You have the con: for tactile control, the patch is fully integrated with Akai’s APC40 controller for Ableton Live. Photo courtesy Darren Cowley.

Ableton Live may have “Live” in the name, but just as with any musical equipment, getting it ready for a show often involves elaborate configuration to make reliable control a reality. Over its decade-long life, Live has been tweaked, adjusted, and cajoled into road-ready digital rigs. With Max for Live a kind of software developer kit for Live users, that has led some users to share their configurations. I’ve been watching Darren Cowley iterate his own Isotonik setup, a combination of hardware control, software template, and custom Max for Live devices, for some time now. That rig has finally matured to the point that he’s ready to share. Get ready for some hard-core Ableton geekery – though it might just be your next live Live setup.

Isotonik couples on-screen virtual devices with the physical controls of the APC40, but going beyond the default configuration from Akai and Ableton. Like a dashboard for your Live set, the software/hardware combo consolidates controls for cueing up and activating tracks, launching and looping scenes, slicing up beats, and adding audio effects. (Glitch, anyone?) Sure, you could do these things without Isotonik, but by bringing together rapid assignment of effects and navigation between tracks, the software becomes a kind of cheat – in a good way.

In fact, it’s compelling enough as a story that I think it’s worth reading even if you don’t use Live, the APC, or Max for Live.

A new release was just updated today with fewer objects and greater performance. And in addition to the template, the package includes some really fantastic effects, themselves worth the price of entry.

The price is a scant GBP £14.99, with an extraordinary amount of software included. Full details, documentation, and download link at Darren’s site:

For my own part, I’ve found myself getting a bit existential when thinking about this problem. Which makes more sense, musically: adding a layer atop something like Live to gain rapid access to features, or simply building from scratch (in environments like Max, Pd, SuperCollider, and the lot), in order to put together only those building blocks you need? The former is more complex and the latter potentially more reliable, though I always find that finding simpler solutions often involves more work, not less (especially if the words “from scratch” come into play). There’s no right answer to these questions, though; only an answer for you. So I think it’s well worth having a look at how Darren has approached this. You might just find the result is exactly what you need, and even if not, it provides some serious insight into the workflow of making Ableton Live, Max for Live, and the APC40 come together for real use.

Isontonik Template – Demonstration from Darren E Cowley on Vimeo.

I asked Darren to share his thoughts about the background of the project, how he put it together, and how he uses the result.

I managed to persuade [retailer] DV247 to let me buy their shop demo APC40 and by the end of the second I was frustrated with what I couldn’t do…. Having a DJ background I missed being able to tweak the bass’s across all the tracks at the same time but hardmapping these controls lost me the ability to use what the APC was designed for with it’s blue hand control of racks….

Pretty quickly I found myself using the excellent [MIDI software utility] bome’s midi translator to remap controls to solve this problem, one problem solved I found I enjoyed the challenge more than playing the music and so I set about creating a second mode of control based more on my playing style with CDJ’s. At the same time the nativeKONTROL series came out so I decided to share my template with anyone who already had a copy of Bomes….

With the announcement of Max4Live I started to get interested and when the invite to the beta landed on email I was made up, sadly after a month of testing I still didn’t have a stable version and so in release day I shelled out like many others for what appeared an unproven piece of software that had the promise of greatness…

I quickly set about creating a device that would give me control over the macros in the first rack giving back that DJ mixer style control, one of the first devices to be uploaded onto I got some excellent feedback and made some new contacts who prompted me to keep developing. Many brick walls were hit and thanks to people like Mike Chenetz of and Andrew Pask of Cycling I managed to get my head around some of the undocumented control_surfaces functions….

A two week break on a beach in Thailand with a pad and an ipod gave me the opportunity to sketch out how I saw the controls would work, deciding on the scene launch buttons as my scene choosers….

Pretty soon I had worked out how to make five different scenes of controls for the clip stop buttons, 8 others for the Activate/Cue Solo/Rec Arm Buttons…. Reset functionality for my macros and a slave version of the master device to reduce the overall size of the device.

I wanted a simple scene that enabled the standard functionality with a slight twist, the clip stop buttons should light up if a clip was playing in a track and I should be able to launch the highlighted clip, play it again or play the clip below whilst still having the red-box control….

Next came a scene that could give me some semblance of Traktor like looping control, and then I wanted to be able to activate a 2 bar loop on a clip even if it wasn’t in focus….

Inspired by the monome performance videos I spent ages trying to work out how to mimic the effect with the 8 clip stop buttons spending ages working with the playing_position function to not find a satisfactory result, then a fantastic how to video from Mike Chenetz led me to look into the chucker object and quickly I had a running metronome that could play back a slice of the last two bars of audio much like Clist’s beatlookup, that I could change the size of the slice with a twist of the Cue Volume knob…

The original Keymasher Tim Exile had just released the Finger and a guy called GBSR on the Controllerism forum had just posted a similar effect using an impressive routing system using Abletons sends, given Max4live control over the Live API I created the ability to punch audio to a return track and then send that return track to another chaining effects….

The Max for Live device that brings it all together. Click for larger version.

Macro controls for effects.

When playing I find I normally use the vanilla/standard scene but then jump into a different scene mid track to add some variation to what I’m playing, with the addition of the ability to control all 8 sends on each track with the track control, a smart knob per track that can handle 8 different effects and finally a Looper controlled from the APC40’s transport buttons

I’m probably at the point of Ableton not being able to cope much more, with each update from Ableton and Cycling 74 the whole setup has become more and more stable and I predict even bigger things when they’ve completed their “Quality” drive….

Thanks, Darren.

Trying this tool out? Got your own rig for Max for Live – or other software – that you’d like to share? I’d love to hear your feedback. You know where to find us.

APC40, now your cockpit for slicing, dicing, and effects, all macro-mapped. Photo courtesy Darren Cowley.