17-07-11 | AKAI APC 40 Review

Photo Credits: Ableton / AKAI

This past week I finally received the APC 40 I had been so eagerly awaiting. After a good year or so in trying to make the same thing work on a Novation Launchpad, Akai LPD8 and Korg Nanokontrol, I figured it was time to make a proper go of it and just buy the damn thing. Well, I did and I can say I got a lot more than I anticipated.

AKAI’s APC 40 is a dedicated and 1:1 controller for Ableton Live. It encompasses 8 channels within it’s 8×5 launch grid with volume faders, clip stop, cue/solo, record and activation controls. There’s also a dedicated master fader, stop all clips and scene launch controls and a cue level knob. To the right, we find two banks of 8 knobs, the cross fader and transport controls.

On the back side of the unit, we find the USB, power and two 1/4 foot switch connections. I was surprised to find that the APC 40 wasn’t bus powered, but the FAQ on AKAI’s website explained that with the large number of LEDs inside of the APC 40, it simply wasn’t possible. Strangely, no explanation was given for what the foot switches were to be used for in the user manual. It’s my guess that mapping each one to the bank up and down controls would allow you to scroll through your clips. Not a bad way to work!

Photo Credits: Ableton / AKAI

Physically, the APC 40 is about 8 inches wider than an LP. It’s light weight and can give one the impression of feeling a bit flimsy, but when you press on the front of the panel, it feels solid, really solid. AKAI really seems to have built this well with the assumption that it may experience some abuse over the course of it’s lifetime. Another feature that’s indicative of the preemptive engineering that went into the APC 40 are the encoders. Each encoder (aside from the cue level) are surrounded by an LED ring that scales across the standard 1-127 range. I found it a bit counter intuitive that the encoders are endless, however it soon dawned on me that that with some serious tweaking, a stop would cause the encoders to prematurely wear out. It also gives them a nice smooth feel and by the same token, the faders feel just as nice and the large caps on them give a solid, tactile feel. By the by, the cross fader is also user replaceable.

Setting up the APC 40 was a breeze. Right out of the box, Windows 7 detected and installed the APC 40 with no extra drivers required and all I had to do after that was to bring up Live (you’ll need version 8 or higher) and select it as a control surface.

Working with the APC 40 in Live is just as easy. The APC 40 will automatically map all the mixer controls for the first 8 channels, if you need more than that, you’ll need to scroll left and right (as well as up and down) with the bank select controls, which is located between the two banks of knobs. Keeping in that theme, the top set of 8 encoders controls the pan and sends for reach channel, with the number of the knob corresponding with the channel being controlled.

The second bank of 8 knobs is where things get interesting. The knobs in this bank will automatically map themselves to any of Live’s VSTs or effects in a selected channel. The APC 40 does a really good job of mapping and keeping consistency across devices. Important knobs such as the wet/dry and filter cutoff are always found in the same places. There’s also a left and right button that will allow you to scroll through instrument and effects. The cool thing about this is that the process is completely dynamic, meaning that the mappings change and update themselves every time you move channels. It’s also just as easy to use them with third party VSTs. All you have to do is map the controls you want to use in the usual manner and the APC 40 will remember them.

This does bring up one teensy problem though. To make use of the dynamic mappings, you’re going to need to learn to use the effect racks effectively. Without them, you’ll quickly discover it’s impossible to control more than one device at a time. However, in doing so, you’ll also open up a new world of effects possibilities with the ability to map multiple knobs to one macro. The 8 effects knobs on the APC 40 will neatly map up to the 8 macro knobs, making them easier to remember as well as cutting down on the visual clutter.

Given all that you get on the APC 40, it’s completely possible to use it with Live without touching the mouse. For this specific purpose, the APC 40 features a row of buttons under the stop clips buttons for selecting the track you want Live to focus on; much like you would do with the mouse by clicking on the channel header. There’s also transport controls, tap tempo and a dedicated button for switching between the session and arrangement view on board to help you in your mouse free endeavors.

This brings me to my one caveat with the APC 40: the transport controls aren’t clearly labeled which makes them hard to identify by sight. Instead, they’re relegated to plain, gray buttons which don’t provide any feedback as to which mode you’re in. They’re also sort of interspersed between the cross fader and banks of knobs, which makes it the biggest lacking feature in my opinion.

The only other complaint I have about the APC 40 is the side panels, or “wings” as they’re called online. They give the APC 40 an odd shape that makes it hard to fit into DJ coffins or sit squarely next to other gear. Fortunately though, they can be easily removed by the three exposed screws on either side and if you’re handy, you could easily whip up a pair of end caps.

Overall, the APC 40 has changed the way I work in Live. I now have easy access to every feature of the GUI and they way it dynamically maps the knobs has put an end to all the controller headaches of running out of knobs and then trying to remember which function they were mapped to. I consider the APC 40 to be money very well spent.