Ableton Live-specific controllers just got another addition. You probably could have guessed this would come out, following the APC40 and Novation’s grid-only Launchpad last year, but the Akai APC20 is the new, smaller sibling to Akai’s APC40. The APC20 does basically everything the APC40 does on the latter’s left-hand side — it’s a grid of buttons, a set of mixers for your tracks, buttons for activating tracks (and solo/cue/record), and shortcuts for moving around and triggering the transport. Using the buttons, you can trigger clips or notes, with additional buttons for scenes and stopping clips around the outside of the 8×5 array.

The “Note Mode” is new, officially, but I believe hackers may have gotten the APC40 to do that. Hopefully it’ll be rolled out to the APC40 in an update.

What the APC20 doesn’t do is everything on the right-hand side of the APC40: you lose out on additional shortcuts, the crossfader, and most importantly, the controls for pan, sends, and Device Rack macros, though the controls seem to suggest you get some control back via control pages, as on Novation’s Launchpad. That makes the APC20 less appealing as a standalone to me. It gives you mixer faders missing from the Launchpad (which relies on buttons for the job), but it loses the ability to control devices and effects. And unlike the Launchpad, it seems the APC20 still requires external power rather than bus power.

Instead, it seems that Akai hopes you’ll buy the APC20 as a companion to your APC40, for, uh, 60 worth of APC. (I think we have a new unit of measure.) With what Akai calls “Combination mode,” you can add the 40 and 20 together for control of 80 buttons and 16 tracks. In Akai’s press release, it also seems that Akai thinks customers might add an APC20 to an existing rig with other gear — though that puts it in competition with the Novation Launchpad for the same job.

You can also buy six APC20s and use those together, and if you buy that many APCs, I recommend two things: one, seek professional help, and two, definitely send us photos.

This does still trigger the concerns I’ve been trying to raise since I reviewed the APC40 last year. Why should something as simple as chaining multiple devices together for control be a feature specific to a certain product? Haven’t we been chaining devices together as a standard feature all the way back to the invention of MIDI, now over a quarter century ago? (For the record, you can combine multiple control surfaces in Ableton Live. But the moment one set of controllers does that and another doesn’t, based on support in the software itself, that ceases to be a standard feature of Ableton.)

That said, for APC fans looking for some more control, the APC20 should appeal. But if I had to recommend a first APC, I’d still strongly recommend the APC40. Having a controller with built-in controls for everything Live does – clip triggers, mixing, cross-fading, effects, and device control, with all the shortcuts – really is a nice luxury.


Pricing: Not yet announced Estimated US$199 street

Availability: Second quarter 2010

Now, it’ll be interesting to see if this is the last Ableton hardware controller news from this year’s NAMM or not; time will tell.