The big challenge for any sort of digital audio workstation control surface hardware like the Akai Professional APC40 MKII Ableton Live Controller is making the device capable of playing with everyone in the sandbox. The problem is that it’s a pretty big sandbox. Wouldn’t it be nice if hardware makers dedicated a single device to a single DAW? It’s not really practical, since, when you look at the major players you have Pro Tools, Sonar, Nuendo, Digital Performer, FL Studio and more. Then there’s your fringe software and fast-rising up and comers such as Bitwig. With that kind of fragmented market, one-controller-to-one-DAW just isn’t practical.
Or is it?
Ableton Live has never been a DAW software that has colored between the same lines as everyone else. From its earliest iterations, it’s been a product with performance on its mind as much as, and probably more than, studio recording. With the ability to trigger and manipulate loops and audio bits and pieces in real time, it captured the imagination of DJs and other electronic music creators, particularly those who aren’t adept at traditional instruments, but who still want in on the fun.
Due to this performance ability, Live sits in a strange place in the computer audio world. It’s not uncommon to see Live as a secondary DAW, whether as a composing tool or performance device. The fact is, Live has an approach that is really all its own. And building controllers for just Live operation is practical, because of its status as the number one second DAW in so many studios.
The APC40 MKII control surface from Akai is dedicated to Ableton Live. The company partnered with Ableton for that company’s first hardware device, the Push. While Akai and Ableton parted before the Push 2, it was amicable and Akai continues to support the Live platform with some capable and affordable products, free from the need to adapt to the generic.
Setup and Usability
The APC40 MKII is easy to get up and running. There are but two connections. The USB port connects with your computer running the Live DAW. An optional footswitch jack gives hands-free control over start/stop functions. There’s no power supply, since the device draws from the USB source.
Once connected, the user opens Live and selects the APC40 MKII control surface.That’s it, it’s ready to go. The APC40 MKII now has access to transport, channel strips, clips and so on. Both clips and scenes can be launched. I’m not the most astute Live user out there, but I couldn’t find a function that existed on the computer that couldn’t be controlled from the APC40 MKII. Because the device is made for and comes bundled with Live software, there are no idle controls on the the APC40 MKII and, apparently, no gaps in coverage within the software.
There are some user comments suggesting that the MKII is not as sturdy as the original release. I couldn’t confirm this prior to publication. With only the current device to go by, the construction seems reasonable particularly at the also reasonable price. Yes, the faders are on the weaker side, but these are sending MIDI messages. Expecting extreme road durability at this price point is asking a bit much.
The APC40 MKII doesn’t compare with Ableton’s Push 2 (Read that review here), but it’s nearly half the price, and the Push 2 has some serious performance pads with touch sensitivity. The 8-by-5 matrix on the APC40 MKII is a clip launcher, primarily, not a performance surface in the way of the Push 2.
Buttons are color coded for function and change as status or use changes. Each of the eight tracks on the device have both a linear fader and assignable control knob. There’s not much programmability in the APC40 MKII, but the control knob does have some flexibility when selecting user mode. You’ll need to go into Live’s MIDI mode to make these assignments. They can’t be set up from the APC40 MKII, but it’s not a big deal. Once they’re set, they’re set until you change them.
The APC40 MKII scored just over 4 out of 5 stars in user reviews. There seems support for the idea that the MKII isn’t as well built as the MKI, but for every complaint, there’s a corresponding kudo that the build is just fine, thanks.
Looking at the 5 star reviews, it sounds like the APC40 MKII is successful and well loved. Quick setup and addition of the color coding to the clip launch matrix. The Tap tempo button also got singled out with happy comments.
Though the APC40 MKII is designed and meant for Ableton Live, users report that it works with other software. This makes sense, since it’s a MIDI control-based device. FL Studio gets mentioned by name and an anonymous VJ program is also called out, but there’s no word on how compatible things are.
The low star reviews are mostly about the build with some venting due to unrealistic expectations.
Akai knows their stuff, as evidenced by the temporary partnership with Ableton for the first edition of the Push, which carried the Akai logo alongside Ableton. Live DAW software has probably more hardware controllers devoted to it than any other DAW. That probably means keeping a reasonable price point to compete.
There’s no question that, as control surfaces in general go, the APC40 MKII has a quick and seamless integration with Live, its only really supported DAW. However, since the MKII is MIDI-based, there may be some other compatibility out there, evidenced lightly by its own users. There’s no claims for this, and no real details about how well it will work. I suspect that someone with an understanding of MIDI could actually route a bit of sense into another DAW, but I didn’t have enough time with the unit to investigate this, so I can make no recommendation.
If you want a controller that makes Live dance, do tricks and impress your friends, though, this is a winner. One connection, some minor software selections and you’re on your way with a colorful and functional control surface.