Percussa micro super signal processor

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When Ableton Live was first released over ten years ago, it was labeled a “sequencing instrument.” The radical idea was that you could “play” your production tool, which had (and has) big implications in studios, at home, and onstage.

“Playing” with a mouse and keyboard is unsatisfying for most, so even that relatively primitive first version had MIDI controller mapping. In the intervening decade-plus timespan, musicians have found a variety of ways to connect their hands and bodies to the software model of music contained in their laptops. They’ve constructed massive custom hardware (DJ Sasha’s Maven and Robert Henke’s Monodeck being especially epic), used combinations of boxes of knobs and faders, cameras, sensors, and more or less anything you can connect to a computer. On their own, these are not instruments in that they make no sound, but coupled with Live and a musician’s collections of sounds, patterns, and instruments, the resulting rig is something people play.

For their part, Ableton stayed out of the fray until 2009, with the Launchpad (collaborating with Novation) and APC40 (collaborating with Akai). Each mirrored the grid of rectangles seen onscreen in Live with corresponding light-up buttons. As onscreen in Live 1.0, you could trigger loops and clips (and now patterns). The APC40 also adeptly handled mixing and Device control; Launchpad added the ability to play notes on the grid, or use custom layouts that could perform step sequencing and other functions. (I got to be the first to review the Launchpad, and I still sometimes bang around my pre-production unit, serial #16.)

All of those ingredients resurface here. But the Launchpad and APC40 now feel more like experiments in comparison to Push. The new, sleek black controller is the most complete hardware Ableton has ever released, the first to properly carry the Ableton name. In look, feel, and function, it really seems the first time Ableton has expressed their vision of hardware the way Live originally did for software.

“Playing” Ableton Live can mean a lot of different things, however. Push simultaneously does many different things, and chooses not to do many things. Ableton describes it as an instrument for “starting songs from scratch,” a cue that they don’t expect it to solve every production or performance scenario, and that in particular it isn’t for finishing songs in the way some controllers are.

So, the first task is to understand what Push does, and what it means for making and playing music. That means appreciating how Push can help you “play” Live – whether that’s part of making music on your own or in front of an audience. And Live, for all its advantages and disadvantages, lovers and skeptics, is popular precisely because it intentionally blurred those lines since the beginning.

The Hardware

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Push is a controller only; it has no audio interface. Instead, it’s a rectangular slab (a bit thicker than an average laptop, closed), dominated by an 8×8 grid of RGB-lit, pressure-sensitive pads. A vertical touch strip along the pads provides additional continuous control. Along the left and right are sets of trigger buttons for selection, editing, transport control, and other dedicated options. At top is a row of eight touch-sensitive encoders above an LED display for menus, parameters, and other functions. (That element of the design is sure to earn comparisons to Native Instruments’ Maschine, though the rest of the feel and workflow are quite different. They do look nice together, and you can plug both into a Live set.)

Push is powered via USB, but a jack for the included world-voltage AC adapter lets you increase the brightness. (It’s worth doing that in a sun-lit environment, or to enjoy more saturated colors.) On the back, you’ll also find two jacks for pedals – these work just as sustain and expression pedals would normally; they’re the same as you’d find on any MIDI keyboard and can be assigned to whatever you like. (And since you might be playing a virtual piano with Push, they’re also necessary.)

I’ve tested a lot of controller hardware, and as far as mass-market controllers, I think Push is a new standard. It feels and looks better than anything else I’ve used, excluding perhaps only high-end mixing surfaces and the like. Everything feels solid and responsive, and the design itself fades into the background. Labels disappear when they’re not needed, and when you power off the device, only the recessed Ableton logo is visible, not the usual array of labels and logos and graphics.

When lit up, Push looks tasteful and pleasing. Colors are vibrant, but you generally won’t get a “disco floor” feeling from looking at it.

Push also feels weighty in a satisfying way, though you’ll notice it in your bag, at almost 3 kg (6.6 pounds). But it does fit “in a backpack” as Ableton claims – provided your backpack is a 15″-17″ laptop bag or bigger, as many 13″ laptop bags and messenger bags I suspect will be too small. On the other hand, apart from perhaps adding a Korg nanoKONTROL for faders, many Push owners are likely to make it their one and only control device.

Installation is easy: there isn’t any. Push doesn’t even need drivers. So long as you’ve got a copy of Live 9, you simply connect Push via a USB cable and get going. (This means enterprising hackers will also be able to use Push’s USB class-compliance to make the hardware work with a variety of devices, including Linux gizmos.)

“Modes”

That's a mission statement on the demo screen, not an actual interface.

That’s a mission statement on the demo screen, not an actual interface.

Ableton created some confusion when the demo screen showed modes for playing beats, melodies, starting songs, and performing. Those aren’t actually modes.

In fact, Push is best understood as having integrated pages – a notion influenced in part by creations for the monome, for one.

There is a dedicated “User” mode, in which Live becomes a blank canvas MIDI controller, though still capable of all the bi-directional goodness Live provides (including lighting up colors on the pads and even feeding text to the display). In Live mode, all this functionality is controlled by default, though it can be revised by Max for Live patches if hackers so choose.

Different pages do control other features, though. You can switch between a Note mode, for playing beats and melodies, and Session mode, for working with clips. And Push dynamically adjusts to drum instruments as distinct from other instruments. But let’s look first at how you play.

Workflow: Starting a song

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There are a lot of ways to use Push, to the point of focusing entirely on one set of features and ignoring the rest. But the way you start a song – Push’s big selling point – is likely to appeal to a lot of users. It’s a rare case in which you’re actually likely to work in precisely the way you see in a software demo.

With Push connected, Live will ask if you want to begin a new song. You can either choose your own project, or let Live add tracks for drums, bass, and the new Live 9 grand piano.

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If you want to choose your own instruments, Push’s integration with the new Live 9 Browser makes it easy to dial up sounds, using the encoders at top to browse. With Live 9’s expanded library, there are plenty of options, though sound designers will have added incentive to organize their own sounds in the user bank. (Buttons beneath the screen let you select parts. Ableton didn’t opt for push encoders. Everyone I’ve seen try Push for the first time attempts to push the encoders to select, but once you realize how it works, it’s fairly intuitive.)

Then, the idea is to start playing. You can play instruments and drums directly into clips, or step-sequence drums into clips, using new functions for creating or duplicating clips to build ideas.

Improvements to Live 9 make this easier. These work in conjunction with Push’s dedicated hardware buttons, but will also come in handy even without Push. You can always sketch out ideas by creating new clips, as before. Now, hitting New on Push advances to a new, empty clip. Duplicate copies the active clip to a new space, so you can add to a pattern one layer at a time (a bit as you might with a hardware looper, but with a set of patterns recorded afterward). And the Capture and Insert New feature duplicates all the clips currently playing into a new scene – imagine the looper behavior, but with multiple tracks (and instruments) at the same time.

You can also use Fixed Length to set a pre-determined loop length, then begin recording into a clip of that length. This, at last, gives Live looper-style behavior useful to a lot of musicians. It’s not quite the same as what you can do with a looper pedal – there’s still no way to set the length based on your first recording – but it’s terribly useful in overlaying ideas.

The upshot of all of this is that you can very quickly get ideas down. Push in this case can become a cure for anyone creatively stuck, unable to get songs started. Play something, anything, and then add quantization, variations, device substitutions, and so on.

Of course, this means that the instrumental interfaces are essential, and will likely determine whether or not Push is for you.

Playing Drums

Triggers on the right-hand side let you choose subdivisions, accents, and other features.

Triggers on the right-hand side let you choose subdivisions, accents, and other features.

That 8x8 layout makes for more room. Pads themselves are on the lower left-hand side. (The touch strip lets you navigate more than 16 spaces.) A step sequencer runs at top. At the bottom right are scene selections.

That 8×8 layout makes for more room. Pads themselves are on the lower left-hand side. (The touch strip lets you navigate more than 16 spaces.) A step sequencer runs at top. At the bottom right are scene selections.

When you add a Drum Rack, Push adjusts its grid into a combination of pad triggers and step sequencer. On the bottom-left 4×4 grid, you’ll find a traditional drum pad layout. Sliding your finger along the touch strip lets you navigate through Drum Racks with more than 16 samples. (You can’t change the MIDI note assignments; everything is fixed to the view you see of the pads on-screen.)

The top half of the screen becomes a step sequencer, reminiscent of monome and various custom layouts for APC and Launchpad. You can move between scenes in the sequencer using the bottom-right-hand 4×4 grid. Then, you can either work in steps or play manually; either way, the MIDI clip displays in the step sequencing view.

You also get all the basic functions you’d expect of a step sequencer. Toggle individual steps, copy patterns, adjust dynamics with the Accent key, or hold down a pad and adjust velocity via one of the top encoders. The dedicated Repeat key is also a whole lot of fun: it works in conjunction with rhytmic divisions (1/4, 1/4t, 1/8, etc.). (There isn’t a “roll” trigger, as on some drum controllers, though; Repeat acts as a toggle and works across the whole drum pad. Of course, you can solve this by inserting an arpeggiator or something similar inside the drum rack.)

Quantization and swing also work nicely in conjunction with the new Drum Rack functionality; you can bring up menu-style quantization as you’d find on an MPC. From the encoders at top, you also get control of all the parameters of the Drum Rack. Groove quantization features will send you back to the mouse; this covers the basics only.

Push isn’t, however, a dedicated sampling drum machine. Ableton has clearly made some choices, and opted to function on fairly simple default behavior. When you want to organize samples, drop them into drum parts, slice samples, and control sampler and drum parameters, you’ll be heading back to the mouse and display. (Correction: one thing you can do is swap one shots, contrary to popular – and my – belief. Ableton’s Jesse Terry corrects me: “You can browse one shots on each pad, just select the pad, not kit in device mode. It’s the best part if Push for me…pressing the green button auto loads the next sample…”)

On the other hand, as you’ll see, Push does a lot more than simply act as a drum machine, so it’s not hard to imagine that Ableton could have introduced a lot of complexity had it tried to do all of these things.

Playing Instruments: Notes

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One area in which Live really does stand out from devices that have come before is in its Note mode for pitched instruments. When you add an Instrument Rack or instrumental device, the entire grid becomes a velocity- and pressure-sensitive musical input device.

Over the years, various hardware makers have made niche devices that use arrays of pitches to make it easier to play in key, or play complex melodic lines and harmonies. More recently, we’ve seen iPad apps that do this. But Push is the first major commercial product to take this on in hardware.

In arrays of white and blue notes, Push can be reconfigured to fit any scale or mode. With “in key” mode selected, only the notes of the key are available, so you can never hit a wrong note. With “chromatic” selected, the notes in the mode are lit, and the notes in between are dimmed, providing 12 tones to each octave. Blue and green LED feedback gives you an indication of octave locations.

With the Scale key, you can transpose scales, or choose any number of modes. (All the basics are covered, including the eight “church” modes, specialist modes like whole/half and whole tone, and “ethnic” modes.) Changing the Scale mapping changes the MIDI notes Push transmits back into Live, and thus the notes heard on the instrument and recorded into a clip. Since these are MIDI notes transmitted into the software, changing the mappings after you’ve recorded will have no effect.

It’s tough to overstate just how addictive this is for people who like exploring melody and harmony. In fact, I think I did a poorer job learning the rest of the interface and functionality partly because I got lost in playing Push as an instrument. It made me want to spend time actually practicing playing Push, in a way I otherwise only feel on a piano-style keyboard.

There are some limitations, however, ones I hope will be addressed in time via Live updates or Max for Live patches.

Scale options. Hold down shift to change the interval spacing.

Scale options. Hold down shift to change the interval spacing.

The default brings up a C major scale in which you’re always in tune. Intervals are spaced by fourth from top to bottom, and by step from left to right, an arrangement familiar to guitarists. You can change the mode, and you can change the intervals (swapping fourths, thirds, and stepwise spacings), by holding Shift. I found, for instance, it was useful to switch spacing to thirds horizontally and stepwise (“sequential”) intervals vertically. But the moment you make the vertical or horizontal axis fourths or thirds, the other axis swaps to “sequential,” ruling out a lot of interesting harmonic layouts. (This also doesn’t make much sense, as the menu appears to indicate that you can make each axis whatever you want.

More challenging, Live doesn’t have any way of storing layouts. So, the moment you want to perform even a simple transposition, you’re navigating menus. Layouts aren’t stored with Live Sets, let alone Clips or Scenes as you might like. It all seems like a job for Max for Live – particularly as there would be a variety of different ways to solve the problem – so stay tuned. I’ll be in touch with Ableton, and may even go in and make a patch for myself.

Who is all this for? Well, speaking as a pianist with a graduate level education in theory, I had a blast, so even if it’s for non-musicians, it certainly doesn’t appeal to them exclusively! Be aware that if you are trained on frets or keys, you will have to re-learn some of what you know – but that’s half the fun, as switching layouts can quickly break you out of your normal musical habits.

If you don’t know any of this theory business, Push can help you surf through different harmonies and melodies in a way that can be a lot of fun.

Either way, you probably won’t replace a keyboard, however. Velocity control via pads just isn’t as easy as keys, which is why we put up with keybeds being big and cumbersome and (when weighted) heavy and expensive. Also, if you are a trained musician, you’ll find a new appreciation for your muscle memory on the instrument you already play. But you can think of this as just an additional instrument – one with a very, very low barrier to entry, but that may nonetheless be one worth spending time learning. And that surely brings us to expression.

Playing Instruments: Expression

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Push has Ableton engraved on the case, but it also says “engineered by Akai Professional.” Akai contributed a lot of work with Ableton on the pads, and you can feel the result. Push feels fantastic, certainly up there with the best pads available, and undoubtedly the best-feeling 8×8 grid you’ll play right now. There’s enough give or travel to feel like you’re playing them, but not so much that you experience any wobble or mushiness. Even at high sensitivities, you won’t find a single double trigger or accidental trigger. And you can hit Push hard and have it respond, with lots of subtle gradations in between. I mean really hard – not with a stick, but certainly as hard as you can with your fingertips, another reason Push’s weighty build works well. Continuous pressure also works brilliantly, though it is transmitted only monophonically; Push doesn’t support polyphonic aftertouch.

The touch strip is also effective. It’s not as playable as a pitch wheel – when you release the strip, it pops back immediately to zero in an unnatural way, and it seems it’ll be more effective as a ribbon controller for other parameters than bending pitch. But it works – and I suspect we’ll see some nice use of it via Max for Live.

You do get the tradeoffs of playing pads. For drums, they’re perfect – and Akai owners will feel right at home. For instrumental parts, they’re a mixed bag. It’s still tough to play keyboard parts on pads, even with all the clever pitch layouts and sensitivity adjustments. On the other hand, trills and other patterns become easier. (Suddenly, I can play Ligeti.)

And, again, it’s the idiosyncracies that make playing Push fun. If you’re a 4×4 finger-drumming virtuoso, you’re likely already happy with your favorite drum pad trigger. But for those of us who do like to play melodic parts, Push is a godsend – and this one feature could clinch the deal when comparing Push to other controllers.

Clip Navigation

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It wouldn’t be a Live controller if it didn’t trigger clips. And here, Push doesn’t disappoint. The LED colors make navigating far easier, of course. Ableton also uses subtle cues like pulsing clips to make it clear what’s playing (versus what’s only a clip that happens to be green).

Scene Triggers on the side also allow you to play Scenes at once, of course.

It’s the action keys and LCD that set Push apart from previous controllers. In Session View, you can bring up a display on individual clips by holding down Select and tapping a clip (without having to trigger it). In addition to clip titles, you can see time remaining in a clip, providing a valuable heads-up display when working in complex sets.

You can also work directly with clips – another opportunity to stay away from looking at the computer screen. Hit the Clip button, and you can adjust start, position, length, loop and warp settings, detune/transposition, and gain. What Push lacks in clip slicing and so on it makes up for in these clip options, all of which can be invaluable in production and performance.

What you can’t do is see clip names without triggering them. And, even after doing a lot of work with its RGB LED backlights, color won’t exactly match what you see on-screen. So, here, iPad apps have a certain edge if all you want to do is select clips and mix, since they can fit more information, more dynamically, on a touchscreen – at least until we see better, more widely-used touch laptops. That’s hardly a critique of Push, however, so much as a recognition that, since the release of Launchpad and the APC, a lot more people have iPads.

Editing and Device Control

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The other place that LED becomes powerful – and allows you to keep your laptop pointed away from your face – is in editing and device parameter control.

First off, yes, there is an Undo key. (Whew! And yes, I’ve been using it.) There are also dedicated controls for Delete, Double and Duplicate (working with patterns), transport controls, Tap Tempo and Metronome, and most other essentials. Not everything is there, by a longshot – Ableton has chosen the features it seems to think are most vital, and I expect we’ll hear some debate about that. (I didn’t miss any in particular, in that it seemed Ableton made these decisions by workflows – so some things simply route you to the screen and mouse. Others – like pattern recording and basic clip manipulations and performance and device browsing – all work from the Push and let you point your laptop screen at the wall.)

Devices are, mostly, a pleasure to use. Hit a device, and those eight encoders become grabbable physical controls for instruments and effects. You can shift selection from device to device on the Push, or do it via a mouse; the two will sync bi-directionally. None of this is news to owners of recent keyboards from the likes of Novation and M-Audio, or users of similar implementations like Propellerhead’s ground-breaking Reason controller implementation – but then, those same users already know how useful this can be.

What does make this more useful – apart from coupling these device controls with everything else Push does – is Live 9’s new automation writing support. Now, you can easily toggle recording and “draw” in automation curves by twisting encoders, without ever touching your computer. Don’t like what you’ve done? Keep recording enabled and the clip looping, and hold the encoder at the setting at which you want it. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s a relief when things work the way they should.

Some readers and forums have complained that Push works “only” with built-in devices. That’s not really the case. As before, the most convenient way is simply to take your third-party devices and drop them in a Live Device Rack, choosing which controls you want to manipulate. That adds some housecleaning in managing your instruments and effects, but I find it can pay off when the parameters you want are simply available. Having tried surfing every single plugin parameter available in the now-discontinued Native Instruments Kore, I think it’s worth hand selecting what you actually want to control.

Correction: You can also access all parameters in Live Devices and VST plug-ins – provided it’s been configured. (Click the Configure button in the plug-in and select those parameters you want to control. And, again, see my comment about Kore – in some ways, it was a great host, but paging through all parameters is almost always overkil.)

It can sometimes feel frustrating that there are things you see on the screen in Live that you can’t control in Push. But there is still a lot to control from Push.

If you do use the aforementioned drum and instrument playing capabilities, those same device parameters become hugely useful, partly because they’re persistent above the playing layout. It really makes Push feel like a canvas for expressing ideas: once you are locked into an instrument, you have access to input and parameters without any mucking about in menu structures – and without the mouse.

Mixing and Arrangement

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One thing Push decidedly is not is an arrangement tool. There’s a reason Ableton focuses on the “starting tracks” message.

Mixing functions are certainly usable. You have access to Mix levels, Pan, Send, and the usual complement of mute / solo / record enable. Also, all your sends are accessible, if you have elaborate multiple sends in your set. In contrast to the readily-accesible Device settings, though, you will be doing some toggling of buttons to get at these mix settings parameters when mixing.

It’s a necessary tradeoff. Push leaves off the dedicated mixer controls in place of unique focus on other settings. And you can easily supplement this device with another controller, getting the benefits of both. I saw Travis Stewart, aka Machinedrum, play live with Push at Berghain Panorama Bar here in Berlin after just a few days of working with Push. And he solved the mixing problem by adding a KORG nanoKONTROL. That was a good solution, providing dedicated mixer access without taking up much space (or weight, or money), and freeing up the Push to do what it does best. Travis, meanwhile, was clearly having a blast adding drum parts over top of the arrangement and triggering clips.

For my part, I found mixing to be perfectly reasonable. If you just need occasional adjustment of Volume or Sends, Push is useful. If you want faders or sends always at hand, you might supplement with another controller (particularly as there’s no crossfader). But all in all, I’d rather have a dedicated mixer and the focused but multi-function possibilities of Push than something that tried to be all things. The APC40 for me, personally, was always too much of a tradeoff – not a good Device controller since it lacked a screen, not a great mixer, and not a great clip launcher. The Push is really good at what it does – and it doesn’t try to do everything.

Arrangement fairly counts as something Push doesn’t try to do. If something works in Session View, it typically works in Arrange View, but there are no additional arrangement functions per se. There just isn’t an application yet for Push’s big array of buttons in Arrange View. (It could be fascinating to see someone tackle that.) And when you select devices in Arrange view, they aren’t selected bi-directionally across Push and the screen.

Customization and Max

A lot of what Push will be isn’t yet done. Some of that may be delivered in future Ableton updates; during the beta, we saw that new Live builds were enough to provide new functionality on the Push hardware. But a lot of it is likely to come from the community of Push users, who have already demonstrated with the APC40, Launchpad, Livid Ohm, and monome, among others, just what might be possible.

In this age of high-resolution Retina displays, they’ve proved that a set of 8×8 pixels can be a surprisingly-endless canvas for musical interfaces. It’s the simplicity of these interface designs – coupled with physical feedback from each rectangle – that can make them so compelling.

Their work has already impacted Push. The step sequencer, pages, and melodic controls owe some debt to the monome community, who, along with monome’s original creators, helped popularize the use of grids in this way.

Push uses two modes, Live mode and User mode. In User mode, as on the Launchpad, you can create any applications you like, controlled entirely by MIDI. In Live mode, you can take over portions of the screen, customizing the function of Push while retaining other automatic integration. That may itself prove useful, in that it will mean Max for Live work is no longer an all-or-nothing proposition.

But this functionality is so significant, and Push so new, that we’ve decided to dedicate a separate article to Push “hacking.” I’ll be talking with Ableton on their side, and of course relaying information to and learning from people in the hacker and Max communities. We expect additional documentation from Ableton soon, as well.

Julien Bayle has gotten a head-start on hacking the Push. He’s even reverse-constructed the Live Python scripts. Some of this is just for the sake of it – you won’t actually have to do this much work to customize Push with Max for Live. But it does make interesting reading, and includes the crucial documentation of bi-directional MIDI messages. (There’s also a lot of French-language documentation for anyone wanting it.)

http://julienbayle.net/ableton-push/

Collaboration and Interoperability

Two other notes that some people will likely want to know.

First, while Push looks like a nice way to collaborate, you can only use one plugged into Live at a time. (You could make a second work in User mode.) You can plug in Push and a Maschine, or Push and a Launchpad, or some other combination, but not two Pushes… Pushen. Posh. Whatever the plural of Push is.

Second, you can’t really use Push with anything other than Live. It’s driver-free, and it’s possible control everything from pads to buttons to lights to screen using MIDI. But because Live is providing all the functionality and Push does almost nothing on its own, you’d have to recreate from scratch all the functionality Live offers. I expect we’ll see some hackers do interesting things with it, but that means you almost certainly shouldn’t buy Push if you aren’t planning to use it mainly with Live 9, at least for now. (Hackers, on the other hand: go to town with those remote scripts.)

In Use

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Producer Phoebe Kiddo helped us test out Push during our hands-on video shoot. And she was a tough judge, as she's addicted to (and very good with) her monome 128. We were all surprised how much potential we saw for performance - perhaps more so than production, even.

Producer Phoebe Kiddo helped us test out Push during our hands-on video shoot. And she was a tough judge, as she’s addicted to (and very good with) her monome 128. We were all surprised how much potential we saw for performance – perhaps more so than production, even.

I’ve been using Push, and watching friends use it, and sharing experiences, for a few weeks now, and if it seems like I have a lot to say, it’s because I’ve spent months talking to Ableton about it.

I think the moment I realized I really cared about Push was when I tried to do a gig with Launchpad. (It seemed too risky to brave a public performance with a prototype I was supposed to return.) I eventually had to drop the Launchpad and go back to a mouse, and the controller itself was utterly unsatisfying. I missed encoders, and interactive control, and mixing, and, most of all, those wonderful velocity-sensitive pads.

Push takes some getting used to. At first, it was really hard to try to focus on Push and not keep returning to the mouse and screen, particularly with all the shortcuts and controls to learn on Push once you’re editing.

In the end, I decided I didn’t need to hide the mouse; I’m still comfortable with Live’s traditional edit workflow. But I also found that Push was helping me get away from the mouse even in existing sets, to unlock quicker and more musical changes to Live sets. With new sets, it’s better still, as you’re likely to organize around playing on Push.

And the surprise of many people I talked to was, even as Ableton pitches this as a song starting tool, Push seems ideal for live performance onstage.

I feel I need to spend more time adjusting to working with Push after over a decade using Live. And I have some work cut out for me – a little bit of Max for Live creation and a lot of Library organization will clearly pay off. So, I think it’ll be best to see how this goes in the longer term. But I am reasonably sure Push will be there.

It was great fun, in particular, playing Push with Phoebe Kiddo; stay tuned for our hands-on video with her (and more video of her working with monome and Max for Live). And I had a great time playing with Benjamin Weiss (nerk) of De:Bug Magazine, who had a terrific, world-exclusive preview of Push that’s worth reading (if you speak a little German, or can fake it). All three of us approached it in different ways. Phoebe focused on drum sequencing and immediately hooked it up to her Virus. Benjamin got really good with the away-from-the-computer workflow and rapid programming. I am slower to learn to leave the mouse, but get deeper into the pitch layouts and working out, for instance, how to add MIDI Effects quickly from the browser. (There’s a trick to it; I’m putting together a short tips story.) There are different ways of working with Push.

Conclusions

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It’s easy to look at Push, and its sticker price, and for all its beauty, it wonder if it’s for you – as you should. There are cheaper controllers. There are controllers with faders. There are controllers attached to keyboards. You might wonder if you really want pitch layouts, or if you’ll miss having a dedicated mixing section or faders. Push is really for Ableton Live, at least until hackers make it do something else.

And you might long for deeper control of more of what Live does, or the ability to save these fantastic note layouts, or the ability to step sequence melodic lines, all of which might suggest this is a 1.0 release. You might wonder, particularly, if having a big grid is worth it when there are other ways to play.

But in the end, you might hang onto Push because it’s too much fun to play. Even if it lacks some sample editing functionality, Push’s step sequencer is a lot of fun, and it’s a pleasure integrating with Live’s racks when you go beyond sampling – Max for Live and synthesized drum machines (like the ones built into Live 9) are a great start.

Control from Push is better than anything Live has had before. Combining copious clip slots with the display and encoders make this the easiest way in hardware to control clips, even before you get to the handy shortcut triggers on the sides.

And most of all, the thing I think might put people over the top on Push is playing the pads. Whether on drum parts or instruments, the pads feel fantastic, the whole device is expressive to play, and you’ll find yourself discovering new rhythms, melodies, and harmonies – even if you keep a more traditional keyboard or drum triggers around.

Nor is this for everyone; as always, it’s worth considering different controllers. Indeed, I think if you just want a sampling drum machine with hardware control, all in a more traditional 4×4-pad workflow, Maschine is probably a better choice. (You can even run it inside Live.) You can tell that Maschine’s hardware and software were developed in tandem. Or, for the original grid, the monome remains a beautiful, handmade, open, customizable boutique controller you can use with any software, in comparison to Ableton’s proprietary, Live-only offering. And for all the fun novelty of the grid, some people will prefer to play something like a conventional keyboard – many of which are also now adept at controlling Live.

But getting something this lovely, this well-made, with a fantastic set of pads you can use to play instruments, or beats, or control clips, or devices, or put together songs or performances, all with color backlit-feedback and a display and encoders – that’s tough to pass up.

In the end, this “instrument” business may not be about what Push means in Live marketing terms. It may come down to how you “play” Live. If the idea of playing on the grid – beats or music – or accessing Session View via a truly flexible grid and knobs appeals, this could be the controller for you. And if you play another kind of instrument and have a hand free to navigate Live’s grid of parts as a sketchpad, the new looping-style behaviors could make Push a must-buy.

The relationship between gesture and sound, hardware and software is still imperfect, and sometimes complex. But Push is a sign the people making these tools are beginning to have a deeper appreciation for computers as instruments. And that can only be a good thing.

Stay tuned for more on Push, including a video hands-on with Phoebe Kiddo, and information on customization. And, of course, we’ll continue to cover unique ways people perform with hardware with a variety of tools.