Ableton Push Review
The Ableton Push is a USB hardware controller designed for seamless integration with Ableton Live 9. Whether as the centrepiece of an Ableton Live music production studio or onstage as a controller for performance, triggering clips and improvisation, Ableton clearly markets Push as a complete hands-on solution for what is arguably electronic music’s most ubiquitous DAW today.
Ever since Ableton Live came out, third-party manufacturers have churned out a variety of controllers that take advantage of Live’s unique workflow, but only a handful specifically address its Session view, which is the heart of the Ableton Live experience. While companies like Novation, Livid Instruments and Monome created USB/Midi devices that let users take control of it, none had offered a tight, one-to-one integration with the software that required minimal tweaking and mapping – until the Akai APC40 and APC20 came out, that is.
The predecessors of Push, the APC40 and APC20 are Ableton workhorses that were developed in an exclusive partnership with Akai. They are still very popular controllers for both live performance situations and studio use today (and the APC40 has just been relaunched), and so are the controllers built by the manufacturers we mentioned previously (Launchpad, OHM RGB and Monome 64/128, respectively). So what makes Push different? What exactly separates it from all the other controllers out there? Let’s find out.
Push is a monolithic piece of tech. Weighing in at a hefty 6.6 pounds and measuring almost 12″x 15″, this isn’t a cheap plastic controller that slides off your desk. With an aluminium base and the rest made of a rubbery material, the device at rest looks like a sculpture more than a piece of production kit.
There are 64 velocity and sensitive pads that can transmit a range of commands to Ableton Live (eg a soft pianissimo snare hit to a loud fortissimo strike). There’s a 17cm touchstrip to the left of the pad grid that you can use for scrolling within your Live session or for pitch bends when playing a synth, and are 11 endless rotary touch-sensitive knobs that display information on the four-line Push LCD when you rest a finger on them.
Numerous buttons surround the grid layout that appear blank when the unit is powered off, but plugging Push in via USB or the included power supply reveals their markings. Using Push via USB alone is fine for dimly lit environments, but the device looks fantastic when plugged in properly, as button labels are fully illuminated and all the pads just seem to jump out more. There are no Midi outputs, but there are two inputs for footswitches and sustain pedals.
Everything here quietly screams quality, and this alone seems to make the US$599 retail tag a little easier to swallow despite the unit not having an onboard audio interface. It does come with a copy of Live 9 Intro and upgrade paths to Live 9 Suite, but what you’re basically paying for is what this thing can do to enhance your workflow.
For folk who just want to get started using a hardware controller without all the extra mapping effort, Push offers an elegant solution as it’s tightly integrated with Live 9. At its most basic, the 8×8 pad grid lets you launch clips in Session view, and the two rows above it allow you to arm and enable/disable a track. The column of buttons to the right of the grid launch Scenes, which is what Live calls a row of clips in your session.
Rotaries and transport controls
The rotary knobs above the LCD screen control a variety of parameters in Live depending on what you set it it on. You can change their behaviour simply by selecting the parameters on the bank of buttons to the right of the LCD, including Volume, Pan & Send and Track focus.
Pressing Clip brings up the Clip View on your Push LCD, basically freeing you from your computer screen by allowing you to make quick clip edits on the hardware itself. Want to make stutters and clip transpositions on the fly? The rotaries let you take control of the most important Clip View properties. The Device button lets you take control of parameters for devices within a particular track, which is handy for writing automation data (for your filters, for example), or twiddling with EQ. If you want deeper control of the parameters in your device, there are Page buttons that let you switch to the other control variables of the device.
Lastly, the Browse button displays your Audio/Midi effects for placement within a track. The buttons below the LCD let you choose whether you’d want to insert the effect plugin in its default state or with a preset, which is perfect for adding EQ, reverb or delay on the fly.
Transport and navigation buttons
To really free you from having to use your laptop during a performance or production session, Push has got you covered with Play/Stop and Record buttons on the left and a grid navigation matrix on the right. Above the navigation buttons, you can add devices and plugins quickly using the Add Effect and Add Track buttons. Once you’ve added a track, you can play around with it using the grid by clicking on the Note button.
Recording Clips with the step sequencer
If you’ve inserted a Drum Rack, Note mode changes halves the 8×8 grid, turning the top half into a 4×8 step sequencer, and the bottom into two 4×4 matrices. The bottom left grid is where you can play with the sounds you’ve loaded into the Drum Rack, and the velocity sensitive pads really shine in this respect. The right grid lets you specify the length of the clip that you want to record with using the step sequencer: One highlighted pad is equal to one measure, and you can have up to 16!
When you’re ready to record into a clip, just press any of the pads in the step sequencer, which is the upper half of the 8×8 grid. Each pad here is a 1/16th note, and you still adjust the parameters of the samples in your Drum Rack in this mode by using the rotary encoders above the LCD. Everything you’ve recorded is automatically placed in a clip in Live’s Session view.
Recording Clips in Note Mode
You can also record instruments in Note mode without using the step sequencer. Loading a device like Analog changes the grid into 64 playable keypads. Pressing the Scales button lets you determine the key and scale that you’d want to work with, if you don’t want to use it in Chromatic mode. This is a great opportunity to learn about how modes and scales sound like if you don’t have a firm grasp of music theory, and at the same time it’s a fantastic opportunity for non-musicians to have a go at improvisation, since you can set the pads to all fall under a specific scale and key ensuring that each pad press is “theoretically” correct.
You can set it to record at a predetermined length of up to 32 measures using the Fixed Length button, and when you’re ready, it’s just a matter of arming the track and pressing the Record button on the left side of the Push and performing. If you don’t like what you’ve done, there are Undo and Delete buttons, but if you like what you’ve made and would like to build on it by adding more notes, pressing the Duplicate button copies all clips in a scene to a new one with your armed track still in record mode, letting you expound on the clip musically. This is a quick way to build your full track from small loops of clips that you’ve created yourself!
Push is a well-thought-of and carefully laid out hardware controller built for controlling Live 9, nothing more, nothing less. It’s very difficult to dislike it, especially if you are both a studio and a performing musician who’s invested a lot of time into learning Ableton Live. Granted, it’s not that easy to pick up the first time around and even somewhat challenging to use but once you know your way around the hardware you can begin to reap the creative rewards that otherwise may be just beyond your current reach. The stress in getting accustomed to Push is just enough for it to become a growth experience in digital music production without being a frustrating endeavour, and we all know how annoying it is to have a piece of kit that doesn’t function the way it was supposed to according to the adverts and YouTube demonstrations.
Personally, I feel the best way to approach Push is to treat it like a brand new instrument: There is a learning curve that must be addressed, so you really have to get to know the controller by setting aside time to learn its basic composing and performance functions. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of using it as a mere clip launcher and a companion to your other controllers as stage eye-candy, but doing so would leave it as a glorified (and overpriced!) Launchpad.
Checking out online tutorials is great, but aside from the cerebral aspect of using it, you have to get used to incorporating it into your workflow by adapting it whenever you can as its the only way you can get muscle memory to work in your favour, which is especially important when you’re at a gig! I don’t think anyone would be interested in the way you’re troubleshooting your gear when they’re there to listen to you play music.
What I have found to be most effective for the Push is in how easy and quick it is to build song ideas using the Step Sequencer and Note Mode. It is also generally painless to record automation, a far cry from manually mapping particular parameters to certain hardware controls since it’s all laid out for you in Push. You could practically create a piece of music on the spot and improvise over it, which I believe is the holy grail of many an electronic musician in today’s age of Sync buttons and dime-a-dozen DJs.
Bottom line is if you’re using Ableton Live 9 and you’re looking for a new controller, get it. You’ll thank yourself later. Its depth is without peer, and even Akai knows this as they’ve recently announced the mk2 version of their APC 40 and 20: Both launch clips and have controls, but both just aren’t as advanced a controller as Push. For Live 9 at least, I don’t think there’s anything else as advanced as it is at the moment! Highly recommended.
Do you use a dedicated grid controller for Ableton Live in the studio and onstage? Are the features and integration deep enough for you to get your own Push and spend the requisite amount of time to learn it? Tell us more in the comments below!