Behringer Just Bought TC, TC Helicon, Tannoy

The music and sound industry is increasingly about big-league consolidation. InMusic – the company behind Akai and M-Audio – is growing. Long-standing Japanese titan Yamaha has snapped up Line6. Gibson now includes everything from Tascam to the website Harmony Central to consumer gear branded Philips. (And yes, throw out whatever you think you know about Gibson from the 90s – this has nothing to do with that.)

Now, count the giant MUSIC Group – the parent of Behringer, with Uli Behringer as its chief – among the big sharks on the acquisition market.

MUSIC Group announced today it has acquired TC Group. You probably know them as the makers of vocal effects and guitar effects and sound processing and mastering, under brands like TC Electronics and TC Helicon, or for their Tannoy label. And that’s clearly a big part of this deal, with MUSIC Group’s presence in that market with Behringer as well as Midas and Bugera tube amps (among others).

It’s more than that, though. TC Applied Technologies are in semiconductor designs, networking, and interface tech too, which gives Behringer a big boost in terms of intellectual property and the electronics market beyond musical instruments. And closer to home, MUSIC Group call out their interest in A/V and broadcast.

For their part, Danish-based TC say that they had other big suitors, but chose the Behringer folk – I wonder who those other players may have been.

Regardless, this is very big news, combining two powerful international companies. And any of us who think of Behringer as the “cheap mixer people,” we may do well to take them seriously – MUSIC Group now have their own factory complex in China and a 300-person engineering team.

The strange thing to me about musical instruments is this play with giant transnationals with their own manufacturing and engineering capabilities, and integrating marketing networks. So much of the interesting stuff, the culturally impactful designs, still somehow happens in tiny one-person and several-person boutique operations.

It was single-engineer shops that launched the modular renaissance. It was the monome that wound up in the Museum of Modern Art and re-popularized grid-based interfaces. These are products that ship a tiny handful of units and earn very little money, if they break even at all. The cultural capital is far outweighing the actual sales. At some point, it seems that will create real tension. And, on the other hand, all we do with chips and software – from DSP to microcontrollers to your laptop – rely on bigger-scale operations. Not one boutique maker of software or hardware can claim independence from the larger electronics manufacturing community.

But whatever deeper questions, keep an eye out for MUSIC and TC. A new giant is born.

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This Video Demonstrates How Akai’s New Keyboard Controls Everything

It’s a horse race. Two keyboards – one from Native Instruments, one from AKAI – really want to be the interface between you and every plug-in you own. And we’re getting closer to find out if either deserves your attention.

You’ve heard this story before. Sure, you have powerful software on your computer screen. But when you want physical control of those instruments beyond just playing keys, you’re left either manually mapping controls or reaching for your mouse or trackpad.

So, over the years various solutions have tried to solve this automagically. There was Automap, seen in Propellerhead Reason and then from Novation. There was Cakewalk’s ACT. Native Instruments’ KORE. M-audio’s HyperControl. And probably some others I’ve forgotten – maybe tried to forget. These solutions weren’t always completely horrible, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was completely satisfied with them, either. Now, I’m sure some of you will protest. Reason, for instance, often worked well – a closed system that originated the idea – and if you got things working, more power to you. But beyond that handful, I’ve met a whole lot of people who wound up giving up and going back to manually mapping MIDI. (Or just give me that trackpad, already, because it’s faster.)

Well, now the Akai ADVANCE is here. It knows you’ve been hurt before. But it wants you to love automatic mapping again. And … surprisingly, there are some early indications you ought to leave the heartache behind and give it a chance to prove itself.

Our friends over at AskAudio got an exclusive tour in New York. (The ADVANCE hails from the Eastern Seaboard, after all; the Komplete Kontrol from the banks of Berlin’s river Spree.)

Akai Pro Advance Keyboards In-Depth Preview (Video) []

You can check out their impressions in the story; the video gives a detailed walkthrough. Remember that the software isn’t feature complete, but you can at least see where AKAI are going.




I can vouch for the hardware; I had a go on it at Musikmesse. This may be the nicest build from anything with Akai on it, ever. Whether you like the aesthetics of the styling or not, the quality of the units I saw at Musikmesse was outstanding, the color display is clear, and everything feels solid. Akai’s MAX range of keyboards – unlike the cheap stuff at the entry level – already had a nice keybed, so I’m not surprised, and finally we go back to encoders instead of touch trips.

The challenge the ADVANCE will face is that being a nice-feeling keyboard isn’t enough. The software has to work well, or you’ll take a pass on this line. Or worse, you’ll buy it, and wind up figuring out how to convince anyone to take it out of your closet. Obsolescence is the single worst threat to this stuff.

We know now what the strategy is at rival Native Instruments. Whereas their Komplete Kontrol initially couldn’t so much as send arpeggiator notes to your host, let alone handle software that wasn’t part of Komplete, all will be better soon:

Komplete Kontrol Now Plays Nice with Plug-ins, Hosts, And More is Coming

At the very least, all the chords and patterns you play on the keyboard now work with a host. And inside the Komplete Kontrol software, you can use plug-ins. And if software is specifically designed to support NI’s Native Kontrol Standard (NKS), plug-ins will appear with the proper metadata, control mappings, and extra features that work with NI’s hardware.

I wouldn’t describe it as more “closed” than Akai, but suffice to say NI’s approach – at least as they describe it – is the artisanal, bespoke approach to integrating your plug-in presets with your keyboard. Metadata is (supposed to be) lovingly hand-crafted, mappings gently tailored to fit snugly on the controls.

Both keyboards are also intended as platforms to sell you more software. NI is apparently content to let their Komplete suite speak for itself – and use the promise of more software sales to entice developers to create custom support for the keyboard. AKAI is joining the now-everything-is-an-app-store bandwagon, with the ability to buy software inside the keyboard. (Fine, but can I get food delivery so I don’t have to interrupt my studio session? Startups, opportunity knocks.)

Reaktor Lighting up Komplete Kontrol



Above: Native Instruments’ competitor. Is it less ADVANCEd, or more KOMPLETE? Well, we can at least say that it has 100% more light-up colored keys and 100% less light-up colored pads…

Akai, by contrast, is the Roomba of the two, hoovering up everything on your machine and dumping it into the ADVANCE keyboard.

If it’s a VST, the ADVANCE will find its presets, find its controls. It’s not all automatic: Akai themselves are going through mapping popular software by hand, too, apparently in some sort of sound content sweatshops where sound designers wipe sweat off their forehead with numb fingers finding each filter cutoff knob in every plug-in you might ever find on KVR. (Disclaimer: I have no idea how they’re doing this.)

Which will work better? Well, the end result may wind up being exactly the same – which is better for users.

In Frankfurt, Native Instruments threw a party off-campus (open bar!) while AKAI were in a proper booth (what? sorry, what did you say? here’s my business card).


The interesting thing was that both NI and AKAI showed their keyboards with Ableton Live. Both made prominent usage of Arturia software – doubly encouraging, given Arturia make controller bundles for their own products. And AKAI was even glad to show off Absynth running on the ADVANCE. Remember, the AKAI isn’t shipping yet, and Native Instruments haven’t released the software updates that support NKS (some of those features won’t arrive until the summer, some earlier).

I think this is probably the most important thing to know. The worst possible scenario would be if you had to buy a different keyboard each time you wanted to use a different piece of software, then, 80s pop-star style, array them on multi-tiered keyboard racks all over your studio. The nightmare scenario: oh, sure, the Komplete Kontrol works great with Reaktor and Kontakt, but you need the AKAI with AIR, the Arturia with your emulations, the Ableton Keys with Ableton Live, and an MPC hybrid every time you want to make beats. No. That would be horrible.

Fortunately, there’s no indication from anyone I’ve talked to that that’ll happen. It seems everyone is more or less trying to play ball with everyone else, even as they make competing products – and the rabid hunger for keyboards in the market, I’m guessing, will keep this from becoming a zero sum game.

So, which will you buy? There’s no way of knowing until they ship. AKAI and Native Instruments have both built hardware that feels great. AKAI packs more onboard, with pads and color screens, but then you might prefer the sparser NI keyboard and touch strips. AKAI certainly seem to have the edge on compatibility with loads of stuff, and the ADVANCE ships with their excellent AIR software, but NI finally came around and added an instrumental/effect suite to Komplete Kontrol, and we’ll see if they cane make tighter integration more appealing than the one-size-fits-all approach of the ADVANCE.

And, of course, both products still have to prove themselves versus the toughest competition: a keyboard with some knobs and none of these bells and whistles.

I seriously doubt a single solution will please everyone, but I’m glad to see keyboards that at least feel better and try harder on integration. MIDI keyboards have been ubiquitous, but too often low-quality, uninventive, and with unfinished and frustrating paired software.

When you look this much like something as beloved as a grand piano, you had better try harder.

So, I very much look forward to the Summer Games of MIDI Keyboards.

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Can QRATES Make Vinyl Pressing More Accessible?


Talk all you like about the “feeling” of something physical, something tangible, about having a real object, about ownership. There’s a cold reality behind selling physical goods: it’s hard.

Before you can sell something, you need money to buy the physical stuff you want to sell. Digital “solves” that by making the good intangible, but in the material world, you need materials. Before “capitalism” came to mean some complex international system of speculative markets, this, of course, was what we meant: you got some capital to start a business selling stuff.

Then, once you have that stuff, you better hope you got it in the right quantity. Turns out more people want it than you thought? Too bad – they’ll have to wait for another run, and by then, maybe they don’t want it any more. Fewer wanted it? Now you’ve an even bigger problem: you’re out of the cash you spent to get the stuff, and you’ve got extra stuff you can’t sell. You’ve lost your shirt, and gained excess inventory.

Crowd funding could be seen as a way around all of this. It’s no accident that Kickstarter’s roots began in music – the service began as a way to fund performance and recording projects.

But Kickstarter itself isn’t really set up for someone wanting, say, to release an album on vinyl by funding the pressing. In fact, Kickstarter made themselves pretty clear in 2012, for any of you imagining they’re a preorder system:

Kickstarter Is Not a Store [Kickstarter Blog]

In case you had any doubt after that headline, they lead thusly: “It’s hard to know how many people feel like they’re shopping at a store when they’re backing projects on Kickstarter, but we want to make sure that it’s no one.”

Okay, fine, but – if you want someone to put out music on vinyl, then “risks and challenges” shouldn’t factor into the equation.


QRATES could be the link that would give independent artists and labels access to the vinyl record revival.

The just-launched service comes with a number of components. It’s a little like CDBABY and Kickstarter had a love child for vinyl enthusiasts.

It’s a pressing service. QRATES is “partnering” with “world-renowned pressing plants.” Basically, they’ll let you use an online tool to design the label and sleeve, upload your artwork, and then connect you with the companies to do pressing – as well as set costs and even estimate profit.

It’s a funding system. Ah, but you need to have money to pay for the pressing – and you need to figure out demand. So, your preorder is also how you fund the pressing.

It’s a store and promotion tool. Since you’ll rely on fans funding the pressing through preorders, you’ll want to give them more. So QRATES is also an online store, with digital and physical goods. Selling someone a t-shirt or concert ticket or offering a digital download while they wait on the pressing to arrive should then not be a problem.


Now, there are obviously some questions here. First, of course, it’ll be interesting to learn how long lead times are for production. Fans are going to need some digital goodies to tide them over, because they’ll be presumably waiting something on the order of 12 weeks for stuff to arrive. On the other hand, fans are already buying cassette tapes and other oddities from Bandcamp, and digital downloads mean they get something right away.

QRATES is also promising more than just the store, saying they’re a “platform” for increasing fanbase, but details are a bit sketchy there.

Also, the one element not in the picture: distribution. It seems that this is largely a platform for direct sales of vinyl, not getting records into shops. Then again, maybe there’s some way QRATES could work in conjunction with distribution.

Some other interesting details:

  • You don’t have to be famous. Minimum pressing number is just 100.
  • You don’t have to sell everything as a preorder. If you’ve got some cash, you can buy up your own copies. (“Some” can be funded this way; we’ll have to learn how many.)
  • You can set funding timeframes and minimum thresholds, just like on Kickstarter. Dates go up to 90 days. And if you only have 30 preorders instead of the requisite 100 to press, you can cancel the project. (That adds a secondary bonus: it gives fans added motivation to pay for the preorder, since otherwise the record might not get pressed.)
  • QRATES takes 15%. That’d be easier to swallow if there were distribution – I think you will want to compare self-funding to going through the site, for sure.

For more commonly asked questions, QRATES have just posted this to Facebook:

- Where are the records pressed and sleeves printed?
We currently have two pressing partners in Europe depending of the quantities and selected options. We are also actively working on opening accounts with more pressing partners around the world in order to offer the maximum of pressing options and prices.
- Does QRATES’s price includes vinyl mastering?
The prices appearing in our vinyl simulator include cutting from your mastered files. Once your QRATES project is completed, we will require files ready for vinyl cutting. We are also working on opening our own vinyl mastering center inside QRATES, which will be available in a few weeks.
- How do the shipping costs work? Can QRATES deliver my records to my customers?
Same here, in a few weeks we will be able to ship records to the people who pre-ordered your vinyl directly on your behalf, we are finalizing the prices and process right now, so stay tuned about this! For the time being, the records will be shipped to you, the artist or label, and we will provide you with all customers addresses to ship the records to them as well as the postage money you have set up in the “Settings” tab of the vinyl simulator, in the “Postage” field.
- How long does it take to press my records?
Right now the turnover is about 12 weeks for 100 and 200 copies, 8 weeks from 300 copies and all quantities will be about 8 weeks from september 2015.
- Can I order vinyl pressing without running a funding campaign?
For now, if you wish to order normal vinyl pressing please first build a funding project and self-purchase all of the copies at the pressing cost. A special place at QRATES to order normal pressing without building a campaign at first will be available soon, we are working on it!
- What happens if my campaign does not reach its goal?
Two solutions here: you can cancel your campaign and then your customers will not be charged for their pre-orders, or even better, you can self-purchase the remaining copies at the pressing cost and start pressing the record! You may also need some copies for your own website or to sell at your shows, so you can self-purchase copies of your own project at the pressing cost at any time during the campaign.
- You don’t ship to my country, why?
Our goal is to be able to ship to the maximum of places in the world and some more countries will be added soon, we will announce them here too.
For more details please also visit QRATES Help & FAQ center at

My friend Zuzana Friday Přikrylová has done an interview with these folks for DJ Broadcast; I’ll add that once it’s up and hope to talk to the founders, as well.

All in all, this looks interesting. I’d be curious to see whether digital fans could use the same platform for other purposes, or whether this sort of preorder model is applied to other stuff. (Perhaps Eurorack, for instance?)

What’s your take – is this something that’s of interest to you, as a fan or as a producer or label? Would this system work for you? Other questions for the folks at QRATES?

Check out the site (there are some projects there already):

And play around with this fun design tool:

Using the design tool, you can also see breakdowns for cost.

Hint: you’ll want more fans. Doing 1000 records costs only a little more than doing 100, and price-per-copy plummets to less than 3€.

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If Record Store Day is Dead, Maybe We Can Celebrate Music

Record Store Day has come and gone over the weekend. But 2015 will surely be remembered as a year in which Record Store Day did less to increase the visibility of vinyl records so much as to increase the visibility of how much everyone has grown to hate Record Store Day. And that seems it’s time for a post mortem – and a call to action.

I watched closely the reports from this weekend, just to see if there was anything positive – and there was. For every Foo Fighters (Grohl was this year’s ambassador, weirdly), I’ve spotted something with more worth to lesser-known music, like a 12″ for Kiasmos on Erased Tapes. And clearly there are some shops that are glad to have an extra excuse to bring people into a store.

But it’s clear that Record Store Day organizers aren’t just setting out to create a fun holiday for vinyl records. (Compare, again on Erased Tapes, Nils Frahm’s more innocent “Piano Day.”)

The Case Against Record Store Day

The entire focus of the “holiday” is on exclusive releases. It’s straight at the top of the official website. The entire focus is exclusive releases on the day and limited runs.

In fact, it’s also clear that Record Store Day is by definition a celebration of inanimate discs and the celebration of spending money. (To quote Douglas Adams, “Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.”)

Yes, in fact, musicians and producers, the people producing the sounds on those inanimate discs, are a side show, a kind of incidental means of drawing your attention to buying some limited 12″.

From there, the litany of complaints continue:

  • It’s just one day, ignoring the rest of the year.
  • It actually trains customers to ignore the rest of the year.
  • Collectibles benefit the after market more than the stores, as those records show up on eBay.
  • It makes it harder to actually acquire and listen to music. (What? Listen? Why would you want to do that?)
  • Big labels and big releases have crowded out the independent music that was supposed to be the point (though, again, Record Store Day are apparently vinyl fetishists, not music lovers, judging by their own site).
  • It increasingly spotlights celebrities and recognizable music.

Basically, it pretends to be Earth Day for independent music, but it’s really just the musical equivalent of the Black Friday sale at your local Wal-Mart, thinly-disguised and complete with long queues.

And the most serious complaint, the one that has made so many independent labels turn recently on the holiday, is that vinyl pressing plants are now clogged for this one holiday – increasingly with top-of-the-charts mainstream music, not indies. That more or less ruins the entire year’s release calendar. It screws over emerging artists, because they have to squeeze into a more-crowded, more-delayed calendar rather than get music out quickly. Sometimes plants don’t even deliver.

Oh, yeah, and even distributors are now clogged and focusing on bigger stores.

More Reading On Why Lots of People Started Hating Record Store Day

There was so much written about it this year that I’ve saved you some time and rounded up the best rants and reporting:

Thinking of Record Store Day as a brand—as a logo and a logic binding together a yearly ritual of music consumption—is the only way to understand how concepts like “independence” and “community” can be served by good old-fashioned exploitative capitalism.

Record Store Day and the Ambivalent Branding of Independence [Eric Harvey for Pitchfork]

Covering the stresses felt by indies, writer Josh Hall collects issues from minimum pressing requirements to clogged pressing and distribution to mysterious “quality” requirements, to name a few (with some balanced comments from all sides):

Record Store Day risks becoming more of a problem than a solution [FACT]

Sonic Cathedral have a blistering open letter:

“We can’t compete so we won’t compete.”


And they split their run across 365 days at this site:

Completing the Black Friday metaphor, Keith Creighton for Popdose (reprinted on Slate):

With Record Store Day, record collecting became a highly competitive full contact sport and endurance event.


Also, one of my favorite stores – also covering gear – had a nice alternative:
RECORD STORE DAYRUBADUBGlasgow’s Rubadub rejects Record Store Day “havoc”, announces rival event [FACT]

But the best reporting by far came from The Quietus, who visited a pressing plant. It’s worth reading the whole article, as it covers the ups and downs of the project. And it notes something everyone else missed: that the smarter pressing plants used vinyl as a way to make up for the depletion of digital replication sales (DVDs and CDs):

A Pressing Business: tQ Goes Inside A Czech Vinyl Plant [The Quietus]

I’d like to go further, however. Even the criticism of Record Store Day has been more or less monopolized by vinyl collectors. I have nothing against that – I’m looking forward to the first-ever vinyl release of my own music on Friday. The format has done some wonderful things for producers, for labels, and for DJs and DJ technique.

Let’s Get Over This Vinyl Fetish

I think we have to separate the concerns of vinyl from the concerns of music producers.

Many, many, indie labels and artists can’t afford their own vinyl pressings. We shouldn’t make a vinyl release some sort of minimum requirement for the seriousness of music, then, unless we want to make the size of your wallet the measure of your music. That doesn’t mean we can’t aspire to getting music out on vinyl, or love it when it’s there. But it does mean that we should appreciate the other releases.

For instance, speaking of the Czech Republic, Bukko Tapes has chosen digital releases with limited cassette tape runs. They can do cassettes cheaply without the minimum order of pressing. I love Hrtl’s music, for example; now I have to think where my cassette Walkman is living.

They’ve even done a floppy disk release.



Bukko Tapes @ Bandcamp

I don’t know that we should make vinyl the judge of DJs, either, as it’s also dependent on your budget. Vinyl fetishism is infecting DJing, too. It may misunderstand the real craft of DJing. (I don’t know if this story is actually true, but a friend claims seeing an angry guest at a party in Berlin actually physically slam a DJ’s laptop shut in protest of them playing digital.)

It goes on from there. DJ Tech Tools ran what I think was a reasonably innocuous editorial:

Why New DJs Should Start on Vinyl

Fair enough, even if I might edit the headline’s advice to “should considering starting on vinyl” – there are ways of making digital work. It’s the follow-up that I’d take real issue with, however:

Is DJing With Vinyl Really That Expensive?”

The methodology at DJ Tech Tools is flat misleading.

In order to make vinyl music acquisition seem nearly as cheap as digital, they only look at the cost of an LP/EP – surreal, given that buying singles is what a DJ is most likely to do. (They also assume you’re buying from iTunes, never Bandcamp, and that for some weird reason you never acquire free promos.)

In order to make the assumption the gear costs the same, they assume you don’t already own a laptop.

Then, on top of it, there’s no consideration for what it takes to store or transport records – you know, the reason so many DJs switched to digital in the first place. (And that covers a lot of costs, even including driving versus taking trains, or spending extra on luggage allowances when touring.)

I’m not saying that investing in turntables isn’t worth it. But I’ve seen first-hand musicians who can’t afford any new gear purchases, but can get into digital DJing using stuff they already owned. To say there’s no price difference would really require some degree of insensitivity both to people’s real-life budget challenges and, you know, basic arithmetic.

Think of the things we could do to celebrate actual music listening and not just the format on which that music is distributed.

We could have more events in record stores, thus supporting artists and record stores alike.

We could celebrate digital releases and online labels – those are the places where undiscovered music has a chance, because it’s unbound by the cost of producing a physical object. (This was, as you’ll recall, the whole promise of music on the Internet, once upon a time.)


Here’s an idea I love, for instance:

Celebrating the mp3 and free culture and the independent netlabels and musicians all around the world.

Save the date: JULY 14

Net Label Day 2015

Net Label Day on Facebook (just a few dozen likes – let’s change that)

And digital opens up lots of new possibilities – why not see more Mixcloud sets with track id’s, for instance, more mixes to help people process the torrent of new music released every week?

It’s clear that musicians and record lovers alike can benefit. Record collectors aren’t any happier than the rest of us that they can’t get their hands on exclusives, or that the release catalog is clogged.

If we refocus on loving music, we can even refocus on the reason we love records.

I think there’s something to be learned from Record Store Day. People are motivated by events, and new ideas can catch on.

So I’d love to hear more new ideas about how to promote actual music – records included. If Record Store Day has become a victim of its own success, at least it was successful. Now we need to bury it and get successful with something else.

The post If Record Store Day is Dead, Maybe We Can Celebrate Music appeared first on Create Digital Music.

Komplete Kontrol Now Plays Nice with Plug-ins, Hosts, And More is Coming


I’ll be honest: my Komplete Kontrol keyboard has been sitting on a shelf. But I believe that’s about to change in a big way.

So how did it wind up on the shelf in the first place? Yes, this is one of the nicest-looking, nicest-feeling keyboards around. And yes, it works seamlessly with Native Instruments’ own instruments and effects – particularly in that it makes it easy to dial up presets and to map parameters to the encoders and display their values.

The problem is, most of us don’t live in a world where we only use Komplete. Because Komplete Kontrol software didn’t originally support plug-ins, and because you couldn’t capture MIDI events from features like the arpeggiator and chords, it didn’t fit into our workflow.

An updated version of Komplete Kontrol changes that experience – and in an event last night here in Frankfurt, the future of the keyboard looks like it will realize some of its original potential.

First, there are some subtle fixes coming in updates. Finally, the arpeggiator and chord mode on the keyboard transmit MIDI back to the host – so you can record those patterns and chords directly, or route them to other instruments. (Previously, these were invisible to your host.)

And now, you can use your own plug-ins inside Komplete Kontrol, for features like the keyboard’s color-coded splits.


There’s also new integration with Maschine. So, for instance, you can use the transport controls on the keyboard and not just the Maschine hardware. Unfortunately, you can’t use both the drum pads and the keyboard to control a single Maschine instance, though as before, you can load a couple of instances and route the controllers separately. (So, for example, you might play a bass line on the keyboard on one Maschine instance, while a Maschine Studio triggers drums on a second instance.)

The coolest feature in the update is for the touch strips. In the first release of Komplete Kontrol, you could already use physics on the touch strip. With the “friction” setting, drag and release your finger, and a parameter can “bounce” up and down. (I first saw this feature on the original Lemur hardware.) It’s basically creating your own LFO with a gesture. Now, though, you can also optionally tempo-sync that – so it can sound rhythmic, not random.


You’ll get most of this in a 1.1 update to the software in May. There’s improved preset management in the software, too, and more integrated control from the hardware, promise NI. I haven’t yet been able to evaluate what this means, but the claim is that onscreen you’ll be able to save your presets more easily, and offscreen you’ll be able to do more looking only at the hardware.

In the summer, VST support will follow. That will allow you to load VST plug-ins directly into Komplete Kontrol. From there, those VSTs will work in any host – Pro Tools, Audio Unit hosts, and so on. (That means Komplete Kontrol is also effectively a wrapper. Got VSTs that don’t run in Logic? Now they will.)

No AU support yet; that’d obviously be welcome, though I’m hard pressed to think of a plug-in I use that doesn’t have both formats.

Bundled Instruments

The other major issue with Komplete Kontrol was that it wasn’t terribly useful if you didn’t own Komplete in the first place – because it lacked bundled software. Now, you’ll get some software bundled free, in what’s called Komplete Select. You get Massive, the new piano The Gentleman, the Monark (which I think is hands-down the best-sounding Minimoog emulation apart from an actual Minimoog), and the acoustic/electric Drumlab. Massive alone should keep you plenty busy, so that’s welcome. And now there’s much-needed upgrade path pricing, too.

Buried in the press release is the (unsurprising) revelation that more S-Series keyboards are coming. Hammer action seems a likely candidate to me, especially as NI are already using Fatar keybeds.


What’s Next: Native Kontrol from Plug-ins

But these are essentially expected, if welcome, updates. The bigger plan from NI seems to be making the hardware a platform for third-party development. Under the somewhat grandiose headline for the night “Creating Standards,” the basic idea is that plug-in makers will be able to include specific support for integrating with the hardware.

NI says they’ve got various partners on board – Arturia was notably present in the presentation. (That’s something of a surprise, too, and shows just how well collaboration can work – Arturia makes their own KeyLab line of controllers, but will still evidently support NI.)

“Native Kontrol Standard” (NKS) will allow developers to customize support for the colored LEDs above the keys, parameters, unique behaviors for those touch strips, and so on. And, of course, it’ll let plug-in developers add tagging so their presets show up alongside NI’s.

This isn’t accomplished via MIDI, so you’ll need to be a plug-in maker with access to NI’s developer tools to exploit those parameter controls. Those developers are granted access to what is essentially a simple API for the Komplete Kontrol host software (and, by extension, both the Browser and the hardware functions on the keyboard). This isn’t some new control protocol, and it isn’t a new plug-in format; it’s some kind of thin layer of description that plug-in developers add when they bundle their software for release.

As before, this isn’t a keyboard for people who want something that stands alone with other hardware. Komplete Kontrol is only useful when connected to a computer. Nor does Native Kontrol open up the ability to create your own behaviors or mappings – at least not yet. But I do think this direction makes sense for what NI says they’re trying to do with this product. And it’s great to see that integration work with a range of tools (though we’ll have to see how quickly those developers ship). It also looks like it’ll be more plug-and-play than Akai’s approach of making all their mappings themselves – and Akai hasn’t shipped yet, so all bets are off until that happens.

Don’t write off the keyboard as a MIDI controller, either. You could already create color-coded splits and read CCs and values clearly off the display – a trick few other keyboards can pull off.

All in all, this seems a good direction. I don’t know if “standard” is the right word here; whether this keyboard is right for you depends on your needs and working style. But NI’s S-Series is now a very effective tool for keyboardists wanting software integration. I’ll report back when that 1.1 update arrives – and, yes, it seems time to compare some of the other keyboard offerings on the market in terms of what delivers for you.


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The Last Time Roland Did Modular: The System 100


With widespread reports that Roland will soon have a new modular product, it’s worth remembering: Roland has done modular before.

That legacy carried the name System-100. The original 100 semi-modular lineup of the late 70s, and the Synthesizer-101, might actually be more relevant today than it was when it first shipped. The clever concept here was to put a full-featured monosynth with a keyboard at the center, then add modules around it. That seems to make loads of sense to me, as it creates a playable instrument that can nonetheless be patched for more creative sound design options. The full line even included speakers, in a triumph of all-in-one industrial design; the modular components and speakers interlocked into a single cabinet.

Producer Björn Fogelberg jams a bit with the 101′s sample & hold circuitry, for a sense of what this beast is like to play. And have a listen to the sound: you could argue that this is one of the best-sounding instruments Roland ever built.

The 100m is probably a more appropriate model for whatever is coming from Roland next, but check out the stunning industrial design on the original System 100. This might inspire a custom Eurorack cabinet with keyboard, or two. Photo (CC-BY Notreshuggie.

The 100m is probably a more appropriate model for whatever is coming from Roland next, but check out the stunning industrial design on the original System 100. This might inspire a custom Eurorack cabinet with keyboard, or two. Photo (CC-BY Notreshuggie.

The 100 was followed by the System 100m starting in 1979, produced through 1984 – see the vintage Roland ad at top for a look at what the modules were like. And here we have something that would look very much at home among Eurorack module offerings today; the design and layout are even similar. The 100m was a true modular system, rather than a semi-modular design as the Synthesizer-101 and companion components were. The notion was, as with today’s modulars, that you’d combine individual components into the instrument you wanted – oscillator, amplifier, mixer, envelope, filter, modulation, and so on.

There are some clues in the 100m line of what we might see in future from Roland. Apart from distinctive look and feel and interface design conventions, Roland’s 100m had some signature sound processors. The Ring Mod, Phase Shifter, and Sample & Hold might each make some appearance – and some sort of sequencer would be a no-brainer too.

Roland’s somewhat confusingly-named AIRA SYSTEM-1 made a nod to that history, though the actual design had nothing to do with it. I think whatever may be next from Roland will have something to do with the 100m. (And I can speculate freely, as I know nothing.)

But the 100m is worth a look, either way. Here’s a play on it filmed at the University of Huddersfield:

Now, I know what you’re thinking: if only these beautiful antiques could have neon green on them, AIRA style. Okay, no, that’s probably not at all what you’re thinking.

But I think the sound modeling guts of the SYSTEM-1 have some real potential for more instruments from Roland. And I think the design of the 100/100m could well be a legacy worth building on. Any Roland entry into modular is unlikely to disrupt the existing boutique makers: part of the allure of modular is finding unique designs and archaic analog circuitry and digital code, the very opposite of what a builder like Roland represents. But if Roland has done a good job with this design, there’s no reason the two couldn’t coexist.

That might not strike your fancy if you only know the recent Roland, and haven’t really dug into some of the sounds the AIRA SYSTEM-1 can make (in its original, default mode), or if you don’t know the history of the System-100. But… if you do, you just might be watching for what happens at Roland’s booth at Musikmesse. Just days left, so get your advance speculating / ranting / trolling in now, while you still can.

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Stems for DJs and More: Here’s How A New Format Will Work

The most important thing to know about Stems, a new multitrack specification for audio, is that it’s simple by design. That simplicity means that it could really take off as a way of sharing music with multiple tracks, for DJing or live-remix applications.

Stems won’t solve every problem of file exchange and sharing. It’s not a multichannel spatialization format. It’s not a sophisticated project format for storing metadata. I say that, because after we covered Stems at the beginning of this week, I found my inbox flooded with every use case for every file format imaginable, and complaints that Stems didn’t solve them. Some went as far as to get into video.

I get it: you have problems in search of solutions. Just be aware, solving every use case imaginable gets complicated fast. Take the industry standard on which Stems is based – MPEG-4. Covering everything from codecs to files, video to audio, the MPEG-4 spec has 31 parts and 15 levels, each containing still more specs inside the specs. There are international trade treaties that are simpler. And to anyone saying that there are already standards for complex project interchange and sophisticated multichannel audio – you’re absolutely right. That’s why Stems isn’t trying to be any of those things.

Instead, Stems is really a format for releasing music, and it’s intended to be as simple as possible.

Following the announcement of Stems, it seems there was some misinformation about the specs of the format. Some of this was simply technically wrong – like a report that Stems uses “MP3 files” (it uses AAC-encoded audio), or doesn’t support lossless audio (it does). And a lot of people tried to read into the future of Traktor – that’s fair, but it misses part of the point of Stems, which is to try to bring other developers onboard.

Since at least some of those developers are reading CDM, alongside producers and DJs, let’s take a look.

The “Stems” file itself is an MP4 container. Careful here – people use “MP4″ interchangeably to refer to file formats and encoding, and they’re not the same thing. When you see a Stems file, you’ll see a single MP4 container – think of a box that can have different stuff in it. Technically, we’re talking MPEG-4 layer 14, but what’s important about this is that any software or hardware that can read an MP4 file can read a Stems file, and play it just like a normal stereo track. That includes iTunes or a CDJ, for example.

As I wrote last week, Stems also uses ID3 for adding metadata. That means the track itself can have all the usual cover art and bpm information and so on, but also each individual stem can also be titled so you know what it is. On controllers with displays, this means a DJ/performer can see what they are, as well.

Saying something is a “container” doesn’t say how the file is encoded or what’s in it. Let’s look at that separately:

“Stems” includes five separate stereo tracks – four stems and one stereo mixdown. Remember, the idea is to have individual parts for your track. So “Stems” specifies four parts, each one stereo. (Note: stereo, not mono – this is 4 x 2 channels each.)

There is additionally a stereo mixdown – this is your normal stereo master, in other words. Let’s assume you’ve set up a track with a bass line, drums, synth lead, and vocals. You would bounce each of those to a separate stereo track, and additionally export the complete mix as you usually would.

Which you hear depends on what you’re using for playback. For software without Stems support, you’ll simply hear the stereo mixdown.

Software (and, possibly, hardware) with Stems support will mix the four parts together. The user will then have control over the level of the parts. That’s why the simplicity of four stereo tracks is necessary: DJ software can always count on Stems tracks to have the same four-part arrangement, and so can create a consistent interface. (I imagine some Stems-compatible software might also give a user a choice of whether to use the individual stems or ignore them.)

(CC-BY-SA) jf1234. That's Russia's DJ Artyom

(CC-BY-SA) jf1234. That’s Russia’s DJ Artyom

You’ll master your tracks as you always did – with some added work. Since there’s a separate stereo track, you’ll master Stems tracks for stereo the way you always have. And that will almost certainly involve some processing on the master bus (or the stereo mixdown file you’ve given to a mastering engineer).

For the individual parts, however, you’ll apply dynamics processing and the like individually. Obviously, you’ll want the mix of those parts to be in the dynamic range you want, with each also sounding good on its own. There was a lot of discussion of this, but it’s not a huge task; a mastering engineer ought to be able to handle it if you can’t yourself. That’s another reason to keep this to four tracks; the process is more manageable.

The default encoding is 256k VBR AAC. The encoding for Stems is the same audio compression as iTunes Plus: 256kbps variable bit rate AAC. The idea is to get high quality sound, with optimized file sizes.

Remember, you have five stereo tracks, not just one, so file size is important. (Variable bit rate means that you get that file size as small as possible without compromising quality.)

Frankly, I think 256k AAC is just fine for listening and DJing, even on club systems. That’s part of why I was critical of the claims made by the new Tidal streaming service – and as many of you found, it’s very, very hard to tell any difference. Given DJs want to carry large libraries with them, this format seems optimal for the situation.

Also, because each stem is encoded separately, NI pointed out to me that the difference should be even less noticeable than it would for just a stereo bounce (assuming mastering the stems has gone well). That makes some sense; it’ll actually be fun to play with these. (This week has left me with the overwhelming impression that we should schedule some blind listening tests. Hmm, Funktion One will have a room at Messe, I know…)

Lossless is an option. Stems allows for lossless in the spec. Now, having admitted that you probably can’t hear the difference in most listening use cases, I think this is useful for another reason – it means you could conceivably use Stems as a format for simple file interchange. In those cases, you might want the lossless format – not because you’ll be able to hear the difference, necessarily, but because you may want to retain full lossless content if a file will be fed through additional processing.

Let’s say you have a drum machine on the iPad. You could export a four-track, lossless project to work on further on your studio machine. It’s lossless, but it’s still smaller than an uncompressed PCM stream like WAV/AIFF – with exactly the same audio quality when played back. (That means it also takes up less space on your tablet.)

I’m saying this out loud as I hope some developers are listening.

Use cases:

First, let’s thing about how important simplicity is in the things we already do. How many times was the easiest way to share music simply to bounce to an AAC MP4, then upload to SoundCloud or WeTransfer or Dropbox? How many times was the best way to get a remix done of a new track just sharing four stereo stems? Or mastering with nothing other than a WAV bounce?

Keeping Stems to just four stereo tracks I think is key. It forces the producer of the track to think through what parts are essential, which are logical to group together. That’s relevant if you’re making Stems only for yourself. It also means you can have consistent hardware controller mappings or consistent software interfaces.

This opens up a number of interesting possible applications:

Creative DJing with stems. Yes, bad mash-ups are one use case. But the format also allows you take apart tracks more creatively. In genres like techno, I think that will allow the use of more tracks as “building blocks” – including with hybrid live sets. In fact, I hope this stops a somewhat disturbing trend of releasing techno tracks that already sound like stems. (Ugh.) This can also couple with features like Traktor’s Remix Decks, obviously, but why not in Serato or on a CDJ, too?

Use of recognizable hooks. Another DJ friend pointed this out to me, while I was musing about subtle drum machine combinations. Outside genres like techno and more generally in DJing, this will clearly be a way to delight crowds with some recognizable bits of popular tracks – if those tracks embrace Stems, anyway.

Mobile remix apps. As I wrote before, this also opens up some new possibilities for, say, a label app that lets listeners remix tracks on their own. It could even allow some clever, standard means of messing about with track stems in games.

Unique live solutions. I like the idea of this for more left-field possibilities, too. For instance, I’ve lately been building environments in Pure Data that let me remix and “DJ” from my own tracks alongside live elements. Now, one problem has been the absence of a consistent way of exporting… well, stems. So I can absolutely see this as being a mechanism of exporting from a production environment to the live environment, and taking that on mobile. (Custom Raspberry Pi performance hardware? Sure.) Obviously, these won’t be widespread applications, but they’ll be brilliant hackday fodder, and some of us will find ways of using them.

What’s next? Well, now we wait. I’m told command-line and graphical tools for producing the formats are coming, in advance of a site going up in June.

Naturally, CDM will cover this both from the end user perspective – for producers and DJs – and the developer side, as well.

If all goes to plan, it isn't just for this. (CC-BY) magnetismus.

If all goes to plan, it isn’t just for this. (CC-BY) magnetismus.

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Roland Seems Poised to Enter Analog Modular World


Analog is back. Boutique synth makers have entered Eurorack, one by one (Dave Smith, Tom Oberheim). KORG has remade analog hits of yore, and now produces hardware like the SQ-1 sequencer that interfaces with analog gear. Arturia, once known only as a plug-in vendor, has analog Control Voltage ins and outs on its new hardware gear.

Now, Roland seems next to climb on board the analog renaissance. The question is, just how far are they going to go? The answer should be coming in April at Musikmesse, and the first hint has just leaked out.

Just a few years ago, such a possibility would have seemed ludicrous – maybe even in the pre-AIRA world. Roland’s idea of legacy had to do with vague product name references and a full embrace of digital modeling as an improvement on the original. But then, AIRA happened, and it became clear that Roland was willing to create independent, new products. That led to the SBX-1 sync box, first seen by us at last year’s Musikmesse. At the time, I thought it indicated a new direction for the country. But I didn’t necessarily expect this.

I was hearing rumors on the street even last March when the SBX-1 appeared that the company was pondering an entry into modular – maybe even the increasingly-popular Eurorack format. They were certainly interested in the modular scene; Roland executives were seen buzzing around the ALEX4 booth and playing with this gear. (ALEX4 is run by Andreas Schneider of Schneidersladen; I shared that booth with MeeBlip and, full disclosure, ALEX4 is our European distributor.)

Now, there’s this: a picture clearly showing Eurorack modulars, Japanese-manufactured Reon modules, and… something with distinctive AIRA-shaded green knobs. That would seem to be material evidence that rumors of Roland gear with CV had come true. gets the scoop, and Moogulator already places his bets on what this is:


And that I imagine has many of you saying… wait, who’s Reon? You can be forgiven for not knowing this Japanese manufacturer of analog gear like the Drift Box; they’re known more in Japan than outside the country. (See, for instance, this product page in Japanese, which is always entertaining when Google Translated.)

I’m not convinced this is just a REON repackage, though that’s possible. However, it wouldn’t be unprecedented for Roland, as a Japanese company, to collaborate with someone in Japan. (See, for instance, the KORG collaboration with Xseed on its Nintendo DS outings.)

Here’s a look at the Reon Driftbox in English, from Perfect Circuit Audio. It’s a nice box, for sure, and might be a hint at what to expect:

My guess is… actually, I really don’t know. For a company like Roland, making an enclosure is no great effort. So it seems to me that it’s more likely this is a desktop unit with CV connectivity than a Eurorack per se. But I do think it’s very possible that this is analog hardware, and not just a digital modeling unit with some CV ins and outs. In fact, I’m fairly certain it’s not related to the JD Xi / Xa synths, which seem to have a sound architecture outside the AIRA line.

But given that the AIRA lineup cashed in on the growing interest in dance music, and given it already includes a CV-connected device, and given the success of KORG in the analog world, I think it’s absolutely possible that Roland is going analog with this.

Join CDM with our reporting from Musikmesse and we’ll find out together.

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Can Stems Finally Make Multi-channel Audio a Standard?

Native Instruments CTO and President Mate Galic introduces Stems at Miami's Winter Music Conference. Image courtesy Motormouth Media.

Native Instruments CTO and President Mate Galic introduces Stems at Miami’s Winter Music Conference. Image courtesy Motormouth Media.

The path forward is clear: there’s no reason in this age of digital producing and DJing that music needs to be stereo.

The need is there, but so far, not the solution. A file format announced in a press briefing at Miami’s Winter Music Conference and made public today wants to succeed where others failed.

It’s called Stems, and there are a few details that make it different.

It’s simple. “Stems” – the format – include four tracks. So that could be bass, drums, melody, vocal, for instance. (Or bagpipe, castrati chorus, tambourines, and banjo. But the point is, dividing things into four makes a lot of sense.) You can also choose the order, color, and add names to individual tracks.

It’s compatible and built on existing standards. A new file format? Good luck. (See xkcd #927.) But Stems uses an MP4 container format (that’s MP4 only, not MP3). Load your Stems file onto any software or hardware that supports MP4, and you’ll get stereo playback of the mix – including on the Pioneer CDJ. ID3 tags for the track work, too (for the overall mix). Load it into software that supports Stems – which we’re assuming will most likely be some sort of DJ software – and you can play back the individual parts. (And mix them, remix them, add effects, whatever.) It’s really just four MP4s.

It’s free for anyone to use. An official website coming in June will detail how to make the files. There will also be a free Stem Creator for anyone wanting to create their own files. And the file format will be not only detailed on the Stems website in full, but there are no licensing fees for creation, distribution, or use. (No, you don’t have to pay to get the specs, either – I’m looking at you, MIDI.) No word yet on how the Stems branding will work.

It’s backed by some key players. Native Instruments announced that Traktor Pro 2.7.4 or later already have Stems support. (See the public beta.) Beatport, Juno, and Traxsource all promise to sell Stems format starting in June. In Miami, DJ/producer Luciano and KCRW’s Music Director Jason Bentley joined a panel to introduce the idea. 16 labels have chimed in with support, too, including Mobilee, Monkeytown, 50Weapons, Get Physical, and InFiné. I suspect it’s really the labels and stores, combined with Traktor, that could kick-start this thing.

It’ll be easy to DJ with. Any group of four controller faders/encoders can be mapped to the different parts – the structure of NI’s own F1 and new D2 all map logically, and so will a lot of other things.

Now there’s a reason to use it – money. The Stems backers are pretty direct about their appeal: release Stems so you can charge more for your music. And while the pitch is for a “premium” price, the timing is also essential. With Beatport launching its own free streaming service, with listeners more likely to stream, and with DJ apps like djay even adding Spotify support, producers and labels need a format that they can still sell. Vinyl alone probably isn’t enough to keep them afloat.


Who’s it for? The main audience is clearly DJs: the idea is to convince producers to share stems in a standard format that makes it easier for DJs to think about playing with individual tracks and not only the mixdown. The Stems FAQ suggests even producers might want to use Stems to move their own music between their production software and a live set. That’s less of an issue if you’re DJing with Ableton Live, but certainly could be a boon if you use Traktor, Serato, and so on. I imagine this could also target consumer listeners – remix your artist’s favorite tracks. See NinjaTune’s NINJA JAMM for one take on this idea.

Can it be a standard? Now, it’s really technically a de facto standard, and a license free standard, not a standard or open standard in the technical sense – there’s no real governance that I can see on the “standard” side, and it’s “open” only in that it’s published and free to implement. But that could be enough, with the success of MIDI a prime example.

What’s the competition? Interestingly enough, even Wikipedia has an article on stem releases. The reason? There really aren’t that many such releases to begin with. Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails deserve some real credit, with, Year Zero (which also included GarageBand and Ableton Live formats), and Ghosts I–IV. Open licensing means you can remix the last of these and redistribute what you make; the stems in this case will mostly be for DJs to use when playing, but would have to be licensed to sample. And looking through that list, you see a confirmation of what you might suspect – most release stems in simple stereo formats, and just give you more files. It’s even possible to do this with iTunes, easier still with Bandcamp. But this isn’t a terribly common practice, and releases for specific DAWs have tended to be sporadic and typically focus on remix artists, not DJs.

And… is this a good idea? Actually, I was pondering this after writing this, especially after I saw Engadget wrote this:

“If you head to a dance music festival this summer and notice that one or two sets are particularly creative, you’ll know why.”

Well – wait a minute. What makes a creative set is not necessarily doing mash-ups of stems from different songs or cutting out the vocal. So let’s ponder this: it really will be up to both the artist releasing tracks, and the DJ using stems, to determine whether using stems is a good idea. I suppose the hope is that this gives creative DJs additional choices – even if (as you’ll see raised in comments) it might also make bad DJs worse. Then again, lots of things can make bad DJs worse – turning down their master volume may be the way to make them better. The key to making use of Stems may be making use of them selectively, as with any other special technique. DJing has done just fine with mixing stereo tracks since the beginning, often in two-channel configurations, even if product manufacturers increasingly push live remixing as a way of convincing you to buy new hardware and software. So, making use of Stems should be a means to an end. And tasteful DJs may find a way of using this that still shows some deference to the intent of the original track.

What next? It’s not hard to see why Native Instruments would support this, since the ability to mix beyond simple 2-channel stereo is part of Traktor’s market differentiation. At the same time, it’s encouraging to see NI back a reasonably open standard, and not just double down on their own proprietary Remix Sets and the like. (It’s also nice that this is simple – making Stems would be a lot more straightforward than authoring Remix Sets.)

But that also means we’ll need to see support beyond just Traktor for the format to really take off. We’ll see if other app developers get onboard, or decide this is just an “NI thing.” And hardware support would surely lag software. At least Traktor solves some of the chicken-and-egg problems of a format of this kind: it has a built-in audience of producers and DJs.

I’m not even sure what ideal DAW support should look like, since DAWs generally have an arbitrary number of tracks. But that means the Stem Creator has to work pretty well in the interim.

But I have to say, while I met the headline for the media announcement with a heavy dose of skepticism, the more I learn about Stems, the more optimistic I am. There’s clearly desire now for DJs to set themselves apart, particularly in the age of streaming and instant access, so the demand on that side is there. And there’s desire on the part of artists and labels, not least as they increasingly sell music to specialists and DJs. What might make Stems work even given past failures to solve this problem is that it’s actually easy as well as desirable to implement. And that may lead to a “built it and they will come effect” – because it’s both easy to do and easy to justify.

And it’s certainly a lot better than some new proprietary format — or the status quo of random a cappellas here and there or removing vocals with (gah) EQ.

We’ll be watching for this in June. Let us know if you have any questions. (I’ll meanwhile investigate more details of how implementation works on the creation and Traktor DJ side.)

The announcement event. Okay... so, it's hard to make a file format visual. But the future is so bright, Jason Bentley from KCRW is wearing shades.

The announcement event. Okay… so, it’s hard to make a file format visual. But the future is so bright, Jason Bentley from KCRW is wearing shades.

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How Does Novation’s Launchpad Pro Stack Up Against Ableton Push?


One of last month’s more predictable NAMM announcements was, at long last, an update to Novation’s Launchpad line that adds RGB color support and pressure sensitivity. But that means that it’s easier to compare the new Launchpad Pro with the spendier (but also more powerful) Ableton Push.

It’s been a few years since the original Launchpad first commercialized the “grid performance instrument” concept popularized by the monome. Since then, we’ve seen Novation’s LEDs get brighter and the body get slimmer, plus the welcome addition of class-compliant support (opening up iOS and Linux compatibility and driverless operation). But the Launchpad itself remained a pretty simple grid of buttons. How hard you hit those buttons doesn’t matter, and you don’t get color feedback that could assist in knowing which clips you’re looking at.

The Launchpad Pro focuses mainly on what the grid can do. Now, there’s velocity and pressure sensitivity, and RGB color feedback – just as on Ableton’s Push.

So, the obvious follow-up question: why would you buy a Launchpad Pro and not a Push? There are some obvious and not-so-obvious answers to that question. First, the obvious answers.


It’s cheaper. Yep, this is the big one: Push does more than the Launchpad does, but it costs more, too. The Launchpad Pro isn’t in the bargain basement with the rest of the Launchpads, but its US$299 street compares favorably to Push at $599 (assuming you missed out on Ableton’s recent holiday sale).

It’s lighter and more compact. The Launchpad frankly surprised me with its durability in the market, but I think that’s partly to do with its durability in people’s bags. It’s stupidly light and compact and you can toss it around without giving it a second thought. (I know monome users who kept their treasured wooden instrument safely at home in the studio and abused a Launchpad on the road instead.) The Launchpad Pro adds some bulk, but not much – and that beautiful metal case Ableton uses on Push means it’s also a bit more to shoulder in your carry-on.

But there are some less-obvious reasons, too.

The workflow is shallower, but also simpler. If you liked the original Launchpad, you’ll find the Launchpad Pro’s quick-access buttons familiar. But there’s more to it than that. Every time Ableton went fancier with Push, Novation went simpler. That means Push is deeper, but it also means the Launchpad Pro promises to be quicker – at least in some cases.

For instance, whereas Push’s drum modes split the grid into a step sequencer and triggers, Launchpad Pro just assumes what you really want is an 8×8 drum grid – nothing else. So, there’s less paging around for sounds, and less task switching to remember how the step sequencer works.

There’s also one-button access to volume – no switching to a mixing mode required, that is. Now, it’s not terribly precise: you tap buttons to adjust volume, since the Launchpad Pro lacks faders or encoders. But Novation (and others) can sell you a fader box; what you get here is quick access. In fact, the best way to describe the approach of the Launchpad Pro is flatness.

There are still modes – Session (for clip triggering and so on), Note (for playing instruments), Device (for effects), and the normal User mode. But by doing less, the Launchpad Pro also gives you less to learn.


It works with your MIDI gear and other software, without any effort. Now, this is the interesting one. Sure, Ableton Push is a class-compliant device and uses bi-directional MIDI to communicate. But it isn’t really set up to work with anything but Ableton Live. (The only exceptions so far have been elaborate templates created for other tools, like Bitwig Studio.) The Launchpad Pro, by contrast, is perfectly happy to work as a simple, pressure- and velocity-sensitive note controller with other software instruments.

It operates in standalone mode and with hardware. In a bigger departure, there are actual MIDI ports (via jack adapters) – that’s something missing on even the monome. So, the Launchpad Pro is an actual MIDI grid controller. (You can use an included power adapter.)

Finally, we get a grid controller that doesn’t require a PC around. The monome recently proved it could work in host mode with modulars, but being able to do this over MIDI DIN with no other hardware is an obvious edge.

Up until this last point, I didn’t really feel I needed a Launchpad Pro to review – but this changes it, so stay tuned.

I’m not necessarily endorsing the Launchpad Pro. There are still loads of reasons to get Push. Push is a beautifully built piece of hardware with a deep workflow. The display, the encoders, the ribbon controller – those are all things you might miss on the Novation, even if it is cheaper. Also, we have to see what Ableton does to follow up Push. (Push 2? Shove? Uh… whatever?) Please, Ableton – think about MIDI ports. Seriously. Especially with more gear adding minijacks.

But the Novation Launchpad Pro, while it might seem at first like a “poor man’s Push,” deserves a second look for its superior operation away from Ableton Live. I’ll see when I can get one from Novation and hook it up to some gear.

The post How Does Novation’s Launchpad Pro Stack Up Against Ableton Push? appeared first on Create Digital Music.