Friday, November 13, 2009

Here Comes a Challenger! Novation Launchpad vs Akai APC40 review

The Ableton world was abuzz with the release of Akai's much-anticipated APC40, which promised a hitherto unmatched integration with and a level of realtime control over Live. The buzz didn't last as long as Akai might have hoped as only a few months later along comes Novation's Launchpad, which offers a bigger grid and USB bus power for half the price. Does it deliver? Is it the APC40 killer? Failure to launch? (OK, thats harsh.) Or just a slightly Live-savvy monome clone made in Asia?

Build Quality: The extra US$200 does go somewhere besides sliders and knobs, the APC40 looks and feels like a piece of pro audio equipment. The Launchpad feels like a midi controller, not a particularly cheap one, mind, but a midi controller. The APC impresses with its metal bottom, rubberized sides and, of course, those knobs and sliders; the former are actually nice LED-ringed endless rotaries, the latter short-throw but quality faders. Set Live's takeover mode to "value scaling" and you can forgive Akai for not making them motorized. The crossfader is replaceable as well. The Launchpad is well, a piece of plastic with rubber buttons on it. Does not feel like anything would break on it. The *single* USB cable with the L-shaped connector seems secure, in contrast to the APC which has a wallwart connector and a straight USB connector that sticks out a bit, worringly. Not saying anything *would* go wrong on it, but if something did, I wouldn't be shocked. Advantage here goes to Novation, unless of course, the internal switches are crap or something.

And before I continue, of course you can pick the Launchpad up and hold it with one hand or in the crook of your arm comfortably, while the APC is made to sit on a desk. Neither has any holes on the bottom for mounting on a stand or putting on top of a turntable spindle. (Technics: making resting places for your controllers and CD books since 2000) There's a neoprene sleeve for the Launchpad but I didn't get one so I assume it's sold separately.

The Grid: Obviously Novation wins this one. An 8x8 grid is always gonna beat an 8x5 one. You get more of your Live clips available on the controller, plus the Launchpad buttons are a bit larger and more closely (and comfortably) spaced. They're even good for fingerdrumming, once you get past the utter lack of velocity sensitivity (APC40 lacks it too). And cut up a bunch of breaks across the grid and the question of velocity becomes a bit moot-ish. The Launchpad's LEDs are lighter and brighter than the APC's, tho this doesn't make much difference in practice. It's square, too, so if yr using it to trigger one-shot samples (or even synths... phwoarr) just turn it around and new combinations and possibilities present themselves. Hit the scene launch buttons for potential noise chaos awesome and win.

Integration with Live: APC40 wins, durr. Not just the obvious knobs and faders and transport controls but also the track select and most importantly, clip stop buttons. To stop a clip on the Launchpad, or for that matter mute, solo or arm a track, you have to push the mixer button first, which adds a step, while on the APC has buttons for all those thinghys right there. Beyond that, to set track, pan or send levels, you have to push yet another button on teh Launchpad, which is one more step of annoyance.  In all fairness you do have to hit switches to choose between sends and pans on the APC's knobs and the Device/Clip Control section there is fiddly. (At least it has it) To tell the truth I kinda prefer the simplicity of the Launchpad and it does have a few tricks up its sleeve. Session Overview mode lets you "zoom" out and navigate through big 64x64 sets. The two User modes are for assignable midi controllers, Novation recommends using one for Drum Clips and another for Max for Live.

In real use, the Launchpad pwnz0rs in live Live sets. I recreated a new version of my Apollox9 mix that's I'd originally done on the APC.(sadly not recorded) I hardly missed any of the APC's features - setting mix levels on the Launchpad's buttons isn't exactly smooth but sounds OK if you do it on the beat (or close enough). What's more, its just more fun on the Launchpad and you can hold it and dance a little like an idiot. Playing out, Launchpad and a netbook would be a fine, lightweight and rock-solid system. For production work tho, APC all the way, the knobs and faders call. (I've even found it useful in Arrangement mode as you can overdub mixer and control movements)

Finally, software: Here's where Novation cheaps out and it's disappointing. Both come with custom versions of LiveLite, APC40 was version 7, Launchpad 8. APC40's version gives you 20 scenes, 8 audio tracks, 8 midi, 8 each of Ableton's native audio and midi effects, 4 VST instruments (or AU, but I use PC's so idk) and ONE paltry VST effect. (That sucks) Launchpad on the other hand (and Ableton's site - is WRONG at least compared to the version that came with mine) Launchpad gives you 16 TOTAL tracks (nice if you do lots of audio) but only 8 scenes. You get the same number of Ableton effects but two each of VST effects and intruments, not so good if you like VSTis then. In practice, Akai's Lite version gives you just enough to get started and do some great things, while Novation's is like a teaser - "see what Live can do! go buy Live 8!" The 8 available scenes in particular are useless for doing sets like ApolloX9 (some of those tracks are cut up into as many as 16 loops).

Luckily, and I don't own the full version of Live 8, the APC edition of LiveLite can be upgraded to 7.0.18 to work with Launchpad. (Or upgrading to LiveLite8 is free) You can even use both @ once and they can even be set to control different regions of clips.

Both Akai and Novation tout their controller's use with Max for Live, but it isn't included and likely won't be. (Ableton charges $100 for that) Akai comes with classic drum machine Drum Racks which I installed and like, Novation gives you some Loopmasters samples which I haven't tried.

So who wins? if I had to give up one, I really don't know which I would choose. The Launchpad wins for live use, the APC for production. The Launchpad is more fun, the APC more workflow-y. If you already have Live 8 and a knobby controller, the Launchpad would seem the obvious choice, especially @ half the price.. (And even a nanoKontrol or LPD8 goes with it quite nicely) That does end up being more stuff then and the APC ends up a more elegant all-in-one solution. I am a bit partial to the Launchpad, at least for now. But me, I'm using both.
Alternatively? Livid's Ohm64 is like a more sensibly laid-out APC40 for $600. Or their $400 Brick sporting 8 knobs and 2 sliders looks nice. Or of course, monome. All these units are made in the USA with sustainable materials and all are opensource for teh hippies.


  1. Bugger. Thought you'd have a clear personal favorite. Guess I'll have to invest in both...;)

    Besides, I'm still a bit curious about what I can do with Maschine and Ableton. Admittedly, Maschine is more of a production thingumajig - but possibly it might suffice for my (very occassional) dj:ing too.

  2. ...if you had to buy one, probably Launchpad! tho it needs knobs.

    I love Maschine! really nice pads. would compare them to Korg and Akai, the LPD8 pads are my favorite, more so than MPC5000. I think the Maschine-PC integration could be better. Could work as a DJ controller for Ableton.

  3. great blog great sense of humor. thanks.