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Novation Launch Control, Launchpad Mini & Launchkey Mini

MIDI Controllers
Published January 2014
By Nick Rothwell

Novation expand their controller range as they serve up a three-course Launch. We check out what's on the menu.

Over the years, Novation have come to dominate the MIDI controller space, making everything from full-sized MIDI keyboards down to handheld fader-, knob- and button-boxes aimed at composers, performers, DJs and VJs alike. Three new offerings have just crossed my desk. The Launch Control is intended to be a companion to the Launchpad S grid controller — although it's also perfectly usable in isolation — while the Launchpad Mini and Launchkey Mini are individual units. All three are finished in a fetching grey-and-orange livery, and as you'd expect, all are USB-connected, bus-powered and MIDI class compliant.

All three products are aimed both at DAW-based musicians and iPad users, the latter via Novation's own Launchpad and Launchkey apps, which are available for free, and which also work pretty well on an iPad with no controllers attached. I looked briefly at the Launchpad app in my review of the Launchpad S in the July 2013 edition of SOS, while Paul Nagle has gone into a little more detail about both apps in his review of the full-size Launchkey (SOS October 2013). Since the apps are free, you should certainly try them out before buying any hardware if the iPad is your platform of choice. In this review I'm going to concentrate on compatibility with Ableton Live, since many of the controllers' features are aimed at Live, and all three come with a licence for the entry-level (but very capable) Ableton Live Lite.

Launch Control

The Launch Control looks like a fairly standard USB MIDI controller, offering knobs, backlit silicone-pad buttons and a handful of dedicated controls. Two rows of eight knobs each is a fairly generous provision on a device this size, especially since they are big, chunky and feel pretty solid. The overall build quality of the unit seems good enough that I'd definitely consider it for stand-alone live use, regardless of its intended role as Launchpad companion, which we'll look at shortly.

The Launch Control alongside its indended partner, the Launchpad S.The Launch Control alongside its indended partner, the Launchpad S.

The Launch Control is supported natively by Ableton Live 9, so I selected it as a dedicated control surface, and checked Live's built-in help page about the device itself. This was more than sufficient to get everything working, although further documentation is available from Novation's web site. The Getting Started Guide in the box does its best to get you to go through a rather tortuous registration process to access any downloads, and while this is necessary for licensing the bundled applications, pretty much all of the documentation and support software can be found directly in the 'support' section of the site.

The device ships with a number of built-in control templates: eight User and eight Factory. Live treats the first three Factory templates as three operating modes. (Switching between them involves holding down the Factory button for about half a second, a delay that's slightly irritating.)

The first mode is Mixer Control, where the knobs control track pan and volume, or (with a button press) send levels for successive pairs of return tracks, while the pads map to track enable/disable.

Mode two remaps the pads to clip launching — record or playback — with the dedicated up/down buttons selecting scenes. In this mode, the pads change colour to indicate clip state (yellow for idle, red for recording, green for playback) and flash when a clip is cued: this is the same behaviour as the Launchpad, which means that Mode 2 makes the Launch Control behave pretty much as a single row of a Launchpad. There's no way of launching an entire scene, unfortunately, nor is there access to the tracks' Clip Stop buttons; for these actions you'll need to add an actual Launchpad or some other controller.

Mode three is for device control: the first four knobs in each row control a bank of parameters, while the pads allow for selection between eight parameter banks. The unit's arrow keys navigate between devices, either across tracks (left/right) or within a track (up/down). As you might expect, switching banks — or instruments — tends to leave the knobs in the wrong position, but that's a general problem with hardware potentiometers rather than encoders. As always,Live's 'takeover mode' for MIDI controller values helps avoid sudden parameter jumps. You're also expected to know which device controls fall into which banks, unless you don't mind exploring as you go along.

Select a User template, and the Launch Control becomes a generic MIDI control box. I downloaded Novation's editor program and poked around. It's possible to make the standard kinds of alterations to knob and pad/button settings — controller number, note pitch, channel and so on — but these days, practically every piece of music software has its own MIDI mapping features, so there's not a lot to be gained by altering them in the device itself, unless you need compatibility between different devices. The pads operate in MIDI Local Off mode when sending notes, which means you have to send note messages back to light the pads up. Different note velocities produce different red/amber/green colour mixes; alternatively, there's a documented System Exclusive protocol for more detailed control.

Using The Launch Control With The Launchpad

In order to test the Launch Control in the manner Novation intend it to be used, I dug out my original Launchpad (which has the same dimensions, layout and behaviour as the Launchpad S). The Launchpad and Launch Control line up nicely, and Live is happy to co-operate with both devices at once. Live draws a red rectangle around the area of the Session View controlled by the Launchpad, while the Launch Control (in its clip launch mode) selects, or follows, the currently selected scene; the two areas of control are independent. When the same row of clips is mapped to the pads on both devices, the clip states are indicated in parallel on both: pad colours and flashing states match exactly.

If you're used to using a Launchpad to control Live, you'll be aware that its support for mixer control is crude at best: a column of eight pads delivers a resolution of 6dB, at best, between successive volume levels (and 9dB between send levels). The Launch Control places mixer settings onto knobs, where they belong. (Well, levels really belong on faders, but knobs are the next best thing.) Accurate, continuous control of the mixer is clearly the main selling point for the Launch Control, and in operation things are smooth and responsive.

Both the Launchpad and Launch Control allow navigation around Live's session, both vertically (across scenes) and horizontally (across tracks). While the precise area of a Launchpad's influence is indicated clearly on screen, the 'position' of the Launch Control is less clear: the current scene is indicated, but the device's horizontal position (ie. range of tracks) is not indicated except as a brief message in the Status Bar. Even when the Launchpad and Launch Control are both active, they aren't required to straddle the same set of tracks. This isn't a fatal drawback, but is certainly an issue to be aware of. (I could imagine an enhanced control script within Live showing the Launch Control as a single-row-height marquee to indicate track selection — or perhaps some mechanism for locking the Launch Control and Launchpad to the same set of tracks.)

The Launch Control and Launchpad S make a very effective control system for Live: you'd still use the Launchpad as a clip control surface, especially since it provides scene control which the Launch Control does not, while the Launch Control itself provides accurate mixer control, access to devices, and an independent row of clip control buttons, offering more flexibility when working with the Live Session.

Launchkey Mini

Novation offer two ranges of full-sized keyboards: the SL range of general-purpose controller keyboards, and the Launchkey range, the latter aimed at electronic musicians using Ableton Live, and/or Novation's iPad apps.

The Launchkey Mini is certainly compact, measuring just 325 x 175 x 43 mm.The Launchkey Mini is certainly compact, measuring just 325 x 175 x 43 mm.

The Launchkey Mini is one of a new range of scaled-down products offering similar features to existing products in a smaller form factor — based, in this instance, on the Launchkey 25. The Mini units use micro-USB connectors, which are smaller and potentially more fragile than their full-sized counterparts, but I didn't encounter any issues with them. While the Launch Control is a solid piece of kit, the Launchkey does have a slightly flimsy feel to it, and you wouldn't want to be packing it into flight cases, or even stuffing it into backpacks, without some care. It is, however, extremely light.

Since the Launchkey Mini is pretty much a pre-shrunk version of the 25-key Launchkey, I can point you at Paul Nagle's review of the full-sized version in last October's issue of SOS. Obviously, the unit only offers a mini-sized keyboard, a format I'm not particularly fond of, but the Launchkey Mini's keys are better than many I've encountered, with a respectable amount of travel and not too much springiness. There are no pitch or modulation wheels, no numerical LED readout, and (unsurprisingly) no aftertouch.

As with the Launch Control, Live recognises the Launchkey without fuss. The device has two operating modes and presents two MIDI ports:one called Mini InControl for use as a dedicated control surface, and one just called Mini MIDI which is used for the keyboard and (when not in InControl mode) the pads and knobs. Switching between the two modes takes a single dedicated button press, which is convenient.

When InControl is turned off, the Launchkey Mini acts as a conventional MIDI controller. The two-octave keyboard can send on any MIDI channel, and can be transposed down by as much as four octaves or up by five, giving it access to the entire MIDI note range. (The octave up/down buttons attempt to show the amount of transposition by variable brightness, which isn't terribly successful: some kind of flashing pattern would be better.) The two rows of eight pads send notes with hard-wired pitches on MIDI channel 10 (the General MIDI standard); if you want to transpose these, perhaps to access different sets of drum sounds, you'll have to do it in software. The pads are non-moving and pressure-sensitive, which allows them to send note velocity, but not pressure data or aftertouch. The knobs send MIDI controller data with preset controller numbers, as do the arrow buttons and the circular buttons to the right of the pads.

When InControl is activated, most of the Launchkey Mini becomes a DAW control surface, although the keyboard itself remains, well, a keyboard. In Live, the first row of pads becomes a row of clip controls in exactly the same manner as happens with the Launch Control, and with the same colour indication. The second row of pads serve as Track Stop buttons. The up and down buttons navigate scenes, while the circular buttons provide scene launch and the Stop All Clips action. The knobs map to the 'best of' bank of controls for the selected device, if any. (There's no access to the full set of control banks as available via the Launch Control.)

Track selection is subtly different from the Launchpad/Launch Control model. The left and right buttons select a single track for recording; MIDI tracks are even record-enabled automatically so that the keyboard is ready to go. The clip control pads jump left or right across tracks in banks of eight, so, for example, moving from track 8 to track 9 remaps the pads from the first bank to the second. This differs from the Launchpad's scheme, but makes sense if you're predominantly recording or playing MIDI rather than working at the clip level. (Since Live Lite has a maximum of eight tracks, you won't be aware of this behaviour if that's the software you're using.)

The Launchpad Mini is identical in interface and operation to the Launchpad S, and if anything I'm more impressed by the Launchpad Mini because of its handy size and classy finish.The Launchpad Mini is identical in interface and operation to the Launchpad S, and if anything I'm more impressed by the Launchpad Mini because of its handy size and classy finish.

Launchpad Mini

Regular readers will know that I've long been a fan of small MIDI controllers, grids in particular, so the Launchpad Mini was of particular interest to me. While the Launchpad S was a welcome update to the original Launchpad in terms of performance and display, the Launchpad form factor is a little imposing: measuring 24cm on a side, it occupies a lot of space for the functionality it provides. The Launchpad Mini, at 18.5cm per side, packs exactly the same interface into roughly 60 percent of the area.

The Launchpad Mini is nicely styled, and looks and feels good. The rubberised orange underside makes you want to hold the device in your hands, and it's certainly of a size that it could be operated handheld, with only a slight stretch of the thumbs, and the minor inconvenience that the main grid area is off-centre to accommodate the rightmost column of mode buttons. One advantage of the smaller size is that the pads have a more solid action when pressed; on the full-sized Launchpad there's a tiny amount of wobble because the pads are so large.

As far as I can tell, the Launchpad Mini is identical in interface and operation to the Launchpad S: they share the same programmer's guide, and Live works with the Mini as if it were its full-sized cousin. The Launchpad Mini also has the same boot-up key combinations for setting things like display brightness: if you're not powering itfrom an iPad, it looks much better at full intensity. I briefly tested the Launchpad Mini and Launch Control in combination, and predictably the setup works fine, although the two devices look embarrassingly mismatched. (Perhaps Novation have a Launch Control Mini in the works?) It did take me a while to notice that, unlike on the full-sized model, the mode buttons aren't labelled on the Mini, except for basic 1-8 and A-H legends, which left me briefly disorientated, but remind us of the Mini's role as a generic controller. (App-specific stickers will be provided in the box for retail units.)

Novation's free Launchkey app should make a perfect companion to the Launchkey Mini. Novation's free Launchkey app should make a perfect companion to the Launchkey Mini.

At this stage I'll refer you to the Launchpad S review, since everything I said there applies equally to the Launchpad Mini. I gave the Launchpad S a thumbs-up, and if anything I'm more impressed by the Launchpad Mini because of its handy size and classy finish.

Conclusions

Novation have delivered an intriguing clutch of MIDI controllers aimed at the laptop or iPad musician. The Launch Control is a solid, well-built companion to the Launchpad S, filling in some blind spots and adding useful mixing, editing and performance options. The Launchkey Mini is, by a fine margin, my least favourite of the three due to slightly lower build quality, although it performs well as a mini-keyboard and is the most versatile Ableton Live controller of the lot. The Launchpad Mini is my favourite of the set: neat, solid, stylish and potentially the most open-ended.  

Published January 2014