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Livid Instruments Base

Control Surface
Published July 2014
By Nick Rothwell

Livid's latest control surface is of typically high‑quality and designed to be the perfect partner for Ableton Live.

The Base is yet another MIDI controller from the productive, Texas‑based Livid Instruments, and follows on from a growing list of products including the original Ohm controller with its silicone button grid, knobs and faders (reviewed SOS April 2010) and the Code with its infinite rotary encoders (reviewed in April 2011).

At first glance, the Base has more than a passing resemblance to Ableton's flagship Push controller (reviewed in March 2013); a collection of pads occupy the lower half of the device, while the top half has the look of some kind of mixing/editing interface. There's also an obvious similarity to Novation's series of Launchpad control surfaces and Akai's APC controllers, and, like all of these, the Base has comprehensive support for Ableton Live. The Base is priced somewhere between the Launchpad and the Push, so one purpose of this review is to explore whether it's worth paying more for than the Launchpad, or alternatively whether it's a good buy compared to the Push — or whether, in fact, it can do things neither of the other controllers can.

First Impressions

The Base comes in a box with the minimum of supporting materials: there's a USB cable, some Livid stickers for plastering over the lid of your MacBook, a registration card, a quality-control checklist, and that's pretty much it; all the action in terms of software and support is online.

The Base itself is a pretty solid piece of kit: the casing and end cheeks are aluminium, while the top surface is coated with a pretty tough‑feeling rubberised material. The build quality is pretty good; for example, I like the fact that the rubber feet are bolted on to the baseplate, rather than being the usual self‑adhesive kind which fall off after a week. Despite its metal construction, though, the Base isn't especially heavy, nor is it especially thick: the aforementioned feet aside, I make it about 27mm thick at most, not a huge amount more than the Launchpad, and there are no protruding knobs or faders to get snarled or damaged when stuffing it into a backpack; apart from the silicone buttons I mentioned, all controls and displays are flush or recessed.

A bit of exploratory prodding reveals that the 32 pads are non‑moving (as on the Push); they're purely pressure‑sensitive, unlike the pads on the Launchpad, which feel, and act, like conventional buttons. Pressure sensitivity implies velocity sensitivity, at least if the software supports it, making the Base potentially better suited for playing drum parts, but with less tactile feedback than the Launchpad for tasks such as launching clips, which benefit from actual movement. The eight smaller buttons on the right-hand edge of the Base do feel and act as 'real' buttons, though.

Powering Up

Having exhausted all the review options of a device that's not plugged in, it made sense to connect it to a computer and see what happened. There's a single standard USB type-B socket on the left‑hand side of the case; there are no options for external power, so a powered USB hub or direct connection to computer are probably wise. When plugged in, the Base presents itself as a class‑compliant MIDI device with two in/out pairs of MIDI ports, labelled (on my MacBook at least) 'Controls' and 'Port 2'. ('Port 2' is currently unused.)

At this stage, the Base comes to life, at least to some degree. The eight long, fader‑like touch strips above the pads each illuminates a single LED in pale blue at its base, and if (like me) you immediately touch the panels to see if they operate like faders, further LEDs come on to indicate touch position, as you would expect. There are eight LEDs per fader; the lowest is always illuminated. To the top right of the device is a ninth fader, intended by convention to act as a master level control.

The square touchpads above the fader strips have LEDs in their top‑right corners that light up in green when the pads are touched. In fact, each pad also has a second LED dead centre, but this needs software support to turn on. The eight function buttons at the lower right light up in green when depressed, or rather they half light up, since each button features two LEDs, only one of which is enabled on power‑on. Finally, there's a traditional two‑digit, seven‑segment display above the buttons, stuck (for now) resolutely displaying '01'. Be assured that the pressure pads light up as well, but without some controlling software on the host computer they show no signs of life.

MIDI Control

The Base has software support for a bunch of audio applications including Ableton Live (versions 8 and 9), Traktor, Reason, Bitwig Studio, FL Studio, Liquid Rhythm and Logic, and also caters for VJ applications such as GrandVJ, VDMX and and Livid's own CellDNA. We'll be concentrating on Ableton Live in this review. Support for MaxMSP is also claimed, but this is a little bit disingenuous since there's no specific Max support for the Base: Livid's site contains a link to a blog entry about the Code, a totally different device. However, Max users are generally pretty clued up when it comes to rolling their own code for hardware controllers, and the Base offers no particular barriers to doing this. Livid's Wiki has a pretty comprehensive MIDI document, so I thought it was worth firing up my own copy of Max and poking around to get a feel for the Base's MIDI behaviour.

A quick bit of Max patching later, and I was looking at what MIDI the Base was generating. The pads generate notes chromatically from a low C to a G two and bit octaves higher, with a decent range of velocity values, and also put out MIDI controller values for pressure, with controller numbers matching the note pitches. The function buttons put out notes with fixed velocity, as do the touch buttons at the top of the device. The fader strips put out control change messages, as one would expect, but also trigger notes (again with fixed velocity). As mentioned earlier, the LEDs for the fader strips, and the corner LEDs for the touch buttons, respond to touch even if no MIDI is sent to the device explicitly, suggesting that the device is partially set to MIDI 'Local Control On' mode.

On a whim I decided to route note messages from the device back into it. This caused the pads to light up when I played them, with a colour determined by velocity. The centre LEDs of the touch buttons also lit up when pressed, as did the left‑hand sides of the function buttons. (A bit more experimentation proved that the colours here were also determined by incoming MIDI velocity.) A bit of controller patching showed that the fader strip LEDs also responded to control change messages.

Editing

Regarded as a generic MIDI controller, the Base is highly configurable. The touch buttons can put out MIDI notes or controller values (for off and on), in momentary or toggle mode. The fader strips can also put out note and (positional) controller values at the same time (where 'controller' can be aftertouch or pitch‑bend), while the pads can put out note and/or controller values (or aftertouch or pitch-bend) for pressure. Each control can also take MIDI input to set colour (and, in the case of the fader strips, visual position); the Base can't display full RGB, but can turn on or off each of the three colour channels (red, green, blue) per control, to offer seven distinct colours (plus 'off'). In practice, more colours than that would be hard to distinguish, although it would be nice to be able to set up colour fades.

The MIDI editor 'bundled' with the Base is actually online, and runs in a web browser. You have to download and install a MIDI plug‑in, but once that's done the editor is essentially a web page (as shown in screen 1), which is rather neat. For people who don't like reading through documentation (which in this case means trawling through Wiki pages), the editor reveals quite a lot about the device. It has seven distinct banks, each of which has its own MIDI transmission channel and colour assignments for the fader strips. (You are responsible for changing banks via MIDI; there's no dedicated control to do it.) Some of the controls have MIDI Local On by default (such as the touch faders, otherwise you wouldn't see them 'moving' when touched). And the faders have a variety of different output modes, with varying precision (including what I'll call a 'scrub' mode where the full range of the slider only covers part of the MIDI output range, so several touches and

1: The web‑based editor for the Base. drags are needed for a full fade in or out).

Base & Live

To integrate the Base into Live (in other words, to use it as more than a generic MIDI controller), it's necessary to install the appropriate Remote Script, which adds information and functionality for Base into Live itself (there's support for Live 8 and for Live 9). Once that's done, it's just a case of selecting 'Livid Base' as the control surface type, and the Base 'Controls' port for input and output (as in screen 2). If you also want to use the Base to play notes or drum parts, or to add your own MIDI control bindings, then also enable the 'Controls' port for Track or Remote input. (A side note: Track Output is also needed for some of the step‑sequencing functions.)

When the remote script kicks in, any local state you've set up in the Base is ignored; Live imposes its own colours and bank switching. The faders' mode/precision is respected, though.

With the Base hooked up and configured, a rectangular marquee (familiar to users of other controllers such as the Push, Launchpad or APC) will appear in the Session View. Screen 3 shows the Session View for an empty Live Set, with two marquees: the blue is the Base, while the underlying orange is my old Launchpad, also connected. Clearly the Base can only address four rows of clips at once (as opposed to the Launchpad's eight), but it's worth noting that the Base extends its control across into the return tracks (specifically, to the return levels plus the track-enable and solo buttons), while the Launchpad does not.

When connected to Live, the Base has four display modes: Launch, Send, Device and User. The modes are indicated in the seven-segment display, and selected by pushing the corresponding function button just below it; when a mode is active, holding down the same button will generally offer a second page of control functions.

The Launch mode will be familiar to anyone who has used a Launchpad or Ableton Push: the Base's pads act as triggers for launching clips in Live's Session View. Unlike the Push, the pads don't adopt the display colours of the clips, but instead (like the Launchpad) show colours according to the state of the clip slot: white means clip present (but idle), red means recording and green means playing (and, as far as I can tell, purple means changing from one state to another). The Base's active area within the Session (in other words, the marquee position) is shifted using the lower four function buttons for down, up, right and left. (Cleverly, the seven-segment display flashes a segment pattern to show the direction of the shift.) The right and left shifts are by eight tracks at a time. (The Launchpad moves horizontally by a single track, but has a shift mode for navigating eight tracks or scenes at a time; the Base only does the latter.) I was about to report that the Base had no ability to launch entire Scenes, but in fact it does (hold down a touch button for a Scene launch mode); this is undocumented.

Hold down the Launch function button, and the Base displays a track control interface, similar to the Launchpad's main 'mixer' page: the colour‑coded rows of pads control track enable, solo, record enable, and Stop All Clips, respectively.

As you might predict, the touch faders are mapped to Track Volume, and the LED strips update as volume settings change (say, via on‑screen dragging or automation) or as the Base is moved between different sets of tracks. The top touch buttons allow for track selection (useful when editing devices, which we'll look at shortly).

3: The Session View marquee for the Base (and a Novation Launchpad).The second of the four modes is Send Mode, which is primarily involved with effect send and return levels. The leftmost four faders are send levels, dialed up on a track‑by‑track basis, while the rightmost faders are the global return levels. It's good to see support for four send channels — the Launchpad only supports two — while the colour coding of the faders (purple for sends, blue for returns) makes it easy to reach for the controls without too much risk of altering the wrong thing. The shifted Send Mode (holding down function button 2) is pretty much a duplicate of Launch Mode, offering fast access to track enable, solo and level, plus Stop All Clips.

Two modes in, and there's already quite a lot going on, but when we start looking at MIDI tracks it gets a lot more complicated, as the Base attempts to provide a multi‑scale, configurable keyboard, a versatile drum sequencer, and a rich set of step and clip editing controls on what feels like a not‑quite‑adequate grid of 32 pads. (Ableton's Push, from which some of the Base's step-editing features appear to be inspired, has twice as many pads to work with.) The online documentation is somewhat terse, but after spending a bit of time with Livid's YouTube videos, things started to make sense. I won't waste column inches with a detailed description of all the recording and editing operations, but the main take‑away points are:

  • The Base provides a huge selection of keyboard layouts, plus a choice of interval between one pad row and the next, and (of course) a choice of root note.
  • There's a mode to automatically go into four‑by‑four drum-pad mode for MIDI tracks containing drum racks.
  • There's a mode to fall back into Session‑based (ie. non keyboard, non‑drum-pad) clip view, as for audio tracks, if you just want to launch MIDI clips rather than edit them.
  • A split mode takes half of the pads away from the keyboard or drum input area and dedicates them instead to a step-sequencing and clip editing interface.

This entire editing/recording/playing process took me a quite a while to master: it's one of the more obscure interfaces I've encountered on a control surface, more akin to some kind of intentional puzzle than an instrument, and a few bits of visual interaction didn't match the documentation, or happened with enough lag to be disconcerting. I feel that both the sequencing script, and the documentation, need a bit more loving care before these features are really ready for prime‑time. (Livid did sent through some bug‑fix updates while I was writing the review, which addressed some issues.)

Device Mode is very similar to Send Mode; in fact, the pads adopt the same playing/sequencing/launching behaviour. The faders (in a new, distinctive cyan colour) access device parameters eight at a time, while the bottom four function buttons, in combination with the 'shifted' mode, allow full access to all parameter sets, devices and chains in a track: good to see, since many controllers only access the 'best of' parameter sets, and don't provide much navigation support at all.

The final User Mode provides four distinct pages of controls which can be used for playing, or for MIDI control via mapping, completely separately from the dedicated functionality of the control script. The Base's User Mode fader positions are preserved between pages, and — very nicely — are updated by Live if parameters are changed via some other means, such as automation or on‑screen click-and-drag. While I've used many dedicated controllers for Live, I've always preferred setting up my own mappings for a performance, or at least specific areas of it, and I'm pleased that the Base offers both dedicated and customisable mappings at the same time.

In Use

I took the liberty of taking the Base out on stage to perform a media gig a short while ago. I was part‑improvising both music and algorithmic visuals (controlled via plug‑ins written in Max For Live), and collaborating with a contemporary dancer, which all added up to a lot going on at the same time, and pretty much in the dark. A couple of features of the Base, which I initially registered pretty much in passing, proved more significant in practice. The deep recessing of the faders and touch buttons into the casing seemed a little excessive at first, but when you can't actually see the casing at all, it becomes essential to feel exactly where the controls are — especially if they're not lit — without actually triggering them. The multi-coloured lighting of the touch faders is obviously nice to have, but the distinct colouring becomes pretty essential when switching constantly between different modes: it much reduces the risk of altering the wrong thing, especially in a rapid‑fire improvisation.

I'm very used to physical faders (I've been using a CM Automation Motor‑Mix on stage for more years than I care to recall), so I approached the touch faders with some trepidation. (This wasn't helped by the fact that I only discovered the 'precision' output mode some time after the gig!) While the LEDs always reflect the current position, their accuracy is obviously limited. 'Fine' mode requires lots of repeated scrubbing to get the whole fader range and, that mode aside, there's no smart pickup mode to prevent sudden jumps on finger‑down. Jumping around is somewhat acceptable for live control of effects, but not at all for level fading; at the very least, different scaling behaviours for the different edit modes (or a shift button to access them quickly) would be welcome. Those gripes aside, the Base performed well in the heat of the moment, although the functionality loaded onto the four mode buttons did feel rather excessive and was only workable because of the distinct colour coding.

Conclusions

There's a lot to like about the Base: it's solidly constructed, convenient to carry around and use, and provides a rich multi-coloured interface accessing sophisticated MIDI control functions. Touch faders aren't to everyone's taste, but the Base provides a pretty decent implementation, lacking finesse only in terms of seamlessly mapping touch position to parameter change, and that's something that could be addressed in software. Also, non‑moving drum‑style pressure pads aren't to everyone's taste either, but the Base's pads work well.

The only slight let‑downs are the control software and documentation. The Live remote script has a few sharp edges which are, admittedly, minor, but are thrown into sharp relief by the sheer volume of functionality piled into a compact physical interface. The online documentation appears rushed, and is insufficiently complete or clear to make learning or using the Base a straightforward process.

However, the Base is certainly not fatally flawed, and it has plenty of potential. A bit of tender loving care to the software and documentation would work wonders.    

Published July 2014