Foreword from The Editor
I’d like to introduce Darren E Cowley as the newest member of the growing DJWORX team. Darren owns and runs Isotonik Studios, a leading creator of Max For Live devices for Ableton Live. And as an acknowledged leader in this field, his skills and products are in high demand within the industry. We’re very honoured to now count him among our flock and have the extensive knowledge and reputation he brings with him in the team.
Reloop has been carving itself a niche in the DJ market for some time. Any visitor to the BPM show over the last few years will have encountered the Reloop stand dominating the front entrance. A quick search on this very website shows up some of their innovative products such as the RP-8000 MIDI turntable, as well as the quirky ones like Tape Audio Recorder. Most of their products though are heavily swayed towards the DJ. So it came as a surprise to some when they announced the Keypad and Keyfader Controllers, which are aimed squarely at producers and music creation.
As a DJ friend of mine bemoaned a few years back, “I just can’t get a booking without having had a track out first”. The marketplace to get yourself seen, heard, and known is as competitive as ever. It’s here in the DJ-cum-producer arena that Reloop see an emerging market, and has launched their two new controllers to support Ableton Live, a product that has more than a million users around the world.
Each Keypad comes with a copy of Ableton Live Intro, a slightly limited version of Live which is enough to get you going (and hooked) before you decide you’ve either not got a musical bone in your body and the desire to upgrade becomes too much.
So is there room for another entry level MIDI Controller, and will it have any cross-functional appeal to the DJ market as well?
I missed out on the unboxing as Mark had already had his wicked way with the unit under the hot lights of the studio. He’d also forgotten to let me have the MIDI cable that came with it! (apologies – so many USB cable lying around – Ed).
The Reloop Keypad’s layout is straight-forward and packs a lot into a small unit. It’s arranged in three parts, with the top third allowing track and clip control, the middle section assigned to the drum pads, and the bottom of the unit dedicated to the velocity sensitive keyboard.
If you took the three Nano controllers for Korg and stuck them together you’d be looking at pretty much the same kind of unit, thus I kept thinking back to these popular budget controllers as a comparison. The price is comparable between the three Korg units to one Reloop Keypad, so it’s just user preference.
The size of the unit is the first thing that really appealed to me, as I could easily fit it into a record bag, and power it with one USB cable. USB ports are always at a premium, and dragging a powered USB hub around the country with me has put me off other controllers in the past. There are a few LEDs on this unit (albeit not as many as a Launchpad) and they shine bright enough to be usable even in daylight.
If you were hoping for a long description of the various options for the ins and outs of the unit you’ll be disappointed — it’s via USB and that’s it. This is really pared down to the bone to compete in the marketplace, and as such you can forget about hooking it up via a MIDI cable or adding foot-switches etc.
Given the depth of the Reloop Keypad however I was disappointed that there wasn’t a more robust USB connection, or a way of securing the cable to the controller. All too often I’d be playing away and getting no response as the unit had effectively disconnected due to a flimsy USB socket.
The track and clip section is divided into eight columns. Each column offers an endless encoder paired with two more lightweight plastic encoders. Spaced closely together, you could brush one easily with clumsy fingers. However in my testing the encoders felt tight, and would only respond to a genuine turn even after I’d worn the unit in a bit, so I’m hoping these will stand the test of time.
Having the row of endless encoders at the top is a genuine advantage, as this is something you’ll find missing on most controllers. Being able to switch between which parameters you are controlling without having to worry about the encoder being out of sync saves from embarrassing surprises when you turn a dial!
Using the scene button and corresponding 1 or 2 LED you can control the first or second group of eight tracks within Ableton. No more than that is possible with the standard mapping, so if you want to get all Abbey Road then this probably isn’t the controller for you.
Three LED backed buttons and a fader complete each track control strip. The buttons have that familiar “rubberised but a little too small for their housing so wobble around when pressed” feeling, so you wouldn’t use these to hammer out beats (that’s what the drum pads are for). But they do the job they’re intended for, and with bi-directional feedback from the host DAW they update themselves intelligently. With this and the two extra encoders, the equivalent NanoKontrol is left in the dust. 1-0 to Reloop.
I’ve struggled using the pads on the Ableton Push as they’re a bit too small and close together. The drum pads of the Reloop Keypad however are well spaced out and large enough for my uncoordinated fingers. They respond well to the touch, and light up blue (sorry Dan) around the edges when struck. The pads feel sturdy enough for bit of a bashing, and are velocity sensitive too, something that can be turned on or off directly from the unit. They also have a further option for switching the pad output from MIDI Notes to MIDI CCs, which is very useful to the Ableton performer allowing mapping to effect parameters and the like as well as being a performance tool.
The final part of the trilogy in this Swiss Army knife of a controller is the keyboard. Don’t expect a fully weighted Steinway experience — think more upper class toy piano and you won’t go far wrong. As with the drum pads these are velocity sensitive and with octave up and down buttons can give the 25 keys on offer the full range of playing capability. There’s additional functionality available for the keys which is clearly marked on the unit above each individual key. I’ll cover the arpeggiator and chord functions later.
Many of the controllers I’ve used over the years have suffered greatly from travelling. The Reloop Keypad has an advantage as nothing really sticks out from it to get knocked off. Yes the faders and encoders are undeniably plastic and feel cheap to the touch, but they do feel sturdy enough. One of the great advantages of this unit is that it packs a lot into a small space so you can take it on the road.
Plugging in the Keypad brings a comforting but short light display of the flashing of the drum pads (Reloop likes this… Ed), a short delay and then the lighting of the track number pads to indicate the tracks available to control in Ableton Live.
As with all new devices I left the instructions, a quick start guide of three pages of A4, in the box and started pressing buttons.
My background is first and foremost as a DJ. I use Ableton Live mainly for DJing and my Max4live projects, so I’ve not produced a beat in anger or otherwise since I bought the program when it was on version 5. My first step was to open and configure some form of Ableton template to get the most out of the device. Selecting the unit as one of the six available remote surfaces available was simple enough, and meant much of the mapping was done for me.
I decided not to complicate things based on the marketed appeal to provide the beginner with an all-in-one solution that shouldn’t take a month to master. As the Keypad has eight track strips it made sense to start with this principle as a base and work up from there. With a drum rack in the first track, bass and two leads over half of my controls were taken up already.
The first thing that struck me when I plugged the controller in, having been used to Ableton Live integrated controllers like the Launchpad and APC series, was that there was no clip Launch rectangle. Commonly know as the Red Box, this gives the user an on-screen visual guide on what’s in control. Now I understand that this controller isn’t arranged as a grid, but I would’ve thought that most users would like the ability to scroll across tracks and not just bank between the first and second eight. According to the Reloop forum this is a feature request that has been noted and filed for future reference.
After five minutes of staring at the Reloop Keypad to understand the screen printed shift functionality for various buttons, I was ready to have a play. Five minutes after that I was looking at the Quick Start guide, then the full manual… and shortly later watching each of the tutorial videos in turn. This is not as simple a controller as you first imagined, nor for me on my first tests one that was very intuitive.
One video in and I learned that to control 16 tracks, I had to use the SHIFT / SCENE button to switch to SCENE 2 to control tracks 9 through to 16. As a scene in Live is something completely different, this was misleading. A simple change to the labelling of the 1 and 2 LEDs to show tracks 1-8 and 9-16 would have saved me some effort.
Out of the box the top endless encoder is mapped automatically to the pan of the corresponding track. The other encoders are mapped to send A and B (which is the maximum number allowed in Live Lite appropriately).
The track select buttons focus the view in Ableton Live vertically so you can see the instrument or clip view for each track. With SHIFT and the Octave buttons, you can also scroll between the scenes arranged horizontally. The SHIFT functionality of each button is essential to learn to get the most out of this unit, as with it you can launch and stop clips with the track and solo buttons in addition to their standard functionality.
Quickly moving between tracks and arming them with the third track button allows the playing of the drum pads and keyboard to be sent to the instrument that resides in the track. I was quickly able to drum out a simple beat into a clip and move onto add a baseline much as the Reloop demo video showed.
For the keyboard there’s an on-board arpeggiator which is incredibly easy to use. Add in the chord mode though and even I managed to make the kids smile for an all too brief moment.
The SHIFT functionality is essential in using both the chord and arpeggiator, as such its purpose is clearly labelled above each of the keys. In practise, I felt that the physical feedback from the SHIFT button was lacking to me as I’d often press it, believe it was engaged, press a key to change a setting…. and find that I’d played a note when there should have been silence, certainly not ideal in a live situation and more than a nuisance in the studio.
The arpeggiator doesn’t offer the advanced options of products like the Novation range of keyboards, which utilise the drum pads to turn steps on and off. But it’s simple and fun to create a quick melody. The chord feature has similarly limited options — more advanced users of Ableton will find the on-board MIDI devices of more appeal. So I began to think of this controller as a plug and play affair that you can use to sketch out ideas with.
The stars of the show for me are the drum pads. They instantly map to Ableton’s Impulse instrument and of course the Drum Rack. As mentioned before, they are large enough to hit and well spaced out enough to hit the right one. They seem sensitive enough to me, with the full velocity achieved without requiring you to bruise finger tips. For example, when you want to play the kick drum at full velocity, a quick press of the velocity button switches the pads to send out the full 127 value – switch it back to have expressive control over your high hats.
I’ve got used to the Akai Push methodology of being able to see the beats you’ve laid down in illuminated pads, and being able to edit them from the controller itself. No such benefits exist here, so you either get it right first time or you keep trying. I never get it right first time — I can’t even pull off a special move combo in FIFA so my chances of becoming a finger drumming expert overnight are distant.
The keyboard and drum pads can only send data to one track at a time, so you can’t rock out a baseline whilst laying down the Amen Break simultaneously. Not sure how many people would see this as a massive problem but worth mentioning nonetheless.
Jared has probably forgotten more about MIDI than I’ll ever learn. I’ll get frustrated quickly with MIDI mapping often and vanish down a max4live wormhole to solve problems instead. As an entry level controller though I believe that users will want to be able to configure elements of the mapping to their own vision of use.
The endless encoders raised my hopes for this to have even more functionality as a DJ controller. Having eight of them falls in line with Ableton Live’s thinking behind effect racks. Automatically mapped to pan for the first 16 tracks, there’s no parameter control available from these encoders without MIDI mapping them. Pan is something I rarely use so my first task was to find out how modifiable the controller is.
Given the two scenes (Reloop’s language) that the controller can be set to map to, you get up to four separate MIDI messages out of the same endless encoder. Press and hold SHIFT to access two and then switch between scenes and this is doubled to four different messages, making what appears to be an extremely configurable controller. That’s where it ends though, the double potentiometers below (which aren’t of the endless variety) and volume faders don’t have a SHIFT functionality so become limited in use to only having two mappings available.
The Track Select buttons always works as a toggle button. Whilst the solo and arm buttons are momentary, both offer SHIFT functionality and have bi-directional LED feedback. So any changes made in Live directly with the mouse or indeed automation, and you’ll find the controller reflects the current state of the mapped parameter. Mapping any of these buttons to different tasks, in line with all other controllers that use a remote script, will lose the standard functionality. So you may want to think twice about doing so as the actual experience of trying to expressively play with effects on spongy buttons that feel a little too low in their sockets isn’t a wholly warming experience.
One of the promised highlights of these pads for me was when I started mapping them to effects within Live. A big drawback of most controllers in my opinion is the difficulty of switching them from sending notes (which work as toggles) and MIDI CCs (which work as momentary controls). The Keypad has a button labelled CC, which according to the instructions switches the pads from sending between the two formats on the fly without having to enter any complicated editor software, which of course isn’t viable in a live performance.
My unit appeared defective though, as in CC mode a press of a pad might turn an effect on, or maybe off or maybe just do nothing. Live certainly didn’t react when I released the pad as I believed it should ,and the results from hitting a pad were seemingly random. Sometimes an effect would switch on and off, other times just on and then repeated hits would see it remain on. The bidirectional feedback enjoyed by the inferior buttons is missing as well.
By this point of my experience of the Reloop Keypad you can tell I’ve all but given up trying to make it into the ultimate DJ controller and have just reverted to playing melodies and recording beats.
You could come up with a fairly creative mapping, but I feel there would always be compromises. Personally my first step would be to hack the Python remote script and repurpose those endless encoders to automatically map to the currently selected device, allowing me realtime control over parameters whilst I was playing.
The Reloop Keypad takes me back to my years as a Korg fanboy and to my first MIDI controller the Korg PadKontrol. Add in a Nanokontrol and the keyboard from the MicroKontrol and it’s basically what I’m playing with here. The overall impression is a good one — the pads are decent and the keys feel OK , but it’s let down somewhat by the faders, buttons and encoders which feel cheap. And there’s an overall feeling that the advanced user wouldn’t have enough options available through MIDI mapping to use them fully.
Given things have moved on considerably since I bought my first controller, it would be remiss to mention competitive products. I popped into my local hardware shop to get my hands on a couple to filter through the considerable range on offer, and found two worthy candidates challenging in both price and portability. You could spend a little less and go for the Novation Launchkey 25 which gives you larger keys but smaller drum pads, or spend a little more and bulk up to the AKAI Pro MPK25 which gives you both the larger keys and drum pads. Neither offer the full track control functionality of the Reloop Keypad, but as you can only play into one track at a time I wouldn’t see this as much of a disadvantage.
If Reloop invested in advancing the remote surface that’s been provided, then it would become pretty awesome as a portable DJ controller as well. All of that said, this isn’t promoted as an advanced MIDI controller — it’s firmly marketed in beginner territory and for that it’s superb. I for one would’ve loved this as my first controller.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Reloop Keypad packs a lot of features into a compact and decent quality controller at a reasonable price point. The inclusion of Ableton Live Lite could be enough to prove to many whether the DJ in us all can become a producer.
A SECOND LESS TECHNICAL OPINION
From Mark Settle
I hold my hands up — my knowledge of Ableton Live is limited to the point of deferring to others when writing pieces. While having rather more old school production experience, making music in the digital world is an entirely different affair to multi tracking 303s and drum machines into a Tascam. So unlike Darren’s exhaustive technical review (which comes to much the same opinion as me though), I approached the Keypad from the point of view of the target audience — those moving from DJing to the next required stage of making their own tracks.
The Keypad offers all the prerequisite features for playing notes, tapping out beats, and organising this all in Live. The inclusion of Live Lite is a winner, and indeed using the Keypad with Live is a doddle, as the default layout is very similar to Live too. So right away, the link between them is strong, and immediately plug and play too.
I love that it’s lightweight and a much smaller sum of its constituent parts, which in turn makes it very cost effective as well. For me, the Reloop Keypad is the ideal gateway product between DJing and producing and can be used for both. And if you’re of a mind to dabble before full-on committing to a larger and more expensive setup, the Reloop Keypad is the ideal product.