If We Build It, They Will Come

There’s one Novation product that we can say with confidence has become a total staple in the music making community: Launchpad.

There’s one Novation product that we can say with confidence has become a total staple in the music making community: Launchpad.

That’s a bold claim, we know, and we tend not to get too braggy. But of all the gear we’ve made, it’s the one thing that seemingly everyone’s seen on their musical travels. Maybe at live events, nestled in a studio control room, or in one of the countless lightshow performance videos on YouTube. Its immersion into the music scene has made it part of popular culture. For non-musical types, it was perhaps the first mainstream ‘flashing LED grid’ that they came across. But for those hip to the clip-launching paradigm, Launchpad’s flexibility, adaptable nature and ease of use made it the synonymous Ableton Live controller. As Sound On Sound Magazine stated in their 2009 review, it’s the “pleasingly idiosyncratic way to get hands‑on with Live”.

But how and why did it come to life?

To tell this story, we need to go back to 2009: the year the first Launchpad was released. Dubstep was transitioning from the underground and beginning to influence the commercial mainstream. Radios across the UK blasted Skream’s remix of ‘In for the Kill’ by La Roux. A pop-dance crossover was in full effect. Swedish House Mafia, Deadmau5 and David Guetta dominated the charts, and Justice introduced their stadium rock aesthetic into the electronic dance music world, signalling the beginnings of what would become known as EDM.

Music producers — whether in the bedroom or in front of an SSL — were turning to touchable hands-on instruments to create music, but the main workhorse was the computer, coupled with a DAW. The iPad didn’t exist yet. The MPC was powerful but dated. Korg’s Kaoss Pad was en vogue. Digital one-woman-band Victoria Hesketh (aka Little Boots) wrote ‘Stuck On Repeat’ using a Yamaha Tenori-On.

Little Boots performs with her Tenori-On in February 2009. Photo: Discoscience, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the US, the beats scene was developing as hip hop and electronica collided. Daddy Kev’s burgeoning LA club night ‘Low End Theory’ provided an output for many experimental artists, such as Flying Lotus, Nosaj Thing and The Gaslamp Killer. Long time veteran of LA’s alternative-electronic world Daedelus was dazzling crowds with his frenetic performances using the Monome.

The self-styled ‘controllerism’ movement sprung up in New York and San Francisco, spearheaded by artists like Moldover. He and his cohort circuit-bent and hacked together custom creations to design their own, 21st-century instruments.

Post-MPC, devices like the Tenori-On and Monome had introduced the concept of a responsive grid of backlit buttons that could be programmed to behave and react in a variety of different ways. The Tenori-On, for example, had step-sequencer modes on its 16x16 grid that modeled physical processes including a bouncing ball, which lead to the creation of interesting and unpredictable polyrhythms. A random mode allowed for non-repetitive machine sequences, breaking away from the four-to-the-floor mentality of grooveboxes past. Monome could be programmed as a step sequencer, a sample triggerer, and many other things, but it required some specialist expertise to make it talk nicely to software, as did the custom arcade-style gizmos made by the controllerists.

Moldover’s heavily modified Remote SL controller: ‘Frankentroller’.

Simultaneously, Ableton Live — on version 8 at the time — was changing the way that musicians create and compose music using a computer. Gone were the days of working in a linear left-to-right timeline. Musical elements were now available as modular elements, granulating musical ideas into infinite combinations of creative expression. This paradigm was manifested in its most simple form in Ableton Live’s Session view, where a grid of clips could hold different samples, loops or even entire tracks, each with a unique launch behaviour and envelope characteristic. MIDI clips could hold everything from note and automation information to program change messages, to keep a studio full of external hardware in step. As the ‘Ableton way’ grew more popular, so did the desire for different and more useful hardware to take full control of it, which didn’t require a deep knowledge of coding to implement. Ableton Live had broken the mould by allowing musicians to think differently using technology, but users still wanted to express themselves in a tactile way.

Existing options for control all involved an annoyingly deep amount of manual parameter assignments and hardware-to-software pairing. Members of the controllerist communities were quite happy to do this, as they revelled in the almost infinite options on the table with the various tools available. But there were others who just wanted to ‘play’ Ableton. The challenge was that Ableton was so functionally diverse that there was (and still is) no singular workflow. So any companion tool to Ableton had to adhere to several conventions, but be totally flexible at the same time.

At the time, Novation was the UK distributor for Ableton, so we had tight inter-company ties. But the two companies were closer than that: we were friends. Staff members from each company had studied and progressed through the industry together. We had a collaborative bond, and we started to design a hardware partner to Live that would compliment the various ways it worked.

Even in 2009, the controller landscape was dominated by ‘dumb’ MIDI controllers (including, admittedly, some of ours). The main thing that made existing controllers uninspiring was the lack of LED feedback. Although you could use pads on a MIDI controller, such as a Remote Zero SL, to control Session mode, and even point it towards a grid of clips in Ableton, there was no way to know what status your pad was in without close scrutiny of the screen. Launchpad emerged out of simple necessity.

Launchpad: the simple explanation

You can think of Launchpad a bit like a video game controller — it needs to be connected to a computer running software to be used to its full potential. It doesn’t have any in-built sounds or the ability to internally store user information. It communicates to Ableton Live via a USB connection to the host computer, and talks a special language with Ableton, in which standard MIDI messages are encapsulated. Importantly, and unlike a standard controller sending MIDI out, this communication is bi-directional, meaning that, as the hardware controls parameters in the software, the software sends commands back to the hardware, updating the LED status and the different modes and layouts on Launchpad. The communication protocol is proprietary, meaning it is controlled by Ableton, out of reach of the average user. This guarantees a level of stability that an open-source protocol might struggle to achieve, and it’s this limitation of operation to the various modes (session view, mixer, pans, sends, etc) that makes Launchpad plug, play and stay stable. That said, user-programmable functionality is built into Launchpad, just with a basic set of operating parameters.

Critical Mass

When Launchpad was released, it took a while to gain momentum within the wider music-making community. As is typical with new innovations, early adopters understood its potential and jumped on it immediately. Ableton nerds including Launchpad Product Manager Matt Derbyshire (a.k.a. thesecondwall) created complex live controller setups with several Launchpads, as this promo video from 2011 shows.

Pop Culture

But it took a while for Launchpad’s true potential to become obvious to the masses. What Launchpad had provided, to a large extent, was a blank canvas, and what was needed was some real forward thinkers to come up with new and exciting ways to use it. Enter Madeon, a French teenager with a genius-level musical ability. In July 2011, he posted his ‘Pop Culture’ video to universal amazement. What it showed was, like any traditional instrument, Launchpad requires time, effort and skill to reach proficiency.

The Second Wave

And so the stage was set for an entire new sub-category of YouTube videos: Launchpad Lightshows. Before too long, new Launchpad champions emerged using YouTube as their platform. (With all that LED feedback, you want your performance to be heard and seen…) Artists such as M4SONIC and SoNevable took advantage of the advancements in Launchpad’s LED performance, which came with 2013’s Launchpad S, to create elaborate displays on the pads using painstaking MIDI programming. They racked up millions of views, often with just an overhead camera and a eye-catching display on the pads. Jack Conte merged his Launchpad/Ableton performances with clever motion graphics on his home TV and got pretty wild with some projection-mapping.

Many of these Lightshows centered around covers of popular EDM tracks by artists like Aviici and Skrillex. But Launchpad was finding its way into some more serious high-profile applications too. With the growing popularity of Ableton Live on stage, companies like Electronic Creatives — founded by seasoned live show programmers Laura ‘Alluxe’ Escudé and Henry Strange — were speccing Launchpad as the main controller in their live playback rigs for world tours. And with clients including Kanye West, Drake, Solange, M83 and Bon Iver, Launchpad became an indispensable, mission-critical tool, responsible for running a smooth show every time. With their custom scripts, Electronic Creatives were able to use one Launchpad to control two Ableton Live machines (one main, one backup) simultaneously. When Kanye wanted to re-arrange the set list mid show, or even add parts to a track minutes before curtain-up, Ableton was the perfect tool for the job, and the flexible Launchpad was the ultimate partner.

The default Electronic Creatives live rig, as used on the road with major touring artists. Photo: Electronic Creatives

But all these examples show Launchpad in use with Ableton — in its natural environment. But due to its compliance with the standard MIDI protocol, Launchpad has also become a utility tool for a vast array of applications where a simple, affordable, adaptable hardware controller is needed to make changes to software parameters. Launchpad has been adopted by creative people from all walks of life, from VJs to lighting designers; even propmasters making sci-fi movie sets.

Brooklyn, 2013. Artist A.Pop uses Launchpad to control lasers and lights at warehouse parties, in combination with a USB/DMX interface and Chauvet ShowXpress software, via Novation’s Automap. Photo: Stephanie Kimberly.

All of these user examples showed one thing: Launchpad’s unprecedented adaptability.
That’s what Launchpad has become famous for.
We built it and they came.

Words: Chris Mayes-Wright