IF IT’S NOT BROKE
I jumped with both feet onto the Controllerism bandwagon when the first APC40 was released. It kind of took me by surprise when AKAI announced its second coming with the MKII and I was intrigued to get my hands on one.
My first look was at the BPM show where I experienced Carl Rags’ virtuoso performance first hand. As you can see from the video it’s an impressive display of clip launching, but it didn’t really show off the new controller features which left me feeling, is it any better?
OUT WITH THE OLD
So the elephant in the room is did the original APC40 really need improving? Or would the success of the MKII rely on Gear Acquisition Syndrome?
Sitting looking at my original controller I really needed to answer why it’s not had any love for some time. Are the other controllers I’ve got better or did I just fall out of love with it?
Like any relationship, things started off fantastically. But after a while it was the tiny things that got magnified before I started seeing other newer more beautiful models.
The first niggle I had was the power supply. My other controllers just needed a USB cable plugged in to give their light shows. But the APC40 needed a brick of a power supply and was supplied with a pointlessly short lead. I’d often have to rearrange things in a booth just to get the power block close enough to plug into.
Secondly, it’s just too big and not just its footprint on a desk or in a bag. Everything sticks out, a lot. I’ve now lost three of the fader caps where they get stuck in bags (one fader is totally bent where it got caught rendering it useless) and I’m only left with one of the caps for the encoders.
Thirdly and most importantly, it stopped working. Not instantly but gradually over time. The faders would start by either not sending any data or worse sending ghost data. Flickerings that could happen at any time are not good. Imagine the track you were cueing that definitely didn’t fit had suddenly decided to jump into the mix at full volume?
So in a nutshell, the MKI looked old, didn’t work, was too big and as a result simply annoying. The Novation LaunchPad / LaunchControl XL combo was easier to travel with and the Ableton Push offered much more functionality. I’ve delayed this review as much as Mark would allow me to as I felt that an extended period of use would really give me the answers to whether it was not only a worthy successor to the original APC40 but was worth the money from my own pocket to give the review model a new home!
LESS IS MORE
First off for me was the feel of the APC40 MKII. In comparison to the Ableton Push, it’s not a beautiful thing covered in a soft touch rubberised material that would look as good on a coffee table as it would a DJ Booth. But then my Push has gathered dust at a rate scientists would be amazed at, and the APC40 MKII is still gleaming with its economy-like wipe clean surface. It’s nowhere near as heavy as the MKI, it lacks that tank-like feel, largely down to missing its predessecors metal faceplate and aluminium chassis. For its plastic casing however, the APC40 MKII has stood a far heavier battering in its first three months of life, and shows no bruises for it. Only time will tell if it’s robust enough long-term, but there’s been subtle improvements that make me think it’s worth putting my money on it outlasting the MKI.
In comparison, the button launch grid is much bigger. Gone are the small square buttons with acres of space between them (to prevent mis-hits presumably), and in their place are slimmer wider buttons with not much space between them at all. I’ve found that this translates better in performance, as I feel more confident that I’m “feeling” the right button to press every time. The tri-colour LEDs have been upgraded with RGB ones that mirror the colour of the clips in your Ableton Live set. The buttons are bright, but unlike the Push there is no way of adjusting brightness. These buttons have led me to a compulsive re-organisation of my live set so that I’m fully aware of what type of clip each button represents (loops in orange, acapellas in pink etc.)
The buttons have a pleasing push to them — you can feel when they are engaged without a click. But without velocity sensitivity they remain purely as clip launchers. You can extend the usage with Will J Marshalls Drum Sequencer — it’s free and a lot of fun!
One of the best improvements for me is that the stop clip buttons are now recessed into the controller. This means that you’ll have to decisively choose to push them and not have any mid set accidents (Dunstable Music Pavilion, Party in the Park 2012 in front of an audience that included my Mum and Dad).
With a wider spaced out button grid, the controller itself manages to come up just a touch slimmer than the outgoing model. It now fits in my DJ laptop bag (admittedly a 15″+ from UDG) rather than having to have a separate container. I take some confidence from the newly designed faders, which regardless of having the same height in plastic fader cap are recessed into the controller slightly, so they actually don’t stick out half as much to catch on anything. They don’t have a Pioneer style lock to them though so they can still be pulled off fairly easily. (Side note — Decksavers make a cover to protect your faders in your bag. Ed.)
For the new width of five tracks you’d have had all 8 tracks and the master in the old model, this newly spaced out design makes it feel much less cramped and ultimately compromised.
RETURN TO SENDER
Possibly the biggest design change, as so far I’ve been talking simply around some spacing and sizing, is the relocation of the track control encoders to directly above each set of track controls. This is possibly a masterstroke as it gives easy muscle memory to controlling the pan, or send control over the appropriate track. I’d never got on with these encoders before as I was always turning the send for track 5 when I meant to turn track one.
I’d become very fond of linking both the track and device control encoders vertically together in a DJ Mixer fashion and switching their functionality to give control over the first four tracks of the live ring focus box, this new method took a little getting used to. When I did embrace it, I started to find that I actually used my return tracks for once, and now charged with an armoury of Surreal Machines effects, they’re actually making a difference in my performances.
Switching between each send (Live allows 12, and the APC40 MKII can control the first 8) is as simple as pressing the sends button and changing the now lit up track select button. The encoders themselves retain the LED ring around them and will update based on the parameter they’re now controlling. Visually this is another reason not to look at the laptop.
There is a new mode for these track encoders as well, a one bank of eight user mappable encoders. I can only imagine why there weren’t eight banks of these like the sends is down to the limitations of running out of MIDI CCs that the unit can send before encroaching on other AKAI controllers.
YEAH YEAH YEAH, SO WHATS NEW?
On first look there’s nothing ground-breakingly amazing new feature wise in the APC40 MKII. I suppose as a manufacturer you’re limited to a certain respect to the software you’re developing for (APC stands for Ableton Performance Controller after all). And because of the price, you won’t find motorised faders and the previously mentioned velocity sensitive pads.
But spend some time with the APC40 MKII actually using it in a performance context, and you’ll learn that what has been added is sensible and worthwhile. Partly meeting previous users requests and additionally helping to avoid costly performance errors, it’s a triumph of good thought and new function.
In line with the latest version of Live, there’s a newly titled button to engage the recording of session automation. This comes at the cost of a dedicated stop transport button, which can be achieved by toggling the play button so no real loss. Akai Pro has made a wise move in moving the transport controls to the top of the controller (accident prevention feature), and added small LEDs to indicate the current state of each button.
The ring focus box can now move in a bank 1 track x 1 scene at a time motion, or a 8 x 5 one instead with the bank button selected. This is of course in addition to the session overview option for jumping to a particular set of 8 x 5 set of clips using the Shift button. Could the controller have been extended to an 8 x 8 grid? I think I would have preferred that due to my obsessive compulsive disorder around symmetry. If that’s what you crave then have a look at the APC MINI instead — it lacks other features such as the LED ringed encoders and session overview but it does a job for a reduced cost.
As the controller has been surpassed as an instrument (it was never really suited anyway), you’ll find the rarely used MIDI overdub button is now a much more useful device lock button, allowing you to anchor the device control encoders to a particular effect or rack, and navigate away from it being in focus yet retain control of it.
The shift button also uncovers some new additional functionality, in allowing you to change the global clip launch quantisation on the fly using the track select buttons. I find this can be useful if you’re dragging clips into the set from your browser, albeit something I try to avoid for fear of a spinning wheel.
Previously the trio of buttons track mute, solo/cue and rec arm are now joined with a crossfader assign button that allows you to switch each track between the left and right side of the crossfader (or switched off to bypass any crossfader control.) From an Ableton DJ perspective this makes a lot of sense, and is something I’d previously used MaxforLive to acheive.
The final new control feature is a dedicated tempo encoder. As one of only two true endless encoders (the cue level being the second), it can switch between coarse control, 1 click = 1 BPM change, and fine control 1 click = 0.1 BPM change by holding down the shift button. As I like to switch between styles and genres within a normal set, this is yet another useful addition negating the need for re-assigning the cue level control by MIDI mapping it directly.
Underneath the controller, it’s supported by a new control surface script in Live that uses the Push’s paradigm for those of you wanting even more functionality, and are willing to invest the time in hacking it with MaxforLive. This means a great deal less in complicated workarounds to achieve some of the simplest things, such as taking over an encoder. I’d thoroughly recommend it for someone wanting to begin their journey in controller modification, I’m just adding proper DJ hot cue controls to mine.
SO IS IT ENOUGH?
I’ve read other opinions bemoaning the lack of innovation with the APC40 MKII, the new plastic case and a general apathy around a missed opportunity.
I’d beg to differ, the original was good, flawed but good. The MKII update has taken each of my personal concerns and those of what I’d presume were the majority of users and addressed them either by adding new functionality or refining the control for previous ones.
I’m glad I waited a while before sitting down to write this as out of the box I liked the APC40 MKII but I wasn’t blown away by it. Over the last couple of months though I’ve come to appreciate the smallest improvements as touches of genius from a live performance perspective. My original APC40 has gone to controller heaven now and with its new younger sleeker more functional version sat next to me. I’ve no desire to spend money on getting it fixed, that money is going on the APC40 MKII.
I want it… AKAI send me the bill, you’re not having it back!!