REVIEW: Ableton Push

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When Ableton was gearing up for the release of the long-awaited Live 9 update, the Berlin-based company made as much noise about their first hardware product as the software upgrade that enabled the use of that product. The hardware I’m speaking of, as most Ableton heads now know, is Push. (The software upgrade was reviewed in the November issue by my colleague Josh Harris.)

Photos of the Push along with its details rolled out at the same time as the initial announcement of Live 9, and I have to say, when I first saw it, I was hardly impressed. What, the world really needs another multi-button controller for Live’s Session View? Really?

Looks, however, can be deceiving. Ableton positions the Push as an instrument in its own right, and while it took me a bit of time to grasp that, being able to lay my hands on one for the first time recently gave me that famous “a-ha!” moment.

Of course, Push works as a controller. But while devices such as Akai Professional’s APC20 and APC40 are designed pretty much solely for working with Ableton’s Session View—triggering samples and the like—the Push goes off in another direction, by bringing additional control capabilities tailored specifically to Ableton Live, along with some out-of-the box thinking around both melodic and percussive music making. (While we’re talking about Akai Pro, it’s worth noting that Push is manufactured for Ableton by Akai, and clearly leverages the working relationship and experience that the companies already had in place.)

Taking the Push out of its box, I was struck by how robust and substantial a unit it is. It’s heavy, but not too heavy to tote around to gigs, or to set in the lap for a creative session. With a handsome blend of metal and plastic, it looks like it’s intended for a long life on the road. So how was it to use?

Set-Up & Use: Set-up of the Push was dirt-simple on my Mac-based studio set-up: connect USB cable, done. The Push will notify you on its built-in LED display that you must run Ableton Live to use the Push (unless you loaded it beforehand), and be aware that the new version (Live 9) is required. Once Ableton Live’s loaded, the Push comes alive, ready to use, with its back-lit translucent, rubberized pads lighting-up in various hues.

While there’s a lot you can do in terms of remote-controlling Ableton Live, the most fun came from merely messing around with the device, and taking Ableton’s cue to “think instrument.” By default, the big display showed the details of my Ableton Live library, paired perfectly to mirror Live 9’s new browser interface. I found a synth patch with an intriguing name, figured out which pads to press to load the patch, and in a second or two, the 64-pad array of buttons on the Push re-colored themselves with a pale pink in most cases, with the occasional button in blue. I quickly learned that the blue buttons represented the root note of the currently selected key. This is truly where the fun began.

05push-rear-viewtransparentWhile I’d like to think I have a fairly good foundational understanding of music theory, I’ll have to confess here that I don’t really fully “get” the relationship of semi-tones to tonal frequencies to steps to why my ear can know immediately when I hit a note outside of the scale of a key I’m working in. It’s just one of those things that simply works, so I don’t question it. I also have decided not to question why the Push works the way it does in its melodic mode. If you press three buttons in a triangle (picture three in a row, with the middle one moved upward a row), you get a basic triad. You can “walk” down three columns of buttons top to bottom and get an instant arpeggio that just works. In fact, it seemed like I could play around with geometric patterns of buttons presses, and never hit a sour note, or produce anything that didn’t have a musical quality to it. I’ll leave the theory to the engineers—it was, simply, fun—and way more fun than playing with a conventional MIDI keyboard where my trying to use my keyboard skills (even after a decade of piano lessons) always seems like an exercise in frustration.

Percussion is part of the mix, too. When you load a drum rack from the Ableton Live library, Push reconfigures itself automatically for its percussive mode. The top half of the pad grid turns into a step sequencer with selectable timing; the bottom half is divided into two, with the left 16 pads corresponding the drum rack triggers for manual drum sound playback—scrollable using the touch strip control on the Push—and the right 16 pads turn into loop length controls. This mode made it easy to think like an old-skool drum machine, or jam out some percussive ideas with my fingers as drum sticks for manipulation in Live.

Speaking of, perhaps obviously, you can record any of your melodic or percussive playing into Ableton Live, where it can be further manipulated or fine-tuned at will—just like any other type of MIDI controller (keyboard, drum pads, etc.).

The Push is not just an instrument, however; it functions equally well as a sophisticated Ableton Live controller. Through selections that can be made directly from the Push, you can easily change operating modes, allowing you full control over Ableton’s mixer (volume, pan, etc.), and you also easily enter Session View where—like most Ableton Live controllers on the market heretofore—you can trigger and control clip playback. The buttons on the left and right sides of the device contextually illuminate, and give easy, direct access to all the functionality offered by the combination of Push and Live.

As you have no doubt gathered in reading to this point, I’m pretty enamored of the new Ableton Push, and am seriously considering buying one myself for my home studio. However, my experience with the Push was not without its bumps—all but one of which were relatively minor.

One of my first impressions of the unit, after selecting a synth patch, was the uneven color hue and saturation of the pad backlighting. In melodic mode, the root notes are blue, while the rest of the pads are a light pink. It’s not clear if they were intended to be white, but pink they were, and each pad seemed to have a different shade or level of saturation, to the point I initially wondered if the difference was significant—do the dark fuchsia buttons do something different from the coral colored ones? (The answer, by the way, is no.) This quality detail seems like it could (and should) be addressed.

Speaking of backlighting, the control buttons on the sides of the Push are predominantly black, with only the typography on each button illuminated. Ableton chose to use a relatively thin, light-stroked version of the ever-popular Futura typeface—also used on its web site and throughout the company’s recently updated branding. However, the net effect is wanting; the text legends on the button tops are nearly impossible to read regardless of the ambient light levels. I appreciate brand continuity from an aesthetic viewpoint, but usability should trump aesthetics in my view.

These drawbacks were easily overlooked, however the third isn’t so much: For me, the Push presented some challenges when it came to obtaining consistent, accurate and predictable results when playing the pads on the device. While the Push does provide easily-accessible, user-adjustable settings for Pad Threshold and Velocity Curve, in my testing, I didn’t find that they had a huge impact on the results. While some settings worked better than others for me, I still had difficulty getting predictable velocity levels when playing. I suspect that this would get better with practice, and of course, velocity can always be edited easily in Live after recording, but it’s still a bit frustrating. (Truth be told, this same thing is true of most of these same pads I’ve used on MIDI controllers from multiple manufacturers over the years, and it’s unfortunate that the technology hasn’t improved any more along the way.)

Conclusions: While the Ableton Push has a couple of minor deficiencies in my view, my review unit was one of the first production models of a “Version 1.0” product, and I’m confident that it’ll get better over time, or as Ableton expands more widely into hardware products. But the minor negatives were almost completely overridden by the over-the-top, sheer fun factor that Push offers the Ableton Live user. I could (and did) lose myself for hours exploring my Ableton Live sound library—for which I found new appreciation—playing with various musical ideas and missing my bedtime more than once in the process.

Push represents some clear out-of-the-box thinking, something we could certainly use more of when it comes to products aimed at musicians. Given its price point (starting at $599 suggested retail), it might be a bit steep of an investment for some users, but still seems like it could (and should) find a place in the studios of virtually any hardcore Ableton Live user.

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