Up to this point I’ve avoided writing much about midi controllers with Ableton. Don’t get me wrong, they can add a whole new world for live performance as well as producing but I hadn’t personally felt I had enough to say on the subject. You see, I don’t want to just jump on a hype bandwagon if I don’t actually have something important to contribute. My goal isn’t to turn you on to a bunch of extra gadgets for your studio, I want to help you actually make more music or perform more efficiently.
For the most part, the things that initially excite me about new midi gear don’t turn out to be incredibly practical. Â Most of the neat midi controller templates lend themselves better to pre-prepared performance set ups and less of a spontaneous environment. On some youtube videos I’m really impressed with some of the chopping and remixing effects i see people do on the fly, but then realize that you wouldn’t be able to do most of that live to say, 100 song choices to mix and match. Instead you would pretty much have to have your whole setlist ready to go and just have the ability to tweak from within that template. This can be great if you are performing your own productions and remixes, but not as great for more of a DJ style set.
Lately, I often find myself asking “Is this piece of gear really serving me, or does it just look cooler”?
I haven’t forgot the beauty of simplicity in DJ performance. I still am blown away by DJ’s with no more than 3 CDJ’s and a mixer. Of course we all want to push things to the next level, but amazing things can still be done without a setup that would confused a rocket scientist. I am not attempting to make one setup wrong and another one right, I am simply trying to share what works for me.
Thusfar these are the midi controllers I have used:
You can probably guess from that list that I really love the concept of the flexibility a midi controller can give you. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found that 1 piece of gear that works perfectly for my needs. Each piece of gear offers something special, but no single piece does it all. Most controllers are a bit too androgynous which can be a good thing when you want to re-invent it’s capabilities but not necessarily as straightforward as a DJ mixer. In many cases, I buy a piece of gear in order to do something a bit more outrageous and later realize it’s just not as practical in a live situation.
I was one of those guys who bought the APC40 the first day it came out and dove right into it. The plan was to be among the first to review how great it is on my blog but the longer I played with it, the more I felt hyping this controller wouldn’t have been authentic. I would simply have talked about how others use it when I hadn’t personally found an approach to using it that satisfied me. Everytime I used it in a live situation, I found the functions I wanted most were not at easy access. Â I guess I was hoping the APC40 would be as straightforward as Sasha’s Maven controller. I like that each channel has volume, EQ and 6 clip launching buttons.
I realize that I like one knob or button to have only 1 function. I don’t like having to scroll for the right menu before I can make a particular tweak or find that one song or loop in my set. In that same amount of time I often find I could have more easily just used my mouse or qwerty keyboard.
Another thing that bugs me is multiple clip grids on the APC40. It’s a fantastic concept and I still get a lot of use out of it, but when you are adding and removing songs and loops, it’s easy to get confused with what is what. Â I’m constantly checking to make sure I’m about to push the right clip.
With a standard DJ mixer you have less flexibility, but you always know where everything is. The faders will always be volume, the EQ’s will always be EQ. There is something comforting about that. Most controllers just aren’t sure exactly what they are. For example, the APC40 isn’t quite the perfect performance tool as it doesn’t have 3 EQ bands for each channel. It also isn’t quite the best studio controller as so much real estate is taken up with the clip pads which aren’t touch sensitive.
I know what you are thinking right now..”Well you can tweak it to do all sorts of things”! Of course you can if you want to learn a bit of programming and 3rd party software, but I’ve found, for myself, that the more software involved in a live situation, the more time it takes to set up and the more chances of your set not going smoothly.
iPhone/iPad as a controller
I love some of the aps for the iphone without a doubt. I particularly love Snatch, Mrmr, and Touch OSC . It feels very empowering to be able to control Ableton from your iPhone’s touchscreen however, after trying to work it into a live situation, I found it only satisfying as a gimmick. I can certainly see the iPad having many advantages to the iPhone versions but still question just how necessary it really is in a live situation. At the end of the day, for me personally, I prefer physical gear.
In a way, this realisation kinda bummed me out because I really liked the idea of the iPad replacing the need for physical gear. I also thought it looked cooler. I fought with this for a while and finally concluded that I got more enjoyment from physical gear that is set up in a simple fashion. Â It just took too long to set up all the software and have the time to test the wifi network and 3rd party software to be sure it would work perfect everytime. I will likely incorporate the iPad in the future, but not for my most important controls.
Another thing to consider is that I set up and tear down my studio every time I DJ. This means I am hooking and unhooking different controllers, sound cards, hardware and templates. This can confuse things quite a bit when both your live setup and studio setup are complex. This was never a problem when spinning vinyl or CD’s since there was no hardware/software setup process you had to dial in to get things working seamlessly. You simply plugged them into your DJ mixer and were ready to go. For this reason I don’t see myself abandoning my CDJ’s anytime soon. They have continued to be a lifesaver when my computer or controller glitches.
Don’t worry, I in no way plan to abandon Ableton or controller technology. I love technology! My goal is to use technology to have a balance between the most options possible and the most seamless performance experience.
Just because you can, does it mean you should?
For me, when I listen to my favorite DJ mixes, there isn’t a whole lot going on. Usually there are subtle hints of EQ, filters, chorus, delay, reverb and looping. A great mix doesn’t overuse any of these fx and doesn’t tend to scream “Hey look at me, I’m doing stuff”! I don’t know about you, but when I listen back to a Live DJ mix of mine at a small club, I give myself a headache with all the trickery I add to try to keep people interested. Â The real trick is to find the right audience who will appreciate what you do musically, then most of the overused gimmicks become unnecessary.
I wish you good luck in finding your own perfect balance for performing.
happy music making,
For those interested in DJ’ing and Performing live with Ableton, I’ve released my full DJ collection I’m sure you’ll get a lot out of.
Here is the Video List below:
1.DJ’ing live in the session window part 1
2.DJ’ing live in the session window part 2
3.DJ’ing live in the session window part 3
4.DJ’ing live in the session window part 4
5.Make a DJ mix in the Arrange window
6.Warping with Autowarp (version 7)
7.Warping the hard way (version 7)
8.Warping in Ableton 8
9.Warping songs with live drummers (version 8 )
11.Organizing files for DJ’ing
12.Launching Clips without a mouse
14.Setting up controller Knobs and keys
15.Preparing your productions for Live performance
16.Syncing Ableton on 2 computers
Also included is my Ebook:
Mixing with your Mind – How to make your Best DJ Mix
(This Ebook goes where other DJ related books don’t. This concentrates on ways to use your brain for the fastest, most creative and most enjoyable results!)
Get it here now! http://tinyurl.com/24oqo6u
With that said, if you are benefiting from these posts, you will absolutely love my 2 bestselling books:
The Mental Game of Music Production
The Process for Electronic Music Producers
You can also Check out the: Ableton Courses & Instruments
If you are looking for personal guidance with your music production or Ableton, you can set up a free chat with me to go over exactly what your best next steps are to create the best music of your life. If it seems like a good fit, we can move forward from there. https://musicsoftwaretraining.com/private-coaching
Happy music making!
What midi controller do you use when you are DJing live w/ ableton then?
Thanks for up-dated. Always helpful J. I use a hercules dj console . Any suggestion?
You are right, I am constantly having to check twice with the apc40 to see if I’am pressing the right knob for what Im trying to do. I find myself using the mouse more often than not, while the apc40 collects dust.
what do you think abt push midi controller? I recently got shove (push emulator)
I think it’s an awsome midi controller and easy to use quite a creative tool too.
Using the emulator makes me want the real hardware for the knobs and touch
sensitive pads and like you I have had many Controllers in the past. I was just
amazed of what is essentially a few pads/buttons and knobs what was achieved
through midi and midi scripting. I am not a programmer so don’t find it easy to make
my own midi/osc controller templates but I’m drawn towards learning some midi scripting and
Max for live so Im better placed to weave my controllers better into ableton
I think advanced scripting for me is the way fwd. obviously time spent learning scripting would
have been time that I would normally use for production so production will suffer but it should benefit
in the end if I can learn these skills.
I resonate with this post a lot. Apc’s buttons grid is awfully uniform, almost sterile, and i found the possibilities more overwhelming rather than liberating. I like predictable, intuitive, meat and potatoes type of controllers.