Platform-specific controllers leading the way
If you use a computer-based studio, chances are you’re using a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). DAWs are the software packages you use to see visually what’s being recorded, the different settings and parameters you have in place, and the timeline onto which you lay out your song structures. The bigger names in this world include Ableton Live, Reason and Logic, although there are plenty of less obvious alternatives, and they have become ubiquitous with modern recording practice. Where once everything was done using reels of tape and enormous mixing desks, thanks to DAWs nowadays you can record, mix and master entire sessions using little more than a laptop.
As time has gone on, certain DAW brands have emerged as leaders within this field. The aforementioned Ableton Live, for example, was once synonymous with dance and electronic music. However as more musicians got to grips with it and saw the creative potential open to them using Live’s unique session functionality, it has grown to become one of the best known and most respected tools for producers of all ability levels. It was only a matter of time then before hardware manufacturers began to see the potential in creating gear which was designed specifically to be used with the leading DAWs. As the majority of hardware brands don’t have software, and vice versa, there was no obvious competition element, meaning brand tie-ups were a natural fit.
Novation were one of the first to go down this route. The company’s Launchpad range took full advantage of Ableton’s grid-based clip launching functionality by offering an 8×8 bank of buttons, which could be used to fire clips directly from Ableton, as well as controlling drum racks, effects and much more. This brought a new dimension to Live, and edged it further down the path to becoming a full performance tool. Launchpad opened many people’s eyes to the fact that a DAW could, with the right tools, exist outside of a studio and the results since speak for themselves. With the success of the initial Launchpad behind it, Novation then expanded the range with similarly engineered controllers like the Launch Control and Launch Key.
Novation’s Launch series won on a number of fronts, including the ease of use, flexibility and low cost, however Ableton itself saw the potential for something more professional, and launched its own controller, Ableton Push 2. Working in conjunction with Akai, Ableton took the best bits of the Launchpad range and introduced a stack of new features which could only be accessed using Push. The ethos here was that anybody using Ableton Live could effectively play, perform, record, write and mix using only the controller, going even further down the road of positioning Live as an instrument in its own right. The unit itself was a heavyweight piece of kit, which ticked all the right boxes in terms of build quality, functionality and performance, and cemented the role of a dedicated DAW controller as an clear indication of where the genre is heading.
Elsewhere, Native Instruments have a strong line-up of products designed to work specifically with certain software. While not a DAW as such – you can’t record into it – Komplete is an example of where a hybrid hardware/software company makes gear to be used specifically with certain hardware. NI’s Komplete Kontrol range of keyboard controllers were designed from the ground up to offer full control over Komplete, and the integration and execution of this is flawless. NI’s Maschine, which again isn’t a DAW in the traditional sense of the word, is another example of a company thinking about the entire user experience from computer screen to tactile response and performance. By doing this, the brands retain complete control (or should that be Komplete Kontrol…) over how their gear is used, while the payoff for the musician is a seamless, efficient workflow where everything they could ever want to do has been thought about and intelligently integrated into the system.
It could be argued that these solutions aren’t for everyone. There’s the issue of brand loyalty – not every musician relies on one piece of software or one piece of hardware and, while the gear mentioned above does have the option of controlling other software, compatibility is sometimes sketchy to say the least. But if you have settled on a DAW or certain piece of software it may be worth looking around to see if there’s a dedicated suite of hardware to control it with.