I had the opportunity over the weekend to test drive the new Ableton Push, a hardware control surface with 64 velocity-sensitive, RGB-LED illuminated trigger pads, and a host of other controls and goodies.
First, let me give you a little background on myself as a Live user. I started using Ableton ten years ago, back when they were in Version 2. Even though I’ve been using the program for a long time, I don’t consider myself a “hardcore” Live user. I open Live to noodle around and have fun, and I use it as a general purpose DAW, to preform basic audio editing, scoring, etc. I don’t have a bunch of controllers, I don’t run custom Python scripts… I don’t even fiddle around with Max for Live.
I’ve used other controllers for Live in the past. I owned an APC40 back when they first came out, I borrowed a Launchpad for a short spell, and I’ve mapped controls on an assortment of various keyboard controllers through the years. With this in mind, I can honestly tell you that as far as deep and immediate integration with the program goes, the Push leaves everything else behind in the dust. The hardware is so deeply tied into the software that you really do forget about your computer completely. I would mess around with Push for 25 minutes, glance up and realize that I had created an elaborate Live Set without realizing it, and without touching the laptop’s trackpad or keyboard. This is perhaps the single greatest strength of the controller, it expands the definition of what Ableton Live is.
It’s wild. I went ten years without ever using a step sequencer in Ableton Live—to using them constantly with Push. The entire time I had Push, I was step sequencing. I would create elaborate beats, or a series of elaborate beats with Drum Racks and the step sequencer, and then I would turn to bass lines and melodies, and wish I had the capability to create those patterns with the step sequencer as well. The inability to step sequence with general instruments is perhaps the greatest downfall of the current version of Push. It’s such a potent and intuitive way to sequence that it should be more universally available.
There was an interesting article written by Paul Miller from The Verge, where he compared Photoshop to a city. Cities are built over long stretches of time. They can be vast and varied, and the people who pass through them all use them in different ways. Ableton Live used to be relatively simple, but over the years it’s been filled up with features and capabilities. It’s a bit like Photoshop now. Different people use it different ways, and very few tap into every corner of the application. To me, it seemed like the fundamental things that you do with Push are somewhat straightforward, while Live itself is pretty vast and varied. It almost seemed like there was tension between the two.
One thing that the Push does is take your old method of using Ableton Live and chuck it out the window. This controller has the potential to unify how Ableton is used, for the most part. There will always be overly complex tech heads who will instinctively turn the Push inside out when they use it, but the more casual user will likely start to fit into a specific mold of an Ableton workflow.
If one thing in Live is totally revolutionized with Push it’s this: starting a new, empty Live Set feels completely different with a Push controller in front of you. For one thing, you completely ignore the computer and the application’s GUI, and just start making music with your fingers and the responsive physical controls. If I end up buying a Push, this will likely be the reason why.
However, it’s exactly this act of loosely fiddling around with music software that makes me question if the Push is for me. I’m at a point in my life where my number one concern is output. No, not XLR or 1/4″ outputs, I’m talking about creating music and actually finishing it. My problem with Ableton Live in the past was that it always led me down interesting, unexpected musical pathways, but these explorations rarely led to finished music and actual songs.
The program isn’t to blame for this downfall, the problem is me, the operator. Push caused me to spend a lot of time auditioning presets, and to layer sounds and sequences that will all likely never result in songs and completed music. It was super fun to tinker with, and auditioning sounds with the grid of pads on the Push was more musical and interactive for me than using a conventional controller keyboard. I enjoyed the mode where you can’t play a bad note. Ableton basically took the Henrik Schwarz Max for Live patch Schwarzonator II, and applied it to the grid on the Push. However, at the end of the day, I was stil unconvinced that I’d produce more finished work with a Push than without.
Another interesting aspect of my test drive was how little attention I payed to Live 9. Usually, when I first try out a new version of Live, I take my time going through it, marveling at the design decisions and new features. I was so sucked into playing with the Push that I barely noticed anything about Live 9. It was like “Hey, the Browser looks weird… Whatever, Iemme lay down another beat with that 606”.
As I mentioned, I ended up preset surfing a lot with the Push, which brings me to another point: too many of the stock sounds are so fully sculpted, that you feel like you’re essentially playing someone else’s music. It starts to feel like an interactive Monolake album, moreso than an original music making system. This is a problem for me, because I love Monolake, and I love the glitched out, minimal techno sounds that Live produces so easily, however, this is not the kind of music I want to make. Again, big disclaimer here, this is an issue with me and my bad habits, not the program or the hardware. That said, those glorious RGB backlit pads do pair nicely with pretending that you set out to become an Electronia artist.
Among the instruments in Live that I used a lot with Push were the Drum Racks, which feature around ten different drum kits. There’s emulations of the Roland 606, 707, 808, etc., however, I often felt like I wanted more to choose from, which is kind of silly. Push made me desire having more and more options to choose from, when I really had far more than I ever needed.
Some people have been complaining that the trigger pads in Push have inconsistant color casts when the pad is backlit in white. This issue was evident in the unit that I was borrowing. I found it a little troublesome, but it wasn’t terrible. It wouldn’t keep me from buying a Push, that’s for sure. I’m a fan of imperfection. It brings balance. I found the touch sensitive knobs to be a little distracting at times. If you slightly brush the Tempo knob, it can throw you off a little bit. But again, it wasn’t a real problem.
All in all, the Ableton Push is a stunningly good controller. However, in my current station in life, I’m only interested in equipment that will help me stay focused, and the Push only encouraged me to noodle around. This opinion could easily change. I may order one next week. Who knows? Regardless, the designers and developers at Ableton should take pride in this product. It’s beautiful, intuitive, and an outstanding example of a tightly knit hardware and software system. It will change the way that many people approach music making, and it will likely encourage lots of electronic musicians to explore and embrace melody. It’s a pretty big deal.