Major updates to Novation's third generation of Launchpads improve both form and function.
The announcement of the new Launchpad Pro at NAMM completed Novation's line-up of MkIII Launchpads, with a new slim design, USB-C connectivity and enhanced features. Each model has levelled up: the Mini is now full colour, and the standard Launchpad (the 'X') gains velocity sensitivity and some of the Ableton integration seen on the original Pro. Which leaves the new Pro to venture into uncharted territory with upgraded Live control and impressive stand-alone sequencing powers.
As well as the hardware refresh and individual enhancements, all the new Launch-pads offer next-gen user customisation via Novation's Components web-based system. This includes an editor for creating user pages, complete with drag-and-drop 'widgets'.
Customer On-boarding is a fashionable term in the tech industry for the process a user goes through to get started with new gear of software. If I ever run an On-boarding workshop and you attend, I'll simply hand you one of these new Launchpads and ask you to plug it into your laptop. (If you want to break into groups and write on a big pad knock yourselves out, but you know, please don't).
When connected, the Launchpads mount a tiny storage partition containing a link to Novation HQ. This takes you straight to the product registration page (where the serial number of the unit is auto-filled!) and a setup video. Slick.
Connection (and power) is via USB‑C. A single B‑to‑C cable is included with the X and Mini, and you also get a C-to-C with the Pro. It was a delight to connect directly to my MacBook Pro, without the usual rummaging for an adaptor.
Launchpads can be generic MIDI controllers — even more so now with customisation and the Pro's sequencer — but they are designed with Ableton Live in mind. Control scripts for the units on review were already installed on my version of Live 10. The Mini and Pro auto-configured with no help from me, while the X required selecting in Live's settings.
The hardware design on these new Launches is lovely. They are way slimmer than the previous generation. The pads have been enlarged in area and the pitch between them reduced. The mode, scene and function buttons around the edges are now square instead of circular, as on all previous models.
The pads on the main grid of the X and Pro have a super-sensitive, light action, and you can adjust the pressure sensitivity and aftertouch threshold. They are simply the best grid controller pads I've ever used for playing instruments and synths. For finger drumming I initially felt I preferred the more solid pads on the original Launchpad Pro, but came around quickly.
The mode and function pads have a definite travel and a click, giving a reassuring button-like response. Labels are now all embedded in the buttons, and light up only when available in a given mode or context.
The Mini in particular is insanely cute, but all the Launchpads are highly portable. In fact, over the last few years I've clocked up much more time on the Launchpad Pro than Push, purely because the former fits easily in a bag and is happy on USB power.
The new models have the square rubber foot that runs around the bottom of many Novation devices. These are normally great for stability, but there was a definite wobble from the Mini on my desktop. Holding it up I noticed it wasn't flat, showing a bend along one of the diagonals. I was able to gently twist it into shape and all was good from then.
The Launchpads present a dedicated Live/DAW port over their USB connection, and they default to an Ableton-focused mode when Live is running. All have a Session mode that lays out the classic Launchpad clip launcher representing Live's Session view. You can launch playback or recording on individual clips or whole Scene rows.
The level of control over other aspects of Live varies widely across the range, as does the way you access those controls. The Mini simply has three additional Session view track functions: Clip Stop, Mute and Solo. These take over the bottom row of the grid, with the mode cycled via a single button.
On the X, these functions are part of a dedicated Mixer view, toggled from the Session mode button. Stop, Mute and Solo are joined by Volume, Pan, Sends and Track Arm, selected from the Scene buttons. It's a clever use of the available pads, but it means that you lose access to Scene launching when Mute, Solo or Stop are active, which you don't on the Mini or Pro.
The Pro has always had a distinct advantage in having dedicated buttons for accessing mixer functions. The MkIII gains a set of track select buttons under the grid, which allow you to flip your MIDI input between tracks without having to enter Rec Arm mode. They also work in conjunction with the other mix (and Sequencer) functions, meaning you don't sacrifice a row of clip pads and you can still access these functions while in Note mode.
In Volume, Pan and Sends views the pads of the X and Pro become vertical or horizontal bar graphs representing faders or knob values. Continuous controllers that work in the same way can also be dropped into user pages on all three of the Launchpads. Tapping a pad sets the level. The X gets the Pro's ability to use velocity to set a glide speed between values. You can switch this off and use the new sensitive pads almost like touch sliders for direct control, although you then lose the smooth interpolation.
In the previous generation of Launches control resolution was limited to the eight possible values represented by the pads columns, but Novation have improved this with a new 'nudge' feature. After setting a value, you can now tap a pad up to four times to increment in smaller steps.