I got to spend yesterday working with the Launchpad; see the video above which I think should help you get a sense of scale and what it looks like. (Also on YouTube) We have additional videos from other sources below.

It’s only been public for less than 24 hours, but as we did with the APC40, I think it’s time for a superguide answering questions about the Novation Launchpad controller.

The Launchpad and the way it works reveals a lot about how controllers work with Ableton Live. You may be surprised to learn a lot of this doesn’t require a special controller and doesn’t require Max for Live – it’s standard Ableton stuff that works with MIDI. (Remember MIDI?) And I think some of these answers could be worth a read if you have interest in hardware control hacking in general.

There have been a lot of questions from myself and readers, so I’ve done my best to get answers. Realize, a lot of this information is developing and is based on my limited understanding, so it’s all subject to change. I’ll update this guide over the next couple of days if I get any corrections.

Side note: What about interoperability? I intend to talk more about OSC and the Live API (and each separately) in coming weeks. I think it’s impossible to judge the full picture of how Live can interoperate with other tools, though, until there’s some more information, so stay tuned on that.

Basic Questions

Q. What do you get with Live 8 Launchpad Edition, the bundled software?

New to Ableton Live, and wondering if you can get anything done with the “lite” Launchpad Edition bundled with the hardware. The short answer is, yes you can. The included edition has restrictions, but it’s still a reasonably capable version if you’re new to Live and want to experiment.

Ableton Live 8 Launchpad Edition vs. Live 8

The Launchpad Edition even comes with 1 GB of Loopmasters loops to get you started.

Most importantly, ReWire support for Master and Slave (Host and Client) is included. That means if you have an existing host and just want to play with Live’s non-linear clip launching features, you can stick with that host, using Live alongside software like Reaper and Reason. You may want to consider upgrading, though, as some cool features like the use of Racks and the ability to slice instruments, plus the “Complex” warp mode, are missing.

Q. What the heck is going on in the crazy Novation video demo? How do I do that myself?

There isn’t any Max patch or other voodoo in the video demo from Novation. It’s all just a standard Ableton Live set, and the fact that the Launchpad responds to MIDI messages as well as sending them (something useful if you’re scripting the Launchpad in software other than Ableton, too).

Matt Derbyshire of Novation put together the video. Matt’s an interesting guy musically when not working for Novation, too – he’s part of a DJ Shadow cover band, for one. He shares with CDM how he went about this:

It’s actually a very simple session.

1) There are four clips only for drums in the drumrack channel

2) Each clip is pre-recorded but EMPTY at 1 bar length

3) These four clips are the first four clips in session mode but for convenience I also learned these to to User 1 mode bottom four left buttons.  Basically setting this up removes the need to rush back to session mode to drop out of record

4) Obviously quantize is on ‘cos my playing ain’t that great.

LED feedback

In User 1 mode the bottom left button turns on/off LED feedback.

The important thing I want from the video is to show that I personally do not think the lack of velocity sensitivity stops drums being played. In fact, to the contrary, I think in creative electronic music it helps to even out the playing.

The still-simpler explanation:

So long as you use the User Mode to play, enable LED feedback, and route MIDI from Live back to the Launchpad, you can get interactive light modes, as seen on the monome and Tenori-On.

Q. Okay, the Launchpad can assign control to continuous values. But it’s got buttons. How do you get eight buttons to replace a fader?

Actually, thanks to an Ableton feature that works with any MIDI controller (not just Novation or Akai), this is quite easy to do. You can assign any range on your controller by holding it down.

From Novation’s Matt Derbyshire:

Step 1: Choose the slider/knob you want (i.e. cross fader)

Step 2: Select USER 1 or 2 mode on launchpad

Step 3: Select MIDI learn mode in Ableton

Step 4: Select the thing you want to control (ie crossfader)

Step 5: Select the range of buttons on launchpad

Note that this also works for playing clips.

Now, obviously, if you control something like a volume fader with a set of buttons, you won’t get continuous values. And unfortunately neither Ableton nor Novation has designed any sort of interpolation between button values (though DIYers could find a way to do that). But I’m kind of finding the angular changes in buttons to be fun to play with. If I want a knob or fader, I’ll use a knob or fader.

Q. What can you do with these User Modes?

There are two User pages. User 1 sends basic note values – minus any velocity sensitivity, just on/off. User 2 sends control changes. User 1 by default will play any active MIDI inputs listening to channel 1. In Ableton Live, User 2 only sends control changes once you’ve mapped it using the MIDI Map, to avoid accidentally triggering notes when trying to control something else. (See also the special behavior with Max for Live below.) Of course, in software other than Live, you’ll set up whatever layout you want.

You can’t rearrange the organization of pitches on User 1 because there’s no real editor for the device; everything is hard-wired. On the other hand, you can always make this adjustment in software, as in a Rack in Live.

Advanced Live Use

Q. How will Max for Live integration work?

Max for Live will use the User 2 page. The good news here is, Max by default will listen only to User 2 while the other modes get routed to Live.

Q. Can you control Devices dynamically using the Launchpad?

No. Unfortunately, while there are pages for mixer settings and a generic way to transmit MIDI control changes, you can’t click a device and have a page on the Launchpad automatically make its eight columns control eight parameters / macros. That’s actually a feature enabled by the simple scripts available for the Korg nano series here on CDM (see my post explaining how this works, follow-up script from reader Raymond).

Of course, because this feature is supported by the Korg with our scripts and it’s very, very compact, the nanoKONTROL and Launchpad could make a great, cheap combo. And if you have Novation’s ReMOTE, Nocturn, and the like, you can alternatively use them – so, for instance, a keyboardist could stick the Launchpad atop a keyboard.

Q. Can you edit MIDI assignments? Is there a MIDI template editor, in other words?

No. All the MIDI assignments are hard-wired. The good news is, everything appears to send MIDI, though I still need to investigate how that works outside Live. The bad news is, as with the APC40, a lot of functionality is organized around Live.

That would be my one potential criticism, which is that we’re moving away from hardware that’s useful everywhere to hardware that’s useful only in one program. But I want more time to see how the Launchpad performs outside Live before I pass judgment on the Launchpad in particular, especially as I don’t even have the final software yet.

I still like editors, though, Novation, if you’re listening.

Q. What if you still have Live 7?

Update – official word: Ableton’s Baptiste Grange tells CDM:

On Nov 1 we’ll release two updates: Live 8.0.7 and Live 7.0.17. These will both support Launchpad.

So, Live 6 and earlier would need to upgrade, but not Live 7.


Q. Will we get the full MIDI implementation and protocol for creating custom patches or custom setups with our own software? Will that be true outside of Live, too?

Novation confirms that they plan to release the full MIDI implementation and communication protocol for the Launchpad at launch. That’s something that was missing on the APC40, leaving us all to figure it out ourselves, so I’m looking forward to seeing that documentation. Part of the reason to use MIDI is to have a spec that everyone can read so power users can do what they want.

Q. Can you control the lights using MIDI?

Yep. This should be in the full documentation, too, but here’s a sneak peak. Bjorn from the awesome Covert Operators sent me the velocity assignments, which I’ll be using to hack my Launchpad setup:

Velocity 0 = Off
Velocity 1 = light red
Velocity 2 = medium red
Velocity 3 = full red
Velocity 16 = light green
Velocity 32 = medium green
Velocity 48 = full green
Velocity 17 = light amber
Velocity 34 = medium amber
Velocity 55 = full amber
Velocity 18 = light orange (Lighter > red / darker > amber)
Velocity 35 = medium orange (Lighter > red / darker > amber)
Velocity 31 = full orange (Lighter > red / darker > amber)

The Competition, and the monome

Q. How does this compare to the Akai APC40 / controller XX / the monome as far as Live integration?

The most important point here is that you can easily mix and match. You can even have multiple control surfaces active, operating dynamically, at the same time, as well as multiple MIDI inputs for instruments. Also, most of the features of the Launchpad are available to all controllers. Novation is emphasizing the mix-and-match functionality of the Launchpad. Basically, the feeling is, there is no one control scheme that works for everyone.

The Launchpad is quite similar to the APC40. The clip functions are nearly identical, if in a slightly different (8×8) layout – you get the red onscreen rectangle, the red/green/amber LED indicators, scene launching, the ability to page through clips, and so on.

Basically, the major difference with the APC40 is trading functionality for size and price. The APC40 has the ability to map to Devices automatically, as does Novation’s own ReMOTE series; the Launchpad does not. The APC40 also has encoders, faders, a crossfader, and a number of shortcuts. On the other hand, you can get a lot of the APC40’s functionality in other hardware, meaning the Launchpad can combine nicely with other gear you already have.

One significant edge the Launchpad has over the APC40, though, is that the Launchpad is set up to play drum racks.

The monome is also capable of nearly everything you see the Launchpad doing, with the exception of the clip selection rectangle (though I find that a bit hard to see, personally). In fact, the pages on the Launchpad are clearly inspired (directly or indirectly) by Pages, a GPL-licensed, fully-free, Java-based tool for monome which even appeared in action on David Letterman with Imogen Heap.

You certainly have other options that provide dynamic, automatic control mappings, including the M-Audio Axiom Pro series, the Korg kontrol and nano series, Novation’s ReMOTE line, the Faderfox series, and various others. You can see the built-in scripts available on the Control Surface menu, and anything that supports MIDI can be adapted for additional functionality.

I expect that with the release of Max for Live, scripting custom control for other controllers should be more powerful, even if you don’t have Max for Live installed. Stay tuned in the coming weeks as I’ll be trying to get more complete information on this.

The Live API improvements should be especially benefit the monome project. And remember, the monome isn’t standing still. Because it’s open, it’s conceivable clever users could hack new features.

Q. Can I run monome software on it? OSC?

Yes and – no.

The Launchpad uses MIDI, not OpenSoundControl (OSC). That means you have to translate incoming, sometimes arbitrary MIDI numbers to useful information, and that the Launchpad can’t natively interpret messages in the way the OSC-native monome can. However, as noted in our APC40 hacking superguide, it is possible to use an emulator to translate between MIDI and OSC. That should also be possible with the Launchpad. One challenge is the extra buttons around the grid. I’m going to have to write some Java MIDI code that can map to an arbitrary array of buttons, huh?

Q. Does the Launchpad violate monome’s license and design? How is the monome licensed? How “open” is the Launchpad?

I don’t want to – and cannot – speak for the monome project. However, while the Launchpad is unmistakably similar to the 8×8 grid of pads on the monome, it is not a “clone.” It’s only superficially similar to the monome. Cloning isn’t necessarily healthy for design, but a certain amount of copying can be. Without the spread of keyboard layouts, for instance, we wouldn’t have any of the keyboard instruments we have today – and, indeed, before the standardization on the fortepiano, a lot of keyboard instruments were strange copies of one another. In modern design, the monome is itself indebted to the pad layouts on early drum samplers.

I mention the word “clone” because the Arduinome is an clone of the monome which is distributed non-commercially as a result. It actually duplicates major portions of the design, PCB, and protocol, which is not remotely true of the Launchpad. Because their intention was cloning (for the purpose of ready availability of parts), the creators of the Arduinome consulted with the monome project.

For the record, the monome’s software is released under an open source license, and it uses fully-documented, open protocols, including OSC. The hardware is not technically open source, but it is open to the extent that specifications for the hardware, PCB, and firmware are provided for customization and modification, and the construction of custom housing. You are restricted from using the hardware design to make your own commercial hardware, which means the monome doesn’t fit some more restrictive definitions of what qualifies as open hardware. But it does offer some components that are truly open source, and it affords a great degree of real-world openness for its users.

None of the “openess” of the monome is true of the Launchpad, which operates under more traditional and proprietary models. You can’t easily physically open the Launchpad case (and I expect you’d void your warranty if you did). It uses MIDI, an open protocol, but has a proprietary mechanism for interacting with Ableton Live (at least so far as I can tell). It uses USB, but does not support class-compliant operation – you must install your own drivers, which means you can’t use it with some devices (like Linux netbooks). And the process and operation of the Launchpad are not available or documented. That’s not to discourage the Launchpad, and you still have plenty of power via its MIDI implementation to keep you busy. But that does differentiate it from open hardware like the monome and the newer Livid Ohm64, and it’s worth considering how this difference impacts the ways you want to use the hardware. That issue is much bigger than any one piece of gear, and it’s one I hope we can cover in more depth.

More Videos

MusicRadar did their own hands-on:

Actually, judging by the LEDs, I think they were also working from a prototype and not the final production run. But you will also notice they have an L-shaped USB cord, which I believe is what the final unit will have. (And, heck, that’d be a useful thing to have around here, I may have to pick up some.)

Novation TV also has their own set of videos:


And DJ Tech Tools got a hands-on, too.