I distinctly remember thinking, nearly ten years ago, that someone really ought to make a dedicated controller for Ableton Live. This was back in the days of Live 4, years before grid-based controllers became commonplace. Producers made do with the limitations of controllers like the Evolution UC33, triggering scenes or clips from a handful of tracks. Things got much better with the new generation of devices like the Akai APC40 and Novation Launchpad, which integrated closely with Ableton's Python scripting engine to let users navigate and control large sessions like never before. Yet even with this enhanced level of control, they were still some distance from my ideal Live controller.
Imagine my excitement, then, when Ableton revealed their new controller (produced in collaboration with Akai) called Push. The first thing that I noticed when I went to make room for Push in my studio was the size. At 14.5-by-11.54 inches it's larger than I expected after seeing pictures. And at 6.6 pounds, it's a bit heavier than your average MIDI controller. When I got it in my hands, though, it was clear that the size is just right, and the weight is due to the high-quality construction. The rubber-coated metal chassis should reassure anyone looking to take Push out on tour. LED backlighting provides labeling when the unit is turned on. So when it's off, Push is a strikingly attractive (in a minimalist sense) piece of gear.
When you turn Push on and connect it to a computer, the large LCD screen beckons you to "Please start Live to play," after which you'll see the 8-by-8 pad grid come to life. (No extra drivers are needed.) By default, Push starts in Note mode, and the clip grid will generate MIDI notes to the selected track. This is where I noticed Push's first physical flaw. The multi-color LEDs vary greatly when displaying some colors. It is most noticeable for white—on my unit, the pads range from pink to green when they should be white. Spread throughout the grid, this can be distracting. It's not a deal-breaker, however, and an FAQ and forum post suggests Ableton is aware of the problem.
Note mode is one of the two main modes for Push's pad grid, and when active it converts the pressure-sensitive pads into a unique MIDI instrument. If you're controlling a VST or any of Live's own instruments, you get a matrix of notes in C major by default. Each row is separated along the musical scale by a fourth, enabling you to play three-finger chords like a guitar. The note layout can be tweaked pretty easily: you change the key or the row offset by pressing the "scales" button, and you can turn off the in-key layout altogether if you want access to all notes possible. Having this always-in-tune grid of notes is very useful, especially for producers who may not have the keyboard chops to navigate multiple key signatures. Unfortunately, any customizations to the default key settings aren't saved with a session, so they have to be redone each time you open Live.
If you select a MIDI track that has a Drum Rack instrument in it, Note mode takes on a whole new personality: the pad grid divides into three sections, with the top four rows dedicated to step-sequencing. (32 steps are available at the current grid resolution in Live.) The bottom-left 4-by-4 section of Push's grid becomes an MPC-style drum pad section for recording patterns (or select single hits for sequencing), and the bottom-right section allows you to control which section of the current clip you're looping. These unique ways of playing notes are quite nice, and they're enhanced further by Push's advanced functions. Buttons let you duplicate/double clips or notes, undo/redo actions and quantize selected notes, all of which are invaluable. In fact, my only wish would be to use the Drum Rack sequencer to control VSTs like NI Battery.
The second mode, called Session, is used to launch and control clips in a Live session. Here, Push functions much like the Ableton-centric controllers that preceded it, with a few very helpful additions. The pads' LEDs light up to match the color of the clips themselves, and clips currently playing or recording pulse from green to white or red to white, respectively. The delete/duplicate/new/undo buttons work on clips in Session mode, too, meaning you can accomplish much without having to look at your computer. If your session grows large, Push provides a very useful overview when holding the shift button. Each pad represents an 8-by-8 block of cells in Live, and navigating to that block is as simple as pressing the pad. A large LCD display above the grid features eight encoders and 16 smaller backlit buttons accompanying it. The screen displays quite a range of information depending on what's currently on the controller. When mixing, it shows values for the volume, pan and sends of eight tracks at a time, and the smaller buttons below serve to select, record-enable, stop and mute/solo tracks.
You can also control device parameters, and the implementation here is pretty deep. Ableton's native devices have the most important parameters shown by default, but you can drill down into the detail pages of each device to fine-tune further. Devices within racks are even accessible, as chains can be navigated with ease. Device control and note mode are tied together so that you can only play notes on the same track as the device you're controlling, and vice versa. It would be nice to have the option to lock Push's controls to a certain device, but that's technically feasible already with Max For Live devices like Sixteen Macros.
It's probably clear by now that there are things that I'd change about Push. The LED color issue detracts from what is otherwise impeccably manufactured gear. On the functionality side, the good news is that all of the gaps can and most likely will be bridged in the near future. If Ableton isn't up to the task, the army of MfL users will do it for them. There are already development efforts underway to open bi-directional communication between Max and Push, and that area will only continue to grow. It's a refreshing change of pace from the way things usually work, where users are dependent on rare firmware updates for enhancements. Even as it stands, Push is an excellent choice for any producer who uses Live 9 and wants a well-made controller with the tightest integration available.