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Yo, dawg, I heard you like Launchpads... Photos courtesy Novation. Click for biggie size.

Yo, dawg, I heard you like Launchpads… Photos courtesy Novation. Click for biggie size.

What should a keyboard controller do for you in 2013? Should you plug it into Ableton Live and get colored control of clips? Or leave the laptop at home and use it with an iPad for synths and loops? Novation takes on both those ideas in their latest offering.

Back in fall 2009, CDM was the first to get a hands-on with Novation’s Launchpad. At the time, this was big news. Grid controllers had gained popularity in the handcrafted, niche monome community, but hardware built just for Ableton Live with an integrated, light-up grid was something novel. Maschine, Push, and even the APC were still in the future.

Now, we’re awash in colored grids. So, what’s Novation’s next act for the Launchpad line?

The Launchkey finds a number of different solutions in one product launch. On the surface, it’s just an iterative version of Novation’s keyboards. Nothing wrong with that – they’ve found plenty of fans for the keyboard line.

Look closer, though, and you get a number of new developments. First, there’s the obvious: yes, a cut-down section of the Launchpad grid finds its way above the keys, complete with colored feedback. For keyboardists not quite sold on the “instrument” notion of Ableton’s Push, who want clip triggering right above the black and white keys, so far, so good.

Less expected is the pairing of the keyboard with standalone iPad apps. These iPad apps integrate with the keyboard, but they don’t require you to have a computer anywhere in sight. And while they run on their own, they make use of physical controls on the keyboard. (Fortunately, there’s no dock, so you can ignore the iPad features if you don’t want them – and you don’t have to deal with Apple having just changed connectors.)

The apps are available now, and you don’t need Novation hardware to try them. We’ve done the responsible, journalistic thing, and… okay, actually, nothing. You may be able to beat us to trying the apps.

You've seen keyboards with bundled plug-ins and the OEM version of Ableton, Live Lite. But now, we get a keyboard that can work with iPad apps for synthesis and loop triggering - and you can leave the computer out of the picture.

You’ve seen keyboards with bundled plug-ins and the OEM version of Ableton, Live Lite. But now, we get a keyboard that can work with iPad apps for synthesis and loop triggering – and you can leave the computer out of the picture.

One app triggers loops directly from the iPad, using the familiar Launchpad 8×8 grid interface. By standing without the computer, you could theoretically even replace Ableton in a live rig with the app, using built-in clip triggering that doesn’t require a keyboard. (And with no “Ableton Live for iPad” anywhere on the horizon yet, that’s an open playing field.) The second app takes Novation’s conventional (and well-liked) synth engine, but overlays a futuristic, abstract interface in place of skeuomorphic knobs and such.

It’s tough to tell how usable any of this is in practice, but it’s compelling enough to take a proper preview – and to look forward to trying the finished result.

To get a better understanding of what’s going on, we’ve got some images from Novation, plus some Q&A with the company on their ideas.

Launchkey Preview

First things first: pricing looks aggressive for this functionality.

49-key: available end of February (worldwide), US$199.99 at dealers.
25-key: end of April $149.99 dealers.
61-key, end of April, $249.99 dealers.

What you get:

  • 50+ controls (33 on the 25-note version.
  • 8×2 array of two-color (red/green) launch pads, with velocity sensitivity.
  • Class-compliant, works with iPad. (Linux users, you sure have benefited from the iPad’s populartiy in an unexpected way!)
  • Transport, pitch/mod, sustain input, transpose buttons, nine faders on all but the 25-key (which has one).
  • V-Station, Bass Station plugs, plus of course Live Lite and those iOS apps.
Novation shared this unpublished image with CDM. Product photos sometimes actually make the products look a bit garish. Here's what it looks like in the real world - more like other Novation keyboards, and nice enough.

Novation shared this unpublished image with CDM. Product photos sometimes actually make the products look a bit garish. Here’s what it looks like in the real world – more like other Novation keyboards, and nice enough.

Q+A with Novation

CDM: So, anyone can go grab the Launchkey app – you don’t need to own the hardware?

Novation: Yesm the Launchkey app is available to everyone, regardless of whether or not you have a Launchkey hardware unit (and it’s free of charge at the moment). The integration between Launchkey app and Launchkey hardware is really nice, though, and we expect some people will want that integrated experience.

How do the apps integrate with the Launchkey? This is a bit unclear in the description to me. First, Launchpad. Obviously, the app adds more triggers than the keyboard alone – okay, good. But what does the app do?

So the Launchpad app is a self standing app – it is not a control surface for Ableton Live. It is an engine for hosting loops, adding realtime effects and changing the levels of each track. It is a quick and elegant way of triggering loops (and groups of loops) with your iPad, no host computer required. The Launchkey hardware can be used to control the Launchpad app too.

The Launchpad is reborn as an app, that extends a keyboard - and doesn't need a computer.

The Launchpad is reborn as an app, that extends a keyboard – and doesn’t need a computer.

On the Launchkey synth app, the notion is that this is a synth you might play, via Camera Connection kit, with the keyboard and minus a computer? What’s the synth engine in there?

Yes absolutely – the synth engine is derived from the Novation K-Station range but (as you can probably see) it’s not intended to be a VA synth, it’s more about working with macros and gestures.

How does the keybed compare to other Novation models? Is this on other Novation hardware?

The keybeds in the SL range & UltraNova are made by Fatar. This Launchkey mech is manufactured by the same people who designed the key-mechs in the impulse range. The difference is that these are synth action rather than piano-styled keys, so they don’t look like piano keys – i.e dropping down at the end of the key – and they don’t have aftertouch: the Impulse does have piano-styled keys with aftertouch.

We are really happy with the key-mech on Launchkey. Key-mechs make up a significant part of the cost of a unit, so we’re really very please that we can put such a nice bed in the units without compromising on price.

61-Launchkey-Hero

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