between trigger and transport modes freely without interrupting the current beat or any notes which are sustaining.
A combination of useful features in a handy‑sized box, the Launch Pad is a jack of all trades. I'd probably have sacrificed some of those drum pads for more assignable sliders, but given its intended use with the Emu Orbit (which can respond to only four continuous control changes), perhaps these would have been superfluous. The transport support for MMC works well but the sequencer controls could have been more comprehensive, and would be greatly enhanced by a dedicated tempo knob. The degree of sequencer control provided is fine when the Launch Pad is used with the Orbit's Beats mode (start and stop is all you can do there), but if you were hoping to use it with something like Cubase, the limited controllability on offer isn't sufficient.
Probably the best use of the Launch Pad is, as you'd expect, with the Orbit. Live selection of beats, plus manipulation via the sliders, and triggering notes via the keypad, could be turned into a performance by itself. Owners of other synths aren't totally left out, however: they might find the assignable controls, synchronisation and triggering options to be desirable, especially if their main keyboard is lacking in the knobs and sliders department.
With an Orbit in your rack and a Launch Pad strapped about your person (I shudder to think where the power adapter would go) you really could pose as a one‑man dance factory.
You can select programs, songs or patch banks using a simple increment/decrement system, or type in a patch number and go straight to it. For live use, you might want to keep your synth nearby so you can see program names. Bank select follows the MMA standard and provides no support for manufacturers (the manual cites Roland as an example) who produce instruments which deviate from this.
- Assignable sliders and switches can generate a wide variety of MIDI controllers.
- Sequencer and MMC transport operation.
- Control of Orbit's Beats mode.
- You'd probably have to need all its features to justify buying one, especially at this price.
- The drum pads don't feel substantial enough for a really good pasting.
- Minimal sequencer controls and no dedicated tempo knob.
An alternative MIDI controller and a good partner for Emu's Orbit, the Launch Pad would be equally at home on stage or in the studio.