Designed by Ableton and engineered by Akai, Ableton Push is the Live controller to rule them all - at least that's what you'd hope for given it's coming straight from the source.
So, it's a purpose built USB control surface to work with Ableton Live - only version 9 and above though, so you'll need to update to the latest build - which has a lot of extra features - but thats the subject of another review perhaps.
One thing thats for sure, Ableton have been extremely keen to ensure that Push is portrayed as an instrument, to enable seamless composition and creation. As Live has a reputation for live performance, where you are more likely to have pre-configured it to suit your set , this is an important distinction.
Out of the box, it's an impressive piece of hardware, weighty and robust with a sense of quality and rugged construction - something you want to covet and own. Plugging in via USB, you're prompted to launch Live, in doing so Push picks up without a fuss, displaying session or track/clip information. Infact, plug in Push at any point, even with a running track and it picks up - no relaunching etc.
At the heart of Push are the 64 velocity/pressure (regular aftertouch) sensitive pads. These have a reassuringly solid feel and are nice and responsive - you can change the curves to suit your style. In note mode, you get the equivalent of over five octaves of keys assuming you are not in chromatic mode, playing runs you go up in threes, and I found I could play quite swiftly, although it's going to take me some time to learn the layout, my muscle memory is designed to work on a standard keyboard. One thing I did find though is that you find yourself playing unusual chord voicings and inversions which gives it quite an interesting musical angle and takes you places you wouldn't normally go.
There are also an additional 16 backlit push buttons for various different modes, device parameters, track mute and solo, scrolling and loading. Above the 4 row LCD screen, there are 8 rotary encoders, again for parameter tweaking, plus a 9th knob for master volume.
Around the sides are 48 backlight dedicated function buttons, transport control and cursor keys for working directly with Live, these are also backlit, but more subdued, I found them a little tricky to read when not positioned directly over the unit.
In Drum mode, there's 16 pads, 16 bar selectors and a two bar step sequencer area, I enjoyed using this for beat programming, even though I'm not really a step sequencer type of guy, combined with the repeat function - select a time division press a pad for velocity variation, you can quickly assemble some grooves. No access to drums in note mode though which was a little disappointing.
To select instruments and plugins, the browse mode brings up all the available Ableton devices on your system, though no AU or VSTs are listed - though I'm told you can put them within racks and browse from there, it's not quite the seamless experience I was hoping for.
Once a device is loaded though, you can edit all of the parameters, and switch between devices on a single track with ease - a very laptop-free experience.
Session View shows the coloured clips as displayed on the screen with the scrollable window - very similar to the APC40 or Launchpad - easy to trigger scenes or clips and very visual.
One thing I did find problematic though was the fact that there was no modwheel, the ribbon controller whilst lovey for pitch control and also for banking between sets of drum sounds, is fixed to pitch bend, I guess I could map pressure to modulation , but out of the box, it's just not there.
User mode is a separate User programmable MIDI mode which also has it's own separate MIDI port - it shows up as USER as opposed to the LIVE port. So that allows for control of other software or hardware from Push. Whilst it does appear to go rather inert - no lights or display, it is possible to program Push to light up and display if you fancy getting into the world of MAX or python script programming. Shame there wasn't just a vanilla patch to get you going. No doubt as the product matures this will become available.
Overall, it was generally perfectly possible to work with Push without using the computer, especially when working with Ableton's own virtual instruments and devices, introducing VST and AU plugs, meant I did have to go to the computer to instantiate, but once I had, it was all no mouse required.
Aside from making it possible to browse those plugs on the unit, I would like to see an easy Modulation control, and if hardware is to be taken into account, a USB hub would make sense either for additional keyboards, or an audio interface etc. heck, why not even put an audio interface in while your at it?
But generally, it really does make working with Live a different experience - reminds me of having a proper hardware interface for a plug-in synth, you stop using the part of your brain that interferes with the creative flow, and just get on with creation (to a point). I found it very intuitive to use and was able to create easily just using the hardware.
It's not a low cost item, but the hardware does make it feel like it's worth the cash. You can't actually buy Push on it's own, the entry bundle comes with Ableton's Intro - so if you already have Live, then thats your cheapest option.
Ableton Push Intro £429/$599/€499
Ableton Push Standard £668/$948/€778
Ableton Push Suite £863/ $1198/ €998
Available now, though still in short supply. More shipments expected soon.