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…

AKAI APC 40 Review

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.

Halion Sonic

Halion Sonic Audio Demo by Soyuz7 For the technical details and specification for Halion 4 and Halion Sonic, please see my previous post here. Being able to understand Halion Sonic at first glance is a daunting task. There's very little real info that's contained within the PR hype speak from…

Halion Sonic

Halion Sonic Audio Demo by Soyuz7

For the technical details and specification for Halion 4 and Halion Sonic, please see my previous post here.

Being able to understand Halion Sonic at first glance is a daunting task. There’s very little real info that’s contained within the PR hype speak from Steinberg and the manual itself is particularly plain and offers few if any insights into the deeper, inner workings of Halion Sonic.

On the surface, what you get is essentially a box of presets that you can edit ROMpler style into your own creations. On their website, Steinberg touts Halion Sonic as having three special modes: disk streaming, drum machine and beat slicing. Don’t believe the hype as they say, as the disk streaming mode is the normal “play” mode in which you call up a preset, the drum machine simply refers to ability to select your own drum samples from within the library provided and assign them to keys, which is a common feature of software & hardware like this actually. And then finally, the beat slicer, which is Steinberg’s way of giving you a drum loop you can’t edit (or load your own) in one octave and then the same loop broken down into it’s component hits in the next.

On the whole, they’re nothing really above standard features and not really selectable as “modes”, which is all a bit misleading when you look at it that way. Also just as strange is Steinberg’s arithmetic in saying that it comes with 12 gigs of material. Halion Sonic comes on two DVDs (and also requires the separate purchase of a USB ELicenser dongle, if you don’t already have one!) and once installed, appears to contain a sparse handful of presets, most of which utilize the built in VA engine. Given that they were also advertising Halion Sonic as having material that was designed by parent company Yamaha’s Motif team, one can only wonder where all those gigs went. It’s quite possible that Steinberg put all of it’s eggs into one basket, as what’s on there is quite good and superior in quality to the instruments contained within the expansion pack offered on Steinberg’s website. Once you’ve downloaded and installed the expansion pack, it quite easily pushes the number of presets over the 1k mark as advertised, solving that bit of the mystery. It’s also worth noting that the expansion pack contains the Hypersonic, Halion SE and GM sound sets.

That’s what I feel that you pretty much get with Halion Sonic in terms of it’s presets: it’s more or less a high quality and largely expanded GM sound set. Overall, I don’t feel there’s enough quality or quantity in any one genre to enable a user to compose an entire radio ready composition on Halion Sonic alone. Weakest of all, in what was a bit of a major disappointment, are the drums. Most of them are variations on the standard Casio style drum sets, you know the ones I mean: clap blocks, chimes and whistles. Noticeably absent are techno or trance kits, an orchestral percussion kit and other standards such as brushed and jazz kits.

Up to this point it may seem like I’m being a bit down on Halion Sonic, but given what I’ve said so far, you have to take it for what it is: a teaser product for Halion 4. You’re mostly getting recycled user content with a dash of new stuff thrown in, even if it is completely editable as Steinberg promised. Interestingly though, is Steinberg’s complete under emphasis on what I would consider to be Halion Sonic’s best feature: the VA engine. In fact it’s buried so deep it’s almost impossible to find unless you know where to look. Loading a blank program may seem like the best way to initialize a patch, however that only allows you to load a multi-sampled program. To gain access to the VA engine, you have to go through the patch browser and search for the initialize patch patch and load it. Honesty, it was such a counter intuitive process I had to register for Steinberg’s support forums and ask for help!

Once you get it up and running, editing sounds on it and the sampler from scratch is a pretty straightforward process with no hidden surprises. Programming standouts include up to four LFOs per layer, two of which are polyphonic, a programmable step sequence modulator and an arpeggiator that Steinberg calls “Flexphrase” that plays, as you can probably guess, preset phrases, chord sequences and the like. None of them are user editable, unless you want to load your own midi files.

I want to pause here and go back and talk about the VA engine some more. As a certified synth nut myself, I can say with certainty that between the VA engine and the effects, Halion Sonic really is at the hardware level in terms of sound quality with these two items. Both are entirely worth the price of admission alone. At up to for layers per program and three oscillators plus a sub oscillator per layer and all of the modulation options, you can really create some dense and moving synth patches. The VA engine itself is rich and lush in harmonics and overtones. In fact, many times while flipping through the presets I heard something so deep and vast sounding I assumed that it was a sample, only to find out it was the VA engine, without effects!

So in conclusion, if you’re looking for mainly presets, Halion Sonic is going to leave you feeling a bit short changed. Given that the presets are already composed of recycled material and some bonus add ons, I don’t have much hope that Steinberg will be releasing sound packs. However if you do like the sound of the demos (take a listen to the one I posted below) you may wish to pony up the extra 100$ for Halion 4 and take advantage of the vast amount of sample CDs out there on the market in conjunction with Halion’s top notch effects to tweak them to your liking. Otherwise you can get a fair amount of use out of Halion Sonic if you enjoy programming and tweaking your own sounds. A multi-timbral VST VA of such a high quality is nothing to shake a stick at either.

And then finally, if none off that is really your bag, there are other products out there such as Sample Tank, that offers just as many presets with the ability to read sample CDs right out of the box coming in at just a bit under what Halion Sonic retails for.

As for me, I really like the synth engine and I’m hoping they offer an upgrade from Halion Sonic to Halion 4 as I’d like to combine the synth along with samples from various hardware synths and other sources.


User Manual

Factory Sound List